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International Relations: Division of Power


The concept of power was born with humankind and has accompanied it every step of every century as the most important variable in world politics. The strong prevailed over the weak in numerous ways, most notably through domination, adaptability, and survival as explained in Darwin`s theorem of evolution and natural selection (Darwin, Evolution, & Natural Selection (Article), n.d.). The power lies not only in physical strength but also in the intelligence of exploiting the available tools to prevail over others. Thomas Hobbes was the first to define power as a societal concept which according to Hobbes was: “a man's present means to obtain future goods” (Read, J. H., 1991). Understanding the division of power is a core concept in international relations and political science for all scholars and students of the field who seek to understand the dynamics of global geopolitics. This article enables the reader to understand the classification and administration of power in its three key forms which are hard, soft, and smart power.


Figure 1: An illustration of power from the American drama series "Power" (Wikipedia contributors, 2023).

Power in international relations has been defined and assessed in quantifiable terms, often understood in the context of military and economic strength, which are the key tools of diplomatic strength (Dargiel, 2009). However, the real power in diplomacy lies in the careful administration of strength and intelligence combined with resources provided by political science defined as hard, soft, and smart power (Tenembaum, 2020). Hard power is deployed in the form of coercion (Tenembaum, 2020). In contrast to the coercive nature of hard power, soft power describes the use of positive attraction and persuasion to achieve foreign policy objectives (Tenembaum, 2020). Finally, smart power is the intelligence utilization of both hard and soft power to coerce and convince simultaneously (Dargiel, 2009).


The Classification Based on Power-Possession

In a diplomatic context, those who dispose of and impose power are governments or countries. Depending on the division and possession of power, William Fox, a pioneer of theorems in international relations and their application, through his pragmatic and melioristic approach to global politics divided countries into superpowers, great powers, middle powers, and small powers (Read, J. H., 1991). Based on the events of both World Wars, in his analysis and studies, William Fox regarded the United States, the Soviet Union, and the British Empire as superpowers due to their large possession of power and mobility (Read, J. H., 1991). After the fall of the Soviet Union and the British Empire's decolonization, the United States was the remaining superpower. An emerging superpower present on the global stage of politics that fits Fox's description is China.


Figure 2: Brexit may frustrate co-operation on security in Europe (Simonds, 2017).

Great powers are states that have a robust, economic, cultural, and political influence over other countries (Great Power, n.d.). Superpowers qualify as great powers but not all great powers qualify as superpowers. Oxford's Department of International Relations determines nation coalitions such as NATO, BRICS, G7, and G20 as great powers of the last decade (Great Power, n.d.).


Middle power is a description that refers to second-tier states that are neither great nor small in terms of military and economic might (Read, J. H., 1991). Middle powers have just enough strength and authority to have their say, especially in security and global affairs, mostly in regard to their own territories. However, their influence does not spread to all realms. During the Cold War, the concept of middle powers became empirically stronger as an analytical tool in international relations as a result of the battle for the balance between the two superpowers of that time, the United States and the Soviet Union (Baç, 2015). States that did not have superpower capability but still exerted some influence in the world of politics, such as Canada, the Netherlands, and Sweden, were categorized as middle powers (Baç, 2015).



Figure 3: An illustration of rivalry between America and China (Casasus, 2021).

In international politics, small powers are the majority (Hanson, E. C.,1990). These countries are mostly dominated by all other countries that make up the superpowers, great, and middle powers, but their significance on the international scale cannot be ignored. A very distinguished Norwegian political scientist, and professor of international relations, Iver Neumann stated in 1992 that small powers were all those states that were not great powers and that were not consistently insisting on being referred to as middle powers like Australia, and South Africa (Hanson, E. C.,1990). On the other hand, Francis Yoshihiro Fukuyama, an American political scientist and economist, and writer, whose work is highly influenced by Samuel Huntington and his famous: “Clash of Civilizations”, believes that beyond territorial size, a ‘small’ or ‘smaller’ power often refers to a state with little or less government involvement in society or the national economy (Rabby, 2015). According to American academic writer of international relations and international political economy, Robert Keohane, a ‘small state’ is one whose leaders consider that it can never, act alone or in a small group, and manage to make a significant impact on the globe (Rabby, 2015). Essentially, the small state is beset with a terminological and theoretical quest that holds the overwhelming dilemma faced by small states as its inability to protect themselves, either militarily or economically, against encroachment by larger and stronger powers (Rabby, 2015).


Meanwhile, Norwegian sociologist and principal founder of the discipline of peace and conflict studies, Johan Galtung, has found the ranking order of states based on how aggregate variables explain more the nature and ratio of interactions between states, than other criteria like the structure of government or executive, societal and political organizations, or instrumental attitudes that help determine whether a state qualifies as a small power or not (Rabby, 2015). By general definition, a state will be considered as a small state when it is nominal in size (i.e. territory, population, wealth and economy, military capability) and coming up (developing as a state) in a compressed form (Rabby, 2015). Ronald Peter Barston, a professor and specialist on international relations and modern diplomacy established four approaches to defining small powers that allow the literature of international relations to refer to most states as small powers (Rabby, 2015). The first approach is setting an upper limit, exemplified by the population size. The second is measuring objective elements in the decision-making process and government composition of the state. The third is an analysis of the relative influence of the state, and the final is the identification of characteristics that enable the formulation of a hypothesis on what differentiates a state as small power as opposed to the other forms of power (Rabby, 2015). Current and stable examples of small powers are the countries of the Balkan peninsula such as Albania, Croatia, and Montenegro.


Figure 4: An image of the world map demonstrating the countries of the Balkan Peninsula marked with orange (Just Fun Facts, 2021).

The Fundamentals of Soft Power

Regardless of the type of power a country or state classifies under, all of them exert three main forms of political power: soft, hard, and smart. Soft power is a type of influence wielded by persuading others, particularly countries, to do what you want them to do through political, moral, or cultural attraction without having to coerce threats or financial incentives (Dargiel, 2009). Joseph S. Nye, Jr., a political scientist at Harvard University and the author of Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, coined the term in the late 1980s. Political scientists use soft power in discussions of foreign policy and governing styles of political leaders in different parts of the world (Dargiel, 2009).


The difference between soft and hard power in international politics is the use of force. Soft power uses resources that are attractive attributes of a country—such as a civil society, human rights, and opportunities for individual success—thus inspiring the opposing people, countries, or entities to want the same goals (Dargiel, 2009).


Joseph Nye stated that a country’s soft power relies on three main resources: culture, political values, and foreign policies. Five primary examples are business and trade, culture and tradition, education, governance, and diplomacy (Dargiel, 2009). Business and trade perfectly exemplify soft power due to their center on the allure of a country’s business acumen, the success of its economy, and its ability to innovate. Japan, for example, wields great soft powers in business because of its high levels of investment and many globally recognizable electronics and auto industry companies (Pace-McCarrick, 2021). Moreover, Japanese animation abbreviates as anime has been viewed as a strong cultural influence turned into soft power (Pace-McCarrick, 2021). Being the center of the Japanese student protests of the 60s and 70s and possessing a surprising yet well-substantiated fanbase in a series of global communities outside Japan, anime was declared Japan’s “greatest cultural export” by Tamaki Saito (Pace-McCarrick, 2021). E-International Relations, a well-known digital newsletter brings forth anime as an especially tempting subject for a ‘soft power’ understanding of cultural products in international relations, defined by Joseph Nye as “intangible power resources such as culture, ideology and institutions”(Pace-McCarrick, 2021).


Figure 5: An illustration of different forms of soft power (Shutterstock, n.d.)

