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Power v. Force

Robert Barkley, Jr.

The tension between power and force is great and often misunderstood. Much of the problem here is the western world's-or at least its current leader's-understanding of the differences between power and force. And when it comes to which of these two dynamics will win in the long-term, power will eat force for lunch.

Power is about influence, persuasion, example, compassion, civility, modeling, pacifism, peacefulness, humility, and is intrinsic by nature; it is a ‘pull' action.

Force is about bullying, brashness, greed, militarism, war, arrogance, hubris, brutishness, and is extrinsic by nature; it is a ‘push' action. Today, apparently, people who revere force are leading America.

Gandhi, M. L. King, Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Reinhold Niehbuhr, and Jesus exemplify power. Its essence is in ideas rather than things, and it is transmitted through words, serenity, calmness, and trust. Use of this model generates eager followers rather than reluctant servants.

King George III, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, bin Ladin, Saddam, Caesar, Herod, and, some would argue to an increasing extent the current US and British leadership, exemplify force. It is transmitted through fear, intimidation, coercion, dishonesty, and violence. It generates obedience and subservience rather than voluntary and enthusiastic acceptance.

The world has had its share of force, but force has never sustained a society in the way that power has. Martin Luther King captured the concept with the following: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." It will always take the power of some new and more reasoned influence to rectify the damage done by the wrong-headedness of using force.


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A friend has offered that today, "We have at work a strange version of the force/power distinction that operates as if force is the measure of power. Those holding this belief think that a bigger force will inevitably win, and they dread that others will conquer them if they don't achieve total domination first. The only thing that can be won in such a paradigm is more control. And to maintain such control requires an ever-increasing ruthlessness and creates a world that responds only to force - a world that is driven by extrinsic reward or consequences rather than by an intrinsic sense of hope and of true community." A study of history-Rome, Hitler, Napoleon, on and on, take your pick-shows that force is always trumped and is never sustainable in the long term.

A tweaking of this power vs. force discussion might well lead to what Reinhold Niebuhr would have referenced as "power and humility." This comment about Reinhold Niebuhr recently came to my attention, "Niebuhr understood that the exercise of power can be shocking and, at times, corrupting. But he also understood that power is absolutely necessary to fight the battles that must be fought. The trick is to fight these battles with humility and constant introspection, knowing that there is no monopoly on virtue. Moreover, this combination is simply more effective. For power untethered from humility is certain to eventually fail."

And in the wake of World War II, Niebuhr warned us "we are so deluded by the concept of our innocence that we are ill-prepared to deal with the temptations of power which now assail us." I can't think of a better bit of advice to those that today control our government.

Finally, Niebuhr wrote, "If we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory."  Or quoting an old adage, "Hubris is terminal."

Undoubtedly we must guide our nation to the use of power as here defined and to avoiding a reliance on force. Ultimately, particularly in the long term, all models based upon force will fail. But quite unfortunately, the failure of these models falls upon the children of the perpetrators rather than upon them.  This means that it is most often the shortsighted and selfish - those lacking "humility" - who most rely on force to settle their grievances and frustrations or to satisfy their greed.   As our President prepares to suggest our future in Afghanistan, it seemed appropriate to reflect on this lesson from history.

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Robert Barkley, Jr. is a counselor in Systemic Education Reform and retired Executive Director of the Ohio Education Association. He is the author of Quality in Education: A Primer for Collaborative Visionary Educational Leaders and Leadership In Education: A Handbook for School Superintendents and Teacher Union Presidents. He resides in Worthington, Ohio where he studies and writes on education and politics.

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