Ideas & Knowledge: The New Currency of World Politics

The international system is driven by social and political ideas. Written and oral discourses are the primary indicators of the trajectory of ideas. These ideas based on historical experiences accumulate over a period of time and provide a perspective on reality. The appeal of that perspective depends upon the credibility of the idea in the eyes of the wider global audience. To seek credibility for their idea, actors lay claim to ‘superior knowledge,’ by virtue of which their actions can be perceived as the most rational ones in the given circumstances. Superior knowledge is a confident claim to understanding the complexity involved in maturing an idea into a plan dealing with a complicated international issue. If this confidence is widely shared, the claim to superior knowledge shapes perceptions of reality and yields significant power in Information-Age politics. Historical performances lend credence or discredit the knowledge claim, but past follies can be redeemed if an evolving learning curve, steep enough to meet the challenge being dealt by the idea under propagation, is perceptible.

Proving superiority of knowledge entails its own complexity, requiring deliberate activity. Understanding the issue in all conceivable dimensions, levels and perspectives helps. Learning actively along the course of development of an idea into a plan through its implementation is essential. The ability to modify the course of action based on new understanding of knowledge will reinforce the initial knowledge claim and increase credibility. An actor’s behavior in response to the vectors affecting implementation of an idea as a plan reflects his learning curve in retaining the superiority of knowledge. Above all, perceptions of an actor’s integrity are significant and should never be allowed to slip, if exuding confidence is to be a means to the objective of gaining superior knowledge.

The breadth and depth of information available to an infinitely diverse audience allows public opinion to become the jury for one’s claim to superior knowledge. The perception of the utility of an idea waxes and wanes with the perception of superior knowledge and the strengthening or weakening of this perception affects the objectives the political actor seeks. However, the dynamics of perception are also affected by the material power introduced in the power calculus. In the social construction of reality, the power of knowledge is affected by considerations of the power of materiel. Superior knowledge claims to have better perspective of the constitutive morals behind the materials.

Wider acceptance of these perspectives indicates the force of superior knowledge and strengthens the construction of the idea at hand. Ideas and knowledge, therefore become the essence of power. Differing interpretations of geopolitical issues in this competition of ideas and knowledge give rise to competitive geostrategic perspectives. This is a competition for acceptance of claims to superior knowledge that result in the power to make one’s own idea succeed. Some of the important contemporary geopolitical conflicts illuminate this point regarding the primacy of ideas.

The South China Sea

China's Modern Nine-Dash Line (The Economist)

First, let’s consider China. The U.S. considers freedom of navigation in the seas of the world and the airspace above as an inalienable right, a right seen by China as infringement upon their sovereignty in the South China Sea. China does not consider inappropriate the delineation of new sea frontiers based on artificially-enhanced rock islands in disputed waters and the assertion of sea and airspace control over almost the entire South China Sea in spite of contrary claims by their maritime neighbors. The nine-dash-line claims in South China Sea are based on superior knowledge, using this idea to augment nationalistic fervor and Communist Party gains, parleying manipulatively with neighbors based on this idea, and, above all, propagating this idea in the world.

The U.S. does not consider Chinese demands to coordinate air and naval movement within their newly-claimed air and sea spaces as legitimate, whereas China considers it a logical and legal assertion of sovereign national rights. In this world driven by ideas, brushing aside a contentious idea without laying out a contending idea based on superior knowledge would be unwise. The success of the U.S counter-idea will depend on superior knowledge to expose the flaws in Chinese claims and the ability to perpetuate its own ideas globally by dominating the discourse. Superior knowledge must be shown in superior integrity of intention looking beyond existing dilemmas between rising and established powers; high moral standing in the community of nations (e.g., as exhibited by ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea); and an understanding of the escalatory implications of provocation, the virtues of cooperation, and the consequences of confrontation.

