The Future of Power: The bottom line
The Future of Power by Joseph Nye is one of those books that have the potential to make you think about the world you live in.
In this case, and as the title suggests, the main topic is power, which the author analyses and explains in great length, but in a practical way. Soft power, hard power, smart power, military and economic power, Nye takes the reader by the hand and provides food for thought on what the heck is happening around us.
If you are looking for an interesting and challenging read, this book will be worth your time!
The Future of Power: Joseph Nye on Soft Power, Hard Power and Smart Power.
Those of you who read my book suggestions on a regular basis know how I usually get acquainted with the books I read. I bump into them, pure and simple, and the same happened with Joseph Nye’s book The Future of Power.
I found the book in a bookshop, turned a couple of pages, and took it alongside with a few others.
The Future of Power wasn’t Nye’s latest book (I checked before going for a compulsive purchase), but it looked like a relevant read. Especially because I am always eager to learn more about international relations and all the influence games that happen out there.
Interestingly, however, the book taught me a lot more than international relations. I had no idea prior to purchasing it, but The Future of Power has provided me with ideas that can be easily applied to business and to our daily routine (see my food for thought section down the page).
Interesting, right? Not that surprising, however, considering that business, reputation-building and all these stuff we all struggle with on a daily basis all involve some sort of power. And that’s precisely what this book is about. Ways to understand and exercise some sort of power.
As usual, here is what you get on this page:
- A brief overview of the book (that includes my SMART takes).
- A much more comprehensive commentary of what the book is about, with the author’s main topics explained in detail.
- The book’s main themes, questions, and conclusions in bullet points.
- Why the book was worth my time, why it will be valuable to you, and additional reading suggestions if you are interested in the topic!
Joseph Nye on The Future of Power: brief book review (for starters).
As always on I’ll Make You Think Smart, let me start with a brief overview of what the book is about.
As I just mentioned and as the title suggests, The Future of Power is a book about … Power.
Meh. I know. That’s not very helping.
What’s more interesting, though, is the way Joseph Nye talks about power.
On the one hand, Nye is a renowned political scientist so his approach is very academic (in a good way). He provides a framework in which he explains his thinking and then elaborates on his ideas.
In short, he discusses a heavy topic, but he does it in a logical way which every reader can actually go for. For instance, the book starts with two quotes from Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama explaining that power is a matter of prudence, justice, and alliances. And that gives a good idea of how the whole story develops. Said differently, you don’t need a Ph.D. in politics to read this book.
On the other hand, Joseph Nye’s book is interesting because the author really tries to make the discussion practical.
As the author explains very early, (and many authors don’t take the time to start what they are about to say), the whole discussion focuses on explaining “how will power work and how it is changing in the twenty-first century”.
Perhaps that’s just me, but this sentence hooked me up. One, looking ahead isn’t something everybody does, so books on the topic are usually very interesting. Two, the topic is also very much in line with current (trendy) debates on the future of technology in our modern worlds, which makes it interesting considering that it was published a little while ago, in 2011.
I’m getting into the details with a much more comprehensive book review below (keep reading!), but in short, here is what the book says:
The Future of Power: The comprehensive book review.
The Future of Power is built around three well-structured themes which basically take the reader by the hand.
First, Joseph Nye explains what power is, and he elaborates on the different types of power governments usually use to do whatever they have to do. Think military power and economic power. Think hard, soft and smart power.
Second, Nye elaborates on the power shifts he sees as being both inevitable and impactful. Here, think cyberpower, influence games and the decline of the United States as a dominating power.
Finally, Nye elaborates extensively on what his concept of ‘smart power’ actually means and how it is at best to help governments (and people) get where they need to get, as efficiently as possible.
Spoiler alert: Nye defines smart power as a crucial skill which depends on one’s ability to leverage the right (amount of) resource to generate a precise result. No less, no more, because less is more.
As usual, this more comprehensive part of the book review starts with the main themes and questions considered in the book – in bullet points. I’ll then elaborate on the themes more extensively. Let’s dig in!
The book in bullet points
Joseph Nye explores these major themes:
- Power and how it works.
- How power is shifting.
- What power is going to be about in the 21st century?
He also asks a variety of questions, including:
- What is power and how does it work?
- What types of powers do governments use to obtain what they want?
- How to explain the difference between hard, soft and smart power?
- Is there a trend in power use so far?
- What is the impact of technology change on power?
- Could the use of power be different as far as tomorrow is concerned?
Sounds interesting, right? Now, let’s get into the details. Just keep reading!
The Future of Power – Theme #1: There are various types of power.
The first big theme in The Future of Power relates to the types of powers available out there. Joseph Nye explores the topic in different ways. He explains to what extent power is relevant to international affairs, but he also explores the differences between military power, economic power, and soft power more generally.
