Threshold of Power


The Concept of the Threshold of Power

In order to understand with greater precision the factors and elements that mark, compose and mutate the situation of the States in the international realm, making some subordinate States and others subordinated – a situation that is relative and, by nature, changing -, it is necessary to create a new category of interpretive analysis. This category, which we will denominate “the threshold of power”, does not consist of a mere “invention” – arbitrary or whimsical- but rather of an operating concept that allows us to expose, in a synthetic way, a series of parameters that exist and are played out over the course of the historical reality of nations and that determine their situation before other nations.

Thus, by “threshold of power” we will understand from now on a quantum of necessary minimal power under which the autonomic capacity of a political unit ceases. “Threshold of power” is, therefore, the minimum power that a State needs to create in the stadium of subordination, at a determined moment in history. The “variable” nature of that threshold of power is in turn derived from its historical and relative nature. In the interpretation of the world made from that stance of international law, all formally independent States are subjects of law. In the General Assembly of the United Nations, just as much the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Madagascar as the United States or China have one vote, are worth one vote. Nevertheless, within the same institution that consecrates the jurisdictional equality of the States, emerges the Security Council to remind us that all States are equal but there are some more equal than others. Different from the “world imagined” by some professors of international law, in the realm of international reality –where power is the measure of all things- only those States that reach the threshold of power that is usable at that moment in history are true “subjects” of international policy. The States that do not reach that threshold of power, though they can achieve great economic prosperity, tend to become, inevitably, “objects” of international policy, meaning subordinate States.

The threshold of power necessary for a State to not fall into the stadium of subordination is always related to the power generated by other States that comprise the international system. When one or several political units considerably increase their power, they provoke a substantial change in the threshold of power that other units need to not fall into the stadium of subordination. In this way, when the formation of the great national States was produced, Spain in 1492, France in 1453 and England in 1558, these raised the threshold of power, and the political units that were not able to become national States, like the cities-state of italic peninsula, they progressively became subordinate States. At the same time, when Great Britain became the State-nation to fully produce the Industrial Revolution –inaugurating the category of industrial State-nation- it raise the threshold of power that other State members of the system needed to reach in order to maintain their autonomic capacity, meaning, in order to not fall under British subordination. The Spanish and Portuguese fall-outs had their origin fundamentally in the incapacity of these two units to first become manufacturing produces, and later on, to complete their own industrial revolutions. [1]

The progressive deterioration in terms of power caused Portugal to become a subordinate State to English power and Spain to become a subordinate State, first to French power and later to the British. Portugal and Spain slowly went from being central States –“full-fledged members” of the hegemonic structure of power- to being mere peripheral State, excluded from the hegemonic structure of power. They went from subordinating States to subordinate States. The exclusion became graphically obvious even in the popular expression, used in France and England, that “Europe ends where the Pyrenees are”. Thus, to the rest of Europe, the Spanish and Portuguese were “Africans”.

The German States – Prussia, Bavaria, Wurttemberg, Baden, Saxony and Hannover, just to mention a few- were only able to overcome their state of subordination when Otto von Bismark culminated the German unity that had been being prepared for the Zollverein, the customs union between German micro-states. This goes to say that Germany was only able to overcome its state of subordination when, thanks to political unity and industrialization, it was able to reach the “new” threshold of power, that threshold that Great Britain had set with industrialization. The Italic Peninsula was only able to overcome its state of subordination when the kingdom of the Piedmont and its industrials generate unity and deepen the industrialization process in order to broaden its markets, a fact that allows the new State to reach the threshold of power that Great Britain had established. In Asia only Japan, with the Meiji Revolution, is able to reach that threshold of power and to become the only Asian nation not subject to European subordination.

On the American continent, beginning with the “founding insubordination” of 1775, aside from the hegemonic structure of power, a State of unusual dimensions will begin to be built. When on February 2nd of 1848, by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico saw itself forced to give up the broad extension of territory that stretched from Texas to California, the United States became a continental State. The territories taken from Mexico together with the territories the United States had won over in Oregon and in the Southwest took its surface to some seven and a half million square kilometers, meaning, a territory almost the same, by extension, as all of Europe. Later, with the victory of the industrial North over the slave-driving and agrarian South, a new and gigantic industrial State-nation is brought forth –which generates a new category of State: the continental industrial State-nation- which progressively elevates the threshold of power once again. Therefore, from the full-fledged industrial completion of the United States on, it became clear to the other political units of the international system that it would only be possible to maintain their full autonomic capacity if they were able to turn into a national industrial State similar in surface and population to the United States, meaning, continental surfaces. In Europe this was perceived early on by Alexis of Tocqueville, Bruno Bauer and Friedrich Ratzel. In Latin America Jose Enrique Rodo, Manuel Ugarte, Rufino Blanco Fombona, Franciso Garcia Calderon and Jose Vasconcelos sensed it as well.

