While mega-trends are producing hyper-freedom (see New Realties Part 1), the nature of power—how it is acquired and deployed—is changing as well.  Traditionally, power has been viewed as exclusively coercive—primarily through negative induction—to serve what the Athenian leader Pericles called “the most fundamental of human motivations: ambition, fear, and self-interest.”  Metrics of demographics, geography, and natural resources dominated.  As Thucydides observed during the Peloponnesian Wars, “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.”[1]  Hard power dominated in a world considered zero-sum, where every winner was matched with a loser.  In the latter twentieth century, Harvard’s Joseph Nye introduced the concept of soft power that includes both positive and negative influence by non-matériel means in a plus-sum (win/win) interdependent world.  Today, the world is changing further still, moving toward new processes that recognize the disaggregation and diffusion of power in a global, as opposed to state-centric, framework.  At the center of this phenomenon are the relative decline of U.S. power and the rise of free agency that enables a third form of power: referential power.

The decline of U.S. power, even if only in a relative sense among other state powers, causes much debate and consternation. After the Soviet Union collapsed the U.S. stood as a unipolar power, unrivaled in hard and soft power.  Following 9/11, U.S. foreign policy entered a period of hubristic overreach that caused a self-inflicted degradation of power.  For many, even suggesting decline is profoundly unpatriotic and inherently foolish.[2]  If we are smart, however, it should not matter.  It is a waste of words and worry.  The paradox of power is that both too little and too much prove to be undesirable.  As foreign policy scholar Michael Mandelbaum recently illustrated, the “power problem” is similar to what economists call the “resource curse,” which occurs in countries that dominate a particular resource, like oil.  They invariably, as do countries with too much power (like the U.S.), adopt policies that weaken the state by over-reliance on the resource, or pernicious use of their power.[3] But again, this should not matter if we recognize our errors and master the concept of referential power.

So what is referential power? As an admittedly exaggerated illustration, consider what it would be like if all NFL football players immediately became unrestricted free agents and were allowed to form new teams without the influence or control of the NFL, team owners, or the players union. Alliances and teams would be formed around particular interests and capabilities without the constraints imposed by the deposed oligarchy.  Disaggregated and diffused ‘power’ in this sense would be recognized, accumulated, and realigned through negotiation by each player based on how they complemented each other’s skills and capacities—to win the next Super Bowl.  Power in this sense becomes referential, granted by and between participants who rely on one another’s skills and capacities to realize the highest and best application of their own.

In a much more gradual and constrained fashion, referential power is being deployed in the global system today, negotiated by both state and non-state actors around specific objectives that may be targeted at security, economics, or other social aims.  Actors are perfecting the art of coopetition, of competing to cooperate. China competes very effectively with the International Monetary Fund to cooperate with African political and business leaders on many industrial development projects.  According to Howard W. French of The Atlantic they do so without the heavy-handedness of the U.S. such that they are perceived as “our friends” throughout Africa.[4] As the metrics shift from demographics, geography, and natural resources towards intelligence-based metrics, so does the nature of power.  If the U.S. is to continue to enjoy a differential power advantage over the long term, our leaders must recognize this changing power paradigm. And, this model of networked, referential power can also be applied locally; you are your own free agent.

On the local level, following the mantra of think globally, act objectively, one must reconsider how to align with resources and authority to accomplish cherished goals.  Identifying like-minded people (through relational networks) and forming a special-purpose, objective-specific network that defines the objective, designs the solution, and drives implementation is the basis of transcendent objectivism; ad-hoc, organically formed alliances where power is granted referentially and resources and authority follow the solution to its realization.  Attraction, not coercion.  Government in this process is not a headliner.  It plays a supportive role.  Transcendent objectivism is a design that is scalable, up or down, locally or globally, among individuals or states.  At its core is referential power.

[1] John Baylis, and Steve Smith (eds.), The Globalization of World Politics (3rd ed.), (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 50, 167.
[2] For a recent argument against ‘the declinists,’ who question the enduring primacy of American power, see Josef Joffe, “The Default Power: The False Prophecy of America’s Decline.” Foreign Affairs, (September/October, 2009): 21-35.  See also, Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Random House, 1987); and Jeremy Black, Great Powers and the Quest for Hegemony (London: Routledge, 2008).
[3] Michael Mandelbaum, “Overpowered: Questioning the Wisdom of American Restraint.” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2010): 114-119.
[4] Howard W, French, “The Next Empire.” The Atlantic (May 2010): 59-69.