Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Power Up

. Wednesday, February 9, 2011

I haven't posted anything in-depth the past few days because I've been busy with real work, and also because my blogging time quota has been dedicated to the comments to this post from John Quiggin (in response to this post by me, which was in response to his comments on my first retort -- and Phil Arena's "Amen" -- to this post by Quiggin), where I've spilt several thousand words at least. I've said a lot in there, much too much to summarize simply, but I think/hope it aggregates into something coherent. Probably the closest thing to "my overall view of the world" that I've put down. So, um, if you're interested in that you can plow through those lengthy comments to see if I've made any sense. And the argument is ongoing, although it seems to be dying down, so if you want to chime in please do. This is how I learn.

Anyway, at long last (in blogotime) Drezner weighed in with a sanity post, as I hoped and expected he would. And, in typical fashion, he expropriated the only marketable bit from the argument -- the title "The End of Power" -- but also spoke some sense.

While I was obsessing about Egypt last week, I see that John Quiggin, William Winecoff and others have been having a rollicking debate about the status of American hegemony, the fungibility of military power, and Boeing/Airbus subsidies. OK, that last one is less interesting, but I strongly encourage readers to go through the comment thread to that blog post. [KW: Yes! Please do! That way it'll seem like I didn't waste a bunch of time on the internet]

Drezner quotes a representative bit of Quiggin in which he (Quiggin) completely misunderstands how power works::

There's something missing from this debate that is worth raising, however -- a proper definition of power. For example, in his first post, Quiggin noted that "[advanced industrialized countries] might be said to have declined in relative terms. But this doesn’t seem to me to constitute 'decline' in any important sense." This is heresy to an international relations scholar, in that power is viewed as a zero-sum commodity.

This cheesed off Winecoff and others into pointing out the myriad ways in which the U.S. power profile is a) still outsized; and b) largely shaped the current global order we live in; and c) allowed entities like the EU to focus on welfare maximization rather than security.

I actually think Drezner got the [] in the quote wrong. It was pretty clearly referring to the US in particular, and not advanced industrialized countries generally. Anyway, It didn't cheese me off so much as make me wonder how a cosmopolitan social scientist with interests in social science generally and political economy specifically has such a strange view of power and influence.

I had put it this way:

[A] decline in relative terms is exactly what most people mean when they talk about the rise or decline of states. There's a storied IR debate about whether states are concerned about absolute or relative gains (or both), but basically everyone agrees that when we're talking about power and influence -- as opposed to, say, affluence -- relative differentials is what is important. So Quiggin is not only wrong here, he's got it perfectly backwards.

Drezner agrees, and helpfully goes on to talk about the different between compellence power and deterrence power:

[I]t is useful to think about the power to deter change from the status quo vs, the power to compel change in the status quo. In a deterrence scenario, countries use their capabilities to ward off pressure from other actors, or from structural pressures. In a compellence scenario, a powerful government threatens to use statecraft to extract concessions from other actors, or use power to alter the rules of the global game.

This is helpful in one sense, but obfuscates in another. It's helpful because it is definitely true that capabilities in one sphere does not necessarily imply capabilities in the other. It's also helpful because it can help separate which dynamics are present in which contexts. "Power" is a somewhat clumsy concept -- notoriously so, in academic IR -- so adding precision and context is good and right.

On the other hand, I think it gives Quiggin an out that he doesn't deserve. His point, generally, is that the US's power has already valleyed out, full stop. I think every IR person that has read that argument has completely disagreed, but that's to miss an even more fundamental point: The status quo is the US's ideal point, or relatively close to it. Even if US power has declined, at least at once it was the predominate power, capable of shaping the global order to a substantial (but not infinite) way. If deterrence/compellence is defined relative to the status quo, and the status quo predominately reflects the interests of one particular state, and that state has greater deterrence capabilities than any other state, then... you can finish the sentence. Compellence power isn't even needed, only deterrence power is.

