The Process of Power
© 2015 FrontLine Defence (Vol 12, No 1)

The American-led international order, which has reigned largely unopposed since the end of the Cold War, is altering in slow but significant ways. What it is transitioning / transforming into, however, is hotly contested with a diverse spectrum of ideas and predictions dominating contemporary analyses. Some argue the US will remain the only superpower but in a more competitive geopolitical arena; others that China will dislodge the US as the new global hegemon in a re-organized system constructed to serve China’s interests; still others predict a system of multi-polarity, with many states alongside the US holding the power and influence to determine the global fate.

15D1_Magnet_Adam.jpgAlthough the U.S.-led international system has not eradicated intrastate violence and war, it has effectively abolished large-scale conflict amongst its most powerful entities. Whether and to what degree stability – defined as the absence of great power war – will continue to be preserved in this changing landscape is, at this point, uncertain. Such ambiguity is reflected in the unclear motivations within this emerging new international political architecture – the inherent complexity of which increases the possibilities of misunderstandings and unintended consequences. Besides the avoidance of system-debilitating conflict, how effective will the international community be in resolving and confronting challenges across numerous fields – climate change, terrorism, civil war and state collapse, economic and financial crises, cyber hacking and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – which threaten to degrade the system’s functionality and create a more zero-sum and conformational environment? Will stability be preserved amongst this noticeable, yet ill-defined, era of system alteration?

The End of Unipolarity
The dissolution of the Cold War ushered in a unique period in world history – the emergence of a single superpower (the United States). Dubbed the ‘Unipolar Moment’, this era has been defined by the power and influence by the U.S. to mold and effect system change over all other states. Rather than a universal approval of such a reality, the lack of a comprehensive challenger to American international leadership was more an acceptance that the disparity of power made opposing the U.S. impractical. Washington, for its part, continues to make significant investments in protecting the global commons – specifically the oceans permitting the expansion of seaborne commerce and trade. Furthermore, U.S. culture and consumerism have spanned the globe, influencing the mindsets and behaviours of populations around the world.

A major aspect of the American-built system has been the institutionalization of the global sphere, with its plethora of multi-lateral forums. For example, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), The United Nations (UN), and the World Bank are open to participation by many states that are in the process becoming rich and prosperous, most notably China. The U.S., however, is not a benign agent; it has built this inclusive system while simultaneously maintaining the capacity to deviate from it without others having to ability to stop them. There is a strong undercurrent in American foreign policy to build alliances within multi-lateral channels but this has not been necessary to achieve their objectives; the U.S. is the only state with the capability to project power globally and unilaterally, with massive ramifications to the entirety of the system.

This international system, which the U.S. has spent decades and significant sums of national resources to build, promote, and protect, is now altering in substantial ways and directly affects the ability of Washington to act unilaterally with the same level of success and regularity of the past two decades. The driving force behind such change is not the emergence of an obvious hegemonic competitor – though China is increasingly seen (inaccurately in my view) as assuming this role; instead, the changing nature and distribution of power and polarity is the larger and more diffuse process that is affecting the entire system.

Most analyses of power in international affairs focus on describing and comparing power resources between countries. Recently it was announced that China, in terms of Purchasing Power Parity, now has a larger economy than the U.S., but does this, in and of itself, imply that China is now more powerful than the US economically? While the figures may be disputed, they do not determine who is more ‘powerful’ for it does not take into consideration the arena within which such power resources can be employed, or the constraints and opportunities available. How do alterations of power among agents impact the environment in which they operate? While China may have the largest economy within the current system of increasing financial interdependence among regions and states, does this impact the degree to which Beijing can use such a power resource to affect change compared to other great powers within past economic regimes?

Power, instead, needs to be understood as a process and not a product. Power is the employment of power resources within strategies that compel, persuade, or entice others to assist in the achievement of interests and/or goals. In any analyses, therefore, it is critical to acknowledge and include the environment within which actors operate and engage with one another. Gross domestic product per capita, military budgets and weaponry, trade relations, and natural resources, are all important power chips as they indicate the general wealth and strength of a state across various fields of economic, political and social production. However, a simple cataloguing does not give clear insight into the success of a state in the achievement of its objectives. Questions of political will and domestic support also need to be captured in any such analyses as these directly impact actors’ willingness to consume power resources in the achievement of their interests. The unwillingness, for example, of the U.S. to employ ground forces in foreign conflicts after spending a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq in a combat role, restricts the ability of Washington to employ force in altering the internal dynamics of civil wars they wish to influence.

In its position of primacy, the U.S. has large pools of power resources across a number of domains. A large and combat-experienced military; a literate and educated populace; an economy specializing in a broad swath of scientific research, engineering and innovation; and large voting shares in international institutions like the World Bank, are but some of the power assets at Washington’s disposal to flex its influence and will throughout the system. But the foundational structure of this system is creating conditions for its continued change and resulting in the erosion of American dominance.

