WHAT IS POWER?

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1.0 INTRODUCTION

As seen earlier power means different things to different peoples, even to scholars of international relations. But such a state of affairs is not enough to pose problems to our making use of the concept (power) as an analytical tool. Power may be simply defined as “the capacity to produce intended effects” (J. Frankel, International Relations) & or “the ability to influence the behaviour of others in accordance with one’s own ends”, (A.F.K. Organski, World Politics). In this, we will examine the nature of power and the various types of power.

2.0 OBJECTIVES

At the end of this unit, you should be able to: 

  1. Define power and explain its uses;
  2.  Identify the different types of power;
  3. Discuss the way power is exercised;
  4. Explain the fact that power is relational.

3.0 MAIN CONTENT

3.1 The Exercise of Power

The exercise of power by a state is to be observed when the government of one state, because of the actions of another, changes its proposed behaviour: the change may involve an alteration of policy, or the maintenance of a policy that without the exercise of power would have been changed. Power may be exercised through or by the mere existence of a state, through diplomacy, economic pressure, subversion etc. It is however, not to be assumed that power is greatest when it is exercised in the most violent form. At first sight, it may seem that the ability of a state to impose its will by military victory is the ultimate measure of power: but it may on the contrary be argued that the need to resort to violence demonstrates a state’s lack of power. This argument, particularly, gains force in our age when nuclear weapons can lead to the destruction of everything on earth: so no state would venture to resort to such use of power because of its consequence. K.J. Holsti has also defined power “as the general capacity of a state to control the behaviour of others”. Spanier J. also contends that power is “the capacity to impel the behaviour of others in accordance with one’s own objective”. The above definition can be described as follows:

Actor (country) “A” seeks to influence “B” because it has established certain objectives, which it feels, cannot be achieved except and unless “B” does “X”. If this is the basis of international relations, power can be viewed in several ways:

Influence: An aspect of power, which is essentially a means to an end. Government/States seek influence primarily for achieving or defending other goals, which may include prestige, territory, souls, raw materials, security, or alliances.

Capability: State “A” in the above example, acted towards “B” by mobilizing certain capabilities i.e. Any physical or mental object or quality available as an instrument of inducement, to persuade, reward, threaten, or punish e.g. A man walks to a bank and asks the cashier to surrender to him all her money. The clerk observes that the man is not armed and refuses to comply. The next time the man comes around with a pistol, the clerk would be forced to comply. In this instance, the man has mobilized certain resources or capabilities (the pistol) and succeeds in influencing the cashier to do as he wished. The pistol, just like a nation’s military strength, is the instrument used to induce the cashier to change her behaviour to comply with the robber’s objective.

Relationship: Power exists only in a relationship between or among two or more states. To speak of the power of say Great Britain, Germany, USA or USSR in isolation is meaningless. For example, in 1947 the USSR was able to persuade Poland and Czechoslovakia from participating in the Marshall Plan discussions but was not able to prevent the discussions form taking place. For another example, Neville Chamberlain was able in 1938 to obtain Hitler’s signature to a piece of paper stating the desire of the two parties (Germany and England) never to go to war with each other again, but he was not able significantly to moderate Hitler’s decisions to annex Czechoslovakia.

Quantity: Power can also be regarded as a quantity, but as a quantity it is only meaningful when compared to the power of others. Power is therefore relative. For example, if A can get B to do something, but B cannot get A to do similar thing, then we can say that A has more power than B regarding that particular issue.

The concept of power is therefore more usefully employed if its measurement includes the idea of minimizing loss: on this view the smaller the loss suffered in bringing about a behavioural change, the greater the power of the state, and its power may be seen as being greatest when its mere existence produces a change in another state’s policy or prevents the adoption of a policy that would otherwise have been followed. The inability of the United States of America adequately to modify North Vietnam’s behaviour without military violence and suffering of heaving losses reduced the ability of the US to influence behaviour in other areas, and seeing how the United States fared in Vietnam, other states may not yield to pressures from Washington on issues they regard as vital, in the hope that no United States administration would want to get into another “dirty war” like that again.

Self Assessment Exercise

Define power and discuss the various types of power.

4.0 CONCLUSION

In the final analysis, nation-states need power in order to win war, make peace or ensure justice. They also need power in order to make progress or prevent others from making progress. It is also clear that the basic components of power are resources, capacity and capabilities and willingness to employ them on order to control the behaviour of others. What we need to know is that power is a feedback and dynamic relationship. Power relationships may vary from time to time and on an issue-by-issue basis. It was power, which enabled the Europeans to colonize Africa. It is also power which enabled South Africa to maintain its inhuman apartheid policies in Southern Africa for over a century, and

it is power that made the US and USSR (now Russian Federation) to live in relative peace since the end of World War II. In one word, what obtained previously in the international system could be referred to as a “Balance of Power” between the USA and USSR, the NATO and WARSAW Treaty Alliances. However, today it appears that the system is tending towards unilateralism, in which the United States of America is the sole superpower.

5.0 SUMMARY

To summarize, power may be viewed from several aspects: it is a means, it is based on capabilities, it is a relationship and a process, and it can measured, at least crudely. We can break down the concept of power into three distinct analytic elements. Power comprises:

  1.  the acts (process, relationship) of influencing other states; 
  2.  the capabilities used to ensure the wielding of influence, and
  3.  the responses to the acts (K.J. Holsti: International Politics: Framework for Analysis).

6.0 TUTOR-MARKED ASSIGNMENT

  1. Discuss power as a key element in international politics. 
  2.  Distinguish between real and potential uses of power with examples.

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