What Makes Power Great

POWER: “the capacity and extent to which one can influence the behavior and beliefs of another.“

In discussing the current political and religious climate, I have often mentioned that the Left, particularly the Religious Left, is especially uncomfortable with discussions of and strategies that employ the use of power. Power, its use and facility, makes the Left uncomfortable. Power is often confused with force, so for those whose principles include consensus, dialogue, reconciliation, and the like, the wielding of power makes us squirm. Yet, in addition to force through hard, coercive power, there is also soft power, smart power, and their subcategories that are employed not only in business, industry, politics, international relations and the like. Power is present, implicitly and explicitly, consciously or unconsciously, forcibly or subtly in every relationship – between individuals, peoples, parties, systems, and nations. Those on the Right have no compunction about wielding power as force – it is one of their defining characteristics. The question for those of us on the Left is not about the relinquishing of power, which is impossible anyway, but how to wield power in such a way that it does not violate our values. (This is a much larger conversation for another time).

That is why the cover of the latest edition of Foreign Affairs (July-August 2022) caught my eye – “What is Power?” And particularly the article, “What Makes Power Great: The Real Drivers of Rise and Fall,” by Michael J. Mazarr, Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation.

First, a caveat. I’m not a fan of the RAND (“research and development”) Corporation, a conservative think-tank established in 1948 by the US government as part of the military-industrial complex (originally to do research for the then newly-established US Air Force). Dr. Mazarr himself, for example, previously taught at the National War College and was a special assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. RAND is most notoriously known for developing, under Robert McNamara’s leadership, the doctrine of nuclear deterrence through mutually assured destruction (MAD) as well as a “winnable” nuclear war under futurist military strategist, Herman Kahn (On Thermonuclear War, 1960). Kahn was the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s title character, Dr. Strangelove, in which RAND was satirized as the BLAND Corporation.

So having said all that, and with that caveat, I was nevertheless intrigued by Mazarr’s article’s title, his conclusions, where the US stands geopolitically, and what they suggest about our country’s own sense of communal purpose, meaning, identity, and values) – again, what I consider to be essentially religious at root. And while I have fundamental disagreement with RAND’s – and Mazarr’s – purposes for the study (“the legitimacy of the state and the production of efficient military power”), and the way he recommends the ways such power might be used globally, and other parts of his analysis of his data, nevertheless, his conclusions, from a conservative perspective, are instructive, it seems to me, in our polarized country, where fundamental rights are under attack by an activist theocratic white Christian nationalist minority political and judicial class.

So to Mazarr’s article. His thesis:

Nations do not prevail in enduring competitions chiefly by acquiring superior technological or military capabilities or even by imposing their will in every crisis or war. Great powers can make many mistakes – lose wars, lose allies, even lose their military edge – and still triumph in long-term contests. In the struggle for advantage among world powers, it is not military or economic might that makes the crucial difference but the fundamental qualities of a society: the characteristics of a nation that generate economic productivity, technological innovation, social cohesion, and national will.

Tasked with a 15-month study for the US Defense Department, his team discovered a series of seven “domestic strengths [that] are the building blocks of international power.” He also says that each carries within itself the potential for abuse if they are not balanced with the others, that is, if one is focused on excessively or to the exclusion of the others.

  1. “The first essential characteristic – arguably the foundation for all forms of relative national strength – is some version of driving national ambition.”

Externally, this manifests itself in a sense of mission to play a role in world affairs, but most importantly, internally, “a national drive to learn, achieve, and succeed in everything from scientific research to business and industry to the arts.”

 2. “Sharing opportunities widely among their citizens.”

 There is an emphasis on a wide inclusivity “granting full rights and opportunities” to all social and ethnic groups to the resources and pathways of economic and social success.

 3. “Shared and coherent national identity.”

Even amidst racial, economic, religious, and other forms of social diversity, this sense of shared effort and sacrifice helps to avoid various forms of fragmentation social and political fragmentation and internecine strife.

 4. “A coherent, powerful, goal-directed, and effective government that invests in national capabilities and beneficial social qualities.”

