Measuring National Power in the Postindustrial Age: Analyst's Handbook


The arrival of post-industrial society has transformed the tradiditonal bases of national power, and thus the methods used to measure the relative power requires not merely a meticulous detailing of visible military assests but also a scrutiny of larger capabilities embodied in such variables as the aptitude for innovation, the soundness of social institutions, and the quality of the knowledge base—all of which may bear upon a country's capacity to produce the one element still fundamental to international ...

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The arrival of post-industrial society has transformed the tradiditonal bases of national power, and thus the methods used to measure the relative power requires not merely a meticulous detailing of visible military assests but also a scrutiny of larger capabilities embodied in such variables as the aptitude for innovation, the soundness of social institutions, and the quality of the knowledge base—all of which may bear upon a country's capacity to produce the one element still fundamental to international politics: effective military power. The authors reconfigure the notion of national power to accommodate a wider understanding of capability, advancing a conceptual framework that measures three distinct areas—national resources, national performance, and military capability—to help the intelligence community develop a better evalutation of a country's national power. The analysis elaborates the rationale for assessing each of these and offers ideas on how to measure them in tangible ways.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780833028037
  • Publisher: RAND Corporation
  • Publication date: 11/7/2000
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 62
  • Sales rank: 1,232,312
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.86 (h) x 0.17 (d)

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Measuring National Power in the Postindustrial Age

Analyst's Handbook
By Ashley J. Tellis Janice Bially Christopher Layne Melissa McPherson Jerry M. Sollinger

Rand Corporation

Copyright © 2000 Ashley J. Tellis
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780833028037

Chapter One


The Office of Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence (ODCSINT), U.S. Army, tasked RAND's Arroyo Center to examine how national power ought to be understood in the context of the technical and social changes taking place today. Three concerns made such a reassessment particularly pressing:

A growing unease with the current aggregate measures of national power used within the intelligence community.

A growing suspicion that the nature of warfare itself may be changing in fundamental ways.

An increasing concern that the lack of an adequate methodology to assess national power might cause the United States to miss or misinterpret incipient changes in power capability that may be taking place within many countries in the international system.

These three concerns acquire special resonance given that the Soviet Union and Iraq were classified as relatively significant powers by most aggregate indicators of capability and either collapsed through internal enervation or proved utterly ineffectual when their capabilities were put to the test in war. Both examples suggest that appreciating the true basis of national power may require not merely a meticulous detailing of tangible military assets, such as force inventories and logistics capabilities, but also an assessment of other, intangible elements such as training, doctrine, leadership, experience, readiness, and integrative skill. It also seems to suggest that standard measures of power such as GNP and annual economic growth rates ought to be situated within a larger scrutiny that addresses issues such as the external environment facing a country as well as the aptitude of its populace for innovation, the nature of its domestic economic and social institutions, the constitution of its state-society relations, the quality of its knowledge base, and the character of its ideational ethos-all of which conceivably bear upon a country's capacity to produce the one element that is still fundamental to international politics: effective military power.


The traditional approaches to measuring national power may be summarized in the following way.

First, most traditional approaches sought to rank order the status of countries in terms of their capacity for war. The objective in most cases, thus, consisted of charting the hierarchy of capabilities in the international system, based on the premise that the capacity for war was what ultimately distinguished the power of one country from another.

Second, while the various indexes can be distinguished in terms of the number of variables employed and how they relate internally, the most conspicuous characteristic of the traditional approaches is their diversity. That is, each index differs from the others in terms of the number of states assessed, the time frames of comparison, and the complexity of formulas employed.

Third, most indexes incorporate only summational elements, that is, material elements that can be simply added, in various combinations.

Fourth, most of the indexes focus mainly on the "country" as the appropriate unit of analysis. The country here is treated as a "resource container" possessing certain measurable contents that yield an understanding of its inherent capability. Traditional approaches typically do not descend "below" the national level to examine either political institutions or ideational ethos.

Fifth, most of the indices used in the traditional indexes of power are invariably gross ones. Even measures of military capability largely consist of gross measures like the size of inventory or the numbers of specific pieces of equipment. Both the assets counted and the resources identified as salient are clearly those that acquired significance in the industrial age, when variables such as the level of steel production, the extent of energy consumed, and the size of food stocks mattered much more than they had before.

