Understanding National Power

Where do nations derive their power from, and how best do they employ power to pursue their interests? This question has been contemplated by strategists for thousands of years—from Nicias to Napoleon, from the Parthenon to the Pentagon—yet we seem no closer to arriving at a suitable conclusion. Perhaps the closest we can get to understanding strategy is accepting that it depends. Strategists strive to understand the bigger picture; to consider the endless possibilities and the inter-related, compounding, and inadvertent effects caused by strategic decisions.

The consequences of these decisions can have profound impacts for a nation and require deep consideration and careful planning. Yet still, we must accept that there is no way to predict the future. Indeed, the practice of preparing for one eventuality may very well lead to the realisation of another. British strategist and former Permanent Under-Secretary of State, Sir Michael Quinlan said it best:

“What we expect, we plan and provide for, what we plan and provide for we hereby deter, what we deter does not happen. What does happen is what we did not deter; because we did not plan and provide for because we did not expect it”.

The Royal Navy uses the Latin adage as its motto, ‘Si vis pacem, para bellum’, meaning, ‘if you want peace, then prepare for war’.

Thinking about strategy is difficult, but it shouldn’t be. Eisenhower declared that ‘the basic principles of strategy are so simple that even a child can understand them’. From a realist perspective, humans are wired to seek advantage. Families, villages, and social groups have evolved on the underlying principle that they provide a benefit or advantage to their individual constituents. The strategies of nation states are no different in concept, but they differ greatly in scale, complexity, and consequence.

Our perception of strategy and the dynamics of war and society can be helped by observing the past, and establishing models to look at the present and the future. Whilst the precise measurement of power, influence, and the quality of a strategy is impossible to determine, we can use models to shape the way we think about and understand complex problems. This article will take a look at the concept of ‘national power’ and discuss some of the models we use to understand it. Understanding the elements and instruments of national power provides a baseline from which we can explore the design and application of good strategy.

The term ‘national power’ has no fixed definition and is subject to subjective interpretation and ongoing debate. The US military defines national power as ‘the sum of all resources available to a nation in the pursuit of national objectives’.[1] An alternate definition provided by Ashley Tellis is ‘the capacity of a country to pursue strategic goals through purposeful action’[2]. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) does not provide an explicit definition, but astutely notes that ‘the totality of a nation’s influence is not merely the sum of the individual elements of power… [it] depends on a nation’s ability to mobilise and integrate the elements of national power within a strategy to support the state’s objectives’.[3] Regardless of which definition is used, it is clear that national power and strategy are inextricably linked. 

Hans Morgenthau identified nine elements of national power; geography, natural resources, industrial capacity, military preparedness, population, national character, national morale, quality of diplomacy, and quality of government.[4] These elements represent an aggregate of potential power, but present little value to the strategist useless they are considered together and are applied to achieve an outcome. Understanding the interrelationship of these elements, and how they can be applied as an instrument, is of critical importance to crafting strategy. Failing to consider the elements of national power as a collective, Morgenthau tells us, is considered the ‘fallacy of the single factor’. Too often when casual observers look at a nation’s power, they place emphasis on one element rather than considering the effects of the whole. Elements of national power can complement or constrain each other. The whole is not always greater than the sum of its parts. 

The distinction between an element of national power to an instrument is an important one. While elements can be expressed as a ‘latent potential’, instruments can be applied as capabilities. According to Terry Diebel, instruments are the ‘tangible expressions of national power to link ends, ways and means for persuasion, co-optation and coercion’.[5] For a strategist, an instrument has real utility. An instrument is tool of the state; it can be applied to affect change on the environment.

A number of contemporary models have emerged to help us understand the instruments of national power. The ‘DIME’ model was developed by the US military after the Second World War and rose to prominence during the Cold War.[6] This model categorises the instruments of national power into four areas; Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic power. The model has been used extensively by the US military, the ADF, and other western national security agencies. It simplifies a complex set of variables and serves as a lens in which to view the instruments of national power in a simple way.

The DIME model has however drawn criticism for its over-simplification and lack of depth. In recent years, the addition of financial, intelligence and legal instruments have become more common. This has resulted in a revised acronym: ‘MIDLIFE’. This model extends the basic DIME principles and allows for a greater level of detailed consideration for broader instruments. It too has drawn criticism, but rather than for its lack of detail, it is considered to be unnecessarily complex.

The ‘PMESII’ model was developed for the operational level but also has utility as a model for considering national power. It splits the instruments into six domains: political, military, economic, social, information and infrastructure. Each model allows us to view the environment in a different way and possesses its own unique set of strengths and weaknesses—yet no model has proven to be more universally appropriate than the others.

