The Power Continuum

     As the status quo is quoing along steadily just now, I thought I might resurrect an earlier Fran and write about one of my earlier areas of inquiry: power as exercised in the anarchic world of the “international order.”

     Commentators on geopolitics often refer to the distinctions between “hard” and “soft” power. Mostly, they mean the same thing by those terms, and mostly, the distinctions they draw are valid. But there’s more to the subject than a dichotomy between “hard” and “soft” can express. Current events in Europe provide us with some illuminating examples.


     Before we plunge into those considerations, allow me to quote from the Foreword of my novel Freedom’s Scion:

     Other prominent science fiction writers have delved into the possibilities of a society that’s resolved that there shall be no State. However, none of the ones with which I’m familiar address the sociodynamics of such a society: the forces that would shape its development, with special emphasis on those that would tend to tear it from its founding premise. For me, that’s the really fascinating thing about anarchism. You see, it’s been tried, with varying degrees of longevity and success, many times in the history of Man. Yet there are no anarchic societies left on Earth as I write this foreword.
     Well, except for one: the whole of the human race.
     The States of Earth exist in an anarchic relation to one another. Each has its own regional code of law, which might differ markedly from all the others. Despite several thrusts at the matter over the centuries, there is no “super-State” to enforce a uniform code of law over them all. More, they view one another as competitors in many different areas; their populations and institutions are often in sharp economic competition with one another. Thus, they are often at odds. They resolve important disputes among them through negotiation or warfare.
     Yet individuals manage to move among them with a fair degree of facility and (usually) little risk. Cross-border trade is commonplace, in some places torrential. Though wars are frequent, they seldom result in major alterations to the overall political pattern. The uber-anarchy of Terrestrial society exhibits more stability than one would expect from two hundred well armed, quarrelsome States, each of which perpetually schemes at snatching some advantage at another’s expense.

     The central truth here is that in the absence of a supreme authority with enough practical power to enforce its decrees upon elements subordinate to it, what we have is an anarchic order. The United Nations, regardless of the beliefs of its boosters, cannot and does not qualify for the position. If a “super-State” that exercises hegemony over the whole world should ever emerge, it’s unlikely to resemble the UN. (It’s also unlikely to be well disposed toward freedom.)

     States use coercive power to get what they want. It’s their sole effective method, for they produce nothing anyone would voluntarily purchase. Just as States coerce their subjects, they will attempt to coerce one another, though their abilities and means will vary. And of course when one State attempts to coerce another, there might be a retaliation: something a national government doesn’t expect from the individuals and associations beneath it.


     “Hard” power is probably the one upon which there is the widest agreement. The consensus is that it consists of military power: the ability to inflict damage upon a target by direct means. As that’s what militaries are designed to do, to equate a State’s “hard” power with its military capabilities follows naturally.

     However, there is a good argument that other kinds of “hard,” or perhaps “firm,” power exist: that is, putatively non-military means by which an opponent can be threatened with severe damage. We’re seeing an example of such a means now, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin attempts to impose his will upon Germany and other States by threatening to withhold the natural gas upon which Europeans have become dependent.

     Putin hasn’t threatened a military assault upon Germany. There’s no reason to think Russia’s armed forces will move on Germany with intent to “kill people and break things.” But the loss of access to Russian-supplied natural gas could topple Germany’s economy, to say nothing of how many Germans would be impoverished or frozen out of their homes. The specter of that sort of damage weighs almost as heavily on the German government as would the prospect of an armed assault.

     A little way further down the power spectrum, we find Putin’s decree that henceforward, Russia will accept only payment in rubles for its oil and gas. This implies that prospective purchasers of oil or gas must first acquire rubles. There are international currency exchanges for such things. Also, any government or company that sells to Russia can acquire rubles that way as well. But the exchange rates are largely determined by the actions of governments through the manipulations of their own currencies. This thrust at the world’s previously agreed “reserve currency” – the U.S. dollar – presses European would-be purchasers of Russian oil and gas indirectly but significantly. The funds they have available for international trade are nearly all denominated in dollars, and the dollar is weakening rapidly. That elevates the value of the ruble, a considerable advantage to Russian importers.

     Still further down the spectrum are flexible and renegotiable trade and travel agreements between nations. Tariffs, import and export limitations, “most favored nation” status, and imposts and excises can all be used to bias flows of trade. So also can restrictions on who and what may cross certain borders. These tools are often employed in international negotiations, especially when a change to one can significantly affect an important industry in another. It’s a “spongy” sort of power, but its effect is not ignored by the international bourse.

     At the “softest” end of the spectrum come measures designed to influence world opinion: favorable and unfavorable statements by statesmen; media coverage of developments slanted for particular effects; arrangements for conferences, public events, and “visits of state;” and the granting or withholding of visas to the citizens of specific nations. Though these seemingly inflict no harm on their targets, they are sometimes effective in changing the behavior of one State toward another. Consider the media tumult that arose when it was discovered that China, Brazil, India, and South Africa had deliberately tried to evade having Barack Obama meet with them after a Copenhagen conference on “global warming:”

     The Copenhagen conference was a lesson in power and humility. The countries in the BASIC bloc demonstrated that the United States lacks the leverage necessary to convince them to make decisions that work against their national interests. And Mr. Obama is learning the uncomfortable lesson that there are limits to what his personal charisma can achieve.

     Mr. Obama did make history at Copenhagen, but not in the way he expected. It says a great deal about American power and prestige when international leaders go to so much trouble to avoid meeting with the president of the United States. The American Century is over.

     While that snub didn’t directly alter a single dollar of trade flow among any of the nations involved, it certainly affected the attitudes of those who saw America’s president have to force his way in where he wasn’t wanted.


     A stroke taken anywhere along the power continuum implies the possibility of escalation, if the active State has power resources beyond what its government has already employed. It’s well for a government to be aware of other States’ possibilities whenever its strategists are planning something that might upset one or more of them. The awareness should include knowing whether and which other States might join the contretemps, for States sometimes have more powerful allies that will act in their stead. That has been one of the most important assets of small and militarily weak States, historically. It continues to be important today. However, as the “great powers” of the century behind us wane – and all of them are doing so – their “client” states will find themselves rethinking their stances on such matters as military budgets and military readiness.