The End of Power?

While I was obsessing about Egypt last week, I see that John Quiggin, William Winecoff and others have been having a rollicking debate about the status of American hegemony, the fungibility of military power, and Boeing/Airbus subsidies.  OK, that last one is less interesting, but I strongly encourage readers to go through the comment thread to that blog post. 

Essentially, Quiggin contends that:

[T]he decline of the US from its 1945 position of global pre-eminence has already happened. The US is now a fairly typical advanced/developed country, distinguished primarily by its large population. 

Ergo, other large market jurisdictions, like the European Union, are equal to the U.S. in terms of relative power. 

This cheesed off Winecoff and others into pointing out the myriad ways in which the U.S. power profile is a) still outsized; and b) largely shaped the current global order we live in; and c) allowed entities like the EU to focus on welfare maximization rather than security.   

Dan Nexon, in a comment to Quiggin's last rejoinder, gets at one nub of the debate:

John’s pointing out, quite rightly, that military power isn’t necessarily fungible. He’s doing so in the context of economic and regulatory power, which is the most “multipolar” dimension of global power right now. His IR critics are pointing out that the US still has outsized influence across a number of domains, and that some of those domains involve international (economic) institutions. They’re both onto something.

I pretty much agree with Dan here.  In the military sphere, the U.S. remains a hegemonic power.  In the economic and regulatory realms, well, I wrote a whole book arguing that until recently we lived in a bipolar world, so I'll side with Quiggin on that score. 

There's something missing from this debate that is worth raising, however -- a proper definition of power.  For example, in his first post, Quiggin noted that "[advanced industrialized countries] might be said to have declined in relative terms. But this doesn’t seem to me to constitute 'decline' in any important sense."  This is heresy to an international relations scholar, in that power is viewed as a zero-sum commodity. 

Beyond that, however, it is useful to think about the power to deter change from the status quo vs, the power to compel change in the status quo.  In a deterrence scenario, countries use their capabilities to ward off pressure from other actors, or from structural pressures.   In a compellence scenario, a powerful government threatens to use statecraft to extract concessions from other actors, or use power to alter the rules of the global game. 

Deterring pressure by others is different than applying such pressure to others.  With military or economic statecraft, it is generally easier to defend than attack.  Many IR scholars argue that the ability to deter is a necessary condition of the power to compel.  Only after an actor has the ability to resist pressure from others will they contemplate whether they can be the actor to generate pressure.  Countries possessing sufficient reservoirs of power should therefore have both greater autonomy of action and be better placed to apply pressure on other actors. 

What the past few years have demonstrated is the relative decline of U.S. compellence power and the rise of other countries deterrence power.  Certainly the recent uses of U.S. military force haven't yielded the expected results.  In the economic realm, countries like India and Brazil can veto WTO negotiation rounds in a way that simply wasn't possible 15 years ago.  Similarly, China can resist U.S. jawboning on its exchange rate policy far more than in the past. 

On the other hand, neither U.S. deterrent power nor other countries' compellence power has changed all that much, even in the economic realm.  The rest of the G-20 can scream as loud as they want, but  quantitative easing is going to continue.  China has tried to find ways to use its newly found financial muscle to force changes in the international system, to little avail.  To be sure, Russia, China and others can compel countries on their immediate periphery, but even a glance at the 2008 Russian-Georgian war suggests that even modest efforts like these are expensive and messy. 

So... we live in a world in which more actors have vetoes over systemic change but no actor has the ability to truly compel change.  This leads to lots of talk about "G-zero worlds" and so forth. 

Just to be provocative, however, I wonder if what's truly changed is the extinction of compellence power as we know it.  The primary, ne plus ultra  tools of compellence require a willingness to kill, jail or starve a lot of people.  Recent flare-ups like Iran in 2009 and Egypt right now suggests that such actions are possible at the domestic level, but pretty damn costly; even authoritarian countries flinch at using brute force on a domestic population.  Cross-border efforts are even more expensive in terms of both material and reputational costs. 

This isn't the end of power, but it might be the end of one particular dimension of power.  I'm not entirely convinced that this supposition is true, and am willing/eager to hear counterarguments.  That said, I still hereby claim The End of Power as my title, so everyone else just back off, OK? 

More seriously, am I missing anything? 

Daniel W. Drezner

So how's the European integration project going?

Your humble blogger is taking a brief break from teaching and zombie book-whoring publicizing recently-released research to start work on new research.  This requires me to be in Europe for the week.  So, for some local color, it's worth asking how things are in the land of the euro, the eurozone, and the eurocracy. 

Last year, during the epth of the Greek crisis, I argued that, "When going backwards isn't an option, and muddling through is no longer viable, the only thing left to do is move further along the integration project." 

Last week, it seemed that France and Germany had come to the same conclusion.  The Guardian's John Palmer provided a cogent summary on the deal that was being negotiated at Friday's European leaders' summit:

Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and the other EU chiefs will sound out the parameters of a breakthrough deal which could take the euro area – at the heart of the EU – towards a de facto economic government. The deal will offer massive financial support for countries under the currency market cosh in return for governments accepting that national economic policy in future will first have to secure the broad approval of the rest of the euro area.

[You must be feeling sooooo vindicated right now!!--ed.]  Oh, you betcha, got this one right on the money... wait, what's this Financial Times story by Peggy Hollinger and Peter Spiegel saying? 

New cracks emerged at a summit of European leaders on Friday, as the prime ministers of several countries raised strong objections to a Franco-German plan that would commit all 17 users of the single currency to co-ordinating their economic policies....

[T]heir initiative triggered a backlash from other European Union leaders anxious to defend their national economic, labour and welfare policies.

In the summit’s concluding communiqué, European leaders also appeared to back off a commitment to give the eurozone’s €440bn bail-out fund new tools to help shore up struggling “peripheral” economies.

An initial version of the conclusions committed the EU to giving the fund more “flexibility” – a code word for new authorities such as buying sovereign bonds of struggling countries on the open market. After extensive debate, that language was taken out, however, and now only binds members to give the fund “necessary effectiveness”, a clear watering-down.

What happened?  The Wall Street Journal's Irwin Stelzer explains:

Most countries profess broad agreement of the need for reforms along the lines Germany is demanding. Yet when confronted with the German-French package—the French have always favored some form of centralized economic management of the EU, including strict regulation and heavy taxation of the financial services sector that is centered in Britain—they balked.

Austria, with one of the lowest effective retirement ages in the euro zone, won't go along with an increase in the retirement age. Portugal won't buy into the end of wage indexation with inflation because it wants to offer a sop to public-sector workers whose wages have been cut by 5%. Neither will Belgium, Spain and Luxembourg. All in all, almost 20 countries at Friday's EU summit objected to the Germanization of their countries for one reason or another. So Germany refused to sign on to an increase in the size of the euro-zone bailout fund. "It was truly a surreal summit," commented Yves Leterme, Belgium's prime minister.

Stezler goes on to predict that there will be yet more Euro-muddling as a result of this deadlock.  I'm sticking to my original prediction, however.  As much as the European periphery dislikes the proposed grand bargain, some form of it will likely be accepted because  the alternative outcomes seem even more unappetizing.