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Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 15:57 | SYDNEY
Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 15:57 | SYDNEY

Power and authority



22 May 2009 10:38

My soft power skepticism last week elicited some very thoughtful responses, both from Sam and elsewhere in the Australian blogosphere.

Sam seems to accept my general proposition that soft power does not really constitute a form of power at all, lacking as it does the capacity to change the behaviour of states in situations where interests diverge. However, he’s uncomfortable with my inference that the international system, stripped bare, is alone regulated by calculations of power and interest.

For Sam, that formulation fails to account for a number of features of international society, not least the important role of political authority, which, he argues, need not have material foundations. In this view, a state may assume authority regardless of its material capacity to enforce it, as his analogy from the world of cricket seems to imply.

Once again, there’s something naturally enticing about this idea. Americans in particular have always found it much easier to accept their state’s privileged global role as confirmation of the universal applicability of its values and the providential endorsement of its mission, rather than a product of its immense power. Unfortunately, however, that conception of authority does not comport with experience.

It’s no coincidence that authority has historically gone hand-in-hand with preponderant power. States with vast amounts of power relative to their competitors, having sometimes prevailed in major war, have always faced a difficult challenge: to establish an order that perpetuates their favourable circumstances and preserves —or enhances — their newly acquired power.

Outright domination is perhaps the most obvious strategy for this, and plenty of statesmen have succumbed to that temptation. But military dominion is expensive and dangerous, hard to establish and, as demonstrated over the last two hundred years, quite likely to be self defeating. A more promising strategy is to obtain the acquiescence of other states, to craft an order based on legitimate authority, by offering strategic and economic benefits which accord with the interests of these states, in exchange for an implicit undertaking not to undermine the order.

Authority, in this sense, acts as a kind of bridge – a means by which dominant states distill order from power. It is not distinct from power, as Sam suggests, but inseparable from it and designed, ultimately, to legitimise and reinforce it.

Photo by Flickr user Swang168, used under a Creative Commons license.

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