A New Theory for the Foreign-Policy Frontier: Collaborative Power

The power of many can accomplish more than any one can do alone -- and that distinction is different than the traditional classification of hard and soft power

The power of many can accomplish more than any one can do alone -- and that distinction is different than the traditional classification of hard and soft power

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Protesters wave Egyptian flags in Tahrir Square / AP

Shortly after Egyptian security forces detained well-known Egyptian-American blogger and columnist Mona Eltahawy last Wednesday night in the Egyptian Interior Ministry in Cairo, she managed to tweet five chilling words to her more than 60,000 followers: "beaten arrested in Interior Ministry." Her tweet went out at 8:44 pm Eastern Standard Time (3:44 am in Cairo).  At 9:05 pm, I got a direct message on Twitter from the NPR strategist Andy Carvin, who covers English-language social media from Arab protests, telling me of Mona's tweet. After responding to him, I immediately sent an email to my former colleagues at the State Department. Within another hour, I'd heard back and was able to tweet that the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was on the case. Nick Kristof, citing his own contacts at the State Department,, sent out a similar message to his million-plus followers. By then, #FreeMona, a hashtag Carvin had started to help track the disparate efforts to help Mona, was already trending worldwide on Twitter. A few hours later, Mona was free, although with two broken bones and a traumatic story of sexual assault. Maged Butter, an Egyptian blogger who had been arrested with Eltahawy, was also released.

A debate about the role of Twitter and whether or not it helped win Mona's release has already been joined by Andrew Rasiej and Evgeny Morozov. The ever-perceptive and thoughtful Zeynep Tufekci wrote a long post reflecting on the nature of this intervention.  Adrija Bose also wrote on the episode at FirstPost, as did Alix Dunn at the Engine Room. I will not join that debate directly here, but the incident provides the perfect hook for a piece that I have been wanting to write for a while about the nature of power.

This past fall, I gave the inaugural Joseph S. Nye lecture at Princeton. Nye is perhaps the world's pre-eminent theorist of power; he coined the term "soft power" for the power of attraction versus "hard power," the power of coercion. (Full disclosure: he's also a mentor and an old friend.) I used the lecture to contrast what I then called bottom-up power to what I argued was Nye's concept of top-down power. But, on reflection, I think "collaborative power" is a better and more accurate term for the phenomenon I am trying to capture.

Nye distinguishes between "resource power" -- resources that can produce outcomes, such as money, territory, etc -- and "relational power," which he defines as "the capacity to do things and in social situations to affect others to get the outcomes we want." Borrowing from various different power theorists and adapting their concepts of power to international relations, Nye then identifies three distinct "faces" of relational power. First is "commanding change": getting people or groups to do things they don't want to do. Second is "controlling agendas": the bureaucrat's favorite ploy of framing "agendas for action that make others' preferences seem irrelevant or out of bounds." And third is "shaping preferences": using "ideas, beliefs, and culture to shape basic beliefs, perceptions and preferences." This is hardly the place to engage Gramsci, Foucault, Giddens, and the many others who have examined the deep social and political structures of power. So, for present purposes, think of how soft power -- the attractive draw of Hollywood movies, American rock music, and the Declaration of Independence -- have shaped preferences around the world.

As with all of Nye's work, this analytical framework is elegant, compelling, and seemingly comprehensive. But where does the power that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fit in? The power, evident in ongoing protests despite months of bloodshed, that will not be silenced or stopped in Syria? The power that brought NATO to use force to protect Libyan civilians? Or the power that freed Mona Eltahawy?

One familiar distinction is "power with" versus "power over." The power that interests Nye is the power that a person, group, or institution exercises over other people, groups, or institutions, getting them to do something they would not have done on their own. "Power with," on the other hand, is the power of multiple actors to get something done collaboratively. (I first heard this distinction from Harvard Law Professor Lani Guinier, but have since seen it in many places.) That certainly seems to capture the phenomenon we are witnessing in so many different places -- the networked, horizontal surge and sustained application of collective will and resources.

I will call it collaborative power and define it as the power of many to do together what no one can do alone. Consider the power of water. Each drop is harmless; enough drops together create a tsunami that can level a landscape.

Collaborative power can take many forms. The first is mobilization; to exercise collaborative power through not a command but a call to action. The second form is connection.  In contrast to the relational power method of narrowing and controlling a specific set of choices, collaborative power is exercised by broadening access to the circle of power and connecting as many people to one another and to a common purpose as possible. A third form (many more dimensions of collaborative power will likely emerge) is adaptation. Instead of seeking to structure the preferences of others, those who would exercise collaborative power must be demonstrably willing to shift their own views enough to enter into meaningful dialogue with others. The first step toward persuading others is often an evident and sincere willingness to be persuaded yourself.


But here's the most important difference between these two kinds of power. Relational power is held by an individual, group, or institution in relation to, as the name suggests, another individual, group, or institution. Collaborative power, on the other hand, is not held by any one person or in any one place. It is an emergent phenomenon -- the property of a complex set of interconnections. Leaders can learn to unlock it and guide it, but they do not possess it.

Many terrific thinkers in fields from computer science to business management and entrepreneurship to neurobiology and complexity theory are working on similar ideas. Through my Twitter feed, I have gotten many great links to thoughtful posts and articles making similar points to those above. It's time we apply these concepts and insights to foreign policy, both analyzing what we see and prescribing policy options -- much as the informal #FreeMona team did during Mona Eltahawy's detention in Cairo. Nothing about collaborative power suggests that relational power -- both hard and soft -- doesn't exist or isn't important. But it's only part of the story. Remember, drop by drop, water will wear away or wash away stone, sometimes far more quickly than we can imagine.