A great power is a sovereign state that is recognized as having the ability and expertise to exert its influence on a global scale. Great powers characteristically possess military and economic strength, as well as diplomatic and soft power influence, which may cause middle or small powers to consider the great powers' opinions before taking actions of their own. International relations theorists have posited that great power status can be characterized into power capabilities, spatial aspects, and status dimensions.
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While some nations are widely considered to be great powers, there is no definitive list of them. Sometimes the status of great powers is formally recognized in conferences such as the Congress of Vienna or the United Nations Security Council. Accordingly, the status of great powers has also been formally and informally recognized in forums such as the Group of Seven (G7).
The term "great power" was first used to represent the most important powers in Europe during the post-Napoleonic era. The "Great Powers" constituted the "Concert of Europe" and claimed the right to joint enforcement of the postwar treaties. The formalization of the division between small powers and great powers came about with the signing of the Treaty of Chaumont in 1814. Since then, the international balance of power has shifted numerous times, most dramatically during World War I and World War II. In literature, alternative terms for great power are often world power or major power.
There are no set or defined characteristics of a great power. These characteristics have often been treated as empirical, self-evident to the assessor. However, this approach has the disadvantage of subjectivity. As a result, there have been attempts to derive some common criteria and to treat these as essential elements of great power status. Danilovic (2002) highlights three central characteristics, which she terms as "power, spatial, and status dimensions," that distinguish major powers from other states. The following section ("Characteristics") is extracted from her discussion of these three dimensions, including all of the citations.
Early writings on the subject tended to judge states by the realist criterion, as expressed by the historian A. J. P. Taylor when he noted that "The test of a great power is the test of strength for war." Later writers have expanded this test, attempting to define power in terms of overall military, economic, and political capacity. Kenneth Waltz, the founder of the neorealist theory of international relations, uses a set of five criteria to determine great power: population and territory; resource endowment; economic capability; political stability and competence; and military strength. These expanded criteria can be divided into three heads: power capabilities, spatial aspects, and status.
As noted above, for many, power capabilities were the sole criterion. However, even under the more expansive tests, power retains a vital place.
This aspect has received mixed treatment, with some confusion as to the degree of power required. Writers have approached the concept of great power with differing conceptualizations of the world situation, from multi-polarity to overwhelming hegemony. In his essay, 'French Diplomacy in the Postwar Period', the French historian Jean-Baptiste Duroselle spoke of the concept of multi-polarity: "A Great power is one which is capable of preserving its own independence against any other single power."
This differed from earlier writers, notably from Leopold von Ranke, who clearly had a different idea of the world situation. In his essay 'The Great Powers', written in 1833, von Ranke wrote: "If one could establish as a definition of a Great power that it must be able to maintain itself against all others, even when they are united, then Frederick has raised Prussia to that position." These positions have been the subject of criticism.
All states have a geographic scope of interests, actions, or projected power. This is a crucial factor in distinguishing a great power from a regional power; by definition, the scope of a regional power is restricted to its region. It has been suggested that a great power should be possessed of actual influence throughout the scope of the prevailing international system. Arnold J. Toynbee, for example, observes that "Great power may be defined as a political force exerting an effect co-extensive with the widest range of the society in which it operates. The Great powers of 1914 were 'world-powers' because Western society had recently become 'world-wide'."
Other suggestions have been made that a great power should have the capacity to engage in extra-regional affairs and that a great power ought to be possessed of extra-regional interests, two propositions which are often closely connected.
Formal or informal acknowledgment of a nation's great power status has also been a criterion for being a great power. As political scientist George Modelski notes, "The status of Great power is sometimes confused with the condition of being powerful. The office, as it is known, did in fact evolve from the role played by the great military states in earlier periods... But the Great power system institutionalizes the position of the powerful state in a web of rights and obligations."
This approach restricts analysis to the epoch following the Congress of Vienna at which great powers were first formally recognized. In the absence of such a formal act of recognition it has been suggested that great power status can arise by implication by judging the nature of a state's relations with other great powers.
