Joseph Nye

Has economic power replaced military might?

By Joseph S. Nye (
Updated: 2011-06-07 15:30
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Economic resources can produce soft-power behavior as well as hard military power. A successful economic model not only finances the military resources needed for the exercise of hard power, but it can also attract others to emulate its example. The European Union's soft power at the end of the Cold War, and that of China today, owes much to the success of the EU and Chinese economic models.

Economic resources are increasingly important in this century, but it would be a mistake to write off the role of military power. As US President Barack Obama said when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, "We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations - acting individually or in concert - will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified."

Even if the probability of the use of force among states, or of threats of its use, is lower now than in earlier eras, the high impact of war leads rational actors to purchase expensive military insurance. If China's hard power frightens its neighbors, they are likely to seek such insurance policies, and the US is likely to be the major provider.

This leads to a larger point about the role of military force. Some analysts argue that military power is of such restricted utility that it is no longer the ultimate measuring rod. But the fact that military power is not always sufficient to decide particular situations does not mean that it has lost all utility. While there are more situations and contexts in which military force is difficult to use, it remains a vital source of power.

Markets and economic power rest upon political frameworks, which in turn depend not only upon norms, institutions, and relationships, but also upon the management of coercive power. A well-ordered modern state is one that holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and that allows domestic markets to operate. Internationally, where order is more tenuous, residual concerns about the coercive use of force, even if a low probability, can have important effects - including a stabilizing effect.

Indeed, metaphorically, military power provides a degree of security that is to order as oxygen is to breathing: little noticed until it becomes scarce, at which point its absence dominates all else. In the twenty-first century, military power will not have the same utility for states that it had in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it will remain a crucial component of power in world politics.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., a former US assistant secretary of defense, is a professor at Harvard University and the author of The Future of Power.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

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