The Construction of National Power and State Impulse

For the peripheral States, subject in the international system to a double subordination, the fundamental strategic objective cannot be anything but to reach the threshold of power. In those States, the construction of national power requires a great impulse from the State in order to put in action what strength there is. The state-driven impulse allows mobilization of potential resources that turns strength into power, strength into action.[2] In reality, through deep study of the history of international policy it is seen derived that in the origin of national power of the principal States that make up the international system there are always to be found present a state-driven impulse. This is as such because national power does not spontaneously emerge from the simple development of national resources. What’s more, in peripheral States, the need for the state-driven impulse is seen to be increased because the States that have more power tend to inhibit the exploitation of the potential of the subordinates so that the relationship of forces will not be altered to their detriment. Let us remember, with Pinheiro Guimarães that “hegemonic structures of power tend to, by nature, feed their own perpetuation” (PinheiroGuimarães, 2005: 25).

We denominate “state impulse” to be all policies made by a State to create or increase and of the elements that comprise the power of that State. In a general manner we can affirm that within the concept of state impulse fall all the actions carried out by a political unit tending to encourage, incite, induce or stimulate the development or the strengthening of any of the elements that comprise national power. In a restrictive way we also use the concept to refer to all actions carried out by a peripheral State tending to kick start the necessary forces to overcome the state of subordination. The paradigmatic example of what we denominate “state impulse” was the English Navigation Ordinance of 1651 en its successive reformations.[3]

The concepts of the threshold of power and state impulse necessarily lead to the analysis of the elements that comprise State power. The power of a State is comprised by a group of elements, tangible and intangible, that are interrelated. This group of elements is permanently affected by technological and cultural changes. In order to build power it is necessary to constantly ask oneself which are the factors that give a State the minimum power necessary to maintain autonomy, provided that these factors are, as we have already affirmed, permanently transformed by the evolution of technology. One of the aspects that preserves the greatest validity of the thought of the realist school may be the reflection of Hans Morgenthau on the elements that comprise national power. For Morgenthau, there exist “relatively stable” factors that make up State power, such as the geographic element and natural resources, and others that can be deemed as “dynamic”, such as population, the armed forces or technological capacity.

We can say that Morgenthau conceives the power of a nation as an Egyptian pyramid made up of ten floors or levels in which the geographic factor can be found in the base. In the second floor, the possibility of providing one’s own food. In the third, raw materials that are owned. In the fourth, industrial production. In the fifth, military infrastructure. In the sixth, the size and quality of the State’s population. The seventh and eighth floors are made up of the national character and morale, respectively. The ninth, of State diplomacy – which Morgenthau understands in a broad sense - and, when the pyramid is not truncated, the cuspice is inhabited by the personality of a great man, a statesman, like cardinal Richelieu, George Washington or Charles De Gaulle.[4]

Seen in perspective and from afar, the Morgenthau’s pyramid appears all the more solid, stronger and impenetrable the more important material factors are, the tangible elements that it is comprised of, such as the size of the population. However, once the traveler draws near to the fortress and penetrates the very structure of the pyramid, it is noticeable that her consistency depends less on tangible factors than on the intangibles, such as national morale and character. Reflecting on the tangible and intangible factors that comprise national power, Friedrich List affirmed that: “It is difficult to say if material forces influence the spiritual ones more than in vice versa, and in an analogical way with regards to individual and social forces. But what is certain is that some as much as others are influenced reciprocally and powerfully, in such a way that the growth of one provokes the growth of the others and the decadence of one is always followed by that of the others” (List, 1955: 59). List himself, when analyzing the national power of Great Britain, asks himself:

Who can say what part of these favorable results corresponds to the Constitution and to the national English spirit, that another to her geographical situation and previous circumstances and which perhaps to chance, to luck, to fortune? (List, 1955: 60)

The Currents of Power

The elements of power are not static factors, placed in a type of world of platonic ideas, but are rather dynamic elements; the rain of history can, like the case of water applied to cement, dissolve and solidify but, above all, transform. Thus Morgenthau warns when affirming:

Daily changes, as small and unperceivable as they may seem in the beginning, influence the factors that affect the formation of national power, adding a pinch of strength on one side and erasing a grain of power from the other… All the factors we have mentioned, with the exception of that of geography, are found in a constant flowing, influencing one another and receiving at the same time the unpredictable influence of nature and man. Together then make up the current of national power, slowly flowing and maybe reaching a great caudal for centuries, as in the case of England, or steeply slipping and abruptly falling from its crest, as in the case of Germany, or moving slowly and facing the uncertainties of the future, as in the case of the United States.

