Foundations of theorizing of power in international relations

The nature, forms and uses of power stand as a central concern across international relations theory. As an inescapable dimension of global politics, conceptualizing power represents a vital scholarly enterprise spanning realist, liberal, radical and constructivist perspectives.

This article surveys seminal thinking on power in IR theory to elucidate its foundations and evolution as an object of theorization. It examines conceptual tensions and debates animating diverse approaches, including distinctions between material and ideational power, hard and soft power, relational versus structural notions, and symmetrical versus asymmetrical premises. The analysis outlines intellectual lineages while highlighting contemporary research frontiers and areas needing further interrogation.

Defining and Parsing Forms of Power

Power refers to the ability of actors to exert influence and control over outcomes, subjects or events to shape the world around them [1]. Max Weber broke down power into three ideal forms [2]:

  • Coercive power involves forcing compliance through threats.
  • Utilitarian power operates through material incentives and benefits.
  • Normative power works through persuasion to legitimacy.

Robert Dahl also delineated power’s properties [3]:

  • Scope: The number of areas an actor holds power over.
  • Domain: The places and contexts power operates.
  • Weight: The significance of areas power is exercised over.
  • Costs: The sacrifices and mobilization required to wield power.

These foundational efforts to delineate power’s modalities established bases for IR scholarship analyzing how states and other actors project influence internationally across military, economic and ideological forms [4].

Power as a Core Variable and Problem

Power represents a central variable across IR theory’s ontological debates on whether material or ideational factors shape global politics, its methodological development of techniques to measure power, and its substantive research on power dynamics underpinning war, order and institutionalized cooperation [5].

For realists, power is the overriding factor explaining state behavior in an anarchic system [6]. Liberals also acknowledge power but see it mollified by institutional constraints and interdependence [7]. Radicals center power but highlight financial and class power neglected by state-centric realism [8]. Constructivists foreground ideational power factors like norms, identity and discourse [9]. Power stands as both explanatory variable and core problematic across paradigms.

Thinkers have proposed various schema parsing forms and elements of power. Mann delineated ideological, economic, military and political power sources [10]. Lasswell outlined eight bases of power from force to moral appeals [11]. Barnett and Duvall’s taxonomy distinguished compulsory, institutional, structural and productive power [12]. Synthesizing multifaceted conceptualizations remains pivotal for theorizing power dynamics underpinning world order. We next examine intellectual lineages shaping IR perspectives.

Realist Lineages: Machiavelli, Hobbes and Classical Realism

In realist traditions, power is conceived primarily through material capabilities allowing states to pursue interests in competitive contexts [13]. Core lineages shaping realist power theory include:

  • Machiavelli’s Renaissance statecraft writings advanced ideas of power as military force, deception and manipulative statecraft overriding ethics [14].
  • Hobbes’ metaphysical theorization justified states’ absolute sovereign power and violent international anarchy [15].
  • Thucydides’ ancient chronicle of the Peloponnesian War highlighted crude power politics among Greek city-states as an enduring condition [16].

These bleak perspectives of power as amoral, zero-sum and necessitating ruthless statecraft framed classical realist thinkers like Morgenthau, who declared: “international politics like all politics is a struggle for power” [17]. Such thinking naturalized harsh power politics as inherent to global affairs.

Offensive and Defensive Realism on Power

Within contemporary realism, defensive realists argue power is pursued primarily for security rather than dominance [18]. But offensive realists like Mearsheimer contend great powers constantly seek to maximize relative power over rivals, making hegemony the ultimate goal [19].

Debates on whether power is pursued for security or expansion animate realist divisions. But both treat power as a scarce possession. Defensive realism believes balances of power curb state power pursuits but offensive realism sees power’s unlimited value spurring endless competition regardless of equilibrium [20]. Realism takes many forms but centers power’s primacy.

Liberalism on Economic and Institutional Power

Liberal IR theory acknowledges power but sees it mediated through complex interdependence, international law and institutions [21]. Liberals highlight how economic power operates through complex transnational flows rather than state force [7]. Private financial power also matters more to liberals than just military capabilities [22].

