There’s a popular geopolitical parlor game called Who will be the next superpower?
While the game excels at triggering a mind-fogging tsunami of nationalistic emotions, it doesn’t shed much light on the really consequential question: What is power?
These are important questions to ponder as, around the world, unsustainable policies from the 20th century are beginning to fail in earnest. What will the future geopolitical landscape look like in their aftermath?
What Is Power?
In geopolitics, the conventional view is that Power is the capacity to coerce others to serve your interests at the detriment of their own.
This is a scale-invariant definition, meaning that it applies equally to the school bully, the drug lord, the dictator, or the Emperor. Each has the power to coerce others to do things that are counter to their own interests to serve the interests of the powerful.
While there is certainly truth in this definition, at the geopolitical scale it leaves much to be desired. General and Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was well-positioned to understand the limits of coercive power, limits which he described in this truculent phrase: “Do you know what amazes me more than anything else? The impotence of force to organize anything.”
The greater power than coercion, it turns out, is the power to align others’ interests with one’s own, so they willingly submit to your authority as a means of furthering their own interests. To do this effectively and sustainably, power must organize the transnational flow of capital and labor in ways that offer benefits to all participants.
The great superpower of the ancient world, the Roman Empire, showcased this form of inclusive organizational power: though the Legions were available to suppress outright rebellions, Rome’s long Golden Era was characterized not by perpetual wars of rebellion but by widespread peace and prosperity for even the far-flung members of the Empire.
This is not to gloss over the institutional slavery and oppression that enforced the Ancient Rome’s grip, but the point is that free participants accepted the dominance of Rome because it protected their opportunities to better themselves in relative safety, providing they did not undermine the Empire’s interests.
Even so-called Barbarians benefited from trade with Rome. Many tribes intermarried with peoples under Rome’s sway, and by the end of the Empire, the line between Barbarian and those living under Roman rules blurred.
Even as political and military control eroded and was lost, the organizational system created by Rome’s power—of roadways, waterworks, money, trade and commerce—continued to hold former dominions together. It was only when that complex system fell to pieces (for many reasons, a good deal of them resource-related) that the Empire expired.
There is a third form of power that is often overlooked, perhaps because it’s so obvious in functioning systems we don’t even notice it: the power to solve problems. The power to solve problems with the resources at hand is perhaps the greatest power, far greater than coercive power and ultimately more powerful than organizational power, which erodes if power cannot solve problems with the available resources.
How does power solve problems? Though the answer is complex, we can discern a few generalities:
- Power must accumulate capital and invest it productively
- Power must invest the capital where it has long-term leverage (i.e. in systems that conserve resources, labor and capital over the lifespan of the system)
- Power must enable the free flow of intellectual capital/knowledge and encourage experimentation as a means of solving new or emerging problems
The ancient world empires tended to accumulate capital in two ways: by taxing their own citizens, and by conquering the wealth of other regimes. Modern-day great powers tend to accumulate capital by taxing their own citizens and fashioning economic arrangements for profitable commerce and credit that attract capital, talent and profits that can be taxed.
In other words: power solves problems by attracting capital and talent, and then enabling their productive use in a system that is effectively organized to solve problems.
Capital and talent are two forms of wealth that don’t respond well to coercion. Capital and talent both flee dictatorial control; and in today’s world, both are increasingly mobile. So the source of modern power’s wealth is not coercion so much as being more attractive to those with capital and talent than the alternatives.
This has two facets:
- enabling people to serve their own interests within the dominant power structure, and
- maintaining an inclusive system that is organized to optimize solutions
If the system is too chaotic or rapacious to enable solutions to be implemented, capital and talent are both fruitlessly squandered.
If capital must be spent suppressing rebellion, there is less available for productive investments. The empire soon collapses under its own inefficiency. This is why empires based on coercion burn out quickly. And why empires without inclusive, well-organized systems also fail.
The Roman Example
The Roman Empire offers some useful examples of problem-solving via productive investment. Rome’s expansion of durable roadways and fresh water supplies were critical to the growth of trade and the expansion of healthy urban centers that fostered innovation, the sharing of knowledge, and the accumulation of capital.
Rome’s suppression of piracy enabled the free flow of grain from North Africa to Europe, and the extension of trade routes to faraway Britain.
Technologies such as engineered concrete aqueducts and metalworking spread throughout the Empire due to the sharing of technologies and expertise.
Roman coinage enabled low-risk commerce all throughout its boundaries.
While the occasional drama of slave revolts and rebellions against Imperial might are the natural subjects of movie dramas, the day-to-day reality was spectacularly mundane: without the advantages of fossil fuels, Rome managed to extend relative peace and prosperity over much of the human world.
The same can be said of the Tang Empire in China: providing additional validation that security, commerce, a unified money system and widespread prosperity go hand in hand.
What System Is Best Able to Solve Problems?
Virtually every nation and trading bloc faces the same set of entrenched problems: demographics, debt, energy and currency. The problems created by aging populations afflict the entire developed world, and fast-growing developing nations face the opposite problem: not enough work for their burgeoning cohort of youth.
Debt has long been the solution to all problems: just borrow more money (or borrow it into existence) and throw it at the problem of the day. But since debt accumulates interest, and interest siphons off productive capital, this “solution” has run into rapidly diminishing returns.
The foundation of the modern global economy is abundant, cheap energy. And the traditional source of that abundant cheap energy—fossil fuels—is no longer cheap (despite the recent drop in price, the production cost for oil remains near all-time highs), or it comes with real-world limits on its expansion. Declining supply and rising costs crimp growth of consumption and the expansion of capital, the twin foundations of the status quo arrangement.
Currency—paper money—is the financial basis of that arrangement. The ease and appeal of printing money (or credit) becomes increasingly compelling as diminishing returns set in, but the rampant expansion of money and credit undermine the system just as fatally as the decline in cheap, abundant fuels.
The temptation is to create money out of thin air to solve the other problems: just create money (or borrow it into existence) to pay for old-age social security, youth unemployment, higher energy costs, and every other problem facing the status quo.
But this “solution” generates its own problem. Even more damaging, issuing money and credit doesn’t actually solve any of the other structural problems; it simply papers them over, allowing them to fester behind the façade of freshly printed money and debt.
Power and Superpower
We can now formulate a preliminary answer to the parlor game question Who will be the next superpower?
Any nation or trading bloc that sustainably solves its pressing structural problems will qualify as a Great Power, simply by avoiding the consequences of not solving these problems, i.e. collapse. Muddling through is not a sustainable solution.
There is no law or rule that mandates the existence of superpowers. The world can go on quite well without a dominant global power. That said, what qualifies a nation or trading bloc to be labeled a superpower?
Within the context outlined above, the answer is: the solutions organized by the superpower become the dominant global system because they are far more effective, efficient, resilient, flexible and sustainable than the solutions organized by other nations and trading blocs.
In Part 2: Who Will Dominate This Century?, we look at the key requirements for sustainable power in this new century and which countries are best-positioned to exert their influence going forward.
That long-standing geopolitical relationships are changing is a given at this point. The question is: is the world ready for what’s coming next?