Published online by Cambridge University Press: 15 February 2005
The concept of power is central to international relations. Yet
disciplinary discussions tend to privilege only one, albeit important,
form: an actor controlling another to do what that other would not
otherwise do. By showing conceptual favoritism, the discipline not only
overlooks the different forms of power in international politics, but
also fails to develop sophisticated understandings of how global
outcomes are produced and how actors are differentially enabled and
constrained to determine their fates. We argue that scholars of
international relations should employ multiple conceptions of power and
develop a conceptual framework that encourages rigorous attention to
power in its different forms. We first begin by producing a taxonomy of
power. Power is the production, in and through social relations, of
effects that shape the capacities of actors to determine their
circumstances and fate. This general concept entails two crucial,
analytical dimensions: the kinds of social relations through which
power works (in relations of interaction or in social relations of
constitution); and the specificity of social relations through which
effects are produced (specific/direct or diffuse/indirect).
These distinctions generate our taxonomy and four concepts of power:
compulsory, institutional, structural, and productive. We then
illustrate how attention to the multiple forms of power matters for the
analysis of global governance and American empire. We conclude by
urging scholars to beware of the idea that the multiple concepts are
competing, and instead to see connections between them in order to
generate more robust understandings of how power works in international
The potentially system-defining attacks of September 11, the war on terrorism, and the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq have caused scholars and practitioners to refocus attention on a central concept in international politics: power. If the past is a good predictor of the future, however, debate is likely to be limited conceptually, informed primarily by a realist conception of power—the ability of states to use material resources to get others to do what they otherwise would not. Indeed, this is already happening. Much of the conversation triggered by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for instance, has focused on unipolarity, the ability of the United States to use its military and economic resources to overcome resistance by states and nonstate actors, and whether other states will balance against or bandwagon with U.S. power. Certainly, any consideration of power in international politics must include such questions. But, Mae West's views notwithstanding, too much of a good thing is not always wonderful. Instead, it can produce theoretical tunnel vision that causes scholars to overlook others forms and effects of power. In this essay we argue that scholars of international relations must work with multiple conceptions of power, suggest how they can accomplish this task, and demonstrate how a consideration of power's polymorphous character will enhance and deepen theoretic understanding of international politics.
Ever since Carr delivered his devastating rhetorical blow against the “utopians” and claimed power for “realism,” the discipline of international relations has tended to treat power as the exclusive province of realism.123
The disciplinary tendency to associate power with realism and to work primarily with the realist conceptualization partly owes to the fact that rivals to realism typically distance themselves from “power” considerations.4
We recognize this narrative of the discipline necessarily overlooks other contributions that never pivoted around realism. Later in the article we introduce some of these alternative perspectives.
Because these rivals to realism have juxtaposed their arguments to realism's emphasis on power, they have neglected to develop how power is conceptualized and operates within their theories. It could have been otherwise. These theoretical approaches draw from distinct social theoretic traditions that offer critical insights into the forms and effects of power. Although neoliberal institutionalists have tended to highlight how international institutions produce cooperation, they could just as easily have emphasized how institutions shape the bargaining advantage of actors, freeze asymmetries, and establish parameters for change that benefit some at the expense of others. Although liberals have tended to limit their claims to the liberalism of “progress,” they could have developed the liberalism of “fear” that is more centrally concerned with power.89
The failure to develop alternative conceptualizations of power limits the ability of international relations scholars to understand how global outcomes are produced and how actors are differentially enabled and constrained to determine their fates. One certainly needs to know about the ability of actors to use resources to control the behavior of others. The United States is able to use its military power to compel others to change their foreign policies, and in the contemporary period transnational activists have been able to shame multinational corporations and abusive governments to alter their economic and human rights policies, respectively. Any discussion of power in international politics, then, must include a consideration of how, why, and when some actors have “power over” others. Yet one also needs to consider the enduring structures and processes of global life that enable and constrain the ability of actors to shape their fates and their futures. The extension of sovereignty from the West to the developing world gave decolonized states the authority to voice their interests and represent themselves, and the emergence of a human rights discourse helped to make possible the very category of human rights activists who give voice to human rights norms. Analysis of power in international relations, then, must include a consideration of how social structures and processes generate differential social capacities for actors to define and pursue their interests and ideals.10
The starting point for opening the conceptual aperture is to identify the critical dimensions that generate different conceptualizations of power. In general terms, power is the production, in and through social relations, of effects that shape the capacities of actors to determine their circumstances and fate.11
This definition slightly amends Scott 2001, 1–2, by pointing explicitly to the operation of power through social relations.