A further option is to examine a state's willingness to act as a great power. As a nation will seldom declare that it is acting as such, this usually entails a retrospective examination of state conduct. As a result, this is of limited use in establishing the nature of contemporary powers, at least not without the exercise of subjective observation.
Other important criteria throughout history are that great powers should have enough influence to be included in discussions of contemporary political and diplomatic questions and exercise influence on the outcome and resolution. Historically, when major political questions were addressed, several great powers met to discuss them. Before the era of groups like the United Nations, participants of such meetings were not officially named but rather were decided based on their great power status. These were conferences that settled important questions based on major historical events.
Different sets of great, or significant, powers have existed throughout history. An early reference to great powers is from the 3rd century, when the Persian prophet Mani described Rome, China, Aksum, and Persia as the four greatest kingdoms of his time. During the Napoleonic wars in Europe American diplomat James Monroe observed that, "The respect which one power has for another is in exact proportion of the means which they respectively have of injuring each other.” The term "great power" first appears at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The Congress established the Concert of Europe as an attempt to preserve peace after the years of Napoleonic Wars.
Lord Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary, first used the term in its diplomatic context, writing on 13 February 1814: "there is every prospect of the Congress terminating with a general accord and Guarantee between the Great powers of Europe, with a determination to support the arrangement agreed upon, and to turn the general influence and if necessary the general arms against the Power that shall first attempt to disturb the Continental peace."
The Congress of Vienna consisted of five main powers: the Austrian Empire, France, Prussia, Russia, and the Great Britain. These five primary participants constituted the original great powers as we know the term today. Other powers, such as Spain, Portugal, and Sweden, which were great powers during the 17th century, were consulted on certain specific issues, but they were not full participants.
After the Congress of Vienna, Great Britain emerged as the pre-eminent power, due to its navy and the extent of its overseas empire, which signalled the Pax Britannica. The balance of power between the Great Powers became a major influence in European politics, prompting Otto von Bismarck to say "All politics reduces itself to this formula: try to be one of three, as long as the world is governed by the unstable equilibrium of five great powers."
Over time, the relative power of these five nations fluctuated, which by the dawn of the 20th century had served to create an entirely different balance of power. Great Britain and the new German Empire (from 1871), experienced continued economic growth and political power. Others, such as Russia and Austria-Hungary, stagnated. At the same time, other states were emerging and expanding in power, largely through the process of industrialization. These countries seeking to attain great power status were: Italy after the Risorgimento era, Japan during the Meiji era, and the United States after its civil war. By 1900, the balance of world power had changed substantially since the Congress of Vienna. The Eight-Nation Alliance was a belligerent alliance of eight nations against the Boxer Rebellion in China. It formed in 1900 and consisted of the five Congress powers plus Italy, Japan, and the United States, representing the great powers at the beginning of the 20th century.
Shifts of international power have most notably occurred through major conflicts. The conclusion of World War I and the resulting treaties of Versailles, St-Germain, Neuilly, Trianon and Sèvres made Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and the United States the chief arbiters of the new world order. The German Empire was defeated, Austria-Hungary was divided into new, less powerful states and the Russian Empire fell to revolution. During the Paris Peace Conference, the "Big Four" – Great Britain, France, Italy, and the United States – controlled the proceedings and outcome of the treaties than Japan. The Big Four were the architects of the Treaty of Versailles which was signed by Germany; the Treaty of St. Germain, with Austria; the Treaty of Neuilly, with Bulgaria; the Treaty of Trianon, with Hungary; and the Treaty of Sèvres, with the Ottoman Empire. During the decision-making of the Treaty of Versailles, Italy pulled out of the conference because a part of its demands were not met and temporarily left the other three countries as the sole major architects of that treaty, referred to as the "Big Three".
