State and National Power in contemporary world system


The Validity of State Impulse as the Triggering Action of National Power

Just as the Industrial Revolution had its first epicenter in England, technology had its neuralgic center in the United States. If maritime discoveries, that gave origin to the first globalization, were motivated by the European need to skirt around Islamic power, the technological revolution that unleashed the third globalizing wave was motivated, in the decade of the 60’s, by the American need to overcome the Soviet Union in the race to conquer space and, in the decade of the 80’s, by the attempt to neutralize the threat –supposed or real- of soviet expansionism through the policy known as “Starwars”.

To be the first out of everyone to put a man on the moon was, apart from a scientific feat, a strategic objective of Washington to show its superiority as a power and the primacy of the system that it represented. The research –financed and sponsored by the State to win the space race- provoked a technological jump of revolutionary dimensions and placed American companies in the vanguard of technology, granting it an extraordinary competitive advantage, while at the same time modifying daily life on planet earth. The laser, fiber optics, computerized scans, the microwave oven, film paper and even frozen foods had their origin there. The techniques to dehydrate and freeze foods were developed by NASA with the goal of astronauts taking their food with them in small containers and being able to prepare them with ease. Kidney dialysis machines that purify blood, techniques that make up magnetic resonance and computerized scanning to make reliable diagnostics, miniature television cameras that surgeons place on their heads for students to observe an operation, special beds for patients with burns and even thermal blankets that are used in hospitals are also result of space research, sponsored and financed by the State. The research on fiber optics –that today allow cellular central hubs to transmit data, or that emit bank and financial information in real time, from and to anywhere in the world- was also sponsored by the American State.

The technological revolution that unleashed the third globalization was a direct daughter of the Cold War and of state impulse that all strategic sectors of American economy received with the goal that the United States be able to overcome the Soviet challenge. Military-Space Keynesianism constituted the alternative –and undercover- way through which the United States continued intervening in the economy, after the Second World War, at the same time as it preached urbi et urbi, the advantages of “non-intervention”. Military-Space Keynesianism consisted simply of hiding subsidies under the category of  “defense spending”, undercover subsidies through which certain companies, like Boeing, acquired a technological advantage impossible to reach by its competitors in the rest of the world.
Boeing is a paradigmatic example of how through state impulse –in the form of undercover subsidies- the United States promotes certain strategic sectors of industry:

Before the Second World War, Boeing practically had no earnings. It grew rich during the war, with a great increase in investments, more than 90 percent of which came from the federal government. Earnings also sprung up when Boeing increased its net value more than five times over, carrying out is patriotic duty. Its “phenomenal financial history” in the following years was also based on the largesse of the fiscal contributor, Frank Kofsky pointed out in a study of the first post-war phases of the Pentagon system, allowing the owners of airline companies to reap fantastic earnings with minimum investments on their own parts.
(Chomsky and Dietrich, 1999: 36)

Nevertheless, as Noam Chomsky points out, Boeing was not an isolated case:

From the Second World War on, the system of the Pentagon –including NASA and the Department of Energy- has been used as an optimum mechanism to channel public subsidies to the advanced sectors of industry […] by way of military spending, the Reagan administration increased the state proportion in domestic gross product to more than 35 percent until 1983, an increase 30 percent higher compared with the previous decade. The Starwars (proposed by Reagan) in this manner was a public subsidy (undercover) for advanced technology. […] The Pentagon, under the Reagan administration, also supported the development of advanced computers, becoming –in the words of Science magazine- “a key force in the market” and “catapulting parallel massive computation from the laboratory into the state of a newborn industry”, to thus help the creation of many “young super-computer companies”.
(Chomsky and Dietrich, 1999: 30-31)

The Consequences of the Technological Revolution on the International Stage

The technological revolution gives us the background upon which today break out, and will break out tomorrow, the key struggles for power and it shows us the very transformation of the concept of power, and, therefore, of the elements that make up national power of the States. Today more than ever it is necessary to have in mind for the analysis of international relations that knowledge is power: military power, economic power, political power and cultural power.

It is convenient to remember that, by the very nature of the international system –that is governed, in a certain way, by a situation that likens the “state of nature”- do States exists, as active subjects of that international system, as long as and in as much as they possess power. Only those States that possess power are capable of leading their own destiny. The States without enough power to resist the imposition of the will of another State are “objects of history” because they are incapable of leading their own destinies. The States with greatest power tend to be made up of subordinating States and, as a logical consequence, those other States that are deprived of the attributes of sufficient power to maintain autonomy tend to become subordinated States, beyond the fact of whether or not they are able to preserve the formal aspects of their sovereignty.

