Power Politics

Thomas H. Etzoldand

Robert L. Messer

On the level of international politics, power can take many forms, from moral suasion to the carrot of economic benefits to the stick of sanctions or military force. "Power politics" is one of the more equivocal terms in the lexicon of international affairs. In common usage, including that of politicians, it often is value-laden, usually in a negative sense. It implies using coercion—force or threats of force—to impose one's will upon others. However, in academic usage, especially among scholars specializing in the history and theory of international relations, it is more often treated as a neutral phenomenon, descriptive of special or general characteristics of international politics. Further semantic or linguistic confusion results from the divergent shades of meaning that attach to the words in languages of Western scholarship such as German, English, and French. Among these three languages there is no precise equivalent for the phrase "power politics."

Thus one can define power politics both as a term commonly used in political rhetoric and a theoretical description of how states interact in pursuit of their interests in the international arena. In American English it usually means politics based primarily on coercion rather than on cooperation, whether that coercion be military or economic. More often than not it also implies pursuit of national self-interest rather than broader ideals, principles, or ethics. Such a definition shows clearly the value judgment usually implied by use of the term. Those who are accused of practicing power politics are condemned for having abused power in pursuit of a self-serving political agenda.

As a description of political behavior rather than a condemnation of it, scholars use the term in a variety of ways. Some theorists of the "realist" school believe that states inherently seek power for its own sake, so that competition and struggle naturally characterize international relations. Others argue that power is not an end but a means. They propose that states seek security above all, that they try to attain or maintain security by identifying and working toward national interests, and that they require power to achieve such national interests and security. The fact that no state has complete power and that all states have some power creates what one political scientist has called the "power problem," for each state must reckon with the potential hostility of other members of the international community. Relative security for one state all too often seems to mean relative insecurity for others, and so in this schema one must expect conflict and competition.

Another important theory about the nature of power and its effects in international affairs is set forth in the writings of the French political theorist Raymond Aron. By comparing the variant languages, philosophies, and practices of European and American states in regard to power politics, he has elaborated the important distinction between the politics of force and the politics of power. Power, he argues, is the ability to influence or control others. At times that may require the threat or use of force; at other times it will be possible to influence or control the behavior of other states with much less drastic methods. The latter two ideas are particularly useful in examining the history of American foreign affairs.


Acheson, Dean. Power and Diplomacy. Cambridge, Mass., 1958. Truman's secretary of state treats the relation between sources of power and the problems of postwar American foreign affairs.

Aron, Raymond. Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations. New York, 1967. One of the most thoughtful examinations of the differences between politics of influence and politics of force.

——. Imperial Republic: The United States and the World, 1945–1973. Translated by Frank Jellinick. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1974.

Burns, Arthur Lee. Of Powers and Their Politics: A Critique of Theoretical Approaches. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1968. A survey of the contemporary status of ideas on the logic and nature of power relationships.

Cohen, Warren I., ed. The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations. 4 vols. New York, 1993. The authors of each volume in this history provide a thorough and expert treatment of the development of American power in the world since 1776.

Craig, Gordon A., and Alexander L. George. Force and States Craft: Diplomatic Problems of Our Time. 3d ed. New York, 1995. This collection of essays and case studies includes a discussion of America's dilemma of power.

Kennan, George F. American Diplomacy, 1900–1950. Chicago, 1951. In this series of early Cold War lectures the "father" of the containment doctrine popularized the realist critique of Wilsonian idealism. Kennedy, Paul M. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. New York, 1987. This sweeping overview gives global and comparative perspective on the acquisition and complications of world power.

Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York, 1994. A student and practitioner of balance-of-power politics surveys America's changing role in the new world order.

Leffler, Melvyn P. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford, Calif., 1992. A detailed account of how U.S. leaders developed a global framework for national security after 1945.

Morgenthau, Hans Joachim. In Defense of the National Interest: A Critical Examination of American Foreign Policy. New York, 1951. Presents the views of the best known of the "realist" political scientists who suggest that states seek power for its own sake.

Morgenthau, Hans Joachim, and Kenneth W. Thompson. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. 6th ed. New York, 1985. Morgenthau develops his theoretical approach at length.

Nye, Joseph S., Jr. Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. New York, 1990. Describes the challenges and limits of American power after World War II and the diffusion of power at the end of the Cold War.

Osgood, Robert Endicott. Ideals and Self Interest in America's Foreign Relations: The Great Transformation of the Twentieth Century. Chicago, 1953. Focuses on the realist versus idealist approaches to peace, internationalism, and the responsibilities of world power.

Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indian. Abridged edition. Lincoln, Nebr., 1986. A thorough but very readable history of American Indian policy from 1776 to 1980.

Stannard, David E. American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. New York, 1992. An impassioned account of the destruction of the native peoples of the New World.

Van Alstyne, Richard Warner. The Rising American Empire. Chicago, 1960. An interpretive history that emphasizes uses of force and the theme of expansion in American foreign relations from Washington to Wilson.

See also Collective Security ; Continental Expansion ; Embargoes and Sanctions ; Globalization ; International Organization ; Post–Cold War Policy ; Race and Ethnicity .

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