Liberal institutionalists like Keohane argue hegemonic power gets filtered through international organizations wielding soft institutional power over states [23]. Overall, liberalism sees power pluralized and constrained by collective institutions rather than narrowly material. But it retains power as a key variable.

Marxism on Economic Power and Class Antagonism

Marxist approaches reconceptualize power by highlighting capital accumulation and class power underpinning state power [24]. As an outgrowth of historical materialism, Marxian IR theory spotlights financial and corporate elites dominating states and workers transnationally through global capital flows [25].

Gramsci theorized ideological hegemony where ruling class values are culturally absorbed by subalterns through civil society [26]. Critical IR scholars apply Marxist lenses to unpack how material inequalities globally empower capitalist classes over FLower groups [27]. Such perspectives recover neglected forms of structural economic power undergirding politics.

Post-structuralism on Discursive and Productive Power

Poststructuralist IR theories associated with postmodernism focus on how rationalities, discourse and norms exert productive powers shaping subjects and possibilities [28]. Inspired by Michel Foucault, power for poststructuralists operates through diffuse regimes of truth and self-regulation rather than just coercion [29].

For instance, feminist scholars spotlight patriarchal power’s discursive productions and micro-physics regulating feminine identities and bodies [30]. Post-colonial theory reveals colonial mentalities’ lasting effects despite formal independence [31]. Poststructuralist lenses foreground productive aspects of biopower and discursive power neglected by overly materialist conceptions.

Constructivism on Norms, Identity and Ideational Power

Constructivism emphasizes how collective norms, identity formation and institutionalization constitute actors and possibility, exercising ideational power [9]. Alexander Wendt famously declared “anarchy is what states make of it” [32]. Constructivists examine how power operates through these intersubjective processes rather than just material capabilities [33].

Research on norm diffusion shows how humanitarian principles gain power to constrain state rights claims over time [34]. Identity theory reveals processes of socialization accruing power to certain policy paradigms [35].These constructivist approaches problematize materialist assumptions by foregrounding ideational power dynamics.

Critical Theory on Structural and Relational Power

The Frankfurt School-inspired critical theory tradition emphasizes how symbolic and structural power creates false consciousness obscuring oppression [36]. It sees power embodied in global capital flows, ideology and patriarchy more than crude state force [37].

For critical scholars like Cox, global order represents configurations of dominant social forces, ideas and institutions –constellations of structural power [38]. Critical IR unpacks positional power inequalities in race, gender and postcolonial hierarchies at the intersections of global forces [39]. This structural-relational notion of power drives critical agendas.

Synthesis: Towards Multidimensional Power

Given these diverse lineages, an integrated understanding of power encompassing material, institutional and ideational dimensions is warranted [40]. As Barnett and Duvall argue, “Power is not a single topography but a complex multidimensional terrain” [12]. Synthesizing traditions allows examining global power relations holistically.

For instance, US structural power combines economic might, military supremacy, global cultural diffusion, norm entrepreneurship, and multilateral institutional leadership. This manifests material and ideational forms. No single theoretical lens fully captures power’s multifaceted operations. Integrating perspectives provides analytical breadth [41].

We now survey how IR theory has sought to theorize and measure different facets of power and their complex interplay to advance conceptualization of this key variable.

Measuring and Theorizing Material Power

Given realism’s predominance, much IR scholarship has focused on developing techniques to measure and compare national material power capabilities [42]. Quantitative indicators like military spending, population size, iron and steel production and energy consumption have been used as proxies for latent power [43].

The Cline Center at the University of Illinois developed sophisticated models integrating various weighted indicators into a Composite Index of National Capability (CINC) score to rank and track state power over time [44]. Such empirical approaches represent attempts to quantify realist power conceptions.

Other scholars examine how different elements of material capabilities combine to produce national power. Organski quantified population, political cohesion, economic development and military strength as key sources [45]. Tellis et al focused on integration of technology and institutions to convert resources into power [46]. Theorizing synergies between power assets occupies analysis.

Classical realists like Morgenthau also developed abstract conceptual schemas examining power balances at the systems level [17]. Waltzian structural realism formalized structural constraints on power pursuits using economic modeling [6]. Defensive realists theorize systemic balances of power while offensive realists predict hegemony seeking [19]. Understanding global power structures remains vital.

