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The Montreal Review, July, 2010


What is power in politics? In general, power means capability to do, influence and modify external environment. Power in politics is also capability to command your own will in accordance with realities. Power requires good estimate of needs, goals, and capabilities. Absolute power distinguishes good from evil and acts in a creative way. In other words, power is an active knowledge.

Absolute power is not possible for persons or states, because knowledge is always partial. Persons or states are as powerful as their complex, but partial knowledge permits.

The first thing that a state must do in order to achieve some power and capability to influence and utilize the international system, is to learn what is good and what is bad. What is good is rational, and what is real is good. This statement does not contradict to Hegel's famous observation "What is rational is real; And what is real is rational." 1 Hegel's statement doesn't say that the rational is good (or bad), it does not consist of moral implications as many Marxists interpret it, though Hegel does not dismiss the importance of the moral principles. 2 It just helps us to approach reality in the right way and to understand it. Everything that exists has rational explanation and so it has reason to exist; and everything good is rational, because of its results, while the wrong, or the bad, is rational as far as it has reason to exist, but it is irrational as far as it brings corrupted results.

The nations often mistake "the good" with their own particular good as the persons and philosophers often equalize the truth with the findings of their subjective consciousness. Nation's particular interests (and goals) are rational as far as they have particular reason to be considered as "good". But power (and knowledge) that does not count the interest of all players, or the good in general, is not long-lasting power. Politicians and states need wisdom to understand what the real interest of maximal number of units is and how it corresponds with their own interest. Understanding of the general picture with all of its complexities must be the goal of every national strategy. Complete understanding of all interests may be an unachievable task, but it is a goal that worth much and brings results.

Traditional political realism insists that the interest of all players in an anarchic system of power relationships is not possible to be known, because the ever existing partial knowledge does not permit this. Political realism resolves this problem with the Adam Smith's theory of the "invisible hand" and free market (the classical economic theory). 3 In an anarchic environment such as international system, the pursuit of particular interest creates a spontaneous order 4 that is better than any design based on partial knowledge. Although this theory seems true, spontaneous order does not help states to create a completely rational system of relationships, as under "completely rational system" I mean a system that prevents the outbreaks of war. States follow their particular interests, but they often forget to speculate on strategies that go beyond their own needs and goals. If states work more diligently on both questions - common and particular good - the principle of "invisible hand" would be not only efficient, but also beneficent to all. The Hobbesian character of international system cannot be corrected with the design of international bodies such as the United Nations, it may be corrected only with elevation of the understanding of all states of what is generally good and in interest of all, with constant formulation and application of this understanding. Thus international institutions such as the United Nations, although valuable, would be ineffective as long as the states do not pursue knowledge and goals exceeding their particular interest. This is a question of political culture, the momentum of the old culture of egoistic competition, mistrust and fear among the states is still considerable. The culture might be changed only with the development of a rational universal political theory that might be accepted by the governments.

Since the activities of the most states (or persons) are provoked by the sense of insecurity, and most of our actions are in response of our fears, in this search of security people and states easily forget what is really good and what is bad. The problem here, as we have said, is that the particular "good" is often mistaken with the good in general.

The particular good, like the partial knowledge, is not absolute good and its results are as disappointing as particular it is. For example, in third century BC the Roman Republic was an already established Western power that entered the Eastern international scene in search of security. This entrance was unnecessary overextension of the Roman influence, because it destroyed the balance of power in East and eventually destroyed Roman's own republican institutions. The initial Roman intervention in the Eastern affairs was provoked by rational concerns about security, but concerns entirely particular. Rome became an empire in an unstoppable process that was powered exclusively by the particular interest of Rome that happily coincided with the interests of its allies and the realities of the international system. There were no enough strong states that can resist the Roman advance or to compete with the Roman political and military organization. Rome ceased to be an empire when its particular interest, in an unstoppable way, moved away from the realities of the international system and its internal constitution was subjugated under the will of particular military and political elite. Rome gradually lost the right track, internationally and domestically. Initially its constitution, foreign policy and military organization happened to be the best in the Mediterranean world, its approach to the external world happened to be the most correct, but with the advance of time its constitution, government and foreign policy were corrupted. Corruption came with the growth of its external power and with the parallel process of concentration of power at home. The important lesson here is that the Roman government and policy became corrupted through "rational" arguments and actions.

States (or persons) would never be sustainably powerful if they act only under the pressure of security needs, if they are obsessed by fears or suspicions, if they act impulsively without reasoning on the real situation and if their constitutions are based on the interests of particular leaders or permanent elites.


Political realism and many historical examples have taught us that the international system is a system without legitimate overseeing power that can be applied in cases of crime or wrongdoing. Moreover, in Peace and War, Raymond Aron rightly noticed that in international relations it is hard to classify even the acts of aggression.

Who is guilty in a situation of war? How to say that some state acts in a way that deserves reproach when often the aggressor is not the real cause of the conflict? Or when some state covertly supports underground subversive groups acting in other sovereign state, is this an aggression that deserves military response? Or when the conflict is led by a hegemonic, civilized power (or coalition) against underdeveloped state, is that a "lawful" intervention? Who could check the righteousness in behaviour of a superior or winning power? These are always hard questions. In such a vague environment without clear rules and concepts for good and bad, the "good" very easily mixes with the idea of security, and as history showed, not the common security, but the individual's one. In a system of anarchy, of lack of government, good is everything that brings security to us as units. But "good" and truly rational is not only our own security, but the common one.