Afghanistan and Pakistan

Next, let’s consider Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban view U.S. forces in Afghanistan as exploitative occupiers with the hidden agenda of perpetuating presence in their country and wielding power in the region. The depiction of U.S. forces as “occupiers” is an effective narrative among the Afghan people and is exacerbated by the Afghan Government’s image of corruption empowering the Taliban narrative. On the other hand, the incumbent Afghan Government views the U.S. presence and commitment as necessary to ward off Taliban takeover. To empower their legitimacy and popularity, the Government also propagates the idea of Pakistan being the abettor of a Taliban-led insurgency in their country, which finds traction amongst the Afghan population. Finally, the U.S considers its forces as a key to support the nascent Afghan security forces in their effort to resist Taliban resurgence and works hard to establish its altruistic intentions.

All these actors are propagating their respective idea, laying claim to superior knowledge in order to dominate the perception of reality. The Taliban claim to understand the American aversion to casualties, extended deployments, and increased troop numbers, and they leverage this perception in continuing their offensive against waning Afghan National Security Forces capability. Moreover, they claim to represent the aspirations of Pashtun majority population, based on their knowledge of actual demographic considerations in the country distorted by other stakeholders. The constitutionally-elected Afghan Government’s claim to knowledge is based on moral high ground, which is considered sufficient force in itself to resolve the problem, if only Pakistan would abandon its policy of supporting the Taliban. Scapegoating Pakistan is Afghanistan’s winning local narrative based on their innate knowledge gained through ‘torturous historical experience’. Pakistan contests this knowledge as flawed and seems to be redeeming its own superior knowledge in view of the crucial role played in coordinating the much sought after peace talks with the Taliban. Pakistan’s superior knowledge in the case of Afghanistan is claimed on the basis of ethnic affinity with Pashtun’s, a history of dealing with the Taliban, and a better understanding of the regional dynamics. The U.S. claims superior knowledge on the basis of their understanding of the fragility of the political and security projections in Afghanistan which necessitates their long term presence to prevent Taliban gains, but conflicting historical experiences undermine their claim. The Afghan people suffer at the center of this competition of claims to superior knowledge, behooving the actors to reconcile.

Pakistan also figures prominently in the fight against terrorism in the same region. The Islamist political forces in Pakistan paint the U.S presence in Afghanistan as part of the problem rather than solution, an idea which sells amongst the populace and empowers the anti-U.S. political and militant forces in the society. The prolonged presence of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the drone campaign in Federally Administered Tribal Areas boosts anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan, despite the large U.S. humanitarian and developmental assistance. Although ambivalent in the past, recently the Government of Pakistan has displayed more grit in resisting the U.S. drone campaign.

The antagonized anti-U.S. campaigners in Pakistan make violation of human rights the cornerstone of their knowledge theme in demonizing the drone attacks, an approach popular among not only the local population but also the international community. Whereas the moderate Government resists the U.S. drone campaign on the basis of their imbibed knowledge gained through painful experience of the drones being counterproductive, it also claims to have a more holistic understanding of the overall situation, and on this basis favors cooperative engagement with the U.S. over confrontation. On the other hand the U.S. claims to have superior knowledge about the culpability of the drone targets and the ‘wider security good’ brought about by the ‘unblinking eye’ driving the ‘kill chain’. While the U.S. and Pakistan go about pushing their respective claims, the superior knowledge claim of the terrorists flourishes.

NATO and Russia

Next, let’s consider Europe. The eastward expansion of NATO is seen as provocative by a resurgent Russia due to their sensitivity about security and the support for ethnic Russian populations in some areas of eastern Europe. Putin’s Russia portrays the U.S as an arrogant, expansionist empire aiming to diminish Russia’s rightful place in the world by limiting its political and economic ambitions. NATO sees Putin as an irresponsible international player, flouting global norms in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine.

