Rethinking Security after the Cold War by Barry Buzan — A Summary

Title: Rethinking Security After the Cold War
Author: Barry Buzan
Publication: Cooperation and Conflict, Vol. 32, No. 1 (1997)

The Erosion of the Traditionalist Agenda and the Traditionalist Counterattack

The mature Cold War period saw the contraction of the initially[1] broad conceptualisation of security (in ideological, social, economic, and, of course, military terms) to just a military focus due to the pressure of the nuclear arms race.

By the 1980s, the wider agenda of security re-emerged. This was due to the efficacy of deterrence and the rise of the reformist Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, the rise of a community disinclined towards war (particularly Western Europe and Japan), and the growing public opinion against the effectiveness or even the usefulness of armed conflict, especially after the Vietnam War. The primacy of military security, the core traditionalist assumption, was being questioned.

At the same time, two issues hitherto relegated to the realm of low politics became increasingly “securitised” i.e., they came to be seen as security threats. They were the environment and the economy. There was growing awareness about dangers posed the environment (whether natural, like meteorites, or artificial, like pollution) to humankind. There was also alarm at the decline of US economic dominance[2] and the growing liberalisation which exposed national economies to stiff competition from powerful global corporations.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, it took down with it the whole military–political security agenda that had dominated world politics since the war. The concerns about the environment and economy were thus thrown into prominence.

The introduction of these two agendas into the conception of security attracted the traditionalist objection that progressive widening endangered the intellectual coherence of security. The fear was that such a widening would generate undesirable and/or counter-productive effects.

Many traditionalists, in light of the changed political and economic landscape, relaxed their state-centric positions but asserted the primacy of military security and allowed widening only in so far as it could be related to the use of military force.

In the new security agenda, the state remains central but it has become less important. New institutions, regimes, and sets of rules have taken vital seats alongside the state. At the same time, sources of threats are diversifying. Security concerns are becoming less monolithic and global but more diverse and local.

The Copenhagen School Framework

Security issues, according to the Copenhagen school, are “threats or vulnerabilities … (that are) staged as existential threats (ozone depletion/Pakistani aggression) to a referent actor (humankind/the Indian state) by a securitising actor (scientists and, later, governments/the Indian state) who thereby generates endorsement for emergency measures (signing of the Montreal Protocol/declaration of National Emergency) beyond rules that would otherwise bind”.

All public issues can be located on a spectrum from non-politicised (state doesn’t care and doesn’t act) to politicised (state cares and acts) to securitised (state can and will do anything to deal with it). The insight is that any public issue — it doesn’t have to be military in nature — can be a security issue. It only has to be securitised i.e., raised from normal politics to “panic politics”.

Securitisation is a dramatization, a speech-act[3] where an issue is presented as one of supreme priority requiring extraordinary measures. This is not an objective task figuring ‘real’ threats but rather an intersubjective task more about ‘perceived’ and, in many cases, fabricated threats. This is because objective standards for triggering securitisation cannot be arrived at (except for unambiguous and immediate threats) and even if they could be, it is unlikely that they would be helpful.[4]

This particular understanding of security can be applied to a wide variety of sectors (political, economic, societal and environmental) in addition to the traditional military sector without losing the essence of the concept. Widening the scope of security, in other words, need not mean diluting its coherence.

But what, for example, constitutes an “existential threat” and what functions as the “referent object” will differ in different sectors. There is no universal standard. In the military sector, the referent object is usually the state which can be threatened by anything from external aggressors to internal dissidents. But in the environmental sector, referent objects range from individual species up to the planet itself which are more or less threatened by humans and, to an extent, nature itself.

Being an intersubjective process, securitisation underlines the responsibility of those actors and analysts talking about security. That any public issue can be a security issue does not mean that every issue ought to be a security issue. The costs of panic politics should be understood and the allure of prioritisation, tempered. The ultimate goal is to reap the benefits of desecuritisation.

