The question of whether another state would rise to challenge US hegemony became relevant in the l990s after the implosion of the Soviet Union left the United States with seemingly unprecedented might. It became even more pressing after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, as the second Bush administration aspired to a military preponderance that could not be matched by any combination of competitors. “Realist” theorists and commentators intoned that in a world of sovereign nation-states, such an asymmetry would necessarily be intolerable to all non-hegemonic states. As a result, a search for a new equilibrium would emerge, either spontaneously as middle sized countries acted collectively to contain the new gorilla on the block, or by dint of painful institutional learning and construction by far-sighted statesmen. Although it is still unclear which, if either, of these outcomes will emerge, the balance of power mantra continues to be the dominant framework for understanding global dynamics: it is the ideology of foreign policy as scripted, in effect, by Clint Eastwood.

But I believe the very premise of this debate reflects a view of world politics that is rapidly becoming obsolete. Indeed, the notion of a balance of power, no matter how tough-minded and realistic it may seem, will come to make much less sense for mid-21st century international politics. The important issue will not be whether some international association such as the European Union or some new powerful contender such as China will rise to constrain current US dominance. The issue will be whether states, or associations of states, will be effective international actors in the face of such forces as religious militance, mass migration, nuclear proliferation, global warming, and the new economic inequalities emerging from market-driven globalization.

I am not claiming that these tendencies cannot be mitigated with intelligent policies. Nor do I argue that we will not move beyond international confrontations that are dangerous in a traditional sense, such as those presented by North Korea, Iran, the future of Taiwan, or even the potential recklessness of US interventionism. In his outspoken address to international delegates in Munich this February, President Putin issued a denunciation of US intervention that sounded like an old-style call for a containment coalition—this time geared toward restraining Washington.

Indeed, many of his criticisms were perfectly justified, especially with respect to the United States’ hardly veiled ambitions for enhanced missile defense and weapons in space. But for now, Russia is in no position to lead such a coalition. Its concern about awakening Islamic separatism within its own Muslim territories precludes an easy rallying of Iran and Middle Eastern states. Moscow remains anxious in its own right about Iranian nuclear ambitions. And its ham-handed control of oil does not make it easy for the Kremlin to wean Germany and other European states away from their longstanding NATO commitments. Unipolar dominance, as Putin implies, is an abnormal historical condition. It will change—but not due to the emergence of a traditionally conceived coalition designed to contain the United States. What is more, Putin’s mindset seems itself anachronistic. Unless Washington rekindles a dangerous and reckless arms race, balance of power responses will be overshadowed by more ubiquitous perils that have little to do with an equilibrium among states. Indeed, the entire notion of power as possessed by nation-states is evaporating beneath our feet. To understand this deliquescence, we must briefly recall all the arenas in which power is exercised—not just the international sphere.

Identifying Sites of Power

Let us reflect for a moment on the idea of power, not merely as a parameter of international relations, not merely as “hard” or “soft,” but as a resource for organizing collective life. Power is one actor’s capacity to compel another actor to change his or her behavior if mere persuasiveness or influence—what Joseph Nye has christened “soft power”—does not suffice. If resistance is encountered, then “hard power” must be applied. Hard power inheres in national legislation as well as in military capacity, but at all levels it tends to be succesful only when accepted as legitimate or in the service of generally accepted norms.

A great deal of the world suffers not from too much of this power, but from too little of it. More precisely, much of the world suffers from a lack of legitimate power—that is, authority that is accepted because it rests on generally recognized norms and laws—and too much pure force. Sometimes the force is physical and raw, as when tribal groups clash in Afghanistan or Somalia, or when governments decide to suppress real or imagined enemy groups. Sometimes force is manifested in long-term civil wars, as in Central America, Colombia, and Sri Lanka. Sometimes it is exerted by rival militias, as in today’s Iraq, and sometimes it is used by criminal networks, as in the case of the Mafia. In each of these situations, the struggle is to organize power in order to hold violence in check. This holds true not only for inter-territorial conflicts, but for conflicts within territorial spaces as well. In the decades ahead, these kinds of struggles will overshadow the traditional international balance of power dynamic.

