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14.2: What Is Power, and How Do We Measure It?

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    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this section, you will be able to:

    • Define power as it applies to international relations.
    • Describe the different types of power political actors may possess.

    Simply defined, in international relations, power is the ability of a state to prompt its preferred outcome in a given situation. States aim to protect their sovereignty—their authority to govern themselves—and guard against attacks from other countries. Growing and projecting their strength is the means through which they achieve this goal.

    The way a state sees its place within the larger system based on the worldview its policy makers adhere to serves as the foundation for the state’s power. The theories discussed in this chapter will help illuminate the role power plays in international interactions. They describe the different methods states use to exert their power and how the application of the levers of state power can lead to an increase in a state’s ability to chart its own course and to induce other states to support its attainment of its preferred outcomes. At the same time, the theories describe how other states characterize the state’s actions and determine their responses to those actions. A state’s power includes its military, political, economic, and soft power. The more states attend to and invest in the development of each of these elements of the power they wield, the greater their potential to have an impact on the international stage.

    Military Power

    States that function with a general sense of self-preservation and a broad mistrust of other members of the international community see the military as the most important means for the projection of their power. The application of military power can be active, in the form of an outright attack or an invasion, or it can be passive, as when a state illustrates its ability to prevail in a military confrontation without actually engaging in one.

    Traditionally, states have launched military offensives against selected targets to secure state power. A more passive way states can exert their power is through deterrence, the buildup of military might to such a level that an adversary state or states reconsider the use of their own military against the primary state. If state A thinks it has a military advantage over state B, state A may be motivated to attack state B, especially if an important resource or other key objective is at stake. Should state B begin to expand its military power, state A might be motivated to reconsider its course of action.


    Deterrence in Foreign Policy

    In this clip, Council on Foreign Relations Adjunct Senior Fellow for National Security Studies Richard Betts and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy Stephen Biddle describe how states use deterrence to avoid war.

    North Korea is an example of a modern state that leans on deterrence through military means. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un chooses to divert a substantial portion1 of the country’s relatively meager GDP toward the military to throw off any plans that any other country might have of attacking it. He does this even at the expense of much-needed domestic spending on things like food and social services.

    A propaganda poster in the middle of a neighborhood shows four people: a uniformed soldier wearing a helmet and carrying a gun is in the lead, followed by a worker wearing a helmet and coveralls, followed by a person in a suit carrying a roll of paper and a t-square, followed by a peasant farmer holding grains. Stylized military jets fly and missiles appear ready to deploy over their heads.
    Figure 14.2 As this propaganda poster photographed in Pyongyang in 2011 shows, in North Korea the military is the first priority. (credit: “Propaganda” by Michael Day/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

    A state can also obtain military protection by entering into a security pact, an agreement among multiple states to support each other in case of a military attack, such as NATO or the Warsaw Pact. (For more on NATO, see the discussion of collective security in 14.5: The Realist Worldview and Chapter 15: International Law and International Organizations.)

    Economic Power

    A state can have both internal economic power, with a strong domestic economy marked by increasing gross domestic product (GDP) and/or a currency that allows the state to purchase goods and services at a relatively low cost, and external economic power, with leverage in international economic relationships. Externally, a state can project its economic power to the rest of the world in its international trade relationships and its participation in international economic organizations, such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.

    States can also increase their economic power relative to other states by controlling more of the basic factors of production. There are four basic factors of production, that is, four levels of economic development: primary, secondary, tertiary, and quaternary. The primary level of economic development focuses on agriculture, the secondary focuses on manufacturing, the tertiary focuses on the service industry, and the quaternary focuses on research and development. When one state controls more of the basic factors of production and can create a particular good or service in a more cost-effective manner than a second state, the first state is said to have a comparative advantage in the production of that good or service. Comparative advantage allows a country to strategically invest in the factors of production—land, labor, capital, and entrepreneurship—within its borders in order to develop goods or services that make it a preferred resource for consumers versus other countries.

    Consider one classic example of comparative advantage. If England needs the same amount of resources to create five yards of cloth as it does for the country to produce one barrel of wine, and with the same resources Portugal can create five barrels of wine but only one yard of cloth, then we can say that Portugal has a comparative advantage over England in making wine and England has a comparative advantage over Portugal in making cloth. Therefore, it would be better for England to focus on cloth production and for Portugal to focus on wine production, with each country trading for the goods it needs that the other country can produce more efficiently.


    Draw Me The Economy: What Is Comparative Advantage?

    This animated video clip explains, in simple terms, how comparative advantage works in a free market.

    China provides a contemporary example of a state that uses its place in the international economic system to extend its power. The Chinese government has taken care to ensure its position as the preeminent global resource for manufacturing.2 With a large, educated labor force and a government that has a tight control over businesses and their functions, China has the ability to turn out large amounts of goods at a relatively low cost to consumers.3 In manufacturing, it has a comparative advantage over other states.

