NATIONAL POWER IN THE 21ST CENTURY

Canberra, 24 July 2012


All nations aspire to power. However, a variety of reasons constrain most nations from achieving their desired level of power and its effective employment. In fact there are only a handful of nations that can claim to having the necessary level of power and all its trappings and more importantly, possessing the ability to employ such power in the pursuit of national interests. This is the current global geo-strategic reality. In this situation a number of questions come to the fore. What defines national power in the 21st century? Is it fundamentally different to the perception of national power in the pre- and post-World War II era? If it is, then what has changed and why? These are complex questions and without direct or simple answers. Even so they need to be examined and answered because the answers to these questions impinge on the foundational stability of the global order—an order defined by the inherent power resident in nations, the comparative balance of power between nations, and the ability, willingness and proclivity of individual nations to employ their inherent power to further national interests.


In the past few years a great deal of discussion has taken place regarding the failure of the international society to have built a non-violent global future after the end of the Cold War. It is still being lamented that a non-violent international environment, which was an extremely optimistic view that took root in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, failed to materialise. The reasons are many and multifarious. However, the primary reason needs explanation. A fundamental characteristic of all nations is their ambition to exercise their resident power in order to manipulate the environment and expand their individual spheres of influence. During the Cold War, the two competing Super Powers exerted sufficient authority over their respective satellite nations and spheres of influence to hold this tendency in check, to a great degree. The almost sudden transformation of the world into a unipolar entity, combined with the sanguine attitude adopted by the United States to its placement as the preeminent world power, made it possible for smaller nations to initiate actions to further their perceived or actual national interests without fear of any large-scale repercussions. Further, ethnic and religious tensions that existed within and between sovereign nations, so far held in check through a variety of means including the use of force, came to be overtly articulated. This situation, in combination with the belief of even small nations that their national power would be sufficient to achieve their objectives, resulted in the eruption of small and large conflicts—inter-state as well as civil—in different parts of the world, with all the challenges that conflicts bring to the regions in which they are being fought. Combine the spill over of challenges to neighbouring countries that always accompany even the slightest unrest, with the globalisation of trade and economy and the recipe is ripe for the spread of instability. Depending on circumstances, this spread could either be gradual or extremely rapid. The rate of spread of instability determines the impact that it will have on individual nations and the region.  This is the fundamental reason for the world having become more unstable as compared to the Cold War era.


Essentially, the root cause of geo-political instability, regional or global, is national power! So there is a need to understand it. In a very broad manner, national power can be defined as the ability of a nation to create the desired outcomes in the international arena. National power, an overarching term, is normally explained as resident in four major areas—diplomacy, economy, military capabilities and information exploitation. These four areas are generally called the elements of national power. A step below this is the more detailed components of national power, that in different combination, make up the four major elements. Examples of these components are—demography; indigenous industrial base; natural resources; education, scientific and technical capabilities; social and cultural cohesion; geographic factors; physical infrastructure; economic growth and potential and many more. A nation exercises its power by applying any one of its power elements, or two or more in conjunction to create the desired effects. In the 21st century, national power is defined not only by the four elements and the quantum that a nation can muster, but predominantly by the adeptness with which a nation is able to combine these elements in the right proportion to achieve national security objectives. National power, and its effective application to improve the security and status of the nation, is no longer a matter of building the most powerful military force and demonstrating the willingness to use it. Building national power internally and demonstrating the nation’s power externally are activities that are interconnected. The process of building a strong nation is ab involved, multifarious activity.        


In recent times, national power has been further divided into hard and soft power. In some respects this is an artificial divide. Hard power is the ability to influence events through the physical application of national power and soft power is the influence brought to bear by a nation by virtue of its status within the international community. The premise regarding soft power is that other nations and peoples will look at a nation and want to become like it and therefore initiate the necessary steps to do so. This is a utopian ideal. The human reaction to the visible wellbeing of another nation as opposed to the troubles or comparative lack of prosperity of their own nation is normally one of jealousy that could get channelized into taking actions inimical to the wellbeing of the nation that is doing well. In an indirect manner, the attacks on the West by Islamic fundamentalists are also fuelled by a sense of ‘jealousy’ because the western nations possess something that the perpetuators of such crimes cannot hope to have in their own nations and societies. Therefore, soft power cannot be expected to function on its own for the betterment of a nation. There will always be an overlap in favour of hard power when a nation is attempting to exercise its national power.