This definition informs our argument that conceptual distinctions of power should be represented in terms of two analytical dimensions that are at the core of the general concept: the kinds of social relations through which power works; and the specificity of social relations through which effects on actors' capacities are produced. The first dimension—kinds—refers to the polar positions of social relations of interaction and social relations of constitution. Accordingly, power is either an attribute of particular actors and their interactions or a social process of constituting what actors are as social beings, that is, their social identities and capacities. It can operate, for example, by pointing a gun and issuing commands, or in underlying social structures and systems of knowledge that advantage some and disadvantage others. The second dimension—specificity—concerns the degree to which the social relations through which power works are direct and socially specific or indirect and socially diffuse. It can operate, for example, at the very instant when the gun is brandished, or through diffuse processes embedded in international institutions that establish rules determining who gets to participate in debates and make decisions.
These two dimensions generate our taxonomy of four types of power.13
Our taxonomy bears some resemblance to, but is distinct from, the conventional “four faces” approach to power because, we contend, ours is analytically more systematic and precise, and conceptually more general. Digeser nicely summarizes the differences among the four faces in the following way: “Under the first face of power the central question is, ‘Who, if anyone, is exercising power?’ Under the second face, ‘What issues have been mobilized off the agenda and by whom?’ Under the radical conception, ‘Whose objective interests are being harmed?’ Under the fourth face of power the critical issue is, ‘What kind of subject is being produced?’” Digeser 1992, 980. For other summaries of these faces, see Hayward 2000, chap. 1; and Hay 1997. Because the four faces developed sequentially through a progressive debate about gaps and absences in prior conceptions, they are not elements in a systematic typology. There are no analytical dimensions that distinguish across all four faces, and the faces overlap and blur into one another.
Our taxonomy of power offers several advantages for scholars of international relations theory. First, because it is founded on an explicit and logically systematic decomposition of the general concept of power, it is able to detach discussions of power from the limitations of realism and to encourage scholars to see power's multiple forms. Realism's prominence has contributed to a situation in which scholars are often asked to choose a realist formulation to the neglect of an alternative, or vice versa.151617
Second, our approach provides a framework for integration. Taxonomies not only highlight distinct types but also point to connections between them. In other words, the different types should not be seen as necessarily competing concepts, but rather as different forms in which power works in international politics. Our framework, therefore, suggests how scholars might consider how productive power makes some instances of compulsory power possible and legitimate, and, in turn, how compulsory power shapes the terms of meaning that influence how actors see what is possible and desirable.
Third, our approach represents a decisive advantage over recent contributions to the debate about power in international relations because it incorporates both social relations of interaction and constitution, that is, both “power over” and “power to.” Baldwin's influential contributions have relied heavily on a Dahlian formulation—in which A exercises influence over B—and then attempt to incorporate a variety of concerns, including unintended effects and nonmaterial means of influence.18192021
Last, but hardly least, our taxonomy does not map precisely onto different theories of international relations. To be sure, each theoretical tradition does favor an understanding of power that corresponds to one or another of the concepts distinguished by our taxonomy. For instance, as noted above, realists work with versions that correspond to compulsory power, and critical theorists typically work with versions that correspond to structural or productive power. But, as we show, it need not be this way. Scholars can and should draw from various conceptualizations of power that are associated with other theoretical schools. We believe that such poaching and cross-fertilization is healthy, needed, and might, in a small way, help scholars move away from perpetual rivalry in disciplinary “ism” wars and toward dialogue across theoretical perspectives.
In the second section we briefly illustrate why attention to the multiple forms of power affects empirical research through reference to two domains of contemporary theoretical significance—global governance and the debate over American empire. As scholars continue to consider power in international politics, they would do well not to fixate on a single rendition but instead to appreciate how the range of conceptualizations provides the basis for a better, richer, and fuller understanding of the workings of world politics. We conclude on this theme, briefly discussing how such cross-fertilization builds bridges between these concepts, and how scholars might think about the possible relationships.
Power is the production, in and through social relations, of effects on actors that shape their capacity to control their fate. This concept has two dimensions at its core: (1) the kinds of social relations through which actors' capacities are affected (and effected); and, (2) the specificity of those social relations. Conventionally for social theorists, social relations can be viewed as being broadly of two kinds: relations of interaction among previously constituted social actors; or relations of constitution of actors as particular kinds of social beings. For the second dimension, the crucial distinction is whether the social relations of interaction or constitution through which power works are direct and specific, or indirect and socially diffuse. Below we explore each dimension, then show how the polar positions within each dimension combine to generate our taxonomy of power.
The first dimension concerns whether power works in interactions or social constitution. One position on this dimension treats social relations as comprised of the actions of preconstituted social actors toward one another. Here, power works through behavioral relations or interactions, which, in turn, affect the ability of others to control the circumstances of their existence. In these conceptions, power nearly becomes an attribute that an actor possesses and may use knowingly as a resource to shape the actions or conditions of action of others.
The other position consists of social relations of constitution. Here, power works through social relations that analytically precede the social or subject positions of actors and that constitute them as social beings with their respective capacities and interests. Constitutive relations cannot be reduced to the attributes, actions, or interactions of pregiven actors. Power, accordingly, is irreducibly social. In other words, constitutive arguments examine how particular social relations are responsible for producing particular kinds of actors. As Wendt puts it, “Constitutive theories … account for the properties of things by reference to the structures in virtue of which they exist.”22
Wendt 1998, 105.
This conceptual distinction between power working through social relations of interaction or in social relations of constitution tracks fairly closely with a distinction that frequents the literature on power: “power over” and “power to.” Concepts of power rooted in behavior and interaction point to actors' exercise of control over others; they are, then, “power over” concepts. Concepts of power tied to social relations of constitution, in contrast, consider how social relations define who the actors are and what capacities and practices they are socially empowered to undertake; these concepts are, then, focused on the social production of actors' “power to.” Some scholars, who examine how constitutive relations make possible certain types of action, focus on how community or collective action are facilitated, while others stress how the social relations of constitution can have a disciplining effect and therefore lead to self-regulation and internalized constraints.23
This interaction/constitutive distinction also foregrounds particular features of the effects of power. Because power is a property of actors' actions and interactions in behavioral conceptions, there is a strong tendency to see its effects primarily in terms of the behavior of the object of power. In contrast, constitutive power is generally seen as producing effects only in terms of the identities of the occupants of social positions. We want to stress, though, that there is no ontological or epistemological reason why scholars working with one of those concepts need exclude the effects identified by the other. If power works through the actions of specific actors in shaping the ways and the extent to which other actors exercise control over their fate, it can have a variety of effects, ranging from directly affecting the behavior of others to setting the terms of their very self-understandings; behavioral power, then, can have effects on actors' subjectivities and self-understandings. Similarly, if power is in social relations of constitution, it works in fixing what actors are as social beings, which, in turn, defines the meaningful practices in which they are disposed to engage as subjects; constitutive power, then, has effects on behavioral tendencies. Thus scholars examining power through social interaction can see effects on social identities, and those examining power through constitutive relations can see effects on action.
The second core analytical dimension concerns how specific—direct and immediate—are the social relations through which power works. Specific relations of power entail some immediate and generally tangible causal or constitutive connection between the subject and the object, or between two subjects. Scholars working with this conception tend to presume that connections between actors are mechanistic, flush with contact, direct, or logically necessary. A consequence of this dependence on social proximity is that it becomes more difficult to observe power in operation the greater is the social distance, the lag between stimulus and effect, or the absence of logical necessity, characterizing these connections.
This approach is nicely summarized by Dahl's famous claim that there is “no action at a distance.”24
Dahl 1957, 204.
Also see Isaac 1987.
Other approaches see power in indirect and socially diffuse relations. Instead of insisting that power work through an immediate, direct, and specific relationship, these conceptions allow for the possibility of power even if the connections are detached and mediated, or operate at a physical, temporal, or social distance. Scholars that locate power in the rules of institutions, whether formal or informal, frequently trace its operation to such indirect mechanisms. Those examining concrete institutions have shown how evolving rules and decision-making procedures can shape outcomes in ways that favor some groups over others; these effects can operate over time and at a distance, and often in ways that were not intended or anticipated by the architects of the institution.272829
These two core dimensions—the kinds of social relations through which power works, and the specificity of the social relations through which power's effects are produced—generate a fourfold taxonomy of power as illustrated in Figure 1. Each cell in Figure 1 represents a different conceptual type. Compulsory power exists in the direct control of one actor over the conditions of existence and/or the actions of another. Institutional power exists in actors' indirect control over the conditions of action of socially distant others. Structural power operates as the constitutive relations of a direct and specific—hence, mutually constituting—kind. Productive power works through diffuse constitutive relations to produce the situated social capacities of actors.
Because concepts of power are partly distinguished by the conceptualized relationship between agency and structure, our taxonomy relates to the agent-structure duality to the extent that the generic concern is with the relationship between social context and human action. We want to stress, though, that because each type of power has at least an implicit view of both agency and structure, none simply reflects an entirely agentic or structural perspective (to the neglect of the other). Nevertheless, they do vary in specific ways. Compulsory (and, to a lesser degree, institutional) power emphasizes agency to the point where structure becomes the context in which A's actions and B's reactions are set and constrained, thereby leaning heavily on agency and treating structure as constraint. In contrast, concepts of structural and productive power emphasize structure relative to purposeful agency, even while recognizing that meaningful practices, and hence, human agency, are essential in producing, reproducing and possibly transforming these structures.
