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Dan Drezner, in light of Moises Naim eloping with a book title he came up with last year (NB: Undead Power is still available if he wants to change his narrative tack, and this one’s on the house), recapitulates his own and highlights Naim’s argument that power as we understand it in international affairs is fading into the background. Even Drezner’s most provocative case was that simply compellence power was on the wane, while Naim makes a much grander argument:
Power is shifting -- from large, stable armies to loose bands of insurgents, from corporate leviathans to nimble start-ups, and from presidential palaces to public squares. But power is also changing, becoming harder to use and easier to lose. As a result, argues award-winning columnist and former Foreign Policy editor Moisés Naím, all leaders have less power than their predecessors, and the potential for upheaval is unprecedented. In The End of Power, Naím illuminates the struggle between once-dominant megaplayers and the new micropowers challenging them in every field of human endeavor. The antiestablishment drive of micropowers can topple tyrants, dislodge monopolies, and open remarkable new opportunities, but it can also lead to chaos and paralysis. Drawing on provocative, original research and a lifetime of experience in global affairs, Naím explains how the end of power is reconfiguring our world.
My suspicion, actually, is that Naim here is wrong about the existence of a
serious redistribution of relative power (absolute power and capabilities
are another matter), from “big” to “small” concentrations, particularly where
organs of state power are concerned, and especially at a macro-historical scale
Naim’s arguments about the decline in the prevalence of traditional forms of power draw from a broader intellectual trend. Given the audience of this blog, addressing the supposed military shift in power and combat strength is worthwhile. Here, in fact, I think we find that describing a systemic shift from power from states and their armies to insurgents and their looser structures is misleading.
Remember that the most recent great powers to fall to revolutionary insurgents of any kind were Russia to its Revolution and China to its Civil War. Already we have quite a strong indication that the most important actors in the traditionalist school of power are relatively resilient to existential risks from insurgent groups. Furthermore, to simply describe the fall of many afflicted regimes as simply insurgency overpowering traditional armies is highly misleading.
Insurgencies still strongly benefit from foreign great power military intervention and support. In the cases of Russia and China, the effects of World Wars I and II played a major role in undermining state capacity or undermining governing coalitions. The insurgents of the Cold War era frequently benefited from state patronage. The process of combating state resources frequently drives insurgent groups to behave more like states and outcompete them, in anticipation of creating a new one or capturing that of their foe. This makes it in part a case selection problem. Highly successful insurgencies quickly take on the function or role of a state and outgrow their insurgent stage. The Taliban did a relatively good job at suppressing insurgency when they were the nominal government, and their renewed ability to mobilize combat power makes them formidable insurgents, too.
It is also important to differentiate examples of a non-state actor violently usurping the coercive power of the state from constituent elements of a state’s governing coalition of elites and institutions turning on the regime. Here, both Naim’s insistence that “micropowers” are toppling regimes and Drezner’s speculation that compelling force can no longer cost-effectively kill its way to control needs strong qualification. In Egypt, the military stood aside in a gambit to preserve its political power, while the Muslim Brotherhood, though powerful, is expanding its power by co-opting state institutions. To say that states, as a general proposition, are losing power to non-state actors is misleading when states are diverse assemblages of political actors and institutions.
Compellence worked quite well for Bahrain and Saudi Arabia against their Shia minorities, while it is starting to wane for the Assad regime against rebels representing its excluded majority, but the regime’s killing strategy is not failing simply because killing to control cannot work, but because the rebels are returning the favor in kind, and would greatly like more support or direct action from foreign states to speed along this process. There have always been high costs to violently compelling your population into submission - just ask the regimes which survived 1848 or Abraham Lincoln. In any case, without considering the components of compelling power - the political coalitions and the demographic, geographic, and logistical factors which shape their ability to exert power, as well as the broader international system which engages in the conflict - I question the utility of arguing one kind of group or one kind of power is declining in power in a more abstract, sweeping sense.
One could pose the problem this way - there are many more states in the international arena today than there were during past periods. Many of them formed under vastly different conditions than the ostensibly traditional “Weberian” or “Westphalian” varieties. Many “failed” or “fragile” states were never that strong to begin with, and arguably state-instituted border fixity encourages weak states and potent insurgencies. and were at risk to predatory state behavior as well as insurgency, which reinforce each other when states foment insurgencies and coups to wage proxy war.
So, we could say there are more states predisposed to vulnerability to insurgent groups (they are also, as Libya shows, even more vulnerable to traditional power) than before. We could also say that insurgent groups and non-state actors possess more capabilities, in absolute terms, than their predecessors did. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front obviously possesses more firepower than did the Moros fighting the U.S. in the 1900s, and the Chechen secessionist fighters and suicide bombers possess more firepower than 19th century Caucasian tribes and anarchist bombthrowers. So do modern armies have options for projecting power against insurgent groups they never did before.
Better than framing power as “ending” and states as declining would be to frame the problem as an issue of policy relevance. Historically, the states are more prevalent before, and the U.S. and European militaries has relative power projection capabilities that the imperial powers of the 15th-17th centuries would envy (as Jeremy Black pointed out, non-Western armies frequently rebuffed would-be conquerors during this period). However, the salience of insurgent groups and other violent non-state actors is obviously greater than in recent history, especially the salience of distant groups. State-versus-state violence is declining not because states are less militarily capable, but because the aggregation of those capabilities and the political context reduces the incentives and likelihood for state-versus-state war. France and Germany could do far more damage to each other than Shabaab or MUJAO could do to either of them, but this concern is far less salient than insurgent groups.
The important thing to recognize, however, is that today’s focus on violent non-state actors is not the product of a systemic change in the way power is wielded, but because of mutable and discretionary choices about policy. Compellence and killing power too, are doing just fine, it’s simply a matter of case selection and baseline standards. The U.S. could adopt a policy and subsequent military strategies to move away from fighting VNSAs, but because the U.S. is more concerned about al Qaeda as a security threat than it is about China. China could still wreak far more havoc to American interests than al Qaeda could. Nevertheless, because of VNSAs expanded capabilities and our expanded scope of policy concerns, which increasingly includes areas more vulnerable to VNSA action, these groups have a higher degree of salience in policy calculations even tho
Military preparedness is the product, in large part, of choices about force structures and strategies. Our military’s frustration with fighting insurgents in Iraq does not imply insurgencies are now more potentially dangerous than China, anymore than it implies cyberwarfare sabotage is a greater potential danger than nuclear weapons. They are simply more likely issues as a product of the systemic environment. Recognizing what is the more likely risk, and thus the higher priority, for our preferred policies is a more useful way of thinking about power and its wielders rather than drawing sweeping inferences from narrowly selected cases.