The elements of national power enable a state1 to protect or advance its national interests.i They provide a structured way to assess the strength of other states and illustrate where one state has a relative advantage or disadvantage (weakness).ii Within security alliances or economic agreements (e.g., trade pacts), states can assess where partnerships will be mutually beneficial. This enables one state in the partnership to use a strength of another state such that both states achieve a collective whole that exceeds their individual strengths. “National power is relative, not absolute. ..a nation does not have abstract power in and of itself, but power in relation to another actor or actors in the international arena.”iii Analysis of the factors that make up a state’s national power can also illustrate the dependency of one state to another. States may express this dependency as a “national interest.” For example, a state that has natural resources (energy, minerals, etc.) may be of major interest to another state that is deficient in natural resources.iv
There are a variety of ways to express national power; more important is an understanding of the factors (piece parts) that make up the state’s power.v For convenience, international affairs and military practitioners will often group these factors as “natural” or “social” determinants of power.vi Here is a table of factors to consider when developing an expression of national power:
Is the state internationally respected? Does the state exercise leadership positions in international institutions? Does the state have adequate membership in regional or global institutions and forums (G-7, G-20, World Trade Organization, World Health Organization, standards organizations, UN etc.)?
Alliances and trade partners
Does that state have regional and/or global security alliances to enhance its security? Does the state have trade and commerce relationships that leverage its economic strengths and improve the economic well-being of its citizens?
Does the state have sufficient economic activity to sustain its population and to continuously increase the well-being of its citizens? Is the state beyond the “middle income trap”? Is there sufficient economic maneuvering room2 for the state to support its defense needs and sustain regional or global geopolitical influence? Does the state have sufficient infrastructure (transportation, energy, communication) to support continued development? Does the state have a national innovation system that effectively and efficiently uses its capital (wealth) to develop and deploy emerging technologies for its economic benefit?
Does the state have natural borders (rivers, lakes, oceans) and are its borders well-established? Does the state have sufficient land of sufficient quality for sustaining its population (food, shelter, etc.)? Is the state’ climate/weather conducive to support its population?
Does the state have sufficient natural resources (e.g., energy, materials, metals, water, etc.) to support and sustain its population and economic development?
Does the state have sufficient people to support its economic activity? Is the state’s population (working age) growing or declining? Does the state have an immigration policy that enhances its internal stability and supports expansion of its economic development?
Technology and Education
Does the state have broad technological prowess (the ability within the state to do basic research and development) to enhance its economic development? Is the education system sufficient to enhance the skill of the population to support continued social and economic development (literacy rates, STEM skills, etc.)?
Is there sufficient force structure (size of forces) to support the state’s needs? Is the military adequately equipped and trained to protect the state from regional or global belligerents? Does the military have sufficient logistics capability to project force to preserve the state’s interests regionally and globally?
Does the society have common language, ethnicity, or religious beliefs? If not, are there adequate accepted social norms of conduct to preserve social cohesion? Is there a civil society supported by a free and fair press? Does the society understand and accept the income distribution (genie coefficient)? Are there resilient (able to take shocks) human support systems for health, food, and shelter?
Does the state have stable governance system? Does the system provide for an orderly way to transfer power among various parties? Is the social contract3 between the governed and state leadership (at multiple levels) understood? Does the governance system provide the state leadership with sufficient resources to fulfill the social contract? Is the population supportive of the governance system (“consent of the governed”)? Does the population feel physically secure and have confidence in the judicial system? Does the society accept the legitimacy of the state’s military forces?
Expressions of National Power
In almost all expressions of national power there are three common elements—geopolitical, economic, and military. The factors (piece parts) assigned to these elements may vary depending upon what other elements are part of the overall national power structure. International affairs and military practitioners will often add “material power” or “information power” as added elements of national power.vii, viii, ix As an alternative, a credible fourth element of national power would be social cohesion. In this construct, material factors are in the economic element of national power and informational factors support (are subsumed in) each of the four elements of national power. The argument for elevating social cohesion as an element of national power is in its importance to enabling the national leadership to engage on the international arena. If there is no social cohesion—that is to say, there is within the state internal social disruption—none of the other factors really matter. The state cannot use its geopolitical, economic, or military power as it will be preoccupied with its own internal instability. Likewise national power only has value if other states believe a state will use its power to prevail in supporting its interests.
The resulting four elements of nation power are therefore composed of the following factors:
Elements of National Power
Factors to Consider
Geopolitical, Alliances and Trade Partners
Economic, Geography, Natural Resources, Demographics, Technology and Education
Social Cohesion, Governance
How the Elements of Power Relate
All the elements of national power are related. The most important element of national power is the economic element. A strong economic element of national power reduces the risk for social disruptions as resources are available to support the population. As a result, there is economic maneuvering room for the state’s leadership to support international economic assistance programs, enter into trade relationship, develop and deploy military force structure, and establish security alliances. All of which contribute to enhanced geopolitical power.
Qualitative4 Assessment of US National Power
A qualitative assessment of US National Power would suggest the military and economic elements are strong, but the economic maneuvering room is insufficient as the social cohesion element of national power is deficient. This results from governance dysfunction—principally in Washington DC. Low approval ratingsx for both the executive (23%) and legislative branch (7%), partisan bickering, and an inability to pass legislation or bi-partisan funding all suggest that governance at the national level is broken. The result is a degradation of geopolitical power as other states see no reason to accept US international leadership. Adversaries will take advantage of these circumstances to challenge US interests across the geopolitical spectrum.