The status of the victorious great powers were recognised by permanent seats at the League of Nations Council, where they acted as a type of executive body directing the Assembly of the League. However, the council began with only four permanent members – Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan – because the United States, meant to be the fifth permanent member, never joined the League. Germany later joined but left; Japan left, and the Soviet Union joined.
When World War II started in 1939, it divided the world into two alliances: the Allies (initially the United Kingdom and France, China, followed in 1941 by the Soviet Union and the United States) and the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan). During World War II, the U.S., U.K., USSR, and China were referred as a "trusteeship of the powerful" and were recognized as the Allied "Big Four" in Declaration by United Nations in 1942. These four countries were referred as the "Four Policemen" of the Allies and considered as the primary victors of World War II. The importance of France was acknowledged by their inclusion, along with the other four, in the group of countries allotted permanent seats in the United Nations Security Council.
Since the end of the World Wars, the term "great power" has been joined by a number of other power classifications. Foremost among these is the concept of the superpower, used to describe those nations with overwhelming power and influence in the rest of the world. It was first coined in 1944 by William T. R. Fox and according to him, there were three superpowers: Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. But after World War II Britain lost its superpower status. The term middle power has emerged for those nations which exercise a degree of global influence but are insufficient to be decisive on international affairs. Regional powers are those whose influence is generally confined to their region of the world.
The Cold War was a period of geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies, the Western Bloc and the Eastern Bloc, which began following World War II. The term "cold" is used because there was no large-scale fighting directly between the two superpowers, but they each supported major regional conflicts known as proxy wars. The conflict was based around the ideological and geopolitical struggle for global influence by these two superpowers, following their temporary alliance and victory against Nazi Germany in 1945.
During the Cold War, Japan, France, the United Kingdom and West Germany rebuilt their economies. France and the United Kingdom maintained technologically advanced armed forces with power projection capabilities and maintain large defense budgets to this day. Yet, as the Cold War continued, authorities began to question if France and the United Kingdom could retain their long-held statuses as great powers. China, with the world's largest population, has slowly risen to great power status, with large growth in economic and military power in the post-war period. After 1949, the Republic of China began to lose its recognition as the sole legitimate government of China by the other great powers, in favour of the People's Republic of China. Subsequently, in 1971, it lost its permanent seat at the UN Security Council to the People's Republic of China.
Aftermath of the Cold War
China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States are often referred to as great powers by academics due to "their political and economic dominance of the global arena". These five nations are the only states to have permanent seats with veto power on the UN Security Council. They are also the only state entities to have met the conditions to be considered "Nuclear Weapons States" under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and maintain military expenditures which are among the largest in the world. However, there is no unanimous agreement among authorities as to the current status of these powers or what precisely defines a great power. For example, sources have at times referred to China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom as middle powers. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, its UN Security Council permanent seat was transferred to the Russian Federation in 1991, as its successor state. The newly formed Russian Federation emerged on the level of a great power, leaving the United States as the only remaining global superpower (although some support a multipolar world view).
Japan and Germany are great powers too, though due to their large advanced economies (having the third and fourth largest economies respectively) rather than their strategic and hard power capabilities (i.e., the lack of permanent seats and veto power on the UN Security Council or strategic military reach). Germany has been a member together with the five permanent Security Council members in the P5+1 grouping of world powers. Like China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom; Germany and Japan have also been referred to as middle powers. In his 2014 publication Great Power Peace and American Primacy, Joshua Baron considers China, France, Russia, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States as the current great powers.
Italy has been referred to as a great power by a number of academics and commentators throughout the post WWII era. The American international legal scholar Milena Sterio writes:
The great powers are super-sovereign states: an exclusive club of the most powerful states economically, militarily, politically and strategically. These states include veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council (United States, United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia), as well as economic powerhouses such as Germany, Italy and Japan.
