Russia and the United States grew to become the main superpowers in the arena
of international relations during a specific time in history. The emergence of these two
countries as superpowers can be traced back to World War II. In order to be a
superpower, a nation needs to have a strong economy, an overpowering military,
immense political power, and a strong national ideology (Aga-Rossi 65). It was World
War II, and its results that caused each of these countries to experience such a plurality of
power (Ovyany 97). Before the war, both nations were fit to be described as great
powers, but it would be incorrect to say that they were superpowers at that point.
To understand how the second World War impacted these nations so greatly, the
causes of the war must be examined. The United States gained its strength in world
affairs from its status as an economic power. Prior to the war, America was the world’s
largest producer. During the same time in Russia, Stalin was implementing his “five year
plan” to modernize the Soviet economy. From these situations, similar foreign policies
It is important to discuss the leaders and their strategies during this time to
understand how these countries became superpowers. Many U.S. citizens believed that
America entered the war in order to save capitalist investments in Europe. Whether this
is the case or not, President Roosevelt signed the Neutrality Act of 1935, making it illegal
for the United States to ship arms to the antagonists of any conflict (Aga-Rossi 68). The
act also stated that the antagonists could only buy non-armaments from the U.S., and even
these were only to be bought with cash (Aga-Rossi 69).
In contrast, although Stalin was interested in European affairs it was only to the
extent to keep Russia out of war. Stalin wanted to consolidate Communist power and
modernize the country’s industry. The Soviet Union was committed to collective action
for peace, as long as that commitment did not mean that the Soviet Union would in turn
face a potential Nazi attack. Examples of this can be seen in the Soviet Union’s attempts
to achieve a mutual assistance treaty with Britain and France. These treaties, however,
were designed more to create security for the West, as opposed to keeping all three
signatories from harm. At the same time, Stalin was attempting to polarize both the
Anglo-French, and the Axis powers against each other. The important result of this was
the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, which petitioned Poland and allowed Hitler to start
the war (Divine 31). Another side-effect of Stalin’s policy of playing both sides was that
it caused incredible distrust towards the Soviets from the Western powers after 1940.
Author Robert A. Divine adds, “this was due in part to the fact that Stalin made several
demands for both influence in the Dardanelles, and for Bulgaria to be recognized as a
The seeds of superpowerdom lies here, R.J. Overy wrote “stability in Europe
might have been achieved through the existence of powers so strong that they could
impose their will on the whole of the international system, as has been the case since
1945” (215). At the time, there was no power in the world that could achieve such a feat.
Britain and France were in sovereign decline, and more concerned about colonial
economics than the stability of Europe. Both imperial powers assumed that
“empire-building” would necessarily be an inevitable feature of the world system.
German aggression could have been stifled early, had the imperial powers acted
simultaneously. The memories of World War One, however, were too powerful and the
general public would not condone a military solution at that point (Morrison 35).
After the economic crisis of the 1930’s, Britain and France lost much of their
former international standing. As the world markets plummeted, so did their relative
power. The two nations were determined to maintain their status as great powers, without
relying on the U.S. or Russia for support of any kind. They went to war only because
further appeasement would have only served to remove from them their little remaining
world standing and prestige (LeFerber 127).
The creation of a non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany can
be viewed as an example of imperial decline as well. The common desire of many of the
great European powers for a change in the world state system meant that either a massive
war would have to be fought; or that one of the great powers would need to attempt a leap
to superpower status (Dukes 101). One of two ways war could have been avoided was
for the United State or Russia to have taken powerful and vigorous action against
Germany in 1939. Robert A. Divine holds that “superpowerdom gives a nation the
framework by which a nation is able to extend globally the reach of its power and
influence” (32). This can be seen as the ability to make other nations, especially in the
Third World, to act in ways that the superpower prefers, even if this is not in the weaker
The question must be raised, were the United States and Russia superpowers even
then, could certain actions taken by them have had such significant ramifications for
international order? It must be concluded that, while they were not yet superpowers, they
certainly were great powers with an incredible amount of influence that accompanies such
status. Neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union possessed the international framework
necessary to be a super power at this time. It is likely that frameworks similar to NATO
or the Warsaw Pact could have been developed, but such infrastructures would have been
on much a smaller scale (Smith 7). At this time, neither the U.S. nor Russia had
developed the overwhelming advantages that they possessed at the end of the war.
