Ranking the World’s Major Powers: A Graphic Comparison of the United States, Russia, China, and Other Selected Countries

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The Emeritus Chair in Strategy at CSIS is circulating a major update of its working draft of a graphic overview of the comparative strength of the world’s three major powers: The United States, China, and Russia. It has been updated since the first working draft and is again being circulated as a working draft in the hope that readers will make additional detailed comments and suggest additional graphics, tables, and maps. These should be addressed to Anthony H. Cordesman at acordesman@gmail.com.

The current draft highlights the radically different spending patterns and resources of each major power and the balance each state has established between the size and development of its economy and the size and cost of its military forces. 

It shows that Russia is now a relative minor power in economic terms, in terms of its national research and development efforts, and in terms of the resources it can spend on military forces. They also show that Russia relies heavily on its inheritance of a massive number of nuclear weapons from the FSU for its increasingly tentative status as a superpower. In contrast, the data show that China has succeeded in carrying out a massive expansion of its economy, technology base, and its military forces, and that it is far more able to compete at a civil level than Russia.

At the same time, the graphics highlight the importance of America’s strategic partners, although they only show a few countries elected to illustrate regional differences and ignore a wide range of partner nations that greatly expanded the strategic advantages of key developed democracies. Strategic partners are a critical factor in a world where Russia’s only strategic partner is a weak and fragile Belarus, and where China’s greatly expanding global reach has not given it any close strategic partners beyond a tentative relationship with Russia.

It must be stressed, however, that graphics alone can only tell part of the story. The comparisons provided in this analysis are drawn from many sources, and many of these sources conflict and/or are estimated and defined in ways where their accuracy and comparability are uncertain. And, the countries and other sources that generate such data often differ in the ways on how they gather and define the data. Some countries also do not report, or they do provide heavily politicized data in key areas of comparison.

Taken together, the broad trends in these graphics do seem generally valid. Moreover, examining the sources from which they are taken will often explain the problems and differences in the data. However, there is a remarkable lack of serious “open-source” effort to validate many of the data used in international statistics, and there is only limited effort to standardize them in ways that allow true comparability and fully valid net assessments.

Moreover, these graphics deliberately or rarely attempt to project any major trends. While some serious efforts have been made to estimate possible futures in these areas, the end results usually seem too uncertain to include without the supporting analysis, parametric comparisons, and detailed estimates of the uncertainties involved. Moreover, many estimates of the future seem more political or ideological than objective.

In any case, this revised draft is being circulated to flag the need for far more sophisticated comparisons, to obtain outside comments and suggestions, and to obtain additional graphics where they may be available. The author is seeking to provide as wide of a range of data as possible and again will be most grateful for additional graphics and suggested changes.

This commentary entitled, Ranking the World’s Major Powers: A Graphic Comparison of the United States, Russia, China, and Other Selected Countries, is available for download at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/220427_Ranking_Major_Powers.pdf?FVCpij.NHeBefpwCDCt9WDdzWNGlV19E.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Emeritus Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has written and directed numerous books and studies for CSIS; was awarded the Department of Defense Distinguished Service medal; and served in senior positions in the National Security Council, State Department, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Department of Energy, and staff of the U.S. Senate.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy