Power has long been based on a limited set of factors, with military capability among them. This traditional view of power has been refined by the introduction of the concept of soft power, emphasizing the existence of persuasive capacity that is not linked to coercion. With the increase in interdependence due to globalization, the notion of structural power has taken hold, stressing the importance of defining the framework of action in which the actors of the global space operate.

Power is the ability to impose one’s will on others or, according to Max Weber (Economy and Society, 1921), “the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests.” In other words, it means being able to force others to act against their own wishes and prevent them from acting in accordance with their wishes. A much-debated concept, power is relative and always fits within a dynamic, intersubjective relationship between actors and within a specific historical context, hence the difficulty of ranking actors by the power they exercise.

From hard to soft power

There is considerable variance among authors when it comes to identifying the bases of power, i.e. the factors from which it is derived. Size of territory and population, abundance of natural resources, military or industrial capability, wealth, level of development, and national morale are often highlighted, though without establishing any clear consensus on the matter. On the one hand, some indicators are impossible to quantify; on the other, some factors are relative – a large population can be advantageous or disadvantageous, depending on levels of development, education, etc. Above all, a state ’s power derives not from objective data but from a combination of these various elements and the desire to utilize them.

Factors of state power: from hard to soft power, 2018

Sources: United Nations; Sipri; IISS; World Bank; Ycharts; Unesco; IOC.

Comment: The chart seeks to compare seven countries or group of countries (the EU) according to different power criteria. The EU is atypical because it has no common policy for most of the criteria; the figures for member states therefore have to be added up. The United States, the EU and China dominate according to various indicators. The greatest contrasts are the absence of a rival to the United States in terms of military spending and stock market capitalization; the attractiveness of EU countries for foreign students and an impressive total of medals at the Olympic Games; the demographic weight of China and India; Japan’s huge investment in R&D; and perhaps the immensity of Russian territory.

For many actors, military force has long been the priority, as it is seen to guarantee a state’s security and independence. However, in a world where interdependency (whether economic, financial, cultural, etc.) is increasingly significant, it is becoming impossible for one actor to fully impose its will on others by means of force. Thus, despite the martial rhetoric and posturing of some leaders (Trump, Putin, etc.), power based solely on coercion seems increasingly less effective and relevant – this is the “powerlessness of power” (Bertrand Badie, 2013). True power today is asserted less by aggressive means or threats than through influence, persuasion and bargaining. What matters now is the management of interdependency, and this translates into less clear-cut processes of domination: it is no longer about imposing and conquering, but about negotiating, persuading and controlling.

Change in military expenditure, 1988-2016

Source: Sipri, Sipri Military Expenditure Database,

Comment: SIPRI data on military spending form something of a benchmark, but this think tank has to calculate estimates for countries with little transparency (China especially, but also Russia, Israel and Pakistan). The logarithmic curves show how military spending evolved between 1988 and 2016: expenditure by “early industrialized” countries stagnated, or even decreased, while still maintaining high levels (especially the United States); while that of Southern states grew, sometimes considerably (China x 11 in 28 years, India, and Saudi Arabia). Russia is a case apart: after the 1991 collapse, spending has not regained the supposed level of the 1980s, despite strong and constant growth.

The key factors in this context, then, are no longer exclusively those relating to traditional power, based on coercion (hard power, which uses the traditional instruments of power – mainly military and economic in nature), but also relate to soft power. Soft power, defined by Joseph Nye in 1990, is one actor’s ability to exert influence and persuasion (cultural, ideological or normative), non-coercively, over others. It implies an ability to steer the global political agenda and to mobilize others around this agenda through appeal and attraction, the construction of a positive image and the dissemination of values they endorse.

Power and globalization

Power was long theorized exclusively in the context of inter-state relations, based on the assumption that these actors were necessarily similar in nature, that they related directly to one another and that they were acting in the global arena following identical rules of conduct. Power was thus necessarily based on easily identifiable attributes linked to the statist character of the actors involved (territory, military might, etc.). This traditional view of power came into question during the 1980s, with a growing awareness of the emergence of transnational actors. Because these actors are organized in a networked, non-territorialized way, their influence cannot be understood through the prism of state power. Nor can this influence be denied, given the obvious ability of these actors – multinational corporations and major NGOs in particular – to impose their will on other actors, including state actors, or to constrain their activities.

In a world of global interdependence, the concept of structural power proposed by Susan Strange describes the ability of an actor, of whatever kind, to influence the way the global space is structured and how relations between actors are formed, and to shape the rules in force in key areas of international competition.

Susan Strange defines structural power as “the power to shape and determine the structures of the global political economy within which other states, their political institutions, their economic enterprises and (not least) their scientists and other professional people have to operate.” In contrast to relational power (exerted by one actor over another actor in a direct relationship), structural power takes account of worldwide interdependency arising from globalization : it is used to establish rules of behavior that are imposed on all actors. It impacts four areas in particular: security (who guarantees security?), production (who decides what is produced, and the methods and locations of production?), finance (who can create credit?) and knowledge (who controls the production and teaching of knowledge?). Today, what matters is no longer being the strongest at a given game – but being the one who makes the game’s rules.

Military expenditure, 2016

Source: Sipri, Sipri Military Expenditure Database,

Comment: The two maps on state military spending show two distinct geographies. The amounts spent (circles) reflect the dynamics of power: The United States is a clear leader, and after it comes China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, and the countries of Europe and Northeast Asia. However, spending in relation to GDP (color shading) more clearly shows the political importance given to military spending: while it is a low priority in Europe and on the American continent (the United States and Colombia excepted), it is high in Russia and the Middle East (with the Gulf leading); the African countries reveal a very different situation, depending on each case.

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