Power is an uncomfortable fact. It amplifies inequality between individuals and states; its abuse is a recurrent theme in history; its forms are innumerable, ranging from the suave words of a polished diplomat to the bloody use of violence. And its reality is always the same: power forces people or states to do things they otherwise would not do.
Theorists and practitioners of the liberal persuasion are troubled by the reality of power, for several reasons. Love of equality is one: power, they feel, should have no role among equals, whether individuals or sovereign states, and human dignity ought not to be at the mercy of power differences. Another reason is the belief that we are entering an age where power is changing not simply its form but its very essence, and in some ways may soon be transcended altogether. Power, in this view, is not what it used to be, because we live in a world marked by interdependence and economic ties that allegedly alter the calculations so clearly described in Thucydides' Melian Dialogue. Power, therefore, needs a new conceptualization.
Two recent books, Liberal Leviathan by G. John Ikenberry and The Future of Power by Joseph Nye, attempt to develop this new conceptualization and suggest the necessary different approaches. Ikenberry's book is a cogently developed argument that builds upon his previous writings and will be a point of reference for the "international liberal" literature. Nye's book—which redeploys his now widely-used term "soft power" and introduces a new one, "smart power"—is a more popular treatment of the question of how power may be changing.
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Ikenberry, the Albert G. Milbank professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, is one of the most eloquent theorists of the liberal school of international relations. His previous book, After Victory (2010), argued that the most effective strategy for victorious great powers is to develop a set of rules and institutions that constrain both themselves and the defeated states. By doing so, the winners limit what they can do to others, calming the worst fears of the vanquished. The resulting international order is likely to last longer than if it were based on the winner's unrestrained power. Self-restraint and institution-building by the great powers mitigate the losers' desire to upset the established order, benefiting all in the process and creating an environment where rules of behavior reign and apply equally to all states. The strong choose not to do what they can, and the weak need not suffer what they must.
Liberal Leviathan picks up where After Victory left off. The current international order was established by the U.S. after World War II on the basis of liberal principles writ large, including open markets, shared sovereignty, the rule of law, progressive change, and democracy. The existence of an alternative way of organizing international relations, the Soviet model, strengthened the appeal of the liberal order. Indeed, Ikenberry thinks that by presenting an unthreatening face to Moscow, the West encouraged the Politburo to embark on reform in the late 1980s. His interpretation of the end of the Cold War reveals a key lesson of the book: the Western liberal order ought not be aggressive and menacing, because such behavior not only destabilizes international relations, it also undermines the West's influence, which is based on attraction and not the threat of power. States want to be included in this order, which is "easy to join" as long as it wields its influence according to established processes and rules, and not on the basis of the logic of power.
The challenge, claims Ikenberry, is that the U.S. has recently ignored its own rule-based order. No fan of the George W. Bush Administration, Ikenberry thinks it broke "institutional and normative constraints," thus imposing huge costs on the U.S., ranging from lost legitimacy to lack of diplomatic and military partners in Iraq. On this subject, the book loses some of its theoretical detachment and descends into polemics. But Liberal Leviathan is really about larger issues, namely whether power can be replaced by rules, whether such rules carry any legitimacy, and finally, whether the liberal international order underwritten by the U.S. can withstand a change in the underlying balance of power. In his view, international rules constrain and perhaps even transcend the need to violate the will of others. Rules replace power, and the international system becomes akin to the domestic arena where laws mitigate differences in wealth and power.
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Joseph Nye touts "soft power" as a tool for accomplishing what "rules" allegedly do in Ikenberry's argument. Soft power is different from hard power, which the Distinguished University Professor at Harvard defines as the ability to force, by threat or use of violence, the other side to alter its behavior. Hard power is obviously needed at times, but should be used judiciously, in a "smart" way, that is in an "integrated grand strategy that combines hard power with soft attractive power." An obvious problem with such a definition is that even Attila the Hun and Josef Stalin had moments of sobriety when they adopted "soft" tools of kinship or ideological affinity to sway others to their side, sparing them the effort of slaughter.
