Power (international Relations)
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Power International Relations

Power in international relations is defined in several different ways. Modern discourse generally speaks in terms of state power, indicating both economic and military power. Those states that have significant amounts of power within the international system are referred to as small powers, middle powers, regional powers, great powers, superpowers, or hegemons, although there is no commonly accepted standard for what defines a powerful state. NATO Quint, the G7, the BRICS nations and the G20 are seen by academics as forms of governments that exercise varying degrees of influence within the international system.

Entities other than states can also be relevant in power acquisition in international relations. Such entities can include multilateral international organizations, military alliance organizations like NATO, multinational corporations like Wal-Mart,[1] non-governmental organizations such as the Roman Catholic Church, or other institutions such as the Hanseatic League and technology companies like Facebook and Google.

Concepts of political power

Political scientists, historians, and practitioners of international relations (diplomats) have used the following concepts of political power:

  • Power as a goal of states or leaders;
  • Power as a measure of influence or control over outcomes, events, actors and issues;
  • Power as victory in conflict and the attainment of security;
  • Power as control over resources and capabilities;
  • Power as status, which some states or actors possess and others do not.

Power as a goal

Primary usage of "power" as a goal in international relations belongs to political theorists, such as Niccolò Machiavelli and Hans Morgenthau.[2] Especially among Classical Realist thinkers, power is an inherent goal of mankind and of states. Economic growth, military growth, cultural spread etc. can all be considered as working towards the ultimate goal of international power. The German military thinker Carl von Clausewitz[3] is considered to be the quintessential projection of European growth across the continent. In more modern times, Claus Moser has elucidated theories centre of distribution of power in Europe after the Holocaust, and the power of universal learning as its counterpoint.[4] Jean Monnet[5] was a French left-wing social theorist, stimulating expansive Eurocommunism, who followed on the creator of modern European community, the diplomat and statesman Robert Schuman.[6]

Power as influence

NATO accounts for over 70% of global military expenditure,[7] with the United States alone accounting for 43% of global military expenditure.[8]

Political scientists principally use "power" in terms of an actor's ability to exercise influence over other actors within the international system. This influence can be coercive, attractive, cooperative, or competitive. Mechanisms of influence can include the threat or use of force, economic interaction or pressure, diplomacy, and cultural exchange.

Under certain circumstances, states can organize a sphere of influence or a bloc within which they exercise predominant influence. Historical examples include the spheres of influence recognized under the Concert of Europe, or the recognition of spheres during the Cold War following the Yalta Conference. The Eastern Bloc, the Western Bloc, and the Non-Aligned Movement were the blocs that arose out of the Cold War contest. Military alliances like NATO and the Warsaw Pact are another forum through which influence is exercised. However, "realist" theory attempted to maintain the balance of power from the development of meaningful diplomatic relations that can create a hegemony within the region. British foreign policy, for example, dominated Europe through the Congress of Vienna after the defeat of France. They continued the balancing act with the Congress of Berlin in 1878, to appease Russia and Germany from attacking Turkey. Britain has sided against the aggressors on the European continent--i.e. the German Empire, Nazi Germany, Napoleonic France or the Austrian Empire, known during the Great War as the Central Powers and, in World War II as the Axis Powers.[9][10]

Power as security

Power is also used when describing states or actors that have achieved military victories or security for their state in the international system. This general usage is most commonly found among the writings of historians or popular writers.

Power as capability

American author Charles W. Freeman, Jr. described power as the following:

Power is the capacity to direct the decisions and actions of others. Power derives from strength and will. Strength comes from the transformation of resources into capabilities. Will infuses objectives with resolve. Strategy marshals capabilities and brings them to bear with precision. Statecraft seeks through strategy to magnify the mass, relevance, impact, and irresistibility of power. It guides the ways the state deploys and applies its power abroad. These ways embrace the arts of war, espionage, and diplomacy. The practitioners of these three arts are the paladins of statecraft.[11]

Power is also used to describe the resources and capabilities of a state. This definition is quantitative and is most often[dubious ] used by geopoliticians and the military. Capabilities are thought of in tangible terms--they are measurable, weighable, quantifiable assets. A good example for this kind of measurement is the Composite Indicator on Aggregate Power, which involves 54 indicators and covers the capabilities of 44 states in Asia-Pacific from 1992 to 2012.[12] Hard power can be treated as a potential and is not often enforced on the international stage.

