International Relations/The term "Power" in International Relations

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"Power" and "Force"[edit]

The field of International Relations' preoccupation with war leads to the term 'power' frequently being used as part of a military term; 'airpower,' 'seapower,' 'a nuclear power,' etc. However, it is important to understand that this sort of "power" is, in its use, actually 'force'.

"Power" is generally used with regards to political weight, whether this is backed by military force or by charismatic and economic appeal. Prominently, Joseph S. Nye has labeled these two varieties of power "hard" and "soft" power, respectively and both can be extremely effective in exacting political will. However, when political will is exacted through blunt means, such as extreme military action or oppressive regimen, this is "force." If those parties (whether states, groups or individuals) being affected have no survivable choice except to submit to a political will, then this is not to exact power over them but to use force.

As an example of the difference, if you were walking through a dangerous area of some variety (say a war zone) and you met me, carrying a large arsenal of weaponry, you could decide whether to attempt to join with me to progress through the area together under my protection or to continue on your own then I would be holding power over you. However, if I was to say that you had to proceed with me or else I would murder you, then this would be force.

Force is generally regarded as being less effective in a long-term scenario than power.

"The Balance Of Power" (BoP)[edit]

"The Balance Of Power" is a significant idea amongst the Realist tradition of International Relations theory. Its principle is that no state should be allowed to become so powerful that there is no other state that can rival it; if a number of states are on a parity of power with each other then this can prevent such above powerful state.


Waltz (1979: The Man, State and War)suggests the neo-realist or structural realist idea that states may club together or "bandwagon" in order to balance out the power of a hegemonic state.