FWIW, I believe the US has greater compellence power than any other state as well, even after some relative decline (this is the Drezner position too, I think, as well as nearly all of the IR profession), but that's almost irrelevant. Once a great power becomes a status quo power, it takes extreme, out-sized compellence powers by another state to change the system. Like, say, winning a World War, and then a Cold War in succession. That clearly hasn't happened yet. Or, as Drezner put it:

[N]either U.S. deterrent power nor other countries' compellence power has changed all that much, even in the economic realm. The rest of the G-20 can scream as loud as they want, but quantitative easing is going to continue. China has tried to find ways to use its newly found financial muscle to force changes in the international system, to little avail. To be sure, Russia, China and others can compel countries on their immediate periphery, but even a glance at the 2008 Russian-Georgian war suggests that even modest efforts like these are expensive and messy.

Right, but the important fact is that the US is the status quo power. China and Russia aren't. And the US has been able to repel Russian and Chinese (and French and Brazilian, etc.) efforts to revise the system with ease. As in, it hasn't even been a conversation worth dwelling on.

Drezner calls this the "extinction of compellence power as we know it". I don't think so. I think it's a combination of a few things.

1. The overestimation of the US's compellence capabilities previously. It's frequently said that the limits of the US's power in the 21st century is demonstrated by the difficulty in pacifying Iraq and Afghanistan. But the US couldn't pacify Korea in the 1950s (when it was unquestionably the only global power), nor Vietnam in the 1960s-70s. In other words, a better lesson is that the capability to remove a regime is not the same as the power to reconstitute society in the wake. Power is always limited, even for the most powerful state. The US experience in Iraq is actually much better than the experience in Vietnam.

2. Selection bias. Drezner should be susceptible to this argument, since one of his best-known articles focused on the importance of unobserved events. Well, the lack of challenges (or feeble "challenges" that are mostly signaling to domestic audiences) to the order initiated by the US is evidence of the US' compellence power, just by way of carrots rather than sticks. Integration into the US's order gets you rich (Japan, Germany, China, etc.), segregation from it makes you poor (N. Korea, Cuba, etc.). This is the Ikenberry argument, although he never puts it quite that way.

I could go on, but this is long as it is, esp when combined with my previous posts and comments at Crooked Timber. But if something isn't making sense (this seems to happen a lot when non-IR people read what I write) I'd be happy to revise/revisit my claims.


Morgenthau said...

I'm with you on this one. Quiggin and others remind of the story of the blind men touching an elefant to learn what it is like and each one feeling a different, but only one part. Let's call it a "partial equilibrium" perspective.

Below my response to Drezner's post.

Debates about power are often excruciatingly confusing. The current one in the blogosphere is no different.

Drezner argues that we may be witnessing "the extinction of compellence power as we know it". It's a beguiling idea. But in fact it's based on a flawed understanding of the concept of power. With a proper understanding, it can be showed that, in many ways, the current international system is characterized by the pinnacle of power.

Any serious discussion about power should start with the distinction between resources and influence. Resources represent the foundation of influence. States use material and cultural resources to achieve their goals. The main types of material resources are economic strength and military might ("hard power"). Other material resources such as the size of population or technological capacity are covered by the economic strength. The main categories of cultural resources instead are propaganda and ideological influence. States use propaganda to promote a better image of themselves, thereby inducing policy changes in other states "on the cheap". States also use ideological influence to set the agenda and to shape the narratives in various international institutions.

With regard to resources, the current international system is unambiguously unipolar. Since the end of the Cold War, only one country has been enjoying global pre-eminence, and that is the United States. The preponderance of US power, which has no precedence in modern history, is unmatched. The US spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined. The staggering US military capacity is magnified by the so-called "command of the commons", that is, the military dominance over sea, air and space. Even more significant is the emerging US nuclear primacy. The sustained growth in its nuclear capabilities has put the US in a position from which it now can destroy the nuclear retaliatory capabilities of its adversaries (i.e. China and Russia) in a disarming strike.