In particular, instead of aggressively containing potential future competitors (though such a strategy was briefly considered in the early 1990s against China), Washington has encouraged their participation in the international system in order to bind them towards system maintenance vice resistance and obstructionism. The U.S. has created a system that is easy to join and includes multiple pathways of reciprocal influence. It is also hard to overturn due to the complex interdependencies developing between its major actors. The presence of nuclear weapons and other system-debilitating assets also mitigate the possibility of conflict at the great power level. As a result, there is an ongoing augmentation of power resources by other states which have benefitted enormously from the U.S.-built system, including free riding off of Washington’s burden of securing the global commons. However, China, Russia and other emerging countries, while major benefactors, are becoming more interested in influencing the dynamics of the international system in order to dilute the continued preponderance, specifically militarily, of U.S. power within this system.

China, for example, after decades of following a strategy of focusing on internal economic growth and prosperity while maintaining a low and non-confrontational international posture, is becoming more vocal in its opposition to certain aspects of the international system. For decades, American power in East Asia was accepted by Beijing due to its influence on constraining certain detrimental actions by China’s neighbours – such as the acquiring of nuclear weapons by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Today, China is independently advocating reductions or outright removal of nuclear weapons from the region. American military power is increasingly being seen as more of a constraint than enabler to Beijing’s ­continued development and prosperity.

In Russia’s case, as recently demonstrated in the ongoing conflict in the Eastern Ukraine, Putin is using the selective employment of military force to directly alter the political orientation of neighbouring states to limit expansion of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization towards Russian borders.

India, with its complex relations with China, Russia and the US, is becoming concerned over these actors’ encroachment into the India Ocean and potential threats to New Delhi’s autonomist foreign policy. While the desire among such large states for growing influence in their immediate surroundings is not new, their emergent vocalism and in some instances outright opposition to America’s involvement in these regions is altering delicate balances.

A key product and influencing force on the changing nature of power is polarity, a term referring to the number of states whose interactions to a large degree will determine the nature and characteristics of the international system. Other actors, while still able to operate independently to a certain extent, are in competition to decide which one to gravitate towards in supporting and gaining access to their resources, power and protection. It is important to note that there is no set definition or measurement for how to classify how many poles populate a system but a number of distinct yet inter-related and dependent fields with differing levels of importance will impact those configurations. Economically, for example, the world has increasingly become multi-polar, with various states developing into robust and highly integrated members in the economic order, diminishing the percentage of world GDP the U.S. possesses. China, in particular, has become an indispensable state due to its massive manufacturing base as well as monetary reserves, and providing financial stability for U.S. consumerism, which heavily impacts the overall health and growth of the world economy in general. Militarily, while a handful of nuclear weapon states largely deter conflict at the great power level, the U.S. (with its technical and operational expertise in a variety of contexts and purpose, from war fighting to offshore balancing to constabulary duties) maintains a massive, but diminishing, superiority of conventional power.

While other states, such as China, Russia, and India are steadily increasing the quality and capability of their military forces, they do not at this time possess the technical, organizational and experience in their employment as compared to Washington’s. The variations within these fields, and the numerous linkages and inter-dependencies, challenge attempts to categorize and compare states in terms of power resources and their impact on one another and the system at large.

Transition / Transformation
The rise of other powers may push the international system towards a classic power transition. If so, will the result be a unipolar, bipolar, or multipolar order? Or is the more diffuse nature of power in general transforming the system entirely, challenging the utility of the concept of polarity in this new space where multiple state and non-state actors have the ability to degrade and disrupt the system? The answer to both is: yes.

On the largest scales pertaining to military, economic and ecological security, a small handful of states – the U.S., China, Russia, India and the EU – are absolutely essential. The world cannot successfully manage and mitigate consequences of crises in these fields without their involvement.

At the same time, however, power has become diffused throughout the system. Though still tightly regulated and controlled in many respects, the breakdown of state barriers, for movement of people, technology, finance, trade, and disease, has elevated the influence of non-state actors in impacting the system to a degree not seen since the state-based system was established. Multinational corporations, social groups and terrorist entities have demonstrated their ability, even unintentionally, of degrading or maintaining aspects of the contemporary order and stability. The 2008 international financial crises – the product of out-of-control investments by a handful of American investment banks – resulted in trillions of dollars of loses and millions of job loses globally, including 30 million in China alone. Though not the original intent of the architects and maintainers of the international system, changes in both power and polarity are a major influencing force on the system’s current and future composition.


