Reflections on Power and Influence
CBS war correspondent Charles Collingwood delivered this speech on international affairs at Kansas State University on November 3, 1978:
Reflections on Power and Influence
I regard it as a signal honor to be invited to deliver some remarks in a series named for and in honor of Governor Alf Landon, for he is not only a friend, but he has been for a long while an example to me of those qualities which are most admirable in the American life and the American spirit. Moreover, his whole career is a kind of parable of the thesis I will put forward to you today.
Part of my subject is power, but you will be glad to know that I am not addressing myself to the administration's energy program, which would be considerably more opaque than anything I will have to say to you this morning. Rather, I want to talk about power and its alternatives in the context of international affairs. International affairs and foreign policy, something I know occupies Governor Landon very much and on which he is very knowledgeable. It also conforms to the bent of my own interests, having been a foreign correspondent for a large part of my career.
"Power" is one of the strongest and in some ways one of the most ambiguous words in our language. We can speak of "solar power" and "occult power." The word can connote both physical force and mystical effects. I want to talk about power in the specialized sphere of international relations. Power as a nation's capacity, usually by military means, to bend other nations to its will. The capacity that causes some countries to be labeled "superpowers," and others "great powers;" still others "minor powers."
And I want to contrast that with something called "influence."
Now, power and influence are often confused, both in theoretical discourse and in common parlance, but there is a difference. As one whose trade is in words, I make frequent recourse to dictionaries. Let me quote excerpts from the Oxford English Dictionary. It defines power as, among other things, "The ability to act upon or affect something strongly . . . physical strength, might, vigor, telling force."
Now of "influence," it says, "The capacity of producing effects . . . without the employment of physical force or the exercise of formal authority . . . sway, control or authority not formally or overtly expressed."
It is a crucial difference. The exercise of power in international affairs is a highly visible, overt act. The exercise of influence is often unseen. Power depends upon physical strength; influence upon moral, intellectual, economic, and other forms of persuasion. Quite often, especially in international terms, a nation's influence also of course depends upon the possession of power and the possibility that in some circumstances it might be employed. That is certainly the case with the United States. The fact of our military power has a great deal to do with our ability to exercise influence. This is also true of the Soviet Union. But a nation's influence does not increase in direct relationship to its power.
Thus if we accept for purposes of argument—it's an argument I don't want to get into in this context—that the United States and the Soviet Union are roughly equivalent in terms of power, there is little doubt that the United States has more influence in the world than the Soviet Union. An instance in point is the Middle East, where, in spite of our long-standing commitment to Israel, one of the contestants, it is the United States and not Russia which is influential enough with both sides to act as mediator.
It can be argued that Russia has great influence in the Third World, but that influence has proved remarkably transitory and has often depended upon acts of power, such as the introduction of the Cubans into Angola and Somalia. Incidentally, it's also true in the Third World of China, which is not in the same league in power terms with Russia and the United States. And of course the United States exercises great influence in the Third World.
The distinction between power and influence as instruments of foreign policy is becoming increasingly important and is likely to become more important still. The reason for this is straightforward: given the vast nuclear arsenals of the two superpowers—and the mutual assured destruction which that means—resorts to the exercise of naked power have become increasingly risky, and such resorts are apt to be much fewer than in the past and on a more limited scale.
Now if this is so, it follows that the achievement of our foreign policy objectives will depend more on the exercise of our influence to encourage the developments we wish than on intervening with military power to bring them about. The difficulty with this is that much of our doctrine, and the accepted view of our role, indeed, our whole national mindset, has been based on a willingness to use our military power as a last, or even next to last, resort.
Today, even without the deterring effects of the nuclear balance of terror, we also have the profound psychological deterrent of the Vietnam experience. We are now, as a nation, most reluctant to use our military power. So is the Soviet Union, but not as reluctant as we. The Russians will use their power by proxy, at least, as we have seen in Africa, or directly, as we saw ten years ago in Czechoslovakia. Doctrinally, they have by no means ruled out the use of force as completely as we. You can read that in their technical military journals. And how else can you interpret their extraordinary military buildup, across the board from nuclear weapons to conventional ones? Nevertheless, the Russians are very prudent about exercising their power in ways which might bring them into irrevocable conflict with us involving the likelihood of a nuclear exchange.
