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  • Power Cycle Theory and Implications for Policy
  • Sam Abrams

On June 30, 1965 National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy wrote President Lyndon Johnson a memo titled “France in Vietnam, 1954, and the US in Vietnam in 1965—A Useful Analogy?”1 Bundy concluded that the two situations were incomparable: the French fought to maintain colonial rule while the United States fought against communism and on behalf of Vietnamese nationalism. The United States in 1965 also had a number of military and domestic political advantages over France in 1954, he added. Bundy’s use of history was unsuccessful and a few years later the American experience in Vietnam resembled that of the French more closely. Where did Bundy go wrong? Why was he unable to see the congruence of Communism with Vietnamese nationalism? Though history provides powerful insights into our present condition, historians firmly reject that they are in the business of predicting the future. Without a tested theoretical framework, Bundy was merely groping in the dark for historical clues that would offer some guidance as the US escalated involvement in Vietnam.

Jacob Heim’s article describes a useful role for theory in policy making. Theory, such as Charles Doran’s power cycle theory described by Heim, promises to be superior to lessons taken from a single case. As the distillation of general laws from empirical evidence, theory is supposed to remove human error such as Bundy’s. As Heim writes, though, this is not to say that theory should be blindly applied directly to policy problems. Built from the experiences of the past, theory is an imperfect predictor of the future. Theory is also silent on the moral and ethical concerns that accompany policy. For these reasons, Heim is correct to recommend that power cycle theory be used indirectly, to help policy makers think carefully about problems, and to offer insights they might not consider on their own.

Karl Popper, the influential 20th century philosopher, reminds us of the inherent tenuousness of theory: while a theory may accurately represent known information, new evidence may render that theory false. This is to say, although a theory may be consistent with all available evidence, theory does not represent eternal truth. Instead, theories are put to a test of trial and error and are subject to refutation with new evidence.2 For policy makers using power cycle theory, the implication is clear: Power cycle theory’s ability to explain the past does not guarantee its ability to predict the future. For example, when measuring national power after 1950, Doran’s power [End Page 129] cycle theory replaces the size of a nation’s army with defense spending. The utility of using defense spending to calculate national power became apparent after it became more important for national power than the size of the army.

Today, some argue that the nature of war and the expression of power have changed since the post-1815 timeframe examined by power cycle theory. Instead of industrial war in which decisive factors were quantities of men and lethality of firepower, we may find ourselves in an age of, ‘war amongst the people’ (General Rupert Smith),3 ‘hybrid war’ (Frank Hoffman), 4 or ‘unrestricted warfare’ (Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui).5 Smith’s ‘war amongst the people’ emphasizes that war no longer ends with a decisive incapacitation of an opponent’s forces and that the central contest is not for territory or industrial capacity. Instead, he suggests that war is about shaping the behavior of people and their leaders. Hoffman’s ‘hybrid war’ accounts for social aspects of today’s war while also emphasizing the role of terrorism, guerilla fighting, and criminal networks. Liang and Xiangsui’s ‘unrestricted warfare’ theorizes about using economic policy, international law, and other ways to defeat a technologically superior enemy. In these concepts of war, power is less dependent on an army’s size or a nation’s defense spending than it was for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. Power cycle theory does not help policy makers understand when or how independent variables like these might change.

It is also worth asking if the ‘laws’ of social science are appropriate for...


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pp. 129-131
Launched on MUSE
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