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Tuesday, April 15, 2003


In part 5, published here on April 13th, three kinds of power in international relations were set out and briefly explained . . . all too briefly: potential power, mobilized power, and activated power. Our ultimate aim here, one part after another, recall, is to clarify the huge lead in power-potential the US has over other states, something the world has never seen before . . . not in the modern era (roughly the 17th century on), nor in the ancient world either. Even Rome, which had a huge sprawling empire from Britain across Europe through the Balkans and on both sides of the Mediterranean and on into the Middle East, was limited in its expansion by two great empires to the east: the Persian, and the Chinese, and by the limits imposed by the technologies of transportation and communications in those days. (See the table below.)

And yet, the key point here, all these comparisons ignore the actual status of the US in the global arena. The US isn't an imperial state as we'll see --- with formal colonies and the ability to determine their domestic politics and foreign policies; it isn't even a hegemon in any robust sense if that means the ability to shape or reshape a global institutional and rule-based international order; in fact, as the recent tussels with France and Russia and Germany in the UN Security Council over Iraq --- a pivotal, even existentially charged security issue of paramount importance for the Bush administration and American people --- it couldn't even prevail upon the governments of two Latin American members of the Security Council, Chile and Mexico, to support its position on a second resolution to authorize war with Iraq. And yet the US is far and away the most important market for Chile's and Mexico's exports and the most important source of investment in those countries.

How is that possible if the US is supposed to be so powerful --- a hyper-hegemon without parallel in the French jargon for describing its global role?

To answer, once again we begin with an effort to clarify the key but elusive concept of power in international relations.

The Huge US Lead in Power in 2001


Power in International Relations Defined:

1. Barebones Definition

Stripped to its skeleton nature, power in IR refers to the use of human and non-human assets --- or resources or capabilities, all equivalent in meaning --- to defend and promote the interests of a state by influencing the behavior of other states or non-state actors . . . like terrorist organizations or international institutions. Note that the successful use of such national assets or capabilities depends in part on the skill with which political leaders define concrete goals and order priorities among them and select appropriate instruments for influencing others.

More tangibly, power means the ability of a state's leadership to get other states or non-state actors to

[1] do what you want ---as getting Saddamite Iraq to disarm and to force the regime to change;

[2] or not do what you don't want --- as the US threatening right now Syria with sanctions if it doesn't stop harboring Iraqi Saddamites and letting terrorists move into Iraq.

. . . AND either way, the other states or non-state actors resist or threaten to resist --- as the Ba'athist state in Iraq did until it was destroyed by war, and the Ba'athist state in Syria continues to resist today.

Hence the exercise of power in international relations usually means the ability of a state to overcome resistance and prevail in conflict with others in order to defend and promote national interests . . . with the proviso that conflict need not risk escalating to military instruments. It could be a trade conflict or a conflict over, say, the Kyoto Treaty dealing with global warming.


2. An Elaboration: The Exercise of Power to Overcome Resistance Can Occur Directly or Indirectly

Directly, by using certain instruments of foreign policy --- diplomatic (persuasion, coercive threats, deterrent threats), economic (rewards or bribes), or degrees of military force (including all-out war) --- that are aimed at specific states or non-state actors in specific situations, and they resist. This is sometimes called relational power, again as in Iraq recently or toward Syria's state leaders right now. An alternative term, which we'll use that also captures the nature of relative power --- the US, say, using certain power resources to get its way with Syria and Syria's leaders using their resources to resist (including calling on France's foreign minister, Villepin, to visit Damascus and make a policy statement directed at Washington) --- is "activated power". Activated because it refers to a specific clash of national interests (or concrete goals) and the use of power by both sides can be observed.

Indirectly, by creating or managing or just influencing international institutions and the prevailing rules of game for cooperation and competition. Cooperatively, where joint gains are possible, such as how to trade (the WTO), how to treat multinational investments (mainly bilateral treaties), how to send mail or fly commercial airplanes across boundaries safely or transmit cable television, or how to help states with balance of payments problems (the IMF) or how to lend money for development (the World Bank, bilateral foreign aid). Competitively, such as in influencing the laws of warfare --- for instance, how to treat prisoners or define military targets in urban areas or how to regulate the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Again, more tangibly and recently to illustrate rules of the game for competition, the toppling of the Saddamite regime by the US is part of a larger regional and global effort to curb the spread of WMD into the hands of dangerous, anti-US regimes that might be only too happy to supply terrorist networks with such weapons. The rule being fostered here is that such states are illegitimate, the rule so far, note, fairly ambiguous, but bound to emerge with more clarity in time. As a twist to that end, US security poicy has made brought the long-standing policy of pre-emptive attacks on such states, used repeatedly by the Clinton administration --- in 1996 when hundreds of cruise missiles were aimed at decapitating the Saddamite regime, again in 1998 against the Sudan and Taliban Afghanistan for allegedly supporting the Al Qaeda attack on the US embassy in Kenya, and again with NATO support in attacking Milosevik's Yugoslavia --- to the fore and making that policy a key part of US instruments in the war against terrorism.

