International Relations: The Problem of Power

From the traditional standpoint, the problem of power is the control of the abuse of power, the curbing of that tendency in men of high station to degrade and oppress other men as they uncritically indulge their prejudices and pursue their conceived interests. It is often considered that it is a government that is the primary instrument of such oppression, the quest for the control of power has traditionally been the quest for a principle or a set of institutions by which governments might be restrained. In the era of globalization, the utility of military power for states lost its unique quality as a ‘fungible power’ and becomes a protective measure (for world order, global peace, and democratic institutions).

From the standpoint of the power that is restrained, to be sure, such an exercise of governmental power may appear to be an abuse; but this is not likely to be the judgment of the citizen who is thereby freed. Hence, the problem of power is reduced, in the real world, to the control of specific acts of particular powers. It is not one problem but many problems, for there is no one abuse of power; there are only abuses, various in form and often markedly different in degree (Art and Jervis 129). Now of such abuses, a necessary distinction must be drawn between those abuses associated with the acquisition of power and those resulting from the way in which that power, once acquired, is exercised. In the first instance, the fundamental abuse is the usurpation of the legal authority itself, the acquisition of power by unconstitutional or wrongful means. For instance, in the article “Taming American Power,” Stephen M. Walt underlines that locally generated conflicts, or at least some types of these conflicts, can have severe security implications for states friendly too, or allied with, the United States and by indirect means for the United States itself. For in such a society, a variety of power groups, both in and out of government, exercise their powers individually or in concert in such a way as to oppress some of the citizenries in some things at some times, and not necessarily to oppress all men (or even the citizens generally) in all things at all times. If this is so, the exercise of governmental power may, by restraining an economic or religious, or other nonpolitical power group, liberate an individual or group from the abuses to which he or they might otherwise be subjected (Art and Jervis, p. 128).

It is possible to say that the military power of the states has lost its quality as a ‘fungible power’ because of an increasing number of independent agents and international actors other than states. Terrorist groups and local political groups receive control over military resources and political power. “Noncooperation can thwart an aggressor, but it is very hard for a large number of people to cross the borer. Morocco’s recent march on the Spanish Sahara approach this tactic” (Art and Jervis, p. 196). Most drawn-out guerrilla wars have been sustained by some level of foreign support. There have been, and are, exceptions, however. With the exception of Iran and Libya, none of the other conflicts or coups outlined above have resulted in the long-term expulsion of U.S. diplomats or the rupture of political and economic relations with the United States. The Nicaraguan example, in particular, points to a second ramification arising out of contingencies that involve nonaligned states (Art and Jervis, p. 42). General indifference to many of the conflicts implies that a policy value judgment has been made: that these contingencies often provide no real threat to the interests of outside powers, notably the United States. To be sure, local contingencies in the Third World generally do not provide any direct or immediate threat to U.S. interests (Art and Jervis, p. 155).

Falling between these extremes, with extremity defined by the level of armed force committed in each case, are various forms of popular uprisings against a government as a power. Here a distinction might be made between the relatively swift overthrow of the government, notably coups and mass civilian revolts, and drawn-out guerrilla operations. Of the civilian revolts not directly involving the superpowers, by far the most serious for international stability was that which took place in Iran. The revolt against the shah clearly was locally inspired, though it was not immune from foreign encouragement (Art and Jervis, p.  33). Popular feeling against the shah was manifest in a wide array of “disparate groups, classes, and individuals.” The lead was taken by religious militants and university students, however, reflecting paramount concern with the perceived displacement of traditional Iranian and Shia values by imported American culture. The dethronement of the shah heralded a new military balance in the Gulf region, a redistribution of economic power among the OPEC states, and a major setback for Western influence in the Middle East (Art and Jervis, p. 238). Other revolts or coups in recent years have had a less disruptive effect internationally, though they have involved outside powers. In truth, there have been few recent violent changes in the Third World government that might be classified as purely domestically inspired. Such instability often can threaten states that are friendly too, or actually allies of, the United States. In addition to the Central American example, the most recently notable instance is that of Iran, whose revolution has underlined the precariousness of other friendly states in the region, specifically Saudi Arabia (Art and Jervis, p. 259).

For this purpose, political power is primary. It alone gives universality of control within the state, thereby enabling its holders to maximize the conditions for the pursuit (and presumably the satisfaction) of their interests. It also invests their acts with moral approbation, for when self-interest (and even, perhaps, prejudice) is translated into law, it somehow acquires-in a large sector of the public mind, at least-ethical sanction. One need not accept this customary identification of law with the right to recognize that law to most men is more than the expression of power; it is sanctioned and therefore legitimate power; it is the power that, when exercised, comes to be regarded as morally right (Art and Jervis, p. 455). As a result, political power has an importance that other forms of social power cannot override. This, however, is not to suggest that military power is consequently of little significance. In the first case, their efforts–if successful–take the form of laws; and to the extent that these may be oppressive, they are the oppressive acts of governments rather than of private powers. Following Kenneth N. Waltz’s “Globalization and Governance” more important, they also make any use of U.S. military power ambiguous before the fact, raising the possibility that in a crisis, the United States might choose to serve its ulterior motives rather than simply protect the guaranteed state or regime. Hence the Saudis’ often expressed fear that the United States might one day use its Rapid Deployment Force not just to preserve the country from external attack or internal turmoil but also, while there, to take control of the oilfields and thus resolve once and for all the insecurity in its current oil supply situation.

Loss of nuclear predominance has a great impact on the military power of the states. For instance, during the 1960s, the U.S. nuclear arsenal began to lose its ability to extend deterrence with atomic weapons to lower “conventional” levels of conflict. “What nuclear weapons had done, or appear to do, is promote a kind of warfare. Nuclear weapons threaten to make the war less military” (Art and Jervis, p. 177). Only with the Carter administration, however, did strategic perceptions and doctrine catch reality. Ex-tended deterrence through nuclear signaling, the bedrock of U.S. global management during the Cold War era, is an extinct concept. The gathering perception today is that atomic weapons can do no more than deter the initiation of their counterparts. The conflict and strife of this brave new world will eventually multiply its demands for U.S. intervention. In the past few years alone, the United States has become involved in several conflicts: in the Anglo-Argentine War, with weapons and reconnaissance; in Lebanon, with a leading contingent in a multinational force; in Chad, with advisers and reconnaissance in the immediate absence of the uncertain French; in Central America, with a spectrum of aid to stave off disaster.

In sum, the military power of the states becomes a political tool that helps both the states and other international actors to maintain global order and peace. Unilateral actions are anticipated in an era where military power prevents collective security beyond artificial norms. Those who command economic or other forms of nongovernmental power are in a position to influence and, under special circumstances, even to control the operations of political power. Where, as in a democracy, the state accords a considerable degree of freedom to nonpolitical associations, those associations can employ their powers to do directly what they might otherwise require the law to do.

Works Cited

Art, R.J., Jervis, R. International Politics: Enduring Concepts and Contemporary Issues. Longman, 2000.