This first concept of power focuses on a range of relations between actors that allow one to shape directly the circumstances or actions of another. Some of the most famous and widely used definitions of power fall under this concept. Weber defined power as 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 exists.”30
Weber 1947, 52.
Blau 1964, 115–16.
In terms of sheer influence, especially for scholars of international relations, arguably no definition surpasses that of Dahl's earliest formulation.32
Although Dahl's initial conceptualization usefully illustrates the concept of compulsory power, our taxonomy highlights how compulsory power need not hinge on intentionality.3435
Bachrach and Baratz 1962, 952.
Compulsory power has significantly influenced thinking about power in international politics.36
Compulsory power is not limited to material resources; it also entails symbolic and normative resources.37
Baldwin 2002, 178–79.
In general, scholars should be attentive to a range of technologies and mechanisms as they consider how one actor is able to directly control the conditions of behavior of another actor. In fact, there is a long pedigree for doing just that. Carr began this tradition when he distinguished between military, economic, and propaganda power, corresponding respectively to the threatened or actual deployment of violence, nonviolent sanctions, and normative pressure.42
Whereas compulsory power entails the direct control of one actor of the conditions and actions of another, institutional power is actors' control of others in indirect ways. Specifically, the conceptual focus here is on the formal and informal institutions that mediate between A and B, as A, working through the rules and procedures that define those institutions, guides, steers, and constrains the actions (or nonactions) and conditions of existence of others.43
We caution against two possible, but inapt, connotations of institutional power: the power of institutions as actors in their own right (for example, the World Bank's power over borrowing countries); and the effect of institutions in constituting social subjects (for example, the institution of sovereignty affects the constitution of state subjects). The former is best understood as compulsory power and the latter as either structural or productive power. Institutional power, in other words, does not include any and all aspects of power by, in, and through institutions. Instead, it is preconstituted actors exercising control over others indirectly through institutions.
Thus compulsory and institutional power differ in the following ways. To begin, whereas compulsory power typically rests on the resources that are deployed by A to exercise power directly over B, A cannot necessarily be said to “possess” the institution that constrains and shapes B. It is certainly possible that a dominant actor maintains total control over an institution, which, in turn, lords over other actors. If so, then it is arguably best to conceptualize the institution as possessed by the actor, that is, as an instrument of compulsory power. But rare is the institution that is completely dominated by one actor. Instead, it is much more likely that an institution has some independence from specific resource-laden actors.44
Second, the recognition of the importance of institutional arrangements highlights that A and B are socially removed from—only indirectly related to—one another. This distance can be spatial or temporal. Spatially, A's actions affect the behavior or conditions of others only through institutional arrangements (such as decisional rules, formalized lines of responsibility, divisions of labor, and structures of dispersed dependence); power is no longer a matter of A's direct effect on B, but works instead through socially extended, institutionally diffuse relations. In other words, A does not “possess” the resources of power, but because A stands in a particular relation to the relevant institutional arrangements, its actions exercise power over B. Temporally, institutions established at one point in time can have ongoing and unintended effects at a later point. Long-standing institutions represent frozen configurations of privilege and bias that can continue to shape the future choices of actors. Third, analyses of institutional power necessarily consider the decisions that were not made (the proverbial dogs that do not bark) because of institutional arrangements that limit some opportunities and bias directions, particularly of collective action.45
Bachrach and Baratz 1962 and 1963. Compulsory power, too, can entail “nondecision.” For example, failing even to consider the possibility of distributing certain medications to populations in dire need of them can be a form of direct control of A over B.
International relations scholars have developed a range of arguments that examine how formal and informal institutions enable some actors to shape the behavior or circumstances of socially distant others. The literature on formal and informal agenda setting focuses on who sets the agenda and how that agenda omits certain possibilities.4647
Hirschman 1945. Aspects of Hirschman's argument, of course, emphasize direct relations of dependence between two countries, and hence, compulsory power.
