Excerpt: Power Rules

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The Revolution in World Power

Here's the central paradox of twenty-first-century world affairs: The United States is probably the most powerful nation in history, yet far more often than not, it can't get its way. The 500-year story that led up to the current state of affairs reveals the new and revolutionary rules and rhythms of international power.

Fidel Castro's Cuba, one of the world's smaller and weaker nations, gave constant strategic and political grief to the United States, the world's strongest, and survived to tell the tale for almost half a century. In any previous era, a major power like the United States would have quickly and violently crushed such a pesky little neighbor. But America's forbearance toward Cuba epitomizes a profound and underappreciated story, the story of the reshaping and rechanneling of international power—nothing short of a revolution in the history of world affairs.  

Leaving aside philosophical rights and wrongs, the fact is that Castro flouted all the rules of deference toward great powers, especially one only ninety miles away. He joined with the Soviet Union, America's mortal foe, in precipitating the 1962 missile crisis, the single most dangerous moment of the Cold War. Later, he picked at the sores by sending his troops to fight the United States' allies in Africa and Latin America.  

By historical standards, Washington had more than sufficient grounds to overthrow Castro. Instead, one by one, U.S. presidents, including some of the toughest, restricted themselves to feeble and futile efforts to spark anti-Castro revolutions (e.g., the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961) and strangle him economically. No American president seriously undertook the only action guaranteed to rid Washington of Castro—an all-out invasion of Cuba. To be sure, the clever Cuban dictator helped stave off attacks by perching under the Soviet wing, waiting for Moscow and Washington to agree to live and let live in Cuba. But such distant protection and promises of restraint from great powers had rarely held up in the past. Historically, protectors like the Soviet Union readily sold out a client like Cuba for a better power deal somewhere else. Castro surely sensed other, deeper restraints on America's power. He clearly understood that U.S. presidents, for all their bellicose Cold War rhetoric, dared not invade Cuba without clear provocation. He must have grasped that the restraints of world opinion and American democracy, as well as the prospect of fighting a determined insurgency inside Cuba, had come to matter a great deal and would stay the hand of even the fiercest U.S. president.  

Castro's Cuba was both the beneficiary and the symbol of profound changes in the rules and rhythms of international power. The seeds of this revolution ran deep into history, took hold during the Cold War, and then fully rooted in the twenty-first century. During those almost five decades, the number of nation-states multiplied, most of them with the political will and new means to resist domination by the great powers. Worldwide communications expanded exponentially with the effect of informing and exciting peoples against the great powers' machinations. International commerce took unprecedented flight, creating common interests and restraints on rich and poor nations alike. And nuclear weapons fundamentally altered the role of military force in traditional big power rivalries.  

It was hard to get a solid fix on how power was changing, and on what was old and what was new in international affairs. But three patterns began to emerge.  

First, the strong fled from direct military confrontations with one another, instead of following their time-honored pattern of resolving their differences by war. Nuclear weapons especially made big power military contests too destructive and dangerous. Traditional conventional war had become much too expensive as well, especially when governments assumed greater responsibility for their citizens' welfare. Even hawks found it increasingly difficult to define national interests in such a way as to justify risking the catastrophe of nuclear war.  

Second, the power of the weak to resist the strong started to rival the power of the strong to command—at least on the weak's own turf. Backed by a slew of new international constraints on the strong, the weak frequently challenged the strong—and often got away with it.  

Third, while traditional balance-of-power competition continued to mark twenty-first-century international affairs, competition over vital interests was not as ferocious as before. Big and small states alike increasingly turned to a vast and relatively new array of international institutions and norms to protect their interests. When these proved ineffective or required supplementing, most nations resorted to the old balance-of-power reflexes.  

All these twenty-first-century patterns of power are underpinned and reinforced by two earthquaking historical trends: the declining utility of military power and the concomitant rise of international economic power. Military capability—both the threat and the use of force—still counts significantly, but today, as compared with the past, there are more uncertainties about its use. At the same time, economic strength has increased in importance, both as an instrument of international power and as a restraint on it. This is a mysterious form of power, far more complex to wield than sheer military force, the mother of all blunt instruments.  

The net effect of the new patterns of power and the underlying changes in military and economic power do not negate the importance of power, but they do restrain and complicate its use. Power continues to matter more than anything else in international transactions. Ideas, leadership, and appeals to reason can mobilize peoples to revolt against tyrants and persuade citizens to make sacrifices within nations; but they rarely lead to changes in government policies, and they have a poor track record in resolving conflicts between and among nations. For this, economic and other benefits bestowed and withheld, the twin instruments of pressure and coercion, still prove the better, if not the only, means of getting things done internationally. But this crucial instrument—power—cannot be used effectively in the twenty-first century without an understanding of how the new constraints on it have evolved.  

Copyright © 2009 by Leslie H. Gelb. All rights reserved.