Power: Outcomes Matter Most

What is power? To answer that question, we might first ask another: Why does anyone want power? The answer is plain: actors need power to get what they want.  Power is a means to an end. Whether that end is security, honor, wealth, all the above, or something else entirely, power is how actors achieve their aims. If we are to recognize who gets what they want and why, we need to define power and understand the ways one might attain it. We first need a clear definition of power, to consider other prominent definitions in light of that definition, and finally to find a way to adequately operationalize that definition to aid our understanding of power international relations.

The components of power in international relations are myriad. Material resources including military assets, natural resources, economic capital, demographics, and geography all contribute to national power, as do other less tangible aspects such as diplomatic skill, military effectiveness, culture, or national spirit. Together, these building blocks form a power base that actors can use to get what they want. Mere possession of the blocks, however, does not guarantee power. As Jeffery Hart puts it, “reasons for controlling resources or other actors arise of the desire to achieve certain outcomes.”[1] States must also, therefore, be able to convert their base resources into outcomes. Without the ability to do so, they squander resources, diminish their power, and fail to get what they want. Considering these facts, this is our definition of power: A’s ability to convert its capacity into getting what it wants.[2]

The two-part definition is essential to capture the key elements of power, each of which merit closer attention. Each part of the formula depends on the other. First, resources – capacity – are necessary for any exercise of power. As Joseph Nye argues, “Power is conveyed through resources, whether tangible or intangible.”[3] A country with more resources, be they tanks, bodies, dollars, or skills has a greater capacity, or potential, for power.

But as our definition implies, capacity is not enough to be powerful in a given situation. Nye again: “Power conversion—getting from resources to behavioral outcomes—is a crucial intervening variable. … because it is outcomes, not resources, that we care about we must pay more attention to contexts and strategies.” [4] In other words, actors must use effectively the resources they have to get what they want. This is often more difficult that it might seem. Nye points, for example, to America’s Vietnam War as a salient demonstration of that fact.[5] The United States, with a far greater total power capacity than North Vietnam, could not convert its tanks, planes, bombs, bodies, dollars, and influence into the outcome it wanted. The United States failed to achieve power. In such a case, A might have a greater total capacity for power than B, but A fails the second half of our power formula. A does not, or cannot, convert that capacity into getting what it wants. B, meanwhile, might successfully convert its lesser total capacity into getting what it wants. In this case, B has exercised power over A.

This broad, outcomes-based definition of power accounts for the different kinds of goals different kinds of actors have. Not all states seek primacy; some desire to simply maintain an acceptable economic and security environment. As Hart argues, outcomes provide the best approach to power because a power conceptualization based on outcomes is both more general than others and accounts for interdependence among actors.[6] In this way, it’s an improvement over Robert Dahl’s much-accepted definition that “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something B would not otherwise do.”[7] While Dahlian power is one important aspect of power, as a concept, its scope is too specific and excludes too much. As discussed above, A getting B to do something does not mean A gets what it wants. Furthermore, a broad definition of power is better able accommodate states with less power or those looking to “exploit asymmetry”[8] like Vietnam, states that want to get B to not do something, and states trying to maintain their regional position or standing in an interconnected balance of power. Power may be relational,[9] but relationships are more diffuse and interconnected than Dahl admits, and a complex, multi-state environment makes Hart’s outcomes-based approach superior to Dahl’s.

Dahl’s definition is not without its uses, however. We should think of his narrow concept of power as one of those all-important strategies that complete the second half of our power formula: converting capacity into outcomes. Dahl’s is one conversion strategy and the first of Steven Lukes’s three faces of power. Each face, in fact, offers a different strategy for converting resources into outcomes and fits comfortably into our broad definition of power.

In the first face of power—Dahl’s kind of power—A demands B do what A wants, “your money or your life,” as Nye describes it.[10] Either by threats or inducements, A tries to get what it wants from B. Naked power carries a real risk of failure, and also requires using up resources, which might leave a state with less total capacity for power and nothing gained. Still, this power conversion strategy is the most basic and underpins the other strategies, even if just implicitly.

