Power in Politics

When we talk about power in everyday life, we assume everyone has the same understanding of the word. But in politics, the term ‘power’ can be highly ambiguous, both in terms of definition and the ability to accurately measure the power of states or individuals. In this article, we will discuss what we mean by power in politics. 

Power in Politics Power in Politics

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Table of contents

    Political power definition

    Before a political power definition, we first need to define ‘power’ as a concept.


    The ability to make a state or person act or think in a way that is contrary to how they would have acted or thought otherwise and shape the course of events.

    Political power is composed of three components:

    1. Authority: The ability to exercise power through decision making, giving orders, or the ability of others to comply with demands

    2. Legitimacy: When citizens recognise a leader's right to exercise power over them (when citizens recognise state authority)

    3. Sovereignty: Refers to the highest level of power that cannot be overruled (when a state government/individual has legitimacy and authority)

    Today, 195 countries in the world have state sovereignty. There is no higher power in the international system than state sovereignty, meaning there are 195 states that possess political power. The extent of each state's political power differs based on the three concepts of power and the three dimensions of power.

    Power in politics and governance

    The three concepts and dimensions of power are separate but closely related mechanisms which operate alongside each other in the international system. Together these mechanisms affect the balance of power in politics and governance.

    Three Concepts of Power

    • Power in terms of capabilities/attributes - What the state possesses and how it can use them on the international stage. For example, the population and geographical size of a state, its military capabilities, its natural resources, its economic wealth, the efficiency of its government, leadership, infrastructure, etc. Pretty much anything a state can use to exert influence. Keep in mind that capabilities only determine how much potential power a state has rather than actual power. This is because different capabilities matter to different extents in different contexts.

    • Power in terms of relations - The capabilities of a state can only be measured in relation to another state. For example, China has regional dominance because its capabilities are greater than that of other East Asian states. However, when comparing China to the United States and Russia, China has fewer or more equal levels of capabilities. Here power is measured in terms of influence in a relationship, where power can be observed as the effect the action of one state has on another.

    The two types of relational power

    1. Deterrence: Used to stop one or more states from doing what they would have otherwise done
    2. Compliance: Used to force one or more states into doing what they would have otherwise not done
    • Power in terms of structure - Structural power is best described as the ability to decide how international relations are conducted, and the frameworks in which they are conducted, such as finance, security and economics. Currently, the United States dominates in most fields.

    All three concepts of power operate simultaneously, and all help determine different outcomes of power used in politics based on context. In some contexts, military strength might be more important in determining success; in others, it may be knowledge of the state.

    Three Dimensions of Power

    Power in Politics, Steven Lukes, StudySmarter Fig. 1 - Political Theorist Steven Lukes

    Steven Lukes most influentially theorised the three dimensions of power in his book Power, A Radical View. Luke's interpretations are summarised below:

    • One-Dimensional View - This dimension is referred to as the pluralist view or decision-making, and believes that a state's political power can be determined in an observable conflict in global politics. When these conflicts occur, we can observe which state's suggestions most regularly triumph over others and if they result in a change of behaviour of other involved states. The state with the most 'wins' in decision-making is considered the most influential and powerful. It's important to remember that states often suggest solutions that further their interests, so when their suggestions are adopted during conflicts, they secure more power.
    • Two-Dimensional View - This view is a criticism of the one-dimensional view. Its advocates argue that the pluralist view doesn't account for the ability to set the agenda. This dimension is referred to as non-decision-making power and accounts for the covert exercise of power. There is power in choosing what is discussed on the international stage; if a conflict isn't brought to light, no decisions can be made about it, allowing states to do as they wish covertly regarding matters they don't want to publicise. They avoid the development of ideas and policies which are harmful to them, whilst highlighting more favourable events on the international stage. This dimension embraces covert coercion and manipulation. Only the most powerful or 'elite' states can use the power of non-decision making, creating a biased precedent in dealing with international political matters.

    • Three-Dimensional View - Lukes advocates this view, known as ideological power. He regards the first two dimensions of power as too intensely focused on observable conflicts (overt and covert) and points out that states still exercise power in the absence of conflict. Lukes, suggests a third dimension of power that must be considered - the ability to construct preferences and perceptions of individuals and states. This dimension of power cannot be observed as it is an invisible conflict - the conflict between the interests of the more powerful and the less powerful, and the ability of more powerful states to distort the ideologies of other states to the point where they are unaware of what is actually in their best interest. This is a form of coercive power in politics.

    Coercive power in politics

    The second and third dimensions of power incorporate the concept of coercive power in politics. Steven Lukes defines coercion in political power as;

    Existing where A secures B's compliance by the threat of deprivation where there is a conflict over values or course of action between A and B.4

    To fully grasp the concept of coercive power, we must look at hard power.

    Hard Power: The capability of a state to influence the actions of one or more states through threats and rewards, such as physical attacks or economic boycotting.

