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Vinu Sharma asked: Is power a zero sum or variable game in international relations?

Adil Rasheed replies: The concept of power is central to international relations. It is often defined as the ability of a political actor (individual, group or a state) to control another into doing what that other would not have otherwise done. Theories over the nature and dynamics of power within the discipline have been changing over the decades, initially tending to be more supportive of a ‘constant sum’ or ‘zero sum’ understanding and then gradually becoming more receptive to the contrarian ‘variable sum’ theories. It is noteworthy that both ‘zero sum’ and ‘variable sum’ are terms borrowed from contemporary game theory, even though these terms find conceptual resonance in passages of ancient political treatises.

Max Weber is a classical exponent of the ‘zero-sum’ theory of power. According to him, there is always a fixed amount of power in the international arena and that nations or organizations are powerful only at the expense of others. Thus, the ‘zero-sum’ dynamic implies one party’s amount of gain in a competition or a conflict as being equivalent to another party’s extent of loss, so that the net amount of power in the international arena always remains ‘constant’ or ‘zero’.

The contestation between exponents of ‘zero-sum’ theory of power and the contrarian ‘variable-sum’ theorists has been equally interesting. In recent decades, there has been a relative erosion in ‘zero-sum’ (‘I win, you lose’) hegemonic control of big powers with the rise of developing countries on the international stage that has gradually given credence to ‘variable-sum’ postulations. Most state and non-state actors and organisations increasingly cooperate with one another on account of “complex interdependences” (Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye) across diverse sectors, be it in the fields of economy and sustainable development, international finance and trade, security and defence, human and natural resources, etc.

This power dynamic has made cooperation as important a determinant in international relations as conflict and competition have been since the colonial and Cold War eras, which was characterised by rivalries between former superpowers. Thus, state and non-state actors today engage not just in ‘zero-sum’ contestations, but tend to forge relations to achieve ‘positive-sum’ (i.e. win-win) outcomes or at least more nuanced or ‘variable-sum’ relations that traverse a multitude of political, military and socio-economic vectors.

Thus, David Baldwin argues that power is always context-dependent. He claims that the attempt by realist theorists (mostly supporters of zero-sum theory) to reduce all forms of national power to military power ignores other contextual factors. Similarly, Talcott Parsons rejects the realist contention that there is always a fixed amount of power and that acquisition of power comes at the expense of another’s loss of it.

With the onset of the Russia-Ukraine war, the ‘zero-sum’ realist outlook is said to be gaining ground again. Thus, it is feared that the war may not just alter the shape of the globalised order, but may even throw international relations back to a ‘zero-sum’ regression.

Posted on 27 February 2023

Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.