Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Expressing a country's power beyond its borders

When I think about a country exercising power beyond its borders, I think of military and economic power. The USA has military bases and 2.5 million "soldiers" all over the world. Russia, China, Finland, Sweden, and Mexico are among the few countries that do not host US military bases. Russian military bases outside of Russia are primarily in former USSR states. China has few military bases outside of China.

Economics is another way of extending the power of a state beyond its borders. We could debate about whether this is coercive power or not, but it's usually just a few steps away from direct military power. China and the USA are the world's largest economies and therefore the biggest projections of power. International organizations like the World Bank and the Chinese-inspired Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank gather like minded countries together to extend economic power even further.

You might also read about "soft power" extensions of countries' influence. This concept describes a country's ability to get voluntary cooperation (co-optation) rather than coercing other countries to support and go along with the more powerful country. Offering foreign aid is often cited as a form of soft power. The USA's Peace Corps is another. China's Confucius Institutes are another form of soft power extensions of a country's influence.

The boundaries between coercive hard power and persuasive soft power are not bright lines. They are, like so many things in comparative politics, blurry, ambiguous boundaries. Is economic power a coercive force? Well, it depends on how it's used, doesn't it? Is the use of military power a coercive force? That might depend too. If the US Navy sends troops to Haiti to rebuild roads and dams destroyed by Hurricane Matthew, is that coercive? If the Confucius Institute at Miami Dade College offers courses and opportunities for travel only if the college alters its curriculum, is it being coercive?

Belt and Road connections

Then there's the Belt and Road Initiative from China. Citing the ancient "Silk Road" that promoted "peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit" for all the countries along its route, the Chinese state wants to create a 21st century effort to promote "peace, development, cooperation, and mutual benefit." It is obviously a plan to extend China's power and influence to South Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa.

The plan includes the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to finance roads, railroads, seaports, and airports. An alliance of universities centered in Xi'an Jiaotong University to do research on commercial law that will promote trade. A Hong Kong-based maritime institute would coordinate logistical policies along the "belt and road" route.

The goals seem to include benefits for all participants. Is the plan cooperative and persuasive or is it coercive?

The issue is still undecided. The plans are still rather ephemeral. As concrete proposals are made, the debate might proceed. Is the "belt and road" initiative a use of soft power? or hard power? or something in between? or both?

Some research and thinking about ways of exercising power would make the basis for a good debate or a complex research paper.

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