HomeTheoryPower in International Relations

Power in International Relations

Definition of Power

There is no universal definition and typology of “power” in International Relations (IR). As a result, it has often rendered “power” as a complex and controversial topic in International Relations (IR). Ironically, the complexity and confusion regarding the concept of power is still increasing by the day. There is a huge definitional conundrum within IR scholars because they have brought so many ideas and assumptions about “Power” for the better understanding of “power” but there is no universal definition of power. The lack of or absence of of a universal definition of power, for understanding what is power and how it works and what are the main features of power, is still alluring researchers and scholars of IR alike.[1] A prominent scholar of IR, Robert Gilpin considers power as “one of the most troublesome in the field of international relations”[2]  Another great scholar Hans J. Morgenthau famously quote “the concept of political power poses one of the most difficult and controversial problems of political science.”[3]

Discussing power within a particular framework is not a new phenomenon. It has existed since the dawn of human civilization and will continue to exist the more advanced we become. Though the practice and the exercise of power started before the emerging of the state within the tribal community. Aristotle, Plato, Sun Tzu, Kautilya and Machiavelli etc. are few of the political thinkers and strategists who attempted to define power by the circumstances of the age when they lived. German sociologist of the nineteenth century, Max Weber defined power as a “zero-sum game”[4]. He looks to “Power as “a conflictual element by which any actor/person establishes hegemony among others”. In contrast, another prominent philosopher Talcott Parsons (1967) argued, “though power is conflictual it helps to secure unity within a particular unit or territory”.[5]   

After establishing IR as a separate academic discipline in 1920, the scholars of IR had been trying to define and conceptualize the nature and the characteristics of power along with its wide range of components from domestic level to international level, military strength (hard power) to economic strength and natural resources (soft power) as well as providing ideas, assumptions, hypothesizes about power.[6] 

According to Hans J. Morgenthau, the Father of Classical Realism, defined “power” as a struggle for politics ‘whatever the ultimate aims of international politics and power are always the immediate aim’. Morgenthau identified power as the main tool in “power politics” for the survival of any state because the international arena is anarchic without gathering coercive power a state can not be secure and survive.

In contrast, prominent neo-realist scholar John Mearsheimer, the Father of Offensive Realism, views power in a different light. From his observations, it is the system and structure of international relations that inspires or forces states to capture or muster more power for competing with others. In his renowned work  “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics”, he discussed various forms of power projection like land power, military power as well geopolitics. [7]

In 1980 great influential academic Joseph Nye gave another definition of power. According to him, soft power is the “ability to attract others because of the legitimacy of the state’s values or its policies”[8] So far we saw that there is no absolute meaning of power in IR although we have tried to look at various aspects of power by bringing scholarly arguments.

Classifications of Power

For a better understanding of power within a state-centric framework and the difficulties that comes with it, it is essential that we classify power. Classifying power is definitely a tough ask due to varieties of components that are inter-twined with it. Over the years, scholars of IR has classified power in various categories like hard power, soft power, smart power, tangible and intangible power, coercive, bargaining, concerned, and institutional power.

To perceive the types of power, we will apply two approaches for assuming the comprehensive and holistic view of power. These approaches are; the national power approach and the relational power approach[9] The advocates of the national power approach emphasize the natural and tangible sources of power like location, size, military capability, population, GDP, GNP, industrial structure, infrastructure, military expenditure etc. On the other hand, the relational power approach emphasizes the intangible sources of power like leadership, public support, national image etc.[10] Now we discuss the classification of power into four folds;

  1. Natural sources of power
  2. Tangible sources of power
  3. Intangible sources of power
  4. Soft power

The first three in this category were introduced by Karen Mingst, in his book “Essentials of International Relations”. Also, soft power was coined by Joseph Nye in 1980 meanwhile he differentiates hard power and soft power.