Power Transition Theory on Shifts in Material Capabilities

Power transition theory provides an influential model examining shifts in relative national power capabilities over time. Developed by A.F.K. Organski, it explains major power wars based on a hierarchy where dominant states are challenged by rising challenger states [47].

Quantitative power shifts create tensions if growth stalls for the dominant state. The theory highlights the destabilizing effects of changing military and economic capabilities as US-China relations illustrate. It focuses empirical analysis on material power dynamics underlying stability and war at the system level.

Relational Power Theories

In contrast to focusing solely on states’ absolute material capabilities, relational power theories examine how mutual empowerment and constraint between actors generates power rooted in particular relationships [48]. Rather than an possession, power stems from co-constituted role positions.

Emmanuel Adler’s security community framework highlights relational power whereby peaceful ties between states become entrenched in shared identities and norms that circumscribe conflicts [49]. Power is produced through social relations rather than material attributes. This exemplifies how constructivists and poststructuralists theorize ideational dimensions of power neglected by exclusively materialist accounts.

Middle Power Theory and Hierarchies

Scholarship on middle powers provides another perspective analyzing states’ power tied to global hierarchies and alliance patterns rather than just aggregate capabilities [50]. Middle powers like Canada or Australia exercise power through specialized diplomatic, moral and institutional leadership roles.

Theorizing draws on role theory illuminating middle power strategies and structural conditions enabling niche influence through alliance cooperation despite limitations in capabilities relative to great powers [51]. This reveals a stratified global power structure where agency varies across levels.

Hegemonic Stability Theory on Hierarchical Power

Hegemonic stability theory provides another perspective focused on hierarchical dimensions of international power. it holds that a liberal global order tends to thrive under the power preponderance and leadership of a single dominant state like the US [52]. Hegemony stabilizes order.

The theory outlines how hegemonic states wield much power setting economic rules and international institutions reflecting their liberal values. But it also predicts hegemonic decline breeds instability as relative capabilities shift, with China’s rise potentially de-stabilizing US hegemony [53]. It highlights how hierarchical power shapes world order.

Power Cycle Theory on System Leadership Transitions

Power cycle theory provides a materialist model examining cyclical transitions between dominant world powers across history. It analyzes shifting configurations of one leader, contenders, aspirants and marginal players in the global system tied to their relative capabilities [54].

States move through stages of global expansion, economic growth, relative decline, and efforts to maintain geopolitical influence. The rising challenger eventually displaces the weary dominant state in a new cycle. This structural theory predicts China eclipsing weary US dominance. It spotlights how system-level power shifts shape eras in IR.

Theorizing Soft Power: Culture, Values and Ideas

Joseph Nye’s theorization of soft power constituted a major innovation examining ideational and cultural dimensions of power beyond military capabilities [55]. Soft power accumulates through projecting cultural and ideological attractiveness such that other states willingly align their foreign policies with the soft power holder.

Sources of soft power Nye identified include political values, culture, diplomacy, and policies seen as legitimate. This contrasts hard military and economic coercion. Soft power accrues to actors with prestige and an appealing model that sways without threats. It captures key mechanisms of ideational power.

Public Diplomacy and Cultural Power

Building on Nye’s work, theorists illuminated how public diplomacy efforts aimed at foreign publics generate soft power for states [56]. Cultivating a benevolent national image and cultural affinity confers attraction and pull. The 2008 Beijing Olympics represented a soft power play.

Relatedly, IR constructivists analyze how culture forms a source of ideational power in world politics as values and shared meaning constitute order [57]. Cultural diffusion of American food, dress and TV accumulates US soft power. Culture’s causal power is theorized as contrasting rationalist materialism.

Normative Power in World Politics

Scholars have developed the idea of normative power to characterize how actors wield power through shaping global norms on human rights, war, and economics that become institutionalized [58]. Power derives from norm promotion, not material dominance.

The European Union is seen to exercise normative power by diffusing principles of conflict resolution, democracy, and rule of law that shape others’ identities [59]. Rights activists hold normative power championing new standards. Theorizing such norm dynamics elucidates less tangible faces of power in world politics beyond physical force.

