Power In the 21st Century
The diffusion of power in the 21st century from states to nonstate actors has left more and more things outside the control of even the most powerful states. To accomplish their goals, states must do better at leveraging their smart power, which combines the hard power of coercion and payment with the soft power of persuasion and attraction. Doing so will often require wielding power with others rather than over them.
What will it mean to wield power in the global information age of the 21st century? What resources will produce power? In the 16th century, control of colonies and gold bullion gave Spain the edge; 17th-century Netherlands profited from trade and finance; 18th-century France used its larger population and armies to gain advantage; while 19th-century British power rested on its primacy in the industrial revolution and its navy. Conventional wisdom has always held that the state with the largest military prevails, but in an information age it may also be the state—or nonstate actor—with the best story that wins.
Today, it is far from clear how we measure a balance of power, much less how to develop successful strategies to survive in this new world. Many current projections of a shift in the global balance of power—favoring China over the United States, for example—are based primarily on one factor: projections of growth in the gross national product. They ignore the military and soft dimensions of power, not to mention the difficulties of combining military, economic and soft power into successful strategies.[ SPECIAL OFFER: Get your FREE copy of our in-depth report on Resilience in the Face of the Coronavirus Pandemic. ]
Power is the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes that one wants, and it can be exercised in three major ways: threats of coercion, or "sticks"; payments, or "carrots"; and getting others to want what you want by attraction and persuasion. The first two behaviors are components of hard power. Soft power is the ability to obtain preferred outcomes without coercion or payment.
Smart power consists of combining the hard power of coercion and payment with the soft power of persuasion and attraction in order to pursue successful strategies. Soft power is not the solution to all problems, but it can amplify or undercut hard power depending upon circumstances and use, as I develop and explain in my new book, "The Future of Power."
For example, the Pentagon is the best-trained and best-resourced arm of the American government, but there are limits to what hard power can achieve on its own. Promoting democracy, human rights and development of civil society are not best handled with the barrel of a gun. It is true that the American military has an impressive operational capacity, but the practice of turning to the Pentagon because it can get things done can create a narrative of an overly militarized foreign policy. If one looks at recent events in Egypt, the hard power of assistance to the Egyptian military was important for American influence, but equally important was the narrative of supporting the orderly transition to democracy that attracted the demonstrators in Tahrir Square.
Three Contexts of Power
Power always depends on context. The child who dominates on the playground may become a laggard when the recess bell rings and the context changes to a well-ordered classroom. In the middle of the 20th century, Josef Stalin scornfully asked how many divisions the pope had. But five decades later the papacy was still intact, while Stalin's empire had collapsed, its military might powerless in the context of ideas.
The problem of American power in the 21st century is not one of decline, but a realization that even the largest country cannot achieve its aims without the help of others.
Today, power in the world is distributed in a pattern that resembles a complex three-dimensional chess game. On the top chessboard, military power is largely unipolar, and the United States is likely to maintain its supremacy for some time. But on the middle chessboard, economic power has been multipolar for more than a decade, with the U.S., Europe, Japan, and China as the major players, and others gaining in importance. This is the context in which Europe, whose economy is larger than America's, can act as a unified entity.
The bottom chessboard is the realm of transnational relations that cross borders outside of government control, and it includes nonstate actors as diverse as bankers electronically transferring sums larger than most national budgets at one extreme, and terrorists moving weapons and hackers threatening cybersecurity at the other. It also includes new impersonal processes like pandemics and climate change. On the bottom board, power is widely diffused, and it makes no sense to speak of unipolarity, multipolarity or hegemony. It is a categorical mistake to transfer such terms from the boards of interstate relations to the board of transnational relations. And it is also important to remember that players who focus on one board alone eventually lose in three-dimensional chess.
The rapid technological change of the information revolution continues to drive globalization, but its political effects are quite different for the world of nation-states and that of nonstate actors. In interstate politics, the most important shift in this century will be the continuing "return of Asia." In 1750, Asia had roughly three-fifths of the world population and was responsible for three-fifths of the world's product. By 1900, after the industrial revolution in Europe and America, Asia's share of global production shrank to one-fifth. By the middle of the 21st century, Asia will be well on its way back to its historical share. The "rise" in power of China and India may create instability, but that is a problem with precedents, and we can learn from history about how our policies can affect the outcome. A century ago, Britain managed the rise of American power without conflict, but the world's failure to manage the rise of German power led to two devastating world wars in the 20th century.
Meanwhile, in transnational politics—the bottom chessboard—the information revolution is dramatically reducing the costs of computing and communication. For example, 40 years ago, instantaneous global communication was possible but costly, and restricted to governments and corporations. Today it is available to anyone with the means to enter an Internet café, and with Skype it is free. As a result, the barriers to entry into world politics have been lowered, and nonstate actors now crowd the stage. In 2001, a nonstate group killed more Americans than the government of Japan killed at Pearl Harbor. That might be called the privatization of war. A pandemic spread by birds or travelers on jet aircraft could conceivably kill more people than perished in World War I or II. And increasingly, power will be exercised in the diffuse domain of cyber interactions, where the very identity of an attacker is often ambiguous. This is a new world politics with which we have less experience.
The problem for all states in the 21st century is that the diffusion of power from states to nonstate actors leaves more and more things outside the control of even the most powerful states. Although the United States maintains a historically unprecedented military capability, there is increasingly more going on in the world that its military instrument cannot effectively address. Similarly, under the influence of the information revolution and globalization, world politics is changing in a way that means Americans cannot achieve all their international goals acting alone. For example, international financial stability is vital to Americans' prosperity, but the United States needs the cooperation of others to ensure it. Global climate change, too, will affect Americans' quality of life, but the United States cannot manage the problem alone. And in a world where borders are becoming more porous than ever to everything from drugs to infectious diseases to cyberterrorism, nations must mobilize international coalitions and build institutions to address shared threats and challenges.
In this sense, power becomes a positive-sum game. It is not enough to think only in terms of power over others. One must also think in terms of power to accomplish goals, which involves power with others. On many transnational issues, empowering others can help us to accomplish our own goals. In this world, the ability to construct and manage networks and connectedness becomes an important source of relevant power.
In such a world, contextual intelligence will become a crucial skill in enabling leaders to convert power resources into successful strategies. We will need such contextual intelligence if we are to understand that the problem of American power in the 21st century is not one of decline, but a realization that even the largest country cannot achieve its aims without the help of others. That will require a deeper understanding of power, both hard and soft, and how it is changing in order to construct smart power strategies.
Joseph S. Nye, Jr., is University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard University and author of "The Future of Power."[ SPECIAL OFFER: Get your FREE copy of our in-depth report on Resilience in the Face of the Coronavirus Pandemic. ]