Academic journal article McNair Papers

4. Powers as Partners

Academic journal article McNair Papers

4. Powers as Partners

Article excerpt

   The Chinese are a great and vital people who should not be
   isolated from the international community.

   --Richard M. Nixon, 1970

Power, Convergence, and Common Success

The congruence of freedom, knowledge, and power is no guarantee of a peaceful world. But it does point toward greater security insofar as democratic powers are not hostile toward each other and have military superiority over undemocratic states that are hostile to them. At a minimum, the risk of great power conflict--the sort that made the 20th century so violent--would be reduced. As the democratic powers become more integrated economically, they will become even less inclined toward confrontation, having little to gain and much to jeopardize, and more inclined toward joint pursuit of their common interests.

Rising powers should come to see the world in much the same light. In the information age, they must integrate in order to rise; and integration reduces conflict and increases collaboration. As national success depends less and less on relative power, hegemonic rivalry will be regarded as pointless and even inimical to success. The standing among the principal nations will become less important in world politics.

The claim that economic integration dampens conflict invariably evokes the reminder that the nations of Europe were interdependent prior to the outbreak of World War I. True, but the relevance of that history to the future begs examination. An important difference between then and now is that the old European powers were engaged mainly in commodity trade, whereas today's integration encompasses vital, high-value-added products and services, including information technology. (1) Commodity trade can be redirected if cut; dependence on common, crucial inputs cannot. In addition, the link between national success and relative power that characterized pre-WWI Europe has been called into question, if not obliterated, by the failure of Germany and Japan in 1945 and the Soviet Union in 1991. In sum, the old European powers were not truly integrated, and they saw each other's success as a threat to their own. Under these circumstances, their trade did not alter their strategic calculus.

In fact, colonialism--a major arena of economic interest among the powers of late-19th century Europe--far from discouraging conflict, stoked it. Industrial-age economies depended on the control of raw materials, valuable land, and trade routes. Britain's empire and Germany's continental preeminence were economically important and depended on strength--indeed, on relative strength. Every power's industrial capacity (shipbuilding, steel, etc.) could be seen as a potential threat, certainly not a benefit, to other powers, especially given the possibility of sudden realignments. Hegemony could yield real benefits; consequently, hegemonic rivalry had a certain (disastrous) rationality. The low-value trade taking place engendered no sense of common economic fate, common strategic interest, or trust. Add the turn-of-the-century's cocky brand of nationalism, and the result was a flammable mix of maneuvering, distrust, and miscalculation that ignited in 1914.

No such competition for colonies, land, or resources--not even scarce energy--pits the leading democracies against one another today. In the information age, the existing powers have no interest in conquest, for it leads nowhere they cannot get more directly through investment and cooperation. Globalization, the liquidity of economic value, and the creation of a transnational pool of information technology reduce the utility of power, especially relative power. How can territorial dominion, let alone aggression, help when the prize is information and ideas? Nowadays, success produces power, not vice versa.

Integration in the information age leaves the leading powers with no reason to wage war with one another and every reason not to do so. Countries that fought a war of annihilation just 50 years ago--Japan, the United States and the West Europeans--now have no differences large enough to merit any thought of conflict. …

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