To draw the course of that current and of the different tributaries that comprise it and to foresee the changes in direction and speed is the ideal task of the observer of international policy. (Morgenthau, 198: 193)

Now then, how to draw out the course of the current of world power? How can one foresee the changes in direction and speed? Is there a method that exists that would allow us to know where the current of power is headed? How can one detect, under the surface of the current relationships of power, the germinal developments of the future? It is peculiar that, in order to answer these questions, a thinker such as Morgenthau trusted more in “intuition” and “creative imagination” than in pure reason. For Morgenthau, the evaluation of factors of power in the present and in the future is, always, an ideal task which when completed successfully, builds “the supreme intellectual achievement” of the international policy analyst. As an ideal task, Morgenthau warns that it will never be perfect, precisely because the nature and man are imperfect, unpredictable elements, factors that cannot be known with exactness and that make the calculations of evaluation always be inexact.[5] Nevertheless, though this ideal task happens to be a factual “impossible”, at the same time it is possible to come close to her. Morgenthau finds the beginning of the solution to solve the problem of the relative evaluation of the power of nations at present and in the future in the utilization of the “creative imagination”, consisting of the combination of the knowledge of what it is with “gut instincts”,  with intuitions as to that would “could” be. This creative imagination that can provide us with a “map” that contains future “probable tendencies”. Through this imagination we can “detect, under the current relationships of power, the germ developments of the future” (Morgenthau, 1986: 199). However that creative imagination, he warns, must be immune to the “fascination that preponderant factors of power so easily impart”.[6] A mistake in which the political elites and intellectuals of South America currently fall.[7]

Economic Development, National Wealth& National Power

Usually, the expressions “economic development” or even “national wealth” tend to be confused with “national power”. The latter requires economic development, but economic development does not guarantee, in and of itself, national power. In order to maintain peripheral States in a situation of permanent subordination it is held –and the subordinated elite ideologically repeat uncritically in the peripheral States- that the development of national wealth is more important than the construction of national power. This is, in fact, a longstanding discussion. Regarding so, List affirmed even in 1838, reflecting on the destiny of Germany that was in that time a peripheral region, subordinated and underdeveloped:

Power is more important than wealth; however, why is it more important? Because the power of a nation is a force capable of lighting up new productive resources, because productive forces are akin to a tree whose branches were as wealth and because the tree that produces fruit always has more value than the fruit itself. Power is more important that wealth, because a nation through power not only acquires new productive resources but also reaffirms its possession of traditional wealth achieved of old, and because the opposite of power, meaning helplessness, makes us put into the hands of those more powerful than us, not only wealth, but also our productive strength, our culture, our freedom and even our independence as a nation, as it is clearly taught to us by the history of the Italian Republics, of the Hanseatic League, of Belgium, Holland, Portugal and Spain (List, 1955: 56)


1. While England played the main role in the industrialization process from the years of Isabel (1558-1603) –that conferred on it an economic and technological superiority that put the pieces of “political chess” into its hands on a planetary scale-, Spain was incapable of industrializing itself. The mirage of American gold numbed the Spanish economy. It became easier to buy goods abroad than to manufacture them within the country. Spain neglected, from the Inca Empire on, product manufacturing, the true source of riches and power. This is the situation that explains that American gold would have gone through Spain only because, in reality, it was headed to the countries from which that country bought its manufactured goods. To Spain’s disgrace, the affluence of the precious metal began a true inflationary spiral that, once unable to be contained, caused a serious crisis that smote the entire population, which in turn reacted by fleeing to the New World in mass, an exodus that impoverished the Iberian kingdom even more. Thus was weaken in Spain one of the factors that makes power for any State: the population. The emigration en mass depopulated Spain that, between 1600 and 1750 lost approximately four million inhabitants. Over a lapse of a century and a half, its population went from twelve to eight million inhabitants. Paradoxically, the riches of America ruined Spain, which built its own strategy vulnerability. Depopulated and lacking an adequate economic policy, it was not able to get on the train of the Industrial Revolution, and it was left lagging behind economically and technologically, a delay which it barely began to timidly crawl out of centuries after World War II. For more, see Barbara Stein and Stanley Stein (1970, 2002).

