Faces of Power Debate in International Relations Theory


The notion of power is fundamental to the international relations theory serving as a tool for  both assessment of the contemporary IR and making forecasts about a new world order. Studies of power give an impression of a dynamic subdiscipline, rich with substantive discussions, new concepts and approaches. However, this image can be deceptive, hiding serious theoretical issues and  gaps  which severely limit the opportunities for applied analysis of power relations in the international arena. This paper focuses on the so-called faces (or dimensions) of power debate – one of the key theoretical debates within the Western studies of power, which to a considerable extent has predetermined the present state of the subdiscipline. On the basis of a thorough critical analysis of works by R. Dahl, P. Bachrach, M.S. Baratz, S. Lukes and several other scholars the paper provides an original assessment of the main points and directions of the faces of power debate, as well as its implications for theoretical studies of power in international relations. It is shown that contrary to common perceptions this debate should not be viewed as a manifestation of a steady and continuous development of scholarly approaches to understanding the essence  of  power  in international  relations  from  overly  simplified  and  reductionist  towards  more sophisticated and methodologically consistent. The author argues that the debate on the faces of power has shifted the focus of power studies away from fundamental theoretical issues towards albeit important but only peripheral questions and consolidated several trends, detrimental to the epistemology of power. The general decrease in scholarly knowledge of power agenda constitutes the first and most fundamental trend. The second trend is a continuous and methodologically untenable process  of  broadening the research field of power to include new forms and types of social interactions. Finally, the third trend is linked to the introduction of normative components in the process of conceptual analysis of the notion of ‘power’, increasing attempts to provide definition of a normatively desirable power. The second section of the paper examines the concept of J.S. Nye as an illustrative example of these trends. The author concludes that a possible way to break this impasse involves resurgence of unduly forgotten ideas of R. Dahl enhanced by a more elaborated methodology for study social and economic determinants of power relations in the international arena.


notion of power; international relations theory; faces of power debate; power relations; power potential; balance of power; ‘soft power’; R. Dahl; S. Lukes; J.S. Ny 

Authors: Nikolay Yudin

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