This narrow route to power is not the only one, it is only the most direct. There is a subtler method of converting capacity into outcomes. This is Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz’s second face of power strategy, wherein actors “influence those community values and political institutions … which tend to limit the scope of actual decision making.”[11] As Nye explains, powerful actors can use their power to make sure other actors don’t get a seat at the table or, if they do, must abide by rules limiting their choices already implemented by the powerful actors.[12] A might spend its resources to build institutions or international orders that set agendas and constrain B’s choices so that A gets what it wants. If B accepts A’s order as legitimate, A can get what it wants with less risk and “save on carrots and sticks”.[13]

Lastly, Steven Lukes argues the best way actors can exercise power is by shaping the initial preferences of those around them.[14] If A can reshape a situation in a way that causes B to want what A wants, it is no longer necessary to override B’s initial preferences, either by constraining the agenda or by resorting to force.[15] A and B now desire the same outcome and can add their resources and conversion skills together to get what A wants. A can convert B’s own capacity into A’s own desired outcome. As Lukes says, what better way to exercise power?

Although an outcomes-based definition of power is the most accurate and encompassing, operationalizing to study international relations can be difficult. We may look backward through history at different actors, assess their capacities in terms of resources, and ask for any given situation: “What were their goals? To what degree did they achieve them? And how?” In this way, we might analyze the power of specific actors at various points in time by determining if they were able to convert their capacity into desired outcomes. By drawing careful and appropriate analogies from history, we might understand which resources are important in which situations, which conversions strategies work and when, and we might apply those lessons about power to the world before of us.

This operationalization, however, is too constrained to satisfy all international relations scholars. Here we must admit that an outcomes-based conceptualization of power is difficult to operationalize in a predictive manner because it is issue specific.[16] With it, we cannot draw up a hierarchy of power in the world today, for example. What we can do is estimate the total amount of capacity each state has at its disposal. To best operationalize our outcomes-based conception of power, then, we should turn to Michael Beckley. Beckley admits that a power-as-outcomes approach such as ours “measures power to a greater degree of granularity,”[17] but in order to predict power in the present or future, the best we can do is account for the net value of resources an actor has at its disposal.[18] By doing this (Beckley’s GDP method is a workable proxy[19]), we can at least understand a state’s approximate total power capacity and fill in the first part of our two-factor power formula.

In this way, practitioners of international relations can not only grasp the rough distribution of power capacity in the world, they can also combine that estimate of raw power with an understanding of historical power conversion strategies and apply that hybrid knowledge to specific ongoing or potential conflicts.  Still, it must remain obscured in the fog of the future whether the actors will successfully use one of Lukes’s faces of power to convert their resources into getting what they want. Power is never assured.


[1] Hart, Jeffery, “Three Approaches to the Measurement of Power in International Relations,” International Organizations, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Spring 1976), 296.
[2] This definition has its basis in Figure 1.1 in Joseph Nye’s The Future of Power (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011) 11.
[3] Nye, Joseph S. Jr, The Future of Power (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), 8.
[4] Nye, The Future of Power, 11.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Hart, Jeffery, “Three Approaches to the Measurement of Power in International Relations,” International Organizations, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Spring 1976), 303.
[7] Dahl, Robert. “The Concept of Power,” Behavioral Science, 2:3 (July 1957), 202-203.
[8] Hart. “Three Approaches to the Measurement of Power in International Relations,” 292.
[9] Dahl, “The Concept of Power,” 202-203.
[10] Nye, The Future of Power,11.
[11] Bachrach, Peter, and Baratz,, Morton, “The Two Faces of Power,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 56, Issue 4 (December 1962), 952.
[12] Nye, The Future of Power, 14.
[13] Ibid, 16.
[14] Lukes, Steven, Power: A Radical View (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1974), 29.
[15] Nye, The Future of Power,
[16] Beckley, Michael. “The Power of Nations: Measuring What Matters.” International Security, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Fall 2018), 12.
[17] Ibid, 12.
[18] Ibid, 14-15.
[19] Ibid, 21. Beckley multiplies total GDP by per capita GDP to approximate the net resources at a state’s disposal. It’s not a true net, but it works well enough for our purposes.

