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Power Politics

Power Politics

Thomas H. Etzoldand

Robert L. Messer

On the level of international politics, power can take many forms, from moral suasion to the carrot of economic benefits to the stick of sanctions or military force. "Power politics" is one of the more equivocal terms in the lexicon of international affairs. In common usage, including that of politicians, it often is value-laden, usually in a negative sense. It implies using coercionforce or threats of forceto impose one's will upon others. However, in academic usage, especially among scholars specializing in the history and theory of international relations, it is more often treated as a neutral phenomenon, descriptive of special or general characteristics of international politics. Further semantic or linguistic confusion results from the divergent shades of meaning that attach to the words in languages of Western scholarship such as German, English, and French. Among these three languages there is no precise equivalent for the phrase "power politics."

Thus one can define power politics both as a term commonly used in political rhetoric and a theoretical description of how states interact in pursuit of their interests in the international arena. In American English it usually means politics based primarily on coercion rather than on cooperation, whether that coercion be military or economic. More often than not it also implies pursuit of national self-interest rather than broader ideals, principles, or ethics. Such a definition shows clearly the value judgment usually implied by use of the term. Those who are accused of practicing power politics are condemned for having abused power in pursuit of a self-serving political agenda.

As a description of political behavior rather than a condemnation of it, scholars use the term in a variety of ways. Some theorists of the "realist" school believe that states inherently seek power for its own sake, so that competition and struggle naturally characterize international relations. Others argue that power is not an end but a means. They propose that states seek security above all, that they try to attain or maintain security by identifying and working toward national interests, and that they require power to achieve such national interests and security. The fact that no state has complete power and that all states have some power creates what one political scientist has called the "power problem," for each state must reckon with the potential hostility of other members of the international community. Relative security for one state all too often seems to mean relative insecurity for others, and so in this schema one must expect conflict and competition.

Another important theory about the nature of power and its effects in international affairs is set forth in the writings of the French political theorist Raymond Aron. By comparing the variant languages, philosophies, and practices of European and American states in regard to power politics, he has elaborated the important distinction between the politics of force and the politics of power. Power, he argues, is the ability to influence or control others. At times that may require the threat or use of force; at other times it will be possible to influence or control the behavior of other states with much less drastic methods. The latter two ideas are particularly useful in examining the history of American foreign affairs.


Over the last two centuries, U.S. diplomatic history has been marked by varying attempts to solve the "power problem" in the form of debates, decisions, and divisions over the politics of force and of power. Some of these attempts and decisions shaped foreign policy for decades, so that, from 1775 to 1945, American diplomacy assumed distinctive and what might be termed traditional forms. After 1945 the changing position of the United States in international affairs altered, but did not destroy, such traditions.

Any discussion of early American foreign relations is complicated by Americans' contradictory sense of themselves in two very different roles. One role was that of victims of Old Word power politicscolonists vulnerable to imperial machinations and abuse of power from abroad. But these same Americans also saw themselves as an aggressive, powerful people destined to expand into "the West" as a new "rising American empire." Both these self-images had foreign policy implications.

How Americans reconciled their sense of mission or "manifest destiny" in expanding over the continent with the dispossession, and in the case of Indian tribes virtual extermination, of foreign competitors is discussed later. The American colonists' sense of victimization by Old World power politics was ultimately dominated by the issue of independence from Britain. It is probably an error to assume that most Americans in 1776 sanctified liberty by force in revolution, notwithstanding Thomas Jefferson's later glorification of bloodshed in the French Revolution, of which he remarked that the tree of liberty needed to be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. American colonists were, on the whole, reluctant to resort to force even to win independence. For many years they were more ready to negotiate than to fight.

The clearest indications of the ways in which Americans first hoped to resolve the problems of power, influence, and force in foreign affairs appear in explicit plans for the organization and conduct of foreign relations, the treaty plans of 1776 and 1784. In those documents American leaders recognized, and at the same time abhorred, the predominant features of international politics in their time: war, deception, and ruthlessness. In their view, international relations could be, and should be, harmonious. Americans devised plans for a diplomacy antithetical to that of Europe. Their treaty plans called for freer trade in an era of mercantilism and assumed national independence in the heyday of colonial empire. Americans proposed to influence nations great and small and to establish foreign ties by granting or withholding access to the riches of the nation's commerce.

