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'National power' redirects here. For the former energy company, see: National 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; 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, Wal-Mart[1], or the Hanseatic League.


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. 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.

Power as influence

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

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, Napoleonic France or Habsburg Austria.

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. 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 as capability

"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." [1] Charles W. Freeman, Jr.

"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.

Soft versus hard 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.

Categories of power

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

Darkest blue countries most often considered to be superpowers, dark blue countries most often considered to be great powers, pale blue countries most often considered to be middle powers, and palest blue countries also sometimes considered to be middle powers.[2]
  • Hyperpower - coined in the 1990s to describe the post-Cold War unrivaled global power of the United States as the sole remaining superpower. If such a state is the preponderant power in the international system, it is described as a hegemon.
  • Superpower - Fox (1944) defined superpower as 'great power plus great mobility of power' and identified 3 states, the United States, the Soviet Union and the British Empire[3]. China and the European Union are often considered potential superpowers.
  • 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. China, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States are often considered to be great powers.
  • 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 other categories of power. Many countries are often described as regional powers, among those are South Africa, Israel, Italy, Turkey, and Indonesia.
  • Middle power - a subjective description of second-tier influential states that could not be described as great powers. Australia, Canada, Spain, Poland, Brazil, India, Mexico, and South Korea are commonly considered to be major middle powers alongside other middle powers. India and Brazil are also sometimes considered to be potential future great powers.

Other types of power

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

The term cultural/entertainment superpower describes a country in which has immense influence or even direct control over much of the world's entertainment or has an immense large cultural influence on much of the world. Although this is debated on who meets such criteria, many agree that the United States, United Kingdom[4] and Japan[5] [6] are generally acknowledged as the entertainment and cultural superpowers, given their abilities to distribute their entertainment and cultural innovations worldwide.

Modern Age European powers

From 16th century to the early 18th century the three major powers in Europe were France, Spain and the Ottoman Empire. During the 17th and 18th century United Kingdom and the Holy Roman Empire (under the Habsburg house) were added to the group, but Spain and Ottomans progressively lost their status. In the second half of the same century Russia and the Kingdom of Prussia gained the major status.

During Early Modern European Age a group of states including Sweden, the Netherlands, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Portugal, Papacy, Denmark–Norway, Poland, Kingdom of Bavaria were recognised as having important impact on the European balance of power.

From the late 18th century and during all the 19th century, there was an informal convention recognising Five Great Powers in Europe: France, Great Britain, Russia, Austria (later Austro-Hungary) and the Kingdom of Prussia (later the German Empire). From the late 19th century Italy was added to this group. Also two extra-European powers, the United States and Japan, were able to gain the same status from the start of 20th century.

See also



  • ”International Organisation as Coordination in N-person Games”, in Political Studies (Lane & Maeland), Vol(54)(1).
  • What is power? By Niall Ferguson.
  • Weak States in the International System. By Michael I. Handel.

See also


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