The United States did not become a superpower by accident. Roosevelt had a
definite European policy that was designed from the start to secure a leading role for the
United States. After the war, Roosevelt perceived that the way to dominate world affairs
was to reduce Europe’s international role. The creation of a permanent superpower
rivalry with Russia was seen as the safest way to ensure world stability. Regarding
Roosevelt’s policy, author Elena Aga-Rossi states, “Roosevelt sought to reduce Europe’s
geopolitical role by ensuring the fragmentation of the continent into small, relatively
powerless, and ethnically homogenous states” (81). These goals are very similar to those
of Stalin. Roosevelt was certain that World War II would destroy continental Europe as a
military and economic force, removing Germany and France from the stage of world
powers (Aga-Rossi 82). This would leave the United States, Great Britain, and Russia as
the last remaining European world powers.
It might be asked why Roosevelt did not plot the fall of the British Empire as well.
A cynical answer to this is that Roosevelt understood that the United States was not
powerful enough to check the Soviet Union’s power in Europe by itself. It made sense
because the United States and Britain are cultural cousins, the most extensive solution
would be to continue the tradition of friendliness. As far as economic or military
competition, Roosevelt knew that if he could open the British Empire to free trade it
would not be able to effectively compete with the United States.
It is fair to say that Roosevelt had originally planned to have a system of three
superpowers. Those powers being, the U.S., the UK, and the USSR. After it was seen
that either the Germans or the Russians would dominate Eastern Europe, the plan was
forced to change. It shifted from one where the U.S. and Great Britain would keep order
in Europe, to one where Great Britain and Russia would keep order in Europe as local
superpowers. The U.S. would act as a world wide mediator.
Roosevelt also hoped for the creation of an Anglo-American-Russia world police
force. However, he underestimated the power of the Russian ideology. He believed that
the Russians would back away from communism for the sake of greater stability in the
West. Roosevelt saw the Soviet Union as a country like any other, regardless of its
preoccupation with security (Overy 216). Such as the safety corridor in Eastern Europe
that Stalin insisted on. Yet Roosevelt thought this could be explained by the cultural and
It was not thought unreasonable to request a barrier of satellite states to provide a
sense of security, given that the Soviet Union had been invaded at least four times since
1904 (Ovyany 98). It was felt that granting the Soviet Union some territory in Eastern
and Central Europe would satisfy their political desires for territory. Yet after World War
II, Soviet expansion and their quest for acquiring territory seemed unlimited. Roosevelt
felt that the position in Eastern Europe, vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, was analogous to that
of Latin America, vis-à-vis the United States (Dukes 46). He saw that there should be
definite spheres of influence, as long as it was clear that the Soviet Union was not to
interfere with the governments of the affected nations. Author Tony Smith states “the
reason that Roosevelt did not object to a large portion of Eastern Europe coming under
the totalitarian control of the Soviet Union was that he believed the weakness in the
Soviet economy caused by the war would require Stalin to seek Western aid” (9).
Therefore opening the Russians to Western influence.
Many historians feel that Roosevelt was simply naive to believe that the Soviet
Union would act in such a way. Writer, Arthur Schlesinger saw the geopolitical and
ideological differences between the United States and the Soviet Union. He stressed that
the ideological differences were the most important “the two nations were constructed on
opposite and profoundly antagonistic principles. They were divided by the most
significant and fundamental disagreements over human rights, individual liberties,
cultural freedom, the role of civil society, the direction of history, and the destiny of man”
(45). Yet it is much easier to comment on events of the past with the hindsight that
Stalin’s views regarding the possibility of reconciliation between the Soviet Union
and the West were similar. He thought that the Russian Revolution created two converse
camps: Anglo-America and Soviet Russia. Stalin felt that the best way to ensure the
continuation of the communist world revolution was to continually annex the countries
bordering the Soviet Union, instead of attempting to foster revolution in the more
advanced industrial societies (Dukes 102).