2. In a physical sense, Raymond Aron (1984) holds that a strong man is he who, thanks to his weight and muscle build, possesses the means to resist a test of strength, an aggression or to overcome others. Nevertheless, he sagaciously warns that physical strength is nothing without ingeniousness, without will, without intelligence. In the realm of international relations, he continues, it is necessary to distinguish between strength in power and strength through power in action; the mobilization is determined by the capacity and will, meaning that by the capacity and will of the population (especially in the leading elite) to turn into action that which is as of yet force.

3. In August of 1651, the English Parliament approved the Navigation Ordinance under which merchandise was only allowed to be imported into England in English ships that were under the command of Englishmen and in which three quarters of the crew were made up of English sailors. The Navigation Ordinance also established that in England it was only allowed to import directly from their place of origin. Through this law the English naval industry received a an enormous state impulse. English merchants, obligated to make provisions for themselves, gave a thrust to naval construction so important that the British marina soon became the foremost port in the world

4. “What might have come of France’s power”, Morgenthau asks 91986: 179), “without the ability of Richelieu, Mazarino and Talleyrand? What would have become of German power without Bismark? Of the Italian power without Cayour? How much does power of the young republic of the United States owe a Franklin, a Jefferson, a Madison, a Jay, to the Adams, to its ambassadors and State Secretaries?”

5. “Like all ideal tasks”, affirms Morgenthau (1986: 194), “it is something impossible to do. Even if the leaders of foreign policy of a nation were to possess superior wisdom and unerring judgement and were able to go to the most complete and reliable sources of information, there will always be some unknown factors that will render there calculations inexact. They would never be in condition to prevent natural disasters […] catastrophes produced by man […] nor inventions and discoveries, the rise and disappearance of intellectual, military and political leaders, the thoughts and acts of such leaders, not to mention the imponderables of national morale. To summarize, even the wisest and most informed men must face the contingencies of history and nature”.

6. “What the observer of international policy needs in order to reduce to a minimum the inevitable mistakes in one’s calculations of power is a creative mind immune to the fascination that is so easily imparted by the moment’s preponderating factors of power, capable of putting aside superstitions, an imagination open to the possibilities of change that the dynamics of history offer. A creative imagination of this kind would be capable of that supreme achievement which consists of detecting germ developments of the future below the surface of the current relationships of power, combining knowledge of what is with the gut feeling of what might be possible and condensing all these facts, symptoms and questions into one map of probable future tendencies that does not have too much variation of what really will happen” (Morgenthau, 1986:199).

7. Apologetically of South American intellectuality and political classes, it is necessary to recognize that despite all the theoretical speculations that we can make about power, numerous historical examples allow us to affirm that, when we go from theory to reality, it is always difficult to give account of power but, even more so, when it goes through a stage of transition, like the one the international system went through after the fall of the wall in Berlin and the “evaporation” of the old Soviet Union, or when on the verge of a technological-scientific revolution of historic dimensions. At those moments many of those who come off as modernizors or revolutionaries are not able to grasp the true revolution that is being produced and how she influences and modifies all factors of power. Amongst those revolutionaries we cannot only look to Nikita Kruschev and the soviet Marxists –when they proposed to beat the United States by producing more and more steel, sowing more and more chimneys all over the Soviet Union when the race industrialism had already ended because the world had already gone into post-industrialism- but in the paradigmatic example of the French revolutionaries that believed that the national power of England was not built on solid foundations, like that of France, because it was not based on agriculture, an activity which the French believed contributed not only to the self-provision of food, but also to the shaping of a superior national character. According to the curious interpretation of the French revolutionaries, industrial activity gave birth to all imaginable corruptions and weaknesses, pulverizing the national character of the people that adopted it: “Amongst the many erroneous concepts of the French revolutionaries, none was more insidious than the idea that the English riches and power were supported on an artificial base. This mistaken belief in England’s weakness came from the doctrine that the Economistes and Physiocrates taught towards the end of the 18th century, pointing out that commerce was not a producer of wealth in and of itself, since the only thing it did was promote the distribution of the products of the land, but rather that agriculture was the only source of riches and prosperity. Hence, they exalted agriculture at the cost of commerce and manufactured goods, and the course of the Revolution, that oversaw most agrarian affairs, tended toward the same direction. Robespierre and Saint Just never tired of contrasting the virtues of a simple pastoral life with the corruptions and weaknesses that international trade bred; and when, at the beginning of 1793, Jacobin jealousy embroiled the young Republic against England, the speakers at the Convention prophesied confidently the ruin of the modern Cartago” (McLuhan, 1985: 67).


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