Concept of Power in Political Science

Power is the crux of politics, local, national, and international. Since the beginning of human power has been occupying the central position in human relations. To comprehend international politics and relations, studying the concept of power in political science is a must.

The relation between the state and power is very close. In the words of Hartman, power lurks in the background of all relations between sovereign states.

In this way, all inter-state relations are ultimately relations of power politics.

Politics is nothing other than the pursuit and exercise of power, and that political relations are mainly power relations. The study of international relations reveals that power has been the most crucial means for achieving national interests. That is why every nation wants to attain, maintain, and utilize power. It is both an end as well as means of international politics.

The position of a state in the comity of nations is determined not by its civilization or culture or literary contribution but by its power. Every state possesses power though in different amounts and kind. Thus, one cannot ignore power while studying international relations.

Meaning Nature And Concept Of Power In Political Science:

Power, Force, Influence, and Authority

Power, influence, authority, and capability are related terms and often used interchangeably and loosely. Such a user creates conceptual confusion. An attempt has been made to remove this confusion by defining each term separately in the following Paragraph.

In ancient India, the master of statecraft, Kautilya, wrote about power in the fourth century B.C. as the possession of strength (an attribute) derived from three elements: knowledge, military, and valor. Twenty-three centuries later, Hans Morgenthau, following Kautilya’s realistic line, preferred to define power as a relationship between two political actors in which actor A has the ability to control the mind and actions of the actor.

Thus, power, in the words of Morgenthau, may comprise anything that establishes and maintains control of man over man (and it) covers all social relationships which serve that end, from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another.

Power is viewed both as a set of attributes of a given actor and a relationship between two actors. The simple way to understand the concept of power is to see it as a relationship of independent entities. Similarly, the best way to Operationalize and measure a state’s capacity to exercise power is to look at its Specific attributes and elements, which can be easily measured.

Schwarzenberger defines it as the capacity to impose one’s will on others by reliance on effective sanctions in case of noncompliance. He distinguished it from both influence and force by considering it as containing a threat not present in influence and stopping short of force’s actual use.

While defining power, Schleicher also makes a distinction between power and influence. Power is the ability to make others do what they otherwise would not do by rewarding or promising to reward or by depriving or threatening to deprive them of something they value. But influence means to change others’ behavior through their consent by persuasion rather than through the exercise of coercion. In his own words, the Power relationship is marked clearly by the occurrence of threats; the influence relationship is manifested without threatened sanctions.

To Dahl, power is the ability to shift the probability of outcomes. According to him, A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do. Hartmann observes that power ma infests itself along the line of influence beginning with latent or unintended use of power (that is to say, persuasion) through conscious but regulated power (that is to say, pressure) and reaching up to its final gradation (that is to say, use of farce).

In brief, Duchacek defines it as the capacity to produce intended effects to realize one’s will. Thus, power is the ability to control others’ behavior following one’s own intentions and interests.

Couloumbis and Wolfe define power as an umbrella concept that denotes anything that establishes and maintains the control of Actor A over Actor B. Power, in turn, can be seen as having three important ingredients.

The first ingredient is force, which can be defined as the explicit threat or military, economic, and other instruments of coercion by Actor A against Actor B in pursuit of A political objectives.

The second ingredient is influence, which we define as the use of instruments of persuasion short of force by Actor A to maintain or alter the behavior of Actor B in a fashion suitable to the preferences of Actor A.

The third ingredient of power is authority, which we will define as Actor B voluntary compliance with directives (prescriptions, orders) issued by Actor A, nurtured by B perceptions regarding A-a such as respect, solidarity, affection, affinity, leadership, knowledge, expertise. They thus clarify the meaning not only of power but also of influence, force, and authority. They also depict the umbrella concept of power as follows:

Power and Authority: Definition, Nature and Theory


Some scholars like Lerche and Said have used the term capability instead of power because the latter lays over-emphasis on coercion, which they don’t like. According to them, the capability is always the ability to do something, to act purposefully in an actual situation. Power also implies this, and popularly power often becomes a status to which states aspire and which a few achieve.

Scholars sometimes think of a powerful state in the abstract, without considering how much they can actually do in an immediate action situation. Capability preserves the necessary nexus with policy and action that careless use of power often overlooks. For these reasons, they use the former term to refer to the overall action competence of states.