In any case, the point of "soft power" is that it is supposed to avoid breaking the will of others by acting in ways that are acceptable to all. So, for instance, the information age is giving rise to similar values (a "global culture") that are a "basis for soft power." The U.S. benefits from this, but "simultaneously find[s itself] constrained to live up to values shared by others if [it] wishes to remain attractive." In the end, Nye's "soft power" is not power at all. It is an expression of how others want us to be, and we are left hoping that their wishes somehow are congruent with ours. To exercise "soft power" is really to act in ways that are satisfactory to others.
The added qualifiers—Nye imposes three of them: hard, soft, and smart—deprive the concept of power of its simplicity and clarity; in fact, they end up fundamentally altering its meaning. The idea of an attractively tender and globally attuned power is simply a denial of power. It stems from the assumption that international relations need not demand a constant capability to break the will of others. Ikenberry's view that "rules" can replace "power" is more nuanced and better developed but ultimately it, too, is based on the belief that the international system, a self-reinforcing web of multilateralism, is leading us to a world where the exercise of power will be futile and counterproductive.
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Ikenberry and Nye largely agree about what gives legitimacy to foreign policy. For Ikenberry, a legitimate action is one that is approved by the international community, defined basically by the United Nations. It is the "international community [that] is the repository for new human rights and national security norms," and consequently we should pursue a "global-governance grand strategy" that lets the U.N. decide which action is legitimate and which is not. Similarly, Nye argues that the U.S. ought to define "its national interest in terms of goods that include the interest of others" because by doing so "it can create a narrative that is more likely to obtain the broad support required to accomplish its objectives."
Legitimacy, in other words, is a synonym for approval by others. It is an empty vessel for whatever "others" or the "international community" wants. Beyond the problem of defining such an inchoate community, the absence of any clear standard, whether defined by natural law, reason, common sense, revelation, or "self-evident truths," makes legitimacy a moving target determined by global opinion polls. It is surprising not to find in these two books ideas such as liberty or human dignity as sources of authority. After all, a crucial component of the liberal tradition, from which these two books arise (Nye calls his a "liberal realist" argument), is the propagation of such truths, whose defense, even if pursued without the approving nod of the U.N. or the "broad support" of other states, is what bestows legitimacy upon a state's actions.
So, for example, did Ronald Reagan's calling the USSR "evil" undermine America's international appeal and legitimacy? Would a unilateral U.S. action to defend Taiwan against an attack by Communist China betray and weaken our soft power? One can think of many cases in which our actions would be quite justified and legitimate even if condemned by the U.N. General Assembly and in the cafes near La Sorbonne. In fact, the U.S. has often gained in attractiveness precisely because it did not pursue actions fully in sync with the prevailing winds of global opinion.
"Liberal internationalism" seems here on the verge of abandoning its liberalism, leaving only internationalism, a process of interaction with no solid foundation in principle—a liberal argument without liberty at its core.
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Yet both authors are optimistic, though for slightly different reasons. Nye's optimism is a bit vague, grounded in his assessment of American capabilities and in his call for the exercise of "smart power" in the years to come. Ikenberry's optimism arises from the belief in the self-reinforcing quality of the current international order. The more interdependent we are, the greater our desire for rules is, and as a result few states are willing to upset the existing order. Even China, arguably the prime candidate to challenge the status quo, is allegedly attracted by the rule-based order and would rather be a "stakeholder" in the present system than a creator of a new one. Indeed, the greatest threat to the current order, he says, is not Communist China, a nuclear Iran, or a Putin-led Russia, but the United States, the only power with the capability to break the rules underwriting the prevailing international order. It is tempting to believe Ikenberry's contention that the international order will transform rising powers like China. But historical experience suggests that an order supported by China may be international, but is unlikely to be liberal.
Should the U.S. acquiesce in an international order that is likely to lack an appreciation of liberty and human dignity? If the answer is no, then we will need to continue to rely on power, understood in its ancient simplicity: the ability to bend the recalcitrant will of others to our own. The alternative is that we will suffer what we must.