Power is Power

March 25, 2014

In the beginning of Season 2 of the popular HBO show, Game of Thrones, Cersei Lannister encounters Lord Petyr Baelish in the Capitol city of Kings Landing. Cersei asks him for a favor and Lord Baelish commences with his usual scheming and obfuscation. He finishes his monologue with the phrase, “knowledge is power.” Seemingly irked by his response, Cersei immediately commands her guards to seize Lord Baelish and kill him. As a guard’s blade is about to slice his throat, Cersei casually belays the order saying “stop, I’ve changed my mind.” The scene closes with her walking up to a stunned Baelish and whispering, “power is power.”

This phrase “power is power” has been ringing in my head since I heard it nearly two years ago. I have found myself questioning its relevance to our current predicament with Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin. With such blatant shows of force in Georgia, Syria and now Ukraine, it would appear that we, the United States, are Lord Baelish, constantly blathering on and scheming in the shadows only to be caught flat-footed when confronted directly by a show of force. As such, the singular question I’ve been wrestling with has been whether we truly understand American power in a post-Soviet (e.g. multipolar) world?  Do we correctly perceive how other nations perceive our power?

While many have quickly focused on the details of what our response should be, the conclusion I’ve come to is that we lack consensus on what American power should be primarily because we do not agree on who our true adversary is. As the Presidential Debate in 2012 illustrated, Governor Romney and President Obama highlighted my point with Romney arguing a nation-state (Russia) and Obama making his case for a non-state actor (al-Qaeda). Still others, especially those in punditry, regularly make the case that we have met the enemy and he is us! My point here is not to try to answer these questions but rather to offer the thesis that maybe we are asking the wrong question to begin with. Maybe the real question to honestly ask ourselves is what kind of power can we afford to apply and if we don’t like the answer that comes back then how do we get there?


Stephen Rodriguez is a regular contributor to War On The Rocks and has more than twelve years of experience in strategic planning, corporate strategy, and business development. His core market experience is in the aerospace & defense industry in the realm of technology assessment, game theory applications, and implementing strategic initiatives for growth-stage, venture-backed investments.


Image: Abir Anwar, CC