My Better Story Trumps Your Stronger Army

The Future of Power, by Joseph S. Nye, Jr., 
Public Affairs Books, New York, 310 pp, €21.40

Nye, a distinguished US academic (former dean of the Kennedy School of government at Harvard University) has worked for US administrations and at the UN. He coined the term soft power, and has now updated the concept for the 21st-century.

The term is best understood as part of a spectrum. At one extreme is hard power, involving command and coercion. Soft power involves influence, example, persuasion. In essence hard power is push, soft power is pull. Soft power is the ability to affect others through the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuading, and eliciting positive attraction in order to obtain preferred outcomes.

Looking at power as a spectrum explains it well:

Hard – command – coerce – threat- pay – sanction – frame-persuade – attract – co-opt – Soft

And thus we get the synthesis. “Smart power, is the combination of the hard power of coercion and payment with the soft power of persuasion and attraction.”

We also sometimes forget that power evolves. Spain acquired power through its control of colonies and gold bullion in the 16th century. Now power is in transition back to Asia, and there is a diffusion of power away from states to the individual through globalisation, the Internet, and new technologies.

For Nye power in the world today is distributed in a manner that resembles a three-dimensional chess game;

On the top chessboard, military power is largely unipolar, and US is likely to remain supreme for some time.

On the middle chessboard, economic power has been shared for some time (multipolarity), with the US, the EU, Japan and China as the major current players, with new players waiting in the wings. In terms of relative power , the economy of the EU is larger than that of the US, with China, India, Brazil, and others growing in importance and power .

The bottom chessboard is the arena of transnational relations that cross borders outside of government control. It includes non-state actors such as bankers transferring trillions of dollars daily, terrorists transferring weapons, hackers threatening cyber security, NGOs and others, and transnational challenges such as climate change, pandemics, and financial contagion. On this chessboard, power is widely diffused, and it makes no sense to speak here of uni polarity, multi polarity, hegemony, or any other such cliches that political leaders and pundits put in their speeches. It is just not that simple any more.

The world is therefore neither unipolar, multi-polar, nor chaotic – it is all three at the same time.

Therefore a smart power strategy must be able to handle these three very different distributions of power in their different domains and understand the necessary and difficult trade-offs between them. It therefore makes no sense to see the world through a purely realist lens that focuses only on top chessboard of military power, or a liberal lens that focuses mainly on the other chessboards. “Contextual intelligence today requires a new synthesis of “liberal realism” that looks at all three [ chess] boards at the one-time. After all, in a three-level game, a player who focus on only one board is bound to lose in the long run.”

Nye then concludes: “Conventional wisdom has always held that the state with the largest military prevails, but in an information age it may be the state (or non-states) with the best story that wins.” Recent examples include the Israeli-Hezbollah 34-day conflict in Lebanon, in 2006 where Israeli might was expected to triumph over a guerilla army, but the heavy tactics deployed meant that Hezbollah won in the court of public opinion, as the “oppressed” were seen to have the better story. More recently in the 2011 Arab Spring Muammar Gadafy held all the levers of power in Libya, but the insurgents – who had the better story to tell – triumphed.

Nonethelsss the role of military power in world politics is likely to persist well into the 21st-century. Military power may not have the same utility for states as it had in the 19th and 20th centuries, but it will remain a crucial component of power in world politics generally.

With this more complex, but I believe more accurate, background it is possible to begin to understand the implications of the two great power shifts that are happening in the world today.

The first is a power transition among states, the “return of Asia”. Nye points out that in 1750, Asia had more than half of the world population and product. By 1900, after the industrial revolutions in Europe and America, Asia’s share reduced to one fifth of the world product. By the year 2050, Asia will be well on its way back to its historical share. This “rise” in the power of Asia, particularly China and India, may create some instability, but it is a problem with precedents and we can learn from history. The past success was the transition from England to America, while the historical lesson to avoid was the rise of Germany in the 20th century. This understanding also helps put China’s likely position in future power equations in some context – it will be China’s fourth “rise”, meaning that there have been three periods of Chinese decline in world history to date. When will the fourth occur?

The second great power shift, of which we are aware, but do not fully underestand, is the power diffusion away from all states to non-state actors. The impact of globalisation, the Internet, and other major technological developments embraced in the information revolution is dramatically reducing the cost of computing and communication. Forty years ago instantaneous global communication was possible, but costly, and restricted to governments, and very wealthy media corporations. Today this communication is virtually free and open to anyone. The barriers to entry into world politics have been lowered, and non-state actors crowd the stage. In the 21st-century there are therefore more and more things outside the control of even the most powerful states, because of the diffusion of power from states to non-state actors. This is a new world politics with which we have much less experience, and some of our learning may be quite costly. The Arab Spring is a pointer towards this new world order, I suggest.

So what are the practical implications of all of this?

Clearly, nation states will remain the dominant actors on the world stage, but they will find the stage far more crowded and difficult to control. Information frequently provides a key power resource, and more people have access to more information than ever before. Informal networks will undercut the monopoly of traditional bureaucracies. Governments will have less control of their agendas and political leaders will enjoy much less freedom in responding to events.

With respect to the much predicted decline of the US and rise of China, Nye, who thinks this is much too simplistic and based on a false understanding of power, quotes Lee Kwan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore, who has been an acute long-term observer of both. Mr Lee “concludes that China will not surpass the US as the leading power of the 21st century … he cites as a major reason the ability of the US to attract the best and brightest from the rest of the world and meld them into a diverse culture of creativity. China has a larger population to recruit from domestically, but in his view, its Sino-centric culture will make it less creative than the US.”

Many modern industries and utilities have processes that are controlled by computers linked in SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems. Increasingly such computer systems are seen as highly vulnerable to attack. “ If a hacker or a government shut down the provision of electricity in a northern city like Chicago or Moscow in the middle of February the devastation could be more costly than if bombs had been dropped. In some facilities such as hospitals, backup generators can provide resilience in the case of a destructive attack, but widespread regional blackouts would be more difficult to cope with.”

In concluding, Nye sets out in detail how to design a smart power political strategy. In the 21st century, smaller powers and non-state actors have increased power, vis-a-vis larger powers. It would be instructive to use this framework to analyse various power struggles.

One interesting such power struggle would be the current eurozone financial crisis. There is a widespread assumption that the peripheral states are solely at fault, while Germany (and France and others) are the “good guys”. Many independent commentators do not see it in that fashion any more, pointing to the core states’ continuing refusal to properly capitalise politically connected banks (especially in Germany). In that regard a carefully designed smart power strategy by peripheral states such as Ireland, using networks with non-eurozone EU states, and appropriate contacts in the US, China, the IMF etc, could in reasonable circumstances, generate the “best story” leading to a major and necessary U-turn on the part of the core states. The result would be a strategy (rather than continuing inaction and indecision) that addressed the three core issues of weak banks, weak growth, and deficits in one comprehensive package.

Coming from a long-time analyst of power and a hands-on practitioner in government, this is a timely book, both for the world generally, but particularly for us in Europe enduring the current eurozone crises.

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