    Hard power capabilities are based on military and economic capabilities. This is because threats are often based on military force or economic sanctions. Coercive power in politics is essentially hard power and is part of the second dimension of power. Soft power can be closely associated with the third dimension of power and the ability to formulate preferences and cultural norms with which states and their citizens identify.

    Nazi Germany is an excellent example of coercive power in politics. Although the Nazi party seized power and authority legitimately and legally, their power politics consisted mainly of coercion and force. Media was heavily censored and Nazi propaganda was spread to influence ideologies (third dimension of power). Hard power was used through the establishment of a secret police force that aimed to weed out 'enemies of the state' and potential traitors who spoke or acted against the Nazi regime. People who did not submit were publicly humiliated, tortured, and even sent to concentration camps. The Nazi regime carried out similar coercive power exertions in their international endeavours by invading and controlling neighbouring nations such as Poland and Austria with similar methods.

    Power in Politics, Nazi Propaganda poster, StudySmarter Fig, 2 - Nazi propaganda poster

    Importance of power in politics

    Grasping the importance of power in politics is essential for a well-rounded understanding of world politics and international relations. The use of power on the international stage not only affects people directly but can also alter the balance of power and the structure of the international system itself. Political power is essentially the way states interact with one another. If the use of power in its many forms is not calculated, the results could be unpredictable, leading to an unstable political environment. This is why the balance of power in international relations is important. If one state has too much power and unrivalled influence, it could threaten the sovereignty of other states.

    Globalisation has resulted in a deeply interconnected political community. Weapons of mass destruction have drastically increased the detrimental aftermath of war, and economies are deeply interdependent, meaning that a negative occurrence in national economies could result in a domino effect of worldwide economic consequences. This was demonstrated in the 2008 Financial crisis, in which an economic crash in the United States caused a global recession.

    Example of Power in Politics

    While there are countless examples of power in politics, the United States' involvement in the Vietnam war is a classic example of power politics in action.

    The U.S became involved in the Vietnam war in 1965 as an ally of the Southern Vietnamese government. Their primary goal was to prevent the spread of communism. The Northern Vietnamese Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, aimed to unify and establish an independent communist Vietnam. U.S power in terms of capability (weaponry) were much more advanced than that of the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong - a northern Guerrilla force. The same could be said of their relational power, with the U.S being recognised as a military and economic superpower since the 1950s.

    Despite this, North Vietnamese forces prevailed and eventually won the war. Structural power outweighed the importance of power in terms of capability and relations. The Vietcong had structural knowledge and information about Vietnam and used it to pick and choose their battles against the Americans. By being tactical and calculated with the use of their structural power, they gained power.

    The U.S cause of stopping the spread of communism was not internalised by enough of the Vietnamese public who were not in tune with the main political conflict in 1960s American culture - the Cold War between the capitalist U.S and the Communist Soviet Union. As the war progressed, millions of Vietnamese civilians were killed for a cause that Vietnamese civilians could not personally internalise. Ho Chi Minh used familiar culture and nationalist pride to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese and keep morale high for North Vietnamese efforts.

    Power in Politics - Key takeaways

    • Power is the ability to make a state or person act/think in a way that is contrary to how they would have acted/thought otherwise, and shape the course of events.
    • There are three concepts of power - capability, relational and structural.
    • There are three dimensions of power theorised by Lukes - decision making, non-decision making and ideological.
    • Coercive power is primarily a form of hard power, but can be used in line with soft power influences.
    • Power in politics has a direct effect on everyday people, and if political power is not used cautiously, the results could be unpredictable, leading to an unstable political environment.


    1. Fig. 1 - Steven Lukes (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Steven_Lukes.jpg) by KorayLoker (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:KorayLoker&action=edit&redlink=1) licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    2. Fig. 2 - Reich Nazi Germany Veterans Picture postcard (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ludwig_HOHLWEIN_Reichs_Parteitag-N%C3%BCrnberg_1936_Hitler_Ansichtskarte_Propaganda_Drittes_Reich_Nazi_Germany_Veterans_Picture_postcard_Public_Domain_No_known_copyright_627900-000016.jpg) by Ludwig Hohlwein (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludwig_Hohlwein) licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    3. Lukes, S. (2021). Power: A radical view. Bloomsbury Publishing
    Frequently Asked Questions about Power in Politics

    What are the three dimensions of power in politics?

    • Decision making. 
    • Non-decision making
    • Ideological 

    What is the importance of power in politics?

    It holds great importance as those in power can create rules and regulations which affect people directly and can also alter the balance of power, as well as the structure of the international system itself.

    What are the types of power in politics?

    power in terms of capability, relational power and structural power

    What is power in politics?

    We can define power as the ability to make a state or person act/think in a way that is contrary to how they would have acted/thought otherwise, and shape the course of events.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Foucault briefly joined the French Communist Party, but left due to ideological differences. (T/F)

    Which of these academic subjects did Foucault NOT pursue? 

    Which of the following is NOT a work of Michael Foucault?

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