Contemporary understanding of Power

Today’s world is measured by a country's smart power in the comparative hierarchy of nation-states
US China Flag [Representational Picture]
US China Flag [Representational Picture]File

The power question has come to the intellectual debates, since Weber defined authority, as ‘power viewed as legitimate’. That was the shaping up of modernity, a legal rationalistic frame work to legitimize power.  At the close of previous century Foucault redefined power from a non-traditional point of view. He finds power everywhere, 'diffused and embodied in discourse, knowledge and regimes of truth’ that it transcends politics, diffused rather concentrated. It links embodiment of knowledge with discourse, as a power scurry phenomena.

This century has thrown many surprises. Futility of hard power stands exposed. Soft power emerged separately and two powers fused together to make way for blooming smart power which then was used as an adherent instrument of state’s foreign policy doctrine. USA prepared its blueprint. Today’s world is measured by the country‘s capabilities of quantifying its smart power in comparative hierarchy of nation- states. America lists the hierarchy, followed by   Germany, United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, Switzerland, Australia, and France to the infuriation of China. This is new mapping up of powerful countries. China lags behind in soft power dynamics. However, it has made its new doctrine of soft power mix with hard power perceivable in ‘One Road, One Belt’ master project. It is concerned about soft power realm.

In late 1970s pundits had predicted the slow decline of American superiority over other countries. Paul Kennedy wrote in his best seller book ‘The rise and the fall of great powers’ in 1987 that US was suffering from ‘imperial overreach’. It has exhausted itself, the way Spain and other European countries declined, after tasting the advantages of early modernity, America would go down in the same line. Paul was referring to power in world system circulations.  America was dispossessed in Iran and Soviet Union was making advances towards new allies in South Asia. U.S was suffering from recession. Nevertheless, America threw back in Reagan years with new economic boom. Power landscape of the world changed. Reagan’s years were thought to be years of economic stability. Bush senior was the fortunate American President to see the disintegration of Soviet Union. America surfaced as sole super power at the advent of new century. Social scientists started analyzing America’s sustenance of power and hegemony. China was closely watching the developments. The rationale behind this American success, after Paul’s forewarning of decline thesis, was analyzed by Joseph Nye in his book ‘Bound to lead’ in 1990. It was he who coined the term smart power; the term was often used by President Clinton.  Nye’s arguments are that America is the land of attractions. Its soft power industries, civil liberties, freedom and security and choices and life styles make it a chosen place in the world. Despite its falling standards, it continues to attract the best minds of different parts of the world to work over there. For Nye, 'the basis of U.S. soft power was liberal democratic politics, free market economics, and fundamental values, such as human rights—in essence, liberalism’. It is culture, ideology and economics of US that is assembled from different parts then packaged and marketed in American brands. It finds way back in those countries wherefrom it had originated, like yoga and pizza currently are in vogue all over the world. China not only followed these observations but invited Nye to China for lectures how China could promote its soft power. In 17th Congress of Chinese Communist Party, President Jintao emphasized that China needs to invest more on soft power. This policy has been continued by the current President Xi Jinping in more speedy way.  Examining Nye’s rationale of US soft power, China has already drawn a bigger line in its OROB massive project. It is utilization of soft power ‘decoupled with ideology’, which has the discipline and purveyances that west lacked. President Xi Jinping's coinage, ‘a community of shared destiny’ is in fact Chinese hegemony in the guise of    contrapuntalism. It reads as  “You don’t have to want to be like us, you don’t have to want what we want; you can participate in a new form of globalization while retaining your own culture, ideology, and institutions.”

What then is power about, hard, soft, and smart?   Hard power is armaments, armies, tanks and missiles. It is measurable. In the name of soft diplomacy hard power was a masked in the European countries. Without hard power, soft power is fragility. When Reagan changed its policies and later on Trump thought that it was American misuse to spend its resources and energies beyond its borders. The Western countries perceived it as humiliation. It was presumed that west has lost its time.  Kishore Mahbubani, a former diplomat termed it as ‘western hubris’. Europe revisited its relationships in trade and defenses.  European leaders were not happy that US was undermining globalization and its commitments on ‘Washington Consensus’ were shaky and shifting. Emergence of multiple power centres all over the world,    for the last quarter of century is attributed to the operation of effective smart soft power by these states. The post COVID realities have made US again the land of choice because of its smart power. China simultaneously worked on hard and soft power to take the lead. China’s record on civil liberties and human right, perhaps are the hurdles that makes it a place to be watched and not to be lived in. China’s information on COVID19, its mismanagement and ramifications and Putin’s gamble with hard power in Ukraine war, undoubtedly have been windfall scoring for US to depend on its smart, hard and soft power in equal proportions.

The history of hard power and soft power is a civilisational concept. It is not new to the world. Religious and empire building in the past have used the instrumentality of soft power, for consolidations and willful acceptance of hegemonies.  History is filled with such illustrations of non violent streams, where hard power has carried soft power in league or in line for better dividends. Colonisation has amassed huge super structure, to play it with its hard power. The basics of European centrality were laid on the strength of smart power. Nevertheless, the decolonisation process  led by Mahatma Gandhi was change in its form. It had been dominance of ‘refined moral power’ against the colonial smart power. Gandhi, first time in history used non violence, a mechanism of soft power to defeat the mighty proprietors of hard power. It was a new experiment with tryst with history and civilisation. This ‘Refined Moral Power’ was a relinquishing of hard power and coupling of soft power with ethical power. In independent India, the process of democratisation and development of mass society ushered the emerging of new classes and elites, who use it as ‘Bucolic power’ for meeting their interests. It is in academic institutions, public realms, at the corridors of power, anywhere where competitions are hard and resources and positions are meagre. This Bucolic power in our vernacular is known as ‘Bhokal and Juggard’. It is excess of lie and soft play of thuggery, a role to a middle person to get things done. It is a two edged phenomena. It can fetch non productive employment. It can raise capacity of such a person, who more than money needs assurances that he is the important person. It is an imagined identity creating mechanism. It allows them retaining, for a time period, an aura of being important. They live in this social world view without any realisation what people think about them. This way they create sphere of their influence and make money and name, as well. Since there is decline in institutions, merit has become kaput in the power realm; the growth of such persons capable in Juggard and Bhokal has swelled. They use their symbolic capital for strengthening their Bhokal and juggard, on daily basis. Its display is simple. Sycophancy of resourceful persons on power positions (send them daily morning messages); scare colleagues and competitors by creating falsely manufactured dark scenarios and inducements to the needy with assurances and false promises. Who is going to check it in this era of uncertainties? Unless they expose themselves on facebook and social media about their strengths and intellectual acumen it is false power, which not only is fragile but shallows institutions, persons and finally end up in despair. Social media and informational scrutiny have exposed its limits. Habitual lying is excess of ambition with no grounds to achieve it. Short cuts, willful disregard for established norms, excessive greed hallow the society, which is happening now. Juggard is a timely relief and Bhokal is an opportune assurance, but it doesn't work in the the long run. One should understand it. Honest means to rational ends, empowerment through institutional means, are the long range success stories. We should value it.

The author is an Emeritus professor in sociology at Banaras Hindu University

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