So, in the short and perhaps middle-term, we are entering an era in which the application of influence, backed of course by our military and economic strength, will be more important in the day-to-day conduct of diplomacy than the application of raw force. This inevitably reduces some of our options and greatly increases others.
Case in point: twenty years ago, the delicately-balanced Christian and Moslem arrangement government of Lebanon began to come apart at the seams. Civil war threatened. President Eisenhower sent in the Marines and equilibrium was reestablished. For, say, fifteen years thereafter, Lebanon was an oasis of tranquility in the Middle East. But when, in 1975, caught in the tensions of the Middle East turmoil, Lebanon began to disintegrate again into the civil war which is still raging. When that happened, the American option of sending in the Marines no longer existed. It was the Syrians from one end and the Israelis from the other who sent in forces, with decidedly mixed results. All the United States could do, and can do yet, is to try to exercise its influence. And the results of that effort, I'm afraid, have been mixed, too.
I will go further and say that in considerable measure, the difficulties which the present administration has encountered in our relations with other countries stems in large part from a failure to understand of what our influence consists and how to bring it to bear in order to further our interests and to achieve the ends that we seek.
The fact is that the United States influences other nations whether it wants to or not. Influence is inherent in us because of our size, strength, and resources, physical, technological, and of national character. The United States gives off influence the way a plutonium atom gives off radiation. We exert influence when we don't do something, as well as when we do. It's in the nature of our whole position in the world. It behooves us then to understand more clearly how influence works.
Over the centuries, we have learned something about the techniques of the exercise of power. Even when our strategy was mistaken, our tactics in the application of power have been relatively sophisticated. But that is not true of our use of our influence, of which we have really only a rough and ready comprehension—except we know it's there. We have not always used our influence wisely or well.
The open exertion of influence now seems to us somehow nobler and cleaner than covert operations of which we have indulged, mainly through the agency of the CIA, but that does not mean that it is automatically more successful.
A case in point is the administration's emphasis on human rights in other countries. Now, on the face of it, nothing is more laudable or consistent with the best of our traditions than an emphasis on human rights, but as a component of foreign policy it is a very ticklish matter. To use our influence to try to rectify or prevent human rights violations in other countries can involve us in many contradictions and unwanted distractions from other policy goals. The most obvious is that we may appear—and I might say we have appeared—to be inconsistent and hypocritical if we apply an ideal human rights yardstick more severely toward our antagonists than toward our friends.
Our leaders do not say much about human rights in Iran these days, for instance, for perfectly understandable reasons. We think the Shah's regime, with all its faults, is a stabilizing influence in the area—and also the country has a great deal of oil. On the other hand, we talk a great deal about human rights in the Soviet Union and have even toyed with the idea of making our trade arrangements—even at one time the SALT negotiations—contingent upon Soviet acceptance of the kind of human rights standards we approve. Now this is not just the administration's policy, it's Congress' as well. In 1974, the Jackson-Vanik amendment linked U.S. trade with the Russians to a more lenient Soviet policy toward would-be Jewish immigrants. The immediate result was that the Soviet authorities cut back still further on Jewish immigration.
The fact is that to try to tell other countries how to manage their human rights invites, and has frequently produced, confrontation rather than compliance or cooperation. Naturally, this has been recognized by policy makers, and so we have tended to apply our influence in regard to human rights sporadically and selectively and according to how it affects the realization of other goals in which we are interested. The result is, as I have suggested, we have often unnecessarily laid ourselves open to charges of hypocrisy and inconsistency. But to my mind the ultimate flexibility in our policy that we have shown, which has been criticized, is really all to the good.
There are other worthy ends to which we have bent our influence. One is to curtail the dangerous international traffic in conventional arms. Yet while deploring it, and antagonizing some countries who sought in vain to have our weapons, we still remain the largest arms merchant in the world, especially to those countries who, for the moment at least, seem more congenial to us, which produces more charges of hypocrisy.
Again, the Congress is as often at fault as the administration. The logic of the Congressional decision to cut off arms supplies to Turkey as punishment for its invasion of Cyprus was based on dubious logic at best, since the same case could have been made as well as against Turkey as against Greece. And the result was to embitter our relations with Turkey, to weaken the southern flank of NATO, push Turkey toward the Russians, and damage the chances for a settlement in Cyprus. I would call it an instance of misapplied influence. The Congress, which started it all, obviously agreed, for it repealed the Turkish arms ban last summer after three years.
