Past, Present and Future Ways of Bounding Hard Power and War: An Eight-Part Blog

Photo: Steve Drolet

This week and the next, the ISN website will be concentrating on the problem of future forecasting. If the international system today is indeed undergoing core-level changes, then trying to understand where these changes might be taking us becomes important – not just in general, but in the case of how future belligerents might use what has become popularly known as hard power.

We know, however, that a robust contemplation of the future must be grounded in the past. Effective futurology, in other words, requires context. That is why before I contemplate the future of organized violence I’d like to perform a little history – i.e., I’d like to begin with a proposition that will also serve as my core theme over the next eight blog posts.

It goes as follows: Up through the late 20th century, concepts of military or hard power were inescapably entangled with the two characterizations of war that have dominated the modern era – 1) the “rational” pseudo-scientific approach of Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers, and 2) the “irrational,” 19th century approach of military romantics. Both approaches are not totally “reality inclusive,” and because they first – and naturally – focused on the collision of hostile armies over disputed territory, they eventually trapped those who thought about the utility (or not) of war within a prison house of language. That trap lasted at least until the 1990s, at which point new ways of characterizing hard power appeared. These new ways, however, represented (and still do) a way back to the future, if anything else.