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date: 19 September 2017

Power and National Capability

Summary and Keywords

Power is a crucial concept for international relations scholars. Of particular importance for those interested in understanding foreign policy is knowing how power manifests as national capabilities. Understanding the relationship between power and capabilities allows for comparison and contrast of the various foreign policy tools leaders have at their disposal as they attempt to achieve their goals. Despite the importance of power, scholars still debate the best means for conceptualizing and operationalizing the concept. The all-encompassing nature of power makes it difficult to focus on a single characteristic. This article focuses on three main aspects of power: military, economic, and soft power. Each section gives an overview into the current state of research into the various aspects of power. The discussion on military power emphasizes operationalizing military might and issues with innovation. The section on economics focuses on economics as a source of power and a tool for coercion. Finally, the last section focuses on noncoercive aspects of power, better known as soft power. The article ends with some suggestions for future research.

Keywords: power, measuring military power, political capacity, financing war, sanctions, soft power

Power as Influence

Power is a ubiquitous concept in international relations, as well as political science. Thucydides discusses Athenian fear of rising Spartan power leading to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. Famous military theorists such as Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, and Jomini, all in their own way engage in discussions about the use and application of power. In the modern era the great schools of thought in international relations—realism, liberalism, and constructivism—all deal with power explicitly or implicitly.

Despite the prevalence of the term, political scientists still engage in long debates about how to conceptualize and operationalize power. While intuitively we may agree with Robert Dahl’s notion that power is getting somebody to undertake an action they otherwise would not have undertaken, we can still disagree how this translates into the international arena (Dahl, 1952). Is power really found at the end of a gun or the business end of a cruise missile? Is power found within a state’s economic institutions and ability to influence the economic health of other states? Alternatively, is power found in the ability to persuade others without the need to resort to coercive threats?

The answer to the preceding questions is undoubtedly, yes. We can answer all three questions in the affirmative because the concept of power is so expansive. Indeed the three questions match the three forms of power discussed in the seminal work of Carr (1981)—military power, economic power, and power over opinion. This chapter uses the framework offered by Carr to give a more modern update on the state of research into power and its manifestations as national capabilities.

First, this article will discuss military power with an emphasis on how scholars are moving beyond the Correlates of War notions of capabilities. Second, there will be a discussion of economics as source of power (taxation and financing war) and as a tool of power (sanctions). Finally, I will discuss the use of power of opinion—or, as it is better known today—soft power. I end with some discussion about potential future research possibilities and conclusions.

Measuring Military Power

One of the key ideas of the realist school of thought is that states care about relative power rather than absolute power (Mearsheimer, 2001). Acquiring absolute power is nice, but if a state is still weaker than its rivals, that state is vulnerable to coercion. In other words, achieving influence in international politics comes from having more power than other states. And for offensive realists, this means having greater military power than your rivals (Mearsheimer, 2001). For defensive realists such as Waltz (1979), states want just enough military power to remain secure from influence but not so much as to trigger balancing coalitions.

For quantitative scholars of international conflict, finding a valid measure of power has been of the utmost importance. A popular measure of power is the Composite Index of National Capabilities (CINC) offered by the Correlates of War project (Singer, Bremer, & Stuckey, 1972; Singer, 1988). Six individual components make up a state’s CINC score in any given year. These components represent key elements of a state’s power: military, economic, and population. The individual components are military personnel, military expenditures, iron and steel production, energy consumption, total population, and urban population. A state’s proportion for each component in a given year is calculated, and the CINC score represents a state’s average proportion across all components. For instance, a state with a CINC score of 0.10 in 2001 would control 10% of the world’s power in 2001.

At first glance, there seems to be a great deal of validity to the CINC scores. For instance, Britain was deemed the strongest state until the end of the 19th century. During this same period, the United States was rising in power as their industrial might grew. At the end of the Second World War the United States was clearly the dominant state. Conversely, the Japanese and Germans lose a great deal of strength after their respective defeats. This popular measure of state power contains what many believe to be key components of state power, but all is not well with the CINC scores.

