Power and International Relations by David A. Baldwin — A Summary

Title: Power and International Relations
Author: David A. Baldwin
Publication: Carlsnaes, Walter, Thomas Risse and Beth A. Simmons. eds. (2002) Handbook of International Relations. London: Sage Publications

The role and nature of power remain thoroughly discussed yet still unresolved topics in international relations. The only agreement concerns the unsatisfactory state of knowledge regarding the role of power and the necessity of addressing it.

Power and the Study of International Politics

All politics is about power in the sense that all politics involves power. This is not to say that politics is only about power. Traditionally, the states with the most military power — the Great Powers — partook in international politics. The 18th-century saw the inclusion of additional parameters like “population, territory, wealth armies and navies” which evolved into the “elements of national power” approach introduced by Morgenthau. States were depicted as seeking to maximize power relative to each other. This approach produced the “balance of power” analysis which assumes the possibility of calculating power distribution amongst states by adding up the elements of power.

The Power Analysis Revolution

The latter half of the 20th-century saw the development of a new approach that looked at power as a relation between actors rather than, as the earlier notion of ‘elements of national power’ did, as a possession of actors.

Dimensions of Power

The shift to a relational concept made power a multidimensional concept.

SCOPE The aspects of B’s behaviour affected by A. This implies that an actor’s power on different issues may vary.

DOMAIN The number of Bs that are subject to the influence of A.

WEIGHT The likelihood that B’s behaviour will be changed.

COSTS The costs to both A and B in the exercise of the power relation.

MEANS The ways through which A can exercise influence over B: symbolic, economic, military and diplomatic.

There is no agreement on which dimensions should be considered. At a minimum, however, any meaningful enquiry must include at least scope and domain. This multidimensionality creates the problem of measurement as there is no standard measuring unit. Estimates of an actor’s power have therefore been always controversial.

Faces of Power

The ‘Faces of Power’ debate discussed whether control of agendas and of desires and thoughts could be taken into account while studying power. These two matters can be easily accommodated in the basic causal concept of power — Dahl’s formulation. A can cause B to do something that B would otherwise not do by controlling B’s agenda (options) or by affecting B’s thoughts and preferences. A reconceptualisation of power is not necessary.

International Power Analysis

Despite the increasing consensus on the relational power approach, the elements of national power approach remains deeply embedded in international relations literature. This has created problems in the analysis of power.

The Potential Power Problem

The elements of national power approach treats power resources as power itself.  One problem with this approach is that what might be power assets in one situation may be liabilities in another. Discussing power capabilities without knowing who is trying to get whom to do what (the scope and domain, in other words) is akin to discussing what a good hand is without knowing which card game is being played. Focusing on capabilities only draws attention to potential power.

The insistence on scope and domain, it has been suggested, makes prediction and generalization impossible. However, the specification of scope and domain can be done more or less broadly to suit the purpose of the analyst. They need not be unique and particularistic.

The Fungibility Problem

Fungibility refers to the ease with which power resources in one issue-area can be used in other issue-areas. Power resources vary highly in terms of fungibility as some resources are useful in many different issue-areas.

It has been suggested that fungibility increases as the amount increases. However, this suggestion does not tell us about the fungibility of any given resource. It only implies that powerful actors have more fungible resources than weak states.

The Problem of Intentions

Unintended effects of power are a reality in world politics. But they are not considered in many classical definitions of power. Relational power analysis, however, accounts for unintended effects. These effects have important consequences, beneficial or otherwise, for parties on both sides. Whether the effects are beneficial or detrimental should be answered by research.

The Measurement Problem

The desire to measure power often gets in the way of conceptual analysis. However, the lack of a standardised yardstick makes measurement and ranking exceedingly difficult forcing scholars to compare different dimensions of power without any agreed upon way to do it. A universally valid measure of power is an unachievable dream. If this dream is given up, much useful research can be done by concentrating on specific scopes and domains.

Power in International Relations Theory

Classic Balance of Power Theory

The balance of power theory fascinates theorists to this day. The concept, however, remains elusive and has been accused of having too many meanings. The only clarity concerns the depiction of power as a property rather than as a relation. This concept has been successful in so far as power is seen as a particular type of power resource used in a particular context.