Call both indirect forms, whether for cooperative or competitive purposes, the power to shape or profoundly influence a global or regional international order. And the ability to do this is not open to many states . . . usually, only the most powerful of the great powers, especially on the global scene. Even then, moreover, almost always after a hegemonic major war between several or all of the great powers . . . as after the destruction of Napoleonic France in 1815 (the Congress-Concert System of great power cooperation), or following the end of WWI with the creation of the League of Nations, or after WWII when the UN and the rule-bound trade and monetary systems were developed (the latter in the non-communist world).

All of which, note, leads to a pivotal matter: the big changes in the ways great powers seek to shape or influence a global order --- its institutions and rules.


Kinds of Great Power Global Influence Distinguished: Imperial States vs. Hegemons vs. Powerful States Period.

Specifially, what sorts of pivotal changes?

In the past, to put this in plain English, shaping a global or regional international order always led to the creation or extension of powerful multinational empires, with colonies the clear sign. That's because great powers until recently all sought to gain more territory and control it for various reasons. Since the late 19th century, the alternative for a great power has been to shape global rules and institutions without territorial expansion --- and this almost always happens after a major war of the great powers that leaves the victorious states in a dominant position. This happened in 1918 for Britain and the US and France after WWI in 1918-1919, when the League of Nations was set up (rejected by the US Senate), and then in 1945 again in shaping the UN system, the trade system (the institution orginally called GATT, now the WTO), investments and loans for development (the World Bank), and the monetary system (the IMF). Again, after 1990 with the end of the cold war, the US taking the lead to expand NATO into East Europe and extend the influence of market-economics in much of the developing world after the collapse of communist states, the discrediting of statist economies as in much of Latin America until the late 1980s, and the shift of China's communist system toward more open trade and investments. Oppositely, the efforts to create environmental international institutions succeeded in regulating industrial products causing harm to the ozone layer, and so far has been problematic in dealing with global warming --- China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, and Nigeria, joined by the US and Australia in rejecting the Kyoto treaty's provisions for themselves (or ensuring they're not applicable). The same is true of the ICC --- the International War Crimes tribunal, rejected by Russia, India, China, and the US.

Note that the term for non-territorial dominant great powers is hegemon or just plain primacy. It is something new in the world, what with the renunciation of territorial expansion and colonies . . . confined, moreover, to liberal democratic industrial countries (the US and the British mainly, but not Imperial Germany or Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy or Imperial Japan or the Soviet Union or Communist China).

A hegemon, note further, has these characteristics compared to an imperial power:

  1. It does not have colonies or territorial ambitions (even after WWI, the British acquired new territory in the Middle East where the Ottomans had ruled under League of Nations Mandates).

  2. It usually seeks to influence others by non-coercive means, especially persuasion and reward power: this has manifestly been the case of the US since 1945 in regard to trade matters (we don't go to war to get countries to join the WTO).

      • Besides economic rewards --- trade concessions, foreign aid, investment --- the US has also established alliances with dozens of other governments in Europe and Asia and elsewhere; and when, say, France kicked US and NATO forces off its soil in 1966, the US was powerless to resist. Similarly, in the mid-1990s, the Philippines --- where the US has considerable economic and diplomatic influence --- wanted US forces out of that country and shut down the largest US naval base in Pacific Asia. Once again, we acquiesced peacefully (Manila has recently reversed policy here and invited us back as the war on terrorism on one side and the growth of Chinese power on the other has led to a Filipino reassessment of its security needs).

      • More recently --- to illustrate further --- Mexico and Chile, two countries where the US is said by unelightened ideological radicals to be a neo-imperialist power, the Bush administration couldn't even convince the two governments there to support the US-UK position in the Security Council. And yet the US is far and away the most important trade and investment partner of Mexico, and for that matter Chile too.