Power in global affairs.
While power is a word we use all the time, Joseph Nye is right to say that defining it is complex. As he says, power is less tangible than money and very difficult to schematize with equations.
Power is what you need to move on – as a government in the book, but that works for you and me too. Yet quantifying the ability you have to influence others is ambitious. Is coercion more powerful than trust-building? Are you better at forcing things or at catalyzing energies? Are you capable of forcing something on someone at all?
In short? Power is a matter of establishing what influence we have on others, but it is, more importantly, a matter of assessing which resources are available in order to obtain something precise. So? Power is about influence AND behaviors. It is not just about us, it is about those we want to exercise power on.
Nye’s three faces of power.
So Nye provides a framework here, something we can use to understand how power actually works. He calls that the three faces of power and (in very short), they work like that:
One, power can be about force and coercion. In this case, things happen the hard way, against someone’s will or preferences. Someone is commanding and the other(s) don’t have a choice. That’s hard power.
Two, power can be about convincing someone to do something (or not to do it). This side of power is called soft power, but the presence of an agenda is still very obvious because in this case too, someone is building influence. In this case, however, the counterpart is happy to do as suggested because the system is based on co-optation, which makes a big difference.
Three, power can be smart. Here, the goal is also to exercise influence, but the counterpart does not notice the agenda because the strategy consists in shaping their opinion, way ahead, so that they are convinced that there is only one way to go.
Power nowadays needs to be smart.
The difference between Nye’s three faces of power is simple: it all depends on the method and on the needs. Brute force is one thing. But what if building trust and networks actually had more impact nowadays?
Nye takes the example of the United States here. He explains that the U.S. has long had a strategy based on hard power, if only because its culture has always been about not being soft. Nye makes reference to the political doctrine of ‘realism’ here, and the idea behind it is very logical: you are on your own out there, so you need to provide for yourself and being soft won’t help.
And that’s where the problem is! This attitude tends to be perceived as aggressive by others, obviously. Yet, at the same time, soft power alone is not enough to “produce effective foreign policy”, so you need to find a way.
This is where Nye’s concept of smart power comes in handy. What matters is one’s “ability to combine hard and soft power resources into effective strategies” and “behavioural outcomes”. Oh, and of course, even though this book is very much focused on international relations, this way of thinking doesn’t just work for governments. It also works for us, citizens of the world and human beings.
Nye logically then explores the role and efficiency of military power, and he comes to interesting ideas.
One is that military power is not only a matter of hard power. Yes, brute force is hard power inherently, but brute force also creates room for building alliances and as such, it creates opportunities for soft influence. Hm hm hm…
Another idea is that, due to the increasing cost of weapons and technology, military power is becoming increasingly expensive. To some extent, more expensive means less efficient, hence the utility of military power might be declining and, by the same token, giving some more weight to soft powers.
And I’m not even mentioning the impact of information technologies on armed actions here! Some used to say that the United States was so technically advanced that they would always be one step ahead in terms of power, but nowadays technology is everywhere!
Said differently, while in the 1990s conflicts were mainly settled through military actions, nowadays influence isn’t just about battlefields anymore. Or, as Nye says, “unconventional tactics” nowadays create unconventional battlefields.
Take the web, for instance. The Future of Power book was published in 2011 so Nye had no way to anticipate the Snowden WikiLeaks saga. Still, his point was relevant. Technology is increasingly becoming a counter-weight to military power. Those who own the information have the ability to shift legitimacy perceptions, and therefore they have the power to make those who own the guns tremble.
I’m not going any further here (please have a look at the book for yourself), but what that means is that, perhaps, the future of military power could mainly lie in the ability to threaten and calculate. Interesting, isn’t it?
Economic power is Joseph Nye’s next step. In fact, Nye suggests that to some extent geoeconomics might have replaced geopolitics.
As my former International law professor Susan Breau used to ask, can we really say that economic sanctions imposed on a country are more peaceful than a bomb? Ask the people who can’t buy food as a result of the sanction, and then we can talk more.
Nye goes in the same direction. Economics create influence and “competitive pressure” so that at the end of the day paying or not is very much a hard type of power. What that means, in turn, is that sound strategy requires adapting economic dependence and interdependence in order to mitigate the influence of others.
Nye was using the example of China and the United States in 2011 to illustrate his argument. In his words, the US accepted Chinese imports and pays China in dollars, while China held US dollars and bonds, thus “making a loan to the US”.
Now, take the China-US relationship in 2018: the United States fear China’s economic development while China’s currency becomes a weapon. Meanwhile, a trade war is taking place, putting economic actors at harm on both sides. No military action there, but economics are definitely moving the hard way and they also become a liability when it comes to power and influence control…
This leads us to the idea of soft powers. Again, the problem is complex and difficult to assess, but it is extremely practical.