Sterio also cites Italy's status in the Group of Seven (G7) and the nation's influence in regional and international organizations for its status as a great power. Italy has been a member together with the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany in the International Support Group for Lebanon (ISG) grouping of world powers. Some analysts assert that Italy is an "intermittent" or the "least of the great powers", while some others believe Italy is a middle or regional power.
In addition to these contemporary great powers mentioned above, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Mohan Malik consider India to be a great power too. Although unlike the contemporary great powers who have long been considered so, India's recognition among authorities as a great power is comparatively recent. However, there is no collective agreement among observers as to the status of India, for example, a number of academics believe that India is emerging as a great power, while some believe that India remains a middle power.
With continuing European integration, the European Union is increasingly being seen as a great power in its own right, with representation at the WTO and at G7 and G-20 summits. This is most notable in areas where the European Union has exclusive competence (i.e. economic affairs). It also reflects a non-traditional conception of Europe's world role as a global "civilian power", exercising collective influence in the functional spheres of trade and diplomacy, as an alternative to military dominance. The European Union is a supranational union and not a sovereign state and has its own foreign affairs and defence policy. Anyway these remain largely with the member states of the European Union, which includes France, Germany and, before Brexit, the United Kingdom (referred to collectively as the "EU three").
Brazil and India are widely regarded as emerging powers with the potential to be great powers. Political scientist Stephen P. Cohen asserts that India is an emerging power, but highlights that some strategists consider India to be already a great power. Some academics such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and David A. Robinson already regard India as a major or great power. Former British Ambassador to Brazil, Peter Collecott identifies that Brazil's recognition as a potential great and superpower largely stems from its own national identity and ambition. Professor Kwang Ho Chun feels that Brazil will emerge as a great power with an important position in some spheres of influence. Others suggest India and Brazil may even have the potential to emerge as a superpower.
Permanent membership of the UN Security Council is widely regarded as being a central tenet of great power status in the modern world; Brazil, Germany, India and Japan form the G4 nations which support one another (and have varying degrees of support from the existing permanent members) in becoming permanent members. The G4 is opposed by the Italian-led Uniting for Consensus group. There are however few signs that reform of the Security Council will happen in the near future.
Hierarchy of great powers
The political scientist, geo-strategist, and former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski appraised the current standing of the great powers in his 2012 publication Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power. In relation to great powers, he makes the following points:
The United States is still preeminent but the legitimacy, effectiveness, and durability of its leadership is increasingly questioned worldwide because of the complexity of its internal and external challenges. ... The European Union could compete to be the world's number two power, but this would require a more robust political union, with a common foreign policy and a shared defense capability. ... In contrast, China's remarkable economic momentum, its capacity for decisive political decisions motivated by clearheaded and self-centered national interest, its relative freedom from debilitating external commitments, and its steadily increasing military potential coupled with the worldwide expectation that soon it will challenge America's premier global status justify ranking China just below the United States in the current international hierarchy. ... A sequential ranking of other major powers beyond the top two would be imprecise at best. Any list, however, has to include Russia, Japan, and India, as well as the EU's informal leaders: Great Britain, Germany, and France.
According to a 2014 report of the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies:
Great Powers... are disproportionately engaged in alliances and wars, and their diplomatic weight is often cemented by their strong role in international institutions and forums. This unequal distribution of power and prestige leads to “a set of rights and rules governing interactions among states” that sees incumbent powers competing to maintain the status quo and keep their global influence. In today’s international system, there are four great powers that fit this definition: the United States (US), Russia, China and the European Union (whereby the EU is considered to be the sum of its parts). If we distil from this description of great power attributes and capabilities a list of criteria, it is clear why these four powers dominate the international security debate. The possession of superior military and economic capabilities can be translated into measurements such as military expenditure and GDP, and nowhere are the inherent privileges of great powers more visible than in the voting mechanisms of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), where five permanent members have an overriding veto. The top ten countries ranked on the basis of military expenditures correspond almost exactly with the top ten countries ranked on the basis of GDP with the exception of Saudi Arabia which is surpassed by Brazil. Notably, each country with a permanent seat on the UNSC also finds itself in the top ten military and economic powers. When taken as the sum of its parts, the EU scores highest in terms of economic wealth and diplomatic weight in the UNSC. This is followed closely by the US, which tops the military expenditures ranking, and then Russia and China, both of which exert strong military, economic, and diplomatic influence in the international system.
