“We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.” ~ George Orwell, 1984
Power is perhaps one of the thorniest issues in any relationship or society. Power is the ability to coerce, influence or control others—to have authority. It is also the act of being effective and capable. Distilled to its essence, power is the ability to get intended results. Without a bedrock understanding, it’s easy to misinterpret or be intimidated by it. Disempowerment is a tool of despots, and in a changing world, it’s essential to recognize how it works. Power is a perception. It cannot exist without overt, or covert, agreements. When those agreements mutate or dissolve, the perception changes and power dissipates. Claiming personal power, especially during times of strife, is the key to moving forward. The three general categories of power I want to discuss here are the personal use of power for individual gain.
Personal power takes many forms: political, social, physical, intellectual, sexual, charismatic, economic, and criminal. It can be altruistic or selfish. The dynamics of power exist within the family and throughout every tier of human interaction, including heads of state. Power is used to get intended results. The application of personal power requires working through an existing structure, often an institution. Beneath the outward manifestation of the organization is the desire for power by those that control it. Sometimes individuals with goals to promote an idea or ideology create new institutions to increase their power and advance that idea or ideology, but in most situations, individuals seeking power gravitate to existing institutions and work their way up the command chain. They’ve also been known to hijack existing organizations and convert them to serve their purposes. Some good examples of this are the opportunistic takeover of the United States Republican Party after President Lincoln's assassination in 1861 by the new post-Civil War industrialists, and the takeover of the Nationalist Socialist Party in 1920 by Adolf Hitler in Germany. In terms of the latter, initially the Nazi party was focused on anti-big business, anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalism, but was transformed by Hitler to become predominately ultra-nationalistic and anti-Semitic, propelling Germany, and himself as its leader, to world power. A more current example occurred in 2015 when Donald Trump ran for president of the United States to promote his ‘brand’ and increase his personal wealth. When he won the 2016 election, he used the office of president to increase his personal economic and political power. Historically, these power grabs never do. But unfortunately, they leave a lot of destruction in their wake.
People who are attracted to power will exploit any system in which they find themselves. Those with malignant intent use fear, greed, hate, envy and other negative emotional triggers as primary tools of control because they unify people toward their desired course of action. Fear of foreigners and those of other races, religions and cultures are perennial triggers used throughout history. These issues are exploited by groups of people who gain politically by promoting conservative social and economic agendas that benefit them financially. A current example of this in the United States is the National Rifle Association (NRA), which began as an organization dedicated to safety and responsible gun ownership. It has morphed into a shill for the private arms industry that profit immensely from carnage, and psychologically snares unstable individuals who are easily able to gain access to military-grade weapons. According to research by the Pew Institute, death by guns in the United States is higher now than any other year on record. Yet the NRA does nothing and has remained unchecked by authority until now when it is currently losing its charter in New York State. Two of the prime reasons why societies exist are to provide physical and psychological security for its members. Unchecked gun violence is a failure of societal purpose and an early sign of deterioration and impending collapse.
Power manifests both tangibly and intangibly. The most pervasive form of power, and the one most difficult to change or eliminate, is institutionalized power. Societies project themselves in the world through their institutions. The form that institutional power takes differs from that of the individuals within those institutions. Understanding institutional power politics is a way of grasping how nations protect their interests, which is often by threatening military, economic or political aggression. Because countries compete for the world's resources, it is to their advantage to be manifestly able to harm others. Their priority is national self-interest over the interest of the international community.
Some of the techniques of power include:
- conspicuous development of nuclear and other lethal technologies;
- pre-emptive strike capabilities;
- selective means of destruction;
- cyber warfare;
- amassing military units on a border;
- warfare through proxies;
- the imposition of tariffs or economic sanctions;
- covert operations; and
- other methods of asymmetric warfare.
