Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Thinking About Great Powers

Dan Drezner just posted a piece raising the question of what is power today and whether the US is just an ordinary big country rather than a dominant player in the system.  I am going to go off on a related tangent (is that an oxymoron?) rather than consider this directly. 

My problem with this discussion is whenever the European Union is introduced as an equivalent actor.  That is, the US is just a big actor just like the European Union.  While we are living in a time of almost unequaled paralysis within the US, it is significantly different than the EU precisely because the former is a single country and the EU is still just a bunch of countries united some of the time to deal with some issues.  In my research last week, one of the last interviews went on its own, mostly unrelated, tangent--that NATO-EU relations is always, always constrained due to Greece and Turkey and their respective Cyprus obsessions.  European countries still have their own interests, driven by their own audiences and shaped by their own institutions, so that they have a hard time cooperating when it comes to supporting or opposing Iraq, to fighting in Afghanistan, and even to managing the current economic crisis. 

While the discussion of power focuses on such things as whether military power is fungible (I have a student working on the fungibility of military aid), on whether compellence is no longer so possible (Drezner's point), we need to remember to keep an eye on who is doing the exercising of power.  The EU is a bargaining process--it is not a country, and it has yet to prove that it can act coherently during a significant political conflict.  China is a threat to American hegemony because it has leaders who can deploy the resources of the state, even if civilian control of the military can be a bit shaky.  Perhaps the greatest threat to American power and leadership will be the handcuffs imposed upon its leadership by both bad decisions of the past and by political processes that paralyze. 

The point is that power only matters if it can be deployed.  Getting a bunch of fractious Europeans to agree to a course of action is so problematic that the EU's power is much often much less than the sum of its parts.

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