The concept of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power can also serve as a useful model when considering the instruments of national power and how they are applied. Although not strictly used to define the instruments, this model helps to determine the method of application and utility they can have for a nation’s strategy. ‘Hard power’ is centred on military intervention, coercive diplomacy and economic sanctions and relies on tangible resources such as armed forces or economic means[7]. ‘Soft power’ is the capacity to persuade others to do what one wants”[8]. It is based on intangible power resources such as culture, ideology, and institutions.[9] By considering how each of the instruments can be applied, and what is most appropriate to the situation, we can better understand how each of the instruments can be useful for a nation’s strategy. 

Regardless on which definition is used, the instruments of national power are best considered together rather than in isolation. President John F. Kennedy articulated this in a National Security Action Memorandum in 1961 when he said:

“While I look to the chiefs to present the military factor without reserve or hesitation, I regard them to be more than military men and expect their help in fitting military requirements into the overall context of any situation, recognising that the most difficult problem in government is to combine all assets in a unified, effective pattern”.[10]

It is not the instruments themselves, but rather how they applied and how they complement each other that counts.

A comprehensive, unified approach to strategic planning that aims to bring government agencies together is incredibly difficult to achieve. In April 2019, Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszley highlighted the difficulties of achieving a cross-government approach due to a lack of political direction.[11] This should not be seen as a criticism of those in the political arena, rather an acknowledgment that strategy must be flexible, dynamic, and responsive to change. What policymakers care most about is not power as capability, but power in terms of real outcomes.[12] It is perhaps easy for military planners to become frustrated with politicians and other government departments over a perceived lack of foresight and planning. But the military instrument of national power is just one part of a range of instruments that can be used to pursue national interests. Too much strategic coordination and control leads to rigidity, too little leads to inefficiency, both (or neither) can lead to catastrophe.

National power is relative, not absolute. A nation does not have abstract power in and of itself. It only has relative power in relation to other actors in the international system. The military instrument is unique. It maintains a level of consolidated, controlled organisational capacity not found in the other instruments. Morgenthau goes so far as to claim that ‘in international politics… armed strength as a threat or a potentiality is the most important material factor making for the political power of a nation’.[13] But that doesn’t mean that the military is entitled to a monopoly on strategic planning.

So how can the military become a useful instrument of national power across the spectrum of conflict, particularly in activities short of war? How can the military achieve desired outcomes through the thoughtful application of diplomatic, informational, and economic power? And how best can the government find a balance in unifying national power whilst remaining agile and responsive to the international system? These are all questions for strategists to grapple with. To help us on the journey, we can use the tools available to us to better understand the elements and instruments of national power. ‘DIME’, ‘MIDLIFE’, and ‘PMESII’ each have value in looking at the same problem from different angles, just as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power can help us to understand the ways each of the instruments are applied.

Simply possessing national power does not guarantee strategic advantage. In a world where the power gap between superpowers and other states is growing, efficiencies in strategic planning and execution hold the key to gaining and maintaining an advantage. The more we understand our own potential, the better prepared we can be to face, and mould, our future. There is no recipe for formulating good strategy; but developing an understanding of national power is surely a key ingredient.


[1] Joint Publication 1, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States

[2] Tellis, Ashley J. Measuring national power in the post-industrial age. Vol. 1110. Rand Corporation, 2001.

[3] Land Warfare Doctrine 1, The Fundamentals of Land Power, 2017

[4] Morgenthau, Hans J. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace fifth edition, revised. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc, 1978.

[5] Deibel, Terry L. Foreign affairs strategy: Logic for American statecraft. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[6] D.R. Worley, Orchestrating the Instruments of Power: A Critical Examination of the U.S. National Security System (Potomac Books, 2015)

[7] Gallarotti, G., 2011. Soft Power: what it is, it’s importance, and the conditions for its effective use. Journal of Political Power, 4(1), pp. 25-47.

[8] Wilson, E. J., 2008. Hard Power, Soft Power, Smart Power. ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, Issue 616, pp. 110-124.

[9] Nye, J. S., 2009. Understanding International Conflicts. 7. ed. New York: Pearson.

[10] ‘Relations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the President in Cold War Operations’ National security action memorandum 55. 28 Jun 1961. https://www.jfklibrary.org/asset-viewer/archives/JFKNSF/330/JFKNSF-330-005

[11] Kiszely, J. ‘The Politico-Military Dynamic in the Conduct of Strategy’, Journal of Strategic Studies

Volume 42, 2019 – Issue 2: Military Strategy in the 21st Century.

[12] Tellis, Ashley J. Measuring national power in the post-industrial age. Vol. 1110. Rand Corporation, 2001.

[13] Morgenthau, Hans J. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace fifth edition, revised. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc, 1978.

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