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It’s tempting to conclude that nothing could be less important than a Brookings Institution conference on International Peace and Cooperation in an Age of Global Competition” even if invitees did include “senior foreign policy officials, scholars, and experts from G-20 member states and other pivotal countries.” After all, why would representatives of foreign governments disclose to an audience comprised of representatives of other foreign governments anything of consequence that was previously unknown?

At the same time, what’s learned about such gabfests can usefully remind the rest of us plebeians how completely out to lunch these supposed luminaries tend to be – especially regarding the main questions and choices they think they face. So FOREIGN POLICY magazine contributor James Traub deserves a big shout out for reporting the gist of this off this record session. For his account (unwittingly, to be sure) strongly indicated that those assembled (presumably including some American leaders) have totally forgotten the key enduring truth about international affairs.

It’s a maxim that prevails even in these turbulent times, and indeed especially in these turbulent times: As long as the world contains multiple, independent forces or parties of any kind, their hopes for success (however defined) will depend overwhelmingly on their relative power.

According to Traub, the attendees were all but consumed with the question of whether world affairs are still dominated by the kinds of nation-states that emerged centuries ago, or by the bewildering array of non-state actors and forces that seem to be popping up everywhere nowadays, ranging from terrorists to religious movements to civil society groups to the simple “demand of ordinary people for a better life than their government now affords them.”

The author quite rightly notes the dramatically different sets of policy implications that flow, at least logically, from either answer: the former militating for continuing to seek advantage over rival states, and win and keep allies; the latter pointing to a new, more cooperative agenda of solving or at least ameliorating a series of common problems underlying growing turmoil and transcending national borders (e.g., poverty, autocracy, and climate change).

Of course, anyone with a lick of intelligence (including the conferees) will recognize that life never divides so neatly. Indeed, as I’ve written, the internationalist ideology that’s governed U.S. foreign policy-making since Pearl Harbor has always sought to eliminate the social and economic conditions considered key to the appeal of its communist adversaries. Similarly, Traub reports that many of the conferees arrived at answers essentially amounting to “all of the above.” That is to say, a revival of traditional power politics, epitomized by Russia’s muscle-flexing in its immediate neighborhood, was being accompanied by the rise of transnational threats that are best handled cooperatively. And all the while, nation-states as a whole “are much weaker than they were,” with the United States either unable or unwilling “to reassure allies or scare off adversaries as it once could.”

But what apparently went unrecognized is that national power will remain decisive whether cooperative or conflictive impulses and dynamics wind up on top. The importance of power in a completely rough-and-tumble world should be obvious. Its importance in a world where more positive-sum logic is more widespread is admittedly more difficult to identify, but no less paramount.

The reason is that even within communities that have developed commonly recognized authorities for organizing action, cooperation will always have a structure, and that structure will tend to have significantly different effects on different parts of that community. To the extent that these differences matter (which is often the case), various community members will usually have different preferences for moving ahead. The winners and losers are often determined by the amounts of resources (economic power) they can mobilize on behalf of their causes, by the the bounds of existing law and policy, and by their relative persuasive gifts. Often outcomes result from some combination of all of these.

When no commonly recognized authority exists, as with international politics today, persuasion can sometimes work also. Existing policies rarely count for much, law for even less, but relative power typically plays the biggest role. Consequently, as long as it matters to Americans that their priorities (or something close) prevail in international cooperative ventures or negotiations, their leaders will need to bring as much power as possible, in all of its forms, to bear on the relevant planning or bargaining sessions at the relevant international organizations or other venues  – whether to pressure, to induce, or to threaten credibly or exercise the option of walking away if their course isn’t satisfactory.

A final argument for focusing on cultivating power should be especially compelling for those Brookings invitees – and others – who have had actual policy-making experience. They should know better than anyone else how suddenly unpredictably international challenges and opportunities can arise. Power is no guarantee of coping successfully. But who can doubt that the strong and the wealthy will fare much better, mainly because they enjoy more relatively good options, than the weak and poor?

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