There is also the projection of soft power through attraction, such as increasing funding for national security, diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action, economic reconstruction and development. If the institution is a government or represents a government, there are additional qualities that affect its power relative to other governments. Institutions are based on sources of power that include monetary wealth, natural resources, the support of their constituencies, the size of the political unit, quality of leadership and vision, chain-of-command and efficiency.
Understanding political power as the interaction that people and institutions have with each other enables us to observe how these interactions work and to understand what we see. The applications of power through institutions are limited only by the degree of control that power-seekers possess, including their ability to manipulate and intimidate others by any means, including , but not limited to, bullying and deceit. Their actions are predicated upon the belief that the ends justify the means. These tactics are perilous. Power politics are threaded throughout all levels of relationships.
Since one individual or one institution is seldom omnipotent, it’s necessary to ally with others who share common goals. Alliances call for the tools of power politics to get intended results. Two traditional tools are compromise and manipulation. Generally speaking, the more power, the less compromise between parties. The most fundamental desires of both people and institutions are to be secure and to pursue their interests unimpeded. The first level of influence is the critical need for security. A nation will, in fact, go to war to protect its vital interests and to resist encroachment by another power.
The second level of influence is where a nation’s interest is not directly challenged but is subject to the escalation of the first level of influence. This level is often active when there is a geographical area between two or more powers known as a buffer, or scatter, zone. A nation that sits in a buffer zone is usually dependent on one or more of the larger powers that exert influence but doesn’t have absolute control. This is the most dangerous of all situations and is the main reason for accidental wars, such as the spark that led to WWI—which occurred in Serbia—between Russia and Austria/Hungry. Today, Ukraine is the first level of influence for Russia and a second level of influence for the EU and the U.S. Another present-day buffer zone is the Middle East. The relationship between Israel and its Muslim neighbors is potentially explosive. In these places, miscalculations could quickly escalate to a nuclear exchange, which would set off a devastating chain of events due to the complex web of agreements and history among nations.
The third level of influence includes those realms that lie outside the security interests of a nation. A country will usually refrain from going to war over a third level area but will try to promote its interests if it can do so with little cost or risk. To do this requires leadership to make the correct distinction between the levels of influence. An example of miscalculations based on incorrect distinctions was the United States' decision to invade, and then occupy, Iraq in March 2003. That decision was based on the false assertion that weapons of mass destruction were located there. It was also based on a desire to leverage access to oil and possibly as retribution by President George W. Bush to avenge a failed assassination attempt on his father during the latter’s presidency.
Another example of the third level of influence for both Russia (which supports Assad, the dictator of Syria) and NATO is the Civil War in Syria, especially considering that the U.S. supports the Syrians and the Kurds who want their own nation-state. When power leaves an area, a vacuum occurs. Other competitive forces will attempt to fill it so as to extend their interests or counteract the influence gained by others if that vacuum is filled. A situation in flux is unstable and ripe for conflict. When President Obama failed to follow up on his policy of bombing Assad's military bases if Assad continued to use chemical warfare, Putin saw that lack of follow-through as an opportunity to escalate the war. In late 2018, when President Trump unilaterally committed to withdrawing American support for the Syrian rebels and the Kurds, he effectively abandoned them to Russia. War is pure power in action, as well as a highly organized form of theft. It always involves resources coveted by the powerful and is often caused by a failure to compromise (such as the events leading up to WWI) or by appeasement, which increased the power of Nazi Germany leading to WWII. Sometimes it’s caused by pure naked aggression. Military alliances such as NATO and the Warsaw Pact are organizations whose primary purpose is to project power. The establishment of NATO was the collective post-war response of the Western democracies. The Warsaw Pact was the Soviet response. The balance of power was restored in Europe due to the successful breaking of the Soviet blockade of Berlin. The vacuum was filled.
In the contemporary world, broader alliances of powers are needed for mutual survival. Current systems and institutions formed after WWII are increasingly ineffective. At that time, political power was divided among the most powerful nations. But times change and power is fluid. As the circumstances and players change, so do the landscape and tools used to wield it. There is currently a vacuum evolving within the existing worldwide power structure. It can only be addressed by creating more robust structures suitable to meet these new circumstances. Nowhere are there more explicit examples of these conditions than the most recent COVID-19 pandemic and the fast-approaching situation of climate change. Both are intensely threatening and require a collaborative and coordinated global response, now and into the future.
In and of itself, power is not inherently negative. The negativity associated with it has to do with its application. There is another type of power, however, and its strength should never be underestimated. I’m talking about the personal and social power of altruism. This is the power of selflessness and action on behalf of others. This type of power accumulates by what individuals do. Moral power is benevolent, and its strength is like that of the oceanic tides or strong river currents. It harnesses human beings’ urge to do good and, because it exists outside of the cost-benefit calculation, it isn’t evident except through its absence. One only has to observe a creature’s need to be cared for, and its parents’ efforts to do so, to realize that it is one of the primary engines of survival. If that were not true, the human race would’ve died out a long time ago. Altruism balances selfishness. We are hard-wired for it, and it has carried the human race through thousands of generations. It is a compelling power that holds life together. When it is suppressed, it leads to aberration at both the personal and institutional level.
Corruption of Power
It is necessary for those wielding power successfully to accept and acquiesce to the systemic hierarchy of power, which includes elements of its abuse. Like all traits, the ability to resist power is on a gradient. Whether or not power leads to corruption depends on circumstances and the innate predisposition of the individual acquiring it.
How have leaders like Nelson Mandela in South Africa been able to resist the temptations of power while others, like Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell, have been corrupted by it? The answer lies with the internal motivation for acquiring it and whether it is sought for the benefit of others or personal gain. This motive is the criterion that determines the level of corruption. Both Nelson Mandela and George Washington refused to run for office for a third term because they consciously recognized power’s potential for corruption. Two of the leading players in the world of today—Putin and Xi—are interested in making themselves sovereign for life. This lays bare their motives and corruption level.
Modern Day Titans
There is a social contract between those empowered to run a society and everyone else. This informal and subconscious agreement states that the vast majority of those who are ruled will give up some independent power so their physical and safety needs are met. As long as most people believe that they will have a better life under a social system of control, the status quo is maintained. But since the turn of the millennia, the world's democratic societies have been under increased stress. As power structures designed for a system of competing nation-states, they are increasingly ineffective in a 21st-century, inter-dependent world.
The 20th century was the century of the United States. By mid-century, the United States dominated the world order, which led to a competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union for indirect global control. As democracy in the U.S. flourished, there were severe problems in the Soviet-style Communist ideology with its ineffective, rigid and top-down decision-making. Combined with an economy that did not work, by the 1990s the Soviet Union collapsed. For the next two decades, the U.S. was the sole world power and linchpin of the emerging world order in a post-Cold War era. Meanwhile, in China, the death of Mao in 1976 left chaos worse than the Soviet system under Stalin. When Deng Xiaoping restored order and ruled until his retirement in 1989, he loosened the political power control of the Communist Party. He began a far-reaching system of market-economy and social reforms. In the meantime, the U.S. entered a time of political corruption wherein the economy was increasingly controlled by the top one percent of the population. The result has been a weaker and less powerful American society. Because of these and other major shifts, China is now positioned as the emerging superpower in the world.
Regardless of which country is in power, here’s the elephant in the room: The earth’s resources cannot withstand the continuing expansion and exploitation practiced by the free market economy. The entire environment is interrelated in a delicate balance. Human society still has to cooperate on a global level if we are to find a way to sustain life. Indeed, we have a survival imperative that requires universal collaboration or we will perish. Power politics, as currently practiced, is leading us to extinction. Our current operations are untenable, and I sincerely believe that we need to prioritize ourselves as earthlings first and foremost, rather than clinging to the singular identity of members of nation-states.