The power debate - Dr Maleeha Lodhi - Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.

Few people have influenced the contemporary debate over the contested notion of power in recent years as much as Joseph S Nye. A long time Harvard professor, Nye served in the US government, and combines the insights of a practitioner and scholar to examine the nature and uses of power in a changing world.

He came up with the term ‘soft power’ and elaborated this in a landmark book published in 2004. The power of persuasion in world affairs was identified as an important dimension of power in addition to hard power, associated with tangibles such as military or economic resources. The types of resources that he associated with soft power included intangibles such as ideas, values, culture and the perceived legitimacy of policies.

Nye’s just published book ‘The Future of Power’ does not disappoint. It continues the conversation about how power is changing, especially under the impact of modern communication and information technologies. Power, Nye says, once came from controlling the sea-lanes. But in the future it will come from the ability to navigate the information lanes of cyberspace and control the narrative that influences people.

In a seminal essay written some years ago, Nye famously said: “Politics in the information age is ultimately about whose story wins”. He now expands on this by arguing that smart power strategies must be adapted to the global information age, which is making the traditional sources of power obsolete.

Although effective military force remains one of the key power resources in international affairs Nye shows how soft power has become a more important part of the mix. And he stresses that an information-based world requires new policies that combine hard and soft power resources into smart power.

Smart power strategies involve more than a country’s military or economic strength. The present cyber age has created a new ‘power frontier’ among states ripe with opportunity for nations, if they develop the capabilities to leverage the tools of our age. Smaller nations can punch above their weight if they adopt these strategies.

For Nye, smart power is combining the hard power of coercion and payment with the soft power of persuasion and attraction applied according to varying contexts. And context is key because power always depends on context. If power resources are both tangible and intangible, whether a certain combination can produce a desired outcome rests on behaviour in context.

He makes a distinction between defining power in terms of resources and in terms of behaviour, arguing that what counts is how the capacity that resources confer is converted into preferred outcomes. Because it is outcomes not resources that matter he argues that power conversion strategies are the critical variable for effective management of international affairs.

Nye’s book surveys the new era in world politics in which a power transition is underway among countries with the ‘rise of the rest’ and a power diffusion away from all states. This means it is no longer sufficient to think in terms of power over others, but of power to accomplish goals that involves working with others. And this needs an understanding of how to leverage networks and play off the connectedness of our age.

Nye describes how in the information age, communications strategies are more important. “Outcomes are shaped”, he says, “not merely by whose army wins but also by whose story wins”. The framing of issues and the construction of a narrative are all aspects of power relationships that are growing in significance.

The world we live in is one where political struggles are waged over the creation and destruction of credibility. Governments compete for credibility not just with other governments but also with a broad range of alternatives including the new media, corporations and NGOs. Global politics he says involves “verbal fighting” among competing narratives.

This fascination with power is driven by Nye’s concern with the sources and trajectory of American power. Therefore his book joins the debate about whether the era of America’s global dominance and its hour of power has passed.

A spate of recent literature offers conflicting views about what the rise of new powers means for the global primacy that the US long enjoyed. From the prognosis of American decline popularised by Paul Kennedy to others who have written about how the relative erosion of economic power and military overstretch have contributed to American’s loss of global influence, a rich though inconclusive debate has been going on. This has involved writers and historians such as Niall Ferguson, Fareed Zakaria and Richard Haas among others. China’s rise in particular has been the subject – and cause for fear – of much analyses in the US.

Nye’s book positions him among the optimists in this debate. He believes that American economic and cultural preponderance will become less dominant in the future but that does not signify a decline. The US he argues is unlikely to decay like ancient Rome. But to maintain its global leadership it will need a smart power strategy and narrative that stress alliances, institutions and networks.

Another recently published book offers a rather different perspective. In Zero-Sum Future, Gideon Rachman examines the decline of American power in an age of anxiety, where a globalised world is becoming more fragmented.

Rachman depicts a previous ‘age of optimism’ where the world looked like it was going America’s way. But with the 2008 economic crisis, the rise of China, weakening of American power and the emergence of a set of intractable global political problems this has given way to a less stable and more dangerous world. The win-win logic of globalisation is being replaced by the zero-sum logic of political and economic struggle.

The author argues in a racily written book that if this logic gathers more pace in international relations it will produce adversarial relations between America and China, disarray and infighting in Europe and more global conflict as consensus will continue to elude efforts to solve transnational problems. This will undermine globalisation and even threaten the benefits it has produced.

But Rachman places his hope in ‘creative leadership’ in the West, which ought to ‘keep calm’ in the face of its declining power and rising global threats and not accept the idea that rivalry between nations will inevitably dictate international relations. Although he is unable to convincingly show how the world’s major powers will be able to reverse the logic of a zero-sum world, his analysis of a world in rapid transition is worth reading for its engaging and often witty insights.

Another book published last year that surveys the classical texts and literature on statecraft and strategy is a must read but not for impatient readers. Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft and World Order by Charles Hill offers a guide to the elements of statecraft by considering the works of major thinkers who have influenced history.

The book ends with a long quote from Henry Kissinger summing up one of the major paradoxes of our times. Part of this is worth reproducing to understand why ours is a world bereft of statesmen. Says Kissinger: “We have entered a time of total change in human consciousness of how people look at the world. Reading books requires you to form concepts, to train your mind to relationships....A leader needs these qualities. But now we learn from fragments of facts....each fact can instantly be called up again on the computer... Information is not knowledge. The new thinking erases context. All this makes strategic thinking about world order nearly impossible to achieve.” This needs thoughtful consideration.

The Future of Power by Joseph S Nye, New York, Public Affairs, 2011; Zero-Sum Future by Gideon Rachman, New York, Simon and Schuster, 2011;Grand Strategies by Charles Hill, Yale University Press, 2010.

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