The Pursuit of Power

As mentioned in previous blog posts, power is the raison d’être of our postmodern world. Nietzsche considered power as the means of overcoming a prevalent nihilistic state by transforming philosophical man into what he called an “Ubermensch” who would prosper while others perished. But this is just one particular view of power. The more one touches upon the philosophical underpinnings of power, the more one realizes that there is a large intellectual gap between common notions of power and philosophical notions of power purported by Nietzsche and other wise men of the past.

Many are familiar with Lord Acton’s famous quote about power: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is indeed a timeless quote, and when coupled with a postmodern ontology that is solely based on the pursuit of power, one can then assess the level of corruption that is pervasive in our global environment with a clear eye. Yet power serves as both the ends and means of the natural and moral world. Power is then faced with the most foundational law of both the natural and moral world, which is none other than the law of equilibrium. Even empiricists like Sir Francis Bacon regarded the law of equilibrium as the basic characteristic of both the natural and moral world. Due to the law of equilibrium, the foundational principle of both politics and international relations is the principle that is known as the “balance of power.”

Due to the centrality of the balance of power in the area of international relations, the Harvard Professor Stephen Walt wrote in a Foreign Policy piece that if your international relations courses in college did not discuss the concept of balance of power, ask for a refund. One can argue that the balance of power is the natural distribution of power set by natural forces in the international system. When the free will of human beings is juxtaposed with this very basic law of nature, the choice for men becomes one of either hegemony or of equilibrium as mentioned by Henry Kissinger in his last book titled “World Order.”

Hegemony, however, is merely an illusion. Napoleon and Hitler can be employed as examples to illustrate the failures of hegemony. International laws and norms that prevent one country from dominating all other countries stem from the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) and the Congress of Vienna (1815) that were the result of European religious wars and Napoleonic conquests. After the Napoleonic experience, European rulers decided that wars should be limited in the pursuit of limited interests, but they could not prevent the hegemonic wars subsequent to the Congress of Vienna, namely the two world wars and America’s pursuit of “liberal hegemony” in the words of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.

One fascinating case to illustrate the failure of hegemony and the veracity of the law of equilibrium is the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the late 1990’s. The war ended in a stalemate despite the fact that Ethiopia, with a population of approximately 78 million people in the year 2000 and with overwhelming international support, was matched against an Eritrean nation whose population was a mere 4.5 million and was totally abandoned by the international community. Stephen Walt, in his latest book titled “The Hell of Good Intentions”, asks a great question, the answer of which is none other than the fact that the basic human desire and impulse to conquer the world often outweighs the need for rationality and objective reasoning: “Instead of greeting the defeat of its principal rival [the former Soviet Union] as an opportunity to reduce America’s global burdens, why did both Democrats and Republicans embark on an ill-considered campaign to spread democracy, markets, and other liberal values around the world?”

In an anarchic world that is fraught with war and poverty, power is the means to fend off the fear of being annihilated as well as the means to survive in a life that was characterized by Thomas Hobbes as “brutish, nasty, and short.” In a world that is split between those who have power and those who don’t, Thucydides said that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” The powerful also set the laws and rules for men, and if people are fortunate enough to live in a society ruled by enlightened men, the powerful will create a set of laws that sets a fair balance and equilibrium between elite and popular interests.

The world also operates on the basic assumption that the acquisition of power gets you what you want. Yet, as the Ancient Greeks put it, power is spoiled by what is known as the figurative “Damoclean Sword” that hangs over the conscience of the powerful and puts them in an unusual state of insecurity. Ultimately, real power rests in the ability to walk away from power. Thus, as Thomas Sowell put it, one should be wary of those desperately seeking power. Real leaders are wise, and wise men avoid the dangers that are associated with power. The Fourth Caliph of the Islamic Empire, Ali Ibn Abi Talib, once suggested that if you were to run away from the world, the world will come running to you. This suggestion is similar to the one made by Kierkegaard, who proposed what is known as a “double movement” whereby one attains one’s desires simply by walking away from them initially.

