Power in International Politics by Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall — A Summary

Barnett, Michael, and Raymond Duvall. 2005. “Power in International Politics.” International Organization 59 (1). MIT Press : 39–75.


Discussions about power in International Relations have been dominated by actor-oriented realist thinking — one actor using material resources to control other actors. This has created a ‘theoretical tunnel vision’ leading to the neglect of other forms and effects of power.

One reason for the pre-eminence of the realist conception is the aversion of rival theories to power considerations. Liberals, neoliberals and constructivists alike have attempted to demonstrate theoretical salience by claiming causal immunity from power variables for their explanations of empirical outcomes.

Neoliberals have argued how states with convergent interests create international institutions and arrangements that effectively tame (state) power, highlighting processes of social choice and leaving the impression that institutions are the antidote to power. Scholars of liberal international relations theory typically stress that many important international outcomes cannot be adequately explained with reference to power, but instead are better understood by the salutary presence of democracy, particular configurations of domestic interests, liberal values, economic interdependence, or international institutions. Mainstream constructivists, too, have pitted themselves against explanations in terms of power as they have attempted to demonstrate the causal significance of normative structures and processes of learning and persuasion.

These rival theoretical approaches could have drawn unique insights about the forms and effects of power from their distinct theoretical traditions. But that hasn’t happened. As such, the ability of IR scholars to make sense of global outcomes produced by power relations has been severely constrained.

Conceptualising Power

Power is the production, in and through social relations, of effects on actors that shape their capacity to control their fate. The conceptualisation of power that emerges from this definition — the consequential term being “social relations” — has two dimensions: the kinds of social relations that affect actors’ capacities and the specificity of those social relations. Firstly, social relations could work through interaction or constitution. Secondly, the effects of social relations of “interaction” or “constitution” could be specific or diffuse.

How Power is Expressed: Interaction or Constitution

Power could work through interactive relations. The behaviour of an actor (his actions, interactions, etc.) affects the ability of others to control the circumstances of their existence. This is a “power over” concept as the exercise of control is over others and as such it tends to see its effects in terms of the behaviour of the object of power.

Power could also work through constitutive relations. The constitution of an actor (his capacities, interests, etc.) affects his ability to shape the circumstances of his existence. This is a “power to” concept as it defines the actor’s ability to perform an action and as such its effects are generally seen in terms of the identity of the subject of power.

However, these two concepts are not exclusive. Examining power through social interaction can reveal effects on social identities, and examining power through constitutive relations can reveal effects on actions.

If power works through the actions of specific actors in shaping the ways and the extent to which other actors exercise control over their fate, it can have a variety of effects, ranging from directly affecting the behaviour of others to setting the terms of their very self-understandings; behavioural power, then, can have effects on actors' subjectivities and self-understandings.

Similarly, if power is in social relations of constitution, it works in fixing what actors are as social beings, which, in turn, defines the meaningful practices in which they are disposed to engage as subjects; constitutive power, then, has effects on behavioural tendencies.

The Specificity of Social Relations of Power: Specific or Diffuse

The social relations through which power works could be specific. This entails immediate and tangible causal and constitutive connections between the subject and object of power and usually depends upon them (subject and object) being in social proximity.

The social relations through which power works could also be diffuse. This entails detached and mediated causal and constitutive connections between the subject and object of power which generally operate at a physical, temporal and social distance.

Taxonomy of Power

These two dimensions — the kinds of social relations that affect actors’ capacities and the specificity of those social relations — generate a fourfold taxonomy of power.

Taxonomy of Power

Compulsory power exists in the direct control of one actor over the conditions of existence and/or the actions of another. Institutional power exists in actors' indirect control over the conditions of action of socially distant others. Structural power operates as the constitutive relations of a direct and specific-hence, mutually constituting-kind. Productive power works through diffuse constitutive relations to produce the situated social capacities of actors.

Compulsory Power: Direct Control Over Another

This conception focuses on the relations that allow an actor to directly shape the circumstances or actions of others. Most famous definitions (Max Weber, Robert Dahl, Peter Blau) of power fall under this concept. Compulsory power, in contrast to Dahl’s famous formulation, counts even when an actor controls another unintentionally.

