#act power thursdays: The future of military power


Artwork by Surian Soosay copyright @ssoosay

In our networked, hyper-competitive and rapidly changing world, not only is the primacy of traditional state power challenged, both internationally and domestically, but the very nature of that power is in question. As an institution integral to the concept of the state and subsequently of the nation state, this development has significant implications for the Armed Forces of Western countries. As conflict, armed or otherwise, is not likely to disappear from international politics, and as entrenched patterns of Western governments’ spending – coupled with the rising costs of modern military equipment –  make today’s model of European Armed Forces unsustainable, some radical thinking about the future of the military is both timely and urgent.

This first in a series of articles ponders basic concepts and fundamental questions.

  • Power –  primal force structuring all social interactions
  • Rethinking the world we live in
  • How is power exercised in the fast-paced environment of the beginning of the 21st century?  
  • What is the character of today’s conflict?

Power –  primal force structuring all social interactions

Thinking about power is a favourite past-time of philosophers, historians, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists and artists, to name just a few. This is not surprising given how power shapes every aspect of our existence. Theories of power abound, scrutinising power from the smallest – as between two people –  to the biggest denominator  – the international system.

Thinking about power is essential to make sense of the world we live in, both to understand the institutions organising our lives (one could call them “coagulated power relations”), and to interpret day-to-day interactions between human beings. Understanding power also lies at the very heart of statecraft, namely, how to deploy and employ various national power resources skillfully to achieve a desired end.

There a several aspects that strike me as interesting about power. For one, it is relational – power defines relations between entities, be they individuals or states. You are powerful with regard to someone else. And this someone else is not passive, not even in the most asymmetric of relationships. Secondly, power is necessarily relative, as it is contextual. One is powerful in relation to a specific opponent, in a certain environment, in a given historic moment. From this observation we can deduce that power is necessary in flux, it is evolutive – what constituted power yesterday and today won’t necessarily translate into power tomorrow. Which means, power is by nature ephemeral; all empires, even the mightiest are bound to fall eventually.

Lastly, and very importantly, power describes a potential, a permanent potential to act (either acting oneself, or by forcing others to do so) or to refrain from acting (by controlling others, or by refusing to act oneself)1. Julien Freund, French sociologist and philosopher also highlighted the virtual character of said potential – in any given moment, power can realise itself, or not (and it is  not quite clear why that is the case).

So even though power often tends to be portrayed as something static, effective and based on measurable criteria – let’s say number of tanks, volume of GDP – we are forced to grapple with its inherent quality of unpredictability, and changeability.

In his work, “Power. A New Social Analysis”2, Betrand Russell had set out to prove that power was the driver of all things social. While Russell failed to live up to his ambitions to present us with a set of handy laws of social dynamics with regards to power, he nevertheless left us with a pertinent image as to how power operates. For Russell, power was never static. Just like energy, it took many possible forms, constantly flowing into one another, none dominating all and none giving rise to all others. Different forms of power could not be treated in isolation. The image of power as a non-static, and at least to a certain extent exogenous factor could useful when thinking about the workings of the international system today, which can be perplexing, to say the very least.

Rethinking the world we live in

Most of our concepts to make sense of the international system have been developed by exploring a domestic context – how power operates between family members, in a given group, or within a state. In international relations, power can refer to an entity such as a state or an organisation (“a power”). It can also relate to an objective sought (“to seize power”), as well as to the means employed to achieve said objective (“to exercise power”). To summarise, the term can describe simultaneously a territory or an institutional structure and power strategies and vectors used by individual actors.

Given its fluid and difficult-to-grasp nature, the deduction of absolute rules seems impossible. Yet most scholars and analysts use power as a key variable to explain the shape and functioning of the international system, the nature of conflict and the changing character of war. What appears clear is that we need a new vocabulary to describe power and the wielding of it in our complex geopolitical environment.

International order is classically portrayed as being defined by power relationships, where countries aiming to further their interests attempt if not to dominate then at least to balance each other. Accordingly, the international system could be bi-polar as during the Cold War, or unipolar, as in its aftermath, when it was dominated by the US, and apolar or multipolar, something countries resenting American hegemony would prefer. What can be said with some certainty is that hegemony, the domination of one country has been the exception rather than the rule in international relations. Hence, we are currently moving towards a more “normal” situation.

But what is the “new normal”? What we observe is that our world is discordant, in the sense that it is shaped by two distinct realities which seem to be pulling in opposite directions, or exist as super-imposed on each other.

For one, our globalised world is profoundly marked by interdependence. Countries are tied to one another across the globe in ways and intensity as never seen before. Ties are economic, thanks to highly extended and fragmented supply chains. They are also social linking societies, be it through individuals, national or transnational institutions.