One’s power is assessed in the world of politics, and political philosophy is the intellectual pursuit of what constitutes the good life as suggested by Leo Strauss. Politics then becomes a struggle to impose one’s view of the good life on others, according to Mearsheimer. In Western liberal cultures, the basic belief is that the good life can be ascertained through the employment of individual reason and the personal deciphering of universal truths, first causes, and first principles. But the reality is that there is a variety of perspectives on what constitutes the good life due to a variety of reasons, and as a result politics becomes a futile enterprise and in turn the imposition of liberal values on non-western societies leads to conflict rather than cooperation, as suggested by John Mearsheimer.

Liberalism, with its tenets of laissez-faire capitalism, democracy, individualism, and reason, may work for the West. As someone who is born and raised in the United States and is fairly educated, I am a beneficiary of liberalism and I am a strong proponent of liberal culture and values. But liberalism does not satisfy the basic need of equitable distribution of bread and butter in developing areas of the world like Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and thus it cannot be applied elsewhere due to nationalism and realism. It is why the ministry of finance is the most powerful government institution in third world countries, whereas in advanced nations it is merely an administrative institution.

In its early stages of development, the United States also employed a model of development known as the “Infant Industry Model” where the U.S. economy was closed off from the rest of the world until American industries were fully developed and were strong enough to convert into naval power so that the United States can open up foreign markets for American products. Even amidst the current coronavirus pandemic, a planned economy like China has proven to be better equipped to handle a crisis than a laissez-faire system like the United States. It is why Kissinger admonished that America’s pursuit of power and its imposition of liberal values around the globe must be coupled with the realities in other countries and regions of the world.

For most people around the globe, being a part of a social group and engaging in groupthink is more important than employing individualistic and objective reasoning to arrive at universal truths and first causes. Thus, the limited capability of human beings to reason properly and their inability to forge a consensus with other individuals and groups as to what constitutes universal truths and principles are the primary causes of conflict in the world.

Conflict then necessitates the pursuit of power as the means to fend off attacks and for survival. In a classical realist sense, power consists of three elements: military power, economic power, and power over opinion, which is commonly known as propaganda. Today’s idea of “soft power” consists of propaganda as its basic element. Because of the anarchic nature of the world, the pursuit of power then becomes unhinged, and as a result there is a “crisis” of democracy, self-determination, economics, and morality as initially suggested by the early 20th century historian E.H. Carr.

For one, democracy is dead due to the alliance forged by the military establishment and big money interests which in turn has usurped both major political parties in the United States. Hans Delbruck, a German writer of the early 20th century, posed a rhetorical question and gave an obvious answer: “Wherein lies the real power? In military strength.”

Secondly, due to economic interdependence and the dependence of small states on the military and economic might of larger powers, self-determination means nothing in our current state. As a result, small countries either bandwagon with larger powers, hedge between major powers, or oppose a major power in favor of another. Economic agents have also thrown textbook theories and laws into the trash bin and the economic situation in our world is such that overproduction is subsidizing overconsumption through the creation of unlimited credit, thus leading to a focus on secondary things rather than essentials, all while the poorest of the world are left out of this vicious circle and are without a safety net.

Rather than the producer serving the consumer, the consumer has been serving the producer in a state known as “compulsory commerce” coined by the Iranian philosopher Jalal Al-e Ahmad. In a macroeconomic sense, compulsory commerce consists of Western nations owning the natural resources of smaller nations in exchange for a certain amount of royalties, and those royalties are to be spent on Western armaments and products. In fact, a number of loans offered by the United States to smaller countries are made contingent upon the recipient nation purchasing weapons from U.S. weapons manufacturers. Saudi Arabia purchases more weapons from the United States than any other country under this compulsory commerce scheme, and like other countries, Saudi Arabia will eventually seek its independence from the United States and refute the status quo.

Veneration for machines, weapons, and robots, according to Al-e Ahmad, takes precedence over humanity and spirituality, which in turn leads to the moral crisis that E.H. Carr points out. What constitutes the moral crisis is the fact that the impoverishment of spirituality makes war the only worthwhile thing to pursue. War becomes both a hobby as well as the end-all be-all of life, and as a result humanity is driven to the brink of dissolution.

The only solution for the political, economic, and moral crisis of our time, according to Al-e Ahmad, is the correction of the imbalance between materialism and spirituality that persists in our current state, which is known in the Islamic tradition as “Zuhd.” It is why E.H. Carr also wrote that the solution to this type of situation is either the pursuit of religion or socialism. Even the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his book “The Grand Chessboard”, stressed the importance of religion in politics and slightly lamented the absence of religion in the modern world. In a situation where secondary things are given precedence over primary needs, the result is unemployment and drastic inequality, both of which can only be corrected if there is a shift of focus away from war and towards economic development and global infrastructure.