Weird, weird America

Someone asked me last night what I’ve found weirdest about living in American again after half a decade in China. I’m a bit insulated among many international students, and furthermore Boston is probably one most China-y mannered cities in America, but here’s my list:

  1. Standing in line
  2. Standing in line with space between me and the person in front of me
  3. Standing in a a non-crooked line, unable to gander at what’s ahead
  4. Standing in line, waiting for people to get out of the elevator
  5. Standing in line, waiting for people to get out of the train
  6. Not wondering if the longest line is longest because it leads to the best place

Also, these barbarians like their water cold.

Resources and Global Integration: The Worst of Both Worlds

Spices, minerals, oil, human bodies: The very blessings that have underpinned the global system of economics and trade for centuries are, for the countries that have them in abundance, a curse. In fact, those countries’ existence as a source of exploitable resources has been, and continues to be, the greatest constraint on the progress of developing countries incorporated into the global economy. For too many resource-rich countries, the result of that incorporation and exploitation has been forced dependence, extracted wealth, twisted institutions, slavery and servitude, and finally, enduring underdevelopment and poverty.

Colonialism to Dual Economies

According to Theotonio Dos Santos, national dependence and exploitation has come in three varieties: 1) a colonial dependence where “commercial and financial capital in an alliance with the colonialist state dominated the economic relations of the Europeans and the colonies by means of a trade monopoly complemented by a colonial monopoly of land, mines, and manpower,” 2) financial-industrial dependence “which consolidated itself at the end of the 19th century, characterized by the domination of big capital in the hegemonic centers, and its expansion abroad through investment in the production of raw materials and agricultural products for consumption in the hegemonic centers,” and 3) a new dependence that “has been consolidated based on multinational corporations which began to invest in industries geared to the internal market of underdeveloped countries.”[1] Each of these varieties of exploitation has allowed rich, developed nations to grow richer by taking advantage of less developed countries while subsequently limiting those countries’ longer-term prospects.

Dos Santos’s systems of exploitation find their roots in the 17th century, as Europe’s empires spread out across the world, groping for new markets to dominate. The colonial system forms Dos Santos’s first variety of dependence and laid much of the foundation for the ongoing underdevelopment and exploitation that continues to this day.

Beginning in 1602, the Dutch in Southeast Asia began establishing a monopoly over the spices grown throughout the region.[2] To achieve their goals, they cajoled, threatened, and even massacred native populations to gain control of their spice wealth for export back to Europe.[3] The Dutch cleared whole islands of native peoples and set up their own enduring extractive political and economic institutions to exploit the spices trade via a plantation system.[4] It was hugely successful. “By the end of the 17th century,” write Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, “the Dutch had reduced the world supply of these spices by about 60 percent and the price of nutmeg had doubled.”[5] But the Dutch exploitation of Southeast Asia had an even more long-lasting, pernicious effect: To protect themselves, the kingdoms of the region chose to turn inward, cutting their thriving regional economic and cultural networks and becoming more absolutist in their governance. [6] It crushed budding economic and political development. “Dutch colonialism fundamentally changed their economic and political development … In the next two centuries they would be in no position to take advantage of the innovations that would spring up in the industrial revolution.”[7]

A similar story unfolded in the Caribbean, where Europeans hoping to profit off sugar cane set up a plantation system requiring mass exploitation of labor.[8] That labor being unavailable locally, the Europeans turned instead to Africa. The trans-Atlantic slave trade grew from about 300,000 slaves in the 16th century to 1,350,000 in the 17th and 6,000,000 in the 18th.[9] In all, some 10,000,000 slaves where shipped out of Africa, extracting the human resources of one place to fuel the agricultural resource extraction of another place and having lasting consequences for each.[10]  Laws and institutions were distorted to serve the slave trade, and warfare invigorated by the slaving industry disrupted the family structure, changed local customs, and decimated the population. [11] The would reverberate into the late 20th century.