There are, moreover, other arenas for contestations of power, which we might think of as infrapolitical—the family realm, the spiritual realm, and the economic realm. Often we discuss these spheres of social life as if they were devoid of power. But if we think of power as a form of potential constraint designed to ensure desired collective behavior—whether through enthusiasm, obedience, or labor—then most people experience power within non-state institutions, whether these be families, religious communities, or economic structures. Indeed, to most people in the world, the power exerted through families and markets is far more pressing and immediate than power exerted between or within states. Just as physicists postulate dark matter to explain the full strength of gravitation in the universe, we might term this often overlooked capacity to compel outcomes as “dark power.”

I will do no more than cite power within families—parents over children, husbands in many traditional nations over wives, and so on—as one domain. Unless it becomes abusive, we interpret the very real power exerted by parents over children as a form of nurture. Nonetheless it is often very real. In premodern times adolescent children were turned over to long and sometimes harsh apprenticeships. Today children are often sent to inappropriate schools; in many societies adolescent girls can be assigned husbands by parents and are subject to codes of honor enforced by shaming, isolation, and even physical intimidation. In such ways there is a large amount of “dark power” that exists within household dynamics. The other sources of dark power exist within religious and economic institutions.

I will not discuss religious power extensively, although its hold seems recently to have increased dramatically—most of all in so-called fundamentalist communities. Often these communities of faith can reach some compromise on the basis of a balance of confessional power, which is linked to territorial confederalism. Protestants and Catholics did so in Central Europe in 1555 and again in 1648. Eventually Hindus and Muslims as well as Shi’a and Sunni Muslims may achieve a similar equilibrium. Nevertheless, it is clear that arriving at such a balance through decades of bloodshed is a long and discouraging process. And the process should not necessarily be analyzed through the lens of the international balance of power, which can be an ineffective instrument for understanding dynamics of religious power.

Consider, finally, economic institutions and, above all, those of Western capitalism. What makes the role of dark power within our economic institutions so intriguing is that it is usually denied by orthodox theorists who characterize economic activity as taking place through unconstrained exchange that benefits all parties. Power is allegedly irrelevant, since each of the parties in an exchange of goods, labor, or long-term assets believes that he or she will be better off making the exchange. Indeed on pragmatic grounds such an analysis may be justified, and applying it seems to have contributed vastly to economic growth. Market exchange, at least when accompanied by technological advance, has made an ever-expanding body of people better and better off.

But that does not mean that most of those participating in this collective process of material improvement would voluntarily have chosen the conditions under which they interact. Market participants confront arrangements—employers, investors, purchasers—that they are not able to choose or affect. For them, economic life is another great reservoir of dark power. This does not necessarily mean that most working men and women will not derive satisfaction from their labor. But relatively few of the world’s working population get to choose where they work, how they work, and what rewards they can reap. However, even though dark power may pervade the economic world, it might be claimed that this is the precondition for economic growth and prosperity. And few of us can offer any alternative.

Classical and neo-classical economists, at least, rarely make an effort to conceive of alternative structures of economic relations. The great advances in economic theory from Smith through Keynes to the present day depended on a conceptual separation of the ends of economic life (“the wealth of nations”) and its means (the market) from the instruments of political society (power and persuasion). For Smith, of course, all society depended upon natural human instincts—whether the sympathy that facilitated political solidarity or the propensity to truck and barter that helped generate market exchange.

Critics of classical economics often cite its psychological premises as unrealistic; they question the assumption of rationality that underlies market and equilibrium theories. But that, I believe, is not the real difficulty; it is that the theories rarely accommodate what I have termed dark power. The Marxian insight differed from classical economics: ultimately the market was an arrangement of those who held capital, which endowed them with power, and those with less capital, who could not act with autonomy. For Marx, there was no economy that was not a political economy. By the end of the l980s, however, Marxists had been discredited by the collapse of the planned economies and state parties that were allegedly based on Marx’s theories. But the core notion, that an economy is not a voluntary set of mutually advantageous and voluntary transactions, was not necessarily debunked.