Chinese strategists have such a concept of national power that can be measured quantitatively using an index known as comprehensive national power.

Power as status


Much effort in academic and popular writing is devoted to deciding which countries have the status of "power", and how this can be measured. If a country has "power" (as influence) in military, diplomatic, cultural, and economic spheres, it might be called a "power" (as status). There are several categories of power, and inclusion of a state in one category or another is fraught with difficulty and controversy. In his famous 1987 work, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, British-American historian Paul Kennedy charts the relative status of the various powers from AD 1500 to 2000. He does not begin the book with a theoretical definition of "great power"; however he lists them, separately, for many different eras. Moreover, he uses different working definitions of great power for different eras. For example;

"France was not strong enough to oppose Germany in a one-to-one struggle... If the mark of a Great Power is country which is willing to take on any other, then France (like Austria-Hungary) had slipped to a lower position. But that definition seemed too abstract in 1914 to a nation geared up for war, militarily stronger than ever, wealthy, and, above all,. endowed with powerful allies."[13]

Categories of power

In the modern geopolitical landscape, a number of terms are used to describe various types of powers, which include the following:

  • Superpower: In 1944, William T. R. Fox defined superpower as "great power plus great mobility of power" and identified three states, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and the United States.[14] With the decolonisation of the British Empire following World War II, and then the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States has remained to be the sole superpower.[15] China is now considered an emerging global superpower by many scholars.[16][17][18][19][20][21]
  • Great power: In historical mentions, the term great power refers to the states that have strong political, cultural and economical influence over nations around them and across the world.[22][23][24]
  • Middle power: A subjective description of influential second-tier states that could not quite be described as great or small powers. A middle power has sufficient strength and authority to stand on its own without the need of help from others (particularly in the realm of security) and takes diplomatic leads in regional and global affairs.[25] Clearly not all middle powers are of equal status; some are members of forums such as the G20 and play important roles in the United Nations and other international organisations such as the WTO.[26]
  • Small power: The International System is for the most part made up by small powers. They are instruments of the other powers and may at times be dominated; but they cannot be ignored.[27]

Other categories

  • Regional power: This term is used to describe a nation that exercises influence and power within a region. Being a regional power is not mutually exclusive with any of the other categories of power. The majority of them exert a strategic degree of influence as minor or secondary regional powers. A primary regional power (like Australia) has often an important role in international affairs outside of its region too.[28]
  • Cultural superpower: Refers to a country whose culture, arts or entertainment have worldwide appeal, significant international popularity or large influence on much of the world. Countries such as China,[29][30][31][32] India,[33] Italy,[34] Japan,[35][36] Spain,[37][38][39] France,[40][41] the United Kingdom,[42][43] and the United States[44] have often been described as cultural superpowers, although it is sometimes debated on which one meets such criteria. Unlike traditional forms of national power, the term cultural superpower is in reference to a nation's soft power capabilities.
  • Energy superpower: Describes a country that supplies large amounts of energy resources (crude oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, etc.) to a significant number of other states, and therefore has the potential to influence world markets to gain a political or economic advantage. Saudi Arabia and Russia, are generally acknowledged as the world's current energy superpowers, given their abilities to globally influence or even directly control prices to certain countries. Australia and Canada are potential energy superpowers due to their large natural resources.[45][46]

Hard, soft and smart power

Some political scientists distinguish between two types of power: Hard and Soft. The former is coercive (example: military invasion) while the latter is attractive (example: broadcast media or cultural invasion).

