Power is strange but important. It is ever-changing, yet those in power seem to be able to hold onto it for decades. When power is abused, it is vilified, across ideologies and groups of people – but there is no consensus in America as to what consists as a “good use” of power. Power is a word with no agreed upon definition, and the mere word brings several different ideas to one’s head. Yet, for all of its complexity, a proper analysis of power is required to analyze the workings of a state and international relations.
In physics, the definition of power is the amount of work done per unit of time. One watt is equivalent to one joule of work done in one second, for example. Work is defined as a force multiplied by a certain distance, and this work ultimately changes the state of an object. Push in the direction of the motion of an object, and that object will speed up. Push opposite the direction of motion, and that object will slow down. The definition of power in physics, therefore, corresponds to the idea of influence – the most powerful objects in the universe are quasars, gargantuan black holes sucking in matter and heating surrounding gas clouds to millions of degrees in the process – and these quasars exert a truly massive influence on the cosmos, warping spacetime itself and altering clusters of galaxies. The sun is another example of a powerful object, emitting several yottawatts, and this has turned Earth into an oasis of life in the universe, while simultaneously roasting Mercury and Venus to burnt husks of worlds.
This definition of power can be therefore extrapolated to the political world. The amount of power that a political entity has – be it a person, party, or nation – is equal to the amount of intentional change, influence, or action that entity exerts on the outside world, with respect to the amount of time that it takes for this influence/change/action to be felt. Of course, it is very difficult, or perhaps even impossible, to quantify the amount of change, or even the amount of time, but this general definition of power will be helpful despite these limitations. For example, we can still say that the US exerts more power than Venezuela – in the span of a few years, American actions have completely altered the courses of several middle eastern nations, whereas Venezuela’s main impact on the outside world has been moderate fluctuations in oil prices and long lines at the Columbian border for food. Powerful countries can make their influence felt on short notice, and this is vital in any geopolitical situation.
Nations must first acquire power in order to use power. Power, overall, is a function of population and technological development. Population is the ultimate resource – without people, a nation can do nothing – but with people, a nation can enjoy many levels of specialization, will be capable of greater innovation, and will be able to enjoy the inherent efficiency of scale. Technological development allows nations to better use their population – a single farmer with a tractor will outwork five farmers with manual tools. Modern China enjoys the first advantage and is rapidly closing in on the second advantage. America, throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, has (for the most part) enjoyed both advantages. But power is more than just a combination of technological development and demographics – it is also a function of several other aspects.
In the physical world, power can manifest itself in several ways. Militarily, a powerful state will be able to defeat its enemies on the battlefield. Economically, a powerful state will be able to influence global economic trends and impose its will on other countries by pulling on various economic levers. Culturally, a powerful state will have spread its traditions, customs, and businesses across the globe – making a visible imprint on any other country. A truly powerful state – perhaps a superpower – will enjoy all three types of power. A hegemonic state or a hyperpower will enjoy dominance in all three types of power.
We must now address the topic of what governments, nations, and entities do with the power they have acquired. In physics, power is not controlled by a conscious being, but rather by the laws of physics. The laws of physics, in conjunction with the raw power of the Sun, have roasted Mercury and turned Earth into an oasis of life. The power of supernovae often destroy entire sections of stellar clusters, but the remaining gas clouds often give birth to new stars, new life. This chaotic control over power explains the chaotic nature of the universe.
In real life, governments control power. Governments apply and use power in the ways that they best see fit – and history has shown that governments can use power for both spectacular good and horrific evil. Nazi Germany dominated Europe from 1940-1943, and during this time, German trains carried millions of Jews, Slavs, Romani, and other “undesirables” to death camps. Yet, during this same time, American factories churned out thousands of tanks and planes, supplying the allied war machine which would eventually crush the Reich. Overall, a controlled, disciplined, and effective usage of power is just as important as having power in the first place. In politics, power is akin to the tools in a woodshop – having more and better tools will allow for greater efficiency and accuracy, but an experienced and intelligent woodworker is still required to make the best use of his tools. In the same way, a nation can have all of the power that it desires – but unless it has an effective government, that power will be useless. However, the combination of power and effective governance can result in either the greatest acts of good, or the most despicable acts of evil.
There are a number of questions which now must be answered by our government. Should America attempt to maximize her power? What types of power should America specialize in? How should America apply her power? These are all important questions, and it is imperative that our leaders – Republican or Democrat – carefully ponder these questions before every decision.