Everyone with even a cursory interest in history knows that, in the potentially dangerous realm of international politics, military resources represent the major source of security and influence abroad. This insight still holds today. The US commands such a large share of global military resources that it's almost ridiculous to start making comparisons with other great powers today. Drezner probably has been reading a few chapters of Schelling's "Arms and Influence", that's why he seems so eager to use the distinction between deterrence and compellence these days. Even by framing the debate about power in terms of deterrence/compellence, it's obvious that the US still has formidable military capacity, both to deter and to compel. Drezner argues that the main tools of compellence require "a willingness to kill, jail or starve a lot of people". If Drezner has been following the Iraq War or what happened at Guantanamo Bay, just to make a few examples, he shouldn't have doubts about the US ability to compel. If Drezner has been reading Schelling carefully, he should know that military capacities are most useful when they are not used. As Schelling puts it, it's the "latent violence", the ability to hurt and inflict pain, that really matters.

Morgenthau said...

It should now be obvious that the US has no peer rival when it comes to deter and to compel in the military realm. If the US really wanted, it could do some serious damage. All other countries in the world are aware of this fact, and that's what matters. In other words, the US is at the pinnacle of power.

So when people worry about the decline in US influence, they refer to something that occurs in realms other than the military one. And the irony is that, even in those areas of international relations, the US influence hasn't been bigger, both in terms of deterrence and compellence. It may be true that "the marginal product" of US influence is declining these days, but the fact remains that, in absolute terms, the US influence is staggering. Indeed, what happens in core areas of international politics largely reflects US interests.

Take for example trade. Some people point to the inability to conclude the Doha Round as a sign of decline in US influence. But they don't realize that the US is less dependent on trade than most other countries. Being the biggest economy and the largest market in the world gives enormous bargaining power. In addition, the international trading system, despite having integrated the former Communist world and big emerging countries like China and India, still largely reflects US interests. India and Brazil have gained more strength and can veto decisions at the WTO? So what? They, not the US, depend more on trade.

Another apparent sign of waning US influence is supposed to be the US inability to gets its way on the issue of climate change. In my view, some perspective is useful. Just imagine telling to war-weary statesmen like Churchill and de Gaulle that climate change is an important issue. If they are in a good mood, they probably would tell you that it's "low politics". For them, what really mattered was security and stability ("high politics"). Climate change gets attention only when basic needs such as security and stability are adequately satisfied.

Morgenthau said...

Some people also point out the US inability to get China to revalue its currency. But the fundamental reality is that, from Washington's point of view, the issue of the undervalued renminbi is largely a distraction. The large current account imbalance of the US is due to its own low savings rate. Instead, the value of China's exchange rate has little, if any, impact on US current account deficit. And getting its savings rate to increase is something that the US can achieve on its own, for example with tax measures. Some people might argue that the US needs China to finance its huge amount of debt. But that, too, is largely a myth. If China holds a big amount of US debt and dollar-denominated assets, then it's China that it's in a trap. The US can reduce the amount of its foreign debt by devaluing its currency. With Quantitative Easing II, the US is simply showing that it still enjoys an "exorbitant privilege". Some people might retort that the China might start reducing its exposure to US debt. But I would say, so what? As long as the US enjoys fiscal credibility and has the most liquid and deep capital markets, the US will always find people willing to buy US government debt.

One more example to show that the US still has formidable power to both deter and compel. Today, the hottest issue in international politics is Iran's nuclear program. Most people interpret Iran's defiance as a sign of decline of US influence. But in the last two years the US has showed its power to compel by putting together the toughest sanctions package, killing some of the major Iranian nuclear scientists and destroying a significant part of Iran's nuclear program by launching a cyber attack (the "Stuxnet" virus launched from Israel's nuclear complex at Dimona). If all these actions are not covered by the term "compellence", then we probably need another term.

In sum, the US still commands a huge share of resources that it can use to both deter and compel. The apparent decline in US compellence capacity is just a myth. The latent US power is still formidable and will remain so for a long time to come.


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