In sum, Americans hoped both to solve their initial power problemthe way in which they would deal with the threat posed by the power of France, Spain, Britain, and other great statesand to avoid the strenuous and immoral politics of force by basing foreign policy on neutral economics. In demoting the power of force and promoting the power and mutual benefits of commerce, they looked forward to a new nation freed from the immorality and violence of European-style power politics by the principle of mutual advantage. Finally, Americans of the founding generation hoped to guard themselves from baneful Old World powers by studious noninvolvement in the affairs of Europe. The warnings of President George Washington and President Thomas Jefferson against foreign alliances and entanglements, as well as the additional principles enunciated by John Quincy Adams and James Monroe in 1823, shaped and limited American foreign affairs well into the twentieth century.


Despite their best hopes and intentions, Americans soon encountered difficulties in conducting foreign affairs peacefully and without entanglements. As set out in the treaty plans of 1776 and 1784, their program contained contradictions and weaknesses that would lead to conflict. The three great themes of America's first century of foreign affairspeace, commerce, and growth or expansionproved incompatible in practice rather than mutually supportive, as they had seemed in theory. As for weaknesses in design, it was soon clear that those three themes would bring the new United States into contention with the powers of the time rather than solve America's power problem or obviate the difficult politics of force.

The bright hopes of the revolutionary years dimmed almost before the nation had well begun its independent course in world affairs, for the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars revived the American power problem. Although in private and public life Americans vigorously contested the questions of political theory and governmental policy raised by the Revolution and the moribund Franco-American alliance dating from 1778, President Washington's attempt to preserve the first solution to the American problem was clear. The principal of noninvolvement in European affairs during peacetime became the principle of neutrality in war as of 1794.

Greater difficulties attended American attempts to carry on business as usualthat is, to trade in and transport commodities and merchandise with and among belligerents, and yet remain at peace. The warring nations of Europe lost little time in denying the broadening interpretations of neutral rights that Americans propounded, with the result that by the latter 1790s the United States faced the uncomfortable necessity of negotiating with the French for an end to the nowentangling Treaty of Alliance of 1778 and to the French practice of interfering with and seizing American merchant ships trading with France's enemies. The diplomatic mission sent from America in 1797 ended in the infamous XYZ affair, named for three French secret agents, who shocked their American counterparts by proposing that negotiations regarding American aid to the French in its war against Britain be facilitated by a substantial bribe. The American response was summed up in the slogan "millions for defense, not one cent for tribute" and the ensuing undeclared war between French and American naval forces in the Atlantic. Ironically, one may suspect that Americans fought the French at sea not so much over the larger questions of the daythe matter of the alliance and neutral rights at seaas because of the almost insignificant issues of honor and propriety raised by the venality of the French court.

Later, during the Napoleonic wars, the contradictions between the goals of peace and commerce became more acute. In the years following the turn of the nineteenth century, American ideals and plans for foreign affairs based on economics failed the test. Attempts to maintain neutrality and neutral rights in trade amid the wars of the time led President Jefferson to close access to, or embargo, American trade. The results were catastrophic. Americans themselves were not willing to accept the interruption of foreign trade, for whatever reasons, and smuggled the Jeffersonian embargo of 18071809 into uselessness. When the Jefferson and Madison administrations attempted to play off the British and French against each other in the years of the Noninter-course Act, wily European diplomats, especially Napoleon's foreign minister, the duc de Cadore, Jean Baptiste de Champagny, outsmarted the Americans and emphasized the weakness and consequent ineffectiveness of American economic diplomacy.

Finally, American economic coercions and maneuvers led to the almost disastrous War of 1812, an unnecessary conflict, since within weeks of its outbreak the British government rescinded the most offensive orders in council affecting American commerce with the Continent. But the people of the time, caught up in political and sectional quarrels and interests, apparently over-looked the flaws of design in foreign affairs. The War of 1812, which ended in 1814, did not prevent American statesmen from continuing to believe that peace rather than war was mankind's natural condition, and that the surest way to unnatural behavior (to war) was the politics of force.


