There are close to 7 billion people in the world, in some
200 countries. However, a very small minority of rich, powerful countries - or
rather, the rich and powerful in these countries - run the world economy. The
way in which this happens is the focus of my research and the subject of many
articles on this blog. In this article, I present some statistics to highlight
the stratification of the world economy between the small number of imperialist
powers and the rest. I welcome any comments on this analysis.
Five features *
Lenin outlined five features of imperialism, from the
decisive role of capitalist monopolies, to the development of ‘finance capital’
and the export of capital, to the territorial division of the world between the
biggest capitalist powers.
Although the form of territorial division has changed, with the end of colonial
empires, these features continue to describe the world economy. Here I set out
five complementary statistics for examining imperialism today from data for 180
The first is nominal GDP. This measure of economic output is
the most widely used in official statistics, though it has a number of
drawbacks, not least that it is a measure of value appropriated rather than
is an easy number to obtain for the size of economic output in a particular
country. The degree to which it is exaggerated by value appropriated from
elsewhere will also be an advantage if we are to use it as a measure of global
countries with a large GDP are not necessarily rich – they might have a large
population with a very low average income. Nevertheless, a high GDP ranking
indicates that the country has weight, and presumably some influence, in the
The second measure is the size of military spending by each
country. This spending might be for internal repression rather than for
external power projection, but it is notable that the five biggest spenders in
the world are also permanent members of the UN Security Council, each with a
veto power on UN decisions. In general, it looks like a good measure to use as
an indicator of imperial status.
For the third measure, I use figures for the stock of
foreign direct investment (FDI) owned by each country. These figures will not
fully reflect a country’s external economic power. For example, they exclude
privileges and benefits that may come from commercial and trading relationships
that may have little to do with owning companies and property in other countries.
Neither will the FDI numbers reflect the power, influence and revenues that
come from owning foreign portfolio assets (equities and bonds). However, the
FDI data can be used as one guide to how far a country is able to exploit
workers in other countries.
The final measures are used to reflect the financial power
of different countries. One is a country’s ownership of the top 50
international banks; the other is the importance of a country’s currency in
central bank foreign exchange reserves. These measures are far from
comprehensive, but they should give an indication of how far a country’s banks
are important on the world stage and how far its currency is accepted
main dimension missing from these particular measures is how far a country is
able to utilise the financial sector to appropriate value from the world
economy when this does not necessarily come via its own banks, or from the use
of its own currency.
Each of the statistical measures I use for the index has
problems, but they offer a simple way in which to sum up key features of a
country’s economic and political position in the world. In order to standardise
the data for comparison purposes, I have set the highest value under each
heading at 100. This means that if, for example, one country has the highest
GDP, then its value will be shown as 100. Other countries with smaller GDPs
will be shown as a proportion of that number, as 30, for example.
The five measures used are given equal weights, and the
total index is an average of the individual values. This summary index is a
guide to a country’s status. Results for the different countries show
dramatically different values, and there is a clear hierarchy between the small
number of countries at the top and the remainder with index values far behind.
Table 1: The Imperialism Index
Notes and sources:
Calculated from original IMF, SIPRI, UNCTAD data. GDP data were for 2011,
military spending data for 2010, FDI stock for 2010, ‘top banks’ for 2009,
central bank FX reserves for end-2011. Figures for China include Hong Kong. The
total index is an unweighted average of the components.
Table 1 shows the results for the top 20 countries ranked by
their total index value. The US stands out at the top of each component
measure, with a total (average) score of 100. Next in line is the UK, at a mere
32 points. The UK ranks close to the US only in the significance of its banking
sector, and it is a distant second in terms of FDI holdings. France is not far
behind the UK, spending slightly more on the military and having a higher GDP,
but it scores less on the other measures than the UK. Germany is ranked a bit
lower than France. This latter relationship may be surprising, since the French
economy is smaller than Germany’s and more central banks hold German securities
than French. But France has a higher rank in terms of military spending, FDI
and its international banking position. This correlates well with France (like
the UK) being a more active promoter of war.
