The Changing Nature of World Power by Joseph S. Nye, Jr. — A Summary

Title: The Changing Nature of World Power
Author: Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
Publication: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 105, No. 2 (1990)


Power is the ability to achieve one’s goals or purposes. If we accept Robert  Dahl’s definition — that power is the ability to get others to do what they otherwise would not do — it is also imperative that we know their preferences. The problem is that such knowledge is never forthcoming.

Power could be defined in terms of resources. While this appears more concrete, measurable and predictable, bluff and deception cause miscalculations. And even if there is no deception, predicting the relevance of resources in future situations are extremely difficult.

The differential ability to convert potential power into realized power may render absolute resource figures useless. Also, different contexts favour different resources as measures of power. Determining which resource is applicable becomes important.

The arrival of rail networks — industry has historically lent its hand to warfare — changed military tactics and, for those who exploited it, fortunes.  Science and technology to this day, perhaps more than ever, remains critical in warfare.

The Changing Sources of Power

Technology, education, and economic growth are becoming the new determinants of power with considerations of relative costs with bargaining being especially important.

Despite its decline, however, military strength has hardly become irrelevant. In an anarchic system, the use of military force can never be ruled out. The threat of use of force (for aggression or protection) remains a potent political bargaining tool.

There is also the rise of co-optive power (soft power) which dispenses with the carrot-and-stick method and instead structures the preferences of others. Soft sources of power like culture, ideology and institutions are becoming increasingly important in the present day.

If a state can make its power legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes. If its culture and ideology are attractive, they will more willingly follow. If it can establish international norms that are consistent with its society, it will be less likely to have to change. If it can help support institutions that encourage other states to channel or limit their activities in ways the dominant state prefers, it may not need as many costly exercises of coercive or hard power in bargaining situations. In short, the universalism of a country's culture and its ability to establish a set of favorable rules and institutions that govern areas of international activity are critical sources of power

Leading States and Major Power Resources

Power sources are always changing and the new millennium envisages greater roles for cultural, informational and institutional power but military force and economic scale will continue to remain important.

Balance of Power

Balance of Power assumes an anarchic system and a desire for preservation of (or at least reduction of risks to) the independence of states and predicts that states will align themselves such that it is impossible for any one state to acquire a preponderance of power.

As a predictive theory, it is difficult to justify. In addition to traditional elements of power like military might and economic wealth, factors like proximity, perceptions of threat, geography, psychology or even ideology affect the way states construct alliances. Bandwagoning defies balance of power’s prediction of power maximization.

The major issues in world politics arise from inequalities in the distribution of power and from major changes to this unequal distribution.

Hegemony in Modern History

Even distribution of power among major states is a rare phenomenon. Uneven processes of growth lead to the emergence and eventual decline of preponderant states. Theories of hegemony and power transition try to explain these major power shifts.

Hegemony is a situation in which one state possesses considerably more power than others. However, the use of the term has been impaired by disagreement on what type or types of power constitute it and confusion regarding the degree of power inequality that warrants its use.

Two questions arise from this. First, what types of power resources are necessary to produce hegemonic control? Second, what is the scope of the hegemon’s control?

Theories of Hegemonic Transition and Stability

Generally, concerns regarding hegemony have been focussed on military power and the expansionist tendencies of a dominant power. E.g., Louis XIV, Napoleon and Hitler. Hegemony of this type has succeeded but only for very brief periods.

Modern Efforts at Military Hegemony

Recently, the focus has shifted to economic power whether it is in terms of control over raw materials, sources of capital, markets and production of goods or the capability to set the rules and arrangements for the global economy. E.g., Britain and then America in succession after the Industrial Revolution.

I argue, however, that the theory of hegemonic stability and transition will not tell us as much about the future of the United States. Theorists of hegemonic stability generally fail to spell out the causal connections between military and economic power and hegemony.

The neo-Marxists view hegemony as that situation in which power is so unbalanced that one power simultaneously finds itself at an advantage in agro-industrial production, commerce, and finance and when other major powers become de-facto clients. E.g., Netherlands during the 30-Years War, Britain after the Treaty of Vienna and the US after World War II.

A Neo-Marxist View of History

The neo-Marxist view of hegemony is unconvincing and a poor predictor of future events because it superficially links military and economic hegemony and has many loose ends.

There has also been an attempt to organize past periods of hegemony into century-long cycles in world leadership. A cycle begins with a major global war from which a state emerges as a world power that legitimises its position through favourable post-war peace treaties. The new leader provides security and order for the international system. In time, it loses its legitimacy and its declines lead to another war from which another leader emerges.

Long Cycles of World Leadership

In linking economic and political cycles, these theorists become enmeshed in the controversy surrounding long cycle theory. Many economists are skeptical about the empirical evidence for alleged long economic waves and about dating historical waves by those who use the concept.

Vague definitions and arbitrary schematizations alert us to the inadequacies of such grand theories of hegemony and decline. Most theorists of hegemonic transition tend to shape history to their own theories by focusing on particular power resources and ignoring others.

Loose historical analogies about the decline and falsely deterministic political theories are not merely academic: they may lead to inappropriate policies. The real problems of a post-cold-war world will not be new challenges for hegemony, but the new challenges of transnational interdependence.


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