Power in International Relations

Power is one of those things that is hard to define accurately, but you know what it looks like or feels like. You can compare power to love, think back to your first serious crush and all the intense feelings that it stirred up inside you. It was probably hard to put into words how exactly you felt, and you, like so many others, may have frantically began googling 'how does it feel to be in love?'

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Power in International Relations Power in International Relations

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    Now I'm sure you were met with vague responses like 'when you know you know', or that 'the feeling is indescribable'. Just like love, power is more easily experienced than it is defined. However, as politics is essentially the study of power, many attempts have been made to accurately describe what power is. So, unlike your Google search on love, this article will try to put into words exactly what power is in the context of international relations.

    Definition of power in international relations

    There are many different definitions of power that are used in politics and international relations. However, one of the most commonly accepted definitions is that power refers to one's ability to exert a degree of influence over someone else. This influence makes someone do something they would not have done otherwise.

    Power is when X can make Y do something they would not usually do.

    Power often has negative connotations associated with it, and therefore wanting to seek power is viewed unfavourably, and words like power hungry are used in a non-complimentary manner. Given that power simply means being able to make someone do something they would not otherwise do, power itself is not innate negative or bad, rather it's what can be done with power that stirs up those negative associations. As a child, your parents may have been able to send you to bed earlier than you would have otherwise wanted to, this is an example of power, and you would not view this as being innately bad.

    Theory of power in international relations

    While there are many theories that discuss power in international relations, the most important point to understand is how these theories of power argue that states are abut to gain power. There are three main ways though their capabilities, relationships, and structures.

    Capabilities look at how many resources a state has, these can include financial resources, population, military capability, and even the geography of the country. A poor country with a small population usually has less capability than a rich country with a large population; for example, if they went to war with each other, some would argue that this means they have less power.

    Relationships are also an important part of gaining power in international relations. This means things like joining an alliance or an international organisation. This can give you more power than you would otherwise have. For example, Canada is more powerful because of the strong relationship it has with the US. When you gain power from relationships like this it is called 'relational power'.

    Lastly, structures are important when looking at theories of power in international relations. Gaining power from structure means that a state has created or has control of important areas like specific knowledge or security and production networks. For example, Germany is a lot more powerful because of how important it is in creating and leading the European Union.

    Types of power in international relations

    Despite the numerous definitions and categorisations of types of power in international relations, generally, we refer to three types of power. These are; hard power, soft power and smart power.

    The terms soft and smart power were coined by Joseph Nye!

    Power in International Relations Portrait of Joseph Nye StudySmarterFig. 1 Portrait of Joseph Nye

    Hard Power in International Relations

    Hard power is power that is commanding. With hard power, you are able to make someone do as you usually want through the use of the carrot or stick approach. This refers to the idea that if one complies with your wishes they will be rewarded, and if one does not do as you wish they will be punished. Hard power is usually associated with a country's military and economic capacity.

    The British Empire used hard power to colonise approximately a third of the world. At the height of the empire, the British possessed an unrivalled naval force. This allowed the British to violently expand and colonise many nations, particularly across Africa and Asia.

    As mentioned previously, not only is military capacity an important element of hard power, but economic capacity is too. This can take the form of sanctions, which may be used on nations that do not fall in line with the desires of the sanctioning country.

    The use of economic sanctions as a form of hard power is heavily debated in international relations. One of the reasons for it is that often they are not very effective.

    For example, the US sanctions placed on Cuba did not make Cuba succumb to the will of the US, rather Cuba found alternative ways to operate, and those sanctions lasted over 60 years.

    Soft Power in International Relations

    Soft power in international relations is a form of power that has an attractiveness or allure to other states. It is based upon shared values, culture, and diplomacy. The resources that soft powers utilise are usually economic power, relational power and historical relationships.

    Unlike the way in which hard power uses economic power to impose punishments, soft power states use their strong economic position to appear desirable to other nations. If a state has a stable and strong economy, this state has power as other nations will seek to engage in trades with this state in hope of benefitting from the strong economy of the state.

    Power in International Relations Promotion of peacefulness and  a soft power approach StudySmarterFig. 2 Promotion of peacefulness and a soft power approach

    Relational power is also key to soft power and stems from a desire to be included in important decisions.

    The UN Security Council is an example of relational power, many states desire to be among the non-permanent members of the UN Security Council due to the relational power it brings with it. States that get to sit on the Security Council often feel a sense of importance as they are among the 'top dogs' in regard to powerful states and are able to contribute to important decisions.

    In general, the UK is among the leading soft power states this is because globally there is a cultural allure to Britain which contributes to the UK's power. This is mainly due to the historical ties that the UK created during and after its long periods of colonisation which has resulted in the Commonwealth of Nations. The Commonwealth consists of 55 primarily former British colonies and dominions and the UK. This has created special ties throughout history, such as strong trade relations and joint sporting competitions.

    Check out this article on the UN Security Council!

    Smart Power in International Relations

    Smart power refers to the strategic combination of both hard and soft power. Not every scenario can be won with a hard power approach, nor can it be won by the use of soft power. Therefore, it is important for states to discern when to approach with a smile or when to approach with their fangs bared.

    A smart power approach is often used when direct threats need to be addressed and subsequent rebuilding must occur. NATO or the UN peacekeeping forces can be viewed as an example of smart power as there is a large military capability that instead of seeking to instil fear or create destruction is often used to maintain peace and diplomatic efforts between nations, (though this is not always the case).

    Examples of power in international relations

    In order to view examples of power in international relations, We can look at the US invasion of Iraq and the subsequent war on terror as an example which we can find displays of hard, soft, and smart power.

    Power in International Relations US troops preparing for the invasion of Iraq StudySmarterFig. 3, US troops preparing for the invasion of Iraq

    After the September 11 attacks in the USA in 2001, the US government embarked on a 'War on Terror'. In 2003 The US invaded Iraq. The US military invasion of Iraq is a stark example of the use of hard power. In theory, the US military sought to eradicate the Middle East of enemies and potential threats to the US and its citizens' invasion of Iraq. As a show of the US' power and desire to subdue its 'enemies' in Iraq and the Middle East, mass bombing campaigns were undertaken. Not every single country has the military capability to "successfully" invade another nation, however, when it comes to hard power and the military, the US sits at the top.

    When we break down the Iraq invasion, we can see how soft power also came into play. For example, the UK's involvement in the Iraq War is an example of the USA's use of soft power and the use of a historic relationship. The UK and the US often support each other in many decisions and endeavours and are described as having a special relationship. This relationship has been cultivated over many years and serves to provide each of these nations with increased support. In essence, the UK has the USA's back and vice versa. Therefore, when the USA decided to wage war in the Middle East for the purpose of preventing terrorism, disarming the Middle East and protecting US citizens it had the power to call on the UK who answered in support of the US and joined the cause.

    Finally, as mentioned, smart power is a balance between the use of hard power and soft power. Whilst, the military invasions of the Middle East were deemed necessary to immediately prevent terrorism and rid the region of weapons of mass destruction. However, this would not deal with the other problems the USA faced, such as the very environment that bred extremism and terrorism. The military could not solve this issue and therefore a balanced approach had to be embarked on, this came in the form of the USA's pledge to annually invest $1.5 billion dollars for the purpose of building schools, hospitals and businesses in Pakistan and to rid the nation of extremism. 1

    Power in International Relations - Key takeaways

    • Power in international relations is when X can make Y do something they would not usually do.
    • Theories of power in international relations focus on how states gain power. This is through capabilities, relationships, and structures.
    • There are three main types of power - hard power, soft power and smart power.
    • Smart power is a combination of hard and soft power and optimum method of success.
    • Hard power is usually associated with one's military and economic capacity.
    • Soft power is attractive and non-coercive.


    1. Obama White House Archives, Remarks by the President at Cairo University, 6-04-09, 2009 accessed September 2022
    2. Fig. 1: Portrait of Dr. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Assistant Secretary of Defense, International Security Affairs.jpg (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Portrait_of_Dr._Joseph_S._Nye,_Jr.,_Assistant_Secretary_of_Defense,_International_Security_Affairs.jpg) by Scott Davis licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)
    3. Fig. 2: 2018 Women's March in Missoula, Montana 100 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2018_Women%27s_March_in_Missoula,_Montana_100.jpg by Montanasuffragettes (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Montanasuffragettes&action=edit&redlink=1) licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)
    4. Fig. 3: US Navy 050317-N-6628F-031 Navy Seabees assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Two Four (NMCB-24), participate in a live-fire range exercise prior to deploying to Iraq in support of the Global War on Terrorism (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_Navy_050317-N-6628F-031_Navy_Seabees_assigned_to_Naval_Mobile_Construction_Battalion_Two_Four_(NMCB-24),_participate_in_a_live-fire_range_exercise_prior_to_deploying_to_Iraq_in_support_of_the_Global_War_on_Terrorism.jpg) by James Finnigan licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Power in International Relations

    What is power in international relations?

    Power in international relations is the ability to make someone do something they would not have done otherwise. 

    What is soft power in international relations?

    Soft power in international relations is a non-coercive form of power that has an attractiveness or allure to other states.

    What are the types of power in international relations?

    Hard power, soft power and smart power are the three types of power in international relations.

    How important is power in international politics? 

    Power in international relation is incredibly important and is seen as the goal of all states

    What is a balance of power in international relations?

    A suggestion that in order to maintain themselves, states have to stop nay one singular state from gaining too much power.   

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Selects the correct answers: Which is the most populous country?

    Select the correct answer: Which of these countries has the most active nuclear weapons?

    Select the correct answer: Which of these countries has the largest transnational corporations?


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