Economic Statecraft
Issues and Problems of Power Measurement

Generally power and the psychological (or sociological) appear intrinsically intertwined. One may try to subtract the psychological from power and then call it ‘capabilities’. Depending on the purpose, such distinctions between capabilities and the psychological can be promising both conceptually and in power formula implementation, writes Karl Hermann Höhn, an independent expert in measuring national power.

People and countries have pursued power because they believed and imagined that feeling powerful can and does feel tremendously good. At least a great deal better than feeling weak. Experiencing pain. Getting humiliated. Having to submit to unfair demands.

At first glance psychology appears far removed from the dry world of country statistics. Boundless cemeteries for millions of numbers contained in some spreadsheets and databases. It is not. Psychology is everything. This universe has an uncountable amount of numbers to offer. Almost 100% of which humans don’t care at all about. The reason for quantifying some of this world’s parts and aspects rather than others is based on motivation. For what we consider important and wish to accomplish with these numbers.

One historical root of statistics is gambling. Looking at probabilities. Wondering how to quantify and use these probabilities to your advantage. Another root, reaching back thousands of years, consists of bureaucratic data collections about population, trade, property, the type of data the state finds useful in governing. These two roots of statistics combine in power measurement when imagining war. One line of argument claims that if national power could be accurately assessed, fewer wars would come about, as rulers and elites want to avoid entering wars that they know they are likely to lose.

We all experience plenty of power-calculating in our own minds when we look at the wars going on at this moment. For example, when we analyze the ongoing fighting between the forces of Tigray and Ethiopia, right away we find out and compare population and territory and the number of active soldiers. We also look at less quantifiable information like history and ideology in order to get an idea how determined both sides in the conflict are.

Aristotle stated on power measurement that the number of soldiers increases the power of the city state (polis). The number of slaves and artisans less so. He cautioned wisely, and this holds relevance to power measurement today, not to confuse the size of a city state with its greatness (power).

Many distinguished individuals of many fields of human knowledge have put together variables from country statistics to arrive at power formulas. One problem is that nothing ever happened afterwards. There were no beauty competitions to decide which formulas are better and which are worse and for what reasons. No preliminary criteria. No follow-ups. Before Geopolitics and the Measurement of National Power was submitted as a PhD thesis in 2011, no thoroughly comprehensive work existed on the topic.

A major problem is that the thumping majority of power formulas are based solely on the arbitrary determinations of the experts who designed them. Unsurprisingly many experts find their own particular power formula to be the prettiest of all. This along with possibly some self-constructed or favored theory and emphasizing their personal expertise if available (argument based on authority). This every so often encountered attitude of selling subjectivity and arbitrary method as expertise does not really convince so many other people. No generally accepted power formula or index has emerged.

David Singer’s Composite Index of National Capability (CINC), designed in 1972, is the closest we ever got to a more generally accepted power index. Many experts agree that the CINC has become in parts obsolete for present-day power measurement.

What some experts forget or choose to ignore is that the purpose of numbers is to be tested. If the motivation in creating numbers is not to eventually test these numbers, then the numbers are unnecessary. Then everyone can rank countries by herself according to her fancies and whims. It is not the academic distinction and knowledge of experts measuring national power that has been unimpressive. This is intellectual complacency, experts being unwilling to move beyond their own formulas and approaches, to upgrade the field of power measurement through rigorous testing and a broader look at things.

A few experts have tried to reduce arbitrariness in designing power formulas and resultant power indexes. Some experts used data distillation techniques (to filter out redundancy). Other experts used surveys on the perception of national power to calibrate the weights of input variables. Common to those and related efforts has been this recognition: the weighting problem is THE problem.

That much said, whether the approach is initially arbitrary or later on less so, the expert in the long run calculates results for her power formula. Then often the numbers look quite convincing with regard to some if not many of the more relevant countries but also downright unconvincing for a few of the more relevant countries. One proposed solution has been to try to use more variables, ideally all that country statistics has to offer. Thus far the more ambitious attempts did not produce better results. Occam’s razor stands.

A contentious issue is the role of the psychological as a major factor of national power. The psychological relates to the role of mass psychology in the context of society and culture. Typically accepted is that economics and the military are two major pillars of national power. Monists (“materialists”) tend to view the psychological as sufficiently subsumed in the more tangible data on economic and military matters. Dualists (“affirming a mind/matter duality”) tend to emphasize the will of a people to fight for national goals, particularly their long-term willingness to suffer in doing so.

In 1963 Malcolm X declared in a speech: “The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.” In many ways the mass media can and do manipulate portrayals and interpretations of complicated situations. This can boost the will of the masses to fight self-righteously against those who are vilified.

In 1975 Ray Cline, reflecting glumly on the lost Vietnam War (including the role of the US media), designed his well-known formula, which highlights dualism in that national power is basically the product of national resources multiplied by national will. Dualists believe the psychological (of which the media are a factor) can explain how sometimes smaller nations manage to defeat bigger nations.

Generally power and the psychological (or sociological) appear intrinsically intertwined. One may try to subtract the psychological from power and then call it ‘capabilities’. Depending on the purpose, such distinctions between capabilities and the psychological can be promising both conceptually and in power formula implementation.

The issue is when focusing on capabilities proper, the psychological is neglected. In the other direction, consequently entering the psychological proper into national power equations is likely to make the results for estimating national power fluctuate on a daily level no less dramatically than share prices at a stock exchange.

Ludwig Erhard, German chancellor from 1963 to 1966, remarked: “In my eyes, power is always barren, it’s dangerous, it’s brutal, and in the ultimate sense it’s even stupid.” Disillusionment has reason. The conundrum with power is that it is a too important part of this reality as if to go away by condemning it. Given sufficient time and opportunities, eventually we may all end up as someone’s adversary. Measuring and comprehending something dangerously stupid is safer.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.