Hard power refers to coercive tactics: the threat or use of armed forces, economic pressure or sanctions, assassination and subterfuge, or other forms of intimidation. Hard power is generally associated to the stronger of nations, as the ability to change the domestic affairs of other nations through military threats. Realists and neorealists, such as John Mearsheimer, are advocates of the use of such power for the balancing of the international system.

Joseph Nye is the leading proponent and theorist of soft power. Instruments of soft power include debates on cultural values, dialogues on ideology, the attempt to influence through good example, and the appeal to commonly accepted human values. Means of exercising soft power include diplomacy, dissemination of information, analysis, propaganda, and cultural programming to achieve political ends.

Others have synthesized soft and hard power, including through the field of smart power. This is often a call to use a holistic spectrum of statecraft tools, ranging from soft to hard.

See also


  1. ^ Useem, Jerry (2003-03-03). "One Nation Under Wal-Mart: How Retailing's Superpower--and our Biggest, Most Admired Company--Is Changing the Rules for Corporate America". CNN. Retrieved .
  3. ^ Bauer, Richard H. "Hans Delbrück (1848-1929)." Bernadotte E. Schmitt. Some Historians of Modern Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942.
  4. ^ ANGELA LAMBERT (27 July 1992). "INTERVIEW / Sir Claus Moser: 73.5 per cent English: 'What is dangerous". The Independent.
  5. ^ Anonymous (16 June 2016). "About the EU - European Union website, the official EU website - European Commission" (PDF). Retrieved 2016.
  6. ^ Anonymous (16 June 2016). "About the EU - European Union website, the official EU website - European Commission" (PDF). Retrieved 2016.
  7. ^ "The SIPRI Military Expenditure Database". Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Archived from the original on March 28, 2010. Retrieved .
  8. ^ "The 15 countries with the highest military expenditure in 2009". Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Retrieved .
  9. ^ A.J.P.Taylor, "Origins of the First World War"
  10. ^ Ensor, Sir Robert (1962) 2nd ed. "Britain 1870-1914" The Oxford History of England.
  11. ^ Marcella, Gabriel (July 2004). "Chapter 17: National Security and the Interagency Process" (PDF). In Bartholomees, Jr., J. Boone (ed.). U.S. Army War College Guide to National Security Policy and Strategy. United States Army War College. pp. 239-260.
  12. ^ Fels, Enrico (2017). Shifting Power in Asia-Pacific? The Rise of China, Sino-US Competition and Regional Middle Power Allegiance. Springer. pp. 225-340. ISBN 978-3-319-45689-8. Retrieved .
  13. ^ Kennedy, Paul (1989) [1987]. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. London: Fontana. p. 290. ISBN 0006860524.
  14. ^ Evans, G.; Newnham, J. (1998). Dictionary of International Relations. London: Penguin Books. p. 522.
  15. ^ Kim Richard Nossal. Lonely Superpower or Unapologetic Hyperpower? Analyzing American Power in the post-Cold War Era. Biennial meeting, South African Political Studies Association, 29 June-2 July 1999. Archived from the original on 2019-05-26. Retrieved .
  16. ^ "Should We Compete With China? Can We?". The Unz Review. Retrieved .
  17. ^ Asia, Current Affairs Correspondent East (2019-08-04). "Is China a Superpower Now? - Belt & Road News". Retrieved .
  18. ^ "Does China Outspend US on Defense?". The Unz Review. Retrieved .
  19. ^ "CHINA". Lowy Institute Asia Power Index. Retrieved 2020.
  20. ^ "Five big takeaways from the 2019 Asia Power Index". www.lowyinstitute.org. Retrieved .
  21. ^ Welle (www.dw.com), Deutsche. "Many Germans believe China will replace US as superpower: survey | DW | 14.07.2020". DW.COM. Retrieved .