There are many other examples which leap to the mind, but it's not my purpose to offer a catalogue of squandered influence, but rather to underline the importance of influence—as opposed to power—and the delicacy with which it must be employed to further our purposes.
Now, what is it that gives a country influence? One thing, as I have suggested, is its military strength; the possession of potential coercive power, held in abeyance, perhaps, but there as a last resort. Thus power and influence are linked, although they're different.
Who would argue that Israel's military power and its demonstrated willingness to use it does not contribute greatly to its influence in the Middle East arena? Russia's influence clearly stems in large measure from its military power much more than its ideology, which has not really commended itself to very many nations—not within its military sphere. The Soviet Union also has a great deal of influence vis-à-vis us as with the SALT talks because of its military power.
But if power and influence are connected, power is by no means the only component of influence. When Stalin contemptuously asked how many divisions does the Pope have, he was talking about power. But not even the Communists would deny the influence which the Catholic Church can bring to bear on a broad array of situations.
But next to military power, a nation's influence in the world depends most conspicuously on its economic strength. Much of America's influence derives from our economy, with its high technology, its huge agricultural surpluses.
It is West Germany's economic strength which has made it the dominant influence, the economic engine, in Western Europe, and it's Britain's economic decline which has been a major factor in its comparative loss of influence. It is the economic performance of industrious, ingenious, protectionist Japan, a negligible military power, which has raised it into the first rank of nations in terms of influence—which it's often reluctant to apply except in the economic sphere, but the influence is there. And of course there is no more obvious example of influence derived from economic strength than that of the oil producing countries who can hold the world at ransom.
Another kind of influence is cultural. The Russians and Chinese are very conscious of this. Denied, or self-denied, many of the continuous contacts with other countries, they make great play with traveling shows of art, archaeology, ballet, and so forth expedited to the far corners of the earth as a kind of exertion of influence. Sports is a part of it, as witness the Olympics, and don't forget that it was ping-pong diplomacy that paved the way for the Sino-American reconciliation.
The influence of American culture, in the broadest sense, is very pervasive. Our literature, theater, films, and graphic and plastic arts, indeed our television programs, are widely disseminated and highly influential in the sense that they, like the dollar, however much it may be depreciated, are the contemporary standard by which the currency of other cultures is measured. Indeed, the whole American lifestyle, from fast food chains to motels, supermarkets, popular music, fashions in dress and attitudes is, if not universally admired, at least widely imitated. The contagion of American culture is certainly influential in itself and is a symbol of our overall influence.
A nation's leadership has much to do with its influence in the world. To the extent that the leadership is perceived by others to be wise, strong, and stable, it commands respect and often adherence, which is part of what constitutes influence. Now De Gaulle is an example of that kind of leadership—a small country without great power while he was there. Churchill was another example, as was Kennedy when he was president. Even Nixon was always much better thought of abroad than in his own country. When a country's leadership, as has sometimes happened in the present American administration, appears to other people to be unsure, willful, or downright weak, that country's influence suffers.
Not the least of what goes into making a nation influential in the world are the policies it pursues in the international sphere. And if those policies are seen to be well-conceived, consistent, generous, and in the interests of all rather than one nation alone, then the nation pursuing these policies will inspire confidence on the part of other nations, gain their cooperation, secure their friendship. However, this is true only to the extent that those policies are real and not just rhetorical. No amount of high-minded speeches from America's leaders about policy can take the place of policy in action, in actual pursuit of the goals proclaimed, of doing what we say we want to do. That's another way of saying that a nation's influence depends to an important degree upon its reputation for reliability. A nation, like an individual, must be countable upon to fulfill obligations and to see its undertakings through.
As St. Paul said, "If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?"
But a nation's leadership and its ability to execute its policies do not exist in a vacuum. They are surrounded by a sea of public opinion, and that sea is made up of many waves of special interests, special pleading, special attitudes. For a country to exert influence in foreign affairs as well as domestic affairs, it must have the understanding and the confidence and the support of its own people. This nation in particular must inform and convince its public opinion of what it is doing, and that what it is doing is right, if it is fully to bring its influence to bear.
