Concept of Power in International System and Its Hierarchy

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Modern thinking about power begun in the 16th century and the 17th century with Nicollò Machiavelli (The Prince) and Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan) and they are acknowledged as classics and references in political theories. However, power is not a defined concept; it is a matter of conceptions, circumstances and experiences, that’s why we talk about thinking rather than definitions.

For Machiavelli power is about “being feared than greatly loved”; it is better to rule by force, enforcement and fear of punishment. Hobbes assumed that power can be defined by the social contract protected by the legitimate sovereign power, and enumerated the conditions of individual power by referring to “the eminence of the faculties of body or mind', he is also known for this statement “Bellum omnium contra omnes” meaning war against all, power against the power of others.

The eminent sociologist Max Weber sees power as a psychological game, “the ability to exercise one’s will over others” or to impose one’s will despite resistance and opposition. He tightly associated power with concepts of authority and rule based on self-interest. Applied to International system, a strong nation will often use its economic, political, military clout to dominate.

The German-American philosopher and political theorist, in her most famous book “la condition humaine” inspired by Camus, Hannah Arendt, presented an original and liberal definition of power, in fact, power is communication, discussion, exchange of ideas, the ideas of all against the domination of only one idea. Power is then a cooperative process.

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In a more simple way, Power is an interaction. We find this idea in Kenneth Waltz, for whom 'an agent is powerful when he affects others more than they affect him'. In other words, it is not always valid, Depending on the adversary and the context, a dense population or a vast territory can be either strength (USA) or a weakness (Libya). Similarly, technological evolution can provide a decisive strategic advance, or on the contrary, weigh on the state budget to the point of weakening it.

And they are several perspectives to understanding power and its dynamic approaches, the evolution of ways to exercise power, going from the realist and the liberal schools of thought, to the means of exerting power through hard, soft or smart power.

Power, this undefined concept, defines countries (superpower: USA, great powers, emerging power, small powers) creating a hierarchy in a supposed equal international system. Power is a central and structuring notion of international relations. The more anarchy is considered insurmountable, the more power has regulatory virtues (in competition with the law).

It is finally multidimensional. The genesis of international relations especially the realist thought has given the concept a military connotation. There would be a hierarchy between the different elements of power: military, demographic, geographic, economic, political, cultural, technological ... The liberalists argue that power is not the main currency of International relations, but the power of cooperation against the power of an hegemonic country, is definitely the solution, through efficient institutions and collective efforts.

While preparing for this presentation, Arthur Benzina, my colleague with whom I have collaborated and myself, decided that we will tackle this subject by going through the elements of power, hard, soft and smart power.

Hard, soft and smart power are related because they are all aspects of the capability to affect other’s thinking or at least behavior’s to achieve goals, self-interest. However, it is fundamental to understand and distinguish each one of them, in order to have an accurate image of how the world is evolving.

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