The return of realism? Why a state power indicator in the 21st century

Over the last 70 years, we have been living in one of the most peaceful periods of history, at least in Europe. The last great armed conflict ended in 1945 and the cold war that followed (1947-1991) did not, after all, lead to an armed escalation. The European Community and European Union, which have existed for over 60 years, have guaranteed peace at least on the territory of our continent, and a rational justification of the benefits from the global peace and the deepening international integration had found a growing number of supporters. In the theoretical debate of realists, who assume the primacy of hard military power in international relations with liberals and constructivists, who emphasise the role of soft power (diplomacy, culture, etc.)1, it is the former who had gained an advantage2. These times may be coming to an end, as indicated by two disturbing phenomena in international relations.

First, the number of conflicts in the world is growing, which entails a relative fall in international stability. As indicated by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP)3, the number of victims of conflicts, which saw organised armed violence in 2014 was the highest in 20 years4. Over the last decade, the number of armed conflicts between state and non-state actors has been growing. The number of conflicts of the second type is the highest since at least the end of the cold war5. In this context, the ability of countries to deal with conflicts is becoming an essential condition not only for the security of their citizens, but also for the global international stability.

Conflicts in the world, 1975-2015

Source: Own calculations based on Uppsala Conflict Data Program

Second, a relatively new, hard to measure, but effective war model is being tested in Eastern Europe6, with which the international system has not been able to handle so far. This is the so-called hybrid war, which takes advantage of the structural weakness of the democratic system, information society and international law. Thanks to advanced disinformation techniques and propaganda, entities operating this type of war have the ability to create an informational fog of war, which leads to the disruption, or even impossibility of a real-time diagnosis of the situation on the territories affected by warfare. Thanks to this they can conduct aggression and implement strategic goals without formally declaring war and the violation of international law, so also without a strong reaction by the democratic international community7.

A model example of this new war logic is the hybrid Russian aggression in Ukraine in 20148. It is because of the war in Ukraine and the further pressure by Russia on the West that is behind the fact that the risk of “world war three”9 or “new cold war”10 returned from defence periodicals to the main media stream. Because of this threat, many countries neighbouring Russia also understood that because of the lack of real possibility to engage in dialogue with Russia on equal terms, they can become an object of Russian domination, also a military one, in line with the old saying: “You’re either at the table, or on the menu”11.

A reflection of the rising threat is also the fact that the clock hands have moved on the symbolic Doomsday Clock, created after World War Two by scientists at the University of Chicago who took part in the development of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki12. The clock they created shows how many minutes are left before midnight, which symbolises the destruction of the world. In the first decades the clock was active, the movement of its hands was mainly associated with the rising or falling danger of a nuclear war. Along with the advancement of technology, other factors were also included, such as climate change, bioterrorism or a devastating cyber war. While in 2012 the minute hand stood at five to midnight, in 2015 is started to show three minutes to midnight because of the growing lack of control over nuclear weapons and the growing tension between the US and Russia associated with the war in Ukraine. The threat at that time was comparable to 1984, when the US and USSR suspended negotiations on reducing the arms race. In January 2017, the clock moved again, by 30 seconds, from three minutes to midnight, to 2-½ minutes to midnight because of the worrying comments by new US President Donald Trump about nuclear weapons and climate change.

The doomsday clock, movement of its hands in 1947-2017 (number of minutes to midnight)

Source: Own calculations based on Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Interestingly, thanks to the fact that the threat of war is currently appearing in the media, interest in geostrategic concepts is growing. These include the power of a country understood as a deterrence of potential aggressors. Moreover, defence analysts increasingly are pointing to the fact, that in the face of hybrid war, among exponents of power are not just traditional military power, but also a potential to battle disinformation13 as well as the imposition by other countries, through media outlets, of their own narration in international politics. Apparently, even though soft power remains a significant tool, the pendulum has swung towards appreciating hard power attributes14. This trend of the growing weight of “deterrence” is reflected in our index.

  1. R. Cooper, Hard power, soft power and the goals of diplomacy [in:] D. Held, M. Koenig-Archibudi (ed.), American Power in the 21st Century, Cambridge 2004; strength of diplomacy, culture and sometimes even science are seen as components of soft power, in contrast with hard power, which is often seen as a military power and the associated economic power. See J. Nye, op. cit.
  2. Cf. A.M. Slaughter, International Relations, Principal Theories, Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law, 2011, zob. też: A. Wojciuk, Dylemat potęgi. Praktyczna teoria stosunków międzynarodowych, Warsaw 2010.
  3. The program records conflicts related to the use of organized, military violence, from the 1970s on. Recorded phenomena include: state-based conflicts—where at least one of the participants is a state; non-state conflicts, that is to say conflicts among organized entities, none of which is a state; one-sided violence—the cases of organized violence inflicted by the governments upon civilians. Cf. UCDP program and its definitions.
  4. E. Melander, Organized Violence in the World 2015. An Assessment by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, UCDP Paper 9, 2015.
  5. E. Melander et. al, Organized violence, 1989-2015, “Journal of Peace Research” 2016, Vol. 53, No. 5, p. 727–742. Cf. UCDP data, Number of conflicts 1975–2015 “Number of conflicts view”.
  6. Certainly, the novelty of hybrid warfare is relative as—from the perspective of a historian of war—hybrid strategies have been applied as early as in Antiquity. However, this warfare may be perceived as a novelty because it has emerged only recently as a descriptive category in the global public discourse. Moreover, the novelty has also a quantitative dimension: the advancement of information science contributed to the emergence of the plethora of new means of hybrid warfare, whereas the global information overload facilitated their successful application. Cf. C. Coker, Warrior Geeks: How 21st Century Technology is Changing the Way We Fight and Think About War, Oxford 2013; Cf. D. van Puyvelde, Hybrid war—does it even exist?, NATO Review Magazine, 2015, available online.
  7. H. Reisinger, A. Golts, Russia’s Hybrid Warfare—Waging War below the Radar of Traditional Collective Defence, Research Paper 105, NATO Defence College, November 2014.
  8. Ibid.
  9. For example G. Lewicki, Trzecia wojna światowa, “Wprost” 2014, nr 12.
  10. For example, R. Browne, US troops heading to front of new Cold War with Putin, CNN Politics, October 28, 2016.
  11. Cf. P. Rojek, Przekleństwo imperium. Źródła rosyjskiego zachowania, Kraków 2014.
  12. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 30.04.2017.
  13. S. Koziej, Odstraszanie w warunkach hybrydowej zimnej wojny, Warsaw Security Forum, Warsaw, 27.10.2016, available online.
  14. It can also be argued that information war is part of soft power because it can be seen as a substitute to diplomatic activities, implementing without an armed confrontation of persuasive actions, which could de facto be also implemented diplomatically. However, tentatively we treat information war as a “soft” subsection of a hybrid war, which, as a whole, we include among the factors of strong power.