Power (international relations)

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For other types of power, see Power.

Power in international relations is defined in several different ways. 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 reflecting 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.

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 middle powers, regional powers, great powers, superpowers, or hegemons, although there is no commonly accepted standard for what defines a powerful state. The G7, the BRIC and the G20 are seen as forum 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 Al-Qaeda, or other institutions such as the Hanseatic League.

Power as a goal[edit]

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[edit]

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.

Spheres, blocs, and alliances[edit]

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 Warsaw Pact, the "Free World", 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 Habsburg Austria, known during the Great War as the Central Powers and, in the World War Two were called the Axis Powers.[9][10]

Power as security[edit]

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. For instance, a state that has achieved a string of combat victories in a military campaign against other states can be described as powerful. An actor that has succeeded in protecting its security, sovereignty, or strategic interests from repeated or significant challenge can also be described as powerful.[citation needed]

Power as capability[edit]

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 used by geopoliticians and the military. Capabilities are thought of in tangible terms—they are measurable, weighable, quantifiable assets. Thomas Hobbes spoke of power as "present means to obtain some future apparent good."[citation needed] 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.

Hard, soft, and smart power[edit]

Main articles: Hard power, Soft power and Smart power

Some political scientists distinguish between two types of power: Hard and Soft. The former is coercive while the latter is attractive.

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. ...

Power as status[edit]


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 a "great power", however he does list them, separately, for many different eras. As well, he uses different working definitions of a great power for different era. 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."[12]

Categories of power[edit]

Power as Status

 United States

 United Kingdom


List of middle powers

List of small powers

  • Great power groupings

UNSC P5 (China, France, Russia, the UK and the US)
G7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US)[note 1]
BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China)[note 2]

  • Middle power groupings

G20 (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the UK, the US and the European Union)
MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia)
D-8 (Bangladesh, Indonesia, Egypt, Iran, Malasya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey)

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

  • 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.[21][22][23] Currently the great powers are considered to be China, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
    • 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.[24] With the decolonisation of the British Empire following World War II, and then the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States is currently the only country considered to be a superpower.[25]
  • 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. Clearly not all middle powers are of equal status; some are members of forums such as the G20, MIKTA and play important roles in the United Nations and other international organisations such as the WTO.[26]
    • The overlaps between the lists of middle powers and great powers show that there is no unanimous agreement among authorities.[27] Some academics believe that G7 nations such as Canada and (especially) Italy or BRIC states such as Brazil and (especially) India are Great Powers.[20][28][29][30][31]
  • 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.[32]

Regional power[edit]

The term Regional power 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.

Other categories of power[edit]

The term 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.[33] Although this is debated on who meets such criteria, Italy,[34] Japan,[35] the United Kingdom,[36][37] and the United States[38] have often been described as cultural superpowers. Sometimes the term entertainment superpower is used instead of cultural superpower and particularly with regard to the US, because general entertainment is probably the main reason for the distribution of American culture worldwide.

The term 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.[39][40]

European powers of the modern age[edit]

During the time of the Renaissance, powers in Europe included Spain, England, France, the Habsburg Empire, Poland-Lithuania and the Ottoman Empire. Bolstered by shipments of gold and silver from the Americas, the Spanish Habsburg dynasty emerged as a dominant force and regularly launched military interventions to project its power and defend Catholicism, while its rival, France, was torn apart by religious civil war. Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, the Ottoman Empire reached its zenith and completed its conquest of the Balkan region.

During the 17th century the Netherlands and Sweden were added to the group, whilst the Ottomans, Poland and Spain gradually declined in power and influence. France progressively grew stronger and by the latter part of the century found itself repeatedly facing alliances designed to hold its military power in check.

In the 18th century, Great Britain (formed from a union of England and Scotland) progressively gained strength and Russia and Prussia also saw their importance increase, while Sweden and the Dutch Republic declined. Great Britain and France increasingly struggled for dominance both on the continent and abroad (notably in North America, the Caribbean and India). By the century's end, the British had established themselves as the foremost naval power while the French were dominant on land, conquering many of their neighbors during the French Revolutionary Wars and establishing client republics. The struggle between the two nations ended only in 1815 with the final defeat of the French under Napoleon.

During the 19th century, there was an informal convention recognising five Great Powers in Europe: the French Empire, the British Empire, the Russian Empire, the Austrian Empire (later Austria-Hungary) and the Kingdom of Prussia (later the German Empire). In the late 19th century the newly united Italy was added to this group.

By the early 20th century, two non-European states, Japan and the United States of America, would come to be respected as fellow Great Powers. By World War II China would be recognized as a great power.

