Standard Power: The New Geopolitical Battle

"Standards are not new, but their significance has recently been propelled to the first order by governments seeking to exert a less threatening—albeit tremendously impactful—form of influence on their peers. "

Hard power no longer works. The use or threat of force will never disappear from inter-national relations, but unlike in the mercantilist days of yesteryear when military might could unlock economic gains, today’s armed interventions have become a last resort, for their instigators are well aware of associated costs. Yes, Russia recently invaded Ukraine, but not before it tried all other means (including threats) to dissuade Kiev from sealing its fate to the West. Sure, defense spending has shot through the roof among Asian emerging powers, but primarily because China’s neighbors fear its growing assertiveness, not because they are eager to use their new purchases. Even Beijing seems to acknowledge the economic risks of pursuing bellicose policies, as illustrated by its decision to ease tensions with Japan following a two-year spike in confrontation.

So has soft power taken over? Hardly. Anti-Americanism may have abated of late, but scandals including the Snowden revelations have durably tarnished the country’s image. Meanwhile the European Union, once heralded as a model of peace and prosperity, alternates in headlines between trying to keep its members in (Grexit, Brexit) and pushing its neighbors out (migrants). China, for its part, recently ranked no higher than 30th most admired nation in the world – quite a long ways away from a global inspiration.

Some of the reasons for the above are structural. Internationally, we now live in what Ian Bremmer has called a G-Zero world, “one in which no single country or bloc of countries has the political and economic leverage – or the will – to drive a truly international agenda”. Meanwhile Moises Naim best captured the Zeitgeist within borders in noting that “the end of power” means “Power has become easier to get, harder to use and far easier to lose”.

Yet in an environment still predominantly characterized by interdependence, countries must continue to influence one-another somehow. To do so, they’ve needed to get creative and have resorted to rolling out a new form of power: what I call Standard Power, or the power of standards.

Standards are not new, but their significance has recently been propelled to the first order by governments seeking to exert a less threatening – albeit tremendously impactful – form of influence on their peers. For therein lies the genius of Standard Power: it is as discrete as it is transformative. Discrete because often born out of arcane technical discussions; transformative because once a standard has taken over, rarely is it overturned. And so the war for standards is generally over by the time we realize it was ever on.

The most visible tip of Standard Power’s iceberg has been the recent negotiation of Trans-Pacific (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment (TTIP) partnerships, both part of a race to set the standards for 21st century global trade. Of the former, US President Barack Obama has argued that “we should write those rules before China does. That’s why I’ve been working with Congress to pass new, 21st century trade agreements with standards that are higher and protections that are tougher than any past trade agreement.” While of the latter, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström has declared that “our idea here is to establish disciplines that would set gold standards… and for these, in many cases, to be a starting point for future negotiations on global rules.” The message couldn’t be clearer.

The West has been accustomed to being the global standard-setter for centuries and is attempting to use these standards’ rejuvenation as a means of maintaining its declining geopolitical position. Nor is it hiding its ambition; with TTIP having been repeatedly compared to an “economic NATO” (including by former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen himself) and TPP having been deemed to be “as important […] as another aircraft carrier” by US Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

The United States’ attempt to keep allies from joining Beijing’s newly-created Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) by emitting doubts over China’s ability to uphold strict governance and environmental rules was another clear – albeit botched – example of this manipulation of standards for geopolitical intents. Interestingly, the use of Standard Power hasn’t been the sole prerogative of Western economies oppressing emerging ones. Instead, countries ranging from Russia to India have shown great appetite for using standards – especially safety-related ones – as a means of nagging Western competitors. Emerging markets have even begun using standards to exert political influence on one-another. China, for example, recently postponed the construction of a gas pipeline with its Russian neighbor on the grounds that Moscow had refused to run an open tender for the project’s development. Ah yes, China’s everlasting concern for transparency!