Most studies using these approaches yield similar findings in terms of their rank ordering of national capabilities. Thus, irrespective of the variables measured or the formula of measurement employed, the most powerful countries in the system turn out to be the same across all indexes. Further, when some of the approaches attempt to measure the absolute amounts of power possessed by countries, the findings across studies seem to be even more congruent than the findings based on rank-ordered scores. In all cases, however, the similarity of findings is greatest for the developed world and least for the developing world-an outcome generally attributed to analysts' greater interest in and familiarity with the great powers as opposed to the underdeveloped countries.

The finding that single-variable measures of power turn out to be just as effective as more complex indexes for purposes of rank ordering countries-even when they focus on entirely different variables altogether -suggests that exercises in rank ordering may not indicate very much about what makes countries "really" powerful. Such exercises are not grounded in a clearly specified criterion for what makes certain nations powerful or why some nations can be said to have more power than others. Further, in focusing on rank ordering, traditional approaches to measuring power offer an "extensive" rather than "intensive" picture that depicts the global distribution of capabilities but does not enable a close and detailed scrutiny of any specific target country. Finally, most traditional indexes fail to incorporate qualitative factors that describe state capacity.


The key limitation of the traditional approaches is that their methodology is inappropriate for intensively investigating national power. For the intelligence community, developing a universal hierarchy of national power capabilities is an interesting effort, but one of secondary importance. The primary objective must be to assess the power capability of a few critical countries, one at a time. These countries must be investigated "intensively" in order to assess both the extent and the depth of their capabilities, and such investigations must proceed in accordance with some standardized "template" so as to enable both diachronic comparisons of progress and synoptic comparisons among a small group of peers. The conceptual underpinnings of this template are depicted in Figure 1. This graphic suggests that national power is ultimately a product of the interaction of two components: a country's ability to dominate the cycles of economic innovation at a given point in time and, thereafter, to utilize the fruits of this domination to produce effective military capabilities that, in turn, reinforce existing economic advantages while producing a stable political order, which is maintained primarily for the country's own strategic advantage but also provides benefits for the international system as a whole.


National power can be defined simply as the capacity of a country to pursue strategic goals through purposeful action. This view of national power suggests two distinct but related dimensions of capacity: an external dimension, which consists of a nation's capacity to affect the global environment through its economic, political, and military potential, and an internal dimension, which consists of a nation's capacity to transform the resources of its society into "actionable knowledge" that produces the best civilian and military technologies possible. Any effort at creating a useful national power profile must incorporate variables that capture these two dimensions.

The revised framework for measuring national power, illustrated in Figure 2, attempts to capture both these dimensions of national power in terms of three distinct realms.

The first realm, "national resources," seeks to capture the "building blocks" a country needs if it is to develop modes of production that enable it to dominate the cycles of innovation in the global economy and increase its hegemonic potential through the creation of highly sophisticated military forces that can execute the most demanding military operations against a diverse variety of adversaries. Since the beginning of the current international system, these "building blocks" have usually been measured by variables such as population, size of territory, economic strength (usually measured in terms of GNP/GDP), and natural resources. Not surprisingly, these are the indicators commonly identified by the traditional approaches to measuring power, and they cannot be-and have not been-simply jettisoned. They remain important and, more critically, indicate the thresholds through which countries must pass if they are to become important political and military actors in the international system. Consequently, they are incorporated in our framework for measuring national power, but in the context of other, newer qualitative variables that speak to a country's wider ability to incorporate the science-based knowledge revolution in its economic life. This ability to incorporate newer and ever more effective forms of "actionable knowledge" in every realm of material life is critical because it contributes to creating the foundations for new forms of military power. The "building blocks" of national power identified in this framework are therefore discussed here under the rubric of (1) technology, (2) enterprise, (3) human resources, (4) financial/capital resources, and (5) physical resources.

The second realm, "national performance," seeks to capture the mechanisms that enable countries to convert the "building blocks" identified in the first realm, which represent latent power, into tangible forms of usable power. The objective of introducing this dimension of national power is to move beyond the traditional view of countries as "bordered power-containers" to something that models countries as active social structures consisting of state and societal actors and institutions, all of which exist in an environment populated by many similar such entities abroad. Introducing this dimension allows the framework to capture an element that most traditional measures of power do not accommodate: the relationship a state has with its own society and the consequences thereof for national power capability. In particular, this level of analysis allows the analyst to assess both the external pressures confronting a given country as well as its awareness of the new resources that must be produced if it is to develop the capability to dominate the cycles of innovation and then transform that dominance into effective hegemonic potential. Including variables like the infrastructural and ideational capacity of a country then enables the analyst to characterize the state's capacity for: discerning the appropriate socio-technical production choices for augmenting its power given the current and prospective challenges imposed by both economic processes and international competition; developing the resources necessary to dominate both the cycles of innovation and the processes of international politics; and, finally, transforming existing resources into effective capital instruments for securing favorable outcomes in both the productive and the coercive arenas internationally. At this level of "national performance," the three variables to be examined are: (1) the external constraints emerging from the international system; (2) the infrastructural capacity of a given state; and (3) its ideational resources.