One issue stems from the decision to average across the proportions of the individual components without any weighting considerations. The issue is that a state’s overall CINC may greatly shift because of high values within only one or two components. For instance, it is interesting to note that according to the CINC scores, in 2007 China was the strongest country in the world followed by the United States and India. One would be hard-pressed to find many scholars willing to agree to such a ranking. The explanation for the ranking is simple, however. China and India have much larger populations than the other states in the world, and this raises their respective CINC scores.

There are other problems with the CINC scores. Quantitative scholars typically measure relative power using the CINC scores. There are numerous ways scholars used the CINC scores to calculate relative power. In the directed dyad setting, the measure is typically State A’s CINC score relative to the combined CINC scores of State A and State B. In the non-directed dyad setting, the measure is typically the weakest state’s CINC score relative to the combined CINC scores of both states. Additionally, in the nondirected dyad setting one can take the absolute value of the difference between the CINC scores. It is also possible to calculate a measure of power just using the military components of the CINC score (Crisher, 2014).

After calculating relative power, the resulting capability ratio is then used as a proxy for relative power in empirical models. Recently, Carroll and Kenkel (forthcoming) argue that these capability ratios do a poor job of serving as proxies for the probability of victory as seen in the bargaining model of war. In particular, the capability ratios barely perform better than random guessing when trying to predict the outcome of wars. Additionally, Crisher (2014) notes that measuring relative power in the fashion of the capability ratio ignores the qualitative differences of power between dyads—in particular dyads that are relatively equal in power. Such a damning assessment highlights the need for better measures of relative power beyond the CINC scores.

I believe part of the issue underlying the criticisms of the CINC scores is a lack of conceptual clarity. The probability-of-victory parameter in the bargaining model of war is quite vague. We know what it means intuitively, but translating that to a valid proxy is difficult. If the probability of victory in a war rests on a state’s given military might at the beginning of a war, then the CINC scores are not the best proxy for power.1 After all, only two of the six indicators in the CINC scores are direct measures of military might. In other words, while economic and population components might be suggestive of a state’s potential military might, they are not conducive to understanding a state’s current military might (Mearsheimer, 2001).

What this suggests is that scholars have been using the CINC scores for unsuitable purposes. For scholars interested in how military might influences the actions of other states, there is a need for direct measures of a state’s military stock. Work is underway to address this issue. Crisher and Souva (2014) have provided a wealth of quantitative information on the world’s navies with the release of their naval data set that builds on the work of Modelski and Thompson (1988). The creation of similar data sets for land and air power would be quite helpful for conflict scholars.

Other work, while not engaging in large-scale data collection of specific weapon platforms, has shown the utility of having specific measures of a state’s military stock. Crisher (2017) shows how naval power increases the likelihood of states engaging in long-distance disputes. Levy and Thompson (2010) show how naval powers are less likely to trigger counter-balancing coalitions than land powers. Lyall and Wilson (2009) finds that states with more mechanized armies will struggle to fight counter-insurgency battles. Lastly, Martinez Machain (2015) and Allen and Martinez Machain (2017) have released helpful data on the duration and effectiveness of air campaigns that are applicable to numerous conflict questions.

A last notable issue for the CINC scores is the exclusion of any measure of nuclear capabilities. After the Second World War few would disagree that nuclear weapons have drastically changed international relations. A great deal of important work has examined the influence of nuclear weapons on our understanding of international processes. Schelling (1966) continues to be the primary text for understanding the strategic implications of nuclear weapons for deterrence. Huth (1988) uses a combination of measures utilizing the CINC scores for relative power, while also including a dummy variable for nuclear weapons to analyze extended deterrence.

In one of the earliest quantitative studies into the correlates of nuclear proliferation, Singh and Way (2004) found that economic development, the presence of external threats, a lack of great-power nuclear umbrella, and a lack of economic integration all increase the likelihood of proliferation. Yet Jo and Gatzke (2007) argue that understanding proliferation means understanding the links between capacity to produce nuclear weapons and the actual production of weapons. They find that security threats increase the likelihood of starting a program and producing nuclear weapons. Additionally, they find that latent nuclear capability increases the likelihood of a nuclear weapons program but not the likelihood of producing weapons—while being under a nuclear umbrella increases the likelihood of the actual development of nuclear weapons. More recently, Bell and Miller (2015) show how dyads where both states have nuclear weapons are no more likely to go to war than dyads where neither state has nuclear weapons. Bell (2016) argues that the existing quantitative literature on nuclear proliferation has findings that are weaker than previously understood.