There are many other factors which contribute to a nation's influence: the general perception of the national character, of its governmental institutions, of its example to the rest of the world. They're all of them important, for influence is a kind of market basket of all of a nation's strengths, and some of its weaknesses, of its resources, attributes, and governance. It is fundamental to the conduct of our foreign policy, especially since power is denied us in so many circumstances.
Influence is as old as power and has always been an associate of it, but through most of history power has had the primacy. This nation was born in a struggle for power; we've used power more than once. I am suggesting that that has changed, and that being enjoined at this juncture from any casual use of power, we must accept influence as its substitute. I pray we will not use our influence casually, because it can be as expendable and as unreliable as power itself.
We've heard much of the limitations of power. Former Senator Eugene McCarthy wrote a book with that title, although I do not take my theme from him—he wasn't talking about the same thing, really. We must also realize that influence has its limitations as well. The national pride of other countries, their traditions, the stubbornness of their leaders and their public opinion, all conspire to make them resistant to the influence of others. Moreover, by its very definition, since it does not involve the use of overt force or domination, influence implies compromise. Compromise is no easy thing. It involves negotiation, trade-offs, and a sure appreciation of what we want most if we can't have it all. In other words, the influencing nation must often, in turn, allow itself to be influenced by others. It's a two-way street.
This, I may say, has not always been our way in the international sphere. Yet to be influenced by others may not be as great a handicap as the most prideful of us might think. After all, it is the way we've learned to order our own lives in our own communities. As individuals we all get along by engaging in a daily series of compromises; doing some things we might prefer not to do in order to be able to do other things we reckon to be more important.
It would seem clear that this is precisely the way we will have to conduct our relations with other states in this period of history if we are to avoid physical conflict which, in the case of nations, is war. And it is the avoidance of war which is the ultimate test of diplomacy.
The use of compromise and the reliance upon influence rather than power seems to be a relatively straightfoward prescription for dealing with international affairs. However it's not as easy to put into practice on an international scale as in the ordinary lives of individuals. In a world which is both increasingly interdependent and increasingly antagonistic, the range of hard choices which daily present themselves to a decision-maker are enormous. And many of them are interconnected and rub off one upon another, so that trade-offs are inevitable, and as often as not we will have to settle for less than our optimum goals in one area so as not to compromise the achievement of something essential in another.
Thomas Hughes, who is the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has a theory which he's expounded on several occasions. It is that the essence of foreign policy today is the management of contradictions. It's his contention, and I agree with it, that in world affairs in this latter part of the twentieth century, contradictions are inevitable. That is, most situations contain or seem to contain inherently incompatible factors, and the art of diplomacy is to reconcile these without armed conflict. Whether or not that is formally recognized, it's certainly the way that this administration is acting, and doubtless the next will and the one after that will have to deal with problems. The effort to deal with the inescapable contradictions in today's pluralized world politics through influence rather than power is a challenging one.
It involves, as we have seen in the present administration, a number of apparent inconsistencies. It's easy, all too easy, to charge the president with doing something in one situation which he would not do in another at least superficially similar situation. This stems in large part, it seems to me, from our architectonic instinct; our desire to create a model of the world and our role in it which is structured, tidy, and internally consistent.
Unfortunately, that's not the way the world is, if it ever was. How often have we heard the call for the promulgation of an all embracing foreign policy, a kind of grand strategy embracing our relations with the Soviet Union, China, Western Europe, the Third World, automatic answers for everything from SALT to the Middle East to South Africa, Angola, Zaire, not to mention the oil-producing nations, and all the complexities of international economics. But in our contradictory world, so full of surprises and unforeseen developments, there ain't no such thing—no such grand strategy. We yearn for such a seamless and consistent set of policies. Worse, we often act as though there were such.
My own medium, television, and indeed the daily press as well, contributes heavily to this. We are the great simplifiers, boiling down complexities into easily grasped simplicities. We tend to measure our leaders by how well they measure up to unachievable standards of rigid consistency which the media, I must say with the help of the leaders themselves, have largely created. How many stories have you read or heard of alleged departures from this unattainable consistency? The media might do better to explore the complexities of a situation and discuss the true options open to policy makers.