Throughout the nineteenth century one notable American activitycontinental expansionregularly threatened to revive the power problem and to exacerbate disagreements over the relative merits of force and suasion in foreign affairs. Time and again Americans took advantage of opportunities for territorial expansion, but few such opportunities were without opposition from the established powers of the day. The United States had to face British opposition in the Old Northwest until the signing of Jay's Treaty in 1794. Within a generation there were the further complications of the Oregon dispute. Despite the jingoist cry of "Fifty-four forty or fight," the Oregon question was settled peacefully, but there remained contentions over the Canadian-American boundary, including Alaska, until 1903. French resistance to American expansion seemed to disappear with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, but it reappeared in the diplomacy and maneuvering surrounding the annexation of Texas, the war with Mexico, and during the Civil War in the illfated imperium of Maximilian in Mexico. Spanish-American antagonism over expansion marked the era of the 1790s and of separatism in the early American Southwest, flared in connection with the disputed boundaries and the American annexations of East Florida and West Florida as well as over use of the Mississippi River, and culminated in contests for predominance in Cuba and the Philippines in the Spanish-American War (1898). The United States even managed to come into conflict with Russia in the matter of the Oregon boundary, which provided occasion for some of John Quincy Adams's most pointed démarches.

Expansionism also affected those without sufficient power to resist or negotiate its progress across the continent. For four centuries expansion was the central theme of European-Indian relations. Much of the devastation of the Indian peoples in colonial America can be attributed to disease. But their fate was also the result of how white Americans used their power in dealing with Indians. A succession of treaties attempted to reconcile the traditional cultural norms of huntinggathering, often nomadic, communal peoples with the demands of an expanding agrarian, capitalist culture driven by an unprecedented immigration and population explosion. Twenty-five years before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin used demographic projections to prove the need for new lands in the west to support a population that doubled every twenty years. He also pointed out that such expansion would mean war with the Indians and their French alliesa price Franklin and others before and after him were willing to pay.

Other Americans wrestled with the "Indian problem." Thomas Jefferson considered these "noble savages" possible candidates for assimilation. Andrew Jackson rationalized removal of the so-called Civilized Tribes of the Southeast to Indian Territory beyond the Mississippi as a version of protective custody. The reservation system continued this "Great White Father" paternalism. On both sides of the debate over Indian policy, what were termed humanitarians and exterminationists shared social Darwinism ideas of white racial and cultural superiority and faith in the inevitably of progress in the form of the economic development of the American frontier. The West, or frontier, was both a powerful myth in the American mind and in reality a colonial area to be exploited for its resources by the more developed East and investors from abroad. Indians, buffalo, the environment itself had to give way to this economic imperative wrapped in the myth of progress, prosperity, and "manifest destiny."

Often Americans regarded continental expansion as a matter of destiny and strength, the strength of righteousness. Because the United States was a progressive, moral, humane country, its extension to the Pacific Ocean was foreordained, proper, and inexorable. In contrast to the repressive Old World empires, theirs was an "empire of liberty." The end justified the means in this case, and most Americans believed that in the grand process of expansion, force was allowable and probably necessary. It was likewise necessary to counter the attempts of Old World governments to subdue other territories in the New World and reintroduce autocratic government and Machiavellian diplomacy into the hemisphere.

To a certain extent the enthusiastic expansion and protection of American interests by John Quincy Adams, James Monroe, James Polk, and the signers of the Ostend Manifesto (1854), which set forth American designs on the annexation of Cuba, were counterbalanced by the hesitations and objections of other prominent Americans. Some people doubted the wisdom and propriety of each expansion of national domain, especially beginning with the Louisiana Purchase. There were dissenters in each instance of armed conflictfor example, Henry David Thoreau's civil disobedience and jailing during the Mexican War. Expansionist secretaries of state such as William Seward were succeeded by more restrained and prudent men such as Hamilton Fish, who rejected some of the grand imperial designs toward the Caribbean and Mexico that his predecessor had elaborated. Despite internal disagreements and external power problems, by the end of the nineteenth century the process of continental expansion had resulted in an American "imperial democracy" that stretched from Atlantic to Pacific and included Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines. That continental expanse and newly acquired overseas empire was bolstered by an economic power that rivaled and in many cases surpassed that of the Old World colonial empires. By virtually any measurement the United States had become a world power.


The era of American prominence in world politics, which began with the twentieth century, occasioned reconsideration of traditional attitudes regarding foreign entanglements and the use of force. From a foreign perspective, the United States was too powerful to ignore but too unpredictable to deal with satisfactorily. From the American viewpoint, global interests and capabilities made for uneasiness and confusion. The new circumstances of American foreign affairs seemed to require reevaluation of traditional American policies and portended new military necessities.