  3. And it usually provides important public (governmental) goods and services for a global infrastructure that lacks insitutionalized and legitimate government, a state.

      • For most of the post-1945 period, at any rate in the non-communist world, the US dollar was the key currency for trade, investment, and reserves, and similarly the US Federal Reserve more or less substituted for the lack of a central bank (the IMF isn't this, nor is the World Bank). Even now, the US$ is used in about 65% of foreign trade around the world, and accounts for a slightly higher figure for official government reserves (the Euro and the yen are the others). Again, the US with its huge domestic market has been an importer of first and last resort for the rest of the world, almost all other countries desiring to have trade surpluses and export-led growth. Thus in l998, after the Asian financial meltdown, Asian and maybe global depression was prevented by the huge doubling of the US trade deficit with the rest of the world, the Asian countries exporting their way quickly out of their initial recessions. (Tangibly put, the US takes about 3 to 4 times as many Pacific Asian mfg. exports as the EU does on a per capita basis.) The US, too, until recently, has been the major supplier of security for almost all other second-tier countries --- Japan, the smaller Asian dynamos, West Europe (and now East Europe in the post-communist world), post-Taliban Afghanistan, Mussharaf's Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Georgia, and increasingly the former Muslim Republics of the Soviet Union.


Another Distinction: A Powerful Country vs. A Hegemon

As for the US, despite its enormous power on almost all indices compared to others (see the above table), it isn't even a full-fledged hegemon . . . if that term means that the US government could shape a new global institutional and rule-based system. It couldn't and hasn't tried. Essentially, the US has had to work within the confines of the existing rule-based institutional order that it profoundly influenced in the past, all the way back to 1945, then since 1990 and the end of the cold war, where others have influence too . . . in no small part because of their institutional role. Thus the US government has had various trade initiatives overturned by the WTO (just as it's won some), and in the UN Security Council recently, the Bush administration found after 6 months of efforts to persuade others that it couldn't overcome the French threat of veto (which bolstered the Russian willingness to veto too . . . though at no point did Putin go as far as Chirac to say that he would veto ANY second resolution that implied an ultimatum to Saddamite Iraq).

At most, the US combines globally two overlapping roles: some influence as a hegemon (such as seeking to redefine the meaning and threats of rogue states in the Middle East and acting militarily with a coalition of friendly states, said to be about 50 in number) and some influence as a powerful state, but only one among others that also have power and influence on key issues of concern for them. Even in Latin America, where the US is claimed by the radical left to operate as a neo-imperial country, the limits of its power are graphic.

How so?

Well, consider that the Bush administration couldn't even prevail upon two Latin American members of the Security Council --- Chile (10 million), Mexico (roughly 100 million and the 11th industrial country in the world) --- to back the US-UK position on a second resolution . . . this, remember, despite the US by far being their best market for their exports and the best source of investments in their country. It's worth underscoring this point in another way. So far from being a neo-imperial country in Latin America that can pull the strings on governments there to do its bidding, the US government, recently, has had additional opposition it couldn't overcome in matters of domestic politics. In Venezuela, the verbal effort out of the government to criticize the neo-populist government there headed by Huge Chavez --- who was involved with the unions and management in the oil industry --- ran into a brick wall. In Brazil, not long afterwards, Luis Lula --- another populist candidate of the left running for the presidency --- won the election despite Washington's backing for his opponent.

A strange imperialism, no? when an overwhelmingly powerful country like the US can't influence the outcomes of elections in Brazil or the behavior of a government in oii matters in Venezuela or even win the support of Chile and Mexico in the Security Council on a issue of existential security matters for the US government and the American people.


Sooner or Later, Hegemons Will Be Challenged

Over time, some key second-tier or emerging powerful states will probably see threats to their key security and economic interests, and at that point hegemonial powers will likely be challenged . . . diplomatically, maybe militarily.