Dahl's concept has three defining features. One, there is intentionality on the part of Actor A. What counts is that A wants B to alter its actions in a particular direction. Two, there must be a conflict of desires, to the extent that B now feels compelled to alter its behaviour. Three, A is successful because it has material and ideational resources at its disposal that lead B to alter its actions.

Compulsory power has significantly informed discussions about power in international politics. It steers attention towards the deployment of material resources to control others. Great powers often use (or threaten to use) resources to influence others. MNCs use capital resources to shape economic policies at national and global levels. Non-state actors resort to unconventional strategies to achieve their aims.

Compulsory power could also utilise symbolic and normative resources too. NGOs employ policies of shaming to alter state policies. Non-permanent members of the UNSC use legal norms to constrain the permanent members. International organisations use their expert, moral, delegated, and rational-legal authority to discipline both state and non-state actors.

Institutional Power: Actors’ Control Over Socially Distant Others

This conception focuses on the relations that allow an actor to indirectly shape the circumstances or actions of others. The conceptual focus is on the institutions that mediate between actors.

Compulsory and institutional power differ in the following ways.

  1. Whereas compulsory power typically rests on the resources that are deployed by A to exercise power directly over B, A cannot necessarily be said to "possess" the institution that constrains and shapes B.
  2. Institutional power highlights that A and B are socially removed from — only indirectly related to — one another. This distance can be spatial or temporal.
  3. Analyses of institutional power necessarily consider the decisions that were not made because of institutional arrangements that limit some opportunities and bias directions, particularly of collective action

Institutions enable some actors to shape the behaviour or circumstances of socially distant others. Dominant actors set the agenda of most global institutions and that agenda might work to the development or detriment of other actors. Market forces can create dependent relationships that limit the choices of weaker nations. Systems of exchange can also be a media of power.

The behavioural constraints and governing biases of institutions often create institutional rules that generate unequal leverage in determining collective outcomes. As such, weak actors often lose out on the collective rewards that are created by institutions.

Structural Power: Direct and Mutual Constitution of the Capacities of Actors

Structural power concerns the constitution, through social structures, of social subjects with capacities and interests. These structures are co-constitutive internal relations of structural positions which define what kinds of social beings actors are. (This must be contrasted with the insititutional notion of structures [see the second form in this taxonomy of power] as synonymous with pre-constituted institutions with sets of rules, procedures and norms that constrain behaviour.)

Structural power shapes the fates and conditions of existence of actors in two critical ways. Firstly, structural positions allocate differential capacities and advantages to different positions. Secondly, the social shapes the self-understanding and subjective interests of the actors.

In other words, structural power can work to constrain some actors from recognizing their own domination. To the degree that it does, actors' self-understandings and dispositions for action serve to reproduce, rather than to resist, the differential capacities and privileges of structure.

Various IR scholars forward arguments that have strong shades of structural power. Marxists argue that the structure of global capitalism substantially determines not only the capacities and resources of actors but also shapes the interpretive system through which actors understand their interests. World-systems theorists stress the logical generation of identities and interests that serve to perpetuate the domination of weaker actors.

Constructivists argue that the institutionalization of a world authority structure that is organized around rational-legal values increasingly privileges the voices of international NGOs.

Productive Power: Production of Subjects Through Diffuse Social Relations

Productive power concerns the constitution, through systems of knowledge and discursive practices, of social subjects with various social capacities and interests. The move is away from structures to systems of signification and meaning.

Productive power concerns the social discourses through which meaning is produced, fixed, lived, experienced, and transformed. These discourses produce social identities and capacities for all subjects.

Because structural power concerns the co-constitution of subjects, it typically envisions hierarchical and binary relations of domination that work to the advantage of those structurally empowered, to the disadvantage of the socially weak. In contrast, productive power concerns the boundaries of all social identity, and the capacity and inclination for action for the socially advantaged and disadvantaged alike, as well as the myriad social subjects that are not constituted in binary hierarchical relationships.