    Internally, a state can use the levers of monetary policy to alter the value of its currency to encourage domestic consumer spending and make its exports relatively more attractive. By creating economic linkages between states through trade, countries are able to expand the reach of their goods and their money, increasing their country’s economic strength relative to other countries.

    A state can use its economic power to build a relative economic advantage, creating an environment in which other states seek to join the state in mutually beneficial trade relationships. As a state creates more economic relationships with other states, it solidifies its position as an economic power and is able to use access to other states’ factors of production or comparative advantage to further cement its own place in the larger system.

    Political Power

    States can try to manipulate the political institutions of other countries to enlarge their sphere of influence and to pressure other states to implement their preferred policy outcomes. A state can use both overt and subversive means to influence another state or a non-state actor in order to gain more power for itself. For example, a state can influence the outcome of an election, supporting the candidacy of a leader who is friendly to the state’s preferences. In 1911 and 1912, the United States did not hide its efforts to influence elections in Nicaragua.4 In 1953 the United States played a role in the coup in Iran that removed that country’s prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, who, in nationalizing the Iranian oil industry, had threatened Britain’s longstanding control over oil in the region. After the ouster of Mossadegh, the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, with whom the United States believed it had a beneficial relationship, returned to power.5 Some states have denied prominent accusations of interfering in other country’s elections, as Russia has in response to accusations that it interfered in the 2016 election in the United States.6 When states have a sense of power, within the system or within a region, they will do what they can to create an environment that safeguards and even expands that power.


    How Did the United States Intervene in Iran in 1953?

    In this clip, Professor Jo-Anne Hart of Lesley University and the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University discusses the US overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.

    The next section discusses in greater depth how and why it is important to a state that other states recognize its state sovereignty. Using its power of recognition, a state can welcome into the international system and its institutions another state that it believes will support its desired goals, thereby increasing the likelihood that the norms of the international system will align with its preferences. By the same token, a state can withhold its recognition of another state in order to maintain better relations with other members of the international community. In the case of Taiwan, the United States walks a fine line in terms of recognition and interstate relations.7 China views Taiwan as an extension of China and expects all other countries to treat Taiwan as such.8 This puts the United States in a tricky position; the United States, for economic, military, and diplomatic reasons, seeks to maintain a positive relationship with China, but its broader goal is to support countries as they attempt to democratize. Taiwan, in recent years, has taken many steps to assert its autonomy in relation to China and to implement a more democratic system. China sees these moves as a direct threat to its own position of power and does everything it can to maintain firm control over the Taiwanese governmental system in Taiwan. China views any US actions that may be supportive of Taiwanese independence or even of its increased autonomy from China in a negative light. The United States must tread carefully, supporting a state that is trying to move toward democracy without angering a key economic and diplomatic ally.

    Above all else, states must act to protect their sovereignty. In all things, states find themselves most reliant on their own strength and abilities. In an environment in which there is no central governing body to set and enforce rules, countries must strategize to protect themselves at all costs.

    Soft Power

    Whereas hard power involves coercion, soft power involves more friendly interactions that seek to win over a state or states rather than force them to comply with the wishes of one or more other states. Diplomacy, in either a bilateral (engagement between two countries) or multilateral (engagement between more than two countries) setting, allows states to create mutually beneficial agreements to protect themselves and the international system at large. The idea that all recognized countries find themselves on equal relational footing and should be treated as such in any sort of engagement, a concept referred to as reciprocity, is the foundational element of any diplomatic relationship.

    An example of a reciprocal arrangement would be that of states exchanging ambassadors. When a diplomatic relationship exists, the leaders of states pay official visits to one another and are entertained in a manner that shows deference to their status and prestige in the international system. Allowing for state visits is one way that a state might use the guise of entertainment as a means of persuading a state to take steps that meet its preferences. The principle of reciprocity allows for states to enter into any negotiation on a level playing field; it intones a mutual level of respect between the states.

    The cultural identity of a state is still another way that a state can expand its sphere of influence. Globalization has allowed for the spread of goods that are clearly identifiable as part of the culture of a specific country. As cultural identifiers spread throughout the world on the back of global commerce, so do the values that typify the originating country’s political and social systems. For example, the global spread of clearly identified American brands such as Levi’s, McDonalds, and Coca-Cola serves to spread American values of choice and product competition.9 In addition to increasing the amount of revenue American companies see from the sale of their products, the spread of American brands spreads American ideals.10

    A McDonald’s is one of a row of stores on a street in New Delhi, India.
    Figure 14.3 This McDonald’s in New Delhi, India, is an example of the reach of America’s soft power. (credit: “New Delhi McDonald’s” by Ryan/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

    Reciprocal diplomatic relationships that involve entertaining foreign officials and the spreading of cultural values to exert dominance are examples of the exercise of soft power—that is, using attraction and persuasion rather than coercion to achieve goals.

    14.2: What Is Power, and How Do We Measure It? is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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