What Is 'Power' in International Relations? Use Examples to Illustrate Your Argument

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What is 'Power' in International Relations? Use Examples to Illustrate your Argument

Power can be seen as a very complicated concept within International Relations. Power in International Relations does not only refer to military might but also includes economic power, cultural power and also, 'soft' and 'hard' power.

Brown defines power as not just one thing but three things all working at the same time. They are; the attributes that the actor has and can use, the relationships between actors and the ability an actor has to influence others and thirdly the actors structure,when its system makes actors behave in a certain way. The first two parts of this definition of power in International Relations are most relevant to traditional International Relations such as Realism.

The realist approach to power in International Relations is that “power is based on the material capabilities that a state controls”.Dunne, T. Kurki, M. Smith, S. (2007) “International Relations”, Oxford University Press. This is the basic force model. That an actors power depends on its attributes.

The basic force model is a simple enough understanding of power in International Relations as the more attributes a state has the more power it has. However, there are problems with the basic force model. The current conflict in Afghanistan is a prime example of the problems with the basic force model. On paper the United States and the United Kingdom are two of the most powerful countries in the world, regarding military strength. Despite this they have been unable to win the war against the Taliban in nearly ten years. Their overwhelming military power has failed to achieve its objectives against a vastly outnumbered and poorly equipped opponent. Therefore, other factors must be taken into account and the basic force model does not fully describe what is power within International Relations. Another example of the failure of the basic force model is the Vietnam war which raged between 1959-1975.

Weber stated that power could be defined as an “actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance” Wallimann, I. 1977, On Max Weber's Definition of Power, Journal of Sociology, Vol. 13, No. 3, p. 231. This coincides with the second part of Brown's definition of power. Dahl had a similar definition which stated that power is when an actor can get another to do something they don't want to do or to not do something they might normally do. This is the power of compliance and deterrence. An example of this definition of power in International Relations is the power that Saudi Arabia has over the United Kingdom as the holder of a large amount of natural resources.

The third and final aspect of Brown's definition of power is structural power. Whilst traditional International Relations theories agree with the first two parts of Brown's definition many others, such as Marxism, also see power to exist in an actors structure. Gramsci described how structural power can be seen in the popular culture and the mindset of an actor. He used the overthrowing of capitalism in Italy in the 1920's as an example. He stated that the overthrowing of capitalism in Russia in 1912 was easier as capitalism was so entrenched in 1920's Italy that common sense was dictated by it. He argued that the structure of life needed to be changed for the revolution to come. Simply overthrowing the government was not enough. Structural power can shape the culture and heart of an actor.

Power in International Relations can also be manifested in other was. Such as, political power, military power, economic power and 'hard' and 'soft' power. Political power is the basis of all international diplomacy. It can be seen as the ability to negotiate with other actors and make deals which can benefit all parties involved. The United States and the United Kingdom are two examples of actors who utilise their resources for political advantage. The...
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