Pared to essence and shorn of accretions, international politics is all about power and its corollary, interest. It is, what has been termed, in a different context, the actual “race to the bottom”. While IR theorists have dwelt on power and held the concept and its practice “slippery” and “elusive” but Robert Dahl’s understanding might best approximate the meaning of power. To paraphrase Dahl, “a power equation (or relationship) exists when A has power over B”. There then is coercion involved in the relationship. Power and power differentials are the sine qua non and the summum bonum of International relations and politics. The rest, to employ a phrase, I have employed elsewhere, is mere lip gloss and decorative rhetoric to obscure and obfuscate.
One obfuscatory attempt has been the concept and construct of “soft power”, coined by Harvard academic, Joseph Nye. In and of itself, the construct of “soft power” is fine but the moment it is politicized and employed in the service of politics, the concept becomes supremely self serving. Nye probably coined the construct after the Cold War when the United States was at the apogee of power; it would appear that Nye, a fine scholar of International politics, among other things, was among the few Americans who understood that power in the hard and “material” sense of the term was ephemeral and that to preserve United States’ hegemony, a softer version or construct had to be devised. In other words, Nye appears to have wanted to soften the edges of his country’s hegemony and dominance and make its acceptance palatable and legitimate to others.
But, how things change!
With the advent of Donald Trump to the highest office of the United States and other salient structural reasons, the country is unfettered and unbound, in the crudest senses of the terms. Trump’s narcissism, which is writ large, in his politics and approach to international relations, which manifests itself in disdain for norms, regimes, international law, the international system and his likes and dislikes. One eloquent example of this is Trump’s elevation of Mike Pompeo, a CIA agent, as his Secretary of state. Pompeo, as this essay goes to the press, is preparing ground for revoking the Iran United States nuclear deal, which has been actually verified and Iran given a clean chit. But, Trump would have none of this it and agent Pompeo is the hatchet man for all this, with Israel’s Netanyahu, acting as the middleman.
The implication here, which can be tied to the concept of power and its use, is that once a state which is powerful is governed by a man, in whose office, power is concentrated and who has disdain for competing institutions which can put a check on his worst instincts, world order becomes the casualty. What, the question is, can be done to prevent these instincts from panning out? Can order be restored? If, so how?
One answer is International law. But, alas, international law is not only a weak check on sovereign states but also something that is observed in the breach, often times. Another is International organizations like the United Nations. But, the lesser said about this organization which is defined by severe structural limitations, the better. Does this mean that there is no check on states, especially powerful states, like the United States, if they chose to do what they want to do?
Yes. There is. It lies in power real- raw, hard power. Disaggregated, what I mean here is that it is only equalization of power and narrowing or even elimination of power differentials that can, not only check states’ worst instincts, but also lead to peace. This has a searing resonance in terms of the contemporary United States’ drift and world order. The United States can, no longer, be expected to actually have and employ power with prudence. The temptations of power far exceed prudence and world order calculations, especially under Trump. What, the question now is, can this general and generic assertion mean , in practice?
It clearly means that the world’s most powerful states should narrow down the power differentials with the United States and balance the country. There’s no other way or means to check the country now. Naturally, the reaction to this would be either in bandwagoning and balancing. Who will band wagon and who will balance in the core balance will be determined whose vision for world order best suits all the states of the world. The paradox here is, both balancing and bandwagoning might be determined by whose soft power narrative, (again self serving and perhaps even illusory) would be the most powerful and compelling.
—The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org