NATO’s claim to superior knowledge is based on its understanding of the manner in which Russia, apart from growing militarily, has resorted to ‘deregulating’ warfare using the ‘unfair’ ways and means displayed in Ukraine and retaining the possibility of their repetition in the Baltics. Based on this perception, NATO has adopted a military posture to deter the perceived threat through forward deployments in eastern Europe, improved readiness levels, enhanced partnership capacity and increased defense expenditure among its members. On the other hand, Russian claims to superior knowledge are based on history. Putin sees invaders coming from the west and east as the primary historical threat to his country, and this threat is newly realized in the case of NATO’s expansion. He invokes nationalism as superior knowledge to elicit an anti-NATO perception favorable to his Russian ends. This competition of superior knowledge claims distracts the entire western hemisphere from more important global challenges in security, environment and economics.

East Asia

Next, let’s turn our attention to East Asia. The U.S. military support to South Korea and Japan is seen by North Korea and China as encroachment by an external power into their regional domains. The U.S. views the support to treaty allies and defense partners as crucial to retaining the credibility and position of influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

China claims superior knowledge of the regional geopolitical dynamics by way of which the security and economic relationship with North Korea is perceived. China also perceives, on the basis of its knowledge, superior understanding of the U.S.-Japanese security relationship and its implications for China, which leads to a justified security build-up not requiring transparency. The U.S. claims superior knowledge of Chinese intentions as a rising power aimed at diminishing the U.S. as the existing power. This knowledge governs the U.S. perception of Chinese economic and military growth. At the same time a competing perspective in the U.S. views China as an inalienable economic partner with huge interdependence. An internal superior knowledge contest, if you will, would decide which perspective outlasts the other; silent strategic competitor or dependable economic partner. As this competition of superior knowledge pits two great powers against each other, one would desire rationality, prudence and cooperation in competing perceptions for the greater good of the world.

The Middle East

Finally, let’s take a brief look at the major competing knowledge paradigms in the Middle East. Iran’s support to Shiite populations in the Arab world is seen by Arabs as threatening their soft political underbelly, with Saudi Arabia depicting Iran as a clear and present danger. Conversely, the U.S. – Gulf Cooperation Council partnership is seen as an existential threat by the Iranian regime. U.S. support to Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar and Egypt is seen by opposing sociopolitical groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood as political encroachment upon those societies. But the U.S. perceives this support as vital to its interests in the Middle East.

Iran claims superior knowledge of U.S. intentions, based on a history of malevolence beginning in the CIA-led coup against Prime Minister Mossadeq in 1953, subsequent support to the Shah, the debilitating economic sanctions of the recent past and a desire to topple the Islamic regime. But the U.S. also has a legacy knowledge claim to Iranian malicious intent – the secret acquisition of nuclear weapons and missile technologies as well as Iranian abetment of violent Islamist groups of choice. Lately, competing projections of the Iranian nuclear deal, as seen by its proponents and opponents, pit opposing claims of old and new superior knowledge against each other. A measure of perception of that reality, based on the soundness of projected knowledge, will reflect the measure of success of the proponents. However, the sourness in the relationship is deeply embedded in historical acrimony which bold steps like the Iran nuclear deal can remove, but only slowly as trust in superiority of new knowledge takes time to build.


Actors in the global political arena constantly challenge each other’s understanding of the real problems at hand, claiming better knowledge of the situation than their competitors, a knowledge based upon their respective ideas of the past, present and future. These claims are then judged on the basis of the actors’ integrity, confidence, past performance, understanding of threat, planning ability, and the projected ability to learn and modify a course of action. In a dynamic process, the viability of this superiority claim will wax and wane in the people’s minds depending upon how they judge the basis of these knowledge claims. A wider favorable perception reflects the success of an actor’s claim to superior knowledge and the primacy of the contested idea. These contentious claims to superior knowledge reflect a balance of narrative power between the competing actors. In the examples discussed here, competing actors seem to be striving to dominate the minds of the audiences as a means to power by propagating the superiority of their ideas and knowledge. It seems clear that that in world politics today, social construction of ideas matter in defining power. At the heart of this notion resides a claim to superior knowledge.

Najeeb Ahmad is attending US Army War College at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, as an international fellow from Pakistan. He is also a PhD candidate at the National Defense University, Islamabad. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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