Power (International Relations)

Power (International Relations)

Power is one of the most important and most discussed concepts in the field of international relations, with some going as far as suggesting that international relations is dominated by ideas of power. While there are many definitions of political or political power, Payne defines power as “The ability to get others–individuals, groups, or nations–to behave in ways that they ordinarily would not” (25). Viotti & Kauppi (2013) define power as “the means by which a state or other actor wields or can assert actual or potential influence or coercion relative to other states and non state actors because of the political, geographic, economic and financial, technological, military, social, cultural, or other capabilities it possesses” (202). While we have definitions of power,

“Power is a complex and contested concept, in large part because there are important but distinctive ways to understand how social relations shape the fates and choices of actors. If international relations scholars have erred in their past attempts to understand power, it is trying to identify and rely on a single conception. But no single concept can capture the forms of power in international politics” (Barnett & Duvall, 2005: 66-67). Thus, some scholars, such as Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall (2005) cite a variety of types of pose in the international system. In fact, they set out a “taxonomy” of variations of power which include “compulsory power” (the “direct control over another” (49), “institutional power” (control over socially distant others) (51), “structural power” (“direct and mutual constitution of the capacities of actors” (52), and “productive power” (“production of subjects through diffuse social relations” (55), whereas others saw the development of different “faces” of power in international relations (Mattern, 2009) And in fact, some, such as Janice Bially Mattern (2009) have suggested that this “[c]ontestation over the concept of power, thus, has helped broaden the discipline” (691).

When thinking about a state’s ability to shape other states’ and non-states’ behavior, what we are really thinking about is what are the capabilities of a state that can give them the ability to change or alter others’ behaviors? Viotti & Kauppi (2013) define capabilities as “material and nonmaterial resources that can serve as the basis for power” (191).  Capabilities are important as they allow a state the ability to be influential in international relations with other state and non-state actors. In a similar fashion, non-state actors also have varied power capabilities. Regardless how much time leaders spend thinking about goals, strategies, or policy objectives, there must be a need for power in order to make these goals a reality (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013). As Viotti & Kauppi (2013) explain, “Power is essentially a means; even if its enhancement is pursued as an ed, the state does so instrumentally as a means to enable or facilitate its attainments of other ends” (202).

Power Capabilities

Thus, when discussing and trying to understand power, the question becomes: What capabilities translate to power? What makes states, as well as non-state actors powerful? One wonders what factors or capabilities go into our equation and understanding of power. As we shall see, there are many ways to measure power in the context of capabilities. Scholars argue that there are a number of key capabilities that are either directly or indirectly relates to a state’s level of power in the international system.

Military Capabilities

To many, when they think about power in international relations, what first comes to mind is often the thought of military power; the idea of weapons, tanks, airplanes, large standing armies, etc… have been the “face” of power in international relations for many centuries.  Democracies, monarchies, authoritarian regimes, theocracies, etc… alike have focused on military capabilities as one element of their overall power. In fact, countries spend billions of dollars year building up their military capabilities through the buying of weapons, as well as developing technology that can help continue to enhance their military capabilities.

Within the idea of military capabilities is also the power associated with a specific type of military power, namely, nuclear weapons. As it is explained, “The continued development of nuclear weapons since World War II added a new dimension to military capabilities, [even though]…conventional or nonnuclear military forces remain a vital part of the calculus of a state’s military capabilities” (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013: 209).

Economic Capabilities

Along with military capabilities, another often cited element of power with regards to international relations is a state’s or a non-state’s economic power. There are a number of ways that scholars and analysts measure economic capabilities. One way to understand a country’s economic power, for example, is to look at their gross national product (GNP). GNP “[m]easures the total market value of all goods and services produced by resources supplied by residents and businesses of a particular country, regardless of where the residents and businesses are located” (Payne, 2013, 26). Another measurement is gross domestic product, or GDP. GDP “[m]easures the total market value of all goods and services produced within a country” (Payne, 2013: 26). The stronger a country’s economy, and the more diversified its economy, the more it can produce and sell, domestic infrastructure the more technological developments arise, etc.., which can all be seen as related to power (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013).

