Sam Seitz

Evan and I recorded a podcast a while back in which we discussed power at both a theoretical and practical level. There are many ways to measure power, of course, and I think the podcast does a solid job of categorizing them. But I’ve recently taken a deep dive into the IR literature on power, and I think there are many interesting perspectives that we ignored. Therefore, I want to use this post to briefly supplement what we said and provide a deeper, more nuanced view.

The primary way people tend to think about power is in terms of resources and capabilities. This is very similar to how the realist school of IR approaches the concept. At the domestic level, this could mean looking at things like wealth, access to education, or property ownership. At the international level, this means looking at statistics like GDP, population levels, and military spending. It makes sense why these metrics are used: they are relatively easy to measure and they correlate fairly closely with influence. But this begs the broader question of what power is. After all, merely possessing resources does not grant one power; those resources have to be used to achieve some kind of effect. Moreover, it is simply not the case that more powerful states – based on these metrics – achieve their goals. The U.S. could not defeat tiny Vietnam, for example, and neither could the Soviet Union achieve victory in Afghanistan. This view also assumes that power is fungible. In other words, power in one realm can be easily transferred to another. This is true to some degree, as economic power can be used to finance military expansion which can be utilized to seize resources or open markets. As David Baldwin points out, though, this is a very strong assumption. Power is often more siloed than observers recognize, and it is therefore not always the case that power in one realm can be used to great effect in another. By way of illustration, the U.S. cannot seem to get Mexico to fund Trump’s wall despite a much larger military and economy.

There is an alternate understanding of power that is more pluralistic. The great political scientist Robert Dahl is largely credited with popularizing this view, which focuses far more on relationships and networks. This is a more nuanced approach that defines power as the ability of actor A to get actor B to do something it otherwise would not. Importantly, this means that power can be situational: actor A can have immense power over actor B but almost no power over actor C. Take the IMF, for example. It has significant power over countries in financial distress due to its ability to act as a lender of last resort and impose all manner of economic conditions on borrowers. The IMF has little power over states with sound finances, however. The takeaway is that one must recognize how his or her position in a network impacts the kind of leverage or influence he or she has. A state can be very weak along traditional metrics of power but still possess important leverage based on its location in the broader network of states. Norway and Switzerland are great examples of this, as they pursue peacemaking operations in part to acquire privileged information and access that is of value to bigger powers.

For all its strengths, though, the Dahlian interpretation of power is still incomplete. Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz famously point this out in “Two Faces of Power,” an article in which they introduce their “revisionist perspective” of power. The central argument of their paper is that Dahl’s approach only accounts for observable power, but it largely excludes systems of power that indirectly shape who and what possess influence. As they point out, power and influence are often derived from the particularities of institutional setups and cultural norms. Patriarchy or racism, for example, create underlying hierarchies that grant certain individuals power at the expense of others. But these systems of power are usually done through the creation of norms that are so internalized as to not be noticed or directly measurable. If a woman grows up thinking she cannot be a scientist and therefore never pursues a scholarly career, she is being impacted by the power of sexism. But in this case, it is hard to directly identify who “actor A” is because there is no single person or actor exercising power over her. The same is true internationally – think of bodies like the P5 of the U.N. Consequently, revisionists argue that we must be much more cognizant of agenda-setting and strategic framing, as these limit one’s ability to exert their power at a fundamental level.

Ultimately, power is an important but nebulous concept. Depending on one’s approach to measuring and thinking about the concept, it is possible to come to radically different conclusions about how power is distributed within a given system. Every approach has merit, and one may be superior depending on the particular question one is attempting to answer. But we should not become overly enamored of one approach, as this is a sure way to end up blindsided.