We are witnessing the former to an extent, so far with limited results and efforts to cover their tails, in the current counter-balancing of France, Germany, and Russia over Iraq, at any rate in diplomacy (not militarily). Essentially, this counter-balancing is part of a long emerging change in the definitions of national interests by these states in the aftermath of the last hegemonial struggle --- the cold war, which ended with one of the two superpowers, the Soviet Union, not just a loser but disappearing, its place taken by a far weaker and politically changed Russia. The realignment --- which is more or less inevitable (US concrete diplomatic efforts can play a role in blunting it, so too can the re-emergence of shared security worries and priorities in Paris, Berlin, and Moscow) --- isn't, of course, confined to these three countries. Efforts by the French and Germans to re-establish a dual dominance in the EU --- with clear pronouncements to that end coming out of the two governments in January --- immediately provoked counter reactions in almost all the rest of the EU; and the alignment of Italy, Spain, Holland, Denmark, and Britain (for that matter, the 10 aspiring new member-states in East Europe) with the US, even in the teeth of popular opinion within many of these countries, is a clear sign of changes ongoing within the EU itself.


Another Elaboration: Three Kinds of Power-Bases in IR to Determine Which States Succeed or Not . . . and Why There Can Be Gaps Between Them

Brief Clarification:

1) potential power refers to societal resources for supporting a state's foreign policy ambitions. In effect, these resources --- explained in a moment --- give a state GROSS CAPABILITIES to draw on before it uses its tax, budgetary, and regulative authority in the form of public policies. These gross capabilities do not necessarily add up to usable policy instruments. In l941, for instance, when Japan attacked the US, the US had a far greater potential power base---but its military establishment was weak.

2) mobilized power, by contrast, refers to resources extracted from the national society by government programs, specifically to create USABLE INSTRUMENTS or OPTIONS for supporting the state's policies abroad --- mainly by influencing other state actors (or non-state actors like Al Qaeda).

3) activated power refers to the ability of a state, given a specific clash of national goals with other states --- or non-state actors like Al Qaeda --- to prevail, to have not just USABLE but EFFECTIVE instruments to overcome their resistance. In the Vietnam war, the US for various reasons did not or couldn't use its nuclear weapons (a usable option), and the reliance on the particular military strategy and tactics didn't succeed. In Iraq this last month, by contrast,, a thoroughly restructured, professional, information-age military quickly triumphed with few US casualties (about 120, about a third fewer than in the Gulf war of 1991) while noticeably limiting collateral damage to Iraqi civilians --- by probably a quarter of the number in 1991, about 5000 then according to official Iraqi figures. (The exact number of casualties this time hasn't been fully calculated, but a figure of around 1200 has been talked about.)


Follow-Up Clarification: Gross Capabilities

Briefly, gross capabilities or potential power refer to the societal resources that are hypothetically available to a government for supporting its policies abroad before it actually uses its taxing, budgetary, and regulative authority to tap these resources. Broadly viewed, these societal resources are its [1] population (its size, its support for its polity and governmental policies, its morale and moral fiber, and its willingness to spill blood and wealth if need be in pursuit of its government-designated national interests abroad), [2] its economy, especially the size of its GDP and its per capita income, and [3] its technological prowess.

A [4th] resource would be its governmental effectiveness: how and why leaders are selected, their ability to define and defend their national interests effectively in terms of concrete goals and priorities and instruments for pursuing them (military, economic, or diplomatic), and no less important, their skill in explaining those goals and winning the support of the population. The more ambitious the policies, the more skill is needed to convince the population, even in dictatorships, to make sacrifices in wealth and, if need be, blood to support such policies.


Mobilized Power: Usable Instruments to Support Foreign Policy Goals by Influencing Other State and Non-State Actors

Mobilized power refers to the actual power-resources or capabilities available at any one time for political leaders to draw on as usable instruments for supporting their policies abroad . . . usually toward other states, but now and then toward terrorists or pirates or gangster cartels, and at times too toward international organizations.

To have readily usable instruments for supporting policies abroad, a government has to use its taxing, budgetary, and regulative authority to extract resources --- money and manpower chiefly --- from the societal base and fashion a variety of them: a military establishment, intelligence agencies, economic instruments like trade rewards or trade sanctions or foreign aid (or its withdrawal as a punishment), and alliances. Remember, the more ambitious a country's leaders are in trying to play a big role abroad --- regionally or globally --- the more it will have to extract such resources through taxing, budgetary allocations, and regulations (e.g., will there be conscription or will a professional army be raised with pay and patriotic incentives relied on?). This can create an ongoing allocative-problem, at times even dilemma. Most great powers in history, over the long run if they've survived as an influential state or empire for decades or more, have suffered from what can be called "over-extension" or, at times, "imperial overstretch." Both terms, in effect, indicate that a great power's commitments abroad, military and diplomatic, have tended to exceed their resource base, especially as new challengers arise . . . either because there are too many restraints on the societal base (potential power), such as too small a population or GDP or economic stagnation, or because of allocative misuse (wars entered into that are too costly, especially if lost), or because --- starved for money --- the state incurs endless national debt or debauches the national currency through inflation: printing money. Alternatively, a country's population may lose its willingness to sacrifice --- either on the mass level (as shown, say, by its soldiers not willing to fight tenaciously, or at all: the reason governments resort to mercenaries), or among its elites, who have opted for luxury and conspicuous consumption and alienate the population by their privileged life-styles that entail no sacrifice for larger national or state purposes.