The third realm, "military capability," seeks to capture the manifest signs of national power that are ultimately personified by the combat proficiency of a country's military force. Military capabilities may be treated almost as the "outputs" of national power production because they represent the effective coercive strength that a country can bring to bear against any competitors, which is, in the "anarchic" system of international politics, its first line of defense. In the framework illustrated in Figure 3, military capabilities are understood to be a product of the continual, cyclic, interaction of both national resources and national performance: resources may be "building blocks," but these building blocks, far from existing in nature, must be consciously produced as a result of human artifice, which is captured, however imperfectly, by the domain of national performance. The institutions inhabiting this latter realm, in turn, rely on the resources they have produced both to maintain themselves internally and to expand their own (or their country's) power externally, and the most important manifestation of this external power is military capability. Many traditional indexes of national power incorporated military capabilities in some form or another, though this was usually done through the use of summary variables like the levels of military expenditure or the gross size of the armed forces. The kind of capabilities focused on in this framework seek a greater level of detail. Toward that end, the examination of military capability as a vector of national power is patterned analogously to the larger framework for assessing national power. It identifies the following variables of interest:

(1) The strategic resources a military receives from the government it serves, which include defense budgets, manpower, military infrastructure, combat RDT&E institutions, the defense industrial base, and the warfighting inventory and support;

(2) The variables bearing upon the means by which these resources are converted into effective capabilities, for example, the threats facing a country and the strategy developed to cope with them; the structure of civil-military relations, the density of foreign military-to-military relations, the nature of doctrine, training, and organization, and, the potential and capacity for innovation; and

(3) The capabilities of the combat force itself, understood via a spectrum of warfighting competencies that may be attained to a greater or lesser degree and which may be compared across countries.

The remainder of this handbook discusses the three components of national power in greater detail, breaking each level into its component parts and describing the measures associated with them.


This realm of analysis includes five areas of interest: technology, enterprise, human resources, financial/capital resources, and natural resources.


Attention will focus mainly on technologies that hold the potential to enable a country to participate in the leading-edge technologies relevant to power today. There are six, and they appear in Figure 3.

Six technologies are critical to the production of national power. The most important technologies today are information and communications, which include high-performance computing and networking, software, data storage and peripherals, computer simulation and modeling, microelectronics and optoelectronics, sensors and signal processing, and high-definition imaging and displays. But the leading sectors of tomorrow could develop from one or more of the following five technology clusters. Materials are the ceramics, composites, and high-performance metals and alloys that promise significant improvement in the performance of items produced and used by virtually every sector of the economy. Manufacturing technologies crucial to national power are precision machining, materials manufacturing, micro- and nano-fabrication technologies, and machine tools. The biotechnology and life sciences include both applied molecular biology and medical technology that permits unconventional solutions to major problems in diverse fields like agriculture, manufacturing, and the environment. Aeronautics and surface transportation include advanced systems that enhance our civilian and military capabilities and increase the ease and safety of travel. Energy and the environment includes technologies that could provide safe, secure, and enduring sources of energy and ensure a healthy environment for future generations. Finally, attention must be paid to militarily critical technologies.


Excerpted from Measuring National Power in the Postindustrial Age by Ashley J. Tellis Janice Bially Christopher Layne Melissa McPherson Jerry M. Sollinger Copyright © 2000 by Ashley J. Tellis. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Introduction: Why the Interest in National Power? 1
Ch. 2 "Power" and "National Power": Some Conceptual Considerations 13
Ch. 3 Reviewing Traditional Approaches to Measuring National Power 25
Ch. 4 Toward a Revised View of Measuring National Power 35
Ch. 5 Measuring National Resources 53
Ch. 6 Measuring National Performance 91
Ch. 7 Measuring Military Capability 133
Ch. 8 Conclusion 177
App Quantitative Indicators of National 179
Bibliography 183
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