Power Projection in the 21st Century

According to the 2017 National Security Strategy, “great power competition” is again the focus of US foreign policy. (US & Trump, 2017, p. 27) Ironically, nations spend so much time competing over power, but how well is power defined or even understood?

What even is power, at least in the political sense of the word? According to Webster, power is the, “possession of control, authority, or influence over others.” When people think of nations projecting power, they often envision military force, but there are other forms of power that are more subtle and less direct.

Dr. Joseph Nye literally wrote the book on this type of power, and his work led to many foreign policy experts and military leaders rethinking how power should be projected. In Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, Dr. Nye categorized power as either “hard” or “soft.” (Nye, 2004, p. 4) Hard power is the use of “coercion” (military action, sanctions, embargoes, etc.) by a state to achieve its foreign policy objectives, and soft power is the use of “co-option,” which uses seemingly peaceful and diplomatic methods to achieve its objectives. As Dr. Nye stated in his book,

            Co-optive power-the ability to shape what others want-can rest on the attractiveness of one’s culture and values or the ability to manipulate the agenda of political choices in a manner that makes others fail to express some preferences because they seem to be too unrealistic. (p.7)

Soft power is based on the attractiveness and popular appeal of a country’s “culture,” “political values,” and “foreign policies.” (Nye, 2004, p. 5, 6, 10)

There are problems with Nye’s conception of soft power. The appeal of another country’s culture and values is often based on a glamourized image, and countries develop their political cultures and values throughout their history. Blindly superimposing one country’s political values and culture onto another would likely cause chaos, as the people of Iraq can surely attest.

What about the appeal of one country’s foreign policies to people in other countries? Although nations often share goals and mutual interests, nations’ foreign policy goals and priorities are more likely to conflict than be congruous. Global politics is not just a zero-sum game, but it would be equally naïve to say that all issues can be resolved solely through the appeal of one country’s values or culture while ignoring another country’s national security concerns and economic interests.

According to Dr. Nye’s own definition, the effectiveness of soft power relies in no small part on the manipulation of public opinion. When a major power uses its vast resources to change the values of another nation’s population and limit their political choices, isn’t that simply another form of coercion? Classifying power according to a state’s use of coercion or co-option (i.e., hard or soft power) is naive at best and disingenuous at worst.

Globalization and the internet have only made this situation worse. The internet has created a new battlefield where nations are fighting to project power across the globe. World powers are using the internet to spread information or (in many cases) disinformation across the world with a speed and quantity never seen before. As Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 US presidential election demonstrate, a cyber campaign can be a very effective and relatively cheap way to project power. While nations have used mass media to project influence in the past, social media platforms, modern data mining, and artificial intelligence allow nations to disseminate large quantities of information that can be tailored to individual political beliefs for maximum effect.

This creates a very serious problem for international relations. Since the use of military force to project power risks war, nations will be tempted to use these new methods under the mistaken belief that the escalation risks are low. Tensions between Russia and the US, which were already high before the election, have only increased due to Russia’s use of cyber warfare techniques to alter the outcome of the election. Since 2016, the US retaliated against Russia for its hacking and influence operations by increasing sanctions, indicting Russian intelligence agents, and even arresting a Russian national living in America, Maria Butina. While not as dangerous as an invasion or military attack, this is hardly a low risk method to project power.

Ideas can be weaponized, and states can use the internet, mass media, big data, AI, and social media platforms to spread their influence faster and more effectively than ever before. Even with globalization, states are still responsible for any activity that happens inside of their borders, and they are also responsible for any activity they support outside of their borders. There must be a way to hold governments accountable if they or their proxies interfere with another country’s political system. That end, we should classify power according to the levels of state control and transparency.

When You Know Whom to Blame: Direct Power Projection

Most state actions are under the orders of political leaders and executed by state agents, and the nations responsible for these actions are obvious. These actions could be classified as direct-overt power projections. Examples of direct and overt projections of power include military strikes, invasions, and diplomatic actions like sanctions. When President Bill Clinton ordered the airstrike on the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in 1998, the airstrike was ordered by the nation’s leader and carried out by its military. President Clinton admitted to the attack and explained his rational.

Of course, states often act in secret. State actors (intelligence officers, special forces commandos, etc.) are often used by national leaders to project power covertly. Although these covert operations were eventually exposed, Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia and the NSA’s cyber-attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities are examples of direct-covert power projection.

Cloaks, Daggers, and Promoting Democracy: Indirect Power Projection

When states act indirectly, their control is limited because their agents are not committing any actions themselves. For example, the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy gives grants to NGOs and groups operating in other countries for benign-sounding purposes like to “promote and defend human rights and the rule of law.” This would be an example of indirect-overt power projection since US government funds are given openly to non-state actors. These activities might seem harmless, but these funds could also be used to undermine another government. Sometimes, monetary or material aid is given in secret precisely because it hides a more malevolent purpose. For example, the Nixon administration covertly funded labor unions in Chile during a mass strike to destabilize the Allende government. Governments, usually their intelligence agencies, often covertly fund foreign paramilitary groups fighting a common enemy. During the Soviet-Afghan War, the CIA secretly armed Islamic militants (mujahedeen) fighting against the Soviet Union. These are examples of indirect-covert power projection.

In the past, both democratic and authoritarian nations have attempted to influence the internal politics of their rivals for various reasons. Unfortunately, international laws are stuck in the 20th century with a focus on direct projections of state power. By changing the way we think about power, we can begin discussions on what will constitute acceptable and unacceptable activities to project power in the 21st century. Hopefully, new international laws and treaties can prevent misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to conflict.

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