The events of the last year go a long way to explaining the nature of power. We’re used to thinking of power relations in material terms: America owns all the guns in the room, and therefore it’s the most powerful country in the world. But Obama has proven that military superiority isn’t the same thing as power, real power. What’s the use of having all the guns if you’ll not pull them out of your holster, or if you’ll do so only in stupid and unpredictable ways?
What’s missing from a purely material understanding of power is the spiritual element, the readiness to stand up to misbehaving thugs, the resolution to see fights through to the end, the right reason that avoids idiotic wars. Against the morally weak, the thugs know the difference between the two kinds of power. So did Winston Churchill. “We lose many battles,” he said. “But there’s one battle we always win—the last one.”
The spiritual element in power is wonderfully present in America’s military, the best in the world. But the best of militaries is sometimes led by the weakest and most irresolute of leaders, and so it is today. Forbes calls Putin the most powerful man in the world, and I have no quarrel with that. Where I part company with Forbes is when it calls Obama number two.
Where did that comes from? Oh, I know, by tradition a U.S. president is called the “leader of the free world.” But how many people would describe Obama that way? I have another candidate from that title: Stephen Harper. In his speech to the Knesset on January 20, in confronting Putin in Brisbane a few days ago, the Canadian Prime Minister displayed the courage to speak truth to power in a supine world. We’ll be with you “through fire and water,” he told the Israelis. When Putin approached him with an outstretched hand in Brisbane, Harper told the thuggish Russian president, “Well, I guess I’ll shake your hand, but I have only one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine.”
Obama illustrates the difference between material and spiritual power. But then so does Harper. Spiritual power the prime minister has in spades, but what’s that without material power? Canada’s GDP is only a little less than that of Russia, but its military has been degraded to the point of impuissance. Its navy is a national embarrassment and its aging air force badly in need of an upgrade. Were Harper the leader of the free world, that should be a matter of profound regret. If the American president doesn’t fill that role, these are unsettling times.