Questions that concern the kinds of subjects that are produced point towards productive power. Classificatory categories like ‘civilized’, ‘Western’, ‘rogue’ and ‘democratic’ create differences in social capacities because of the meanings associated with them. The gendered categories of ‘civilian’ and ‘combatant’ in international humanitarian law have real consequences for those on the ground, protecting some while putting others at the risk of death.

Our taxonomy of power offers several advantages for scholars of international relations theory.

  1. First, because it is founded on an explicit and logically systematic decomposition of the general concept of power, it is able to detach discussions of power from the limitations of realism and to encourage scholars to see power's multiple forms.
  2. Second, our approach provides a framework for integration. Taxonomies not only highlight distinct types but also point to connections between them.
  3. Third, our approach represents a decisive advantage over recent contributions to the debate about power in international relations because it incorporates both social relations of interaction and constitution, that is, both "power over" and "power to".
  4. Last, but hardly least, our taxonomy does not map precisely onto different theories of international relations. Scholars can and should draw from various conceptualizations of power that are associated with other theoretical schools.

Governance and Empire

Global Governance

Global governance is typically tied to institutionalized cooperation, coordination of convergent interests and the production of collective goods which has traditionally made analysing how power operates problematic. The proposed taxonomy sheds some light on the ways through which power operates.

Institutional power provides a conceptual starting point. First, global institutions have long considered and determined which issues are worth considering and which are not. Such decisions enable some actors to exercise control over others. Second, the institutional rules that establish a common focal point also generate unequal leverage or influence in determining collective outcomes which advantage certain actors at the expense of others. And the third is the ability of great powers to establish international institutions to further or preserve their interests and positions of advantage.

But institutional power, alone, does not tell the whole story. Great powers often exhibit compulsory power by determining the content and direction of global governance by using their decisive material advantages to determine what areas are to be governed. This extends to international organisations too. Even materially challenged actors are able to exercise compulsory power through unconventional, rhetorical and symbolic tactics.

Analysis of global governance needs to consider the constitutive aspects of global social life. Historical materialists point towards the liberal and capitalist character of global institutions and see structural power at work. The working of global governance reflects the underlying class structure. This class structure is perpetuated by the ideologies which foster a worldview that the current social order is desirable.

The concept of productive power as applied to global governance highlights how the discourses of international relations produce actors with associated social powers, self-understandings, and performative practices. The practices of guiding and steering collective outcomes in global social life derive from the social identities of the actors so engaged. The human rights regime, for example, is an expression of a discursively constituted world.

Although these different concepts of power illuminate different ways in which power operates in global governance, there is an important difference between the first two and the last two that affects how we think about governance: the first two concern who governs in global governance, whereas the latter two concern not who governs, but instead how the governing capacities of actors are produced, how those capacities shape governance processes and outcomes, and how bodies of knowledge create subjects that are to be, at least in part, self-regulating and disciplined.

American Empire

The American empire pivots around compulsory power. The ability — and post 9/11, willingness — of the US to use its overwhelming resources to directly shape the actions of others has been made abundantly clear. In fact, the willingness to unilaterally take action has been argued to signal the new status of the US as an empire.

However, the longevity of American hegemony after World War II is attributable to the construction of multilateral institutions — an expression of institutional power — with democratised and autonomous decision-making processes which nonetheless reflect American interests. These multilateral institutions mobilise bias to serve US purposes. The United States exercises power indirectly through institutions.

The role of structural power in US hegemony entails an exploration of the US as an imperial centre structurally constituted by relations of material production. Its capitalist clout creates a particular set of social positions and practices. The deterritorialised nature of capitalism extends these practices to a global rule which is perpetrated through tactics of coercion or through attempts at generating consent regarding the order of things.

In terms of productive power, the development of new discourses like human rights, equality and democracy along with participatory decision-making processes have played an important role. These transformative discursive and material processes have created the American empire which extends a diffuse network of hierarchy designed to privilege and pacify the multitudes. The US, being seen as a responsible and benevolent actor on the global stage, is the ultimate embodiment of productive power.


International relations scholars have erred by fixating on one conception of power. The wise thing would be to consider and utilise the various conceptual forms of power here presented to capture the different and interrelated ways in which actors are enabled and constrained by their circumstances.



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