The power of nations

The power of nations

By Jonathan Power

April 23, 2019

Let’s make America great again! Or as the prime minister of France said: Let’s make France great again. Or, as President Donald Trump conceded, let every nation in the world announce that they are going to be great again.

But what makes for greatness? Over that there is a big dispute.

Strategists say that power has to be measured carefully because “the balance of power is the motor of world politics, playing a role as central as the role of energy in physics and money in economics”, as writes Professor Michael Beckley of Tufts University, in his analysis The Power of Nations. Measuring what really matters.

“Power is like love, it is easier to define than measure. Just as one cannot say, ‘I love you 3.6 times more than her,’ scholars cannot calculate the balance of power precisely, because power is largely unobservable and context-dependent”.

So what can scholars do?  A suggested path is to measure power by tallying the wealth and military assets of a country. Others scholars think this is insufficient. It’s outcomes that should be measured. Often Davids have beaten Goliaths.

The Vietnam War, when a relatively small guerrilla army defeated and then drove out the Americans, is an event no one in the last generation or two can ever forget. Smart strategy by the North Vietnamese leadership was responsible for this. The average Vietnamese family survived on one dollar a day but they triumphed.

In other cases, it can be that the weaker party is prepared to run more risks or bear greater costs, as with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which after America’s longest war has worn down America and its allies’ resolve.

Its obvious, then, that the size of GDP (national income) is not always a sure indicator of who will win. But, perhaps, more often it is if the measurement statistic is refined. If one combines GDP with GDP per capita this yields a primitive indicator that accounts for size and efficiency, the two main ingredients of “net resources”.

Beckley argues that despite the uncertainty as to whether this “net resources” is the best measurement, in most cases it predicts outcomes. Beckley has trawled through the data on war and “net resources” and found this to be usually true.

Look at the Chinese- Japanese War of 1937-1939. Clearly, China with its large population, a sizeable aggregate GDP and a big military gave it far greater power resources. On the other hand Japan was much more efficient with lower production, welfare and security costs and so had a preponderance of “net resources”. Japan’s industry was more three times more productive than China’s. Japan’s agriculture provided a much higher standard of living than China’s and therefore yielded higher taxes to pay for the government’s investment in the modern sectors of the economy, and developing sophisticated military hardware.

Military spending absorbed half of the Chinese government’s revenues. In Japan it was only 7%. It isn’t surprising that Japan easily defeated Japan.

In World War 1 Germany annihilated Russia’s military and forced Russia to give up territory comprising parts of modern-day Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. Russia was devastated by the war.

alt="Jonathan Power"
Jonathan Power

The reason for this was that Russia had higher production, welfare and security costs than Germany and thus had far fewer “net resources” available for geopolitical competition. Russia lost the war despite having an army twice the size of Germany’s and a bigger budget, but Germany was ahead in technology and skill at fighting. Russian soldiers were sent to the battlefield without training and even sent into battle without rifles. Russia also lacked railways in the western regions, in contrast to Germany which could move men and materials round fast.

Beckley concludes that over the last two centuries the side with greater “net resources” won 70% of disputes and nearly 80% of wars.

He adds to this the picture painted by what is called “power transition theory”. For decades scholars have debated whether power parity increases or decreases the likelihood of war between states. Today as China grows economically, approaching per head, western levels of GDP, many scholars have argued that it is becoming extremely powerful and that this will lead to war.

But they overlook that China leads the world in debt, resource consumption, pollution, useless infrastructure, wasted industrial capacity, scientific fraud, internal security spending, border disputes and the creation of over-large numbers of pensioners, invalids and geriatrics.

China also uses seven times the input to generate a given level of economic output as the US. It is surrounded by nineteen countries, most of which are hostile towards China.

All this reduces greatly the significance of China’s rise. Measured by the “net resources” indicator it is a long way from becoming truly powerful. 

Politicians, the media and academics need to get hold of the “net resources” argument if the electorate is to be properly educated on China’s true status.

The old way of measuring power distorts reality.

Copyright: Jonathan Power.

One Response to "The power of nations"

  1. fjahanpour   April 25, 2019 at 8:18 am

    The one sentence that jumped out at me was Professor Beckley’s remark, “the balance of power is the motor of world politics, playing a role as central as the role of energy in physics and money in economics.” On a global level, it seems that this observation is quite correct. In international politics whenever one country has achieved dominant power it has been very problematic for the world and even for that country. Since the end of the Cold War when the United States found herself as the sole superpower in a unipolar world it started to act with a lack of restraint. It started with President H. D. Bush’s Desert Shield and Desert Storm, to U.S.’s almost non-stop attacks on Iraq that eventually culminated in the Invasion of Iraq, and its wars in Somalia, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, etc. where the United States acts with no restraint at all. As Madeleine Albright said: “We follow the United Nations when it suits us and we ignore it when we must” (paraphrase). Now, that form of unilateralism has reached its grotesque height under Trump who openly violates international law, undermines U.N. agencies, issues executive orders illegally giving other people’s territories to its clients as in the case of Israel, and is now openly pushing for regime change and war in Iran. In other words, it has been acting like a total rogue state having silenced and intimidated other countries. Until we have an international system with teeth to enforce international law, balance of power is essential to restrain the efforts of rogue states.


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