Countries use it to develop cultural influence and transfer political values across borders (those who played Civilization fifteen years ago will probably smile to that). The European Union has developed a lot over the past decades, and the reason why countries have joined in was purely soft power and influence!
The question is, how can governments (and, again, people) use soft power? Joseph Nye explores the topic in great length so I’ll leave you to the book if you want more. Some hints, though, think in terms of communication, persuasion and in terms of creating attractive environments on a long-term basis so as to build what the author calls “a contest of competitive credibility”.
Theme #2: Power shifts.
Having explained what power is, Joseph Nye then moves on to explaining power shifts. Again, The Future of Power was published in 2011, but in my opinion, that’s even more interesting because it gives the reader some room to think about what has changed since then…
The big topic here is simple: what is the impact of the information era on power attributions?
Information is a big thing nowadays. Some people talk about an information revolution because information means knowledge and technology, plus economic development considering that information helps mitigating risk.
But information is also changing the way government legitimacy is perceived. The obvious illustration here is the Arab Spring which happened after 2010, and Nye explains that what altered the power status quo was the ability to diffuse and rally. Information becomes a “public goods” and it allows challenging powers of all sorts with ideas and words. New layers of influence appear, and the rules of the game change.
Cyberpower and stuff.
Cyberpower is another important topic which describes the rise of online networks capable of influencing societies and organizations or all sorts. The barriers to entry are low and the opportunities to act are immense.
In short, electronic means of communication and information create influence, and as such, they enable those who can use them to reach specific outcomes, either by forcing, influencing or shaping what people think. Rings a bell? The three facets of power, all at once…
The panel of applications is vast here. Nye talks about Hacktivism, cyberwars, cyberterrorism, electronic crime, counter-espionage… The discussion is very interesting even though the book was (again) written nearly a decade ago. For more recent reads on the topic, as a matter of fact, see also my notes on Alec Ross and The Industries of the Future.
The question of the American Decline.
The question of the American Decline is explored in The Future of Power, as in other books (see Who Rules the World? by Noam Chomsky for a controversial example). But Joseph Nye’s approach is very analytical?
While Chomsky starts from the idea that the U.S. is losing its influence, Nye rather focuses on the power transition side of things. He writes, for instance, that it “would be … astorical to believe that the United States will have a preponderant share of power resources forever”. Because, well, these things change, as demonstrated in the past with the decline of the Dutch, British or French empires (not to forget the Romans and the Soviets!).
Joseph Nye gives a rational reason for that: power is always relative to something or someone else. The Brits and the French lost their empires to the benefit of the free nations. More recently, European countries have relinquished domestic power to the benefit of a regional European power.
Said differently, how on earth would the United States manage to preserve a dominating power when others have failed to keep theirs?
The example of China.
Think about it! The book was written in 2011, but as late as 2016/2017 President Trump was talking about making America Great Again, remember? And guess who was blamed for the loss? China.
This is precisely what Nye is talking about, except that he adds that 1) China’s leadership is a “reemergence” which could lead to significant regional influence in Asia, and 2) that nothing allows saying how long this leadership will remain a source of power.
Still, back in 2011, Nye noted that China had the ability to “complicate” U.S. Influence, even though its rising power was “contested” by India and Japan.
Seven years later, however, Japan and India clearly lag behind China from a regional leadership perspective. On this topic, and considering that my job very much relates to the topic, let me add that I wrote in late 2016 that President Trump’s trade policy in the Asia-Pacific region would rather reinforce China’s leadership…
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Theme #3: Power and policymaking.
The last big theme in The Future of Power is the relationship between power and policy.
This part of the book is very interesting because it provides a deeper analysis of the ‘smart power’ concept developed by Joseph Nye. As a reminder, Nye defines smart power as the ability to engage the right amount of resource to obtain a specific outcome. Hence, his perspective on power can be summarized with a very simple sentence: “Power … Is like calories in a diet; more is not always better”. Not bad, uh?
Smart power as a new narrative for the 21st century.
Nye’s point is therefore that power is changing.
Brute force is outdated, smart power is the new narrative of the 21st century.
In his words, smart power “is not about maximizing power or preserving hegemony, it is about finding ways to combine resources into successful strategies in the new context of power diffusion and the rise of the rest”.
What that means is simple: from now on, power will be about thinking differently about ways to achieve results, taking into account a vastly changing environment.
Instead of just relying on the power they already have, leaders will need to think about what others want and need. Here, Nye talks about interests and malleability propensity, and he writes that power will increasingly be about doing things so that interests match with one another.