In terms of its relation to the Critical and Traditional perspectives, the Copenhagen school lies somewhere in between. It believes that what is socially constituted gets sedimented as structure which for the purposes of security studies becomes the object of analysis. This is closer to the objectivist traditional position rather than the critical position which cannot conceive of referent objects outside the constructivist paradigm. But with regards to security issues themselves, it is even more radically constructivist than the critical perspective in that it holds security to always be a political construction.

The traditional perspective is objectivist in its approach to security actors and security itself. Only in so far as the traditional perspective sees threats as objective is it incompatible with the Copenhagen school. Otherwise, the former could subsist with its narrower frame within the latter.

Also, the Copenhagen perspective could dissolve the boundary between Security Studies and International Political Economy by extending security issues into the scope of IPE and helping IPE confront security aspects of its agenda and also by making the expertise in IPE available to Security Studies.

The Politics of Security and the Problem of Widening

Excessive securitisation produces autism and paranoia. It stifles civil society, creates an intrusive and coercive state and is eventually harmful for the economy and security itself.

The liberal project has been to desecuritise the economic realm which would then spill over into the military–political relations. Such a shift is manifest in the EU. This movement however is geared only towards the marginalisation of military power from influencing other sectors.

The liberal equation of demilitarisation and desecuritisation fuelled Cold War power politics and led to military over-securitisation. At the same time, it led to the legitimisation of liberal imperial over-reach in economic matters while simultaneously de-legitimising non-military security threats of weaker states.

It is this context of the immense success of the liberal project in which the call for a widening of security, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ascendance of a truly open world economy, emerges as a necessary response. The danger of securitisation remains. It could even be argued that widening proliferates security issues. But thanks to its contructivist notion of security, the Copenhagen school grants the ability to question and politicise each issue, unlike the traditional perspective which limited but naturalised security issues.

Here is Prof. Ole Waever (one-half of the Copenhagen School) explaining Securitisation Theory.


[1] i.e. early Cold War period.

[2] This challenge came from rapidly developing Japan and Western Europe and was exacerbated by US dependence on imported oil.

[3] By this he (Ole Waever) means that labelling something as a security issue imbues it with a sense of importance and urgency that legitimizes the use of special measures outside of the usual political process to deal with it. [Steve Smith, ‘The Increasing Insecurity of Security Studies’ from Croft & Teriff (2000) Critical Reflections on Security and Change]

[4] “Different states and nations have different thresholds for defining a threat: Finns are concerned about immigration at a level of 0.3% foreigners, where Switzerland functions with 14.7%.”

Westphalia, Authority, and International Society by Daniel Philpott — A Summary

Title: Westphalia, Authority, and International Society
Author: Daniel Philpott
Publication: Political Studies, Vol. 47, No. 3 (1999)

The paper seeks to develop the concept of the constitution of international society so as to make sense of the changes that are taking place — especially of the alleged erosion of sovereignty — and also to enable comparisons with previous changes in international authority.

The Constitution of International Society

A constitution of international society is a ‘set of norms’ mutually agreed upon by the members of the society that define the holders of authority and their prerogatives, specifically in answer to who the legitimate polities are, how to become one of these polities, and what the basic prerogatives of these polities are. Constitutions of international society are both legitimate and practiced.

(The constitutions) are authors of orders, denoting the polities who carry on war and business, and the contours of their powers; they are etchers of blueprints, resembling the rules of baseball, which define the nine players, their strictures and allowances, the meaning and regulation of pitches, outs, strikes, steals, and balls.

Q. Are these ‘constitutions’ really constitutions? I mean, they are rarely fully developed nor do they command the requisite respect.

Ans. Yes. Of course, unlike domestic ‘constitutions’, they are neither comprehensive nor unified. In fact, they are “strewn among separate treaties, conventions and customary law”. But they are constitutional in that they define — internationally — the legislative, executive and judicial powers of polities.

