In the context of international relations and diplomacy, power (sometimes clarified as international power, national power, or state power) is the ability of one state to influence or control other states. States with this ability are called powers, middle powers, regional powers, great powers (sometimes capitalized), superpowers, and hyperpowers.
Recently, entities other than states has acquired the same ability to influence and control other states, most often these are multinational corporations with financial assets surpassing smaller states, but also organisations such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank show that they have international power.
The Great Powers are often taken to be those nations or political entities that, through their great economic and military strength, are the arbiters of world diplomacy, and whose opinions must be taken into account by other nations before effecting initiatives. Characteristically, they have the ability to intervene militarily almost anywhere, and they also have soft, cultural power, often in the form of economic investment in less developed portions of the world.
Different sets of Great Powers have existed in history, but after 1815, the Concert of Europe formalised France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Austria, and Prussia as the five powers. Again, after 1945, the United States, the Soviet Union, France, China, and the United Kingdom were formalised as the five powers with permanent seats and veto power in the UN Security Council. Clearly, shifts in great power status tend to follow wars. Great powers are also often associated with a particular military technology, such as dreadnoughts or nuclear weapons.
Arguably, at the start of the twenty-first century, the USA was the unique Great Power. There is in any case a great contrast with the situation at the start of the twentieth century, when the number of candidate and actual Great Powers was closer to ten.
In the field of political theory, Niccolo Machiavelli theorised early and influentially on the mechanisms of gaining and retaining political power, publishing The Prince in 1513.
Power is usually defined as the ability to impose one's will on others, or to pursue one's goals at the expense of others' interests. Power can be exercised through violence or through coercion, the threat of force.
In Western thought, the power of a state is generally thought of in qualitative terms; however, in the current political thinking of the People's Republic of China, national power can be measured quantitatively using an index known as comprehensive national power.
State power is often divided into hard power (military power) and soft power (economic or cultural or persuasive power).
Categories of powers
Political analysis often personifies nation states as powers, discussing superpowers, great powers, second-order powers and "European powers", for example, with convenient simplicity as manifestations of Realpolitik.
States have always had variable levels of powers and a number of terms have been developed to describe this continuum.
- A hyperpower is a state that is by far the world's most dominant (for example, the United States today)
- A superpower is a state that is greatly more powerful than almost all other countries (for example, the US and USSR during the Cold War)
- A great power is a state that is one of the leading powers in the world (for example, the United Kingdom in the 19th century)
- A middle power is a state that cannot dominate other states, but does have some international influence (for example, Canada today). A term often used interchangeably with middle power is regional power, a state that dominates other states in its region. Examples of regional powers would be India in South Asia and Australia in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean.