Joe Nye and Adam Kahane on the Future of Power

Harvard professor Joseph Nye wrote a nice brief piece in the Chronicle for Higher Education that talks about the U.S.’s evolving role as a world power and that articulates his distinction between hard and soft power. He writes:

In the United States, we tend to focus on the hard power of coercion and payment. This is partly a reflection of American political culture and institutions. No politician wants to appear “soft,” and Congress finds it easier to increase the budget of the Pentagon than of the State Department. This bias has been reinforced by prevailing scholarship.

Realism adequately represents some aspects of international relations. But states are no longer the only important actors in global affairs; military security is not the only major outcome that they seek; and force is not the only or always the best instrument available to achieve desired outcomes. Indeed, the relationship among advanced postindustrial countries is one of complex interdependence. This deep network of transnational ties among democratic societies means that the absence of any overarching government has very different effects in such contexts than realism predicts.

It is not solely in relations among advanced countries that soft power plays an important role. In an information age, communications become more important, and outcomes are shaped not merely by whose army wins but also by whose story wins.

In the 21st century, a smart foreign policy will combine the hard power of coercion and payment with the soft power of attraction and persuasion.

I think Nye is mostly right, but while he’s advocating different approaches, his frame is still oriented around one party imposing its will on another. It’s what Adam Kahane describes in his book, Power and Love, as power-over. Kahane (strongly influenced by the philosopher, Paul Tillich) contrasts this with power-to:

Power has two sides. The generative side of power is the power-to that Paul Tillich refers to as the drive to self-realization. The degenerative, shadow side is power-over — the stealing or suppression of the self-realization of another. Tillich recognizes both sides: “Power actualizes itself through force and compulsion. But power is neither the one nor the other. It is being, actualizing itself over nonbeing. It uses and abuses compulsion in order to overcome this threat. It uses and abuses force in order to actualize itself. But it is neither one nor another.”

Degenerative power-over arises out of generative power-to. When I am exercising my power-to and I feel myself bumping up against yours, and if in this conflict I have the capacity to prevail over you, then I can easily turn to exercising power over you. My drive to realize myself slips easily into valuing my self-realization above yours, and then into believing arrogantly that I am more deserving of self-realization, and then advancing into my self-realization even if it impedes yours.

Our opportunity is to create a world where it’s not about imposing one’s agenda on others, whether by coercion or persuasion. Instead, it’s about converging on a set of shared goals and about co-creating our path toward achieving those goals. It’s about activation and empowerment, power-to instead of power-over. It’s about seeing the world as “we” rather than “us” versus “them.”

In doing so, we need to have faith that we will not lose ourselves to the whole, but that the whole will become a manifestation of us as individuals.

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