Also, it is the international constitutions that define the state as a polity within the society and give it its internal and external realms. They provide the framework that gives identity to the states

Q. But aren’t international constitutions, since they are “strewn amongst separate treaties”, foreign to idealistic design? I mean, constitutions are, really, designed with, always, certain ideals in mind.

Ans. They don’t have to be ‘designed’ in the sense that national constitutions are. The insistence on a constitution of international society is not an insistence on some grand idealistic contraption nor an insistence on the cause of its genesis but instead an insistence on something taken for granted, like the fact of sovereignty — a form of constitutional authority — which is assumed in all international transactions.

International societies establish common rules and institutions for the conduct of their relations. And those rules and institutions that define the basic constitutional authority of the member polities make up the constitution.

The Three Faces of Authority

The First Face of Authority

The first face defines the legitimate polities (states, kingdoms, the Caliphate, the Papacy) of an international society. This recognition is, in the present day, accorded only to sovereign states.

Sovereignty is supreme authority within a territory. This broad yet discrete formulation captures the elements of sovereignty: supremacy, legitimacy and territoriality.

The variants of sovereignty can be understood based on three attendant categories. First, by virtue of who wields the sovereign power: namely, an individual, a triumvirate, a committee, the General Will etc. Second, by virtue of the complementary pair of internal and external sovereignty which necessarily co-exist. And third, by virtue of the differentiation between absolute and non-absolute: France may be supreme in defence but is not in trade.

The Second Face of Authority

This face defines the rules for membership: who can join and attain the status of a legitimate polity in the society. This face includes as well as excludes. It lays down the privileges accorded to its members and the terms of engagement with outsiders.

The Third Face of Authority

The third face defines the fundamental powers of the members. While this face is not necessary for the polity’s legitimacy, it nonetheless exists prior to entering into membership.

But What Exactly are Constitutions of International Society?

The ‘set of norms’ (see the first sentence under the section ‘The Constitution of International Society’) comprising constitutions of international society consists of rules which are ‘viewed as obligatory by the broad majority of people living under them and which are usually customarily practiced’.

Two points emerge: (i) these rules are legitimate — decolonisation was legitimated in a 1960 UN Declaration — and (ii) they are adhered to — attendant upon the UN Declaration on colonies was an actual freeing of colonies.

Characteristics of International Behaviour

This dual characteristic of legitimacy and practice mirror the de jure and de facto aspects of sovereignty.

Constitutions are not only about power. Those who trumpet the downfall of sovereignty view it as coercive power i.e. they concentrate on its de facto aspect. This approach is mistaken because sovereignty is not merely a function of power. Firstly, sovereignty depends upon recognition by other states. Secondly, sovereignty is not affected by variances in power — Burundi is no less sovereign than the US despite their power differential. And thirdly, equating sovereignty with power would make it (sovereignty) redundant and meaningless.

Constitutions are not agreements between already constituted polities that constrain their actions but do not cede any constitutional authority. They are also not agreements between only two or a few polities which fail short of revising an international constitution.

A Brief History of Constitutions of International Society in the West

Major Constitutional Revolutions Since the Middle Ages

Towards A System of Sovereign States

The Revolution at Westphalia

Westphalia was a consolidation of the elements of sovereign statehood that had existed for centuries. It defined the state as the legitimate European polity — sovereignty’s first face — whose sovereignty was indicated in its (Westphalia’s) separate provisions and in the practice of these provisions. It also laid down the conditions of stable government, control within their territory, ability to negotiate and fulfil treaties and a Christian culture. It led to, although not explicitly provided for, non-intervention becoming the expected state practice.

Westphalia in short revised all three faces of authority and remains the most significant revolution in sovereignty to date.

Westphalian Europe and the Rest of the World

The Westphalian system was extended over the course of the next three centuries all over Europe. Polities outside Europe however were either rivals and trading partners — China in the 17th– and 18th-centuries and the Ottoman Empire up to the 19th-century, less than equal but not fully subordinate — China and the Ottoman Empire in late 19th– and early 20th-century, or completely subordinated — colonies around the world.