Examples are Rome by the late 4th century A.D., on all these scores, and China in the 15th century, and again from the 17th century onward when it was conquered by Manchus and then, ossifying in technology and economic dynamism even more, was overrun by Europeans, the US, and Japan in the late 19th century . . . the imperial system itself collapsing in 1911, followed by decades of civil war and the Japanese invasion until 1949, the year the Communists triumphed. And of course the Ottomans after the 17th century, the empire disappearing totally by 1918; or the Aztecs or Incas, unable to match the tiny armies of Conquestadors and their own Indian auxiliaries in weaponry or tactics in the 16th century. Or the Japanese quick collapse in WWII after overruning Manchuria, coastal China, Indonesia, and the Philippines (adding to Japan's earlier imperial conquests in Korea and Taiwan at the turn of the 20th century. Or the rapid collapse of the French empire, despite prolonged warfare, in Indochina and then Algeria after WWII, the latter given its independence in 1963.

Or again, a different story but similar outcome, the much slower, far gentler decline of Britain's massive empire, 25% of the world's people at one time . . . starting with the US after 1776, then a gradual bestowal of independence to Canada and Australia/New Zealand by the end of the 19th century, and --- as nationalism picked up among Boers in South Africa and Indians and later Arabs, Jews in Israel, and tropical Africans --- a withdrawal from Asia and Africa and the Middle East, completed in the late 1960s. (The commonwealth concept, worked out by the British for voluntary withdrawal to a native people in the 1840s and 1850s, was applied first to the "white" dominions, and then later, as this concept was invoked by Indians and others, extended to cover them as well. Britain withdrew from India in 1947 (which then fell into violent communal warfare between Muslims and Hindus that led to Ghandi's assassination and the division of the Indian empire into Pakistan and India), and then later began a withdrawal from Africa in 1956, the full dismantling of its empire there lasting about another decade.

In Rome's case, to return to it, the empire was divided by the 4th century C.E., its two parts fighting one another repeatedly. Its army became narrowly based at home after Julius Caesar's death in 44 B.C.E., with an ever greater use of mercenary auxiliaries from Germanic and other non-Roman peoples over the next centuries. Simultaneously, a propertyless, alienated mob was a constant problem in Rome itself; and its aristocracy had been declining in talent and less and less willingness to serve in the military for a long time. Abroad, a far-flung frontier running almost 2000 miles from Britain across western Europe, the Mediterranean on two sides, into the Balkans, and on into what would be the Middle East and Turkey these days, was challenged more and more by robust, if technologically backward barbarian tribes, Germanic or Mongol-Turkish. By the 5th century, in consequence, Rome itself was being sacked repeatedly, and eventually disorder and the long breakdown of Roman authority --- including the ability to buy off Vandals or Visigoths or Huns and others by bribes --- led to a gradual collapse, a loss of Roman control and authority everywhere and eventually in its home base. (The eastern half of the Roman Empire, centered on Constantinople, did survive another 1000 years, with a different church, the Orthodox, and Greek-speaking. But it soon lost vigor, and the last few centuries saw it repeatedly losing territory and being overrun by invaders, including at one point by West European Catholic Crusaders in 1204, and repeatedly by different Turkish peoples until the Ottoman Turks destroyed the last remnants in 1453.

  Activated Power: Effective Instruments Used to Overcome Resistance, within the Context of a Concrete Clash of Interests and Goals


Replies: 1 Comment

A question after reading that in times past, power meant territorial acquisitions and colonies. How much of this was due to the need to acquire natural resources and goods for economic reasons? And did the changes in the global economy -- that is, a move to a more trade-based one, with economic power based on advanced service economies -- change this? Would that be part of the reason that powerful countries today are less likely to seek to gain new territories?

Posted by Joey Tartakovsky @ 04/18/2003 07:04 PM PST