Translating Potential into Might and Emerging Technologies

Although quantitative scholars of violent conflict often look to the National Military Capabilities data from the Correlates of War projection for their measures of state power/capacity, there are numerous issues with this measurement. The CINC scores are best seen as an indicator of the power a state could achieve were they to engage in Clausewitz’s notion of total war. What this suggests, then, is that having a great deal of military potential does not guarantee that a state will transform it into tangible military power. Some states with strong economies and large populations may avoid translating potential into observed might (e.g., modern Germany). Or, alternatively, some states may have elements such as economic resources and large militaries, yet they fail to translate this into effective military might (e.g., Iraq under Saddam Hussein). An often-misunderstood element of national capability is having the ability to transform potential, or even desire, into observable might.

One line of inquiry into this question has focused on how elements of the state could create military power through increasing the effectiveness of a state’s fighting forces. Posen (1993) focuses on how the state indoctrinates its population with nationalist zeal to increase military power. Education, in particular mass literacy, makes it easier to instill nationalist pride into one’s population. Such pride is necessary to hold mass armies together and to encourage them to make the sacrifices needed to win modern wars.

More recently, Horowitz (2010) argues that a state’s ability to create effective military power comes from their ability to incorporate innovations into their arsenals. States that can more quickly incorporate major military innovations as they emerge (e.g., aircraft carriers) will gain advantages that can be transformed into power and influence. Those lacking such capacity will usually find themselves at the losing end of bargains.

Key for Horowitz’s argument is a state remaining flexible and willing to abandon old technology in favor of the latest innovations. Horowitz labels this argument as adoption-capacity theory. For instance, those refusing to move beyond the battleship and into the aircraft carrier age will find themselves in a greatly weakened position vis-à-vis carrier powers. The issue is that bureaucratically entrenched militaries find themselves in the difficult position of overcoming institutional inertia to move beyond the vested interests of established military technology that has become outdated. In other words, this suggests that we could be entering an age where the United States is unable to keep up with military innovation while rising powers such as China are much more willing to test and incorporate new technologies into their fighting forces.

Similarly, Brooks (2007) focuses on the myriad of factors that influences the ability of states to increase their military effectiveness. Brooks argues that social and political forces interact to shape military effectiveness. More particularly, Brooks focuses on the ability of states to integrate military objectives with political objectives, the ability of the military to adapt to external threats, the high skill capacity of the military, and the quality of material a military possesses. Much like Horowitz (2010) and Posen (1993), Brooks is attempting to move beyond simple aggregate measures of military power to help better understand why some states have more effective military power than others.

Lastly, acquiring the latest military technologies will be for naught if one does not employ them effectively when shots are fired in anger. Biddle (2004) argues that the key to understanding military power goes beyond counting tanks, measuring economies, or comparing State X’s relative military might to State Y. Rather, Biddle argues that employing one’s forces correctly on the modern battlefield is the key to military power. If one cannot translate their capabilities to winning battles, then they have not achieved military power. Hence, for Biddle, the key to military power is force employment that maximizes the effectiveness of a state’s military.2

Such discussions about military procurement and adoption of new technology seems particularly useful in the first quarter of the 21st century as we are currently witnessing an explosion of new technologies. Stealth technology and laser-guided munitions seemingly dominated the initial post–Cold War battlefields. The battlefields of tomorrow appear as if drones, artificial intelligence, and sophisticated cyber-attacks will dominate them.

Emerging technologies have both operational and moral implications. Boyle (2013) argues that drones have been ineffective at increasing U.S. security and will even increase resentment against the United States. Conversely, Williams (2013) argues that drones have been quite effective, yet the United States has failed to educate the world as to the efficacy of these new platforms. Regarding cybersecurity, Gartzke (2013) argues that one can overstate that cyberwarfare will usher in a new era of conflict. Rather, the traditional elements of hard power (tanks, planes, etc.) will still be key for conflict while cyber strategies will certainly have their place.