Also prominent here are neoliberal institutional approaches that focus on the behavioral constraints and governing biases of institutions. The general concern is with durable solutions to games of interdependent choice and how institutions help to solve coordination and cooperation dilemmas. Yet the institutional rules that establish a particular focal point also serve to generate unequal leverage in determining collective outcomes. In short, the institutions that are established to help actors achieve mutually acceptable, even Pareto-superior, outcomes also create “winners” and “losers,” to the extent that the ability to use the institution and, accordingly, collective rewards—material and normative—are unevenly distributed long into the future and beyond the intentions of the creators.4950
Structural power concerns the structures—or, more precisely, the co-constitutive, internal relations of structural positions—that define what kinds of social beings actors are. It produces the very social capacities of structural, or subject, positions in direct relation to one another, and the associated interests, that underlie and dispose action. This makes this type of power quite different from institutional power. Whereas institutional power focuses on differential constraints on action, structural power concerns the determination of social capacities and interests. This important difference owes chiefly to their different theoretic understandings of structure. Scholars focusing on institutional power usually define institutions and structure in almost interchangeable terms, as sets of rules, procedures, and norms that constrain the action of already-constituted actors with fixed preferences. Scholars focusing on structural power conceive structure as an internal relation—that is, a direct constitutive relation such that the structural position, A, exists only by virtue of its relation to structural position, B. 51
Structural power shapes the fates and conditions of existence of actors in two critical ways. One, structural positions do not necessarily generate equal social privileges; instead structures allocate differential capacities, and typically differential advantages, to different positions. Capital-labor and master-slave relations are obvious examples of how social structures constitute unequal social privileges and capacities. Two, the social structure not only constitutes actors and their capacities, it also shapes their self-understanding and subjective interests. The consequence is that structures that distribute asymmetric privileges also affect the interests of actors, often leaving them willing to “accept their role in the existing order of things.”52
Lukes 1975, 24.
Ibid. It is possible to construct a compulsory power answer to this question. For instance, A might act to alter the beliefs of B, thereby making it easier to control B, as it is always easier to maintain a social order through consent than through coercion. Baldwin 2002, 179, gives the example of brainwashing. Related is Hurrell and Woods's 1995 concept of coercive socialization and Ikenberry and Kupchan's 1990 notion of hegemonic power.
This approach relates to the distinction between objective and subjective interests. See Benton 1981.
Various international relations scholars forward arguments that have strong shades of structural power. Most obviously, Marxist-influenced scholars gravitate toward this concept.55
Marxists are not alone in emphasizing structural power. Bourdieu 2001 focuses on the global importance of masculine domination produced through the structure of patriarchy. Strange 1989 developed a non-Marxian approach to what she calls structural power.
Because many constructivists draw from structurally oriented theories of sociology, they also are sometimes attentive to structural power. Wendt, for instance, argues that “a key aspect of any cultural form is its role structure, the configuration of subject positions that shared ideas make available to its holders.”60
Wendt 1999, 257.
Also see Wendt and Duvall 1989.
Productive power and structural power overlap in several important respects. Both are attentive to constitutive social processes that are, themselves, not controlled by specific actors, but that are effected only through the meaningful practices of actors. Both concern how the social capacities of actors are socially produced, and how these processes shape actors' self-understandings and perceived interests. Additionally, neither concept of power depends on the existence of expressed conflict (although resistance is at the heart of the dynamics of change of them).
Yet structural and productive power differ in a critical respect: whereas the former works through direct structural relations, the latter entails more generalized and diffuse social processes. Specifically, and at the risk of gross simplification, structural power is structural constitution, that is, the production and reproduction of internally related positions of super- and subordination, or domination, that actors occupy. Productive power, by contrast, is the constitution of all social subjects with various social powers through systems of knowledge and discursive practices of broad and general social scope. Conceptually, the move is away from structures, per se, to systems of signification and meaning (which are structured, but not themselves structures), and to networks of social forces perpetually shaping one another. In that respect, attention to productive power looks beyond (or is post-) structures.
This difference between direct and diffuse social relations of constitution has two important implications for thinking about productive power. First, productive power concerns discourse, the social processes and the systems of knowledge through which meaning is produced, fixed, lived, experienced, and transformed.6465
Hayward 2000, 35.
Second, discursive processes and practices produce social identities and capacities as they give meaning to them. In Foucault's archetypical formulation, humans are not only power's intended targets, but also its effects.67
Foucault 1971, 170.
to assume that some essence is at the root of human subjectivity, [and raises] the possibility that every ordering of social relations, and every ordering of social selves (every inter- and intrasubjective power relation) bears some cost in the form of violence it does to “what it might be ‘in the self and in the social world.’ ”70
Hayward 2000, 6 (emphasis in the original).
In general, the bases and workings of productive power are the socially existing and, hence, historically contingent and changing understandings, meanings, norms, customs, and social identities that make possible, limit, and are drawn on for action.71
Some of the best examples of the analysis of productive power in international relations refer to the discursive production of the subjects, the fixing of meanings, and the terms of action, of world politics. One question concerns the kinds of subjects that are produced. Basic categories of classification, like “civilized,” “rogue,” “European,” “unstable,” “Western,” and “democratic” states, are representative of productive power, as they generate asymmetries of social capacities.7273
See Litwak 2002; and The New Republic, 7 October 2002, 22.
