July 21, 2012

How Power Works in the 21st Century

We live in stories.  That is, we are always in the process of trying to make sense of what is happening to us and around us.  That process drives us – to vote, to go into the street and fight for a nation, to make changes in how we consume, or to do none of the above.

Political leadership that understands that stories, perceptions, values, ideas, culture are present wherever there is human activity have a powerful tool for understanding what drives both change and apathy.

There is no name more firmly associated with linking political power and values and ideas than that of Joseph Nye. He coined the term soft power, which is power that stems from the intangible sources such as “institutions, ideas, values, culture …” as he explains in The Future of Power. 

Earlier this week, The Globalist published my article, How Power Really Works in the 21st Century: Beyond Soft, Hard and Smart. In it, I explain how, in a networked, information driven age, the power of symbols and ideas is always an important part of the strategic landscape. Nye’s insight that culture, ideas, perceptions, stories has been deeply assimilated into strategic thinking—a great tribute to him. But the insight has outgrown the categories that once described them.

Nye doesn’t agree with me. He tweeted earlier today (@Joe_Nye) that I don’t understand his intentions. Some agree with him,  but some don’t.

I’m not sure that Nye understands my intentions, so I’ll reiterate here:

  •  Ideas, values, culture and history are present in all expressions of national power.
  •  Ideas and values can attract others. They also repel, coerce, push and condemn.
  • Rigid and schematic categories inhibit us from creative thinking we desperately need to solve the truly complex problems before us.  They keep us focused on upholding the purity of the categories instead of aiming us toward deeper investigation of role of symbols and ideas in our information driven, networked world. I put it this way in the article:

Categories are the conceptual equivalent of labeled storage boxes. What we call the category tells us what is inside the box. Categories usefully organize concepts for us, but in creating such an order they also limit our ability to see new connections between ideas.

As long as defense and economic diplomacy remain in a box labeled “hard power,” we fail to see how much their success relies on their symbolic effects as well as their material ones. As long as diplomatic and cultural efforts are stored in a box marked “soft power,” we fail to see the ways in which they can be used coercively or produce effects that are like those produced by violence.

To address the hard problems that confront us globally, we should resist the temptation to put exercises of power into any pre-labeled boxes. Before asking what to call them, we should figure out what they can achieve and under what circumstances.

Also of interest:


0 thoughts on “How Power Works in the 21st Century

  1. I like your argument…but then how do you classify the so-called pre-labelled boxes of exercises of power. What is your essential manner to compartmentalise facets of national Power. Physics has dominated our discourse of first dividing a whole into parts…studying their effects and then putting together all these effects and then create a framework. Whats your hypotheses then in measuring efficacy of national power?

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