Neorealism stresses the distribution of capabilities as a defining characteristic of the international system. These capabilities — population, territory, wealth, etc. — determine the overall rank of a state. But how these capabilities are to be defined and measured remains unanswered. The underlying standard for ranking states appears to be war-winning capability with the emphasis on force as the ultima ratio. The treatment of power and capability in neorealism seems to be highly confused and contradictory.

Current Issues

Military Power

The preoccupation with war has impoverished the field of international relations. Power rests on many different bases none of which may be said to be basic to the others. Non-military forms of power like economic statecraft has ironically limited the understanding of military statecraft itself.

Structural vs. Relational Power

Relational power has been criticised for neglecting structural power. However, if structural power is understood as unrelated to human agency, relational power represents a fundamentally different approach. But if it does entertain human agency in the form of unintended power or the control of structures, relational power can accommodate it by excluding intentionality (see The Problem of Intentions above) from the analysis or by specifying scope and domain.

Constructivism vs. Rationalism

Relational power approach has included both material and non-material bases of power. Wendt’s constructivism recognises, as a categorising criterion for international relations theories, brute material forces as well as ideas and cultural contexts as forms of power. Power analysis thus appears to be a point of convergence, not a bone of contention.

Power Analysis and Policy Relevance

Practitioners of politics are more swayed by the idea of power as resources. This is mainly because policymakers have extremely short time horizons are worried about particular wars in particular contexts.

But the Vietnam crisis showed the limitations of the notion of power as resources approach. In such a situation, a relational power approach would have been more useful.

It is correct to depict the elements of power as holding the high cards in the international poker game, but it is incorrect to imply that there is only one kind of game in international politics. If the game is bridge, the person with the good poker hand may be in big trouble. Policy makers need to know the name of the fame in order to evaluate the strength of their hands.

Future Research Directions

Power Relations as Dependent Variables

Scholars need to devote more attention to power as a dependent variable and focus on the distribution of influence, different issue areas and different time periods. The pertinent questions to be asked include ‘Who has power with respect to which other actors, on which issues?’ ‘By what means is power exercised?’ And ‘What resources allow states to exercise their power?’

Forms of Power

SOFT POWER Soft power is the ability to get others to do what you want by affecting their preferences. This concept has been useful in so far as it drives attention towards non-traditional forms of power but is nothing new. Further research on power must be rooted in the literature on relational power.

POSITIVE SANCTIONS Most research in international relations focusses on negative sanctions, i.e. actual or threatened punishments. Positive sanctions, i.e. actual or promised rewards and hold enormous potential for further research.

COMPARATIVE INFLUENCE TECHNIQUES The instruments of statecraft —  economic, diplomatic, military and symbolic — tend to be studied differently. This is a hindrance to both theory and policy. Policy-makers have little use for research in one technique of statecraft.

MILITARY FORCE Despite its preponderance in the literature on international politics, three problems deserve further research. First is the question of whether military force is declining. The second concerns the fungibility of military force. And the third concerns the question of how to define and measure military success.

Institutions and Power

Power can be exercised in the formation and maintenance of institutions. through institutions, within and’ among institutions. Institutions may reflect power relations, constrain them, or provide the basis, for their existence. The extent to which international institutions exercise power rather than reflect it provides a rich research agenda.

Domestic Politics

Even classic elements of national power approaches include national morale, quality of government, public support and political stability among the determinants of a country’s power. Questions concerning the effects of domestic politics on national power deserve further study and research.

Strategic Interaction and Bargaining

Defining power in terms of A causing a change in B’s behaviour is compatible with strategic interaction, but it neither calls attention to strategic interaction nor requires taking it into account. One of the most important research needs is linking the relational power literature with research on international strategic interaction.

Distribution of Power

How power should be distributed needs to be studied using the relational power approach. Rather than striving to produce a global ranking of the powers of countries or trying to identify a single overall international power structure, scholars should focus on power distributions within specified issue-areas and strive to identify multiple structures of power in different issue-areas.


—— A rehash of what has been stated —–


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