See also[edit]


  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 2010-05-22. 
  2. ^ https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/morg6.htm
  3. ^ Bauer, Richard H. "Hans Delbrück (1848-1929)." Bernadotte E. Schmitt. Some Historians of Modern Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942.
  4. ^ http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/interview--sir-claus-moser-735-per-cent-english-what-is-dangerous-in-the-sort-of-life-ive-had-is-that-there-are-moments-when-one-might-think-one-is-indispensable-1536025.html#
  5. ^ http://europa.eu/about-eu/eu-history/founding-fathers/pdf/jean_monnet_en.pdf
  6. ^ http://europa.eu/about-eu/eu-history/founding-fathers/pdf/robert_schuman_en.pdf
  7. ^ "The SIPRI Military Expenditure Database". Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Retrieved 2010-08-22. 
  8. ^ "The 15 countries with the highest military expenditure in 2009". Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Retrieved 2010-08-22. 
  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. U.S. Army War College Guide to National Security Policy and Strategy. United States Army War College. pp. 239–260. 
  12. ^ 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. 
  13. ^ "Encarta - The Great Powers". Archived from the original on 2009-11-01. 
  14. ^ Baron, Joshua (22 January 2014). Great Power Peace and American Primacy: The Origins and Future of a New International Order. United States: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 1137299487. 
  15. ^ Russia and the Great Powers
  16. ^ "UTLink. Contemporary Concert Diplomacy:...Prof. John Kirton". utoronto.ca. 
  17. ^ Petar Kurecic. "The Contemporary Role and Perspectives of the BRIC States in the World-Order". academia.edu. 
  18. ^ "Why are Pivot States so Pivotal? The Role of Pivot States in Regional and Global Security - Reports - HCSS Centre for Strategic Studies". HCSS Centre for Strategic Studies. 
  19. ^ Strategic Vision: America & the Crisis of Global Power by Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, pp 43–45. Published 2012.
  20. ^ a b Malik, Mohan (2011). China and India: Great Power Rivals. United States: FirstForumPress. ISBN 1935049410. 
  21. ^ 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, number 406 (406): 154. doi:10.1093/ehr/CIII.CCCCVI.154. ISSN 0013-8266. 
  22. ^ 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, India, Japan, and the United Kingdom. 
  23. ^ Roberson, B. A. (1998). Middle East and Europe: The Power Deficit. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9780415140447. Retrieved 2013-08-11. 
  24. ^ Evans, G.; Newnham, J. (1998). Dictionary of International Relations. London: Penguin Books. p. 522. 
  25. ^ 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. Retrieved 2007-02-28. 
  26. ^ Rudd K (2006) Making Australia a force for good, Labor eHerald
  27. ^ Mehmet Ozkan. "A NEW APPROACH TO GLOBAL SECURITY: PIVOTAL MIDDLE POWERS AND GLOBAL POLITICS" Perceptions: Journal of International Affairs XI.1 (2006): 77-95
  28. ^ The Contemporary role and perspectives of the Bric states
  29. ^ Russia and the Great Powers
  30. ^ The Seven-Power Summit as an International Concert
  31. ^ Why are Pivot states so Pivotal?
  32. ^ Vital, D. (1967) The Inequality of States: A Study of Small Power in International Relations
  33. ^ Could Israel become a cultural superpower?
  34. ^ Italy has been described as a cultural superpower by Arab news, by Global Times, 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.
  35. ^ "The other superpower". The Guardian (London). 2002-06-01. Retrieved 2009-07-17. 
  36. ^ Dugan, Emily (18 November 2012). "Britain is now most powerful nation on earth". The Independent (London). Retrieved 18 November 2012. 
  37. ^ "The cultural superpower: British cultural projection abroad" (PDF). Journal of the British Politics Society, Norway 6 (1). Winter 2011. Retrieved 24 October 2014. 
  38. ^ Entertainment Superpower: the economic dominance of American media and entertainment, Alexa O'Brien, 17 February 2005
  39. ^ "Report: Canada can be energy superpower". UPI.com. 2012-07-20. Retrieved 2013-04-30. 
  40. ^ "Australia to become energy superpower?". UPI.com. 2012-05-14. Retrieved 2013-04-30. 
  1. ^ The group has been described as a Great power forum by various sources. A related term is G8, which includes Russia.
  2. ^ The acronym was coined in 2001 by Jim O'Neill from investment bank Goldman Sachs in a paper entitled "Building Better Global Economic BRICs The acronym has come into widespread use as a symbol of the apparent shift in global economic power away from the developed G7 economies towards the developing world. The electronic journal "puts the BRIC states in the rank of great powers". A related acronym, BRICS, includes South Africa.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]