States that do not have a strong or diversified economy may not have the ability to compete as well on the international markets, and in turn, may be more prone to being affected by any internal or external shocks to their economic system. As Viotti & Kauppi (2013) explain:

“…agrarian societies with less developed industrial economics like Ukraine are heavily dependent on agricultural production both for their own domestic consumption and in some cases for export. Because these countries rely more heavily on labor to sustain their economies, they are usually less efficient even in agricultural production than advanced industrial countries…Advanced industrial countries that are also endowed with good soil and a favorable climate have made very heavy capital investments in machinery used by the large agribusinesses and smaller, cooperative farm arrangements. Technology-intensive agriculture in the United States, for example, has made it the world’s largest exporter of foods” (208).

Thus, countries that only have one main product are effected by the world’s economy; if demand for their product declines, or if supply rises internationally, they are heavily effected by these new developments (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013).

Geographical Capabilities

Along with military and economic capabilities, geographical capabilities also play a role in power. Now, geography can be related to economic power, and often is. If a country has land resources, this in turn could help bolster a state’s economy. However, this is not the only effect of geography. Where a country is situated could be a source of power. For example, some have argued that the United States was able to stay relatively far from World War I and World War II because of the geographical distance from Europe; they were less involved in these conflicts, and much less impacted on its home soil. Furthermore, countries that have water around them may have to adjust by having a strong navy, and countries with mountainous regions may be protected from some sorts of military land invasions, but on the other hand, may have less control over the land when fighting with rebel groups who have used mountains to fight and find cover.

Political Capabilities

Along with a strong economy and military, there are also a number of factors that are considered when looking into a country’s or non-state’s overall power capabilities.  For example, it is difficult to understand political power without paying attention to a country’s political capabilities. Viotti & Kauppi (2013) cite four specific political capabilities, which are:

Human Resources

Viotti & Kauppi (2013) say about the importance of human resources that “Some states, due to  their larger populations size and higher education levels, have greater diplomatic and bureaucratic resources the contribute to their political capabilities.  Experienced diplomats and other representatives of the state, backed up by competent bureaucratic staffs at home and abroad, certainly enhance the capacity of decision makers to establish policies that exercise influence in international studies.” This is unfortunately not always the case. Thus, by having more people with high skill sets, this can in turn translate to additional political influence in the international system.

Communications Technology

There are obvious benefits to having strong communications within a country. States with communications infrastructure are in a better to rely information to other areas of the country, and in turn may be able to better handle any problems that arise. But this is not only domestically but can also help “coordinate and direct the efforts of diplomats and other representatives around the world” (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013: 203). One of the other ways that technology can be used in international relations as it relates to power is through intelligence. With increased technologies, governments can better receive information regarding potential threats to their security. Now, this is not without controversy, particularly with many reports about illegal wiretapping, spying in places of worship, etc… Thus, these, like many of the capabilities, could either positively or negatively affect power if citizens begin to protest the way these resources and communications are used.


While some debate the role of reputation, others argue that it indeed has a strong place within thinking about political capabilities. There are many ways that this reputation could translate into political power in international relations. As Viotti & Kauppi (2013) say, “If a state, for example, has a reputation of meeting its security commitments in terms of its allies, other states may hesitate to engage in any action that may be viewed as a threat to those allies. Similarly, a state’s reputation might convince another state to join with it in an alliance, knowing security guarantees made to it will be met…Conversely, a state with a reputation for failing to meet its commitments will find its promises and proposals viewed with skepticism” (204).

Many scholars refer to reputation, and other related capabilities as “soft power.” Soft power is defined as “non-material capabilities such as reputation, culture, and value appeal that can aid the attainment of a state’s objectives” (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013: 207). One of the most important books on Soft Power was written by Dr. Joseph Nye. The book is entitled Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. In the work, Nye sees soft power as “getting others to want the outcomes that you want” (5). He explains that this change is not about making them do so through military or economic strength, but instead, about “the ability to shape the preferences of others” (5). And, as he says, soft power is not only to influence, but rather, “the ability to attract, and attraction leads to acquiescence” (6).

