Geopolitical Power

Power: “Getting what you want” is about controlling different geographical entities

We cannot understand geopolitics without thinking of power.  Our definition of geopolitics looks at how individuals or groups of individuals disagree about the nature of places and other geographical entities and their relationship to the rest of the world. These disagreements create power struggles between different interests and groups.[1] Geopolitics builds upon the common understanding of power being the ability to get what you want in the face of opposition, to say that the “getting what you want” is about controlling different geographical entities. Power can be defined as either material, relational, or ideological.  

Singaporean warship moving through the South China Sea at sunrise.

Material power looks at things to define power.  In this definition of power, a country is considered powerful if it has a strong economy, a large military, and a smart population.  This power can be defined as national industrial strength, educational level and size of the population, and military might. Using this definition, the United States would be considered powerful while Ireland would be considered less powerful. This is because the United States has a bigger military and economy than Ireland.  Thus, we can see that material power is the power of a geographical entity, such as a country, relative to other entities.

Relational power defines a country’s power by how it is able to put its material power into action by developing connections with other countries. These connections are called power relations, and they are usually unequal. This means that we should consider the interactions between all those trying to gain or resist power. Relational power moves away from seeing power as a set of things, like in material power, and towards seeing it as the way in which material things are used as countries interact. The key idea of relational power is that material aspects of power, such as size, economy, and military, are only important when two actors form a power relation.  For example, relational power looks at how China uses military exercises to demonstrate the size of its military to appear more powerful than, say, Japan.  Another example is how North Korea is increasing its material power by building a nuclear weapons capability in order to be change its position in relation to countries like the United States that have more material power.  

Ideological power moves away from material things and relational power and focuses more on the power to get others to do what you want, willingly.  This is different from forcing others to do what you want.  Instead, ideological power outlines the ability to have people readily accept your agenda, without considering other options.  It’s the idea that people will follow the political goals that are of greater benefit to the more powerful, because that is “what is done.”  Those who don’t follow these goals are labeled as “radical” or “unrealistic.”  For example, in international economics, policies for “economic development” are created by rich and powerful countries and the poorest countries are forced to adopt them under the label of “progress.” The powerful countries in the world create an ideological agenda, or a way in which the world functions, and the other countries readily accept this agenda, for lack of a better option.

[1] Colin Flint, Introduction to Geopolitics, 3rd edition, pp. 44-47

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