Natural sources of power always play a vital role because the location of any state, size, and natural resources are not changeable. We can not replace our geographical location with others. Geography is one of the key actors for securing one country and performing trade with others. Let us take Russia and UK as examples. Russia is the largest state by area in the world and spanning across 11 time-zones and shares borders with 14 states. Despite its gigantic size, Russia lacks a warm water seaport which is essential when it comes to trading all year around. Although Russia has annexed the all-strategic Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 for establishing strong presence in the “warm waters” of the Black Sea, it still has to pass through the Bosporus strait of Turkey (between Europe and Asia) for entering the Mediterranean sea. Now, if Turkey or the NATO force led by the USA decides to sabotage Russia’s economic prospects in the Mediterranean, all they have to do is to enforce naval blockade which will effectively cut-off Russia from both the geo-strategic Mediterranean sea and the Middle-East. In contrast, the UK has a comparatively good geographical vantage points due to its relative isolation from European mainland and has the potential for traversing into Asia, Europe, America and Africa with no fears of a naval blockade.

Natural resources make a small country so powerful such as petroleum exporting countries like Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia.[11] Moreover, the tangible sources of power can not deniable in the international sphere because of its influential capacity with other actors. The proponents of tangible power emphasize industrial development, infrastructure developing, military strength and currency exchange. On other hand, intangible power emphasizes the national image, leadership quality, and public support. For instance, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau is widely acclaimed for his noble personality and honest liberal views of his regime. Being the leader of a really small populous nation but with a large multi-ethnic immigrant population, Mr. Trudeau wields enough intangible power that has increased Canada’s legitimacy and acceptance in the world. [12] However, despite being the President of the most powerful state in the world in terms of military and economic superiority, former US President Donald Trump diminished US’s legitimacy as a preponderant power in the world due to his anti-immigration stance, diplomatic mistakes in the Middle-East by declaring Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state of Israel and alienating EU by making demands that EU member countries of NATO make more contributions for funds. All the above factors ultimately led to his downfall in the 2020 US Presidential Election, which was won by his Democrat rival, Joe Biden. 

Joseph Nye came up with a new concept of soft power in the 1980s for the first time. Joseph Nye made it clear that “soft power is as important as hard power, and even more so in international politics”.[13] From 1980 to 2021, many events have transpired and in the status-quo in the international system have been drastically altered. The dissolution of the Soviet Union may have ended the Cold War in 1991, but the rise of transnational but religious terrorism which caused a butterfly effect due to the Twin Towers attack by Al Qaeda in 2001 leading to the US invasion of Afghanistan the same year and Iraq invasion in 2003, NATO air-strikes in Libya and Syria following the Arab Spring of 2011. However, China and Russia by not involving themselves in any war, have emerged as soft powers owing to unprecedented growth in economy. Now the situation has become such that US has embroiled itself in a trade war with China upon seeing its power and influence in the world stage growing by the day.  Evidently, Joseph Nye’s soft power concept is becoming more and more relevant day by day. The advent of satellite TV channels, the spread of the Internet, the advent of social media like Facebook and Twitter as well as platforms like Google, YouTube are playing a major role in gaining soft power. Great powers are using soft power to attract others without coercion.[14] 

Theoretical perspective of power:

Hans J. Morgenthau, one of the most influential classical realist scholars, coined the core principles of realism; anarchy, survival, military capacity, rationality and sovereignty[15]. Looking precisely, we can see that Morgenthau emphasized power in his core principles of Classical Realism. We all know that in the international arena, every state is sovereign and there is no global government. That’s why the international system is anarchic. According to the realist assumption, survival is the main goal for any country. To survive in this anarchic system, every country has to gain military capacity and strength, otherwise, it could not survive in the international arena for the nature of anarchy. That’s why we can say that Power is a central element and the Bible of realism[16]. because of this huge importance, realist scholars discuss and tried to find out how power covered a vast area of international politics, what is main components of power are, how actors engage with power politics. They all identified international politics as a perpetual “struggle for power”.[17] For this reason, we can find huge academic work about power in realism like power politics, the balance of power theory, power transition theory and so on. So, we see that realism always emphasizes classical forms of power like military might, economic growth, controlling the choke points of the ocean, taking geopolitical advantage, grabbing natural resources either by consent or coercion and so on[18]