The Transnational Struggle Over Globalization

I rehearse these rather familiar ideas because I think the balance between Smithians and Marxians may be changing. From l980 until the century’s end, the Marxians were in disarray and the Smithians triumphant. Francis Fukuyama in effect heralded their victory along with that of democratic liberalism. But the Smithian scenario, even now, is beginning to be contested, a trend that is likely to continue in coming decades. Even as I write this, The Economist magazine frets about the trends of growing inequality. Its editors worry about the backlash of job losses and abusive executive pay, and they summon the businessmen convening at Davos to defend a process “that can do so much good even if its impact can sometimes appear so cruel.”

Indeed this is the balance or conflict that rightly worries the more perspicacious: that between the privileged and the powerless in the world economy. Far more misery is likely to emerge from this confrontation if it is badly managed than from traditional international conflict. The point here is neither to defend globalization nor to critique it. But it does seem reasonable, given contemporary economic circumstances around the world, to suggest that the criticisms and the countervailing pressures against globalization, including populism and protectionism, will probably grow more serious in the years to come. In recent symposia, The Economist has worried not about the great masses of poverty in Central or Latin America or Africa or the vast flows of migrants across international borders, but the fraying of the social compact within the wealthy countries of the West.

Most commentators have debated whether such events can reverse the great trend toward free trade, untrammeled capital movements, and mass migrations that have characterized the past 40 years. They have raised the specter of 1914 and 1929-1931. But this is not the only issue to consider. Globalization and the opposition it generates an international force field in which organized states have less capacity to cope with polarizing social conflicts.

On a global scale, dark power has helped to structure international markets and channel flows of wealth to inventive entrepreneurs in the United States, the advanced industrial and post-industrial societies, and increasingly to East and South Asia. This could bring great disruptive potential to the dynamics between favored and less favored nations. Indices suggest that globalization is reducing inequality among nations, although some countries in Africa and the Caribbean seem to have lost ground in a general process of global development. But the real dispersion of fortunes and incomes is present within countries. Therefore some political leaders will think it advantageous and idealistic to challenge if not a growing inequality, then certainly a growing perception of truly elite enrichment. This tradition is certainly evident in the rhetoric of Latin American populism. And the post-Castro transition in Cuba, as North American developers attempt to transform the Cuban economy, will at least sharpen the rhetorical confrontations.

As demonstrators contest globalization in Genoa and Seattle as well as in Caracas, we begin to see a system of confrontations in which the international balance of power has little relevance. This certainly does not preclude an upsurge of autarkic nationalism that could revive confrontations between populist states and champions of continued trade liberalization. The US Secretary of State during the Depression and World War II believed that the war was a conflict between free-trade and autarkic nations. But such an alignment today seems a more remote danger than a series of clashes between the privileged and those who feel themselves disadvantaged, both within nations and between them.

Moreover, part of the global transformation of the last generation has been the mass migration of peoples from the developing world to the developed. Without the inequalities that result from global economic changes, there would be far less movement of peoples to wealthier countries. With this movement have come problems of ethnic conflict, disputes over immigration, and heightened religious tensions. Louise Richardson’s contribution to this symposium takes up the issue of terrorism to make a similar argument. I am not arguing that economic inequality produces terrorism—after all, our most determined terrorists seem to have emerged from relatively well-off backgrounds. Rather, I argue that there will be increasing hostility toward global capitalism, as it enriches some but leaves others behind in terms of skills, rewards, and power.

Consequences for International Relations

All this suggests that we will not be able to analyze the major challenges to global stability in the decades to come within the frameworks of international relations that governed them in the last century. If profound unrest arises from growing economic resentments and backlashes, more zealous religious commitments, the movement of migrants, and the unleashing of a higher general level of violence within weak or divided political communities, we will soon leave behind a world of fixed boundaries, territorial states, and national and group rivalries. The balance of power presupposes stable reservoirs of power—bordered territories that can be filled and refilled with a measurable amount of military assets and economic capital. But this carefully structured international order captures little of the tensions and the distress of the world’s population. The conception of power that lay behind George W. Bush’s October 2002 National Security Strategy statement thus seems increasingly antiquated.