On the moral side, Brunstetter and Braun (2011) argue that the emerging military technology—drones in particular—will alter the ethics of military power. The traditional arguments emanating from Just War Theory are ill-equipped to handle the ethics surrounding the new wave of technological developments. Regarding cyberwarfare, Cook (2010) argues that cyberwar is sufficiently similar to other forms of conventional conflict to engage in traditional discussions of ethics and the use of coercive force. Concerning the use of autonomous weapons, Sparrow (2016) provides an argument against their deployment, while Carpenter (2016) examines a link between the consumption of science fiction and views on automated weapons.

Political Sources of Military Might

An often-understated element of military power is the economic support necessary for such power. To be fair, this is not to say that economics has been completely divorced from discussions of military power. As discussed above, economic factors play a key role in the popular measure of state power compiled by the Correlates of War project. Measures of energy consumption and iron/steel production serve as proxies for economic development.

Another popular measure of economic might to serve as a proxy for state power is gross national product (GNP) or gross domestic product (GDP).3 For instance, the key indicator of state power used in Fearon and Laitin (2003) is the log of GDP. The idea is that large economic resources easily translates into military might and helps to support a large military force. Yet Horowitz (2010) warns that this is easier said than done. In fact, Biddle (2004) shows that preponderance of GNP is a poor predictor of military victory.

Although aggregate measures of economic strength are a poor indicator of military power, I would argue that there is a far more nuanced story about economics and military power. This is a story that receives less attention than it should from scholars of international relations. Perhaps a reason why it is often missed is that it has origins within the field of comparative politics.

Tilly (1985) in his seminal work on state formation argues that war made the state and vice versa. A simplified version of Tilly’s argument is that political organizations better able to raise funds for fighting wars will be more successful at winning wars. The modern state happened to be an incredibly efficient way for governments to raise funds for their armies. As these organizations became more efficient, they became more institutionalized. Tilly’s theory helps explain why the modern state system emerged in Europe—a region wracked with large scale warfare encouraged more efficient means of raising funds for war. According to Tilly, the state exists to protect the domestic population against foreign invaders, and in return the population pays taxes to help pay for their protection.

The implications from Tilly’s work still apply in the 21st century. Governments more effective at extracting taxes from the domestic population are more likely to have the resources necessary to fund and field sufficient fighting forces. Governments that lack this ability are likely to struggle with foreign and domestic challengers.4

The work of Organski and Kugler (1980) on power transition theory recognized the importance of Tilly’s ideas. They argued that while GNP is an important indicator of national capability, a state’s ability to profit from that through taxes was also important for measuring a state’s power. The ability of a state to extract resources from the population came to be termed relative political extraction (Arbetman-Rabinowitz et al., 2012). Relative political extraction (RPE) measures “the ability of a government to obtain resources from a population given their level of economic development” (Arbetman-Rabinowitz et al., 2012, p. 13). In other words, one can estimate the level of resources a government should be able to extract and compare this to the level actually extracted. Effective governments are able to meet or exceed their estimated level, and ineffective governments fall short of their estimated level. This in part helps to explain the success of the North Vietnamese in their war against the U.S. forces—they were able to extract more resources from their population that one otherwise would have predicted (Organski and Kugler 1980).5 Such thinking highlights that a key advantage the United States has in terms of power is the Internal Revenue Service. One could argue the efficiency of the U.S. tax system has gone a long way toward the United States becoming and remaining a superpower.

More recent work on political capacity and international conflict makes a similar argument. In particular, Carter, Bernard, and Palmer (2012) argue that states that have undergone social revolutions in the 20th century are better able to raise effective armies. Social revolutions create bureaucracies that are better able to extract resources, offer a more unifying ideology that binds all classes of society, and includes those classes previously excluded by the old regime (Carter, Bernard, & Palmer, 2012, p. 443). The combined effect of these changes is the creation of bigger, better-funded, and better-performing militaries.

Economic Sources of Military Might

A similar line of research has focused less on extractive capacities and more on the ability to secure funds for fighting. Fighting wars is a costly business (Fearon, 1995). The ability to finance a war goes a long way to helping a state continue to fight and perhaps even win the war. States need the human resources to fight a war, but losing the ability to pay soldiers, buy ammunition, purchase oil, and pay for the other elements of war means finding oneself in a greatly weakened bargaining position.

