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The pursuit of real power

True power in the modern world lies in shifting the consensus to meet your aims — not in retreating until you have control in name only. 

lead US Ambassador David Balton, Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials, with Aleut representatives of the Russian Commander Islands before the Arctic Council Ministerial at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks, Alaska on Thursday, May 11, 2017. Bob Hallinen/Press Association. All rights reserved.2017 was the year of principled power. The Social Democratic Party in Germany grappled with another coalition giving them immediate power, but potentially harming their long-term prospects. Brexit advocates promised to boost Britain’s post-imperial power. Meanwhile populists fought elections, deselections and referendums promising to take power from elites and give it to the people. Politicians across the world gave up fighting for actual, practical power.  

Without new tactics, 2018 will be no better. Italian elections and a renewed mandate for Orban in Hungary will be a speedbump, if not a roadblock for EU policymaking. A referendum in Switzerland on their EU relationship will also suck up capacity in the name of national power. Grand statements on formal power will only make it harder to get things done. 

Modern power is complex. Dani Rodrik, the Turkish economist and Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy at Harvard, has written extensively on the ‘trilemma’ facing modern governments; the impossibility of balancing national sovereignty, democracy and the liberal order. 

Our rules-based institutions, like NATO, World Trade Organisation or through trade deals and political agreements, constrain formal sovereignty. Each gradually narrows states’ scope to make decisions. Although, as with Brexit or Trump’s actions on Trans Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accords and UNESCO, withdrawal can appear to return that freedom. 

But constraint doesn’t mean that states lack power. Formal sovereignty is an outdated concept, a throwback to the nineteenth century when powers acted alone. It was made for when power was centralised and singular. The modern world is more pragmatic. Change comes slowly, through consensus and coalitions. Power has leaked to cities and regions, citizens and businesses. 

Liberal structures bring countries together, allowing them to amplify their voice, and make their priorities global priorities. Last November Ireland, a country of just four and half million people, and the 41st largest world economy, gave a masterclass in this. 

Throughout Brexit, Ireland has underlined the importance of the all-Ireland economy, and the implications of a hard border for peace. Traditional statecraft would pitch Ireland against Britain, in a dispute that hasn’t previously gone well for the Emerald Isle. Instead inside diplomacy made the issue an EU red-line. Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkhar, now has 26 nations and the world’s second largest economy behind him. The UK is only lucky Spain hasn’t pushed as hard on Gibraltar. Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkhar, now has 26 nations and the world’s second largest economy behind him. The UK is only lucky Spain hasn’t pushed as hard on Gibraltar.

For years the UK excelled at this. The single market, EU enlargement, global data protection laws — all shaped to the UK’s priorities. Canada’s experience meanwhile shows the difficulty of influencing from the outside. Negotiating CETA, Canada accepted EU rules, from data to ‘rules of origin’. Canada sacrificed formal power for economic growth and a relationship with more effective influence.  

Norway takes a similar attitude. Officially outside the tent and ‘rule-taking’, but with long-built relationships, they are ruthlessly effective at influencing early in the EU legislative process. It takes more resource and has less formal sovereignty, but given that roughly three quarters of EU rules affect Norway, it is well spent. 

The liberal world order enhances sovereignty, allowing countries to stand up to traditionally stronger opponents. With more countries inside the tent, the relative size of those outside falls, leaving former global powers increasingly marginalized. The result is still classic power politics, the smaller party converging with the wishes of the larger. The only difference is who that smaller power is. With more countries inside the tent, the relative size of those outside falls, leaving former global powers increasingly marginalized. The result is still classic power politics.

Central governments are also losing power internally. Devolution to cities and regions has allowed them to be actors on the world stage. Coalitions like the C40 are far more effective in taking action on climate change. The effectiveness of working together internationally may have contributed to regions like Scotland or Catalonia pushing for their own sovereign status. The EU umbrella takes away the pressure and cost of foreign policy and of trade agreements. 

Addressing modern problems requires close connections and consensus between states. Cross-border challenges and communication don’t respect formal sovereignty. Protecting citizens requires governments to sacrifice to make progress. Cooperation in the Arctic, through the Arctic Council, will be vital to prevent disputes over new resources, and prevent irreversible environmental damage. An independent drive for oil or unaligned shipping routes will hurt more than frosty negotiations.

Business tends to follow standards set by the most powerful group. The ‘Brussels effect’ means even those businesses based in low-regulation settings, will meet high standards to sell into the EU market. A country exercising sovereignty to change its own regulatory standards will not necessarily have any effect on exporting companies. The ‘Brussels effect’ means even those businesses based in low-regulation settings, will meet high standards to sell into the EU market.

Few politicians are willing to stand up for the power to actually make decisions. Fewer still are able to demonstrate this benefit to voters. The left rail against those willing to work across the political divide, regardless of whether some progress is better than none. The right rages against a world where they cannot always get what they want, praying to return to a time when borders stopped everything. 

Formal sovereignty is an outdated idea; one that is reflected at all levels of power. Without the pragmatism to forge consensus than no political solution will ever be sustainable. There is still room for idealism, and indeed this must be the starting point. But true power in the modern world lies in shifting the consensus to meet your aims — not in retreating until you have control in name only. 

About the author

Sam Alvis, a former parliamentary researcher for the UK Labour Party, is now a policy professional working in technology and innovation politics and EU regulation, and writes on a range of political issues. He tweets at @SamAlvis2


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