Culture is a country’s power to influence others through art, literature, music, or even pop culture (What Is ?, 2022). A primary example of soft power is of its presence in American society including popular media like movies, music, and television (What Is ?, 2022). K-pop music and culture is another example of soft power through the large audiences from around the globe it attracts and with its catchy tunes and charismatic performers.


Educational soft power is when a country becomes a desirable destination for international studies due to high-quality institutions and scholars (What Is ?, 2022). Some countries, including the United States, attract many international students, Switzerland and the United Kingdom are very popular destinations as well, highly valued for their prestigious educational institutions, and study programs as well as the market of opportunities to find secure and well-paid employment. Soft power in governance means respect for freedom and democracy for citizens, resulting in a civil society that is profitable to both its citizens and its governments due to the establishment of trust, and cooperation (What Is ?, 2022). The national and foreign policies in support of human rights and international law guarantee the safety and security necessary for the prosperity of the exertion of soft power by a state towards its citizens and other states.


International relations, and public diplomacy, in foreign affairs and contributions to global development are potent and developing sources of soft power (What Is ?, 2022). Being able to handle public affairs, like international conflicts between superpowers, with diplomacy is a soft power. Negotiation, arbitration, regulations, and litigation are key diplomatic forms of soft power that enable formal, polite, and proper interactions to avoid conflicts that may lead to wars.



Figure 6: An illustration of Russia's resurgent (Economist, 2008)

The Influence of the Hard Power

Hard power is defined as a state's use of economic and military coercion to influence the interests or behaviors of its subjects or other countries or political bodies. It is deemed as aggressive as it is usually imposed on a lesser body or government by a much superior power, making it instantly effective. Moreover, it is often backed by the superior power owning natural resources, economic superiority, or even a higher population. Hard power coerces compliance through inducements and compelling actions (Bhasin, 2022). The Russian invasion of Ukraine, during which Russia successfully annexed Crimea, is an example of hard power that led to the largest territorial gain by force since the end of World War II (Bhasin, 2022).


The term “hard power” became popular in the 1980s, but its use in international relations can be traced back to the rise of the modern nation-state in the 16th century (Bhasin, 2022). At that time, the primary way to influence other states was through the use of military force. This continued to be the case for centuries, as states vied for power through imperialism and colonization (Bhasin, 2022).


The 20th century saw a shift away from the use of hard power, as soft power began to play a more important role in international relations due in part to the rise of international organizations, such as the League of Nations and the birth of the United Nations in 1945 (Bhasin, 2022). These organizations placed a greater emphasis on diplomacy and the peaceful resolution of disputes. With the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, hard power once again became a more prominent tool in international relations due to the presence of only one superpower on the global stage of politics, the United States (Bhasin, 2022). The United States used its military and economic might to assert its influence around the world and serve as a global leader (Bhasin, 2022). Today, hard power is still an important tool in international relations. However, it is often used in combination with soft power. This is because hard power alone is often seen as harsh and ineffective.


Figure 7: An illustration of China conquering a strategic sea (Fruitos, n.d.).

Hard power is most often used in the form of the military because militaries are typically coercive tools available to states. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union used hard power to maintain control over its satellite states in Eastern Europe (Bhasin, 2022). China also typically has used hard power to assert its claims in the South China Sea, building military bases on disputed islands (Bhasin, 2022).


Hard power can also take the form of economic pressure, such as trade sanctions or the withholding of aid, or banning imports and exports (Bhasin, 2022). Most states and international organizations view it as a last resort, to be used only when soft power has failed. The United States invaded Iraq in 2003, using hard power to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime after all attempts at peacekeeping and negotiations failed, is a typical example of the modern use of hard power as a last resort (Bhasin, 2022). Another notable example is that of 2010, when the United Nations imposed sanctions on Iran to stop its nuclear program transforming Iran into the world's most sanctioned country until 2022, when the UN, alongside the EU maximally sanctioned Russia for the armed invasion of Ukraine.