Americans found themselves caught up in new difficulties rather suddenly; they had not fully appreciated the problems that policies and developments of the last decades of the nineteenth century had brought. They had traded as they always had, vigorously and aggressively. They had expanded their boundaries, sought naval strength (beginning in the 1880s), and acquired a position unchallengeable in the hemispherebut they had not anticipated the effects of such changes on their position beyond the hemisphere. They had hoped to exert a considerable influence on the nations of the world, but by example rather than by forcible instruction. American strength was meant to make the nation impervious to the caprice or malice of European governments and to enable it to vindicate rights and protect interests, but not to require U.S. participation in European political affairs.

Citizens of the United States took pride in the energy, growth, and strength of their nation. Only after they had acquired great power did they begin to consider the problems that national strength created. One idea was appealing: Could not the issue be resolved if the United States were to use force only in just causes, and thus make it the servant of morality? In such terms, Americans preferred to explain their "splendid little war" with Spaina war, they said, to end Spanish tyranny and repression in Cuba, where the situation of the people had become intolerable. But the liberation of Cuba coincided with the "benevolent assimilation" of the Philippines. The brutal suppression of an insurrection by Filipinos who sought independence rather than assimilation was neither splendid nor little, and it sparked an anti-imperialist protest against what was termed an immoral, un-American abuse of power. The American anti-imperialists failed to alter U.S. counterinsurgency policy in the Philippines. But some of the issues they raised about the legitimacy of the use of force in pursuit of foreign relations objectives would arise again later in the century.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Theodore Roosevelt could confidently add his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine's assertion of the separation of the New World from the Old by proclaiming the right of the United States to wield "police power" in the hemisphere to correct either incompetence or wrongdoing. For Roosevelt and those who shared his vision of America's role in the world, righting wrongs in Latin America and elsewhere ultimately would be determined by American power.

Participation in World War I even more clearly demonstrated the determination to make power and force serve good ends. After two and half years of neutrality, during which he attempted to negotiate a "peace without victors," President Woodrow Wilson called upon Americans to embark on a crusade to make the world safe for democracy. In that war to end all wars, the United States was not content to defeat enemies but fought for principles embodying the liberal features of American diplomacy. So, at least, Wilson explained his conversion from opposing force in 19141916 to calling for force without stint in 1917.

By the end of World War I, many Americans were no longer convinced that the United States could ensure that good intentions in the use of force would bring right results. Except for the defeat of the Central Powers, none of the things for which Americans had fought seemed to have been achieved. The keystone of Wilson's fourteen-point peace plan, the League of Nations, was rejected by the U.S. Senate as a result of a combination of partisan politics and Wilson's physical incapacity following a massive stroke. Lacking participation by the most important world power, what has been called the Versailles system of world politics was, in the view of some historians, fatally flawed from its beginning. Others have argued that the peace Wilson sought might have endured but for the actions of revisionist powers such as Germany, Italy, and Japan. The lessons of Versailles and the failure of the League of Nations were even less clear to those who guided American foreign relations between the world wars.


After World War I, debate in the United States over the use of force in pursuit of national goals continued. What has been misleadingly called a period of isolation did not witness an American withdrawal from world power, only from an active leadership role in world politics. Americans in the 1920s pointed to the perversity of war and the perversion of the peace to prove that powerpower politics, the old politics of Europewas still corrupt and corrupting. They did not refuse to recognize that their country was powerful, but they proposed a narrower definition of the national interest than that proposed by Wilson. They also advocated restraint in the use of force and a partial withdrawal, at least at the political and diplomatic level, from the complicated and uncontrollable world arena. In opposition, other Americans, imbued with what was described as Wilsonian or liberal idealism, held out the prospect of harmonious, just, lawful international relations, dependent on the determination of upright men and a policing of the international community by moral nationsforcibly, if necessary.

For the ensuing interwar period the polarization of opinion on the proper uses of American power defined the limits of the nation's diplomacy. Chastened by the experience of the world war, Americans were uncomfortable with the use of force and determined not to employ it except within the Western Hemisphere. Even there, American policy was noticeably uncertain; the days of repeated and prolonged military intervention slowly but surely came to an end. What emerged came to be known under Franklin Roosevelt as the Good Neighbor Policy, a shift from the use of military force to reliance on economic hegemony to lead hemispheric affairs in a direction consistent with U.S. national interests. But even earlier, in the 1920s, American foreign policy had turned once more to economics as an alternative to the politics of force; not to coercive economic diplomacy but to defensive diplomacy, the conservative economics of protection, sound money, and relatively equal treatment for all comers to the American marketplace. This was policy until the Great Depression overturned the conventional wisdom of economics and diplomacy and forced politicians to use untried and previously unimaginable expedients.

