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The term “second superpower” has had a number of meanings, but the most recent was coined in 2003, when New York Times journalist Patrick Tyler described the force of popular opinion around the world as a second superpower. Many activist organizations seized on the idea, and this usage of the term quickly spread, appearing in a range of publications from prestigious newspapers to activist newsletters.
The “first superpower” in this case is the United States, a nation with tremendous influence over the rest of the world, thanks to its powerful economy, strong military, and muscular political force. During many parts of the 20th century, Russia was the “second superpower,” as many people believed that Russia had the ability to take on the United States in a war, although the loss of life would probably have been quite great. With the decline of Russia's power, however, a void was left in the global power structure, allowing the United States to achieve a position of supremacy.
In 2003, however, people turned out in the millions all over the world on 15 February to protest the impending American involvement in Iraq. These protests attracted a great deal of attention, as they occurred in cities all over the world, demonstrating a global distaste with the war. Tyler wrote about this display of public opinion as a second superpower, and many people interpreted this to mean that activism and global opinion could change the course of government events.
Some people have also suggested that the European Union could become a second superpower in its own right, as its individual member nations have displayed a remarkable propensity for organization, and the European Union began to become a force in global politics shortly after it was founded, thanks to the collective economic and political strength of its members.
Numerous prominent people and organizations began to talk about the role of the second superpower in global politics, ranging from United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to Greenpeace. Despite the fact that the massive anti-war protests which inspired the term were ineffective, many people still believe that individuals have the power to influence their governments, and that united “hearts and minds,” as a journalist put it, can have an impact on the world.