Figure 8: An illustration of Trump, JFK, Kissinger and Barr playing a "foreign policy board game" (Rifkin, 2020)

The Establishment of Modern Power

As previously stated throughout the article, smart power is a mixture of both soft and smart power. The origins of this concept are attributed to both Suzanne Nossel and Joseph Nye although most literary pieces can be found under Nye's literary advocacy. The most notable examples of the use of smart power are found in the foreign policies of modern times (Dargiel, 2009). The United Kingdom and the United States of America have two of the most influential foreign policy systems based on smart power (Dargiel, 2009). The United Nations is also an exemplification of smart power as per its definition. Although it is not a state or a government, as the world's largest international organization built with the sole purpose of maintaining peace, security, and prosperity the UN possesses all the necessary means of imposing both soft and hard power as needed.


In conclusion, power is a critical variable that determines the strength and position of states, and organizations on the global stage of geopolitics. Based on their influence, possession, and use of military and economic means countries are divided into superpowers, great powers, middle powers, and small powers. All countries, regardless of their classification are able to exercise hard, soft, and smart power. The efficiency of hard power remains high but reserved by democratic nations for when all else has failed in order to encourage international negotiations and diplomatic relations. Soft power has soared high with the increase of globalization and industrialization as culture, and education has grown highly influential across all continents. Hard and soft power has accompanied nations throughout history for far longer than smart power, which is considered a more modern concept but far more effective and widely applied in the 21st century.


Bibliographical References

Baç, M. M. (2015, October 13). Middle power | politics. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/middle-power


Bhasin, H. (2022, July 12). Hard Power – Definition, Meaning and Real world Examples. Marketing91. https://www.marketing91.com/hard-power/


Dargiel, J. (2009, June 22). ‘Smart Power’: A change in U.S. diplomacy strategy. E-International Relations. https://www.e-ir.info/2009/06/21/smart-power-a-change-in-us-diplomacy-strategy/


Darwin, Evolution, & Natural Selection (article). (n.d.). Khan Academy. https://www.khanacademy.org/science/ap-biology/natural-selection/natural-selection-ap/a/darwin-evolution-natural-selection


Great power. (n.d.). Oxford Reference. https://www.oxfordreference.com/display/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095905559;jsessionid=041E7E26477F1E82AE0D1040488816EE


Hanson, E. C. (1990). WILLIAM T.R. FOX AND THE STUDY OF WORLD POLITICS. Journal of International Affairs, 44(1), 1–20. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24357221


What Is Soft Power? N.D (2022, June 17). What Is Soft Power? 5 Examples of Soft Power - 2023. MasterClass. Retrieved January 26, 2023, from https://www.masterclass.com/articles/soft-power


Pace-McCarrick, S. (2021, December 16). How Far Does Anime Challenge Joseph Nye’s ‘Soft Power’ and Its Approach to Culture? E-International Relations. https://www.e-ir.info/2021/12/11/how-far-does-anime-challenge-joseph-nyes-soft-power-and-its-approach-to-culture/


Rabby, M. F. (2015, May 3). Small States in International Relations: Rearranging the Puzzle of Defining the ‘Small State.’ FAIR. https://fairbd.net/small-states-in-international-relations-rearranging-the-puzzle-of-defining-the-small-state/


Read, J. H. (1991). Thomas Hobbes: Power in the State of Nature, Power in Civil Society. Polity, 23(4), 505–525. https://doi.org/10.2307/3235060


Study.com | Take Online Courses. Earn College Credit. Research Schools, Degrees & Careers. (n.d.-b). https://study.com/learn/lesson/power-international-relations-types-examples.html



Tenembaum, Y. (2020, May 7). Diplomacy Is the Art of Enhancing Power. E-International Relations. https://www.e-ir.info/2017/02/22/diplomacy-is-the-art-of-enhancing-power/


What is Soft Power? (2017, July 20). Soft Power. https://softpower30.com/what-is-soft-power/

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