In the field of international relations, power is the ability for a nation or other actor to get another actor to do something. Power takes many forms and is affected by the actions of its leaders and population. It is also nuanced and multifaceted; power in one specific domain does not guarantee dominance in another. Some general categories of power that are helpful to be familiar with include military strength, economic strength, and soft power.
When most people think about what makes a country powerful, the first thing that comes to mind is military strength. Strong militaries serve as a deterrent against invasion because no one wants to invade a country whose military could easily defeat them in armed conflict. In the event that a conflict is started, military might is one of the largest determiners of victory.
It can be tempting to assume that the nation with the highest annual military spending will always win in armed confrontation, but in reality, why countries win wars is dependent on both the size of the military and what its specific capabilities are. Militaries that have been trained to fight against traditional combatants often flounder when faced with terrorists or guerrilla warfare. One could argue strongly that it is why the US lost Vietnam and was unable to bring about a swift end to the war in Afghanistan. Moreover, a country’s ability to handle military operations doesn’t necessarily translate to success in other elements of nation-building, like ensuring a democratic transition after a military conflict. For example, the NATO led intervention in Libya ousted the government using military force, but failed to create a stable, prosperous Libya.
Sometimes extempers get asked about military intervention. Understanding what the US military is and isn’t good at can help them make a more informed choice or come to an understanding of why a particular intervention succeeded or floundered. That country’s military spending and size is not the only aspect that matters is sometimes invoked by extempers who wish to argue that the United States shouldn’t care as much about other NATO members having lower defense spending than the United States.
One specific area of military strength that is worth noting is its nuclear capacity. The United States, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, India, Pakistan, and (it is widely assumed) Israel possess nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons serve as a very strong deterrent against invasion because a country with nuclear weapons has the capacity to deal significant damage to the invader. Some scholars believe that nuclear deterrence helps explain the relative absence of conflict among major, nuclear armed powers in the Post-Cold War Era.
A large part of why it is difficult to convince countries like North Korea to give up their nuclear weapons is that possessing them serves as a far stronger deterrent against invasion than their relatively small conventional military ever could. The fact that Ukraine and Libya both gave up their nukes only to be invaded by Russia and NATO, respectively, several years later only strengthens North Korea’s desire to possess nuclear weapons. When talking about convincing countries such as Iran and North Korea to give up their nuclear weapons, understanding why nations want to hold on to their weapons is useful for making predictions and crafting policy proposals.
Another aspect of military power is a state’s ability to wage cyber warfare. Cyber warfare is a relatively new domain and norms and rules have yet to be fully established. In general, cyber operations aimed at acquiring information (espionage) are deemed acceptable, but those aimed at disrupting systems, especially if they are civilian, break international norms. Unlike conventional military forces, countries lacking financial resources, terrorist organizations, and college dropouts living in their parents’ basements have the capacity to conduct a potentially destructive cyber attack. Because of its uniquely low barrier to entry, cyber attacks are often regarded as weapons of the weak. This is why countries like Russia and North Korea often use cyber weapons: they lack the funding necessary to be successful in the domain of conventional warfare and don’t care about breaking international norms. Actors that conduct cyber operations are difficult to pinpoint, which makes retaliation difficult and increases the likelihood of making an error.
The advantages and drawbacks of cyber weapons are useful to understand when speaking about what the future of cyber warfare will or should be. Additionally, understanding what types of countries use cyber weapons is useful when figuring out who is likely behind a cyber attack or who should be included in dialogues on cyber warfare norms.
The economy determines a country’s power abroad in several ways. The size of a country’s economy directly influences the amount of resources available to the state to spend on other instruments of power, like the military or overseas cultural programs. Having a large economy also serves as a deterrent against foreign aggression because nations generally don’t want to risk alienating a country whose trade they depend upon. This phenomena is commonly referred to as complex interdependence. Complex interdependence is often given as a reason why the US and China are unlikely to engage in military conflict: they trade so much that an all out war would cause significant economically harm to both sides.
Some countries choose to strengthen their influence over others by signing trade deals with other countries. The tendency for participation in a trade deal to bind nations together is sometimes referred to as sticky power. Sticky power is a useful idea to invoke when discussing the motivation behind or effects of certain trade deals. For example, China’s decision to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership gave it more economic links with and influence over other Asia Pacific nations. The US’s decision to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership had the opposite effect.
When a group of countries or a country with a particularly large economy wants to assert its will on the international stage, it can make use of sanctions. Commonly, sanctions are used by countries that disapprove of another country’s actions, but don’t feel strongly enough about it to use military force. Some sanctions are targeted and only affect the military and/or political leaders responsible for the actions. Others target the entire population. This is typically done either in the hopes that the government will care enough about their people to stop doing whatever triggered the sanctions or that the population will ouster the current regime out of frustration with the economic situation. The second type of sanction has become controversial, both because it causes people who may or may not have had a say in their government to suffer and because it often leads to more anger at the foreign government than legitimate change at home. Regardless of the type of sanction, having a large economy that people want to do business with makes sanctions more painful and powerful.