The four concepts of power offer distinctive views about how actors' abilities to shape and set the conditions of their existence and action are affected and effected in international relations. Although each concept offers important insights into how power operates, a full accounting of power requires a consideration of its multiple forms operating in relation to each other. Our taxonomy does more than alert scholars to the different forms of power, though, for it also encourages a consideration of their conjunction. To demonstrate the value of our taxonomy for seeing the distinctive forms and the linkages between them, we consider two major issues in global politics—global governance, and American empire.
Scholars of global governance often define it as the institutionalized coordination or collaboration of people's and states' activities in ways that achieve more desirable—positive sum—outcomes.7879
This argument is developed in Hurrell 2005.
International institutions, formal and informal, are often understood to be at the heart of global governance. Relations of cooperation and coordination, practices of international law, and the processes of collective action that they entail, are effected in and through institutions. Institutional power thus provides a reasonable conceptual starting point for examining power in global governance, and shapes global governance in at least three ways.
First, any concern with global governance must consider what issues are of concern and which issues are not. For decades after World War II, issues of human rights, women's rights, and children's rights never made it on the UN agenda and thus were never discussed or even deemed worthy of “governance.” That is no longer the case.8081
Second, a consideration of institutional power also exposes the governing biases of institutions. As we noted in the conceptual discussion above, the institutional rules that establish a particular focal point also serve to generate unequal leverage or influence in determining collective outcomes.82
Knight 1992, 131–36.
Third, also consistent with the biases of institutions is the ability of great powers to establish international institutions and arrangements to further or preserve their interests and positions of advantage into the future, even as they do not directly or fully control those future arrangements. Gruber's concept and application of “go-it-alone” power suggests how strong states undertake a course of action that subsequently shapes future outcomes for others, and that weak states go along with an agreement that may actually leave them worse off, because to oppose the inevitable will only cost them more in the long run.878889
But institutional power, alone, does not tell the whole story. The example of great powers attempting to shape institutions suggests more traditional senses of “power struggles,” which directs attention to compulsory power. Here, most obviously, the concern is with how states, and largely the great powers, are able to determine the content and direction of global governance by using their decisive material advantages not only to determine what areas are to be governed, but also to directly “coordinate” the actions of lesser powers so that they align with their interests.90
States, though, are not the only actors that have the ability to set and enforce the rules of global governance in ways that directly control the actions of others. International organizations sometimes do too, as they can be not only sites of institutional power through which other actors indirectly exercise control but also can exhibit compulsory power.919293
Even some materially challenged actors are able to exercise compulsory power in global governance processes. Transnational activists, civil society organizations, and international nongovernmental organizations have demonstrated the ability to use rhetorical and symbolic tools, as well as shaming tactics, to get states, multinational corporations, and others to comply with the values and norms that they advance.949596
Analysis of global governance needs to be attentive not only to the interactions of actors but also to the constitutive reproduction of the subjects of global social life. Gramscians and historical materialists have examined how global institutions help to stabilize and spread global governance that has a markedly liberal and capitalist character.979899
The concept of productive power as applied to global governance highlights how the discourses and institutions of international relations contingently produce particular kinds of actors with associated social powers, self-understandings, and performative practices. Consider the Global Compact, which “engages the private sector to work with the UN, in partnership with international labor and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to identify, disseminate, and promote good corporate practices based on nine universal principles” that are found in various UN documents.100
Ruggie 2001, 371–72.
Yet the architects of the Global Compact imagine two distinctive mechanisms that might foster this development, and these mechanisms are expressions of productive power. One, as multinational corporations sign onto a set of (evolving) standards and practices, a discursive space is opened in which various actors are produced as subjects empowered legitimately to comment on their performance. Those actors are thereby given social resources that enable them effectively to exercise the compulsory power of shaming corporations into changing their behavior. Additionally, the discourse of the Global Compact also aspires to create a new kind of actor—the potentially “socially responsible corporation”—that may adhere to these best practices not because of the manipulation of incentives, but rather because of a new self-understanding.101102
The productive power of the Global Compact discourse, although important in its own right, is merely illustrative of the broad significance of productive power in global governance. Indeed, all practices of guiding and steering collective outcomes in global social life, with the possible and partial exception of instances of compulsory power effected through relations of raw coercive force and violence, derive from discourses that are productive of the social identities of the actors engaged in them. The human rights regime, for example, is an expression of a discursively constituted world populated by subjects normalized as human rights victims, human rights monitors, human rights violators, and human rights prosecutors. To analyze global governance processes adequately, then, it is necessary to address systematically the workings of productive power in setting the conditions of meaningful collective action.
Understanding the operation of power in multiple forms makes it much more difficult to approach global governance purely in terms of cooperation, coordination, consensus, and normative progress. Governance is also a matter of compulsion, institutional bias, privilege, and unequal constraints on action. Although these different concepts of power illuminate different ways in which power operates in global governance, there is an important difference between the first two and the last two that affects how we think about governance: the first two concern who governs in global governance, whereas the latter two concern not who governs, but instead how the governing capacities of actors are produced, how those capacities shape governance processes and outcomes, and how bodies of knowledge create subjects that are to be, at least in part, self-regulating and disciplined.103
Brass 2000, 316.