Government Systems

The type of government within a country can also shape a state’s capabilities. For example, authoritarian regimes do not have to answer to citizens, and thus, this might affect decisions. Opposite this, a democratic leader may have to worry about public opinion, and thus, may feel constrained to act on an issue unless it receives significant domestic support. However, miscalculations of foreign policy might lead to an election loss for a democratic leader, and much worse for an authoritarian leader. One example to help understand the role of government systems in the context of power is when thinking about foreign policy in the context of an election year or season. Officials will be quite aware that their foreign policies can have a strong effect on how citizens view them with regards to their foreign policy decision-making. Thus, they may be careful to act, or carefully calculate the risks of a foreign policy decision near an election.

Along with whether a government is a democracy or an authoritarian regime, whether a state is unitary (“a system of government in which most powers are reserved for the national-level government” (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013: 204) or federal (“a system of government in which power is apportioned between a national-level government and states or regions”) (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013: 204) can affect leaders’ decision-making process and ability. Furthermore, any divisions of power within a government may limit the executive branch’s ability to act without as much domestic support, or, it might just take much longer than a government with far fewer power wielding members (Viotti & Kauppi, 2013).

Use of Power Capabilities

While there are many forms of capabilities that are related to power, as scholars have argued, often, that is not enough. They need to be able to use these capabilities to actually alter others’ behavior. For example, K.J. Holsi, in his 1964 article entitled “The Concept of Power in the Study of International Relations,” cites Robert Dahl (1961), who, when speaking about the individual, explains that regardless of how many of these capabilities one may have, “[w]hat is crucial in relating capabilities to influence, according to Dahl, is that the person mobilize these capabilities for his political purposes, and that he possess skill in mobilizing them” (185). Holsi argues that thesis no different for international relations, saying: states with more of these capabilities should be more influential than states with less of the capabilities. However, there are also “intangibles” that do have to factor into the equation, something not necessarily measures within these capabilities (185).

Related to this, it is not enough to have capabilities, but to fully understand power, we also have understand the motivations or the “credibility” of the actor who is making a threat or a play in the international system (Holsi, 1964: 187).

Distribution of Power

There are many different distributions of power relationships in the international system.

Hegemon: A hemonic system is one in which there is one dominant power in the international system. Many argue that we are currently in a hegemonic state with the United States being the sole military superpower. Others argue that the hegemonic system was more evident in the previous decades where the United States served as the sole military and economic superpower.

Bipolarity: Bipolarity is an international system in which there are two dominant or superpowers dominate the landscape. Many point to the period following the Second World War until the late 1980s as a period of bipolarity, with the United States and the Soviet Union as the two major superpowers.

Multipolarity: Multipolarity is an international system in which there are more than two dominant powers. Some argue that the conditions following the Peace of Westphalia/Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 were what we would consider multipolar. Others suggest that another example would be the various state powers in the early 1800s following the Napoleanic Wars, which led to the Council of Vienna.



Barnett, M. & Duvall, R. (2005). Power in International Politics. International Organization, Vol. 59, No. 1, pages 39-75.

Dahl, R. (1961). Who Governs? New Haven, Yale University Press.

Holsti, K. J. (1964). The Concept of Power in the study of International Relations. Background, Vol. 7, No. 4, pages 179-194.

Mattern, J. B. (2009). The Concept of Power and the (Un) Discipline of International Relations. Oxford Handbooks Online, pages 691-698.

Nye, J. S. (2005). Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. PublicAffairs. New ED Edition

Payne, R. (2013). Global Issues. New York, New York. Pearson.

Viotti, P. R. & Kauppi, M. V. (2013). International Relations and World Politics, Fifth Edition. New York, New York. Pearson.

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