In one sense the limits on power imposed by divisions of opinion in the 1920s and 1930s proved a liability for policy and leadership, or so it seemed in retrospect. The same doubts about the uses of power and force that caused Americans to terminate interventions in Latin America later caused them to hesitate, equivocate, and delay too long in dealing with the aggressive European and Asian autocracies of the 1930s.

At the same time Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, having learned the lesson of Woodrow Wilson's failure in forging too far ahead of public and congressional opinion, focused on anti-Depression New Deal policies as the international system forged at Versailles began to come apart in Asia and Europe. Having tacitly endorsed the popular policy of appeasement as late as the 1938 Munich Conference, Roosevelt aligned U.S. economic power with the anti-Axis Allies after the outbreak of war in 1939, declaring that America would act as the "arsenal of democracy." That policy of supplying both the British and later the Soviet Union with American-made arms and other matériel led by late 1941 to an undeclared naval war in the North Atlantic. In Asia and the Pacific, Roosevelt's increasingly determined opposition to Japanese expansion included a show of force in the form of forward basing of American naval and air power and ever-tightening economic sanctions aimed at forcing Japan into abandoning its imperial aims. In what was perhaps the first test of the lessons of Munich, Japan responded by attacking the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. In the end, the American dilemma of whether and how to use its power finally was settled not by Americans but by the course of eventsthat is, by the power and politics of Europe and Asia.


In World War II, Americans realized they could not wish or will away the implications and complications of power. As one leader of Senate Republicans and a former critic of international commitments put it, after Pearl Harbor "isolationism was dead for any realist." Autocrats in Europe and Asia threatened U.S. security in a drastic revival of the power problem. Americans had to face both the necessity and the consequences of force and violence in international affairs. Even such an idealist as Secretary of State Cordell Hull was led to believe that only total victory based on unconditional surrender would bring total peace. The greatest debates in the United States in the late months of the war focused less on the iniquity of force than on the question of who was a friend and who an enemy.

At war's end some Americans tried to grasp a second chance to internationalize their power problem and the specter of force. They believed or hoped that international organization might provide a solution to the power problem and a way to avoid perpetually violent international politics through collective security and peacekeeping. At the same time, other Americans, less confident in the future of international politics, favored unilateralism and national security based on America's unparalleled economic and military power. They relied especially on the newfound power of the atomic bomb as the ultimate or absolute weapon. What Harry Truman called America's "sacred trust" would not be shared with the world or with the new international peacekeeping body until such time that Americans could be sure that there could be no abuse of this awesome power.

After the demonstrated weakness of the United Nations, which proved incapable of subordinating great-power conflicts of interest or of assuming responsibility for control of atomic technology and weapons, international idealism was supplanted in 1947 by a determined application of American power and force in every form and in virtually every forum. What was dubbed the Truman Doctrine committed American might to the containment of communism in whatever form, be it internal subversion or external aggression. However, in a larger sense, American leaders in the years following World War II redefined the idea of national security. The goal of this new postwar or Cold War policy was to establish and maintain a preponderance of American power throughout the world. This globalist approach to world affairs involved both military alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and massive economic programs such as the Marshall Plan. Although sometimes collective, these commitments were predicated on U.S. military and economic power. Looking back on this period, Truman's secretary of state, Dean Acheson, aptly described it as the "creation" of modern American foreign relations.

After World War II, Americans accommodated themselves to the possession and exercise of economic power and military force on an unprecedented scale and sought new answers to the perennial problems of power. The various forms of traditional unilateralismnonentanglement, neutrality, isolationismgave way to a new structure of American globalism. Most important, Americans became reconciled to the use of force to such an extent that they entered a new era of interventionism that, with the Cold War, resulted in a huge standing military establishment.


Unfortunately but predictably, new solutions to the old problems brought new problems that in some ways were more complicated than the old ones. The societies of the United States and most other nations prominent in world affairs had to shoulder the enormous costs of standing military forces and modernization of rapidly changing technology. In the inflationary 1970s those costs would mean unpleasant choices of priorities in both internal and external affairs.

