The most sought and valued end of politics is power. This is true from a realist perspective, which is the one used to explain this fascinating capability. There are two ideas that should be stated before continuing and that will be explained throughout this article. First, power varies depending on the level of analysis; it is different at the individual level, national and international level. And second, power is exercised rather than held. The simplest and most effective way to understand power is explained by Dahl as the ability of A to make B do something that otherwise would not do. In this definition it is implied the fact that A does not hold power as a material possession but instead preforms an action over B.
Power can be classified in two, ‘power over’ and ‘power to’. ‘Power over’ focuses on the exercise of control through behavior and interactions from one actor to another. On the other hand, ‘power to’ is related to how social relations define the actions and capabilities of an actor. At the individual level, the most predominant form of power is ‘power over’. In this sense, if the definition provided by Dahl is considered, according to Barnett and Duvall, the result will be a type of compulsory power. Where A has the means to exercise power over B, B does not have the same wants as those of A and that power does not have to be intentionally exercised. One interesting example of ‘power over’ is that of micro-physics suggested by Foucault, in which he argues that power is exercised by creating micro-physics over the body (or person). Instead of believing that the other actor is a material property, it can be seen as a body that has to respond to very small and subtle dispositions. Additionally, the effectiveness of power is negatively correlated to how evident it is. In other words, the less evident the exercise of power is the more effective it becomes, because this way it generates a smaller reaction.
At the national level, power occurs and is exercised more evenly between ‘power over’ and ‘power to’. In a democracy, the power is granted consciously from the people to the government (or institution). Moreover, the institution has the capabilities and performs the actions based on the nature of the social relations that have established how the power should be executed. The national government is an institution created by society that exercises power to delimit another actor’s actions. In this sense, Neale argues that institutions “imply ‘you may’ as well as ‘thou shall not,’ thus creating as well as limiting choices”. However, in contrast with compulsory power presented at the individual level, at the national level, power does not require a direct relation among the actors but only the participation of those specific actors to the capability and action at discussion. For instance, there is not a direct relation between the legislative power and a random citizen, yet when a law is promulgated both specific actors are subject to the capabilities one has over the other to legislate. Additionally, one particular case in which an institution can be categorized as exercising compulsory power would be if it was controlled or possessed by A and shaped the actions done by B. This could be the case of a totalitarian regime.
The international level represents a particular situation for the exercise of power because of its anarchic nature and the predominance of states as the main actors. Kenneth Waltz argues that the international system is organized in a structure that focuses on the arrangement of its units (States) depending on the different capabilities. In the international system, each unit is equal to others because of sovereignty and given the anarchy under which it works no “unit is entitled to command; none is required to obey”. Nevertheless, the moment when equal units begin to interact between each other capabilities arise and locate them in a specific place. Moreover, in the international level, if A has large military capabilities it means it is able to exercise power over B that has fewer military capabilities. B’s interests and actions are shaped by the structure in which more capabilities are allocated to A. Additionally the ultimate objective of every actor is its survival. Furthermore, compulsory power can be exercised if military capabilities are regarded as the sole source of power, in spite of the sovereignty that each State has. On the contrary, when a Permanent Member of the Security Council of the United Nations vetoes a resolution, this practice falls within institutional power, particularly the ‘power to’ forbid an action.
Regardless of the level of analysis, the quest for power is a never ending game that actors involved in it, are always looking to play in their favor. States, more often than not, will act as if the only thing that mattered would be to have the necessary capabilities to “have” power over another State. Sometimes the actions used to achieve that objective can be cooperation or the formation of alliances and some other times the use of force will be preferred. Whereas institutions are limited by the ‘power to’ do something that is provided by its very own constitution, based on its practices and costumes. In addition, individuals can exercise power through a large array of practices. Finally, irrespective of the level, the techniques, methods, actions used to exercise power will be relative to the expected outcome, the cost involved, the time available and most of all the capabilities.