The New Measuring Rods of Power

April 18, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- "I am not responsible for geography,'' Stalin told the Finnish government in 1938 as he demanded it make political concessions.

Geography has been the fundamental factor in foreign policy. Dynastic conflict, disputed territorial claims, rivalry over resources, claims on ethnic minorities living across disputed frontiers, the straightforward desire for territorial aggrandizement -- these have been the main non-ideological causes of war.

Even imperial expansion was a form of territorial rivalry. American policy in the 19th century was motivated by the idea of Manifest Destiny on the North American continent, and in the case of the war with Spain, of Pacific empire.

Today power and influence no longer are linked to geography. The fact that Serbs and Croatians are fighting to expand their national territories is generally taken by the rest of us as another proof that they are captives of ideas from the past. Now, national power rests mainly on industry and finance, and on cultural influence.

During the period when the military reach of nations was limited, and the great powers occupied a relatively small part of the globe, policies of power balance made sense. Victory in war, or successful exploitation of the threat of war, required alliances that shifted the calculations of military and naval power. But what exactly does balance of power mean today?

If conflict is economic, what advantage is there in alliance with one potential rival against another? How does alliance, ''balance,'' serve competitive economic interests? The U.S., Japan and the European Union are political and military allies, but they also are supposed to be economic rivals. They manufacture competitive goods and attempt to sell them in the same markets. The idea of economic alliance seems to make sense only as a trading zone with barriers against competition. Are Mexico, Canada and the United States in an alliance directed against the European Union and Japan?

A political vocabulary of power balance is often misapplied today, when commentators talk of alliances with Russia to ''contain'' China, or with China to ''contain'' Japan. Contain them from what? The industrial nations and trading blocs are rivals in ,, certain respects, but they are also mutually dependent in that the prosperity of one relies on the general prosperity of the others. NAFTA and the economic recovery of the U.S. can only benefit from European and Japanese prosperity, since all are major markets for one another's goods.

Geopolitical rivalry is a zero-sum game in which gains by one require loss for others. Economic rivalry is a matter of marginal gains or losses within a context of general growth (or decline). In this situation, the traditional policy conception of power balance and power advantage risks irrelevance.

I do not say that classical issues of military and political rivalry and intimidation have vanished. Military power certainly remains relevant with respect to the dangers that would arise from anarchic breakdown, political retrogression or the rise of authoritarian nationalism in a nuclear Russia, or to the threat of further breakdown in the Balkans, jeopardizing the stability of nearby countries and indirectly threatening West European order.

But the U.S., Europe and Japan are not military rivals, and they are today's crucial powers. This means that military power does not have the significance it had before 1989. The United States, ''the only superpower,'' is not as powerful as it was when Russia still was a global power, and national power was generally measured in military terms. Military power does not generate employment and prosperity, and that is today's competition.

Effective world power is economic and cultural. It lies in the success and good order of a nation. The nation that can successfully combine economic success and prosperity with social justice will exercise the greatest long-term influence today.

In that competition America's power is compromised by the international perception that, in significant respects, it is an unjust society, distinguished by violence, social disorder and decline. European influence is limited by its recent incapacity to create jobs and prosperity. Russia still has enormous power in raw military terms but has drastically lost influence because of its economic and political disorder. These are the new factors of power and weakness in world affairs.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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