We, as individuals and states, now inhabit a multidimensional geographical space, reflecting our political, social, economic, environmental and cultural realities, many of which reach beyond national borders, interpenetrating other societies. And in addition to being connected to the physical world, we are connected to virtual worlds, and connected to the real world via said virtual worlds.

Such economic and social interdependence within a transformed geographic realm sits uneasily with a second reality, the persistence of the nation state, albeit one changed and challenged by globalisation3. The
latest incarnation of the state seems to be the “Network
. Nation-states remain the only political units commanding legitimacy, loyalty and vast amounts of resources. Even though states are no longer neither unitary, nor in some cases dominant actors, they continue, more or less vigorously, to exercise power in the name of “national interests”, either with regards to other states or in relation to what constitutes the system in which they operate (the institutional and normative framework in which power relations take place). Territory, demography and will to power continue to define possibilities as well as constraints of state action.

Joseph Nye4 conceived of power in the 21st century using the notion of a three-dimensional chessboard, which distinguishes levels by forms of power (military, economic…), actors (state and non-state…) and distribution of power (unipolar to widely dispersed). According to Nye, the top board is where military power, and the US, still reigns supreme. The bottom chessboard is presented as the realm of cross-border transactions and phenomena outside of government control, such as criminal activity, or climate change.                              
While such an image certainly has the virtue of clarity and relative simplicity, it fails to adequately portray the tensions which exist between the logics of cooperation and conflict inherent in our current international system. It also cannot portray the outcome of the many interactions that simultaneously take place between entities and levels.

To my mind, the notion of the network, and how it transforms the nation state deserves close attention when trying to grasp our current geopolitical reality. A network contains parties that are linked through mutually beneficial relationships, possibly transcending state/ non-state, national/ non-national, military, economic and societal domains. Within a network, power typically is dispersed, and in the absence of a dominant decision maker, influence becomes the currency of choice. It is as of yet unclear whether and how networks – within countries, or transcending national boundaries – hamper, modulate or in contrast enhance national interest. It may well be that networks do all of the above.

Another image that can help us in our power quest comes from biology, seeing our world as a complex eco-system in which evolutionary pressure is constantly applied – Darwin noted that it was not always the biggest or the strongest which survived, but the most adaptable. The task of statecraft is to consciously develop and learn to use available tools of power to fight for our position and survival against all other players in our global environment.           

The exercise of  power  in the beginning of the 21st century                          

What are some of the factors that decide over the ability to mobilise and to deploy power resources? Above all, what seems to matter most is the ability to think and act in terms of power, to be able to adopt a certain strategic mindset that seizes opportunities and assesses threats. Of course, one needs raw power ingredients if you like, in the shape of natural or human resources (more of this below). But without strategic thinking, even ample resources of the highest strategic importance might not be sufficient.                                

Strategic thinking does not happen in a vacuum, it crucially depends on the written and unwritten rules according to which policies are formulated and implemented. Even the best strategy has to rely on implementation, in constant coordination, and quite possibly in conflict with other policy priorities. Another important factor when discussing the mobilisation and deployment of power resources is the cohesiveness and productivity of a society – trust in people and institutions, as well as willingness to achieve things together and ultimately, to be willing to make sacrifices for the common good. We can already see that circles are in need of being squared: between an innovative, risk-taking, yet cohesive society, for example. Or between a productive economy, and the need to tax it to cover social and military expenditure.                

When we ponder power resources per se, it becomes clear that in many, perhaps in most cases, it is rather difficult to disentangle them from the factors that decide over the ability to mobilise and to deploy them skillfully. Said factors – strategic thinking, a sound system for policy making and implementation, and a productive and cohesive society – constitute power resources in themselves. What we can observe is that credible military capability still seems to underpin all power and influence, but perhaps in ways slightly different from what we are traditionally used to think (we will be coming to the character of conflict in our networked, hyper-competitive world in a moment).

Given its interconnected nature, occupying “strategic nodes” of our international system looks like a prime power resource. Such strategic nodes could be for example:                                        


  • internet infrastructure, data storage, data surveillance, collection and  analysis
  • satellites: production, launching, as well as space warfare capabilities
  • dominant platforms and corporations (the famous GAFA, for example) which produce gigantic amounts of data that can be used for other purposes
  • clusters of innovative technology firms in conjunction with universities

Transport links:

  • patrolling sea lanes
  • financing and running land infrastructure

Financial services:

  • hosting financial hubs offering trading platforms and services            

Linking people:

  • defining fora where people meet and exchange
  • “fixing rules of the game,” including language (international institutions, universities, media, internet platforms such as TedTalks…)

What is interesting is that we continue to see, just as during the Cold War, or during the Second World War for that matter, systemic battles between “open” and “closed” (or nowadays, supervised, managed, and repressed) societies. As during past confrontations, the virtues of authoritarian command and control systems vs. our rather messy, creaking-under-the-strain of our multiple contradictions, seemingly-unable-to-reform and to-rally-around-common-purposes democratic societies. The arcs of tensions are as ever between the individual and the collective, and between individualism and social cohesiveness
Which model (or graduation of) is better suited for survival in the medium and long-term? It bears repeating that our weaknesses (our openness, our diversity, our collective claim to individuality), despite all the dangers that may lurk within them can be our strengths. And the strengths of our opponents (centralisation of decision-making, hierarchical structures of implementation, force, or the threat of force, internally or externally) are also their weaknesses.

