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Understanding the Concept of Power and Its Polarity

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Genesis of power in human nature

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In the hunter gathering society, we lived day to day lives. Our needs were confined to those of food, clothing and shelter. Then man discovered fire. When he did this, he could make weapons to hunt. He could hunt at night and he could hunt creatures bigger than him therefore increasing his options of what to eat. This exposed him to new forms of nutrition and proteins. When he could cook his meat using fire, he could kill bacteria and germs and thereby protect his body from contracting diseases. This increased his life expectancy and his quality of life. When he discovered a better quality of life his needs increased, becoming more complex( Harari, 2018). When his needs became more complex, it became more than just food clothing and shelter. There subsequently rose the necessity to live collective lives. Thus came the state of Nature described by Hobbs, Locke and Rousseau among others. What State of Nature theories have in common is that they all state that humans began to live collectively. This was because that was the way they could satisfy their now complex needs. This is turn generated the most complex need of all, the need for leadership. This was how for the first time ‘power’ that was thus far not explicitly defined was consolidated into a leader or an entity ( State). This power created a hierarchy. It put its bearer in an elevated position. Soon, we began to become power hungry. Those who were exposed to power wanted to retain it and those who were not wanted a taste of it. Power configured the way we lived. Wars were fought for it or revolutions broke out in the name to curb it. State systems were created for it where power was either concentrated or distributed. Elaborate systems for the transfer of power were formulated. On a social scale, even families developed power structures which were patriarchal (more commonly) or matriarchal. Power penetrated both our personal and public lives. Soon, power itself became a complex need so much so that it became inherent. And as it is us humans that are the elementary constituent of a State, power became an inherent need of the State too.

The concept and characteristics of power

The inherent need and the emphasis on the preponderant position of power is supported by Realist theorists such as Hans Morgentahu. He said power constitutes the core element of all human species (Holsti, 1964). Power is what formulates action of states in the international arena. Realists say this is the case because we live in a state of anarchy where there is no one central authority of regulation (Goldstein, 1994). The acquisition as well as the maintenance of power is what drives State behaviour (Morgenthau, 1948). For example, USA has displayed on multiple occasions its intent to maintain its image of a world super power by constantly meddling in the internal affairs of other nations and taking down its adversaries using any means necessary. For example, in 1953, it helped remove the Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh and replaced him with an authoritarian leader who Washington favoured (Tharoor, 2016). They also helped a military coup take place in Chilli to topple the socialist President Salvador Allande and replace him with the notorious General Augusto Pinochet. A senate inquiry in the 1970’s revealed that a total of 4 million dollars were spent in covert operations that included from organising protests to bribing polititians. (Tharoor, 2016). There is also the meddling in the elections of Nicaraguan. The US government threatened to stop remittances( which was to the tune of 500 million) if the people of Nicaraguan voted for Daniel Ortega (Beachy, 2007). They have also tried manipulating economics to secure their interests. For example, The US Ronald Regan policies aimed to reduce global oil prices in order to affect USSR’s economy by targeting its exports (Tharoor, 2016). It could do this because it has the means to.

Power is therefore the capacity of one player A to influence the actions of another player B to do or not to do something (Hosti, 1964). Here, what is to be kept in mind is that B may not have wanted to do the action A had made him do and so there can even be an element of coercion (Dahl, 1957). To paraphrase the above statement, it means that A affects B more than B affects A. For example due to Obama’s ‘trade and equip’ programme of arming them with weapons , America (A) helped the Syrian rebels (B) to combat Assad. A graphical representation would be the following:

However, there are situations where X (B’s action) boomerangs provoking A to act in a certain way. Sometimes this is expected and this is termed as ‘anticipated reaction’ (Holsti, 1964). For example it was likely that America knew that the Russians would accuse them of arming ‘rebel militia’ forces and so the Obama administration had a justification in place for their actions which they enumerated at various forums from the UN to the White House press room. So now, X (B’s action) provoked A to react in a certain way Y. This can be graphically represented as :-

From the above example, we can conclude that power is relational where impact can be the genesis to a new action.

This way of looking at power as a relation between two entities was first propounded by Robert Dahl in his ‘Concept of Power’ (Dahl, 1977). When one looks at power from this perspective, it shows that power is defined in relative terms where one entity is more powerful than another. But at the same time, from the above example (Where B that was supposedly at a disadvantaged position of power could influence the actions of A), we can also conclude that even nations at the so called disadvantaged position of power can have an upper hand. An example of this would be Romania in the Cold War era. Even though it was a member of the Warsaw pact and the Comecon, it refused to completely bow down to soviet ascendancy and refused to allow soviet troops to be stationed on their territory (Lieber, 1988).

Therefore, when you look at power from the prism of Morgenthau and Dahl, you also reach the conclusion that power cannot be exercised in isolation, it needs to be recognised as well as validated (Holsti, 1964). For example, having the status of a permanent 5 member in the Security Council validates the 5 countries’ power in the international arena.

Another important aspect of power is that it can be looked at as a quantity. Power can be used to measure influence but at the same time influence depends on power ( Lieber, 1988). For example, China has a GDP of trillions which allows it to buy American debt. This in turn has made America survive on Chinese financial aid indirectly. Here, monetary power leads to Chinese influence. But, without this money, china wouldn’t have the ability to perform this function in the first place.