The abolition of slavery – which in any case lingered well into the 20th century – did not bring an end to the resource-based exploitation, and after slavery came “legitimate commerce” including palm oil, ivory, rubber, and gum arabic.[12] With the demand for slaves forcibly diminished, Africans were instead put to work on African plantations so that “the abolition of the slave trade, rather than making slavery wither away, simply led to the redeployment of slaves, who were now used in Africa rather than the Americas.”[13]

One key example of this is South Africa, a haven for freed slaves who had begun to develop their own institutions and agricultural industry.[14] This budding development, however, did not appeal to the Europeans. To begin with, competition with African farmers drove down the price of crops for European farmers.[15] But more importantly, it deprived South Africa’s lucrative diamond and gold mines of the cheap labor necessary to maximize their profitability. The colonial government had an answer: In 1913, South Africa passed the Native Lands Act, giving Europeans, which made up 20 percent of South Africa’s population, 87 percent of the land.[16] Africans were forced off their farms onto lands too small to be productive, diminishing their ability to compete on the agricultural market and forcing them instead to enter  the labor market en masse, driving down the price of labor for the foreign owned mines.[17] Africans abandoned the institutions and technologies they’d adopted, reversing 50 years of development, all while providing the Europeans with the labor needed to extract South Africa’s resource wealth for foreign profit.[18] “The dispossession of African farmers led to their mass impoverishment. It created not only the institutional foundations of a backward economy, but the poor people to stock it.”[19] This system would mutate into South Africa’s apartheid regime, as opportunities for African property ownership and labor specialization were further legally curtailed. The result was an example of a durable dual economy, both domestic and international, represented by Dos Santos’s second variety of dependence, where poor, traditional peripheries produced the raw materials and agricultural products for consumption in the finance-rich hegemonic centers.[20]

So, from the beginning of the 17th century to the beginning of the 20th, the natural resources of places like Southeast Asia, the Americas, and Africa cursed the peoples and nations in those places to suffer from exploitation due to their incorporation in the global economy. It halted or reversed development and created the intuitions, integration, and circumstances that would enable future exploitation. As Acemoglu and Robinson summarize, “the profitability of European colonial empires was often built on the destruction of independent polities and indigenous economies around the world, or on the creation of extractive institutions from the ground up.”[21]

Modern Exploitation

The collapse of colonial empires did not mean an end to resource-based extraction to feed the global economy. According to Giovanni Arrighi, after the processes of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s, the GDP of sub-Saharan Africa stood at 17.6 percent of world GDP; by 1995 it had dropped to 10.5 percent.[22] Up until 1975, Africa had not performed much worse than the world as a whole and better than some parts of the developing and developed world.[23] Through the early 1970s, an excess of global liquidity meant that loan capital flowed into developing regions, including sub-Saharan Africa.[24] But that growth collapsed in the late 1970s.[25] And regardless, even in the best-performing developing countries growth had fallen short of expectations and did little or nothing to alleviate poverty or improve the general welfare for much of the population.[26] The reasons for these failures are manifold.

First, per Dos Santos’s third variety of dependence, in the post-war period the export-based economies of the developing world became dependent on foreign capital and commodity markets.[27] On the international market, raw materials tend to be cheap, while industrial inputs required for production are expensive, so developing countries had rely on foreign capital debt and aid to “[fill] up the holes they themselves created”.[28] Foreign capital, then, built the industrial structure of developing economies in the mid-20th century, while either reinvesting or remitting its profits out of the country. It “[created] very few jobs in comparison to population growth and [limited] new sources of income,” retarding the growth of a domestic consumer market.[29]

Second, this bad situation grew worse in the 1970s when the United States reversed its polices of the 1950s and 60s that made America a major source for global liquidity and direct investment, becoming instead the world’s main debtor nation and largest recipient of foreign capital.[30] That redirection of capital flows back into America “reflated demand and investment in North America, while deflating it in the rest of the world … Since competitive pressures had become particularly intense in manufacturing industries, these imported goods tended to be industrial rather than agricultural products.”[31] For Asian countries with a large labor pool able to manufacture cheap industrial products for export to America, this reversal sparked the Asian economic miracle.[32] Africa, however, had its historical legacy to contend with: the depopulation of the continent caused by the slave trade left most areas with low population density and small local markets able to produce mainly agricultural products.[33] In this new economic reality, sub-Saharan Africans, with their historical legacy of extraction-based institutions, could no longer realistically compete on the integrated global market.