On the other hand, Couloumbis and Wolfe prefer to interpret capability as the tangible and intangible attributes of nation-states that permit them to exercise various degrees of power in their contacts with other actors. Technically the term power is distinct from the term capability. Most scholars prefer to use the term power. Respecting this preference, we will adhere to the term power in subsequent paragraphs.

National Power

The power possessed by a nation-state is known as a national power. In the words of Padelford and Lincoln, National power is the total of the strength and capabilities of a state harnessed and applied to the advancement of its national interests and attaining its national objectives.

In a formal sense, agrarian national power has been defined as the strength or capacity a sovereign state can use to achieve its national interests. This power alone enables a state to defend its interests in the long run and produce desired results. It is an indicator of the ability to influence opinion, human behavior, and the course of events outside its own frontiers.

According to Anam Jaitly, national power can influence people domestically and other nations externally toward certain desired national preferences and induce a favorable response from these sectors for accomplishing these preferences. It has an instrumental value for understanding higher national objectives in a competitive world.

In the Opinion of another Indian scholar Jangan, national power is the wherewithal or means of conducting nations’ foreign policies or pursuing national goals. He defined it as the capacity of nations to pursue different stakes territorial, political, economic, social, cultural, and those relating to prestige and goodwill.

National power taken in this sense is constituted by several elements, constituents, or factors. Ebenstein also defines national power in terms of its attributes and elements. According to him, National power is more than the total population, raw material, and quantitative factors. The alliance potential of a nation, its civic devotion, the flexibility of its institutions, its technical know-how, and it’s capacity to endure privation are but a few quantitative elements that determine the total strength. These elements and attributes of national power will be discussed in detail in the next.

Discussion on the nature and importance of power can be summed up in the words of Organski; Power, then, is the ability to influence others’ behavior by one’s own ends. Unless a nation can do this, she may be large, she may be wealthy, she may even be great, but she is not powerful.

Kinds Of Power:

There are three types of power, which are explained below:

1. Physical Power:

The military strength of a state is known as physical power. Both the USA and USSR are top-ranking power owing to their military might. The government of a state enjoys political power because of the military’s subordination to the political authority. Whenever this subordination is disturbed, military leadership or commander snatch political power.

It is exactly how various coup detaches occur in the world, and political power changes hands. As a result of the rapid technological development, the state’s physical power is divided among its different wings such as the armed force, the air force, the navy, and of late, the nuclear force with its missiles.

Separation of military power among different wings has provided some safeguard to political authority from the Usurpation of power by military leadership. It is also the cause of not providing any unified command of the three wings in India. There is no harm in increasing and consolidating military strength as it further enhances a nation’s power. But at the same time, concrete steps must be taken to make the military subordinate to political authority. The military should not be allowed to indulge in political affairs and activities.

2. Psychological Power:

It is a power over public opinion. It consists of symbolic devices that are utilized to appeal to the emotions of men. This power is identical to that of propaganda. It is an endeavor to regulate the thoughts and actions of others through propaganda. Propaganda is motivated and could be for good or evil. Power over opinion is essential for boosting the morale of the people at home, carrying on the psychological warfare abroad, and acquiring moral leadership everywhere.

Psychological power is used very tactfully. In India, the Republic Day Parade of the locally made tanks and weapons is meant to impress upon the other nations its growing military power. The Kremlin’s display of rockets and tanks on the occasion of the October Revolution’s anniversary was also a use of psychological power.

The governments use propaganda techniques to expand psychological power among the rival states’ population, many of which have their Special broadcasting services for overseas people. For example, All India Radio has external services in Russian, Chinese, Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Pushtu, Nepali, English, etc.

The BBC, Voice of America, and Tashkent Radio have extensive overseas service in foreign languages. Psychological power is usually employed to weaken the opponent countries by spreading disloyalty among their people and instigating t2hem against their governments.

3. Economic Power:

Economic power is the ability to control other nations’ behavior by having greater control over economic goods and services. A highly industrialized and economically sound country can influence the needy nations’ behavior by giving them economic aid and rewards and offering them capital and technical assistance. Economic development enhances a nation’s capacity to influence others through persuasion and enables it to resist persuasion and punishment by others. Both of them are important methods of power.