There is another aspect of soft power that needs to be considered. The use of soft power in the contemporary international environment—which is essentially harsh—has the potential to project the nation itself as a soft nation, especially if there is reluctance to project hard power or buttress the application of soft power with credible demonstrations of the willingness to use hard power if needed. This is a very thin and grey line—and the concept of a nation as a ‘soft’ power will have multiple follow-on repercussions. Therefore, the use of soft power to further national interests, if it becomes necessary to do so, must be done in a carefully orchestrated manner, at all times clearly ameliorating the downsides in a broad manner.


In the contemporary environment, national power cannot be classified purely in terms of hard or soft. National power is always a combination of both, in an appropriate mix, that creates the necessary influence in a contextual manner to ensure that national interests are always protected. This is a complex process in which perception management is of the utmost importance. Failure to project the right image will tend to diminish the perceived strength of a nation. One factor is of importance in this scenario—once the perception of a nation as being less than capable of projecting power becomes entrenched, national power, as viewed externally, tends to enter a downward spiral which will take concerted effort to stop. Further, building back credibility will take much more effort and time than losing it. National security is not an area where this can be accepted even for a short term. Here it is important to provide outwardly visible, symbolic gestures and indications of national strength and intent at periodical intervals to constantly remind others of the status and position of the nation. Symbolism is as important as physical actions within the security environment.


The acceptance of national power by other sovereign states and non-state entities is indicated through the credibility placed on the deterrent and coercive abilities of a nation. This is perhaps the litmus test of a nation’s standing within its regional and the international community. In a number of analyses, deterrence and coercion are considered two sides of the same coin. This view is inherently incorrect. It is more appropriate to consider deterrence and dissuasion as being more intimately connected. Dissuasion originates within the entity that is being dissuaded from doing something inimical to the nation that is dissuading, in other words a nation does not have to initiate any action for a potential adversary to be dissuaded. It is a sort of ‘pull mechanism’. The nation’s power is clearly apparent in this case. Deterrence on the other hand, requires the nation to initiate some action—forward deploying forces, demonstrating the will and ability to initiate actions if necessary—that is undoubtedly visible to the entity to be deterred. The credibility of deterrence is a function of national power and the demonstrated historic precedence of its ability, and more importantly willingness, to employ all elements of national power to further national interests. Essentially, deterrence stops short of actually initiating any physical action against a potential adversary. Coercion on the other hand overlaps a bit into the area of deterrent strategy, but is primarily about initiating actions to ‘force’ an entity into doing one’s bidding. At the low end of the spectrum of coercion are punitive actions conducted to demonstrate the will to apply force and indicate future actions, and at the other end are concerted actions undertaken to stop an adversary from continuing to do something that is contrary to one’s own interests. This is the physical part of coercion. There is also other kinds of coercion—economic and diplomatic coercion. While not physical demonstrations, economic and/or diplomatic coercion can create secondary and tertiary physical disruptions to the target entity. This is where the overlap between hard and soft power becomes difficult to separate. Economic and diplomatic actions are in the realm of soft power, but their influence and impact can, and almost always do, transcend to the physical. It is apparent that the division of national power into hard and soft power components is artificial and cannot be defined clearly.


Contemporary circumstances do not provide a clear indication of how national power should be defined. However, there is one fundamental facet to the application of national power—it must be employed in a carefully calibrated and elegant manner. Overwhelming use of force, or extremely subtle use of influence are both equally capable of obfuscating the necessary effects, and at worst creating the wrong effects, that obviously will not produce the desired end-state. Unmistakably, national power cannot be sub-divided into hard and soft power, nor can they be employed in isolation of each other. They must be employed in such a way to complement each other with the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.


A smart nation will develop and retain the flexibility to apply its national power—an optimised combination of hard and soft power—in a contextualised manner, with the clear understanding that one particular combination is only meant for a certain circumstance and that it has to be recalibrated each time to cater for the emerging situation. Exercising any other option will lead to the gradual diminishing of national power.  

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: