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NEOPOWER - Power in contemporary politics

Updated on August 8, 2014

NEOPOWER - Power in contemporary politics.

In the closing stages of the 20th century the pinnacle of power was seen as the United States (US). It was the world’s sole superpower, endowed with unparalleled material and political preponderance. As we progress into the 21st century the international relations arena is awash with claims of frustrated US influence, which raises questions about the nature of power in contemporary global politics, power in general and if it has changed. The globalised multipolar society that currently exists is undergoing a turbulent transition period. This complicates our ability to understand, view and apply power in the modern global political realm.

This essay will examine what power is and how the blurring of the three major paradigms of international politics: realism, neoliberalism and constructivism make conceptualising power within the confines of one or another of these theories difficult, and the development of 21st century technology make it near impossible. Historically those seeking power in the international relations framework have aimed to control certain key areas including trade; territory; military might and communications. Yet the lack of understanding and appreciation of what power really is, limited their effectiveness.

This leads to the thesis that in contemporary global politics power is not driven by a single tangible thing, rather it is a situational awareness or consciousness that allows integration of various principles and instruments of power to produce , in and through selected social relations, actions or effects that, shape specific circumstances, and fate, of self and others. For the purposes of this essay I will coin this theory of power: neopower. This thought leads to the conclusion that in order to conceive the theory of power; it must be viewed and applied with a centrist worldview; appreciating; balancing, and integrating the principles of all three paradigms. This is something in the past few including the US failed to do, but now thanks to the global consciousness, it is something that can be realised.

Understanding power is now more difficult for International Relations (IR) academics due to the elephant in the room, technology. The 21st century has brought about huge technological changes. Communication is now dominated by the internet, individuals hold in the palm of their hand devices with more computing power that the computers that sent man to the moon (i.e. smartphones) and what was once the domain of the military Unmanned Arial vehicles (UAVs), will soon be delivering our Chinese takeaway.

Digital media is now so wide spread governments or multi-national media organisations can no longer control information systems or the flow of information. The Internet has enabled humans to share their thoughts with an extensive audience at an unprecedented level (State Department, 2014) Information can be transferred across the globe so quickly and by so many, that a world leader in a capital thousands of kilometres away can see through the eyes of a child in a war torn country in near real time (i.e. twitter). Targeted advertising has become so intelligent that your Google and Facebook pages have a better idea what your next purchase will be, than you do. It is difficult to deny that the modern networked society is so effective we are now on the verge of being a genuine global consciousness.

This networked collective consciousness has a significant impact on power. Application of power has long been essential tradecraft for any state, group or individual seeking to win friends and subdue enemies, or control and influence people. However, never in history there been an understanding of what power is or a viable platform to tap into the collective consciousness of the entire populous.

Power is central to international relations (IR). What power is, however, has long been contested. Traditionally, in international relations power is usually understood as control over resources, actors or outcomes (Hart 1976, p.279). Kegley and Blanton (2010, p.16) define power in the classic coercive sense as “the factors that enable one actor to manipulate another actor’s behaviour against its preferences”. Asserting it is a negative influence over other individuals, groups or actors. The problem with the Kegley and Blanton definition is that if we view of power in terms of the changed behaviour of others we have to know their preference to begin with (Nye 1990, p178). In the past this was difficult, however in the networked age there is no shortage of individuals willing to tell the world their preferences. A further problem with this definition of power is that securing submission of actors regardless of their preferences or the various methods of force applied ultimately requires acceptance by those subjects, this acceptance can vary according to their interpretation and perception of circumstances, ideas and values. In the age of social networking however this acceptance can be analysed and the approach changed.

Defining the framework in which we perceive power is vital for its use in the international relations discipline. Nye (1990, p.177) tells us it is “ability to achieve one's purposes or goals”. This asserts an actualization of positive outcomes relative to the wielder. Yet if we view of power in terms of altered outcomes we have to know the outcome was or was not possible without interaction of the wielder, which is difficult if not impossible (Wrong 2009, p.5). As most outcomes involving IR include multiple actors and each only has partial control over outcomes which are consequential to them. In the networked age however, the internet, data mining and quantum computing make accurate predictions of outcomes possible, and correlated with analysis of acceptance and other data. This closed loop system can be continually repeated giving very clear picture.

