Napoleon went forth to seek Virtue, but since she was not to be found, he got Power - Goethe
From Alexander to Changez Khan to George W Bush, the exercise of absolute power has begotten senseless violence and destruction. Lord Acton, the British noble, has rightly remarked, “all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Power, be it political, economic or social, is intimately associated with concepts like domination, control, subjugation, authority and status. For most actors, attaining and conserving power is a means with which to chase these other ends. Much akin to its longtime bedfellow, wealth, power is a purchasing capacity that privileges discriminatory advantage to the wielder over the rest who are powerless or less powerful.
If power is no more than a kind of currency in an unequal world, how is one to explain personalities and states that strive for power as an end in itself and not as a means to other benefits? Megalomania, be it of the Prussian militarist state’s or of a Joseph Mobutu, is a ruthless disease whose main symptom is searching for more and more power without ever being satisfied that a credible minimum level has been reached. It has manifested itself in extreme forms of warmongering, profiteering, exploitation and paranoia.
Realist scholars of international relations treat megalomania not as an ailment but as the most natural and logical behaviour of the strong who want to preserve the gap between them and their inferiors. Power, in this paradigm, is linked to security and the pursuit of self-defence. Most states and ruling elites are characterised by feelings of insecurity and fear of being overthrown or overtaken. Hard military power, conventional and atomic, has since inception been justified as necessary for security and self-preservation in a chaotic and anarchic world full of meanness and intrigue. Fear, often irrational and imagined, lies at the core of power enhancement through military methods. States are never as insecure as they think they are, but they happen to be risk-averse and wish to always have that extra marginal bit of power with which to stay ahead of or in proportion with enemy states.
Theoretically, like a sane middle class person ready for the rainy day when savings sustain life, rational states amass hard power so that a healthy bank balance of armed might provides a sense of contentment and relief. Ironically, the sky is the limit when it comes to arms races ostensibly inaugurated to be safe from external threats. Power accumulation begins as a technique for national defence but gradually gains a momentum and life of its own, a reactive policy that ends nowhere and becomes a bottomless pit.
World politics is a dynamic game where actors adjust and adapt by watching the actions of other actors perceived as rivals or potential rivals. In the so-called ‘Bush Doctrine’ for US national security, prevention of potential rivals to US superpower status is a key article of faith. As the global economy grows and nuclear arms proliferate, it is obvious that some new state or conglomerate of states would challenge US hegemony in the future. The world leader is most bothered about China’s growing capabilities and has indicated that Beijing is certainly a threat that needs deterring. But after September 11, 2001, the US has also discovered new threats in Islamist fundamentalism and some selected sponsor states of religious terrorism. In terms of grand strategy, stopping China’s march to superpower levels may still make sense but assaulting Afghanistan and Iraq in the search for security does not. Here is a classic illustration of how rational power building logics can lose direction and spray bullets indiscriminately. The outcome is even worse insecurity than before and a vicious circle of new military occupations of impotent states.
This brings us to the ironic reflection that greedy power seeking actually undermines power and pulls the rug from underneath the machtpolitikers. The Roman Empire sunk due to overstretching and over-ambitious definition of its security perimeter. Mussolini, Italy’s dictator during the 1920s and 30s, committed folly after folly through foreign military adventures under the conviction that he would resurrect a ‘Third Rome’ after ancient Caesar and the medieval Holy Roman Empire. Italy’s decline as a European power that rubbed shoulders with France, Britain, Germany and Russia was a result of heady foreign policy decisions in the inter-war years. Il Duce stalked chimeras of grandiose nature and bit the dust.
Aggrandisement and ego are important raw materials in the production of power drunkenness and madness. At certain junctures of socio-economic crisis, firebrand demagogues or ultra-nationalists can sway public opinion into believing that the only way to feel good is to grow strong or punish opponent states. War is glorified as a cleansing or purifying experience that can mobilise a whole nation into sacrifice and struggle. Countries with strong fissiparous tendencies are especially prone to want power in the external realm as a surrogate for weak internal social dynamics. The US, as an inter-racial entity, rests on stormy waters. Racial discrimination, especially against people of African and South American descent, is prevalent and the Black Radical Congress argues that unilateral and illegal American wars are frustrated externalisations of a fragmented society.
Harvard professor Joseph Nye has made an important distinction between hard and soft power. Traditionally, power was viewed as a derivative of military size and prowess. “War”, in the words of Anton von Clausewitz, “is continuation of politics by other means.” In a social Darwinist set up where war was resorted to settle all kinds of disputes, hard military power was seen as the ultimate mark of greatness. A revolution set into strategic thinking with the writings of Michael Howard in the 1970s and 80s, submitting that security is ultimately a judicious function of hard and soft power. Soft power, as the phrase suggests, is vaguely understood as a series of less obtrusive assets a state possesses- social cohesion, visionary leadership, diplomatic goodwill and economic sturdiness. States gifted with such refined types of power need less hard power projection to maintain their integrity and independence.
Special attention deserves to be paid to the economic dimension of power in the age of globalisation and massive increase in the volume of world trade and investment. China under Deng Xiaoping made investment-driven economic growth the number one governmental priority, over and above military fortification. This strategy was prescient for anticipating economics to be the key to power in the post-Cold War era. The stranglehold China enjoys now over Southeast Asia is economic in nature, compared to what the Japanese conquered with brute military power in the inter-war years. Today’s Japan is another example of a soft power miracle. The world’s second biggest economy, Japan uses development aid, diplomatic mediation, humanitarian assistance and electronics exports to make its presence felt in Asia and beyond. Libya and Pakistan may have nuclear weapons but are no match to Japan in world consciousness as a major power. Norway, a minion in terms of its armed forces or weapons systems, is one of the most successful projectors of soft power with acknowledged international conflict resolution skills.
Can peace and human progress be guaranteed if soft power begins to assert itself in the consciousness of every state? The answer is a definite ‘No’ because economic and cultural influence can also be highly resented if they are exported aggressively to regions too feeble to resist. The live-and-let-live principle, formally enshrined as non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries, can be visibly trampled by military invasions but no less harmfully by ‘Coca Colanisation’ (Shashi Tharoor). The only real hope for coexistence and equitable world order lies in eschewing power games altogether and dividing prosperity fairly. But if thoughts are to reside in the realm of the feasible, the best that idealists can hope for is a soft power wave of the future.
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