The natural resource mirage seemed to offer a way out of this trap. It has been only another curse. The discovery of oil in sub-Saharan Africa seemed to portend an economic boom for the region as foreign investment has flowed into these countries to exploit their oil reserves.[34] Rather than improving the economic situation of general populations, however, the wealth promised by oil often redirects capital investment toward oil-related industries, crowding out other sectors that might grow into more sustainable, consumer-based industries, in addition to causing currency appreciation, which undercuts exports.[35] Rents from oil displace taxation as the primary source of government revenue, so for the profits that are not remitted abroad or reinvested, political elites have the incentives to focus on private accumulation of wealth and limit its distribution to their personal political networks.[36] “The result is that oil states generate not public goods for development but private and political goods instead … [The elites] have little reason to use this public treasure to deliver roads, schools, fertilizers, clinics, medicine, and so on.”[37]

This has been the case in Angola, Nigeria, and Sudan,[38] but the case in point is Equatorial Guinea: “Home to over one billion barrels of oil reserves, Equatorial Guinea has exported as many as 400,000 barrels of oil a day since 1995, a bonanza that has made the country wealthier, in terms of GDP per capita, than France, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Little of this wealth, however, has helped the vast majority of Equatorial Guinea’s 700,000 people: today, three out of every four Equatorial Guineans live on less than $2 a day, and infant mortality rates in the country have barely budged since oil was first discovered there.”[39]

From colonialism to the modern capitalist global market, the extraction of resources for the integrated global market has left developing countries stunted and poor. The exploitation of those resources, from spice to labor to oil, has been the primary constraint on developing countries from history to the modern day.


[1] Theotonio Dos Santos (1970). The Structure of Dependence. In Mitchell Seligson and John Passé-Smith (eds.). Development and Underdevelopment: The Political Economy of Global Inequality, 3rd ed. Boulder, Colo: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003, pp. 232.
[2] Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (2012). “Reversing Development” (Chapter 9) in Why Nations Fail: Origins of Power, Poverty and Prosperity (New York: Crown Business), 247.
[3] Ibid, 248
[4] Ibid, 248-249.
[5] Ibid, 249.
[6] Ibid, 249.
[7] Ibid, 250.
[8] Ibid, 251.
[9] Ibid, 251.
[10] Ibid, 251.
[11] Ibid, 253-255.
[12] Ibid, 256.
[13] Ibid, 257.
[14] Ibid, 262-264.
[15] Ibid, 265.
[16] Ibid, 265.
[17] Ibid, 267.
[18] Acemoglu and James Robinson, 267.
[19] Ibid, 268.
[20] Dos Santos, 232.
[21] Acemoglu and Robinson, 271.
[22] Giovanni Arrighi (2002). The African Crisis: World Systemic and Regional Aspects. New Left Review 15 (May-June), 1.
[23] Ibid, 16.
[24] Ibid, 18.
[25] Ibid, 16.
[26] Ibid, 20.
[27] Dos Santos, 233.
[28] Ibid, 233.
[29] Ibid, 234-235.
[30] Arrighi, 21-22.
[31] Ibid, 23.
[32] Ibid, 24.
[33] Ibid, 25.
[34] Larry Diamond and Jack Mosbacher (2013). Petroleum to the People: Africa’s Coming Resource Curse – and How to Avoid It. Foreign Affairs 92: 87.
[35] Katrina Burgess (2019). Natural Resources. Lecture, at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. February 11, 2019.
[36] Diamond and Mosbacher, 90.
[37] Ibid, 90.
[38] Ibid, 88.
[39] Ibid, 86-87.