Nye’s (ibid, p.177) definition with the inclusion of the term achieve implies that success, is a criteria of power (Lukes 2007, p.59). If an actor attempts to apply its capabilities but fails to achieve its purpose or goal, according to Nye’s operational definition it does it not have power. If success is not actualised that doesn’t mean its applicator doesn’t have power because power itself is not dependant on an outcome.

In order to assess whether power actualizes outcomes or alters preferences one could conclude that a precursor for power is that actor needs to know outcomes and preferences. Therefore one needs intelligence or knowledge to have power. This logic would suggest Francis Bacon’s 400 year’ old quote “knowledge is power” runs true (Gardner & Kosztarab 1984, p. 1383).Intelligence in conjunction scientific and technical knowledge is and has always been an important component of power, as they assist in one’s ability to forecast, interpret and shape circumstances. This is especially true in the age of global consciousness. Intelligence, information and knowledge are, however, of no practical value unless you or someone has the capacity to exploit them. This may entice some to take the realist view suggesting that as the enabler material capacity constitutes power.

The material capacity view of power is popular with politicians, sociologists and military personnel. They know that one cannot always control behaviour and achieve a purpose or goal. Therefore they define power as possession of resources because the ability to control others or shape outcomes is often enabled by a quantifiable possession of said resources (Nye 1990, p.179).For politicians in particular, the ability to measure international power is important because it is used as an electoral tool. The problem with a measurable resources based definition is that, material resources unless properly applied don’t necessarily translate into desired outcomes or control (Newman, Thakur & Tirman 2007, p.120). The resources measurement approach also makes rather large assumptions on “how control over resources can be converted into control over actors or events” (Hart 1976, p.260). Some actors are better than others at converting their resources into effective influence (Nye 1990, p.1978). This is because the intangible aspects that matter and are relative to the circumstance, relationship or scenario.

Power is a relative concept. Consequently, having the instruments of power is not the same as being powerful (Lukes 2007, p.59). This is the core theme of the Rues-Smit (2004, p.2) quote “The existence of a superpower [US] with such extraordinary material preponderance, yet frustrated political influence, constitutes a central paradox of our time. At the most fundamental level, it raises profound questions about the nature of power in contemporary global politics”. The conceptualisation of power is difficult as it cannot be measured in terms of resources, knowledge, and ability to shape outcomes or control actors. It can therefore be deduced that power is a philosophical concept and is derived from an awareness (ability to perceive) of self and surrounds that allows the stakeholder to recognise factors that produce, in and through selected social relations or action effects that, shape specific circumstances, and fate, of self and others(Barnett & Duvall 2005, p.39). This awareness then gives the wielder the capacity to rally and apply appropriate resources, engage actors and, shape events in ether in a negative or positive manner relative to the situation or relationship. This means power is a philosophical-psychological concept, and has remained constant throughout history, and is likely to do so for eternity. The means have undergone changes but remain relatively stable based around era applicable hard material, attractive soft and knowledge based instruments. What is undergoing a profound change is the social, technological and geo-political context in which the concept and instruments are applied. Technology and the corresponding global consciousness has given individuals power on a truely global scale, something they never had before. In recent years they have become aware of this power.

Access by individuals and states to large volumes of information and a means to distribute it around the world are game chargers when considering power. This enables individuals to make their own independent decisions and spread propaganda and opinions freed from the limitations, and restrictions of the nation-state (Köchler 2006, pp.3-5). Kuehl (2002, p.9) argues “Groups, organizations, nation-states and even individuals can now influence policy at the systemic level by using information”. Global interconnectedness is linking those with instruments of power further enabling its growth in new areas. Power in this view has no centres to speak of, no defined resources to administer and actors or outcomes to control (Allen 2004, p.22). This means it only exists as an ‘awareness of potential’ by an individual, group or state. In contemporary international relations, power has dispersed from its traditional centres throughout the global network to all parties- individuals, state and non-governmental institutions, and now exists everywhere (Newman 2004, p.140). In classical political theory, power is embodied around the state apparatus or elite, organising its understanding around sovereign institutions, laws and resources (ibid, p.140). This inhabits its image and ignores its multi-dimensional forms, limiting philosophical critical thinking about what power in IR actually does: it allows you act, usually to solve a problem. You cannot act if you are unaware you need to, hence awareness is power.

