The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama
The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

4.1 Co-ordination, distributive and collective power

These considerations lead us to a further distinction that we need to make about the notions of power that underlie these discussions of relations within the transatlantic alliance. Much of the argument about American decline leading to increasing conflict relies on a notion of American power as the ability to impose costs on others, through the use of either military or economic capabilities. This is the notion of power implicit in realist balance of power (and hegemonic stability) thinking and in much of the Marxist literature on imperialism, including especially notions of inter-imperialist rivalry and super-imperialism. What we call distributive power [Distributive power. Distributive power is the capacity of one party to get another to comply with its goals by imposing costs.] is the capacity of one party to get another to comply with its goals; power relations are hierarchical relations of superordination and subordination – there is a given distribution of power in which some have more at the expense of others having less; and power operates by imposing costs on others (or by means of a credible threat to do so).

However, the discussion of both Marxist and liberal ideas about US power and imperialism – of the positive-sum relations that can operate between capitalist states (from a liberal point of view) and the mutual interests that they share in managing capitalist competition (for Kautsky) – should also alert us to what we call collective power. [Collective power. Collective power is the increase in the total ability of a group of cooperating actors to effect favourable outcomes over and above that which could be achieved by each acting independently.] This is the notion of power implicit in the idea that states have common interests that can be advanced by forms of cooperation. Collective power works not by imposing costs on some, but by producing gains for all.

A focus on collective power moves our attention from the rivalries among the liberal powers to the considerable scope for continuing cooperation among capitalist powers after the Cold War, an account that has more in common with Kautsky than Lenin. Here we should note that competition between states – for market shares and for access to internationally mobile capital – is not a zero-sum phenomenon in the way that competition between firms in any given market is, because the overall process of competition, capital accumulation and technological innovation is constantly expanding the size of the market from which all can gain. In these circumstances, the only way in which interstate competition becomes strictly zero-sum is if (as realists argue) states evaluate the gains that they make relative to those of others; that is, if they measure their success in terms of their share of world output, or if there are no gains to share, for example, if capital accumulation and innovation are stagnant. In all other circumstances, there is some scope for positive-sum interactions, even if some states are able to garner more of the gains than others. In a world where states are only concerned about their absolute gains – where they evaluate their positions in relation to their own starting points, independently of the positions of others – economic competition among states can be a purely positive-sum process. In reality, most interactions are mixes of positive-and zero-sum interactions. Coordination [Coordination. As it is used here, coordination refers to a form of cooperation among leading capitalist states over questions of policy about international economic management, in which all states benefit over the pre-cooperative status quo, even if some would have preferred to coordinate differently. It is usually seen as a positive-sum phenomenon.] between dynamic centres of capitalism is, in general, a positive-sum process. (Interimperialist rivalry in the Leninist sense is, of course, a negative-sum game in which all parties are worse off.)

In short, states that are able to uphold broadly liberal forms of economic and political regulation are able to compete with one another to mutual advantage, and because of this they have strong incentives to coordinate with one another in order to govern this competition. This was the logic correctly anticipated by Kautsky. There are, indeed, many forms of cooperation where a superordinate power is required to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes because parties cannot come to binding agreements in the absence of some form of sanctions. The structure of incentives facing the parties in a coordination situation is, however, different. There is no reason why a multipolar system of capitalist power centres cannot coordinate on common policies and institutions to realise a range of mutual gains. In the absence of a superordinate power able to impose discipline on the system as a whole, the coordinated outcome is a function of the bargaining power of the parties concerned, measured by the degree of their preference for the pre-cooperative status quo. It may be easier to establish coordination if there is a superordinate power than if there is not, but the logic of coordination does not presuppose such an agency.

This is not, in any sense, to deny the fact that in the contemporary world ‘domination’ or force, especially military force, is concentrated as never before in the hegemonic power, the USA. Nonetheless, the question is whether this is either necessary or sufficient for intercapitalist coordination among liberal capitalist states (liberal in the sense defined by Gramsci). It is not necessary, because if there is scope for coordination – that is, if there are common interests in which being coordinated is better than not being coordinated – multiple centres can effect the necessary agreements. And it is not sufficient, because unless there is scope for coordination, in the sense just defined, domination need not serve the common interest. Cooperation after hegemony is perfectly intelligible in a liberal capitalist order, even in the absence of an overwhelming military power. Contra Lenin, there is in general nothing utopian about Kautsky’s logic.

Activity 4

Using the distinction between distributive and collective power, make a few notes on the strengths and weaknesses of the US position in relation to other liberal powers. (Hint: consider America’s military, economic and political goals.)


Among America’s strengths are its military dominance and its continued role as the leading economy in terms of technological development and innovation as well as size. However, America’s ability to utilize these strengths is limited. Turning military leadership into political leadership of liberal states is not straightforward, especially in a post-Cold-War world where the general threat to liberal powers has gone. And the economic crisis of 2009 means that the USA has a reduced ability to use distributive economic power in the form of positive and negative incentives, but it also has a reduced ability to set the terms of collective power as its economy is less obviously the model for others to follow. In terms of collective power in the military field, there appears to be much less agreement on what the collective gains of Western military strategy now are.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371