Power & Polarity in the International System

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  • 0:02 Power Defined
  • 1:40 Factors Affecting Power
  • 2:40 Balance of Power
  • 4:03 Polarities of Power
  • 5:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

In the world of international affairs, international actors vie for the power to pursue their interests and stop those actors who are a threat to their interests. In this lesson, you'll learn about power, the balance of power and polarity in the international system.

Power Defined

Imagine that you are the leader of a country in a fictional world surrounded by other countries. Your country is an active actor in international politics, since its economic prosperity is dependent upon international trade, and it is not strong enough to fend off the more aggressive and powerful countries that seek to increase their territories. You engage in a foreign policy aimed at increasing your country's power while, at the same time, trying to decrease the power of its rivals. Let's take a closer look at power since it's one of the key concepts in international relations and necessary for you to accomplish your strategic goals.

Power is the ability to influence others. It's the ability to get someone to do something they would not otherwise do or to get someone not to do something they would otherwise do. For example, a literature professor exerts power over her students by influencing them to read The Epic of Gilgamesh, something most students would not otherwise do. On the other hand, many people would drive much faster than 65 mph on a freeway but for the knowledge that a cop will give them a ticket for doing so.

In international relations, power is the ability of one international actor, such as a state or nongovernmental entity (like the United Nations), to influence other international actors. Sometimes the most influence can come through economics and cultural influence instead of through force, called soft power.

Factors Affecting Power

As a player in the game of international politics, you know that power is derived from both tangible and intangible elements. Tangible elements include things such as the strength of a state's economy, size, geography, natural resources, the size of its population, its technological level of sophistication, military strength and its wealth. For example, a small country with little technological development and a basic economy tends to have less power than a large technologically-advanced and wealthy country.

You also know that power is derived from intangible elements. Intangible factors that can influence the power of a state on the international stage include things like political culture, nationalism, education of population, credibility in keeping its commitments or threats and overall skill at statecraft, such as diplomacy and use of military force.

Balance of Power

Of course, you are far from the only player on the world stage. There are numerous other international actors alongside you and even in opposition to you. The balance of power is an important concept you must understand and effectively utilize for your country to be successful. The balance of power is a concept in international relations where the power of one or more states balances the power of one or more other states.

The idea is to create equilibrium of power that establishes a stable international environment. Countries form alliances to create balance. For example, you may form economic and security alliances with several of your neighbors to check the power of a very large and powerful country to your north. While that country could crush you if you are alone, your alliance creates a balance in power between the powerful country and the weaker countries in your alliance.

There is no guarantee that a balance of power will be maintained. Sometimes, countries may decide to side with the powerful to create imbalance and benefit from it. If there is an imbalance in power, conflict can occur as states or alliances of states may decide to capitalize upon their advantage through aggression - war.

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