History is rife with examples of states struggling to find the finances to fight a war. In many ways the American Revolution is a story about the upstart Colonialists struggling to get the European elite (most notably France) to pay for the revolution. The Russo-Japanese War in 1905 saw one of the most unexpected one-sided victories as the rising Japanese throttled the Russians. Yet the peace treaty hardly favored the Japanese or reflected their military dominance on the land and sea. Connaughton (2003) argues that one of the key reasons the Japanese accepted an unfavorable treaty is because the Japanese were broke, and potential foreign lenders had all seemingly lost their checkbooks. Yet the Russians still had friends with money, particularly France and Germany, and were therefore in a better position to resume fighting a more prolonged conflict.

Recent work has begun to approach war financing in a more systematic fashion. Poast (2015) argues that states with central banks are better able to secure loans for war. Lenders are more willing to loan to states with central banks as there is less fear of loans going unpaid. DiGiuseppe (2015) shows that states with access to sovereign lending can better overcome the restraints imposed by taxpayers on foreign policy. States with high creditworthiness have a greater likelihood of initiating conflict, although there is greater variability in their actions. Flores-Macias and Kreps (2013) make an interesting argument about how the United States finances their wars (through sovereign lending or taxes) and the distributional impacts this may have within the country. Finally, Slantchev (2012), through the use of formal modeling, shows how the ability of a state to incur debt can actually be seen as a way of augmenting a state’s capabilities and can play a role in bargaining.

Both research programs, extracting taxes for the purposes of war and financing war, show how there are more subtle ways of understanding the links between economics and national capabilities than simply using aggregate measures of a state’s economy as a proxy for power. Yet a state’s economic might in and of itself can serve as a formidable source of power. The next section will look at the use of economics as a tool of statecraft.

Sanctions as an Application of Economic Power6

Economic might can serve as the basis for creating the military elements of national capability, or it can serve as a tool of coercion on its own. In particular, when tools short of war are required to serve a nation’s means, they can look to economic means. Sanctions are perhaps the most popular economic tool of coercion.

Economic sanctions can take many different shapes and forms. States can engage in trade embargoes, such as when the United States embargoed the export of oil to the Japanese prior to the attacks on Pearl Harbor. On the other hand, states can engage in currency manipulation such as when the United States banned the export of dollars to Panama under Noriega. States can also prevent certain weapons from being sold to opponents or freezing assets of foreign leaders. In short, economic sanctions are complex and can be applied in numerous fashions.

The primary question surrounding sanctions is not what form they will take, but whether or not they work. Numerous authors have argued that sanctions fail to alter the behaviors of the states they are leveled against (Hufbauer et al., 1990; Pape, 1997). For instance, economic sanctions failed to remove Castro from power in Cuba. Additionally, sanctions did little to harm Saddam Hussein’s hold on power in Iraq. Looking at modern international hot spots, sanctions have done little to prevent North Korea from pursuing nuclear weapons or to convince Vladimir Putin to return the Crimea after Russia’s land grab in 2011.

While such anecdotes have led many to question the continued use of sanctions in the face of such failures, others have noted this is the wrong question to be asking. Rather than evaluating the utility of sanctions in isolation, the use of sanctions must be evaluated against other potential tools (Baldwin, 1999). In other words, it is not enough to ask whether sanctions work; one must also ask if another course of action will be more successful. Baldwin (1999) makes the argument that while sanctions may have a low likelihood of success, they can still be the better course of action if military options are likely to carry high costs with little benefits. Looking at the current situation in North Korea, it is not difficult to see the attractiveness of sanctions vis-à-vis direct military options.