On the other hand, constructivist views power as a different lens.[19] Constructivists argued that all of this is constructed by us. We created meaning and language in our private self as well as in the international arena. Intersubjective recognition, identity, ideology, culture, religion, knowledge all these things impact actors.[20] A prominent constructivist scholar Alexander Wendt, famously coined that “anarchy is what state makes of it”.[21]

Constructivists view international politics as well as power in a different manner.  Like realism and liberalism, constructivism also recognizes power is an important element in the international sphere and no doubt that without military ability, economic prosperity, strategic geopolitical location power can not be gain but they also add intersubjective recognition, idea, and identity, these can able to change the meaning of power.[22] There is a famous quote by Alexander Wendt about this intersubjectivity “500 British nuclear weapons are less threatening to the United States than five North Korean nuclear weapons”[23]. Iran just trying to able a nuclear weapon country, that is the most threat to the USA. On the other hand, France has several nuclear weapons but it is not a threat for the USA for the intersubjective recognition, and also they identified themselves as a friend. Constructivists said that this identity is constructed, and which is constructed it could be reconstructed.  In conclusion, we can say that power is a complex element in International Relations (IR) to define its nature, range and ingredients because of that there is a huge academic debate about this topic.


[1] Peterson, K., 2012. Four Types of Power in International Relations: Coercive Power, Bargaining Power, Concerted Power, and Institutionalized Power. In: XXIInd World Congress of Political Science. [online] Madrid: International Political Science Association (IPSA). Available at: <https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Four-Types-of-Power-in-International-Relations-and-Petersen/4b2a5b966fbf30c6292bd32919225a7ef998f77e>.

[2] Carlsnaes, W., Risse, T. and Simmons, B., 2012. Handbook of International Relations. 2nd ed. New York: Sage Publications, p.273.

[3] Ibid, p. 273.

[4] Raimzhanova, A., 2015. Power in IR: Hard, Soft and Smart. ResearchGate, [online] p.5. Available at: <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/336799510_Power_in_IR_by_Raimzhanova_A>.

[5] Ibid, p.5.

[6] Barnett, M. and Duvall, R., 2005. Power in International Politics. International Organization, 59(1), pp.39-75.

[7] Mearsheimer, J., 2012. The tragedy of great power politics. W.W.Norton & Company.

[8] Mingst, K., 1999.  Essentials of International Relations, W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 117.

[9] Jha, D., 1977. THE POWER APPROACH IN INTERNATIONAL POLITICS. The Indian Journal of Political Science, [online] 38(3 (July-Sept. ’77), pp.357-374. Available at: <https://www.jstor.org/stable/41854805>.

[10] Raimzhanova, A., 2015. Power in IR: Hard, Soft and Smart. ResearchGate, [online] p.5. Available at: <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/336799510_Power_in_IR_by_Raimzhanova_A>.

[11] Mingst, K., 1999.  Essentials of International Relations, W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 120.

[12] Mingst, K., 1999.  Essentials of International Relations, W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 122-124.

[13] Nye, J., 1990. Soft Power. Foreign Policy, 23(80).

[14] Vlassis, A., 2015. Soft power, global governance of cultural industries and rising powers: the case of China. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 22(4), pp.481-496.

[15] Morgenthau, H., Thompson, K. and Clinton, D., 1948. Politics among Nations. 1st ed. New York: Routeledge, p.166.

[16] Yasmin, L., 2020. The Concept of Power in International Relations.

[17] Raimzhanova, A., 2015. Power in IR: Hard, Soft and Smart. ResearchGate, [online] p.19. Available at: <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/336799510_Power_in_IR_by_Raimzhanova_A>.

[18] Griffiths, M., 2008. International relations theory for the twenty-first century. 1st ed. London: Routledge, pp.14-19.

[19] Guzzini, S., 2013. Power, realism and constructivism. London: Routledge.

[20] Mingst, K., 1999.  Essentials of International Relations, W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 94.

[21] Wendt, A., 2008. Anarchy is what States make of it. Farnham [etc.]: Ashgate.

[22] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258171324

[23] International Relations Theory  BY STEPHEN MCGLINCHEY p.36-37




Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Most Read