Voice

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? 

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