Relatedly, Kirshner (1997) examines the microfoundations of sanctions to better understand how they function rather than focusing solely on their efficacy. Kirshner argues that the key to understanding how sanctions operate is to identify the central groups in a state and what these key groups value. The first question is relatively simple. The central groups are the leaders and those that keep them in power.7 Yet the key is understanding what these actors value. This allows states to tailor sanctions to best harm the central groups. Harm these groups and there is a greater likelihood of pressure being put on the government to change policies. Hence, the United States targeting the sugar industry in the Dominican Republic in the early 1960s helped to remove the Trujillo family from power. We saw the ideas of Kirshner at work in the 1990s as the United States sought to engage in “smart sanctions” with their dealing with Saddam Hussein and enforcing the numerous UN Security Council resolutions regarding the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.8

More recent work into sanctions has tended to focus less on microfoundations per se and more on how domestic institutions influence the effectiveness of sanctions. For instance, Lektzian and Souva (2007) argue that the effectiveness of sanctions depends on the institutions of the target. Targets with non-democratic regimes are better able to stave off the punishing effects of sanctions than targets with democratic institutions. Yet Escriba-Folch and Wright (2010) focus on variation within non-democratic regimes to test the influence of institutions and sanction potency. They find that personalist and monarchic regimes are susceptible to sanctions while dominant single-party and militaristic regimes are better able to survive sanctions by switching revenues to their repressive apparatuses.

Other scholars have applied formal logic to the sanctions debate to better evaluate the strategic nature of international relations. Hovi et al. (2005) argue that with perfect information imposed sanctions could never work. A potential target would know they would feel the pain of sanctions and change their behavior before sanctions were imposed. Conversely, targets would know the sender would not inflict enough pain through sanctions and would therefore not change their behavior. As such, Hovi and colleagues argue that imposed sanctions are only likely to work if there is imperfect information. This means that imposed sanctions can be successful under a narrow set of circumstances—when they clear up the uncertainty a target has about the sender. However, Whang, McLean, and Kuberski (2013) find little support of the informational mechanism for imposed sanction success suggested by Hovi et al. (2005). Bapat and Kwon (2015) take an interesting approach to imposed sanctions to study the strategic dilemma facing senders. Imposing sanctions hurts the target and the sender’s own domestic industries. Bapat and Kwon show that imposed sanctions have a greater likelihood of success when the domestic industries of the sender states are not severely punished. Lastly, McLean and Whang (2010) use formal logic to argue that the actions of allies play a key role in a sender achieving success with imposed sanctions.

A great deal of scholarship has explored the potential influence of economic sanctions in international relations. While the efficacy of sanctions—and the myriad of potential conditions necessary for success—remain subjects for debate, the arguments of Baldwin (1999) remain relevant for understanding the role of sanctions in statecraft. Sanctions are but one tool a state has for altering the behavior of other states. Therefore, when evaluating sanctions states must evaluate the costs/benefits of sanctions versus the costs/benefits of other options. Sanctions may have a lower probability of success, but their relative lower costs make them an attractive option for states that want to be seen as doing something short of fighting a war.

Soft Power

Mao Zedong once famously stated that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”9 To an extent, the first two sections of this article have explored Mao’s idea of power as the ability to inflict costs to gain desired actions (through either military or economic means). Yet there is a legitimate argument that states can also gain compliance without threatening to inflict costs. In other words, the power of one’s institutions and ideas can persuade other states to voluntarily change their behavior. Joseph Nye famously termed such power, soft power (Nye, 2004).10

Soft power works on relatively simplistic principles. Say there are two states, State A and State B. State A wants policy X while State B wants policy Y. A hard power approach requires that State A makes State B accept policy X through the threat or imposition of costs despite B’s continued desire for policy Y. Soft power, however, means convincing State B that they would be better off with policy X and should abandon their desire for policy Y. Stated differently, soft power involves persuading others through ideas while hard power involves coercion through the fear of punishment. As Nye (2008, p. 95) stated, “If I can get you to want to do what I want, then I do not have to force you to do what you do not want.”

There are three primary sources of a state’s soft power: culture, political values, and foreign policy (Nye, 2008). One of the United States’ greatest source of soft power comes from Hollywood and the U.S. global media presence. Films are shown all over the world expounding the virtues of American democracy and the ability of individuals born into dire circumstances to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and carve out a well-meaning life in a capitalist system. Such stories can lead other states to desire to be more like the United States and support U.S. policies. Yet the export of one’s culture through movies and other avenues can lead to problems as well. Western society’s emphasis on freedom of expression can lead to gratuitous scenes of violence and sexuality that other cultures might find appalling. In these instances, such media exposure abroad can be harmful.

