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; and,

  • Power as control over resources and capabilities.


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 hyperpowers, although there is no commonly accepted standard for what defines a powerful state.


Entities other than states can also acquire and wield power in international relations. Such entities can include multilateral international organizations, military alliance organizations (e.g. NATO), multinational corporations, non-governmental organizations, or other institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church or the Hanseatic League.


Primary usage of "power" as a goal in international relations belongs to political theorists, such as Niccolò Machiavelliand Hans Morgenthau. 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.


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 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 often attempts to stay away from the creation of powerful blocs/spheres that can create a hegemon within the region. British foreign policy, for example, has always sided against the hegemonic forces on the continent, i.e. Nazi Germany.


"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.


"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." 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.


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


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.


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


  • Hyperpower - coined to describe the post-Cold War United States.

  • Superpower - has been used to describe the United States and the Soviet Union.

  • Great power - in historical mentions, the term Great power refers to any nations that have strong political, cultural and economic influence over nations around it and across the world.

  • Middle power - a subjective description of second-tier influential states that could not be described as Great Powers.


The term Regional power is also 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 above categories.


The term Energy superpower describes a country that has immense influence or even direct control over much of the world's energy supplies. Russia and Saudi Arabia are generally acknowledged as the world's two current energy superpowers, given their abilities to globally influence or even directly control prices to certain countries.


This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Power in international relations".




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