The Age of Economic Deterrence

The Age of Economic Deterrence

There is no popular or expert consensus about which actors possess economic power in the 21st century. Public uncertainty is reflected in the April 2010 Pew Global Attitudes survey, which reveals interesting cross-country discontinuities in the perception of power. When asked to identify "the world's leading economic power," a majority of respondents in a diverse array of developing countries -- including Brazil and India -- name the United States. On the other hand, in the developed world, the results look dramatically different, with strong pluralities in five of the original G-7 economies -- including the United States, Japan and Germany -- naming China as the world's leading economic power. In other words, the developing world still largely believes that the United States has retained its economic hegemony, while the developed world thinks that primacy has shifted to China. In the absence of an undisputed hegemon, contemporary debates about economic power reveal the ways in which the concept remains murky for political scientists.

The question of how to define power in political science stretches back to the very origins of the field, and it continues to animate international relations scholars. This literature started with a very narrow, coercive definition: Power is the ability of actor A to get actor B to do what B would otherwise not want to do. The power literature has since expanded beyond a focus on coercive action to consider the ways in which power can affect the preferences and assumptions of other actors. Joseph Nye's concept of "soft power," for example, focuses on how actor A can get actor B to want what actor A wants. Recent scholarship has also considered the power of discourse to socially construct common worldviews among actors.

Most of these treatments overlook a crucial dimension of economic power: whether the actor in question is trying to preserve or change the status quo. Economic power affects statecraft through two theoretical pathways: deterrence and compellence. In a deterrence scenario, countries use their economic resources to resist pressure from actors or market forces. In a compellence scenario, a powerful government threatens to use either economic statecraft to extract concessions from other actors or market power to alter the rules of the global game. Deterring economic pressure by others is different than applying such pressure, via the stick or the carrot, to others. As with military force, it is generally easier to defend than attack. Only after an actor has the ability to resist pressure from others will it contemplate generating pressure on others. Countries possessing sufficient reservoirs of economic power should therefore have both greater autonomy of action and be better placed to apply pressure on other actors.

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