We welcome Konstantin Khomko to The Central Blue with a thoughtful exploration of how we think about national power. He suggests that contemporary circumstances require a more expansive and flexible approach to understand and apply national power more effectively.

Sun Tzu wrote that ‘if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not to fear the result of a hundred battles.’ Taken in a contemporary context, it means a nation-state must understand its power, as well as the power of other actors. This knowledge allows the nation to maximise its resources and achieve specific goals efficiently.

However, as it stands, our current method for describing national power is too limited. Known by its acronym ‘DIME’, this way of describing national power excludes some important levers available to the nation. We need more than just a DIME to explain how Australia will go forward in today’s world.

To understand national power, it is important to understand its origins. In 1939 Edward Carr divided international political power into three categories:  military power, economic power, and the power over opinion. During the Cold War, the United States and its armed forces expanded those categories and developed a four-element schema known as DIME.[1] DIME helps explain national power by arranging national activity and outputs into diplomatic, information, military and economic elements.[2]

DIME elements are derived from a nation’s resources. Resources can be considered as natural (i.e. resources and population) or social (i.e. culture, industry, politics, military).[3] In short, a nation’s resources are inputs to national power elements, while national power elements are combined in a variety of proportions to form and articulate national power.

DIME addresses core elements of national power, but this schema does not encompass all of the contemporary assets of a modern nation. Alternative schemas and tools can be applied to gain an understanding of strengths and opportunities for any given nation. The primary alternatives to DIME appear to be MIDLIFE and PESTEL.

Around the turn of the century, the concept of MIDLIFE was offered to replace DIME by Craig Mastapeter, a Homeland Security practitioner.[4] He included intelligence, financial, legal and law enforcement, and developmental elements in his schema. The expanded concept of MIDLIFE reminds the audience that certain contemporary issues are vital considerations. With that said, MIDLIFE only brings one genuinely unique element to the equation – legal and law enforcement – as the intelligence and financial elements are present as sub-categories of DIME.

The second alternative, PESTEL, is a tool that enables the separation political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal domains.[5] PESTEL as a useful alternative schema for representing elements of national power, and therefore providing categories to be used as a means to achieving national power, is plausible. PESTEL brings two unique categories; science and technological, and environment. Science and technology play a pivotal role in the transformation of the economy into a knowledge economy. The Environment is prominent in world affairs and has an immediate impact on nation states. Political and social domains are already present within DIME.

A combination of the three schemas (DIME, MIDLIFE and PESTEL) would offer the most balanced approach to articulating national power elements in ways that address contemporary issues. A combination of the three would produce DIME SEL, and would have the following elements:

  • Diplomatic
  • Information
  • Military
  • Economic
  • Scientific and Technological
  • Environmental
  • Legal and Law Enforcement

The benefit of using DIME SEL is its ability to maintain core national power categories while incorporating the elements that provide an advantage in the modern world. It is important to note that some elements are direct governmental outputs (diplomatic, information, legal and law enforcement, and military) while other elements are shaped by government legislation and policy (i.e. economic, scientific and technological, and environmental). That means we are talking about a nation’s power, not just that of the government. It also means a nation’s government has influence over all DIME SEL elements and can shape them for use—or not—if they consider the possibilities beforehand.

Of course, you could dismiss DIME SEL as old wine in new bottles. Alternatively, you could rightly ask about where it might end: how many additional elements should we add? Further, the importance of coalitions is unquestionable in today’s conflict environment, so does national power really matter? These questions can be answered directly: No; As many as needed; and Yes.

National power, and how you describe it, still matters because governments and their agencies must understand the variety of resources available to them. They must understand how to apply assets asymmetrically (i.e. by using a financial asset to solve a military problem). They must continually think about resources and how to combine them to create new assets and elements. Moreover, they must ensure that when the strategy is developed, all those with the potential to help are around the table – whether they are inside or outside the national security community; and inside or outside government. National power – and so DIME SEL – will help those learning the trade to understand what might be available to a government when challenges arise.

Regardless of the schema selected to assess national power, all possible instruments need to be efficient and effective in order to give government options to meet challenges. Carr’s original concept forms the core of all national power elements; however, contemporary society requires greater attention on areas that are not explicitly addressed by Carr. The modified schema, DIME SEL, has Carr’s categories at its core while adding contemporary assets. This schema enhances DIME for today’s world and provides a superior way to describe the nation’s power to those learning that the government can call upon more assets than just the agency they work for.

Pilot Officer Konstantin Khomko is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force with over 14 years of military service. He is attached to the Joint Doctrine Directorate of the Australian Defence Force Headquarters while completing tertiary studies in electrical engineering at the University of New South Wales. His professional interests include renewable energy and cyber security. The views expressed are his alone and do not reflect the opinion of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.

[1] D.R. Worley, Orchestrating the Instruments of Power: A Critical Examination of the U.S. National Security System (Potomac Books, 2015)

[2] R.M. John, ‘All Elements of National Power’: Re-Organizing the Interagency Structure and Process for Victory in the Long War,’ Strategic Insights, 5:6 (2006).

[3] D. Jablonsky, ‘National Power’ in J.Boone Bartholomees, Jr. (ed.), U.S. Army War College Guide to National

Security Policy and Strategy (Carlisle, PA: US Army War College, 2004).

[4] C.W. Mastapeter, ‘The instruments of national power: achieving the strategic advantage in a changing world’ (MA Thesis, US Naval Postgraduate School, 2008).

[5] UNICEF, ‘SWOT and PESTEL,’ 14 Sep 2015.