23 September 2021

The ISA 2021 Country Power Rankings

Today, there are power rankings for everything, from sports teams, celebrities and politicians, to brands, companies and social media influencers. When ISA created its first Country Power Rankings back in 2017, it generated a lot of buzz, particularly in those countries that were ranked a little higher than they might have expected. Given all that has taken place around the world over the past four years, we thought that it was time to update our Country Power Rankings.

While such an undertaking might seem frivolous, the opposite is actually true, for it is extremely important for a country to understand its relative power amongst its peers around the world. This helps a country to make strategic decisions in a number of fields, decisions that will impact that country’s future security, stability and well-being. Of course, there are many misconceptions about what makes a country powerful (or not), and these misconceptions can prove to be very dangerous. For example, over-estimating one’s capacity to wage war could lead to a conflict that would have otherwise been avoided if that country would have been able to accurately measure its actual power, as well as the power of its rival.  

As we know, measuring a country’s power is a controversial undertaking, as the factors that contribute to a country’s power can be debated ad nauseam. Therefore, we have focused on seven main factors that combine to determine a country’s overall level of power.

These factors are:

  • Economic Power
  • Demographic Power
  • Military Power
  • Environmental and Resource Power
  • Political Power
  • Cultural Power
  • Technological Power

The 2021 ISA Country Power Rankings

Taking all of these factors into consideration, here is ISA’s list of the 25-most-powerful countries in the world today:

  • #25: United Arab Emirates: Despite having a population of less than ten million, the United Arab Emirates has emerged a significant regional power, thanks to its oil wealth and Dubai’s position as the leading economic center in the Middle East. While demographic and environmental constraints mean that it will be difficult for the UAE to rise higher in these rankings, reaching #25 in the world is nevertheless an impressive feat.
  • #24: South Africa: Once the leading power in Sub-Saharan Africa by a large margin, South Africa has seen its relative power decline in the 21st century due to a sluggish economy and worsening internal divisions. Looking ahead, South Africa does have the means to reverse this downwards trend, but there are few signs at the moment that South Africa will regain much of its lost power.
  • #23: Egypt: With a population of 100 million and a strategic location at the juncture of Africa and Asia, Egypt retains considerable power despite an overall perception of weakness. However, to regain the status that it once held in the world, Egypt will have to do much more to grow and modernize its economy, while at the same time finding a way to lift tens of millions of Egyptians out of poverty.
  • #22: Israel: The country with the smallest population in our rankings of the 25 most powerful countries in the world, Israel benefits from having one of the most technologically-advanced economies in the world, as well as a powerful military. However, demographic and environmental constraints indicate that it will be hard for Israel to move much higher on this list.
  • #21: Pakistan: Thanks to its population of 225 million people and its arsenal of nuclear weapons, Pakistan ranks this high, despite all of its economic woes and internal divisions. While Pakistan’s demographic might gives it the potential to move up these rankings in the future, it must overcome a myriad of challenges, including widespread poverty, a lack of natural resources and major internal and external threats.
  • #20: Iran: While years of economic sanctions have crippled the country’s current economic power, Iran still retains many factors that enhance its power on the global stage, including a strategic location and significant cultural influence. However, for Iran to rise to its true potential power, it will need to reconnect its economy with the rest of the world and modernize nearly all aspects of the country.
  • #19: Nigeria: With a population of 211 million, Nigeria is easily Africa’s most-populous country, and much its power is derived from its massive population. However, the country’s deep internal divisions, lack of infrastructure and relative poverty mean that it will take a great deal of change to move Nigeria up these rankings, despite its key position in Africa, a region that will add one billion people to the world’s population over the next 30 years.
  • #18: Spain: Spain is often overlooked when it comes to European powers, but its modern economy and extensive ties with Latin America allow the country to play a relatively large role in regional and global affairs. However, the country’s poor economic performance over the past 15 years means that Spain may be reaching the limits of its global power, and with a looming demographic crisis, Spain could see its power begin to decline.
  • #17: Mexico: Mexico is Latin America’s second-largest country in terms of population and economic output, and its global influence has increased in recent years. However, no matter how much power Mexico manages to accrue, it will continue to be overshadowed by its giant neighbor to the north and this will limit Mexico’s ability to expand its relative power in the years ahead.
  • #16: Indonesia: With the world’s fourth-largest population (270 million), Indonesia is undoubtedly one of the world’s most important countries. Furthermore, its strong economic performance so far in the 21st century has significantly boosted its overall power. However, the geographic nature of the country (more than 17,500 islands) suggests that centralizing the country’s power will be a difficult task.
  • #15: Italy: Italy is often considered Europe’s fourth-leading power (behind Germany, France and the United Kingdom), despite having populations and economies that are close in size to the latter two of these three countries). Unfortunately for Italy, its dreadful economic performance in recent decades and its lack of military power prevent it from possessing the same level of power as these other European powers.
  • #14: Turkey: Thanks to its strategic position at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, Turkey will always possess some significant geographic advantages. Furthermore, Turkey’s economic and political influence has grown in recent years, boosting the country’s overall level of power. If these trends continue, Turkey has to potential to remain one of the world’s more influential countries for some time to come.
  • #13: South Korea: Sixty years ago, South Korea would have been nowhere near a place in these rankings, but thanks to one of the world’s most dynamic and high-tech economies, South Korea has seen its relative power soar in recent decades. The ability to retain a strong position in high-tech and high-growth industries will be key to South Korea’s ability to maintain this high level of power in the future.
  • #12: Australia: The only country that is also a continent, Australia is one of the world’s most-geographically-powerful countries in the world, while it is also home to one of the world’s most successful economies. Looking ahead, Australia has the potential to become an even-more powerful country in the coming years thanks to its vast territory and resources, and its room for further population growth.
  • #11: Saudi Arabia: Thanks to some of the world’s largest and most easily accessible hydrocarbon resources, Saudi Arabia’s global economic influence is substantial. Likewise, as the home of Islam’s holiest sites, the country also enjoys a great deal of cultural influence around the world. However, its future power will be determined by the country’s ability to modernize and diversify its economy.
  • #10: Canada: Canada has the smallest population of any country ranked in the top ten most-powerful countries in the world, but it has massive geographic power and a high degree of security and stability. Looking ahead, while Canada’s power will continue to be overshadowed by that of its southern neighbor, it has the potential to dramatically increase its own power in the decades ahead.
  • #9: Germany: Germany’s power now largely rests on the country’s vast manufacturing sector, which drives one of the world’s leading export economies. Germany is also a significant technological power. However, demographic, environmental and military power in Germany is quite low for such an important economic power, and these factors will continue to limit overall German power in the future.
  • #8: Brazil: Despite its economic and political troubles in recent years, Brazil remains the leading power in Latin America by a wide margin, thanks to its vast population and territory. Nevertheless, Brazil has the potential to be a much more powerful country, but has been held down by its struggling economy, tumultuous politics and its overall lack of military and technological power.
  • #7: United Kingdom: As late as the late 19th century or early 20th century, the United Kingdom was by many measures the most powerful country in the world. However, it has fallen steadily in terms of global power since then due to geographic and demographic constraints. Nevertheless, the UK’s strong economy, technological prowess and its large cultural influence all mean that it remains a solid middle power on the global stage.
  • #6: France: France edges out the United Kingdom for sixth place by the smallest of margins, thanks in large part to its role as the leading political power in the European Union. However, France’s position is threatened by a moribund economy and lower power potentials than many of its larger international rivals, and it has little prospect of ever moving higher in these rankings.
  • #5: Japan: As the world’s third-largest economy, Japanese power in recent decades has largely be focused on the economic and technological sectors, as Japan’s political and military power remains relatively constrained. Meanwhile, it is Japan’s demographic decline that has the most potential to reduce the country’s overall level of power, as Japan faces one of the world’s largest population declines in the coming years.
  • #4: Russia: Russia, as the leading component of the Soviet Union, was considered to be the world’s second-most-powerful country in the world from the 1940s until the early 1990s. However, the dissolution of the Soviet Union led to a dramatic reduction in Russia’s military and demographic power. Today, Russia’s power derives largely from its vast natural resources and its residual political and military power.
  • #3: India: India’s power on the global stage has steadily increased in recent decades, thanks largely to its massive population and its increasing economic influence. However, India faces many constraints that will make it difficult for the country to overtake either of the two countries ahead of it in these rankings, including its relative weakness in terms of political, military and geographic power.
  • #2: China: China’s increasing power is evident in the fact that its influence is now felt in nearly all corners of the world, an amazing transformation that has taken place over a period of just four decades. China’s massive population, its fast-growing economy, its technological advancements and its increasing military might all combine to make China a superpower. The only question now is whether or not China can rise to the top spot in these rankings at some point in the future.
  • #1: USA: The United States has held the position of the world’s most-powerful country since at least the early 20th century. While its relative power peaked in the 1990s, the US, unlike most other developed economies, has continued to expand its power in most areas in recent decades. Nevertheless, increasing concerns about the state of politics in the US, as well as new demographic concerns, will threaten overall US power. Nevertheless, the United States will remain the world’s most powerful country for some time to come.

The Global Balance of Power

As you can clearly see from these rankings, the size of the country’s population and territory still play a massive role in determining its position in the global pecking order of countries. Apart from these two factors, technology continues to play a major role as well, as we have seen many times throughout history how technologically-advanced states are able to overcome deficiencies in terms of population or territory. Meanwhile, soft power continues to play an important role in determining a country’s level of overall power, but the accumulation of soft power is almost always dependent upon that state having a certain level of hard power.

Overall, the United States remains the world’s clear number one power by a healthy margin, as there is no aspect of power in which it is deficient. Meanwhile, China has emerged as the unquestioned second-leading power in the world and as its economy and military continue to be modernized, it will gradually move into a position to challenge the United States for the top spot in these Country Power Rankings at some point later this century. As for the rest of the world’s countries, they find themselves well behind the two superpowers, and few of them have the capacity to keep up with the US and China, let alone close the existing power gap. Some large emerging markets, most notably India, do have the potential to accumulate more power, but have a long way to go to challenge the US and China. As such, the global balance of power in the years and decades ahead will continue to be determined by the relationship between the United States and China, with the rest of the world being forced to take sides should the rivalry between the two superpowers continued to grow more heated.