Ideas and Knowledge as Power Sources

IR theory also examines how certain policy ideas and epistemic knowledge networks gain institutionalized authority for defining policy solutions, framing problems and setting standards that states must operate within [60]. Knowledge production confers ideational power.

US neoliberal economists reshaped global development policy by propagating the Washington Consensus as normatively superior [61]. The role of epistemic communities as power brokers interacting with states is theorized [62]. Conceptualizing knowledge and framing power provides constructivist depth.

Theorizing Hard and Soft Power

Given these varied conceptualizations, IR scholarship has sought to synthesize analysis of how hard material power and soft normative-cultural power interact [63]. Nye contends states should combine hard and soft power [55]. But tensions persist in how they interrelate.

Realists argue material power ultimately dictates outcomes and cannot be escaped through soft power [64]. But constructivists note how soft power norms constrain hard military force, as in stigma against annexation limiting aggression [65]. Poststructuralists also critique superficiality of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ as categories [66].

Reconciling Power Resources and Relational Power

Theorists also grapple with reconciling possession of power resources with how power operates relationally [48]. Some argue relational power stems from dependence on others’ resources [67]. But critics contend focusing on relational structures downplays actors’ capabilities [68].

Scholars propose synthesizing notions where dependence provides initial leverage in a relationship but ongoing bargaining power flows from possessing strategic assets the other side needs [69]. Power’s relational conditions and material foundations remain interconnected. Bridging conceptual divides is imperative for a fuller understanding.

Global Structural Power Theories

Critical IR theories move the level of analysis beyond states to theorize global structural power that forms the deeper context conditioning states and agents [27]. Rather than absolute capabilities, critical IR examines systems of economic and normative power underpinning politics.

World systems theory highlights dividing lines between dominant capitalist cores wielding corporate power over peripheries [70]. Critical scholars illuminate global patriarchy and enduring colonial thought structures as transnational forms of power [71]. Bringing structures back in provides explanatory depth, even if risks of reification exist.

Theorizing Power Transitions in World Politics

As global power shifts occur, IR theory grapples with explaining resultant transition processes and conflicts. Power transition theory focuses on polarity changes and instability when rising states challenge declining hegemonic states [47]. But counter-hegemonic power transitions driven by radical ideologies and norms also recur [72].

Constructivist theories examine norm cascades precipitating dramatic normative changes in international legitimacy around slavery or colonialism [34]. But realists stress enduring aspects of political power balancing despite norm shifts [73]. Transcending theoretical divides is vital for holistic understanding of power transitions.

Post-structuralist Theorizations of Power

Finally, poststructuralist theory provides indispensable perspectives on productive forms of power beyond material possessions of resources [28]. Inspired by Foucault, poststructural IR scholarship explores micro-physics of power reproducing social hierarchies and subject positions [29].

Gender subordination is theorized as produced through discourses of masculinity and femininity that become embedded in institutions and identity [30]. Colonial mentalities flow through postcolonial knowledge politics [74]. Theorizing constitutive faces of power reveals possibilities for change by subverting rationalities.

Towards Power as a Multidimensional Global Variable

Given the manifold notions of power within IR theory, an integrated conceptualization must grapple with power’s multiple forms and complex interrelations [41]. This demands bridging rationalist-materialist and reflective-critical approaches in imaginative synthesis [75].

No single theory fully captures power’s diverse workings as force, interests, norms, inequalities and productive systems. Power is both compleKing and relational. Hard and soft forms interact. Shared understandings develop through open dialogue across scholarly communities interrogating power from varied vantage points [76]. This sustains critical thinking on power’s multifaceted operations in global politics.

With this survey of the rich lineages and debates animating study of power within IR theory, we turn to examining contemporary frontiers in power research.

Frontiers in Contemporary Power Research

Given power’s centrality, conceptual development remains ongoing as the global context evolves in the 21st century. Here we survey cutting-edge power debates in IR scholarship.

Power in the Digital Age

Theorists are assessing how evolving cyberspace and digital connectivity are reconfiguring power and influence [77]. Cyber operations and hacking shape conflicts, but also foster new modes of resistance [78]. Computational social science aids micro-targeting to exert power through online persuasion [79].