Great powers by date
Timelines of the great powers since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century::
- Big Four (Western Europe)
- Group of Seven
- Group of Eight
- Least of the Great Powers
- List of modern great powers
- Power (international relations)
- Precedence among European monarchies
- International relations, 1648–1814
- International relations (1814-1919)
- Diplomatic history of World War I
- International relations (1919–1939)
- Diplomatic history of World War II
- History of United States foreign policy
- History of French foreign relations
- History of German foreign policy
- Foreign policy of the Russian Empire
- Historiography of the British Empire
- History of the foreign relations of the United Kingdom
- Even though the book The Economics of World War II lists seven great powers at the start of 1939 (Great Britain, Japan, France, Italy, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States), it focuses only on six of them, because France surrendered shortly after the war began.
- The fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union left the United States as the only remaining superpower in the 1990s.
- For Austria in 1815, see:
- For Austria in 1880, see:
- For Austria in 1900, see:
- For the United Kingdom in 1815, see:
- For the United Kingdom in 1880, see:
- For the United Kingdom in 1900, see:
- For the United Kingdom in 1919, see:
- After the Statute of Westminster came into effect in 1931, the United Kingdom no longer represented the British Empire in world affairs.
- For the United Kingdom in 1938, see:
- For the United Kingdom in 1946, see:
- For the United Kingdom in 1999, see:
- For China in 1946, see:
- For China in 1999, see:
- For France in 1815, see:
- For France in 1880, see:
- For France in 1900, see:
- For France in 1919, see:
- For France in 1938, see:
- For France in 1946, see:
- For France in 1999, see:
- For Germany in 1815, see:
- For Germany in 1880, see:
- For Germany in 1900, see:
- For Germany in 1938, see:
- For Germany in 1999, see:
- For Italy in 1880, see:
- For Italy in 1900, see:
- For Italy in 1919, see:
- For Italy in 1938, see:
- For Italy in 1999, see:
- For Japan in 1900, see:
- "The Prime Minister of Canada (during the Treaty of Versailles) said that there were 'only three major powers left in the world the United States, Britain and Japan' ... (but) The Great Powers could not be consistent. At the instance of Britain, Japan's ally, they gave Japan five delegates to the Peace Conference, just like themselves, but in the Supreme Council the Japanese were generally ignored or treated as something of a joke." from MacMillan, Margaret (2003). Paris 1919. United States of America: Random House Trade. p. 306. ISBN 0-375-76052-0.
- For Japan in 1919, see:
- For Japan in 1938, see:
- For Japan in 1999, see:
- For Russia in 1815, see:
- For Russia in 1880, see:
- For Russia in 1900, see:
- For Russia in 1938, see:
- For Russia in 1946, see:
- For Russia in 1999, see:
- For the United States in 1900, see:
- For the United States in 1919, see:
- For the United States in 1938, see:
- For the United States in 1946, see:
- For the United States in 1999, see:
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As long as Russia's rationality of government deviates from present-day hegemonic neo-liberal models by favouring direct state rule rather than indirect governance, the West will not recognize Russia as a fully-fledged great power.
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The Council for Foreign and Defence Policy, which includes senior figures believed to be close to Putin, will soon publish a report saying Russia's superpower days are finished and that the country should settle for being a middle power with a matching defence structure.
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Traditionally, great powers have been defined by their global reach and ability to direct the flow of international affairs. There are a number of recognised great powers within the context of contemporary international relations – with Great Britain, France, India and Russia recognised as nuclear-capable great powers, while Germany, Italy and Japan are identified as conventional great powers
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- "Italy plays a prominent role in European and global military, cultural and diplomatic affairs. The country's European political, social and economic influence make it a major regional power." See Italy: Justice System and National Police Handbook, Vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: International Business Publications, 2009), p. 9.