These categories of polities existed in different proportions at different times in the three centuries after Westphalia. Overtime, rivals declined and colonies multiplied.

Also, the rules of membership — the second face of sovereignty — evolved. Secularisation made Christian culture unnecessary but others like guarantee of basic rights, capacity for defence and adherence to international law emerged.

The Rise of Colonial Independence

After 1960, the criteria for becoming a state was widened and weakened. Colonies — although nations or tribes within colonies were left out — became independent riding on the promises of self-determination made by the UN. This revision of the second face of authority reveals its significance in the sheer scale of its impact as 78 colonies became sovereign and entered the international society between 1955 and 1970.

Away from a System of Sovereign States

The move away from a system of sovereign states entails a circumscription of sovereign statehood and happens through the following major revolutions — minority treaties, European integration and internationally sanctioned intervention.

Minority Treaties

This is the signing of treaties by states to guarantee protection of ethnic, religious and racial minorities in their territories as a condition for recognition by other states. This revised the second and third faces of authority.

The Return of European Unity

The creation of the European Coal and Steel Company in 1950, and its subsequent expansion into the European Union, redefined all three faces of authority. A new political authority other than the state — the EU — has become legitimate. The EU constitution prescribes definite criteria for admission. It also carefully distributes decision-making powers on different matters among the states and the Union’s many committees.

Internationally Sanctioned Intervention

The increasing use of military force by the UN or other organisations against a state to remedy an injustice, to end a civil war, to enforce democratic elections or for humanitarian causes without the consent of the target state has significantly revised the norm of non-intervention developed after Westphalia. This revision has significant implications for the third face of authority in that the states are no longer truly sovereign in their prerogatives.

Other Circumscriptions of Sovereignty

Minor constitutional revisions like the Holy Alliance during the Napoleonic Wars, the struggles for self-determination outside the colonial context and the European Convention on Human Rights (1953) have proven significant in their normative influence if not in their actual impacts on state actions.


The concept of the constitution of international society offers us a way of characterizing international relations, not by its distribution of power, not by its economic openness, not by its mechanisms for resolving conflict or maintaining peace, but by its very configuration of constitutional authority.

The expansion of the EU and the increasing incidence of intervention have rewritten long-standing features of Westphalia. But the EU is geographically bounded and its reach is most visible only in the economic domain leaving other affairs to state authority. The UNSC, especially thanks to the veto of its permanent members, mitigates reckless intervention. Westphalia’s enduring strength is thus clear.

Where the state's authority is challenged, it is challenged significantly, but the challenge extends only to certain matters in certain places.

Has Globalisation Ended the Rise and Rise of the Nation-State? by Michael Mann — A Summary

Title: Has Globalisation Ended the Rise of the Nation-State?
Author: Michael Mann
Publication: Review of International Political Economy, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1997)

The social sciences, in recent decades, have seen the emergence of a group of ‘enthusiasts’ who are already writing ‘epitaphs’ for the nation-state. These enthusiasts, mostly from west-Europe, despite their differences, are united by the conviction that contemporary changes are eating away at the foundations of the nation-state undermining its power. These ‘contemporary changes’ are the transformations brought about by globalisation and capitalism which in turn rest on the ‘technological-informational innovations’ of current times which have made transport rapid and communication instantaneous.

But is it really the case? Four theses are raised by these enthusiasts.

  1. Capitalism which has become truly global is undermining the nation-state by influencing macroeconomic planning, welfare programmes and citizen identity.
  2. New global issues — environment, population, pandemics — which cannot be handled by the nation-state alone are emerging.
  3. Identity politics, especially aided by new technology, is increasing the prominence of local and transnational identities at the expense of national identities.
  4. Post-nuclearism has rendered mass mobilised warfare irrelevant undermining state sovereignty and hard politics.

The article will examine the veracity of these theses. It will also consider the following counter-theses.