If scholars of global governance have tended to underestimate the role of power in any of its forms, there is no such danger regarding the contemporary debate about the existence, nature, and consequences of U.S. empire. The U.S. response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush's 2002 National Security Strategy, and the U.S. occupation of Iraq have caused scholars and pundits to debate whether the United States is an empire.104
The generic concern is with the informal or formal hierarchical arrangements that maintain the domination of one actor over others. See Shaw 2002, 331–32, and Doyle 1986 for a general discussion, and Rosen 2003 for application of the concept to the contemporary United States.
Much of the debate over the existence and nature of American empire pivots off of what we have called compulsory power. It could hardly be otherwise. A fundamental issue, after all, is the U.S.'s ability and willingness to use its overwhelming concentration of resources to shape directly the actions of others. For many observers, the decision to designate the United States as an empire rests on its apparent quest to use coercion and intimidation if and when necessary to develop and sustain its supremacy over other regions and states. The emphasis on direct control over others certainly corresponds to the concept of compulsory power, but our concept does raise questions regarding whether the designation of empire should be dependent on intentions and brass-knuckle tactics.
Much of the recent discussion over the United States as an empire revolves around its intentions. After all, although the U.S. global share of material resources has not changed significantly during the past decade, what has changed, according to many, is the Bush administration's determination to use its unrivaled position to strong-arm others and to scare away possible challengers. This is one reason why much is made of the Bush administration's 2002 National Security Strategy; it appears to announce loudly and boldly its goal of maintaining an empire in form if not in name. But, should intentionality be the metric for determining the existence of empire? As we have shown, compulsory power does not hinge on intentionality; it still operates even when those who directly dominate others are not conscious of how their actions are producing unintended effects. A state that has no intention of creating or maintaining an empire, per se, might nevertheless exercise directly controlling effects that are nearly identical to those who do. To the extent that compulsory power is the key, then, evidence of empire may best be found not in the intentions of the subject but instead in the consequences as viewed from the objects of the empire.
The concept of compulsory power also questions whether the reliance on coercive means is necessary for the designation of empire. Compulsory power concerns the direct control of others, but admits for a range of technologies that allow A to control the behavior and circumstances of B. Consequently, although empires use military means, they also can be expected to use less coercive tactics. Doing so might not make them any less of an empire, a point emphasized by Carr in his discussion of the colonial empires.105106
The backdrop to this argument is an interpretation of what accounts for the longevity of American hegemony after World War II and how it differed from previous hegemonies, including the colonial empires it supplanted. The genius of the post–World War II “wise men,” in this way, was to recognize that global rule through coercion was unsustainable, and that it was preferable to establish global institutions that could further American interests and spread American values.107108
Mehta 2003, 51–52.
But it is important to recognize how American hegemony, even when run through global institutions, still represented an exercise of institutional power. The absence of overt conflict does not mean the absence of power; institutions can mobilize bias to serve U.S. purposes and eliminate points of potential opposition to serve U.S. concerns. Moreover, global institutions created an asymmetrical distribution of benefits, and the United States has been a prime beneficiary. It is partly for this reason that Bacevich claims that the nature of the American empire since World War II has revolved around global institutions that create “open spaces” that the United States can dominate.109110
Yet to what extent should the debate about the American empire focus exclusively on the specificity of the United States as an actor? Compulsory and institutional power directs attention to empire as an extension of a centralized, territorial state that maintains control over others, and thus focuses on the policies of the United States in general and the Bush administration in particular. Structural and productive power, however, shift the focus away from particular actors that control, directly or indirectly, others to social relations of constitution. In doing so, it directs attention to the underlying social relations that make possible an assumption of imperial power, give meaning to U.S. foreign policy practices, and imagine empire as having a decentralized, even deterritorialized, form.
To consider structural power in debating the existence or implications of U.S. empire means, first and foremost, exploring the structural constitution of the United States as imperial center. This has three interconnected aspects. First, the structure of social relations of material production are transnational and create functional and spatial differentiation between a world-economic core and periphery. Along these lines, scholars influenced by Marxism and world-system theory generally situate their discussions of U.S. foreign policy in the context of how global capitalism generates a particular set of social positions and practices for the United States in direct relationship to the structurally disadvantaged.111112113114115
Can the social relations of constitution that generate empire be understood in the more diffuse terms of productive power? A most influential, recent, attempt is Hardt and Negri's definition of “empire,” which has been the subject of much critical attention. Their argument is that transformative discursive and material processes have produced “empire”: a “decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding, frontiers.”116
Hardt and Negri 2000, xi–xiii.