Additionally, governments can attempt to spread information to other countries through their own means. The United States created Voice of America (VOA) to serve as an alternative form of information and news to be broadcast into states with limited access to foreign media. Although the VOA is designed to serve as a source of credible news for foreign audiences it also shows the delicate balancing act required to effectively wield soft power. Foreign broadcasts that seemingly take an uncritical stance toward the actions and policies of their home state risk being seen as propaganda abroad.

Nye (2008) notes that in the 21st century, the glut of information available is making it more difficult to distinguish between credible and noncredible information. As such, great power competition could potentially focus around weakening the credibility of an opponent’s information. Such competition was witnessed during the 2016 presidential election. The United States was flooded with “fake news” stories and information in an attempt to alter the outcome of the election. One potential source for the fake news stories could be groups in Russia. The overall effect of such competition will be to weaken a state’s ability to persuade the opinion of foreign audiences as it becomes difficult to separate credible from noncredible information. Additionally, having a world leader that derides their domestic news organizations as spreading fake news harms the credibility of news organizations both at home and abroad. The overall impact of such statements, again, would be to weaken the soft power of a state.

The dispersion of news and cultural viewpoints through various media sources is only one element of a state’s soft power. Perhaps more important is the daily exchange of information and ideas. This is accomplished through multiple means. Encouraging foreign students to study within one’s country allows foreign students to see firsthand the strengths of one’s country and ideas. Foreign students can then take these images/experiences to their home country and help shape what political demands they make domestically. Additionally, governments can allow more access to foreign news outlets to explain certain foreign policy decisions or dispel certain myths in the international media. Such direct contact with foreign news outlets helps to show the strengths of having a transparent system of government. Over time, the increase in the number of interactions with foreign individuals will help to increase the amount of trust in a state’s foreign policy and perhaps convince other states to follow the same policy.

However, foreign policy decisions can undermine the messages of soft power. If a state’s actions do not match their words, that state will be in danger of weakening the message they have attempted to craft. For instance, referring to North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as the “axis of evil” by President Bush in 2002 played well in America but was less popular abroad (Nye, 2008, p. 104). Additionally, one could argue that the increased use of drones around the world under President Obama harmed the U.S. message that states should honor the sovereignty of other states and avoid the use of force to solve issues. The secretive nature of the drone program and target selection protocols also raises doubts about civil oversight of the military. What this suggests is that a foreign policy that does not match a state’s ideals that they attempt to sell abroad harms their ability to effectively use soft power.

Furthermore, it is easy to be seduced by the nonviolent promises of influence possible through the application of soft power. In a world where interstate wars are on the decline, one could believe that the era of hard power is over (i.e., military power). Pinker (2011) argues that as humans become more civilized, the thoughts of settling disputes through force of arms becomes more distasteful. Pinker is echoing the ideas of Richardson (1960), who argued that war is best thought of as a disease of the mind. Howard (1978) makes an argument along similar lines but notes that such thinking is part and parcel of liberal thought. For Western democracies steeped in liberal thought, the appeal of soft power is easy to understand. Yet Cohen (2016) warns that a singular focus on soft power is a mistake. Soft power should be seen as one part of a state’s foreign policy. In fact, Cohen (2016) argues that in the 21st century there will a greater need for military might in the United States as they face a broad array of foes that will mainly be deterred by military might rather than Hollywood movies. As such, while soft power will be extremely attractive for those states with fewer resources to devote to military power (such as Canada or the Scandinavian states), great powers such as the United States need a more balanced blend of hard and soft power capabilities.

Going Forward and Concluding Thoughts

Moving forward, for those studying the military aspects of power, there are still important issues that research should focus on. There should be more time spent engaging in discussions involving conceptual clarity. Often scholars note that their research deals with coercive aspects of state power and reach for the CINC scores for their empirical analysis. This is particularly problematic for those testing implications of the bargaining model of war as discussed by Carroll and Kenkell (forthcoming). Yet this data is not appropriate for all questions. Even for more broad issues of coercion, such as power projection, more discussion about what is meant by power projection is needed. We must spend more time on conceptual clarity to point us to the proper empirical evidence needed to test our theories.

