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The Five Most Powerful People in the World

One of our most popular professors is University of Pennsylvania’s William Burke-White, who has lectured for us many times on many subjects. A favorite of ours is his lecture titled The 5 Most Powerful People, where Professor Burke-White explores the definition of power and who exactly are the most powerful people. The video above and text below is an excerpt from the talk.

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Who are the Most Powerful People in the World?

William Burke-White / University of Pennsylvania

Recently Professor William Burke-White (University of Pennsylvania) presented a new version of his lecture “The Most Powerful People in the World.”  The individuals he discusses actually change every year, as world circumstances and current events shift. However, he almost always begins by describing the three different types of power he considers most notable:

“The most traditional way you probably think about power is through so-called “hard power”. By that I mean things like tanks and aircraft carriers that can tour around the world and exert power nearly anywhere. How do we measure hard power? Well, one way would be to look at how much countries spend on their military. In the United States we spend over $600 billion a year, and that is more than every other country in the world put together. Until about 1970, the only way we really thought about power was in terms of hard military power,  but today we also understand that much of the world revolves around economic power, around things like financial wealth, which is actually a lot easier to use then military power. That’s why it has become more important today think about this. If you want to use hard military power you’ve got to send soldiers overseas, and certainly no president wants to call the parents of a soldier and say I’m sorry to inform you that your son or daughter died overseas. When we use economic power, like sanctions, there’s not that same political cost, and it’s usually based on asymmetries in economic interdependence. Bill Gates has an asymmetric economic relationship with most of us… he’s really rich and we’re not!  In a global setting that same economic interdependence of asymmetry flows from a global reserve of currency, which means the US can generally spend as much money as it wants to  – because other countries depend on the US dollar to conduct their financial transactions.

So today I’ll talk about two kinds of power, hard power and economic power, but lets also think about power in a third sense. We call that soft power and it’s the power that flows from having a cultural bond and sharing political values or even the attractiveness of one country or one person’s ideas. For much of the last 200 years America has had a huge amount of soft power which flowed from the idea of the American dream, the fact that people all around the world chose to come and live in the United States because they knew their children’s children would be better off. That is the power of attraction, people to the United States and many countries around the world wanted to follow our ideas because they believed that would lead to a soft power of attraction. Here’s a good example of soft power from my own experience. Back in the late 1980s I was in the Soviet Union for a while and while I was there McDonald’s opened on Pushkin Square not far from the Kremlin, and thousands of Soviet citizens lined up to go stand there and get a Big Mac. On one hand, they simply wanted a taste of a Big Mac, but on another hand they actually wanted a little bite of America because those golden arches were a symbol of America and American values around the world. When I was most recently in Moscow, before Covid of course, that McDonald’s had been closed, and Putin said it was because of sanitary violations. OK sure, not every McDonald’s completely clean, but why did he really close it? Because he didn’t want the golden arches at McDonald’s to influence the population quite so much”.

More About the 5 Most Powerful People in the World

Who are the real influencers on the world stage? Who makes the decisions that determine war and peace? Economic growth or stagnation? Global cooperation or political stagnation?

This lecture answers the question of who the most powerful people in the world are by examining how we think about power and influence in international politics. We will consider traditional answers based on military might and examine how globalization, technology, ideology, and economic interdependence are changing the ways we should think about power and influence.

After engaging in an analysis of power and influence in today’s world, we will consider 5 particular individuals—some expected, others perhaps unexpected or even unknown—who are calling the shots in global affairs today. The lecture concludes with a detailed look at what their influence means for our global future.

Watch “The Five Most Powerful People in the World” Today!

Looking for more lectures like the Five Most Powerful People in the World by William Burke-White? Check out Shifting World Powers: New Alliances in Uncertain Times, America and the World… After Corona, and What is Power?


William Burke-White is the Richard Perry Professor and Inaugural Director of the Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania. He served in the Obama Administration from 2009-2011 on Secretary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff. He was also principal drafter of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, Secretary Clinton’s hallmark foreign policy and institutional reform effort. Professor Burke-White has received the Levin Award and the Gorman award for Excellence in Teaching.


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