Which forms of power are most likely to succeed? What is the probability of success and how can it be maximized? These are some questions Nye asks. And the answers he provides are simple to understand. Think “intelligent integration” or “networking” and interconnection (Singapore and Switzerland’s way to success and peace, as a matter of fact).
The Future of Power: main conclusions.
Joseph Nye comes to the following conclusions.
- There are various types of power out there. Hard and soft powers are the traditional concepts, but they can be difficult to identify because soft can become hard as with the case of economic relations and sanctions.
- Smart power is the alternative, the narrative of the 21st century, and it implies that those who want to influence will need to think twice about how they proceed.
- Power remains a relative concept, as influence depends on others (the ones you have influence over). But power never remains. In fact, technology is creating power shifts and transitions, from one state to another, from states to citizens too.
- The best example when it comes to power shifts is that of The United States and China. Whilst authors have written a lot on the U.S. Decline, a decline implies that someone else is rising, and in this case, China might be a winner.
- All in all, in The Future of Power Joseph Nye concludes that power isn’t about realism anymore, it is not a matter of me vs others, but it is a matter of me thinking strategically and me building a “grand strategy” to get others on board in order for action to take place.
Food for thought.
As usual, let’s finish this book review with some food for thought!
Joseph Nye elaborates on a very interesting concept in this book, i.e. That of ‘smart power’, which he presents as “the ability to obtain preferred outcomes through the use of”… something relevant depending on the circumstances. Interestingly, I found that this definition applies to a lot of things. In fact, the book is worth your time for several reasons.
Understanding global dynamics.
First, The Future of Power is food for thought if you are interested in understanding global dynamics.
Of course, the primary application relates to international relations and global politics. When this book was published, some hot topics where for instance the diplomacy efforts put into place by China on the Olympic games side of diplomacy, while the situation between Russia and the United States was rather a matter of military muscle.
On the one hand, the Chinese worked on their soft power skills, in line with the political dynamic initiated by President Hu Jintao a couple of years before. On the other, the more the U.S. relied on hard power, the more commentators talked about its loss of influence. Paradoxical, right?
Power depends on context.
In both cases, as Nye explains, power is a matter of context. While the most complex situations may require hard force, in many cases soft diplomacy is enough. Why? Because the power you need to involve in a given situation depends on the outcome you expect to obtain.
The idea that power is proportional to the results you expect to obtain may sound basic, but it is fundamental and the book is a great way of thinking about all that. In fact, understanding the idea opens another door, i.e. that of smart power – which corresponds to the ability of a person or government to exercise the right amount of pressure in order to obtain precisely the outcome they want. Think about it, we will come back to that.
The context is changing: Power in the information era.
Third, The Future of Power provides lots of ideas when it comes to figuring out what on earth is coming next. There are plenty of interesting books on technology and revolutions out there, and Nye’s book can really help understand the trend.
Nye talks about power shifts. Technological evolutions and economic developments are bringing some change in the form of a power transition amongst states as some gain in influence to the detriment of others. In short, the rise of Asia and China happens in parallel to the loss of influence of the United States. Some call this the butterfly effect, Nye rather talks about transitions.
But the power transition also affects states to the extent that the citizens are becoming increasingly empowered and increasingly powerful.
Said differently, smart power will probably be the most important thing out there. If yesterday was about balancing brute force with friendship, tomorrow will require a lot more efforts. Power will happen differently and people will have more tools to assess the way leaders use it.
As a result, those who will be in charge tomorrow are those who can adapt today and build a “grand strategy” that opens new doors. Nye talks about the rise of contextual intelligence here, a “crucial skills” which he defines as “the ability to understand and evolving environment and capitalize on trends”
Have you ever played Civilization?
Funnily enough, reading The Future of Power made me think about a video game I loved playing with about fifteen years ago. That game was Civilization, and it consisted of building your own… Civilization. You had to impose yourself against your enemies, and you could do that in different ways.
The obvious one was force and military action. The other one was culture because cities across the frontier would often rally to your empire provided that your own cities gave them culture and things to relate to.
What that meant was that you could play with both. Hard power, soft power, smart power. You get my point. This book is a much more sophisticated version of the game!
Book bonus: applicability to business and stuff.
Last but not least, I was very surprised to see that The Future of Power is great food for thought when it comes to doing business and creating a business strategy. In fact, it is one of the non-business-related books (together with Schumpeter’s book on Capitalism and Socialism) that gave me lots to think about from a business perspective.
I honestly didn’t think that reading a book on international relations and politics would make me think about business strategy. But it did.
For someone who hates selling (that’s me), reading about smart influence-building was very interesting. To some extent, in fact, Joseph Nye’s book The Future of Power made me think about what Dale Carnegie calls ‘the feeling of importance in his leadership book How to Win Friends and Influence People.
But when you think about it all this makes a lot of sense. Doesn’t it?
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