Extempers answering “how should” and “what steps” questions commonly prescribe sanctions. Understanding who they work well for can help you pick appropriate times for recommending them. For example, Bangladesh shouldn’t expect sanctions to unilaterally convince Myanmar to stop attacking the Rohingya because Bangladesh’s economy isn’t large enough to do significant damage. A coalition of counties or a large country like the United State might have more success. Additionally, if you wish to answer no to a question asking if sanctions should be imposed, the cost of sanctions in terms of human suffering and damage to the country imposing the sanctions’s reputation should be considered. The drawbacks of sanctions are also worth mentioning when talking about the benefits of re-entering the JCPOA.
Having an economy that is large due to certain resources can be a source of power as well. Countries that are rich in oil and/or natural gas like Saudi Arabia, Russia, or Qatar can leverage these resources. For example, in 1979 oil producing arab countries that were opposed to the United State’s policy on Israel decided to embargo the United States–and were able to inflict significant pain.
There is one other source of economic power that is worth mentioning: currency dominance. The United States currently has the world’s most commonly used currency for international trade and finance. This greatly increases the efficacy of US sanctions because, as Iran has learned all too well, being shut from the world’s dominant banking system does real economic damage. The benefits of having the dominant currency is useful for significance statements. Somewhat ironically, the more the United States flexes its currency related power by imposing sanction, the less foreigners wish to use the US banking system because they are afraid of running afoul of sanctions. The US’s increased use of sanctions in recent years has been blamed for an increase in the number of international transactions taking place in Euro or Japanese yen. When speaking against the use of sanctions, damage to dollar dominance can be a useful point.
Soft power, which includes reputation, cultural influence, and diplomacy, is one of the most nebulous and difficult to quantify source of power. In general, countries derive their reputation based on how much their culture is liked internationally and the perceived benevolence and competency of their government. Like with the reputation of people, a country’s soft power takes a long time to be built up, but can be lost relatively quickly if it partakes in actions that are seen as malevolent and/or norm breaking. If you ever want to talk about a country’s soft power or how it’s soft power has been changing in response to certain actions, Soft Power 30 has a great index.
Some elements of soft power are largely out of the hands of the government. A country’s history is in the past and its artistic and the cultural scene is largely controlled by the country’s people. Countries, can however, work to increase their reputation and work to capitalize on their culture. China builds Confucius Institutes to teach Chinese language and culture to university students in order to make their culture more widespread. The United States runs Voice of America and the United Kingdom runs the British Broadcasting Corporation in part because they want to spread their perspectives and values. Countries also spend money on humanitarian foreign aid and publicize successes at home because they want to be seen as doing good in the world.
Reputation is useful for problems that require collaboration to solve because nations are more willing to work with countries that seem reputable and community minded. It also increases the likelihood that the country will be able avoid conflict because people are less willing to go to war with a country that they consider benevolent. A country rarely archives it’s major foreign policy goals because of soft power alone. More commonly, a combination of military power and/or economic sanctions are used in combination with a soft power approach. A great example of this is counterterrorism. Some argue that educational and development programs are a great complement to traditional military operations because making use of both tackles both the results and roots of the problem.
Reputation is a very useful thing to bring up if you need an extra reason why acting on climate change, spending on humanitarian aid, or something else likely to be perceived positively is a good action for a country to take. Conversely, it can be used to explain why a country doing something unethical, like selling arms to Saudi Arabia or placing ethnic minorities in “reeducation” camps, is not in the country’s best interest. Soft power is frequently invoked when criticising Donald Trump’s America First policy because American allies are less willing to think highly of and support a country that freely admits to being self interested.
Soft power also motivates a lot of action and can be used to answer questions asking why a country chooses to take an action that would be perceived as positive in the international community. This is often useful when answering questions about China, which launched the Belt and Road Initiative and has shipped so many COVID vaccines overseas that it is having trouble covering its own population. Soft power is also relevant when discussing the advantages of international students; countries that educate large numbers of foreigners, like Australia and the United States, make themselves seem more favorable to the students they educate.
Diplomacy is a key way that nations achieve their goals. Usually, diplomacy is cheaper and causes fewer deaths than military operations. In the United States, the budget of the organization responsible for diplomacy, the State Department, has seen budget cuts in recent years. Many analysts lament this, because they believe that less spending on diplomacy today will lead to more military conflicts requiring high military spending in the future. As former Secretary of Defense James Mattis lammented in 2013, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately”. Proposing providing additional funding to the State Department could be a valid option if you ever draw a question about how to improve American foreign policy.
Countries derive their power from many different sources and understanding where nations get their power can be useful when predicting the future of the world order or the course of certain conflicts. Power from various sources are the tools nations have for dealing with one another. Because of the value of power, acquiring more of it motivates a lot of nation’s actions. Although power is useful, it is not the sole factor in determining outcomes. It is important to remember that competent leadership and popular will also play a significant role in determining outcomes and motivations.