War and economic development cannot be pursued at the same time. As the saying goes, you cannot hold two watermelons in one hand. Also, by no means does anyone expect absolute equality. As someone once wrote, absolute equality would only increase the number of unhappy people in the world. However, when power leaves the hands of an enlightened ruler and a council of enlightened counselors, power-hungry and self-interested people will viciously compete for power to the detriment of society in its entirety. It is why Plato advocated for the rule of “Philosopher-Kings”, and Aristotle suggested that philosophers rule the world while governments serve as stewards. As long as philosophers are not actively engaged in government, American society should consider imposing term limits on those in Congress.

At the moment, the international system is divided between a United States that acts as the status quo power, and a rising China that seeks fundamental changes to the way power and wealth are distributed in the international system. The status quo power wants to change nothing, whereas the rising power seeks a bigger share of the pie per se. This dynamic will lead to even further conflict across the globe, unless there is a realization similar to the one had by a French delegate to what was then the “League of Nations” in 1924:

“If we are ever to rest secure in the edifice of peace, the great and grave problems of the distribution of raw materials, of markets, of emigration and immigration, will one day have to be taken in hand by the financial and economic organizations of the League and by its Assemblies. If they are left unsolved – let us make no mistake – they will cause internal disruption which will bring down in ruin the fabric we have reared.”

Thus, the solution is the transformation of power from a zero-sum nature to one based on a positive-sum nature. But the current situation is being driven primarily by psychological factors on the part of the status quo power, namely, the United States. These psychological drivers are primarily the idealization of a glorious past and a sense of insecurity stemming from the very real rise of a peer competitor in the form of China.

Because of America’s opening of the floodgates in Iraq, China’s influence can potentially stretch from Beijing all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. Fear of China is perpetuating war on the part of the United States, and as mentioned before, fear stems from the anarchic system of the world where there is no higher power to appeal to in times of crises. Thus, resources are diverted to militarization and war and away from economic development and infrastructure, in turn perpetuating what is known as the “security dilemma” that is leading to a situation of “hyper-militarization” in the words of Ronan Farrow, who recently wrote an excellent book titled “War on Peace” that illustrates the failure of diplomacy in the face of growing militarization across the globe. “No society can ever be too powerful relative to its competitors” due to the anarchic nature of the world, according to Mearsheimer.

Hyper-militarization stems from a strategy known as “offensive realism” that is advanced by Mearsheimer and was the strategy pursued by Brzezinski when the United States sought to push the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan and into collapse. On the other hand, Kissinger advocated a strategy known as “defensive realism”, where the goal is the establishment of equilibrium between the status quo power and the rising power. One might consider switching from an offensive realist strategy that leads to hyper-militarization and war to a defensive realist strategy that would establish equilibrium and peace. This switch is necessitated by trans-national threats such as “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD) brought on by the ubiquity of nuclear weapons. As Mikhail Gorbachev said in an interview with the BBC, as long as the threat of nuclear weapons lingers on, humanity is in grave danger. What seems to be the obstacle to the establishment of equilibrium and peace is a psychological one, namely, ego and national pride. According to Lord Acton:

“Nationality does not aim either at liberty or prosperity, both of which it sacrifices to the imperative necessity of making the nation the mold and measure of the state. Its course will be marked with material as well as moral ruin.”

In fact, freedom, liberty, and proportionality as defined by conservative leaders of the past such as James Madison and Edmund Burke are privileges that are contingent upon moral and religious responsibilities which are largely ignored in this day and age. Ego, hubris, national pride, and the resulting hyper-militarization that stems from these psychological conditions also do nothing to topple the real power and king of our time, namely, the coronavirus.

Conventional rules of the game and power strategies such as the “Savaroth Rule” where in a world of five major powers, a major power must have at least two others on their side to tilt the balance, are essentially obsolete. Power has thus become meaningless in a post-modern environment pervaded by nihilism and a pandemic of mysterious origins. In a situation where power is rapidly evaporating and the world is in a state of flux, what is necessary is “selectivity” in determining what is “essential”, “desirable”, and “possible” in the words of the late Hans Morgenthau. In other words, more means less.

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