It is absolutely unarguable that the technological revolution has deepened, in an irreversible way, the economic interdependency between States. Nevertheless, it is imperative to not confuse the concept of economic interdependency with the concept of subordination, given the fact that economic interdependency does not alter the fundamental division of the international system into subordinating States and subordinated States.

It seems to be commonplace to say that the new name of power is knowledge, knowing. In the aftermath of the Renaissance –an era of transition similar to ours- Francis Bacon held that “knowledge is power”. Knowledge has always been an ingredient of power and it would be a mistake to underestimate the role it has played in the past. There is an erroneous reading of history, a unidimensional vision, in which force plays a determinant role, but this reading forgets that behind force there has always been knowledge. Nevertheless, the proportion of knowledge, as far as being an ingredient of power is now truly more decisive than ever.

Alvin Toffler in his book The Change of Power, dedicated to explore the impact of the “future”, in contemporary society, conceives power as a three-legged stool, made up of riches, violence and knowledge, an image that takes him to create the concept of the “balance of power”. But, what is knowledge as far as a factor of power goes? Does it simply consist of the development of technological capacity? Toffler answers these questions in an original way:

Knowledge includes much more tan the conventional elements like science and technology or education. It comprehends the strategic concepts of a nation, its capacity of information abroad, its language, its general knowledge of other cultures, its cultural and ideological incidence in the world, the diversity of its communications systems and the gamma of new ideas, information and images that flow through them. All of these nourish or sap the power of a nation and they determine what quality of power it can utilize in any given conflict or crisis. (Toffler, 1999: 491)

An objective analysis of the international reality and of the impact of the technological revolution on the international stage indicates that knowledge today is –and will be much more in the coming decades- the new name of power. As a result, the States that do not wish to remain or fall in relation to subordination should be capable of developing and producing high volumes of knowledge so that it will become economic, cultural and military power.

However, for some thinkers, like Eric Hobsbawm and Peter Drucker, it is necessary to have in mind that, given the new conditions –fundamentally imposed by the economy of knowing-, there exists an indissoluble relationship between political power, autonomic capacity, technology and geographical space. This goes to say that the field of international policy, so that the technological capacity of a State can become an “effective power” it is necessary for it to also possess a large geographical space.

Eric Hobsbawm, analyzing the changes that the technological revolution provoked on the international stage, sates:

The enormous power of a technology constantly being revolutionized steadies itself on economic terrain and above all in what is military. Political power on a global scale today demands the dominion of that technology combined with a geographically very large State. Extent was not something that counted before. Great Britain, which reigned over the most extensive empire of its time, was barely a medium-sized State, ever for the 18th and 19th century criteria. In the 17th century, Holland –a State comparable in size to that of Switzerland- could have become a global player. Nowadays it is inconceivable that a State, no matter how rich and technologically advanced it is, to become a world power if it is not relatively gigantic. (Hobsbawm, 2003: 22)

For knowledge to produce power –apart from riches- it needs and enormous geographic space and an important critical population mass. This axiom explains why Japan is an economic giant and a political dwarf, classified as such by Zbigniew Brzezinski as a “protectorate” of the United States.

In the same sense as Hobsbawm but from the interesting angle of economic analysis, Peter Drucker states:

In the economy of knowledge neither traditional protectionism nor traditional free trade can function by themselves; what is needed is an economic unity that is big enough so as to establish significant free trade and strong inner competition. This unity must be big enough so that the new industries of high technology develop while enjoying a high degree of protection. The reason for this resides in the nature of high technology, or rather, of the industry of knowledge.

This industry does not follow the equations of supply and demand of classic, neo-classic or Keynesian economy. In them the costs of production rise in a proportional way to the volume of production; in the industries of high technology production costs fall, and very quickly, as production goes up; this is what is now called the learning curve. The importance of this is that an industry of high technology can support itself in such a way that it destroys any other competitor.

When this has happened there is almost no chance that the vanquished industry ever come back; it has ceased to exist. However, and at the same time, the new industry of high technology must have sufficient competence and sufficient challenges; otherwise, it will stop growing and developing; it will become monopolistic and slothful, and will soon become obsolete. The economy of knowing therefore demands that economic unities that are greater, even than a national State of fair size; if it is not as such, there will be no competition. But it also demands the capacity to protect industry and to trade with other commercial blocks on the basis of reciprocity more so than on protection or free trade. This is a situation without precedents; it makes regionalism be, at the same time, inevitable and irreversible. (Drucker, 1994: 128-129)