Power transition in general is shifting from the West to rest of the world, specifically Asia. China is emerging as the closest in terms of a potential comprehensive challenge to U.S. hegemony, however, a number of massive internal challenges (the uncertain intentions of China’s rulers as their power and influence grows) make it premature to talk of a well-thought-out strategy of hegemonic challenge. Although “China” consumes the vast amount of American strategic thinkers’ attention, medium to long term projections (30-50 years) indicate there is a small but growing new class of ‘indispensable powers’ whose input and support is vital in the maintenance of security and prosperity of the international system. This does not imply that these states have or will acquire power resources and influence equal to one another, but their involvement will be necessary for system stability and functionality.

Divided But Still Stable
Institutions will continue to define the international system, but their inclusiveness and ability to achieve interest and action aggregation at large forums will be severely degraded. As more states come to the table of international decision-making, it will become increasingly difficult to produce results that satisfy them all. Climate change accords over the past half-decade have proven clear examples of these challenges, with watered-down resolutions produced in order to achieve unity among participants. The results expose the complicated and issue-specific nature of relations between the various states. China and India, for example, are strategically suspicious of one another but, in terms of international climate accords, are largely in line with one another against Western pressures.

Exercising greater freedom in choosing forums and groupings that satisfy their interests, states are arranging themselves more in regional or issue-specific networks than alliance-based groups. Countries in Southeast Asia, for example, are caught in an increasingly uncomfortable strategic environment amidst growing Chinese power and influence and Washington’s ‘Rebalance’ to adjust to such new realities while maintaining its position of dominance. Though China and the U.S. wish to diminish one another’s influence, Southeast Asian states are maintaining relations with both, and in some cases actively using the strategic competition between these two powers to their own benefit.

Unified and cohesive blocs led by a superpower commensurable to the West – which has similar political, economic and social structures, and a commonly held view of the international system among its members – will increasingly become a thing of the past. As the international system becomes increasingly defined by a diverse number of states with no particular affiliation or pressure to remain in one great power’s orbit or influence, they will use the plethora of multi-lateral forums available to best suit its interests. No state, furthermore, is offering a coherent, alternative geopolitical arrangement, nor offering the resources to build, maintain and protect such a system as this point. Despite pronouncements supporting multi-polarity, neither China nor Russia are presenting a comprehensive revisionist challenge to the US; their opposition and obstructionism strategically has augmented it, but they are not attempting to dislodge Washington as a global hegemon.

There are, however, increasing moves to develop institutions and networks specifically designed to exclude certain states and limit their influence – for example the new BRIC development bank vice the Western-dominated IMF and World Bank; the Eurasian Union vice the EU; and the Shanghai Cooperative Organization in Central Asia against American attempts to develop alliances in the region.

China and Russia, seen currently as the two greatest strategic challengers to the future of U.S. hegemony, are more concerned about achieving greater degrees of freedom of action in their immediate geographic environments vice a unified, collected, and well laid out challenge to American global leadership.

Assembling coherent and aligned blocs will be difficult, as the U.S. is experiencing in its continuing attempts to build consensus on the deteriorating situations in Iraq and Syria. Even supposed democratic allies like India, Brazil and South Africa are not reliable international partners for domestic influences as regional dynamics and other factors heavily impact their voting behaviour in institutions like the UN over issues such as human rights and climate change, usually to Washington’s disappointment. Such states have prospered under U.S. hegemony but are now calling for greater representation (though perhaps not responsibility) within international decision-making bodies. India is an interesting case in point. Long considered to be an ideal strategic ally to the U.S., due to mutual concerns regarding China, it is unclear if New Delhi would be willing to compromise on its long running autonomist-oriented foreign policy to become more aligned, and subservient, to American strategic cooperation.

Increasing pressures to be competitive at the strategic level will be a challenge, but certain realities will temper conflicts between them – most importantly the understanding that multiple states possess capabilities (nuclear, cyber, and financial in particular) that could be used with devastating effect to seriously degrade if not outright destroy the system.

Regional and international crises will increasingly require a large consensus-based approach to affect real and meaningful plans and interventions and will entail a tangled aligning of the interests of the many. Non-system-threatening conflicts that do not affect significant aspects, therefore, may remain unresolved due to an inability to overcome such gridlock, with Syria a current case in point.

For the preservation of stability the U.S. and emerging powers will have to fully accept the realities of a rising model of diffused power. The inability to achieve global interests singlehandedly or without the cooperation of a select few states must also be recognized and accepted.

The democratic and human rights agenda currently promoted by the U.S. (not assuming these in and of themselves are the only or the most important objective in American foreign policy) may give way to a more overt, realpolitik foreign policy based on finding common ground with states of varying regime types, foreign policy principles, and economic and social configurations. Geopolitical considerations have always been a dominate part of major states’ foreign policy calculus, however, in a more diverse and diffused world, it may take a more central role as the quest to find commonality becomes the main determination of its future stability.

Adam P. MacDonald is an independent academic based in Halifax, Canada. His work focuses on Canadian foreign policy.
© 2015 FrontLine Defence