1 State in this document refers to a “nation-state.”
2 “Economic maneuvering room” is the state’s excess economic capacity available to support the other elements of national power. This excess capacity is typically provided to the state through internal taxes and maybe used for foreign aid or military force structure. The excess economic capacity is only available if the population is comfortable with their own economic security. If the population is comfortable, they are more likely to allow the national leadership to spend tax revenues for foreign aid or military force structure. Hence the national leadership has maneuvering room to use those funds.
3 “Social contract,” as used here, reflects the expectations of population for the services provided from the state.
4 Many of the factors (piece parts) that are part of deriving national power can be quantitatively evaluated— organizational memberships, economic GDP, military force structure, etc. However, some elements can only be qualitatively evaluated—international respect, economic maneuvering room, social cohesion, etc. For simplicity, this is the author’s overall qualitative evaluation.
i Cited in “Guide to National Security Policy and Strategy”, 2nd Edition, US Army War College, June 2006, Chapter 10, David Jablonsky, p127, extracted from https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/1809.pdf, 26 July 2022. With endnotes 2,3, and 4. (2) Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, 4th ed., New York: Knopf, 1968, p. 25. Although Morgenthau sees the concept of national interest defined in terms of power, much of this discussion is under a sub-heading that treats political power “As Means to the Nation’s Ends;” (3) John Spanier and Robert L. Wendzel, Games Nations Play, 9th ed., Washington: CQ Press, 1996, p. 128. See also Theodore A. Couloumbis and James H. Wolfe, Introduction to International Relations: Power and Justice, 2d ed., Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1982, p. 64. Many scholars use this broad interpretation of influence in their definition of power: “the ability to influence the behavior of others in accordance with one’s own ends.” A. F. K. Organski, World Politics, 2d ed., New York: Knopf, 1968, p. 104; and “the ability of an actor to influence the outcomes of international events to its own satisfaction.” Walter S. Jones, The Logic of International Relations, Boston: Little, Brown, 1985, p. 245. For arguments against mixing power and influence, see Robert A. Dahl, Modern Political Analysis, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1976, p. 29; Daniel S. Papp, Contemporary International Relations: Frameworks for Understanding, New York: Macmillan, 1984, p. 308; and Michael P. Sullivan, Power in Contemporary Politics, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990, p. 98. (4) K. J. Holsti, International Politics: A Framework for Analysis, 5th ed., Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988, pp. 142, 152-53. On patterns of influence, see ibid., pp. 154-56. On similar methods or techniques of exercising power, see Organski, pp. 112-115. Realists, in general, treat power as the “currency of politics.” Just as economists focus on the definition and variety of currency types, students of international relations define and distinguish the types of power. See, for example, Klaus Knorr, The Power of Nations: The Political Economy of International Relations, New York: Basic Books, 1975.
ii “Guide to National Security Policy and Strategy”, 2nd Edition, US Army War College, June 2006, Chapter 10, David Jablonsky, p127, extracted from https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/1809.pdf, 26 July 2022
iii “Guide to National Security Policy and Strategy”, 2nd Edition, US Army War College, June 2006, Chapter 10, David Jablonsky, p128, extracted from https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/1809.pdf, 26 July 2022
iv “Guide to National Security Policy and Strategy”, 2nd Edition, US Army War College, June 2006, Chapter 10, David Jablonsky, p127, extracted from https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/1809.pdf, 26 July 2022
v “Guide to National Security Policy and Strategy”, 2nd Edition, US Army War College, June 2006, Chapter 10, David Jablonsky, p130, extracted from https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/1809.pdf, 26 July 2022
vi For a broader discussion see “Guide to National Security Policy and Strategy”, 2nd Edition, US Army War College, June 2006, Chapter 10, David Jablonsky, p130, extracted from https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/1809.pdf, 26 July 2022; this is supported by endnote 16. (16) For the distinction between natural and social determinants of power, see Organski, chaps. 7, 8. Morgenthau, p. 106, breaks the elements down into “those which are relatively stable and those which are subject to constant change.” See also Couloumbis and Wolfe, pp. 65, 73-78, who break national power into two categories: tangible, population, territory, natural resources, industrial capacity, agricultural capacity, military strength and mobility) and intangible, leadership and personality, bureaucratic-organizational efficiency, type of government, societal cohesiveness, reputation, foreign support and diplomacy, accidents.
vii “Guide to National Security Policy and Strategy”, 2nd Edition, US Army War College, June 2006, Chapter 10, David Jablonsky, p130, extracted from https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/1809.pdf, 26 July 2022.
viii “Global Trends 2040,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, March 2021, p91-94, extracted from: https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/GlobalTrends_2040.pdf, 26 July 2022. This provides an alternative seven element structure of national power. ix Joint Publication 1-01, “Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms”, DoD, 12 April 2001, As Amended Through 31 October 2008, p 266, extract from: https://web.archive.org/web/20100310102614/http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/new_pubs/jp1_02.pdf, 26 July 2022 x “Confidence in U.S. Institutions Down; Average at New Low,” Gallup, Jeffery M. Jones, 5 Jul 2022, extracted from: https://news.gallup.com/poll/394283/confidence-institutions-down-average-new-low.aspx?version=print, 8 July 2022.
ix Joint Publication 1-01, “Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms”, DoD, 12 April 2001, As Amended Through 31 October 2008, p 266, extract from: https://web.archive.org/web/20100310102614/http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/new_pubs/jp1_02.pdf, 26 July 2022
x “Confidence in U.S. Institutions Down; Average at New Low,” Gallup, Jeffery M. Jones, 5 Jul 2022, extracted from: https://news.gallup.com/poll/394283/confidence-institutions-down-average-new-low.aspx?version=print, 8 July 2022.