Japan ranks at a significant margin below Germany in these
measures of imperial power, with an index value close to 23. While Japan is the
second largest world economy in terms of nominal GDP, the prolonged stagnation
in Japan’s economy has damaged its banks and reduced the scope for its
corporations to invest abroad.
China is a significant member of the top group in this
classification, ranking 6th at just below 20 index points. Its GDP
is half the size of that in the US, though ‘purchasing power parity’ measures
put it much closer. Its military spending is the second largest in the world, though
still less than 20% of that in the US. American strategists are nevertheless
concerned because China can mobilise a lot of cheap manpower for the military,
and the gap in hardware capability may not be as big as the sub-20% figure
would suggest. The FDI figure for China mainly consists of investments from
Hong Kong. These may also be invested in China, so this may incorrectly push
the overall index value somewhat higher. However, the leverage that Hong Kong
gives China in commerce and finance should not be underestimated. Even though
China has a position neither in the measure of top banks, nor in that for
central bank holdings of its currency, these factors are bound to change in the
next few years. China is slowly developing its financial system, the CNY is
being used more in international trade relationships and Chinese banks are
bound to play a bigger role in international finance.
Below China, it is a significant drop before the next group
of countries, each with index values of less than 12. These countries do not
count for much individually on these measures, but they can gain some influence
by being part of the European Union (or euro) group of countries, or by being a
major banker and foreign investor (Switzerland), or by being politically close
to the US (Canada and Australia).
Of the so-called BRIC countries, China has already been
placed. Russia, Brazil and India each rank much lower, though each has its own
particular advantages in the global system (Russia’s being military). Saudi
Arabia is perhaps a surprising element in the top 20 countries, but that is how
these numbers work out. The close links of the Saudi royal family with US
imperialism mean that it is hard to see this country as an independent player.
Its position in the table is due to its military spending that reflects the
subsidies it offers to defence contractors in imperialist countries, though it
has also played an active role undermining protests in the Middle East,
especially in Bahrain.
The following chart shows the same data and
illustrates clearly the imperial pecking order. The UK, France, Germany and
Japan each has an index value of less than one-third that of the US, but they
are each several times bigger than countries further down the scale. Remember
that this chart only shows the ‘top 20’ countries. The 20th member,
South Korea, has an index value of just 2.1, a fiftieth of the US value and
less than a tenth of any of the major European powers or Japan. But further
down the list (not shown) are more than 100 countries with an index value of
less than 0.1, ones that would be mistaken for the x axis in the chart!
Chart 1: The Imperial
Notes: The height of each bar is given by the country’s
total index value, which is then broken down into the respective components.
Countries are identified by their two-letter ISO code. Take care, because CH is
Switzerland, not China (which is CN), and SA is Saudi Arabia, not South Africa
(this country is not shown, as it was ranked number 26). The countries are listed in the same
order as in Table 1.
(This chart has been corrected. When originally published, the ISO codes for Canada and Belgium were entered incorrectly)
The significance of the US in the world economy is not news
to anybody; neither is the fact of inequalities in wealth, power and influence
between different countries. However, these statistics highlight the divergence
in a striking manner. Although the figures are for recent years, in most cases
the leading imperialist countries have been in their positions for decades.
This is certainly the case for the US and the UK. They did not win their
leading role by winning a popularity contest, but by moulding the world in
their own interests, using their economic power and the threat or use of
One final point on the index of imperialism presented here.
The position of an individual country can only properly be understood by
looking at its relationship to the imperialist system as a whole, not simply by
examining whether its index value is higher or lower than another’s. It would
be foolish to say that a particular index number means a country is
imperialist, while one that is a certain amount smaller shows that it is not.
The index components summarise only particular dimensions of the system.
Different measures would produce different results, and any index measure would
have a problem grasping the dynamics of the system.
Tony Norfield, 1 May 2012
Note on 3 December 2018: I have made some amendments to this index calculation and also updated the results to account for new data. The most recent picture is shown here