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QUIGLEY ON TOP: Security, Power and Political Instability

October 4, 2014


In his unpublished magnum opus Weapons Systems and Political Stability Carroll Quigley attempts to provide a cohesive analytical structure to the morass of confusion regarding concepts of security and power. He goes on at length to demonstrate how the ideas he enunciates repeat in History and how the application of those concepts can explain most historical conflicts. I will not try to summarize his historical examples here but only attempt to lay out the operative concepts he identifies. The first thing I must point out is that he is not particularly discussing security from such things and famine or disease and the like, although he makes it clear that the lack of such security is more often than not a product of the exercise of power or the lack thereof. He is however examining the meaning of security in a clash of power among groups the effect of which could and often does produce tragic consequences to individuals often including death.

He begins by pointing out that security and power are different notions and that security has not always been a product of a state.

“Men have experienced security and insecurity throughout all human history. In all that long period, security has been associated with power relationships and is today associated with the state only because this is the dominant form which power relationships happen to take in recent times. But even today, power relationships exist quite outside of the sphere of the state, and, as we go farther into the past, such non-state (and ultimately, non-public) power relationships become more dominant in human life.”

Definition of Security

Security Quigley defines as:

“…the settlement of disputes involving clashes of wills within the group and the defense of the group against outside threats—are the essential parts of the provision of security through group life. They form the opposite sides of all political life and provide the most fundamental areas in which power operates in any group or community. Both are concerned with clashes of wills, the one with such clashes between individuals or lesser groups within the community and the other with clashes between the wills of different communities regarded as entities. Thus clashes of wills are the chief problems of political life, and the methods by which these clashes are resolved depend on power, which is the very substance of political action.”

The nature of power

He then goes on to ask and discuss, what is the nature of power and what is the relationship between power and security.

“Power,” he maintains, “is simply the ability to obtain the acquiescence of another person’s will.”

That is to obtain full coöperation, obedience to specific orders, or simple acquiescence.

The Basis of Power

These power relationships can be obtained by the exercise of one or more of what can be described as the triple basis of power in our culture: force, wealth or persuasion.

He states:

“The first of these is the most fundamental (and becoming more so) in our society, and will be discussed at length later. The second is quite obvious, since it involves no more than the purchase or bribery of another’s acquiescence, but the third is usually misunderstood in our day.

The economic factor enters into the power nexus when a person’s will yields to some kind of economic consideration, even if this is merely one of reciprocity. When primitive tribes tacitly hunt in restricted areas which do not overlap, there is a power relationship on the lowest level of economic reciprocity.

“The ideological factor in power relationships, which I have called persuasion, operates through a process which is frequently misunderstood. It does not consist of an effort to get someone else to adopt our point of view or to believe something they had not previously believed, but rather consists of showing them that their existing beliefs require that they should do what we want.”

Finally he explains regarding the above three bases of power:

“Of course, in any power situation the most obvious element to people of our culture is force. This refers to the simple fact of physical compulsion, but it is made more complicated by the two facts that man has, throughout history, modified and increased his physical ability to compel, both by the use of tools (weapons) and by organization of numerous men to increase their physical impact. It is also confused, for many people, by the fact that such physical compulsion is usually aimed at a subjective target: the will of another person. This last point, like the role of morale already mentioned, shows again the basic unity of power and of power relationships, in spite of the fact that writers like myself may, for convenience of exposition, divide it into elements, like this division into force, wealth, and persuasion.”

Psychological nature of power relations

In addition, he argues there exists a psychological nature in power relations. He proposes two analytical rules:

“1. Conflict arises when there is no longer a consensus regarding the real power situation, and the two parties, by acting on different subjective pictures of the objective situation, come into collision.
2. The purpose of such a conflict, arising from different pictures of the facts, is to demonstrate to both parties what the real power relationship is in order to reestablish a consensus on it.”

Influence of time in power relationships

A third influence on a power relationship is the changes that time may make to the above psychological rules and thereby the nature of a particular conflict.

Also, distance or space affect power relationships. If you cannot reach someone or some nation to apply the elements of power than a power relationship does not exist and usually cannot exist. In the modern world of course, although this criteria has diminished in significance, it most certainly has not been extinguished.

Relationships in the exercise of power

And finally “most power relationships are multilateral and not dual.” “Such multilateral systems,” he argues, “explain the continued existence of smaller states whose existence could never be explained in any dual system in which they would seem to be included entirely in the power area of an adjacent great power.”


In the political arena with its enormous complexities, attempts to use power no matter how applied often cause political instability. Nevertheless Quigley writes:

“In all such crises of political instability, we can see the operations of the factors I have enumerated. These are:
(1) the dichotomy between the objective facts and subjective ideas of power situations;
(2) the nature of objective power as a synthesis of force, wealth, and ideology in our cultural tradition; and,
(3) the complication of these operations as a consequence of changes resulting from time, from distance, and from a multiplicity of power centers.”

Examples of the relationship between power and security although described in the historical record laid out in the book will have to remain for another time.


From → Carroll Quigley

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