Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 October 2009
Issue No. 968
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim Said

On power in practice

It is not force that wins in the end, but rather persuasion and justice, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

One wonders how President Barack Obama felt when he failed to secure for his hometown Chicago the opportunity to host the 2016 Olympic Games. One also wonders whether the Olympic Committee's decision to eliminate Chicago in its first round of voting, after the city spent some $100 million on its bid, and after intensive lobbying efforts that brought onboard the charismatic first lady, signifies that Obama has lost his magic touch of persuasiveness abroad. What is certain is that there are people in the US that take Rio de Janeiro's win in this contest as a sign that anti-American hatred did not end with the election of a president of African-American origin, or that the election of a man who is reluctant to use military force ushered in the end of the last remnants of the superpower's might and sway. From the Cairo studios of the Orbit satellite station, the famous talk show host Amr Adib posited sarcastically that a Zionist plot had been hatched overnight to oust the "Windy City" from the first round of the competition. He was parodying not dissimilar conjectures over Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni's defeat in the battle over the UNESCO leadership, which some had taken as proof of the decline in Egypt's regional role and its influence in international forums.

Humour aside, the commotion over aborted shots at prestigious posts and opportunities marked the beginning of a debate among a group of strategic affairs experts over the concept of power in international relations. The central question in the debate was whether the concept was the same and as pivotal as always in international relations or whether the world has changed so much that the term has broken loose from its moorings in form and practice.

As we know, the concept of power is a metaphor derived from the workings of a machine that transforms energy into the movement of parts that transport an object from one place to another, or from one state to another, within a given period of time. As applied in the social sciences the metaphor refers to the ability to influence things, make changes, and propel others to perform activities that they would not have ordinarily done if left to themselves. In its crudest and most primitive form the power metaphor in international relations referred to military power or the ability to wreak harm and destruction. However, the concept eventually became more subtle and complex. It took on various tangible dimensions, such as power as a product of geography, demographics and economic and military prowess, and it took on less tangible and unquantifiable dimensions such as leadership abilities, skills and cunning at turning the potential energies of the former set of dimensions into political results.

Now, has the world changed so much that a country that is still in the forefront of nations in military and material strength is no longer able to secure itself a victory in a contest over hosting the Olympic Games, or have other criteria come into play?

"Globalisation" provides a key here. This process is what lent legitimacy to the selection of Rio in two respects. First, no South American country has hosted the world's greatest sporting event before. Surely a whole continent cannot be kept out of a contest that attracts more spotlights than any other athletics event. One only has to recall those heady days when the "Birds Nest" in Beijing riveted international attention on China unlike anything since the invention of Chinese food. Second, Brazil is in the vanguard of emerging powers in today's world, in both the economic sense and in terms of the latent people power unleashed in a society that has succeeded in breaking free from the bonds of dictatorship and joining the league of democratic nations. On this latter point we should add that Brazil is a member of the G20, even without a nuclear weapon, the quest for which it voluntarily abandoned, turning respect for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty into testimony of its strength rather than a sign of its weakness.

Has the world changed so much? Or has "power" changed whereby the conventional components that gave Washington its special status no longer mean as much in a world where the US was the last power to emerge from its economic crisis and where other countries have taken the lead in various arenas? Surprisingly, a small country such as Finland most regularly ranks the highest in the world on the scale of government transparency with the US lagging far behind. Norway takes the prize in "quality of life" tests that cover a gamut of criteria including respect for the environment and the ability to provide happiness and a dignified life to its inhabitants. Then, of course, we have the stir over the economic progress of China and India and their additions to the expanding "multi-polarity" in the international economic order in which Japan and the EU have long held strong positions. But even economic might, like military might, is no longer as instrumental as it used to be in determining the status of nations in the global pyramid.

Not that long ago, while attending some conference or other, an Indian friend whispered to me that we must also take into account "civilisational power" in our calculations of relative strength in the world. There are certain countries in the world, he said, that we might call "civilisational powers", whose global influence has accumulated over an extensive period of time as a consequence of their contributions to universal civilisation. At the time, he was referring to his own country, of course, as well as China, Egypt, Greece, Turkey and Iran. I was not particularly convinced. I saw it as an attempt to attach too strong an element from the past to the concept of power, which cannot be removed too far from the present where the transformation of energies into influence and change takes place. While these countries may be accorded a degree of respect for their ancient contributions to the civilisation of mankind, their actual power must be assessed in terms of what they can offer now and in the future.

This said; it is undeniable that the concept of power is in flux. This is not only because while American military might may have toppled the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, it brought not one single good afterwards; indeed, it went on to destroy an entire country and civilisation. Moreover, it now appears that same power along with the power of all of NATO is on the verge of failure in Afghanistan and that this is chiefly because they could not win the battle for hearts and minds in that country. Indeed, this may well bring us to the crux of the entire question. If the ballot box is the source of legitimacy inside nations, then winning the hearts and minds of the people is now the key to success in international relations, and this battle cannot be won through brute force but rather through persuasion, cooperation, human understanding and respect. Perhaps Barack Obama is still the most popular US president ever. However, the US, itself, is still a long way from regaining the approval and affection of other peoples because US armed forces are still in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and Washington is still ready to go easy with Israel on the question of settlement construction, even if Obama was the first president since Carter to openly acknowledge the illegitimacy of Israeli settlements.

But why are the changes in the concept of power so important a subject now? It is because an understanding of these changes will point us in the right direction in our quest to obtain our legitimate rights. If power is a "cocktail" of economic efficacy, the ability to improve the quality of life of a people, political legitimacy, and social and cultural achievements, then the sources of power are more available to us than we had previously thought. In the course of modern Arab history, Arab countries have been consumers in terms of conventional power, whether of arms or of life. Yet, in the terms of modern power, arms have declined in value while legitimacy, lawfulness, wisdom and knowledge have increased in value. Whereas the source of arms has, for us, always been abroad and controlled by great powers and black markets, the other sources of power can be found here at home, and inside of ourselves. If we want a more just world our first steps are to create justice at home and to win hearts and minds abroad. Our chances of success in both tasks depend on our ability to learn from those nations that have searched for and found their power within.

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