 An economically prosperous state possesses the ability to buy and sell, and both are used to increase a nation’s power through international trade. A state’s foreign trade is meant to increase another country’s economic dependence upon one’s own.

Nepal and Bhutan are dependent upon India for their trade. The US multinational companies control Latin American countries’ economies, and nearly two-thirds of their foreign trade is with the United States. A large share of Western Europe and Japan’s foreign trade has been with the US, and thus the economy of these countries has been made dependent upon smooth political ties with the US.

The developed countries follow what has been propagated as economic aid policy towards the developing countries. This aid policy has created a large stockpile of credit for developed Western countries among the developing countries but is proving to be of dubious political advantage.

Methods Of Exercising Power:

The question arises how can Nation A influence Nation B? How can it exercise power? There are four means and methods by which one nation can influence or control others as per its own desire. These are:

1. Persuasion:

It is the most common and widely used way of exercising power. In this method, what Nation A does is to influence Nation B through arguments or superior logic or redefine the whole situation so that Nation B changes its mind about what it ought to do. Most of the delegates of international organizations employ this method and persuade. Small nations largely rely on this less expensive method because they lack the power and means to coerce.

2. Rewards:

Nation A can regulate Nation B for doing what Nation A wants by offering its various rewards. Rewards for compliance may include psychological manipulation, material support, economic aid, military assistance, and political support. A diplomat may alter his stand to win the appreciation of his fellow diplomats from other nations. The rewards can be material in the shape of territory, military aid, weapons, troops, and training facilities. The rewards may be economical in the form of aid, loans, grants, capital supply, technical assistance, etc. Political rewards consist of support for another nation’s viewpoint in international conferences and forums. 

3. Punishment:

Reward and punishment have a close relationship. The most effective punishment is to with old reward. Punishment may also include hostile activities like unfriendly propaganda, diplomatic opposition, and aid to the enemy of the state concerned. It, however, should be threatened in advance and not actually carried out. The most effective punishment is rarely meted out because the very threat succeeds in preventing the action which the punishes disapproves of. As a last resort, if it is to be carried out, it should be given in such a way that it can be withdrawn at once when the offending party changes and subscribes to the way shown by the punishing Party

4. Force:

Punishment is Usually threatened as a preventive measure, but it becomes the use of force when it is actually carried out. Thus, punishment and force are not strictly separated from each other through some distinction from the viewpoint of prevention and actuality. The intensity of hostility between these two is made for analysis. The most extreme form of the use of force is war. Force is always used as the last resort when the above three methods prove futile.

It can be repeated for the sake of clarification that the first two methods, persuasion and reward constitute influence during the last two, punishment and force, form power. The analysis of these four means reveals that what distinguishes power from influence is Coercion or force.

Dimensions Of Power:

Deutsch gives three dimensions of power that can be easily measured and allow analysis to quantify and rank the nation-states’ actual and projected capabilities. In brief, these dimensions are as follows:

1. Domain of Power:

Domain answers the question, over whom power is exercised. Power is often exercised over people, territory, and wealth. The domain can be divided into internal domain and external domain. In the context of international relations, only the external domain is relevant. It means the ability of nation-states to exercise their power outside their territorial limits. For instance, the US’s external domain would comprise all other NATO, ANZUS Treaty and OAS, and some other states that have entered into bilateral defense pacts or understanding with the US.

Like the concept of the external domain, Rosenau has propounded the concept of penetration, which he defines as a process in which members of one polity serve as participants in the political process. Some of the pointers to penetration are the number of basic and facilities a country maintains in other states, the size of military missions in other states, the quantity of foreign aid given, etc. Penetration manifests itself in colonialism, Neo-colonialism, imperialism, and dependency.

2. Range of Power:

Deutsch defines range as the difference between the highest reward (or indulgence) and the worst punishment (or deprivation) which a power holder can bestow (or inflict) upon some person in his domain. The range also has internal and external components. Within its territory, a state may control its people by benign and tyrannical measures. Governments can exercise power over their subjects both through rewards as well as punishment. The rewards include welfare measures, democratic rights, facilities, etc. Punishment can be given to those who disobey the government. In the external range, colonialism and Neo-colonialism could be regarded as the external analog of tyranny.