In some cases, as in Korea, the use of military force, despite critics on both ends of the political spectrum, was supported by most Americans as justified and, if not conclusive, at least an effective application of American power in pursuit of the Cold War goal of containment of communism. In other cases, such as the war in Vietnam, the prolonged and seemingly ineffective use of force destroyed the Cold War consensus, divided the nation, and contributed to moral and political uncertainty. For many Americans the protracted and ultimately unsuccessful involvement in Vietnam destroyed the Cold War consensus that containment of communist influence justified paying any price and bearing any burden anywhere in the world. In the face of the uncensored image of war, many in the United States rejected the idea of using force to destroy what one was trying to save.

In the years following the Vietnam War, American public attitudes regarding the use of force in foreign relations reflected what was termed, usually by its detractors, the Vietnam syndrome, or neo-isolationisma reluctance to commit American power and prestige abroad. In the face of public and congressional resistance, American foreign policymakers felt obliged to pursue power politics in a more circumspect and sometimes secret manner. A policy of covert or deniable applications of power, dating back at least to Dwight D. Eisenhower's "hidden hand" presidency of the 1950s, was revived in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan. Through circuitous and even questionable routes, American support went to anti-Sandinista contras in Nicaragua and anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan.

The danger of direct military intervention was dramatically brought home in 1983 by the deaths at the hands of a terrorist bomber of 241 U.S. marines who had been dispatched to Lebanon to protect an airfield in the midst of renewed Arab-Israeli fighting. The U.S. invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada a few days later was an easy military victory, but it had little foreign policy significance. Perceived threats by anti-American regimes such as the one in Grenada might be dealt with effectively by decisive and "surgical," or specifically targeted, military intervention. But terrorist violence frustrated attempts at retaliation at an elusive, often unknown enemy.

By the 1990s Americans had discovered that in some ways the resort to force was achieving less and less. The Cold War, which had cost trillions in military spending on both sides, ended not by military victory but as a result of the Soviet Union's political and economic collapse. The breakup of the Soviet empire appeared to have left the United States the victor by default. But the world's only remaining superpower still found that its power did not necessarily guarantee hegemony or control over world politics.

In the Gulf War of 1991, the single most massive application of U.S. military force in the postCold War era, the United States, in partnership with Arab and European allies, successfully expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait. But that tactical military success did not translate into significant changes in the geopolitical power relationships in the region. At the time, President George H. W. Bush pointed to the stunning military victory and the successful coalition diplomacy as evidence that America had "kicked the Vietnam syndrome." Yet that same victorious commander in chief was voted out of the presidency the following year. Short-term military successthe effective use of forcedid not necessarily mean political success either abroad or at home.


At the close of the twentieth century the United States continued to commit its military power for humanitarian purposes, such as famine relief in Somalia, or as part of multilateral peacekeeping efforts, such as in the Balkans. Nonetheless, it seemed that the subtleties of powerinfluence, suasion, nonmilitary coercionoften played more important roles in the postCold War environment.

Ironically, as the utility of force seemed to decline, the significance of economic diplomacy seemed to be growing more important, although its role differed from what it had been in early American foreign affairs. In many cases this meant that the game of power politics would be played by relatively small countries that hitherto had not participated in what the great powers had always considered their private pastime. The members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)not all of which were Arab countrieshad by the 1970s begun to play a substantial role in world affairs. Despite remarks by Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger in response to OPEC's 1973 oil embargo that force might be necessary to break the cartel's stranglehold over so much of the world's oil, the politics of force was not an effective course in the novel international circumstances.

This was particularly true in the case of economic competition by America's allies, such as Japan and the European Economic Community, or in relation to multinational corporations' growing power over national economies, particularly those of developing countries. In a postCold War atmosphere characterized by the diffusion of power, growing concerns about global environmental and health issues did not fit the established norms of international power politics. In this increasingly complex and challenging world order, there was the concurrently developing possibility that many small nations, and perhaps criminals and terrorist groups, might develop or acquire nuclear weapons.

In the face of such challenges, neither the hopes of a young nation nor the confidence of a strong one were sufficient to provide answers to the perennial problems of power. The only certainty was that the problems would endure, change form from time to time, and require new solutions. As it entered the new millennium, the United States would have to deal with the aspirations of newer and smaller nations from the position of an established power adjusting to the diffusion of power and the profusion of conflicting rights characteristic of the new world order. In such an environment American leadership and statesmanship would be tested. It was not inconceivable that one principle of early American diplomacymutual benefit, as proposed by Benjamin Franklinmight revive in importance along with the traditional virtues of caution, prudence, and modesty.