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- Robert W. Bradnock, India's Foreign Policy since 1971 (The Royal Institute for International Affairs, London: Pinter Publishers, 1990), quoted in Leonard Stone, 'India and the Central Eurasian Space', Journal of Third World Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2, 2007, p. 183: "The U.S. is a superpower whereas India is a middle power. A superpower could accommodate another superpower because the alternative would be equally devastating to both. But the relationship between a superpower and a middle power is of a different kind. The former does not need to accommodate the latter while the latter cannot allow itself to be a satellite of the former."
- Jan Cartwright, 'India's Regional and International Support for Democracy: Rhetoric or Reality?', Asian Survey, Vol. 49, No. 3 (May/June 2009), p. 424: 'India’s democratic rhetoric has also helped it further establish its claim as being a rising "middle power." (A "middle power" is a term that is used in the field of international relations to describe a state that is not a superpower but still wields substantial influence globally. In addition to India, other "middle powers" include, for example, Australia and Canada.)'
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This year there’s a new name on our list of the Eight Greats: Israel. A small country in a chaotic part of the world, Israel is a rising power with a growing impact on world affairs. [...] Three factors are powering Israel’s rise: economic developments, the regional crisis, and diplomatic ingenuity. [...] [B]eyond luck, Israel’s newfound clout on the world stage comes from the rise of industrial sectors and technologies that good Israeli schools, smart Israeli policies and talented Israeli thinkers and entrepreneurs have built up over many years.
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The proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran continued unabated throughout 2016, and as we enter the new year Iran has confidently taken the lead. [...] Meanwhile, the fruits of the nuclear deal continued to roll in: high-profile deals with Boeing and Airbus sent the message that Iran was open for business, while Tehran rapidly ramped up its oil output to pre-sanctions levels. [...] 2017 may be a more difficult year for Tehran [...] the Trump administration seems more concerned about rebuilding ties with traditional American allies in the region than in continuing Obama’s attempt to reach an understanding with Iran.
- Why are Pivot states so Pivotal? Archived 2016-02-11 at the Wayback Machine, hcss.nl, 2014
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- The Superpowers: The United States, Britain and the Soviet Union – Their Responsibility for Peace (1944), written by William T.R. Fox
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- Chalmers, Malcolm (May 2015). "A Force for Order: Strategic Underpinnings of the Next NSS and SDSR" (PDF). Royal United Services Institute. Briefing Paper (SDSR 2015: Hard Choices Ahead): 2.
While no longer a superpower (a position it lost in the 1940s), the UK remains much more than a 'middle power'.
- Walker, William (22 September 2015). "Trident's Replacement and the Survival of the United Kingdom". International Institute for Strategic Studies, Global Politics and Strategy. 57 (5): 7–28. Retrieved 31 December 2015.
Trident as a pillar of the transatlantic relationship and symbol of the UK's desire to remain a great power with global reach.
- UW Press: Korea's Future and the Great Powers
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- Kennedy, Paul (1987). The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. United States of America: Random House. p. 204. ISBN 0-394-54674-1.
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- Carter, Keith Lambert (2019). Great Power, Arms, And Alliances. Retrieved 25 January 2021.
U.S., Russia, China, France, Germany, U.K. and Italy - Table on page 56,72 (Major powers-great power criteria)
- Kuper, Stephen. "Clarifying the nation's role strengthens the impact of a National Security Strategy 2019". Retrieved 22 January 2020.
Traditionally, great powers have been defined by their global reach and ability to direct the flow of international affairs. There are a number of recognised great powers within the context of contemporary international relations – with Great Britain, France, India and Russia recognised as nuclear capable great powers, while Germany, Italy and Japan are identified as conventional great powers
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