A government that widely invests in both public and private institutions that fuels not only technological and scientific (and medical) achievement but also a flourishing of the arts and humanities.

 5. “Effective social institutions.”

 6. “A strong social emphasis on learning and adaptation.”

“They are fired by the urge to create, explore and learn. Instead of being shackled by orthodoxy and tradition, they embrace adaptation and experimentation and are open to innovations in public policy, business models, military concepts and doctrines, and art and culture.”

 7. “Embodying a significant degree of diversity and pluralism.”

Again, Mazarr says that even having all these characteristics, countries are not assured long-term success. It is the balance among them that is necessary. “Most dynamic and successful nations have therefore sought all seven of the essential characteristics in healthy moderation” and in a way such that they reinforce each other. He singles out national ambition as particularly dangerous if it is emphasized too much to the exclusion of others that can become a liability; eg. it could lead to “destructive wars of choice or imperial conquests.”

There is more from Mazarr – the role of elites, his discussion of America’s ‘success’ in the second half of the twentieth century, American exceptionalism – where he and I diverge. But listen to his warning:

 “Across a wide range of issues, polls reveal that Americans generally have less faith in the future and in their major political and social [including religious institutions] than they have in half a century.”

 “The United States’ shared national identity may be in greater peril…. This national fragmentation has been accelerated by a siloed information environment that allows disinformation and conspiracy theories to thrive.”

 “Inequality is rising and intergenerational mobility appears to be stalled.”

And this one is very instructive:

 “The spirit of learning and adaptation in the United States is increasingly threatened by the corrosive information environment. The US information marketplace is being corrupted, in part because of the tremendous amounts of misinformation sloshing through social media, the sensationalism of the news media, the fragmentation of information sources, and the emergence of a ‘trolling’ ethic that encourages hostility and mean-spiritedness in public discourse.”

Mazarr leaves us with many questions outstanding. The need “to cultivate a shared American national community and spirit – and unapologetically promote unifying themes of American history and culture – while acknowledging the complexity of its past.” This spoken by a WASP male of privilege. “Complexity”? A slap in the face, he doesn’t even realize how offensive this is. What’s needed is so much more, so much more radical: first, an acknowledgment, then a repentance (personal and national, political, nay I even suggest spiritual), then reparation for our past sins, racial, sexual, religious, and more. Mazarr leaves us with this conclusion: still stuck in a paradigm of American exceptionalism, his own dream of a “competitive, successful nation” demands more than he himself is able to acknowledge. We cannot achieve the very thing he hopes without this national reckoning and repentance. History demands it. Moving forward into a shared future together in our nation demands it. Reconciliation demands it.

Finally, I used to think what was needed was replacing “America as the great melting pot” with another, more inclusive, representational grand narrative, that is until I was instructed by African Americans (including the 1619 Project and critical race theory), LGBTQ+ Americans, indigenous peoples, and sometimes my own kids (including two Asian daughters and an African-American daughter-in-law), and others. I was sorely naïve, and my naivete discounted their pain and their very histories and identities. I have had to come to grips with my own unintended but still very real complicity. They have been my teachers.

I’ve been thinking about this in particular on this Fourth of July, when patriotism flirts with jingoism and a whitewashed American national history is on display. So while I haven’t given up on the need to find something around which to rally a people (maybe it’s a generational thing), and while a true and deep and unflinching reckoning of the sins of our past and our present complicity is needed (political and religious leaders can help us here with rituals of repentance and reconciliation), and while there is no guarantee, America’s dream will always be an experiment, a hope, a possibility, here are my questions:

 Can our very diversity as a nation, the acceptance, appreciation, and respect of a multiplicity of cultures and colors and identities (ethnic, sexual, religious, and otherwise) and traditions and stories modeling a just society advancing the common good be Mazarr’s “shared American national community and spirit”?

 If it’s true – and I believe it is – what might this look like in our schools, in places of worship, within our political system, in our legal systems, in business settings, on our screens and airwaves, in our public discourse? And how might we teach it, ritualize it, celebrate it, and live it out among ourselves, with our children and grandchildren, in our own communities, and then present it and embody it – proudly yet humbly – globally among the family of nations?

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