  1. State institutions are still effective in providing the necessary conditions for social existence.
  2. The variety of states — i.e. their differences in power, size, geography, development, type of government etc. — can work to limit the effects and reach of capitalism and globalization.

These counter-theses cannot be denied. The nation-state in being transformed, no doubt, but the task is to find out how and to what degree it is being transformed.

Before investigating that, however, some conceptual distinctions need to be made between the following socio-spatial networks of social interaction in the world today:

  1. local networks — subnational networks of interaction;
  2. national networks — territorially bounded (by the nation-state) networks of interaction;
  3. inter-national networks — relations between nationally-constituted networks;
  4. transnational networks — networks passing right through national boundaries unaffected; and
  5. global networks — networks that cover the whole world (or most of it).

Over the last centuries, local interaction networks have been superseded by longer-distance networks — national, inter-national and transnational.

Since national and inter-national networks are constituted or fundamentally constrained by the nation-state, the future of the nation-state thus turns critically upon the answer to two questions: Is the social significance of national and inter-national networks declining relative to some combination of local and transnational networks? And to the extent that global networks are emerging, what is the relative contribution to them of national/inter-national versus local/transnational networks?

The ‘Modest Nation-State’ of the North

In ‘northwest’ Europe, there arose a state claiming political sovereignty over its territories and also legitimacy through the people (or nation) inhabiting them. This was the ‘nation-state’. From initial monopoly of judicial regulation and military force, the nation-state expanded its control to include communications infrastructures and management of the poor during the 19th-century and then onto welfare programmes, macroeconomic planning and nationalist citizen mobilization in the 20th-century. Meanwhile, these nation-states became locked into national interaction networks supplemented by inter-national relations between each other. This is the story of the ‘rise and rise’ of the nation-state and the nation-state system.

But simultaneously, there was a growth of transnational capitalism and cultural identities which developed a complex relationship of relative autonomy and symbiotic interdependence with the nation-states. Meanwhile, the nation-states also lost certain functions as most of the social and economic life remained or became private and as they became more secular, nation-states lost control over moral regulation. Thus, only a ‘modest nation-state’ became dominant. In the 20th-century, it defeated the multi-national empire, fascism and socialism and diffused across the rest of the ‘the north’. This ‘modest-nation state’, in some limited sense, seems to dominate the globe. Is this threatened?

The Capitalist Threat

In a formal geographical sense, capitalism is now more or less global, having massively expanded thanks to decolonization and the collapse of the USSR. But capitalist networks are not truly global. These seemingly global networks are for the most part constituted by local interaction networks and supported by national and inter-national networks. Many of the economic networks are systematically structured by the nation-state. Finance is more transnational with speculative trading sloshing through state boundaries freely. But its institutions are marked by a bureaucratic regularity which is noticeably national in character.

What about Europe? Firstly, Europe is an extreme case. Secondly, its capitalist interaction networks are marked by a symbiosis of both transnational and national interaction networks. And thirdly, the transnational relations are more trilateral than they are global, as they are concentrated between Europe, North America and East Asia. Also, the global economy is subject to inter-national regulation through institutions like the IMF and World Bank.

It is thus clear that what adds up to the global is actually a very complex mix of the local, the national, the inter-national and the transnational.

The constraints of finance capital — in no small part due to its mobility, velocity and quantity — on the fiscal policy of nation-states is greatly emphasised. But the significance of these claims is difficult to assess. For one, the sheer quantity of financial flows which vastly exceeds world trade actually tells us precious little about power relations. Also, it is unclear whether nation-states, even when they were able to be interventionist, were ever effective at macro-economic planning.

North America is dominated by the USA. The US is an unusual state whose federal government controls only slightly planned agriculture, industrial-military and health sectors while most welfare services are left to the local ‘state’ governments. There is little macroeconomic planning by any level of government given the difficulties of coordinating between a President and his Cabinet, the Congress, the Judiciary and the fifty states. It is, thus, empty to talk of declining US government powers as they were never exercised actively in the first place. In fact, American organisations are becoming more nationally integrated in the wake of increasing immigration.

