Book Review: The Future of Power, by Joseph Nye

Today, it is not only about whose army dominates, but also whose story wins

Joseph Nye lecturing on power | Photo: Harvard U.

Being Powerful… And Smart

Political scientist Joseph S. Nye isn’t easy to categorise, falling somewhere along the wide stretch between “raw” realism and “idealist” liberalism. So Nye calls himself a “liberal realist”, and in his 2011 book The Future of Power, he moves on from the concept of “soft power” he coined in his 1990 book Bound to Lead: the Changing Nature of American Power, to one of “smart power”. The soft power of influence and persuasion is incorporated into the concept of “smart power”, which combines both hard and soft skills through strategies of power conversion that depend on context, leadership and the target itself.

So what is the future of power?

“There are two great power shifts in the 21st century,” Nye said in an interview in Washington D.C. for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. One is power transition from West to East (China rising as a challenge to U.S. hegemony), and the other is power diffusion from state to non-state actors (terrorism threats and cyber-wars, to name a few examples). “The U.S. will remain the largest power, but will also be in a much more crowded world,” Nye said.

Smart power is “neither unipolar, multipolar nor chaotic, yet all three simultaneously,” Nye writes. Military power and the use of force are essential components of smart power, as the most important tools of acquiring desirable ends. However, we do not live in a world where only powers that can wage a successful war survive; rather, power should be understood as a three-sided phenomenon that involves commanding change, controlling the agenda, and establishing preferences, with the goal of gaining power “with”, rather than “over” other actors.

“States are no longer the only important actors in global affairs; security is not the only major outcome that they seek, and force is not the only or always the best instrument available to achieve those outcomes,” he writes. But Nye has not always welcomed the use of force. The earlier, “soft power” Nye was a liberal, heavily criticised by the “realists” – those who claim that all states are driven by self-interest to acquire hegemony through power-maximising behavior. And to a large extent, he hasn’t changed: “It is not only about whose army dominates, but also whose story wins,” Nye writes. Still, a shift in his ideas toward the realist camp is clear.

A major catalyst has been the rise of countries besides the U.S. In early March, China announced an 11.2 per cent increase in its military spending for this year. “China has come of age,” said Sun Zhe of Tsinghua University in an interview for Al Jazeera. Getting one’s story on the agenda usually involves having an army to back it up. But economic interdependence, communication, international institutions and transnational actors still matter, Nye writes, and strategy becomes the key to smart military power. The U.S. needs to convince the worried countries in Asia, such as Australia and Taiwan, that it can still protect them from a potential Chinese threat.

The underlying principle of economic power is “to make others more dependent on you than you are on them”, principally through sanctions and market structuring. The best example is China’s reconsideration of its economic policy. According to George Freedman, CEO of Stratfor Global Intelligence, China has considered the Chongqing model of promoting domestic consumption and re-focussed the source of China’s economic growth from a traditional export-oriented policy, heavily dependent on the access to the American markets.

Power diffusion, the process by which non-state actors supply valuable information, is the second central component to Nye’s book. Greater access to information allows easy entry to and exit from the international game as well as a say in the rules. The best example is cyber power, “a set of resources that relate to the creation, control and communication of electronic and computer-based information – infrastructure, networks, software, human skills.” Here a greater number of players, easy entry and exit, opportunity for concealment, and supremacy of offense over defense define the game. In this case, cyber war could be compared to a nuclear conflict in which “the fog of war” – Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz’ famous characterisation, and title of the 2003 documentary portrait of former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara – makes it hard to distinguish military from civilian targets.

Although government remains the strongest actor, individuals and lightly structured networks become more important, since their anonymity and minimal investment make them less vulnerable. For instance, Anonymous, an anarchic global community of Internet users founded in 2003, had little influence in its early stages. Now better organised, it has become influential in global hacking activity, reaching out to an international public against what they see as repressive government.

As hackers become more engaged in waging cyber-wars and policy makers are preoccupied with Syrian revolutionaries and the Iranian nuclear program, academic elites remain concerned with larger issues: the potential, or some argue imminent, decline of U.S. hegemony. Such a scenario is likely, Nye argues, but only in relative terms. The U.S. will remain the No. 1 global player, but the rise of other states will cause a relative decline as a consequence of “domestic under-reach”. The U.S. has become “a vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world’s talent, with a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke.”

Global leadership is not global interventionism, Nye stresses, but it is also more than offshore balancing. To remain No. 1, “the U.S. must rediscover how to be the smart power.”


The Future of Power
by Joseph Nye
Public Affairs (2011)
pp. 320

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