Another important facet of power is intent. This can be seen in two ways. One possessing or being capable of exercising power does not make a State powerful if it does not intend to use this power. For example, India’s nuclear policy initially was criticised for India had said that it would only use it’s weapons when provoked. Critics questioned the point of such a policy for they believed that since the enemy knew that India would only retaliate after they attacked, they would initially strike India in such a manner that would end her entirely before she could use her own nuclear weapon. Therefore, in this situation power without intent rendered this power effectively useless. The second scenario is when there is intent but not necessarily power. In such a situation, it is the intent that makes the state powerful. For example, Iran’s intent to process nuclear weapons sparked off Israel among other nations to come up with retaliatory strategies. Similarly, there are countries in the world that possessed nuclear weapons as well as weapons of mass destruction. However, what made North Korea stand out was its intent to use them. This put the United States and other countries on their toes. Power is therefore a means to an end and is not an end in itself (Spanier & Wendzel 1972).

Another basis to obtain power is through position. Dahl illustrates this with a very simple example. If an ordinary man goes in the middle of the road and tries to regulate traffic, it is unlikely he would be taken seriously however, if a policeman does the same, he would be abided by. This is because his position not on gives him power but validates it ( Dahl, 1957) According to Max webber, when power is backed by legal sanction, it becomes authority (Dillon, 2010).

Another source of power is leadership. For example under Fidel Castro, Cuba a small island country became a force to reckon with. It was openly anti American being a communist state but, it also twisted the soviet unions arm from time to time. For example, during the cold war, it would purchase oil from the soviet union only paying in hard cash to keep payment out of the books. It did this by threatening the USSR that it would cut ties with them as well as by playing the socialist solidarity card that unified them ( Goldstein, 1994).

One of the most certain ways to validate power however is support. This is not just in terms of support being reflected into votes which puts a person into a position of power. Support also helps the leader stay in power. For example in 2016 despite his repressive military policies, a coup to overthrow Erodgan failed as the people backed him.

A driving force of power in the history of the world has also been ideas and ideology. Ideas and ideology is a uniting force. The bi-polar power blocks derived their identity on the basis of the ideology they subscribed to. America has used the justification of protecting democracy multiple times to go to wars. Nixon’s secretary of state Henry Kissinger had once said that he didn’t understand why America should just watch countries become communist because its people were irresponsible (Tharoor, 2016). He among others advocated an active foreign policy where America would become the poster boy for democracy and free liberal thinking. Kennedy justified American intervention in the Vietnam war on the basis of the ‘Domino Theory’ saying that if they lost Vietnam to the communists soon the rest of the world would follow. In terms of ideas, powerful ideas such as that of nationalism, religious doctrines have a profound impact on the masses. Nationalism was used by leaders from Bismarck to unify Germany to fascists such as Hitler and Mussolini to justify their repression.

The above examples depicting the actions of states in the name of power makes you question why it is necessary for them to act this way. There are multiple factors that are used to justify state actions. One is National security. No state in the world is completely secure (Spanier & Wendzel, 1972). A state can only expect a degree of security or relative security and can never feel safe in absolute terms (Spanier & Wendzel, 1972). This can be for several reasons including that of geography. Take Israel for example, it is surrounded by Arab enemies on all sides and constantly feels threatened. India is another example that can be mentioned here. It is surrounded by a super power china and a hostile enemy Pakistan both having violated it’s territorial sovereignty. States also face national security threats from internal threats. These can include from naxals to even drugs, both acting like a menace to the population leading the state to declare ‘wars on terror’ or ‘wars on drugs’. Many a times, in the name of protecting its interests countries go to war or indulge in unscrupulous means. For, if they don’t do this, it could lead to the undermining of their power. For example, in order to secure its trading interests that was through the Panama cannal, in 1989, US invaded Panama but sugarcoated this move terming it as ‘Opporation Just Cause’ (Goldstein, 1994). Similarly, there was a theory put by britsh politician Lord Palmerson right in the 1840’s that said Russian invasion patters were based on achieving warm water ports (Goldstein, 1944). This theory can hold true under two circumstances . The first was the port of Vladivostok which China had to hand over to Russia due to the treaty of Peiking right from the time of imperialism or what was known as the ‘slicing of the Chinese mealon’. A second example is of the soviet invasion of Afghanistan as part of its southward expansion policy. (Goldstein, 1944). A CIA report said that this move by the Russians was also a calculated decision to achieve a warm water port Chah Bar that was strategically very beneficial [Central Intelligence agency (CIA), 1980]. Considering Russian winters and weather, having warm water ports is essential for trade and commerce giving this theory a strong grounding.

Apart from National security, there is also the case of a ‘security dilemma’ (Lieber, 1988). As a state watches its neighbours power grow, it to feels compelled to do the same. This leads to a security dilemma where both nations are oriented defensively (Liever, 1988). This is clearly illustrated by India and Pakistan who’s nuclear policies were all about countering the other state’s advancement in acquiring a nuclear weapon. In a situation of a security dilemma, nations simply try to achieve a ‘states quo’ but in order to do this end up taking up aggressive policies or they militaries. To paraphrase therefore, even the goal to achieve a states quo leads to acts of aggression ( Lieber, 1988).


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