The creation of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe did not come as a total surprise.
Roosevelt thought that America’s position after the war, vis-à-vis the rest of the world,
would put him in a very good position to impose his view of the post-war world order.
Others predicted that after the German defeat, the Russians would be able to impose any
territorial settlement desired in Central Europe and the Balkans. World War II caused the
Soviet Union to rapidly evolve from a military farce, to a military superpower (Dukes
102). In 1940, it was hoped that if the Soviet Union was attacked, they could hold off
long enough for the West to help fight them off with reinforcements.
In 1945, the Soviet Army was marching triumphantly through Berlin. It could
have been said that this event was planned by Stalin in the same way that Roosevelt
seemed to have planned to achieve world supremacy (Smith 87). Even though Stalin
desired to see Russian dominance in Europe, he did not have a systematic plan to achieve
it. Stalin was an opportunist and a skillful one. He demanded that Britain and America
recognize territory gained by the Soviet Union in pacts and treaties that it had signed with
Stalin’s main plan seemed to be to conquer all the territory that his armies could
reach, and to create socialist states within it. From this it can be seen that one of the
primary reasons for the superpower rivalry was Roosevelt’s misunderstanding of the
Soviet system. Writer Elena Aga-Rossi states “Roosevelt and his advisors thought that
giving the Soviet Union control of Central and Eastern Europe, would result in the
creation of states controlled somewhat similar to the way in which the United States
controlled Cuba after the Platt Amendment” (70). The State Department assumed that the
USSR would simply control the foreign policy of the satellite nations, leaving the
individual countries open to Western trade. This idea was alien to Soviet leaders, “to be
controlled by the Soviet Union at all was to become a socialist state” (Ovyany 99). Stalin
assumed that his form of control over these states would mean the complete Sovietization
of their societies, whereas Roosevelt was blind to the internal logic of the Soviet system.
Roosevelt’s fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Soviet state can be
forgiven. Once it has been realized that an apparently peaceful nature was apparent at the
time, and that it had existed for a relatively short time. The United States wanted to
“eschew isolationism, and set an example of international cooperation-operation in a
world ripe for United States leadership” (Morrison 78). Yet, another attempt from the
U.S. to spread its ideology to the rest of the world. The United States believed that the
world at large, especially the Third World, would be attracted to the political views of the
West. The main goal of the U.S. was to show that democracy and free trade provided
citizens of a nation with a higher standard of living. It has been seen that Roosevelt and
his administration thought that this appeal would extent itself into the Soviet sphere of
influence. Yet, the Soviet Union was organizing its ideals around the vision of a
continuing struggle between two fundamentally antagonistic ideologies (Morrison 79).
At the end of the war, the United States was in the singular position of having the
world’s largest and strongest economy. This allowed them to fill the power gap left in
Europe by the declining imperial powers such as France and Germany.
In conclusion, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union possessed strong ideologies.
The ways in which they attempted to diffuse their ideas throughout the world after the
war classifies them into the category of being superpowers. It is the global dimension of
their political, military, and economic presence that makes the United States and the
Soviet Union superpowers. It was also the rapid expansion of the national and
international structures of the Soviet Union and the United States during the war that
allowed them to assume their roles as superpowers.
Aga-Rossi, Elena. “Roosevelt’s European Policy and the Origins of the Cold War.”
Telos. Issue 96, Summer 93: 65-86.
Divine, Robert A. “The Cold War as History.” Reviews in American History. Issue 3,
Dukes, Paul. The Last Great Game: Events, Conjectures, Structures. London: Printer
LeFerber, Walter. The American Age: US Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad. New
Morrison, Samuel Elliot. The Two-Ocean War. Boston: Atlantic, 1963.
Overy, R.J. The Origins of the Second World War. New York: Longman Inc., 1987.
Ovyany, Igor. The Origins of World War Two. Moscow: Novosti Press Agency
Smith, Tony. “The United States and the Global Struggle for Democracy.” America’s
Mission: The United States and Democracy in the Twentieth Century. New York:
Twentieth Century Fund Press, 1995.
Cite this The Rise of the Super Power
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