Meanwhile, debates persist on the power implications of networks versus hierarchies in an information age [80]. Theorizing geopolitical dynamics as algorithms and codes overtake terrain gains traction [81]. Understanding power’s transformations in augmented virtual-physical environments remains imperative.

Changed Power Sources and Strategies

Scholars also consider how power’s sources and exertion are changing. Economic power is seen shifting towards innovative sectors beyond manufacturing [82]. Climate and renewable energy access confer power in new ways [83]. Diaspora networks channel soft power globally [84].

Theorizing newly salient power bases and strategies is required. This includes rethinking assumptions of linear development in projecting national power [85]. Clarifying power’s evolving mechanics is crucial.

Power in a Multipolar Era

With global power diffusing from a US-led order, theorists debate whether a multipolar system marked by Chinese and resurgent Russian power awaits [86]. Some project a non-polar order with more fluid regional balances [87]. Others foresee continued US leadership in reinvented form [88].

Parsing configurations and transitions of power across potential successors to US predominance represents a key analytical frontier [89]. Whether future eras will witness wisdom or tragedy in the exercise of power also remains contested.

Everyday Micro-Physics of Power

Poststructuralist IR scholars call for greater focus on micro-level workings of power in banal practices versus structural analysis alone [90]. This includes embodied and affective dimensions of global politics and marginal subjects often excluded from traditional theorizations of power [91].

Feminist IR theorists lead in recovering quotidian exercises of patriarchal power that reproduce gender hierarchies in mundane ways [92]. Ethnographic approaches illuminate how policy power feels to recipients [93]. Interrogating power at its peripheries provides new perspectives.

Open and Shared Power

Normative IR theory debates notions of open and shared power distributed through global institutions as more ethical alternatives to domination and realpolitik [94]. Cosmopolitan conceptions advocate transparent and accountable power-sharing and constraints on unilateral state power.

But critics argue structural inequalities preclude such idealized notions [95]. Tensions persist between critical diagnoses of power and normative calls for empowered moral agency. Exploring potentials for power’s ethical dimensions remains significant [96].

Interrogating Power/Resistance Links

Finally, processes and strategies by which less powerful actors contest and resist power relations constitute a key focus for critical IR scholars [97]. These everyday forms of dissent and mobilization against domination challenge structural notions of absolute hegemony [98].

Micro-processes of resistance illuminate agency in navigating tensions between complicity and resistance when immersed in systems of control [99]. But questions remain regarding how everyday acts scale into broader counter-hegemonic power. Analyzing the power/resistance nexus provides insight into political possibility [100].

In essence, conceptualizing power and its contested nature represents a permanently unfinished scholarly project. Contemporary studies reveal both enduring geographical patterns and novel power dynamics recasting global politics in complex ways. Building theoretic bridges and expanding frames remains vital amidst flux.

Conclusion: Theorizing Power as an Ongoing Project

In conclusion, diverse scholarly lineages have shaped International Relations’ theorization of power as a core factor explaining global order and change. Realist, liberal, radical and critical perspectives emphasize different facets of power – material, institutional, structural and productive. Synthesizing them illuminates power’s multifaceted operations.

Debates persist on conceptualizing power as possession versus relationally constituted, or embodied in agents or social structures. Hard and soft dimensions of power interact in complex ways. Power transitions continue punctuating world history through changing systemic configurations and disruptive ideologies.

Contemporary issues like digital connectivity and climate change are recasting power dynamics and demanding new theorizations. Interrogating everyday micro-physics of power provides new vantage points revealing agency and resistance. Holistic theorization of power encompassing capability, authority and diffused control remains imperative for understanding world politics.

This survey demonstrates power’s consolidation as a core object of analysis and problem animating IR scholarship. Through ongoing critique, innovation and cross-paradigm engagement, the study of power in global affairs will continue developing in response to evolving structures, ideas and relationships. Plurality in power theorization enriches analytical depth, fostering scholarship able to elucidate multifaceted power realities underlying both continuity and change in world politics.


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So in essence, conceptualizing and measuring power remains an unfinished scholarly project as the idea of power lies at the core of contending paradigms in international relations theory. Both material and ideational facets require ongoing interrogation, as do linkages between agency, structure and discourse. This survey demonstrates the rich lineages underpinning diverse approaches to studying power as a facet of global politics and relations.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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