The Role of Superpowers in Conflict Development and Resolutions

  • Mario CocciaEmail author
Living reference work entry



Superpowers are nations with a high economic- war potential and social power, recognized worldwide, that influence other geoeconomic regions. Superpowers have a purpose to achieve/sustain a global leadership, and their role in conflict development and resolution is directed to cope with environmental threats or to take advantage of important opportunities in markets.


Superpowers or great powers or leader countries (these terms can be used here in an interchangeable manner) have a high economic- war potential based on an economic, scientific, and technological superiority recognized worldwide (cf., Coccia 2012, 2015a, 2017). Stein and Russett (1980) argue that the strength of superpowers is due to a superior “military sophistication” that can support the final victory in wars. The role of superpowers is also associated with conflict development and resolution (the latter concept “means to employ behaviour used in similar situations, adapted if necessary, so as to obtain an outcome that is good enough,” as quoted by Ackoff and Rovin 2003, p. 9). In fact, superpowers can develop conflicts to take advantage of important opportunities or to cope with consequential environmental threats. International conflicts guided by superpowers influence negatively and/or positively some economic processes in a permanent way. Conflicts developed by superpowers can stimulate long-run technical and organizational progress of countries (Coccia 2010a; Coccia and Bellitto 2018). Some social scientists have given more attention to the effects of wars, driven by superpowers, on technology social and economic growth (cf., Ruttan 2006; Coccia 2015a, 2018). As a matter of fact, conflict development by superpowers can support both technological innovations and other types of innovations (Coccia 2015a, 2015c, 2016a, 2016b). For instance, income tax, an innovative fiscal model, is originated in England during Napoleonic Wars for restructuring the finance of government for military requirements (cf., Gini 1921, p. 205). In general, conflicts between superpowers generate major socioeconomic consequences and structural change at national and global level (Stein and Russett 1980, p. 401). Superpowers influence profoundly socioeconomic and political systems worldwide and with conflict development and/or resolutions can generate economic shocks for participants and neutral nations (Goldstein 2003, p. 215). In particular, conflict development by superpowers generates demand-side and supply-side effects for domestic economy and for economies of allied countries. The demand-side effects of conflicts are a huge demand shock based on a massive increase in deficit spending and expansionary policy for economic system. The demand effects, generated by conflicts, are coupled to powerful supply-side effects: learning by doing in military production, spin-off and spillover from military R&D, etc. These effects of military conflicts support output, productivity, and technological growth of superpowers and interrelated economies (cf., Ruttan 2006; Coccia 2012). For instance, US manufacturing sectors have taken advantage of fruitful demand-side and supply-side effects of World Wars. In short, superpowers, generating conflicts, support R&D investments to produce military technologies that are transferred to civilian applications in the long term (Coccia 2008b, 2015a, 2019a). The mobilization of human and economic resources by superpowers, during conflict development, increases inventions and technological innovations that in the postwar period are diffused in society to induce long-run economic growth (Stein and Russett 1980, p. 412; Coccia 2015a).

Conflict development and/or conflict resolution also play a vital role in the distribution of power within international system (cf., Levy 2011). As a matter of fact, the effect of wars between superpowers can fundamentally change the hierarchy of power among nations in the international system. Modelski (2010) asserts that the “war causes the Great Powers,” such as Roman Empire over 200 BCE ~ 400 AD, Britain Empire in the 1710–1850 period, the USA from 1940s onwards, etc. (cf., Stein and Russett 1980).

Kindleberger (1989, p. 203) argues that:

The Thirty Years war from 1618 to 1648, culminating in the economic dominance of the Netherlands, from French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars from 1792 to 1815, ending in the Great Britain at the apex of the world economy, and the combined World Wars I and II, from 1914 to 1945 that led to the United States taking over as the world’s leading economic power

Several nations have lost their status of superpower or imperial leadership because of conflicts (e.g., Austria-Hungary in 1918, Italy in 1944, Germany and Japan in 1945; cf., Stein and Russett 1980). Major conflicts between superpowers produce a change in the global leadership of the world economy and generate “hegemonic cycles,” which are longer than 150 years (Kindleberger 1989, p. 203ff; cf., Kennedy 1987; Coccia 2018). Hence, superpowers, winning international conflicts, can achieve and/or sustain a global leadership in world economy (Coccia 2015a, p. 203).

Linstone (2007, p. 115) states that: “the winner in each case became the leading global power, a new global political economy emerged, and democracy advanced” (cf., Devezas 2006). In this context, superpowers are: “large-scale political organizations that might usefully be studied as complex systems. But they are also products of their age, and must be examined in the context of their time and place” (Modelski 2010, p. 1418).

Modelski (2010, p. 1419) also argues that:

Empires are not the only form of large-scale political organization…. two other forms, global leadership (other terms used for it include hegemony – Greek for leadership – and global primacy), and … global organization…. (Britain) is a case of global leadership that toward the close of its trajectory exhibited imperial features. The United States, too, in relation to the world system, is an instance of global leadership. And global leadership can be seen as a transitional form evolving in the direction of enhanced global organization.

Ferguson (2010) notes that after the World War II, the USA assumes a global leadership, replacing the UK and “shifting from an informal to a formal empire much as late Victorian Britain once did” (as quoted by Modelski 2010, p. 1419). Ferguson (2010) also claims that the USA is similar to an empire with a military, political, economic, and technological leadership recognized worldwide. Modelski (2010, pp. 1419–1420, original emphasis), by contrast, argues that the USA is a superpower with a network-based structure, which is oriented to long-distance trade in the world system: “inclining at times to the temptations of ‘informal empire’ but in its basically non-imperial organization capable of responding flexibly to international crises…. its proper name is global leadership, an evolutionary, and therefore transitional form capable of adaptation and self-transformation in response to mounting global problems.” Finally, imperial aspirations of nations, with conflict development, are impracticable in current world, which is increasingly global, complex, turbulent, interconnected, and multilevel; the only feasible strategy of superpowers, which develop conflicts, is to achieve/support a global leadership in the world economy that is subsequently sustained with R&D investment directed to economic and technological performances higher than other competitive nations (cf., Modelski 2010, p. 1419ff; Coccia 2008a, 2011, 2012, 2018a).

