There’s no close second in the world’s arms race so the U.S. can afford to make stupid mistakes (e.g., Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran-Contra, Bay of Pigs, all of latin America) from time to time. Tax dollars at work! Good!!
Few interesting things about power in these top military powers:
Russian military spending decreased from the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991, because war was the last of their concerns then. Then there was the rise of Vladimir Putin. With a reputation for aging Soviet military hardware, Russia was more quantity than quality through the 2000’s. Seeing NATO’s westward expansion (breaking an early promise by the west), exposing military deficiencies in the Georgian war, and having a lot of cash at hand thanks to lofty oil prices – the choice was obvious for Putin. The former KGB officer knew what he had to do to Make Russia (and himself) Great Again. “War is politics by other means” , observed Clausewitz. Putin turned those rubles into approvals: Georgian war in Aug. 2008 (offset by financial crisis + oil losing 80% of its value), annexation of Crimea, intervention in Syria, and cyber efforts to de-legitimize western democracies. This guy does it all, and all in the name of Russia:
Xi Jinping, the appointed “core leader” of the Chinese Communist Party (which is a promotion from being just a regular leader of course), wields considerable power comparable only to Deng’s time in post-Mao China. At the time of writing, it seems that Xi’s power is on-track to eclipse that of Deng’s, in part thanks to growing Chinese influence as China’s economic potential is being realized (see AIIB, Belt and Road, TPP falling through), and his anti-corruption-power-consolidation campaign. He took power at a time when China is beginning to realize its position on the world stage – his agenda to ‘restore’ China’s status in the world is justified by what he claims to be centuries of humiliation at the hands of western powers.
Since Xi took over, China has placed more emphasis on a modern military, with no attempt to hide its ambition, so that it can tell the U.S. (+rest of world) to back off its core interests (Taiwan, South/East China Sea). China now has one aircraft carrier in Liaoning (albeit an old soviet carrier for training and symbolic purposes) and another one in development (only the UK and US have more than one). More recently, China just opened its first overseas naval base in Dijbouti in 2017, for peacekeeping purposes of course (U.S. also has a base there). Just like Putin, Xi’s status will rise with China’s.
The United States of America doesn’t have such strongman leaders. At least not yet. We live in a country where partisanship is in vogue and institutions are stronger than any individual. More important than having the world’s strongest and most respected institutions (how else would the Europeans let the U.S. Department of Justice indict FIFA officials?), the U.S. owns strongest and most sophisticated military in the history of the world. To make sure its status remain unrivaled, the U.S. keeps approximately 6,800 nuclear warheads, the second most in the world, and reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first in the event of a conflict, because that’s what a superpower does to keep others in check.
A newcomer to the world stage born in 1776, much later than Russia (~865 AD) and China (first unified in 221 BC), it really feels like it’s either by luck (i.e. geopolitical factors) or really smart people that its existing government happens to be the oldest of the three. With the collapse of Soviet Union in the early 90’s, the U.S. has established itself as an unrivaled superpower setting (and enforcing) global norms. It’s got a big stick (largest military), and strong soft power.