With the exception of realism the other paradigms distance themselves from power considerations. But they can’t conclusively deny the role it plays in international relations. In liberalism, the power is legitimized around institutions and law. In realism, it is control of resources and constructivism identity, values and normative structures (Newman 2004, p.140). All the paradigms are united, however, by the notion of the centrality of power (ibid, p.140). The dissipation of power in all its forms throughout a globalised society therefore makes it inherently difficult for those within the confines of one paradigm to explain and consequently apply power in the contemporary world. This ultimately brings into question the usefulness of operating within unilateral worldviews when in analysing, explaining or applying power in the globalised, technologically advanced and multipolar society we now live. Barnett and Duvall (2005, p.40) argue “consideration of power's polymorphous character will enhance and deepen theoretic understanding of international politics”. Newman, Thakur and Tirman (2007, p.123) argue “Power does not reside in a resource but stems from the particular relation in which abilities are actualized”. These facts support my revolutionary neopower thesis.

Theoretical tunnel vision is a sin of which both the US in its application and Rues-Smit in his analysis are guilty of. Reus-Smit (2004, p.3) in his book ‘American Power and Global Order’ argues that the US “cannot translate material preponderance into desired political outcomes”. He believes that this is because “something deeply dysfunctional, even idealistic, about the understanding of power currently informing American foreign policy” (Rues-Smit 2004, p.5). At the time this of course was true. The Bush administration had a pure realist conceptualisation of power based on primarily hard power- coercive force via military and economic resources. It believed that American liberal-democratic order, hard and soft power, were so powerful that they would overcome any objections to the Iraq war (Gallarotti 2010, p.5). This perceived domination over global ideology and resistance meant the US did not attempt to win the “hearts and minds” of the global population, this cost it dearly. It failed to recognise the social bases of power that now existed beyond that of states, the impact they would have on its influence and the idea in these social bases that the US worldview was not all encompassing. An awareness enabled by inclusion of the constructivist paradigm in the mix with its realist-liberal principled worldview would have uncovered what others identities were seeing, the illegitimacy of its ideas, which was the core problem, not so much the illegitimacy of its action as many suggest.

Legitimacy is at the core of analysis of much the debate on US power in global politics. Rues-Smit (2004, p.5) a constructivist infers that the lack of appreciation of legitimacy by the neoconservatives lead to its frustrated influence, and legitimacy of action is central to the concept of power. He argues effective influence depends on the degree to which a state’s actions are deemed legitimate by other states and public opinion (ibid, p.4). In many aspects Rues-Smit (2004) is correct legitimacy of action is central to the liberal-constructionist concept of power. He focuses though, on the illegitimacy of action, acting outside the mandate of the United Nations, rather the illegitimacy of the idea that it could, which is where majority of the opposition spawned. Rues-Smit (2004) key mistake, however, was that he did not consider the realist worldview in his analysis and therefore adds little weight to the geo-political circumstance of the time that clandestinely contributed to the US’s failure of power and influence.

After the Cold War the world entered a political-economic renaissance. The United States as victor became the central nexus of global politics (Allen 2004, p19). The demise of the Soviet Union and the raw power advantage of the United States meant that three important sources of conflict in previous systems were now absent, ideological conflict, hegemonic rivalry over leadership of the international system and the threat posed by the balance-of-power theory. (Wohlforth 1999, pp.7-22). Economic partners there were no longer fearful of conquest by the communist scourge and began to see alternatives to an economic system dominated by the United States. With the disappearance of global inter-state conflict the three key sources of leverage U.S. policymakers had enjoyed in earlier struggles—the security dependence of its partners, the unique position of its currency, and the indispensability of its market eroded (Mastanduno 2009, p.123). Liberalisation and globalisation of the world economy offered states options and ideas that were not as viable when the United States was the only acceptable political-economic game in town (Mastanduno 2009, p.127). By the time of the Iraq war in 2003, great power rivalries, most evident in the scramble for energy, natural resources and economic prowess began to emerge.

