Reviewer: James Whibley (Victoria University of Wellington)
- Publisher: Polity, 2012
- ISBN: 9780745634715
- Available at: Amazon
- Author's page: Martin A. Smith
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Despite its status as a fundamental concept in International Relations (IR), defining or analysing how power works eludes many scholars. Martin A. Smith, a senior lecturer at the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, provides a helpful guide to understanding how power operates and how states can undermine or strengthen their own power through the policy choices of leaders. Furthermore, by examining the recent foreign policies of the US, Russia, and China the book contributes an original analysis of the application of power and the future of the international order.
The book’s two theoretical chapters analyse the different perspectives on how to understand power and what resources comprise power. Smith examines the concepts of power put forward by range of scholars across many decades, commenting on the works of Parsons, Dahl, Morgenthau, and Mearsheimer. Smith does not merely summarise each perspective however; he clarifies how states can use power and adds an intelligent analysis about the limitations of each author’s conception of power. The book’s central theoretical argument is that power is ill-defined and under-theorised in IR. Smith believes the best understanding of power comes from a sociological approach; viewing power as a social and relational construct. While Smith concedes power has a basis in the possession of material resources, power also exists within a framework of established norms, laws, and rules that shape state action (p. 11). Smith also provides a succinct discussion of networked power, raising doubts about the ability of communications technology to erase power imbalances between state and non-sate actors, while admitting the usefulness of viewing power as a function of interactions and relationships.
The book contends that power lies dormant until consciously activated by state leaders. Therefore, states can be more or less powerful than material resources suggest, depending on, ‘the effectiveness and skill with which their leaders can harness their possession of relevant resources to achieve desired ends through interaction with others’ (p. 14). Thinking about power as more than the sum of economic and military power is crucial for the effective use of diplomacy and Smith makes a convincing appeal for leaders to consider how the use of hard power affects perceptions of states legitimacy.
Building on this procedural view of power, Smith makes his own conceptual addition to the literature by distinguishing between “inferior” and “superior” power. The latter exists when an exercise of power leads to intended or preferred outcomes, while the former results from a voluntary act that has unintended, negative consequences (p. 16-17). The distinction between each type of power is useful, providing greater nuance and clarity to assertions about whether a policy represents deterioration in state power. Smith also deserves praise for contributing a more precise and nuanced view of Nye’s concept of soft power, correctly asserting that the ideas underlying soft power are not without precedent in the literature. Moreover, Smith rescues the term from conceptual fuzziness by clearly delineating what counts as an exercise of soft power and the limitations to its use as a policy tool.
The case studies of US, Russian, and Chinese foreign policy from the 1990s to the present comprise the rest of the book. Despite many others having heavily scrutinised the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, Smith is able to supply an original analysis that explains why the administration was indifferent to accusations that its policies were destructive to US international legitimacy. Nevertheless, Smith notes the ability of the Bush Administration to learn from experience and revert to a multilateral approach, while illustrating the necessity of maintaining international legitimacy, even under conditions of unipolarity.
The Russian case also provides a novel analysis, informing readers about the debate over multipolarity within Russia and recounting the almost total collapse of soft power in modern Russian foreign policy. The chapters on China’s future foreign policy are particularly noteworthy for their even-handed approach to assessing Chinese power. Smith neither denies the growing presence of China on the global stage nor exaggerates the risk China poses to the current international order. While the empirical chapters are valuable for providing a better understanding of each state’s foreign policy, Smith underutilises the inferior/superior conception of power introduced at the book’s opening, only briefly mentioning how either concept leads to a better understanding of the actions of Russian and Chinese leaders. The book’s conclusion does go further in to exploring theoretical and policy implications of Smith’s work, but is lamentably brief.
The book employs a wealth of research, marshalling evidence from a number of secondary sources for a multi-disciplinary approach that synthesises analysis from sociology, political science, and philosophy. Despite the lack of original research, the book presents its evidence in a convincing manner and deserves to attract interest for skilfully including many classical and non-western thinkers in its analysis. The book is also highly up to date, including analysis of actions taken by the Obama administration and the recent events concerning the Arab Spring.
The book will be of use to scholars at any level but may especially appeal to students, as the book avoids overloading the reader with academic jargon and clearly defines terms and concepts. The book also remains very readable throughout and follows a similar structure in each chapter, creating a coherent argument. Despite any shortcomings, Power in the Changing Global Order is a valuable contribution to a literature that often fails to employ important terms with precision and serves as an important argument for the abiding nature of US power.