Acheson, Dean. Power and Diplomacy. Cambridge, Mass., 1958. Truman's secretary of state treats the relation between sources of power and the problems of postwar American foreign affairs.

Aron, Raymond. Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations. New York, 1967. One of the most thoughtful examinations of the differences between politics of influence and politics of force.

. Imperial Republic: The United States and the World, 19451973. Translated by Frank Jellinick. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1974.

Burns, Arthur Lee. Of Powers and Their Politics: A Critique of Theoretical Approaches. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1968. A survey of the contemporary status of ideas on the logic and nature of power relationships.

Cohen, Warren I., ed. The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations. 4 vols. New York, 1993. The authors of each volume in this history provide a thorough and expert treatment of the development of American power in the world since 1776.

Craig, Gordon A., and Alexander L. George. Force and States Craft: Diplomatic Problems of Our Time. 3d ed. New York, 1995. This collection of essays and case studies includes a discussion of America's dilemma of power.

Kennan, George F. American Diplomacy, 19001950. Chicago, 1951. In this series of early Cold War lectures the "father" of the containment doctrine popularized the realist critique of Wilsonian idealism. Kennedy, Paul M. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. New York, 1987. This sweeping overview gives global and comparative perspective on the acquisition and complications of world power.

Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York, 1994. A student and practitioner of balance-of-power politics surveys America's changing role in the new world order.

Leffler, Melvyn P. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford, Calif., 1992. A detailed account of how U.S. leaders developed a global framework for national security after 1945.

Morgenthau, Hans Joachim. In Defense of the National Interest: A Critical Examination of American Foreign Policy. New York, 1951. Presents the views of the best known of the "realist" political scientists who suggest that states seek power for its own sake.

Morgenthau, Hans Joachim, and Kenneth W. Thompson. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. 6th ed. New York, 1985. Morgenthau develops his theoretical approach at length.

Nye, Joseph S., Jr. Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. New York, 1990. Describes the challenges and limits of American power after World War II and the diffusion of power at the end of the Cold War.

Osgood, Robert Endicott. Ideals and Self Interest in America's Foreign Relations: The Great Transformation of the Twentieth Century. Chicago, 1953. Focuses on the realist versus idealist approaches to peace, internationalism, and the responsibilities of world power.

Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indian. Abridged edition. Lincoln, Nebr., 1986. A thorough but very readable history of American Indian policy from 1776 to 1980.

Stannard, David E. American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. New York, 1992. An impassioned account of the destruction of the native peoples of the New World.

Van Alstyne, Richard Warner. The Rising American Empire. Chicago, 1960. An interpretive history that emphasizes uses of force and the theme of expansion in American foreign relations from Washington to Wilson.

See also Collective Security; Continental Expansion; Embargoes and Sanctions; Globalization; International Organization; PostCold War Policy; Race and Ethnicity.


Harry Truman, who as president presided over the creation of modern American foreign relations, once wryly observed that a statesman was merely a dead politician. He in turn defined a successful politician as someone who got other people to do what they should have done all along. From this perspective, politics is simply the process of getting people to do the right thing. But even under this seemingly benign formulation, politics involves powerthe power to move people in a particular direction, toward a particular end. It begs the questions of who decides what direction, to what end, and what the right thing to do might be. In domestic politics the answers to such questions are often contested. The range of political discourse and debate is still broader in international relations. What to one party is obviously the proper or right course can be to another not only wrong but a threat to well-being or perhaps even survival. At the international level, politics and power, so obviously interrelated, are not so easily reconciled.

Statesmen and politicians have long wrestled with the problems of powerits acquisition, use, and sometimes abuse. Increasingly in world affairs, power emanates not only from states but also from nongovernmental organizations such as multinational corporations, economic communities, or cartels. By the end of the twentieth century, the process of globalization had become the focus of scholarship and public debate. Power, a constant in politics at all levels at all times, had taken on new forms and new meaning as the world and the United States, the preeminent superpower, entered the third millennium.

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"Power Politics." Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. . 19 Jan. 2019 <>.

"Power Politics." Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. . (January 19, 2019).

"Power Politics." Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. . Retrieved January 19, 2019 from

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