Capitalist transformations have of course influenced the US. This is most visible in the formation of NAFTA between the US, Canada and Mexico. But NAFTA reflects as much the effect of capitalist transformation as it does the geopolitical dominance of the US.

East Asia, economically dominated by Japan, is marked by its state-market coordination, political stability and advanced civil society all of which is supported by phenomenal economic growth. As such, governments are more assertive and are even protective of national industries. None of which, by the way, seem to deter corporations from setting up shop there.

Europe has experienced significant transformation. European nations are losing the power to effect varying national policies. Decisions are being taken at Brussels. While the initial intent was geopolitical and military, the economic mechanisms that bound the EU intensified the transformation. The European economy is substantially transnationalised.

But the EU remains an association of nation-states and does not preclude specific geopolitical arrangements between states. And while economically weaker states appear to have lost much of their sovereignty, they are still represented. Also the EU agenda is ‘soft-geopolitics’ which is still structured by inter-national and the attendant national networks of interaction.

The south can be penetrated by capitalist transformation only if the requirements of stable government, social order, education and health reach a minimum. But what organisation can provide these if not the nation-state?

What if the economy became truly global and trade became truly free? Would it amount to a single transnational/global economy? Yes and no. Yes, because a single global market would emerge and commodity penetration would increase. But even so, a significant portion of the market would still be dominated by nation states — for example, the US government monopolizes (and will continue to do so) the three largest sectors in the economy: defence, health and illicit drugs.

The conclusion is that even though capitalism appears significantly global, its globalism is a combination of both the transnational and the inter-national.

Environmental Limits,
New Social Movements and a
New Transnational Civil Society

The threat of environmental destruction which has been made possible by mankind’s exploitation of nature looms large on the entire world. Pollution, population growth, water scarcity, climate change etc. pose a great threat to humanity.

Present responses to these environmental issues come from two sources. The first are local-transnational pressure groups and NGOs. They are spreading globally and they often outflank national and international capital during their activities. The second are inter-governmental agencies seeking to generate coordinated policy decisions through soft geopolitics. While the first may transcend nation-states, the latter works by coordinating nation-states.

Ethnic politics are too variable to be dealt with in a few paragraphs (and I am writing about them at length elsewhere). So, one sentence will do here: ethnic politics may fragment existing states, but — given the defeat of alternative multinational and socialist states — they fragment them into more, supposedly more authentic, nation-states.

The modern state, unlike the ‘modest nation-state’ which stayed out of private life, is becoming more active in moral, welfare and social legislation. The new identity movements — based on sexuality, religion or gender — often involve transnational interaction networks; but within their own nation-states, they are demanding more regulation increasing the consequence of national politics.

Post-Militarism and a New World Order

The two world wars pioneered weapons so destructive that states are no longer interested in wholesale war. The backbone of the nation-state has, it is argued, been turned into jelly. This holds true for Europe — the instigator and victim of the great wars.

The US meanwhile remains the global policeman, able and willing to use its overwhelming powers, especially after 9/11, despite sustained cuts to its defence budget. The world continues to remain conflict-ridden — India-Pakistan tensions, ethnic separatism, China’s rise to power, the prevalence of military regimes and so on. It’s unlikely that militarism will become irrelevant.


We must beware the more enthusiastic of the globalists and transnationalists. With little sense of history, they exaggerate the former strength of nation-states; with little sense of global variety, they exaggerate their current decline; with little sense of their plurality, they downplay inter-national relations.

The scope of the networks of interaction are too wide and the patterns, too contradictory to lead to either the conclusion that the nations-state and the nation-state system is strengthening or weakening. Local networks are declining and global networks are strengthening but the trend is neither singular nor systematic but rather variable and uneven.

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 —–

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

Title: Power in International Politics
Authors: Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall
Publication: International Organization, Vol. 59, No. 1 (Winter, 2005)


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.