  22. ^ Ovendale, Ritchie (January 1988). "Reviews of Books: Power in Europe? Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany in a Postwar World, 1945-1950". The English Historical Review. Oxford University Press. 103 (406): 154. doi:10.1093/ehr/CIII.CCCCVI.154. ISSN 0013-8266. JSTOR 571588.
  23. ^ Heineman, Jr., Ben W.; Heimann, Fritz (May-June 2006). "The Long War Against Corruption". Foreign Affairs. Council on Foreign Relations. Ben W. Heineman, Jr., and Fritz Heimann speak of Italy as a major country or 'player' along with Germany, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
  24. ^ Roberson, B. A. (1998). Middle East and Europe: The Power Deficit. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9780415140447. Retrieved .
  25. ^ Fels, Enrico (2017). Shifting Power in Asia-Pacific? The Rise of China, Sino-US Competition and Regional Middle Power Allegiance. Springer. p. 213. ISBN 978-3-319-45689-8. Retrieved .
  26. ^ Rudd K (2006) Making Australia a force for good, Labor eHerald Archived June 27, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  27. ^ Vital, D. (1967) The Inequality of States: A Study of Small Power in International Relations
  28. ^ Schenoni, Luis (2017) "Subsystemic Unipolarities?" in Strategic Analysis, 41(1): 74-86 [1]
  29. ^ "China: The Cultural Superpower". www.chinafrica.cn. Retrieved .
  30. ^ "Scholars and Media on China's Cultural Soft Power | Wilson Center". www.wilsoncenter.org. Retrieved .
  31. ^ "Asia Power Index 2019: China Cultural Influence". power.lowyinstitute.org. Retrieved .
  32. ^ "Elcano Global Presence Index: China". explora.globalpresence.realinstitutoelcano.org. Retrieved .
  33. ^ https://www.sundayguardianlive.com/culture/diaf-projected-india-cultural-superpower
  34. ^ Italy has been described as a cultural superpower by Arab news, by the Washington Post, by The Australian. Italy has been described as a cultural superpower by the Italian consul general in San Francisco, by former minister giulio terzi and by US President Barack Obama. Archived December 26, 2014, at the Wayback Machine
  35. ^ "The other superpower". The Guardian. London. 2002-06-01. Retrieved .
  36. ^ "How Japan became a pop culture superpower". The Spectator. 31 January 2015. Retrieved 2016.
  37. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-11-25. Retrieved .CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  38. ^ "Spain, main reference for world's Hispanic heritage". ABC.es. Madrid. 2014-07-03. Retrieved .
  39. ^ "From Seville to Brussels: The Architecture of Global Presence". International Relations and Security Network. October 28, 2015. Retrieved 2015. Our partners at the Elcano Royal Institute have released their latest edition of the Global Presence Index. It confirms that the EU - if perceived as a single global actor - has the greatest degree of 'presence' in the world, largely because of the contributions of the UK, Germany and France.
  40. ^ Shawcross, Edward (2018). France, Mexico and Informal Empire in Latin America, 1820-1867: Equilibrium in the New World. Springer. p. 13. ISBN 9783319704647. France remained a "military, economic, scientific, and cultural superpower"
  41. ^ "Why France and Italy can't help clashing". The Economist. 2017-08-10. Retrieved . France and Italy both consider themselves the cultural superpower of Europe
  42. ^ Dugan, Emily (18 November 2012). "Britain is now most powerful nation on earth". The Independent. London. Retrieved 2012.
  43. ^ "The cultural superpower: British cultural projection abroad" (PDF). Journal of the British Politics Society, Norway. 6 (1). Winter 2011. Archived from the original (PDF) on 16 September 2018. Retrieved 2014.
  44. ^ Entertainment Superpower: the economic dominance of American media and entertainment, Alexa O'Brien, 17 February 2005
  45. ^ "Report: Canada can be energy superpower". UPI.com. 2012-07-20. Retrieved .
  46. ^ "Australia to become energy superpower?". UPI.com. 2012-05-14. Retrieved .

Further reading

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