Superpowers, Conflict Development, and Human Progress

In general, the conflict development by superpowers has several negative effects, but it also seems to have a crucial connection with the progress in society. The conflict development between superpowers drives strategic investments in science and technology to solve relevant problems and/or win wars directed to achieve/support a global leadership (Coccia 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015a, b). Stein and Russett (1980) argue that conflict is one of the engines that propels economic change and supports technical progress in society. The conflict development by superpowers appears to be a necessary phase for human development, which is not a monotonous and linear but rather a disequilibrium process of world system (cf., Gini 1921). The conflict development by superpowers can be also due to prove military and scientific superiority toward other belligerent nations (cf. also, Coccia and Wang 2016). At the same time, conflict development by superpowers stimulates new technology and innovation that, after conflict, can be spread in many economic sectors (Coccia 2008b, 2015a). In fact, superpowers, under environmental tensions and consequential environmental threats (e.g., potential conflicts), have the incentive to exploit, particularly, the newest and less known discoveries and inventions in science and technology to support their leadership (cf., Gini 1921; Coccia 2015a). Moreover, superpowers invest in science and technology to reinforce socioeconomic power in the international system. In fact, in turbulent environment with political tensions, a superpower invests in science and technology to set its high-tech arms at a level that it knows will be sufficient to deter the other competitor superpower. The other competitor superpower must then also invest in R&D to set its arms at a similar level to deter future attacks when the first superpower sends signals of threats. A complete lack of R&D investments, associated with high-tech arms, is not a stable equilibrium between superpowers in competitive contexts, since a superpower that does not anticipate the strategies of others will be completely unprotected to cope with environmental threats and to take advantage of important opportunities; for this reason, superpowers invest in R&D to have new technology and high-tech weapons to cope with environmental threats, be prepared to conflict development, and/or for increasing the reputation as a deterrence strategy in competitive socioeconomic and political contexts. Hence, the technological progress seems to be associated with socioeconomic shocks (e.g., international conflicts) governed by superpowers, which generate long-run structural and social change on wide geoeconomic regions (Coccia 2014a, 2015a, 2019c).

Technological and social change would be vastly different, and economic development in society would be substantially delayed, without strategic (military and defense-related) investments that are triggered with conflict development and resolution between superpowers to achieve/sustain a global leadership. In fact, relevant needs and strategic problems during wars between superpowers are a strong incentive for generating new technology directed to win wars and subsequently support commercial and political leadership in markets and society (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Role of superpowers in conflict development and resolution for achieving and sustaining a global leadership

Hence, superpowers have the purpose of global leadership and in the presence of (effective or potential) environmental threats (e.g., conflicts) generate inventions and new technology for winning wars and subsequently support in a peace period the paths of economic and social development in markets (Coccia 2015a, 2017, 2018).

Overall, then, superpowers, generating conflicts, tend to be a vital driving force of social, technical, and economic change that supports human development in society (Coccia 2010b, 2015a; Coccia and Bellitto 2018).


Superpowers guide the development and resolution of international conflicts generating social and economic change with effects on individuals, groups, nations, societies, and international systems (Stein and Russett 1980). In fact, Coccia (2015a) shows that long-term evolution in society, based on technical and social change, is a process of disequilibrium trigged with conflicts governed by superpowers having the goal of achieving/sustaining a global leadership (cf., Coccia 2018). Moreover, in a context of world system, superpowers generate a power hierarchy between core and periphery regions, in which powerful and wealthy core nations dominate and exploit weak peripheral areas. In particular, the role of superpowers is driven by dominant capitalist classes that want state protection for their control of international trade, to take advantage of important opportunities and to maximize profit of firms (cf., Coccia 2019b).

An economic boundary of superpower, in the presence of conflicts and environmental threats, is the high level of public expenditures (cf. also, Coccia 2013, 2017a). In fact, the high military expenses of superpowers can increase public debt and create social issues and possible economic shocks (cf., Ferguson 2010; Coccia 2013, 2017a). Kennedy (1987, pp. 539–540) argues:

To be a great power—by definition, as a state capable of holding its own against any other nation—demands a flourishing economic base…Yet by going to war, or by devoting a large share of the nation’s “manufacturing power” to expenditures upon “unproductive” armaments, one runs the risk of eroding the national economic base….maintaining at growing cost the military obligations they had assumed in a previous period.

Moreover, superpowers may assume a worldwide role close to autocracy in order to sustain their global leadership with a strategic behavior directed to a permanent “wartime” and strains in different geoeconomic regions (Linstone 2007, p. 237). Anyhow, superpowers can also act as a world-wide guardian for conflict resolution and for reducing sociopolitical tensions across nations to support geopolitical equilibria and worldwide stability. Davis et al. (2012, p. 8) argue that: “The United States has an interest in dissuading military competition wherever it might arise…. U.S. forward military presence displaying U.S. conventional superiority.”

Overall, then, superpowers have a purpose to achieve/sustain global leadership, and their role in conflict development and resolution is directed to cope with consequential environmental threats or to take advantage of important opportunities worldwide to support a global leadership and/or reinforce the position in the international system and markets. This role of superpowers, oriented to global leadership, tends to generate economic, technological, and social change and, as a consequence, human development in the long run.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CNR – National Research Council of ItalyTorinoItaly