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Power and States

Updated on September 1, 2011

As there’re many languages in the world, there’re also different views on what power is and how a state can utilize it. Political theories offers us with stark views on power and its use regarding the state i.e. realist promote power-politics, liberals promote economic power and Marxist advice that the disparities in power encourages elitism; but it is wise to acknowledge that they all offer us with different views on what power is which makes it that much harder to put a stamp on what power is.


As Mao Tse-Tung (1893-1976) once said ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’ suggesting that power, to some, is a coercive force that get results quicker than words; meaning in a realist point of view, coercive power forces the other state{s} to act to meet your demands. Thus power becomes a tool to affect states behaviour in a manner most desirable to you (opposing state). But as we have developed earlier on, one can’t put a stamp on power, as power has numerous meanings and comes in different forms ranging from military to political to economical. Political power may be broadly defined as the capacity to control another’s behaviour by some form of sanction, Dahl (1957) discusses power in these relational terms, pointing out that A has power over B if A causes B’s behaviour. That is to say, that states exercise their powers on another state through different forms of sanctions i.e. economic sanctions are the most favourite and widely used, for example, the recent sanctions imposed on Iran for pursing its nuclear programme by America in July 2010, shows us what a state with more power can do to another state in order to force obedience. This then suggests that non-coercive forms of power i.e. economic sanctions are a measurement of power that a state can use to cause a change of policies in another state. And if Iran does not comply, its defiance will be met with military power hence A has power over B because B’s behaviour changed.

With this definition we see power being used as a tool rather than a process i.e. we often view states as “having” power but fail to exercise it; whereas as a process, states attain power through various ways such as size, military, economic worth, valuable natural resources and so forth. But to understand this, we must first recall that power is not influence itself, but the ability or potential to influence others. Many IR scholars believe that a states power is based on tangible or intangible possessions the state has such as size, economic measure, military capabilities, and so forth. Therefore the sanctions imposed onto states are a process of power in which a state can exercise its potential to influence others using the non-coercive method most Liberals would advocate and affect the outcome of other states’ actions illustrating that power regardless of what form it takes, has a major role in determining state behaviour as it forces the state to adopt new policies.

But in this day and age, were there is still ongoing war and civil unrest in the Middle East, most states opt for the use of hard power in these ‘rogue states’ i.e. the intervention of military or armed groups. Most realist and powerful states have a profound belief in power. As they often see it as an ends that justifies the means, realists believe that international relations are always conflictual and will ultimately lead to war, power (i.e. military power) is the only answer as suggest by the classic realist Nicolo Machiavelli who stated that ‘States are not maintained with words’.To realist, military power is the epitome of hard power as it is a coercive force that forces other state into submission; but with this comes Thomas Hobbes’ ‘security dilemma’. This refers to the fact that while a nation may feel greater security or at peace by acquiring military capability, this very process does, of course, make it a threat to its neighbours who will then in turn seek to match the other state’s military capability . A potent example of the security dilemma was the arms race between America and Russia which some believe is still ongoing to this day.

Another example of power leading to the security dilemma is the hostilities between American and North Korea. For example why is the US concerned when North Korea builds nuclear weapons, but not when Great Britain does? Realist would quickly answer that North Korea poses a bigger threat, yet from a pure military power perspective, Great Britain is a far superior military force to North Korea. Yet no one would argue that Britain is a threat. Power does to some extent change the identity of the state, for a long time Switzerland has always been a neutral state maybe due to its lack of conflict with other states. Alexander Wendt goes on to say, ‘Identities are the basis of interests’, then if a states identity is to change then ultimately so will its interest for instance Gorbachev’s reform and redirection of the USSR in the late 1980s transformed the Soviet Union’s identity, making it possible of have a peaceful resolution of the Cold War. This showed a complete U-turn from the nuclear arms race- which identified the two countries as being the main two big powers at that time and thus the driving force of international relations- into the age of nuclear proliferation with 189 states signed the treaty and ironically with the two former rivals leading the campaign.

Girl hugging bomb by Bansky
Girl hugging bomb by Bansky | Source

As we have discussed earlier on, power comes in many forms and Japan is the prime example this, as it does not possess bountiful natural resources but has managed to attain power through economics.And with the current unfortunate events in Japan, Japanese products have seen an increase in price; thus Japan now has the power like OPEC to set whatever price it wants therefore affecting the buying patterns in states that purchase Japanese products telling us that power is important in effecting state behaviour.

Petroleum-exporting state like Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, which are geographically small but have a crucial natural resource, have greater power potential than their size would suggest. This intangible source of power will give the much smaller states who posses valuable natural resources much needed leverage in the global environment. For example, the oil crisis of the 70s proved how much power OPEC had by imposing oil sanctions on the United States and the Netherlands during the Arab-Israeli War in 1973. As states will pay dearly for oil and will even go to war if starved of it thus the states that have valuable natural resources wield greater power over states that don’t have it proving that power play a role in determining state behaviour as it is a decision maker. On the contrary, having said that the absence of natural resources does not mean that a state has no power, a prime example is Japan; Japan is not rich in natural resources, but has parlayed other elements of power so as to make itself an economic powerhouse.

To conclude it is wise to see that power has different forms and each can be used differently to achieve a goal, whether the results caused by the use of power are desirable, power still play a pivotal role in state relations. But ultimately the power someone has, is the power you allow them to have over you.


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