Two, scholars need to continue to collect and release data sets on specific military capabilities. Progress is being made on this front, but there is more to be done. In particular, scholars need a new comprehensive measure of military power. Creating such a measure is likely to be fraught with difficulties. After all, combining measures of land, air, and sea power will involve compromises that will leave many to question the measure’s validity. Yet if scholars are to continue to engage in questions surrounding military coercion and war outcomes, they need better measures that more closely align with concepts of interest—such as the balance of power.

Future research on military power will likely be dominated by discussions of the emerging technologies. There are those that doubt that new tactics associated with changing technologies such as cyberattacks will greatly change the fundamental nature of warfare (Gartzke, 2013). Yet it is becoming clear that automated weapons and cyber technologies will be crucial components on tomorrow’s battlefields even if the human component remains. Scholars will need to grasp the ethical implications of these technologies. Additionally, scholars need to begin analyzing how this may influence the grand strategies of states and how states go about trying to achieve their strategy goals.

On the economic front, there too can be greater focus on bigger questions. The recent surge of populism across the Western democracies is calling into question the continued dominance of free trade and liberal economic ideals. Is the global economy heading toward a modern era of autarky? What happens when the tools of economic coercion are turned toward breaking down the institutions of globalization the United States created in the post–Second World War era? Although these seem to be questions taken straight from the turn of the 20th century, they are pertinent yet again as we witness the rise of more leaders denouncing the influences of global economic forces on domestic prosperity.

Another interesting line of emerging research deals with potential conflicts over vital resources. As the global population continues to rise, competition over crucial resources such as food and water will only increase. Arguments are already being made about how this is increasing the likelihood of international conflict.11 Additionally, we have already witnessed how China’s increasing demand for oil has made them more aggressive in the South China Sea. This is an area of research that will continue to grow and force conflict scholars to contemplate how factors such as food production and access to fresh water will serve as a source of state power.

The world has changed considerably since E. H. Carr published The Twenty Years’ Crisis in 1981. The Cold War that occupied the thoughts of most IR theorists around this time ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The United States enjoyed a brief stint as the world’s only remaining superpower. And, new revolutionary changes in information technology have seemingly brought the world closer together.

Despite the ever-changing nature of the world we live in, the privileged position of power for international relations scholarship has remained constant. Those still clinging to the great “ism” debates of the 1980s and 1990s continue to grapple with the meaning of power and how it influences everyday politics. More quantitatively oriented scholars continue to refine our measures of military and economic might to create empirical models that better approximate the coercive relations between states. Lastly, both qualitative and quantitative scholars are now attempting to appreciate how the latest advances in technology will influence our understanding about power and national capabilities.

Because power and its importance for national capabilities will remain crucial for international relations, scholars will continue to devote volumes of work to the subject. This article has given a broad overview of power and national capabilities with regard to the three categories suggested by the work of Carr (1981)—military, economic, and soft power. Each category has shown how scholars have studied the respective topic and how recent scholarship is advancing our knowledge in these areas. As we progress further into the 21st century, the work surrounding the questions raised in this chapter will surely be of great interest to past, present, and future IR scholars.


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(1.) Slantchev (2004) notes that the median length of war is only 5.62 months, lending support to this notion.

(2.) See chapter 3 in Biddle (2004) for an in-depth discussion of force employment in the modern system.

(3.) This is particularly true for the power transition research program. See Organski and Kugler (1980).

(4.) Of course, governments will worry less about collecting taxes if they are able to extract large rents from the ownership of major exports such as oil or other national resources (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2006).

(5.) See Hendrix (2010) for a good overview of the intrastate conflict literature attempting to operationalize state capacity and its influence on conflict outcomes.

(6.) Readers are encouraged to see “Economic Sanctions as Foreign Policy” in this series.

(7.) This is similar to the notion of a leader and there winning coalition found in selectorate theory (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 2004).

(8.) See Drezner (2015) for a more in-depth look into the questions surrounding targeted sanctions.

(9.) The famous quote was part of his speech on “Problems on War and Strategy” during the Central Committee’s sixth Plenary Session on November 6, 1938.

(10.) Readers are encouraged to all see “Public Diplomacy and Foreign Policy” in this series.

(11.) See Burke, Hsiang, and Miguel (2015) for an overview of these arguments.