Power in the 21st Century: International Security and International Political Economy

Book Review

Reviewer: Emilian Kavalski (Institute for Social Justice, Australian Catholic University, Sydney)

Publisher: Springer, 2012 ISBN: 978-3-642-25081-1
Author's page: Enrico Fels, Jan-Frederik Kremer, Katharina Kronenberg (eds)

Power in the 21st Century: International Security and International Political Economy

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The question of power forms one of the cornerstones of both the theory and practice of international relations. In spite of (or probably because of) its centrality, however, the notion and practices of power animate some of the most contested and tense debates in the study of world affairs. Thus, every generation of international relations scholars undertakes a reconsideration and probing of the concept of power in an attempt to place its own definitive stamp on one of the oldest conversations in world affairs. The volume edited by Enrico Fels, Jan-Frederik Kremer, and Katharina Kronenberg aims to set the framework for the debate on the notion and practices of power for the students of international relations at the start of the 21st century. In this respect, it is difficult in a review of this length to do justice to the full complexity of themes and issues covered by such an encompassing and perceptive collection.

Undoubtedly, this volume provides one of the most comprehensive accounts of the analysis of power relations to date. The contributors simultaneously generalise and contextualise the current state of the art on this topic. At the same time, the volume engages in re-thinking and re-evaluating its debates in the context of the current considerations of the concept of power. The editors managed to pull-off this remarkable feat not least by involving in the project a cohort of insightful interlocutors in the debates on power and encouraging them to think critically about the experience of its conceptualisation and contextualisation.

The volume demonstrates that the dispute over the appropriate ramification of the notion and practices of power are themselves a contestation over the power of different framework for understanding and explanation. As the editors suggest in the Preface to the collection, they have purposefully adopted an eclectic approach to the study of power, in order to approach its subject matter ‘from a variety of angles and introducing new theoretical designs’ (p. vii). Bearing this suggestion in mind, the analyses included in the collection engage power as simultaneously a relational and a located concept. On the one hand, the notion of power reflects the ability to influence others—that is, the ability to affect the decision-making behaviour of other actors through the capacity either to make some policy choices more attractive than others or by limiting available the policy-alternatives (regardless of whether this ability reflect a recourse to force or the threat of force). On the other hand, the practices of power are located within a framework of relations guided (and made possible) by history, resources, contextual understandings of social location, and the actors’ judgment of those with whom they are interacting.

Thus, because of its relational and located characteristics, the exercise of power is more often than not (as well as much more often than the literature on the topic would like to admit) prone to the random effects of contingency. This multidimensionality of power and its analysis is reflected in the breadth and scope of the contributions included in the edited collection. The fifteen chapters of the volume are divided into three separate parts. In the first part, the contributors discuss various theoretical aspects of the notion of power in international relations. The papers included in this section of the volume discuss (i) the dynamics of post-Cold War “power shift” and the issue of the allegiance of middle powers (p. 3); (ii) the framework of hegemonic power in the context of the “global war on terrorism” (p. 29); (iii) the understanding and explanation of the emergence and demise of “soft power” (p. 43); as well as (iv) the dynamics of “structural power” (p. 59) in the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The second part of the volume details the emerging patterns of power relations through the analysis of various international security issues. The chapters included in this section offer illuminating assessments of (i) the contribution and cost of “nuclear weapons” in the calculus of national power (p. 81); (ii) the access and availability of “natural resources” (p. 97); (iii) the “military balancing” propensities of states (p. 119); (iv) the growing significance and vulnerability of “the critical information infrastructure” of cyber space (p. 137); (v) the importance of “maritime power” (p. 151); and (vi) the emergence of drones and other sophisticate technological innovations as substantive “power assets” (p. 177) in the international struggle for influence.

Finally, the third part of the volume discusses the international political economic aspects of power relations in the context of globalisation. The contributions included in this part of the volume draw attention to (i) the “diffusion and ambiguity” of the international monetary system (p. 195); (ii) the agency of “emerging powers” in the twenty-first century structure of global governance (p. 211); (iii) the utility of trade as a tool in “democracy promotion” (p. 237); (iv) the emergence “economic diplomacy” as a “game-changer” of the practice and analysis of power; and (v) the growing influence of “knowledge power” (p. 287) on the world stage.

In this way, the contributors to Fels (et al) offers one of the most vivid panoramic snapshot of the dominant interpretation of power in the study of world politics at the start of the twenty-first century. In this respect, it would be interesting to see what the contents-page of a similar volume would be in another hundred years. Until that time, however, the edited collection of Fels (et al) is likely to remain a key repository for understanding the dynamics animating the consideration of power in world politics. The volume would be of interest to students and scholars of international relations, political science, comparative politics, and security studies.

2019 - Volume 13 Issue 3