To achieve common security the states often played the game of balance of power. For centuries balance of power was the imperfect, half-conscious regulator of the international system. The ancient Greek city-states always gathered against the mightiest state among them, and all were in coalition against Persia or other non-Greek powers when the need demanded. Their system of balance of power was destroyed by Rome, but only after they believed that Rome would successfully arrest the growing Macedonian might. The Greeks believed that Rome would return in West once Macedonia is defeated and would not endanger their independence. And Rome actually withdrawn from Greece after the first Macedonian war (215 BC), but the way for a future conquest was open after this first war in Hellenistic world. The involvement of Rome in the East-Mediterranean affairs was part of the Greek balance of power politics and it seemed for both sides, Greeks and Romans, rational and prudent at the time.

The Greeks from the Aetolian League, a group of allied city-states and tribes that was formed perhaps as counterweight of Macedonia, had some right to believe that the Romans can be safely used against Philip Macedonian. In his History of Rome Livy reproduces the speech of the Roman general Marcus Valerius Laevinus to the Aetolian Council. In this great speech, Laevinus convinced the Greeks to accept the Roman support against Macedonia. The general began his persuasion with a vaunt of the Roman victories in Syracuse, Capua, Sicily, and Italy. Laevinus intended to impress his listeners with the great military power of Rome. After this, he spoke about the Roman custom to treat its allies as equal and independent. This had to show Romans not as conquerors, but as equals and friends. According to Livy's historical account "He [Laevinus] then went on to say that it was a custom with the Romans, handed down to them from their ancestors, to take good care of their allies, some of whom they had admitted to citizenship and to equal rights..." Laevinus promised Aetolians the best possible relations in future "because they would be the first of the nations across the sea to have entered into friendship with Rome." And here comes the word about the balance of power and the utility of the Roman interference in the East Mediterranean affairs: "That as for Philip and the Macedonians, their troublesome neighbours, he had already broken their might and spirit and would still further reduce them to such a pass that they would not only evacuate the cities which they had forcibly taken from the Aetolians, but would find Macedonia itself constantly endangered; and that he would place the Acarnanians, whose forcible separation from their league the Aetolians resented, once again under their former jurisdiction and dominion." 5 The goal of the Aetolian Greeks was clear - to stop the advance of Macedonia. But what was the reason for Rome to engage in an Eastern war? Why did Rome want to involve in another's conflict? As we have said, the motives were entirely rational. It was the need to assure its Eastern flange against attacks. Rome's power had had the experience of two very serious tests coming from Greece. The first was King Pyrrhus, who wanted to conquer Italy (281-279 BC), but achieved the popular "Pyrrhic victory"; and the second, much more serious event, was the treaty of mutual assistance between Philip V, the king of Macedon, and Hannibal during the Second Punic war (218-201 BC) between Rome and Carthage, a war that Rome nearly lost. This experience led Rome to the decision to punish the Macedonians, the strongest state at the time, and to build alliances. Rome extended its influence to East in the name of security.

The history of Roman involvement in East is an example of the politics of balance of power; it shows how this rational politics eventually leads to cul-de-sac. Balance of power does not prevent war and is not a stable order. It can be destroyed easily on the ground of seemingly rational arguments and decisions.


The quality of the traditional politics of balance of power has changed with the creation of nuclear arms and their mass dissemination. It is out of question that the politics of balance of power is still vibrant and will continue to function as a strategy for an indefinite time, it will continue to serve as a regulator of the international relations, but it won't have the same importance as it had until the second half of the 20th century.

To sum all said until now, power means:

•  active (creative) knowledge

•  objectivism

•  self-control

•  non-absolute quality

Power understood as capabilities is a comparative and relative quality. Power does not exist in vacuum; it is always in relation with something. In traditional sense power can be measured only through comparison and very often the national strategists compare the wrong indicators. Before the First World War statesmen looked at the military power - ability to mobilize, size of the armies, war technologies - and missed the general picture. Wrong indicators led to wrong conclusions and the expected "few months' long war" in 1914 turned to be four years conflict of exhaustion...




To contact the author, please write to themontrealreview@gmail.com

1 George Hegel, Philosophy of Right (Batoche Books, Kitchener, 2001) p.18

2 " The real world is in earnest with the principles of right and duty, and in the full light of a consciousness of these principles it lives." George Hegel, Philosophy of Right (Batoche Books, Kitchener, 2001) p.17

3 "International political systems, like economic markets, are formed by the co-action of self-regulating units. International structures are defined in terms of the primary political units of an era, be they city states, empires, or nations. Structures emerge from the coexistence of states. No state intends to participate in the formation of a structure by which it and other will be constrained. International political systems, like economic markets, are individualist in origin, spontaneously generated, and unintended..." Kenneth N. Walz, The Anarchic Structure of World Politics" in International Politics. Enduring Concepts and Contemporary Issues, edited by Robert J. Art and Robert Jervis (Pearson Education, Inc. 2009) p. 34.

4 Friedrich Hayek's theory of spontaneous order understands human civilization more as a result of human action, and less of human design. This was also the understanding of the Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson. The anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon said, "The notion of anarchy in politics is just as rational and positive as any other. It means that once industrial functions have taken over from political functions, then business transactions alone produce the social order." The concept of spontaneous order is central for the Austrian School of Economics, (Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek), Murray Rothbrad, Milton Friedman and the modern libertarians.

5 Livy, History of Rome, XXVI, XXiV



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