The fear that limited many states actions during the Cold War had now dissipated. Policymakers had the opportunity to create policies that reflected more narrowly conceived self-interests (Mastanduno 2009, p.145). Consequently, many lesser nations joined the realist camp in the quest for power under the guise of liberalism. Most did not possess the material elements of power to do this in the classical way but rather embraced international institutions allegedly to produce cooperation, when we view this scenario embracing all three paradigms, however, we can see how institutions shaped the bargaining advantage of states (Barnett & Duvall 2005, p.41). Organisations like the European Union, ASEAN and OPEC balanced the power of the US using the realist zero sum theory. By frustrating and reducing its influence collectively they gained more individual power for themselves. This is commonly known as soft balancing. Pape (2005, p.10) observes that it was “a prominent feature of the international opposition to the US war against Iraq”. This kind of balancing using liberal institutions brings into question the paradigm and its core philosophical values highlighting the blurring of the three paradigms. This balancing and influence fuelled by newly powerful social bases and technology, frustrated US influence.

The realist paradigm has not escaped hybridisation. Threats to national security now predominately come from trans-national non-state actors. These entities require international cooperation and liberal collective security principles to be effectively countered, and thus the realist self-help attitude is defeating. Different concoctions of theoretical frameworks will prevail over different key issues. On global environmental issues no amount of material resources or single state resources can shape circumstances alone. It requires engaging international rules, institutions and ideas to effectively shape circumstances. Likewise rouge states or trans-national criminal networks require a liberal-realist approach. These entities reject international institutions rule of law and social values. When dealing with these entities ideas ,values and institutions help lay the groundwork for the application of power but are not in themselves powerful (Gelb 2009, p.17).Consequently, without elements from the realist national interest camp they will be impotent. This is because without cohesion by the application of material resources illegitimate non-state actors or rouge states operating outside the confines of international law cannot be subdued.

The US seems to have learned from the Iraqi misadventure when it comes to subduing rouge states. During the crisis in Libya I believe the US exercised what I have coined neopower. It encouraged through overt and more than likely covert means, democratic ideals and values applicable to the local worldview and normative structures (constructivist), through the United Nations used cooperative methods focused on collective international progress (liberal) and utilised its military means to promote democratic change in a region strategically important to its own security (realist). It was able to shape circumstances in its favour because for the first time it had an awareness or consciousness of what power is. That allowed integration and application of the principles and instruments of power to produce , in and through selected social relations or actions effects that, shape specific circumstances, and fate, of self and others.

In conclusion, conceptualising or applying power within the confines of one of the three major paradigms realism, neoliberalism and constructivism is impossible because the principles of the paradigms have blurred beyond recognition and technology is dissipating power away from its traditional centres. This supports the neopower thesis I have argued, that really, power in contemporary global politics or in general is a "situational awareness or consciousness" that allows integration of various principles and instruments of power to produce , in and through selected social relations or actions effects that, shape specific circumstances, and fate, of self and others relative to a particular scenario. As understanding and recognition of neopower evolves, states, groups and individuals will enhance their ability to shape circumstances through power because, the global consciousness allows them to understand and connect the principles, and applicators of the three paradigms view of power - institutions and law, identities, values and normative structures and materials resources. First however they need to be aware and that is what power really is, awareness. Power is a relative concept and unless it is relative to each and every person viewing it or applying it, it is impotent, if you are not aware of its relativity to each person or aware what instruments need to applied to that scenario, or even that it needs to be applied; you will never be powerful.


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Power in international relations

Global conciousness

Global power


Global conciousness
Arab Spring
International relations
Iraq war
Social Change

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    • TheReelJunkie profile image


      6 years ago from Los Angeles Area, California

      This is a great article. Not just accurate but very well written, I'm very glad I took the time to read it. Can I ask what you do for a living Gif? I would hope that someone with such a firm grasp on current IR relations and politics would be working in the industry...

      Thank you for sharing. Great job

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      6 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Brilliant analysis of contemporary international power politics, Gif. You are right on point stating that the paradigms have changed and blurred. All nations must adapt to make sense of and optimize their power in this new interconnected world. Hopefully at some point, increased peaceful relations will increase. Interconnectedness and increased trade usually lessen tensions. Of course this has not yet been realized. Excellent Hub.


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