Having said that, let me hasten to add that the present administration has done little to help its own cause in this regard. It sometimes seems that the president and his advisers are as caught up in the mystique of consistency and coherence as is the media and the public. When, as sometimes is bound to happen, the administration is apparently caught in an inconsistency, its tendency is not to explain why it acted as it did, but rather to pretend and insist until it's blue in the face that there really was no inconsistency at all.
Now I'm not trying to elevate inconsistency to a guiding principle of foreign policy, but only to say that some of it is inevitable and that we should recognize it as such and not expect or demand adherence to a spurious coherence in the conduct of our foreign affairs. As I have indicated, compromise is essential in the management of affairs in a world in which influence is, on a day-to-day basis, a more important factor than power. And a series of compromises imply a certain degree at least of apparent inconsistency.
The same holds true of other countries, not least the Soviet Union. It's an old habit of ours to hold up our antagonists as exemplars of virtues we feel are wanting in ourselves. Thus, the policy of the Soviet Union is often presented as a model of consistency in contrast to the presumed waywardness of American policy.
Well, I do not think this is true or that it will bear examination. The Russians blow hot and cold at least as often as we, and have indeed in many cases been more willing than we to abandon unprofitable adventures and seek other avenues.
As Emerson grandly declared, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen, philosophers, and divines." The experience of men and nations bear him out.
Let me recall an old and certainly apocryphal story about an alumnus who returned to visit the hallowed halls of his university, it might have been this one. Encountering an acquaintance, he asked how things were and was told they hadn't changed much. And he asked whether old professor so-and-so's examinations were still as difficult as ever.
"Oh, yes," was the reply. "He hasn't changed. He still asks the same questions every year."
"Well, I would have thought that that would have made his exams pretty easy."
"Oh, no," was the response, "every year he expects different answers."
Now in a period in which influence is likely to prevail more often than physical power, what is needed is not consistency, or a grand and rigid design, but rather a set of goals and priorities which we should seek to achieve despite disappointments, setbacks, and some sacrifice of pristine consistency. In other words, new answers to old questions. It's the formulation of goals and priorities, and the creation of a consensus in support of them, which should be a major preoccupation of our foreign policy and the public discussion of it.
But setting goals is one thing and achieving them is another. If I am correct in my conviction that influence has become a more important tool in the usual handling of our foreign policy than power, then it's going to require a great deal of rigorous thinking about what our influence is and how it really works in the world. We've been so used to thinking in terms of power and the threat of it, that the vastly subtler use of influence has been neglected, if not impugned. Influence, in many connotations, has a pejorative implication. We tend to think of "influence peddling," wire-pulling, under the counter deals, and other unsavory activities. Actually, influence is not, or should not be, that sort of thing at all. It can, and should be, benign.
But it must be said that influence is a much more amorphous concept than power. It is more difficult to define. It resists quantification in terms of megatonnage and predictable accuracy and yield. But it, and not nuclear weaponry alone, is likely to be our principal reliance in resolving the disagreements among nations and in establishing the kind of attitudes which we wish.
To use our influence to its best advantage will require rethinking and a change of attitudes from our instinctive and historic addiction to sheer power or the threat of it
Let me close with an example.
Alf Landon's whole career makes my point, if you'll think about it. Although I've been talking about the life of nations, there are many analogies with the lives of individuals. As far as I know, Alf Landon never commanded much actual power—twice, perhaps, in his long career. Once as a lieutenant in the First World War, where he had a lieutenant's small authority over a small fragment of our military establishment. Again as governor of Kansas when the state police and the National Guard were to some extent under his command. But it was not these meager instrumentalities of power which gave him the prestige and authority and capacity to produce useful results which he has had in this state, in this region, in this whole country. It is the influence based on his accomplishments, the general regard in which he has been held, and above all on his character, his strong convictions, and his willingness to stand up and be counted. Thus, Governor Landon is a living parable for my theme, which is that in the wider world, influence can be as significant as power.
Of course, in the long run power is more important than influence. But in the long run, we will all be dead. And that certainly will be the result if the superpowers resort to power rather than influence in settling their disputes. Thus, it is incumbent upon us as a nation, while maintaining enough power to defend ourselves and those dependent on us, to understand where our influence lies and to use it where power is unacceptable.
Thank you very much.