On the other hand, a mutually beneficial alliance or an equitable economic cooperation structure among nation-states is more akin to a just and benign national government. A powerful state can punish a weak country directly or indirectly if the latter does not follow the former’s line. Such punishment may stretch from hostile propaganda to military intervention. On the other hand, the reward can be in the form of economic, military, and diplomatic help.

3. Scope of Power:

In Deutsch’s words, the scope of power is the set or collection of all the particular kinds of classes of behavior, relations, and affairs that are effectively subjected to governmental power. This collection embraces all the types of activities a government seeks to control, domestic and foreign. The technological revolution has substantially increased the internal and external scope of power. In the present times, the external control has taken various forms and become subtle and complex. A powerful state can now exercise power over the other state without firing a single shot.

For example, most Latin American countries are economically and politically controlled by the US, albeit they are not its formal colonies. Multinational corporations play a role in this machination of dependency and interdependence.

Today, countries depend on one another for such important things as technologies, energy materials such as oil, uranium, natural gas, investment capital, managerial personnel, unskilled labor, military equipment, and information processing systems.

Role And Use Of Power:

A nation may use power in international relations for various purposes; the chief among them are:

National security:

Defense of its territory and sovereignty is the main purpose of any modern state. National security is the vital national interest and a major determinant of every nation’s foreign policy. Power plays a significant role in achieving this purpose and vital interest. Every nation has a department or ministry in charge of the defense of the country. This shows how all states feel that military or physical power must be possessed in the interest of national security. Many nations have fought defensive wars.

A defensive war may be pre-emptive or preventive. Pre-emptive war is initiated by a defensive power to forestall an attack believed to be imminent. Military might and preparedness are essential to deter opponents’ interference, or if they do occur to stop them. During the cold war days, the USA justified her large nuclear stockpile because it is necessary as a deterrent power.

The US sought to deter the Soviet Union by making it known that her nuclear striking force could survive a surprise attack and capable of taking equally destructive retaliatory steps. During Gulf War (1991), the US protected its vital interests and compelled Iraq forces to vacate Kuwait with its superior and sophisticated defense forces.

Preserving Status Quo:

The status quo policy aims to preserve the distribution of power prevalent at any time in history. The moment in history taken as a reference for pursuing the status quo policy is, often, the termination of the war. After the end of a war, a peace treaty is signed, indicating the new shift in power. Nations following the status quo policy utilize power to preserve the new shift in the balance of power. For example, from 1815 to 1848, certain European governments pursued a status quo policy, using their power to defend the Peace Settlement of 1815—the U.S.A. Monroe Doctrine (1823) and Truman Doctrine (1946) are other examples of using power for maintaining the status quo in the American hemisphere and West Europe, respectively. The policy of the status quo permits minor changes. But a major change altering the nation’s supreme position Pursuing the policy will not be tolerated by it.

Changing the Status Quo:

Nations also use the power to change the status quo in their favor or pursue a policy of imperialism. Any effort to change the existing distribution of power in its favor means that the state follows a policy of imperialism. The most open and crude type of imperialism is military imperialism.

Today, it is replaced by other more covert forms of imperial policy, such as economic and cultural imperialism. Alexander, Napoleon, Hitler, and more recently, Saddam Hussain used military power for their expansion. At times even nations claiming to fight defensive wars, as the allies in World Wars, may be tempted to have a treaty which not merely restores the pre-war balance but a new balance in its favor, for instance, the Treaty of Versailles which endeavored to keep Germany permanently weak. At times, the existence of a power vacuum or weak neighbors may tempt powerful states to take an interest in those areas. Military adventure as a method of using power is a gamble.

It may succeed or may be lost. Economic imperialism or neocolonialism is less obtrusive. Economic expansion may be controlling foreign markets, exporting capital, providing economic aid and loans, and operating multinational corporations. Another Subtle way of changing the status quo is cultural imperialism. It does not indulge in the conquest of territory and its forcible retention, nor economic penetration; instead, it endeavors o change the existing balance of power by conquering people’s minds.

This is achieved through propaganda. Just as nations find it necessary to be armed and ready to meet any military aggression, they also use their power to counter economic and cultural expansion.

Use in Diplomacy:

A nation’s diplomats also utilize power. Diplomats of a powerful country act more confidently in their diplomatic activities than diplomats of the less powerful states. Power helps nations at the negotiation table. It enables a nation to advance its particular claims or to resist the claims of other nations. The Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung once wrote: Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.