The United States clearly possesses a preponderance of military power on sea, in the air, and in space, as well as in terms of technological assets. But it is becoming more and more dubious as to how effective such resources really will be. Even for such political tasks as bringing peace to Baghdad or dissuading reckless North Korean or Iranian leaders from nuclear gambles, these sorts of power mechanisms have clear limits. And for assuaging the growing malaise about global capitalism, they seem totally irrelevant. Indeed, the issue is not the balance of power, but the usability of power.

This does not mean that patient and forceful use of military assets cannot overcome the challenge of insurrections, resistance movements, and ambitious dictators. But it does mean that old-fashioned international politics seems less relevant for determining our collective future. Increasingly, most states with some organized military capacity and political cohesion have prioritized keeping terrorism at bay, the world economy open, and the threat of global warming distant. When the United States acts in reckless ways other nations deplore its policies, but in general they have an interest to act with the United States to contain what they perceive as growing disorder.

Europe in particular is building a unique form of political and economic association. This association, the European Union, is cumbersome, undecided about how centralized it can be, and unclear about taking on security challenges outside Europe. Its leaders (with the possible exception of the French) have no interest in containing the United States. Indeed, once the United States normalizes its military commitments in the Middle East, it may see closer cooperation with Europe. It would be in Europe’s interest, I believe, for the European Union to increase its autonomous military capacity, not to challenge Washington but to seem more credible as an international actor. The contempt with which US policymakers spoke about Europe in 2001 and 2002 was not healthy for Europe or for the United States. It is ultimately in US interests to have a Europe with a more robust military, even if it would be one that could project European forces to crisis points outside Europe and alongside US units.

Ultimately, the world of functioning institutions will have to use a combination of concessions and power vis-à-vis the claims of those without institutional support—those uprooted from traditional communities, those whose long-term skills are rendered obsolete, or those who live on the margins of subsistence. The traditional balance of power provides an equilibrium for a nation-state framework of international society that will preoccupy Europe, the United States, and even a revived Russian bureaucratic megastate less and less.

We already see this evolution within the United Nations. The classical debates between representatives of opposed states remain potentially important, and in fact bringing an issue to the Security Council is perceived as a critical prerequisite for coalition action. But the Security Council requires unanimity, so it will function only when the United States and its allies are in agreement, not when they are opposing one another. Moreover, the Security Council increasingly takes up issues in which a single state has violated the norms of the world community. And more and more so, such exercises take a back seat to the tasks of controlling intra-state violence, advancing the possibilities for economic development, and assisting refugees.

Recognizing New Challenges

To conclude this reflection, we should recognize that the concepts of power and power balances that have structured international action to date apply to less and less of the potential for conflict and misery in the international community. Europe and North America are on the same side in truly global conflicts: whether against terrorism, against the inequalities that breed massive popular resentment, or against environmental dangers including contagious diseases. The power that we should be constructing is that which inheres in institutions with authoritative legitimacy, not just in national arsenals. We think of the International Court of Justice and sometimes the WTO and even the United Nations as constraints on US power, but in fact they are facilitators of US influence. Power is not the ability to do violence. Nor should we forget that in situations in which US policymakers tend to claim that power is irrelevant, that is, within economic arrangements that enclose the vast majority of the earth’s people, it is, in fact, highly pertinent.

None of this makes state power likely to wither away. Nor does it imply that international NGOs will inherit the earth. It means only that balance of power coalitions seem increasingly irrelevant for the coming years (assuming again that no large country simply runs amok). But states remain the fulcrums for creative political action and certainly political action that transcends the balance of power confrontations to which we are accustomed. States, statesmen, and political parties can still mobilize efforts to attenuate the privilege that seems to corrupt modern democracies and stack the deck against so many of the less advantaged at home and abroad. US statesmen in the past have recognized this basic vulnerability and the potential for counteracting it: Franklin D. Roosevelt called for global “freedom from want” along with “freedom from fear.” It is time to revive that awareness and that ambition.