But competition is not only happening between open and closed societies. It is also happening among open societies! Just because we might be operating according to a similar democratic blueprint does not preclude the absence power rivalries, quite the contrary. We should not close our eyes to the fact that our friends and allies occasionally behave in a very unfriendly way indeed. We should expect them to do so, and be prepared at least to counter them.  

Our competitors, friend or foe, face similar challenges to those we do – the war-like tempo of change, the unexpected repercussions of global linkages and the strains they put the nation-state under – but unlike us, some have decided to apply individually tailored strategic thinking, for example, to pick islands of competence and to build on or around them. Serious competitors also make the effort to analyse our weaknesses, as well as their own.

Our current absence of a strategic mindset is our greatest flaw. Perhaps luckily for us, our closed-society opponents have to earmark a certain amount of resources for domestic control, and the inherent systemic corruption is undermining their very efficiency. What concerns our open-society competitors, just as us, they are absorbed to a certain extent by grappling with the fall-out resulting from their internal contradictions. But exclusive navel-gazing (a post-modern form of dereliction of duty?) simply does not seem to be an option anymore.                                

What is the character of today’s conflict?

Colin Gray reminds us5 that while war’s nature may stay constant, its character is forever changing.

For the time being, we seem to be able to enjoy the absence of what we traditionally call “war”, at least as codified by international law as “organised armed violence between states” with the aim of achieving a political objective. The current rarity of conventional war, however, does neither mean that war, even between nuclear powers, can be ruled out. Nor does it mean that conflict has disappeared, quite the contrary. Organised violence is evident in internal conflicts such as civil wars, and/ or in wars “by proxy” often fueled by regional powers to weigh in on regional power balances. Conflict also manifests itself in militarised competition that stays below the threshold of war.                        

Several countries, for example, China and Russia have been affirming their autonomy, promoting a certain voluntaristic multipolarity based on zones of influence. Neo-nationalism6 formerly used to foster rule internally has become a vector of foreign policy. What we see in conjunction is the ability of emerging powers to use their financial clout to launch economic projects with geopolitical intention (such as China’s “One belt, One road Initiative”). The realities of interdependence and persistence of the state explain to a great extent why we face gridlock of the international institutions born out of WWII which were meant to establish a functioning global security architecture.

Nuclear weapons play an important role in our current international system. They contain the risk of confrontation between nuclear powers, although the situation seems to be more prone to misunderstandings and accidents than during the Cold War. The presence of nuclear weapons in also practically freezes regional conflicts, and has de facto a certain “Anti-Access / Aerial Denial”  effect.

For the first time since WWII, former big powers, including the US, can no longer decisively influence regional crises and wars. Military (super-)might has been shown its limits in war zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya revealing the apparent paradox of the powerlessness of military power.  

Perhaps ironically, the purpose of our military could to a certain extent (re)shift from actual fighting to display, as it was the case in the 17th and 18th century. Just as in nature, military power – the staggeringly costly and complex combination of people and kit – might be the equivalent of an colourful feather display or an especially taxing mating dance. It signals the vitality of a country, its ability to deduct colossal amounts of money to finance military expenditure, its ingenuity, its degree of organisation, as well as its will to fight. However, the more dominant and unreachably advanced militaries will appear, the more weaker adversaries will turn to asymmetric responses.

Different formats of interdependence – discordant, cooperative or simply chaos – are all possible: what kind of multipolarity will emerge is up to states and other powerful international actors to decide. For the time being, the attempts to establish zones of influence, as well as the instrumentalisation of national feelings point towards more conflict and tensions. We urgently need to conceptualise the use of military force to foster national strategic goals in that still badly explored space between war and peace.

1 Serge Sur, Relations internationales, Paris, 2000, éd. Montchrestien, p. 229   

2 Russell, Bertrand, “Power. A new social analysis”, 1st imp., Allen & Unwin, London, 1938

3 See Möhring, Johanna and Gwythian Prins eds. “Sail on o’ Ship of State. The Destiny of the Nation State”, NHE, London, 2013

4 Nye, Joseph, American Power in the 21st century, 2011, https://www.hks.harvard.edu/news-events/news/news-archive/american-power-21st-century

5 Gray, C., “War – Continuity in Change, and Change in Continuity”, Parameters, 5, Summer 2010

6 as opposed to first-wave nationalism striving for political rights post-colonialisation

Johanna M

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