Likewise, it can be said that diplomatic strength comes out of political power. If a country is powerful, its diplomats can effectively employ the means of persuasion and reward. Their threat of punishment and use of force will carry more weight during diplomatic negotiations and maneuvering.

Enhancing Prestige:

Various states use power to enhance their prestige in the world. Enhancement is related to the show and demonstration of power. For this reason, nations occasionally display power and strength before the other nations of the world in various ways.

On such occasions as Independence Day or Republic Day, where dignitaries and diplomats are watching, military demonstrations serve to impress on them the inviting country’s military preparedness. When the USA tested the atom bombs in the Pacific in 1946, she invited many foreign dignitaries to see the fact that the USA was bombing a group of ships larger than many of the world’s navies.

Another frequently employed method of demonstrating the power and at the same time solidarity or friendship with another nation is the exchange of fleets or visits of armed ships to the harbors of friendly countries. The timing of such visits or exchanges is also significant.

If just before the outbreak of hostilities or when a country is being threatened, the visits are meant to show the potential enemy that he will have to face the combined force of two nations. On all other occasions, such exchanges serve to show the world that the country is interested in the region’s affairs and has power, which it will use when necessary.

Finally, a nation may exhibit its power and will to use it by calling for partial or total mobilization. When it feels threatened by an enemy, a nation seeks to convince the enemy and the rest of the world that it means to defend itself and that it has an adequate workforce for this purpose. Thus, the prestige or reputation for military might and preparedness is used by countries to their advantage.

But sometimes, there should not be a wide gap between the apparent prestige and real power. To follow a policy of falsehood is perilous, while to neglect prestige is to lose the opportunity to put to full use the power at one’s disposal.

 Serving National Interests:

Power is used to fulfill vital national interests such as national security and independence, preserve the status quo and prestige, etc., and accomplish other national interests. These may be geographical, political, economic, social, educational, scientific, technical, strategic, cultural, etc. Each country may have its own national interests according to its specific needs and conditions. Power alone can help achieve all these interests. The more powerful a country is, the easier it will be to achieve them than the other nations. Power is thus the main tool used by nations to fulfill their various national interests.


1. RH. Hartmann, ed. Readings in International Relations (New York 1967, 3rd ed.), p. 41.

2. Kautilya Arthasastm: Part II, trans. RP. Kangle, 2nd ed. (University of Bombay, 1972), p. 319.

3. Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle .for Power and Peace, 5th ed. (New York, 1973), p. 9.

4. George Schwarzenberger, Power Politics (New York.1951), P14.

5.Charles P. Schleicher, International Relations: Cooperation and Conflict (New Delhi, 1963), p. 252-53.

6.Robert Dahl, The Concept of Power, Behavioral Science, vol. 2., 1957, p. 201 -15.

7.Frederic Hartmann, Relations Among Nations (New York, 1963), p.175.

8.Duchacek, Conflict, and Cooperation among Nations (New York, 1961), p. 129.

9.Theodore A Couloumbis and James H. Wolfe, Introduction to International Relations: Power and Justice 3rd eds. (New Delhi, 1986), p. 86-87.

10.Charles o. Lerche, Jr. and Abdul A. Said, Concepts of International Politics (New Delhi, 1972, 2nd and.) p.62. 11.Ibid. p. 62-63.

12.Supra n. 9. p. 87.

13.N J Padelford & C.A. Lincoln, International Politics: Foundations of International Relations (New York, 1954) p. 193.

14.Supra n. 1, p. 41.

15.Anam  Jaitly, International Politics-Major Contemporary Trends, and Issues (New Delhi, 1984), p. 81 -82.

16.R.T.Jangam, An Outline of International Politics. (Calcutta, 1970), p. 27.

17.Quoted in LS. Srivastava and V.P. Joshi, International Politics and Relations (Meerut, n.a 3rd ed.), p. 62.

18. A.F.K Organski, World Politics (New York, 1958), p. 96.

19. Karl W. Deutsch, The Analysis of International Relations (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1968), p. 28.

20. James N. Rosenau, The Scientific Study of Foreign Policy (New York, 1971), pp. 151-96.

21. Deutsch, n. 19, p.32.

22. Ibid, p. 34.

23. Adi H. Doctor, International Relations – An Introductory Study (Delhi, 1969) p. 70.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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