Academic journal article Harvard International Review

The Politics of Power: New Forces and New Challenges

Academic journal article Harvard International Review

The Politics of Power: New Forces and New Challenges

Article excerpt

What are the primary forces that characterize power in today's world?

What you are asking boils down to distinctions between different kinds of power. Power comes in a number of packages. You have military power, economic power, diplomatic power, some would even say cultural power. What all these types of power have in common, however, is that power is not to be confused with influence. Power is another word for potential; power is a capacity. What foreign policy is about--what national security policy is about--is translating capacity, potential, and power into influence or accomplishments. Power is simply what you begin with. The question for the people who have it, wield it, or who influence those who wield it, is what do you do with that power.


How is power distributed among states, and how is that distribution best measured?

It is a complicated question. Take the United States, for example. Obviously the United States has the greatest concentration of military power by an order of magnitude. The United States has tremendous economic power given the size of its roughly US$11 trillion economy. The United States also has enormous diplomatic power. These types of power are all dependent on one another: military power and political power are in part reflections of an economic foundation, and economic power is, in part, a reflection of the global stability that allows normal economic activity to take place. So various forms of power are to some extent interdependent.

In addition, what matters in international relations is not simply how much power you have, but how much power others have and what they do with it. Power as an end in itself is not very interesting. What really matters is one's ability to translate power into influence. So the fact that the United States may have far more military power than another country on paper is less relevant than the question of what amount of military power the United States is able and willing to bring to bear in a given situation, in contrast with the amount of relevant military power someone else is willing to bring to bear. It is extremely difficult to go from static measures, which do not reveal a great deal, to something that is more meaningful.

How have the forces of globalization shifted power, not only among states, but also among international organizations and non-state actors?

As your question suggests, one of the shifts has been away from states. States never quite had a monopoly on power. Even hundreds of years ago there were other actors, such as the Catholic Church and the Dutch East India Company. But it is fair to say that states now share more power with non-state actors than at any other time in history. A non-state actor can range from something that is quite small--it could be an individual on the Internet--to something quite large, such as the United Nations. It can be a multinational corporation. It can be a group like Greenpeace or Doctors Without Borders. It can be Al Qaeda or even Hezbollah. In other words, non-state actors can be benign or they can be anything but benign.

Power in its various forms is not, then, simply the province of nation-states. This is enhanced by globalization--by globalization I mean the flow of things across borders with tremendous velocity and in tremendous volume, whether ideas or people or drugs or arms or fissile material or greenhouse gases or money. What makes it so interesting is that in many cases these flows take place at such speed and in such volume that governments cannot control them. In some cases, governments do not even know about them. So there has been something of a shift away from states toward these other organizations. All that said, there is also a danger in allowing the analysis to go too far. States still remain the principal actors in the international system. More than any other set of actors, nation-states can shape the international system, and more than any other state, the United States can have an impact. …

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