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Perceptions of national power

April 22, 2013

APOLOGISTS may downplay it, but the fact is that power is the core attribute of a state, defining its position in international politics by giving it the leverage to influence other states.

Power may corrupt, or be used unscrupulously, but without the pursuit of power no nation can seek to attain parity with states let alone influence international decision-making.

As Hans Morgenthau wrote, the prestige of a nation is its reputation for power. That reputation, the international observers’ perception of that power, can be as important as the reality of power itself. What others think about us is as important as what we actually are.

The power equation becomes complicated when there are other challenges facing the state as well, such as economic problems. This exacerbates the uncertainty horizon for such states. What may be a perfectly viable option for a financially secure state may not be feasible for one facing an economic crunch.

Socio-cultural factors also cause the limitation of choice, such as the religious environment of a state facing national security uncertainty, ethnic and nationalist violence etc.

However, it’s not just underdeveloped states that face this problem; Adm Michael Mullen, former US chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said in 2010 that the single biggest threat to US national security was debt.

In a global recession such as that in place today, security paradigms can be reflective of the times being faced by politicians. As political leaders play to their domestic galleries, they will surely take more nationalist and parochial positions on important international issues.

This is worrying because 2013 will be a year demanding intense international cooperation to cope with a deteriorating economic climate. The result could be serious damage to the underpinnings of globalisation.

However, there are similarities in the security policies of states of equally high stature and among those on a lesser plane. As Michael Mandelbaum has argued, similar security policies recur throughout history and across the international system in states that, whatever their differences, occupy similar positions in the international system.

The security policies of very strong states are different from those of very weak ones, and both differ from those of states that are neither very strong nor very weak.

Thus, there are certain structural paradigms that will nudge a state towards a certain national security and foreign policy path and which resonate with their international standing. As that standing improves or deteriorates, the choices for a national security and foreign policy trajectory expand or shrink simultaneously.

Robert Gilpin states that a wealthier, more powerful state will select a larger bundle of security and welfare goals as compared to a less wealthy and less powerful state, which implies that its foreign policy goals and national security goals will be broader and more expansive.

Correspondingly, states with fewer resources at their disposal will have fewer choices in rationalising an expansive security doctrine. It is only when states reach a certain critical mass that they can attempt to explore the possibilities of doctrines with more international outreach.

As society is always evolving, the security doctrine also changes keeping pace with how society in a particular country views its relationship with the world, as well as with societal roles within that society. These ideas shape how society views itself vis-à-vis the rest of the world which shapes beliefs and ideals, which in turn shape threat perceptions.

Demographics such as geography are an important determinant of state security; insularity gives more of a strategic rational choice leverage to states. Conversely, intensively landlocked states have less choice in strategy, since closely situated territorial disputes will almost inevitably end up in opponents engaging each other eyeball to eyeball. Resultantly, such conflicts may be exacerbated in military conflicts.

A state that considers itself global will also have bigger challenges since its interests are necessarily wider than those of regional powers. However, it may be easier for global powers to make their national security agendas more comprehensive and coherent, since their interests are also spread diffusely.

As D.C. Watt recounts, French military thought was obsessed with the single, potentially more powerful enemy.

British thinking, by contrast, was distracted, literally, by commitments all over the world. Then, there is the historical legacy of power. Colonial Britain, for instance, had a much bigger burden to bear and shed than the US (with the Philippines being the only mandate of the US) after the First World War.

Politics also plays a huge part, since internal conditions may be as instrumental in shaping doctrine as external ones. Put simply, national strategy may become the flag-bearer of political stances rather than rational-choice strategic ones.

Such aspirations for gaining and retaining power may also evolve into hegemony. Hegemonic postures will tend to not only give a global orientation, they will also intentionally diffuse the context of the enemy. Thus, instead of clearly identifiable enemies, esoteric threats such as chaos, ‘terror’, instability etc will become dominant themes.

As the then president George Bush articulated US strategy even before the Persian Gulf War, “As the world’s most powerful democracy, we are inescapably the leader, the connecting link, in a global alliance of democracies. The pivotal responsibility for ensuring stability of the international balance remains ours”.

This resonates with the fact that America now has multiple enemies and its alliances have tended to see waxing and waning periods. Since a hegemonic state has usually more than one indistinct enemy, it will also try to keep its options open by entering into alliances of convenience, which are easily retractable.

No matter how much it is glossed over, power does play a huge part in national security doctrines.

The writer is a security analyst.