How does this deterritorialized empire constitute the United States? Broadly, social discourses might be viewed as productive of the specific subjectivity of the United States in relationship to imperial subjects. Some circles, for example, exhibit a growing romantic nostalgia for empire.118119
USA Today, 6 May 2003, A15.
New Republic, 9 June 2003, 19–23.
In general, any discussion of American empire should be attentive to all forms of power. Certainly there is compulsory power, which is the focus of much of the debate. Yet also present is institutional power and how the United States might indirectly control the behavior of others through global institutions. These first two approaches share, therefore, a concern with how the United States is able to sustain dominance in international affairs in ways that control, directly and indirectly, the foreign policies and even domestic political arrangements of other states. It is possible and desirable, though, to see the American empire as constituted by global social relations. Making this move requires a willingness to see the United States at the imperial center, structurally constituted and discursively produced through a complex of imperial relations that are not themselves fully under the control of the U.S. state as actor. To fully appreciate how power is embedded in empire, though, requires a willingness to see not only the different forms of power, but also how they combine in different ways to create structured and enduring hierarchies of control and advantage.
Power is a complex and contested concept, in large part because there are important but distinctive ways to understand how social relations shape the fates and choices of actors. If international relations scholars have erred in their past attempts to understand power, it is by trying to identify and rely on a single conception. But no single concept can capture the forms of power in international politics. In order to better enable scholars to see the conceptual variety, we constructed a taxonomy that systematically identifies the different forms of power. We use that taxonomy to encourage scholars not to treat these conceptual forms as competing or vying for recognition as the important operation of power in a particular situation. Instead, we urge scholars to see how the multiple concepts capture the different and interrelated ways in which actors are enabled and constrained in determining their circumstances.
The inevitable question, then, is how exactly should we think about the relationship between these forms of power? During the past few years, there have been several important statements regarding how scholars should conceptualize the relationship between different substantive theories of international relations, such as neoliberalism and realism, and different social theories, such as constructivism and rationalism.121
One line of argument is that because these different conceptualizations of power derive, in important ways, from different social theoretic commitments, they are incommensurable. Because the theoretic foundations are in tension, the best that can be gotten among concepts of power is some form of conceptual pluralism. We certainly do not believe that a “master” theory of power is possible. But there is no social theoretic reason why scholars should not look for areas of connection. We also reject a gladiatorial competition between these conceptions; after all, they capture the different ways in which social relations shape and limit actors' ability to determine their fates. To permanently reject one in favor of another, therefore, would be to risk overlooking a fundamental dimension of power (and therefore return discussions of power to a state of conceptual myopia).
We also reject subsumption arguments, on the grounds that they presuppose that there is a foundational element of power that is generative of the other forms. We see ways in which compulsory power shapes productive power, and vice-versa; how institutional power shapes compulsory power, and vice-versa; how institutional power shapes structural power, and vice-versa, and on and on. So, there is no most basic form. On the same grounds, we reject the idea of sequencing because we see no reason to presume that one form of power necessarily and always precedes another. To the contrary, in most social contexts all are operating simultaneously, intersecting with and reflecting off of each other.
Because the taxonomy was designed to encourage scholars to see the different forms of power in international politics and the connections between them, we strongly encourage scholars to imagine how different forms interact to sharpen empirical analysis. Different forms of power have different domains of application to the extent that they illuminate different ways in which social relations affect and effect the ability of actors to control their fates.123
For a related argument, see Baldwin 2002, 178.
Although Carr is routinely considered to be the individual most responsible for establishing the focal conceptualization of power and associating that conceptualization with realism, in our view his work in fact suggests what we are advocating.124
As a student of Marx, Carr also saw power as structural—as including social processes that define state interests themselves. Drawing inspiration from Marxian theories of false consciousness, for example, he claimed that ideologies such as free trade are part of power politics precisely because they can lead indoctrinated states to consent to new forms of economic relations that insert them into new relations of dependence and exploitation. International orders are easier to sustain for the powerful if the dominated submit to their own domination, Carr acknowledged clearly and explicitly. Finally, as someone who was influenced by Mannheim, he was keenly aware of how broad discourses such as “progress,” carried by intellectuals and established institutions, constitute what are acceptable practices and goals (always trying but never quite eradicating power) and shape broader categories of “civilized” and “uncivilized” states. Carr reminds us that power exists at the surface, and also well below; he shows that to understand power means to understand its various forms. As scholars of international relations continue to debate the nature, role, and explanatory significance of power, they should recognize the workings of multiple concepts and systematically employ them in their research. After all, that is the way Carr would have wanted it.