The traditional approach to power in international politics is to treat it in terms of capabilities. Power is therefore an attribute or possession. Such an approach has, for instance, been reflected in attempts to list the ‘elements’ or ‘components’ of national power. The most significant of these usually include the size and quality of a state’s armed forces, its per capita wealth and natural resources, the size of its population, its land mass and geographical position, the size and skills of its population. The advantage of this approach is that it enables power to be analyzed on the basis of observable, tangible factors, such as military and economic strength, rather than intangibles, suggesting that power is quantifiable. Over time, nevertheless, greater attention has been paid to less tangible factors, such as morale and leadership skills. One of the most significant implications of the capabilities approach to power has been that it enables states to be classified on the basis of the power or resources they possess, allowing the international system to be analyzed on a hierarchical basis. States were thus classified as ‘great powers’, ‘superpowers’, ‘middling powers’, and ‘regional powers’
However, the idea that power can be measured in terms of capabilities has a number of drawbacks, making it an unreliable means of determining the outcome of events. For example the Vietnam War (1959–75) helps to illustrate this. The USA failed to prevail in Vietnam despite enjoying massive economic, technological and military advantages over North Vietnam and its communist ally, the Vietcong. At best, capabilities define potential or latent power rather than actual power, and translating a capability into a genuine political asset may be difficult and perhaps impossible. This applies for a number of reasons:
The relative importance of the attributes of power is a matter of uncertainty and debate. Is a large population more significant than geographical size? Is economic power now more important than military power?
Some elements of national power may be less beneficial than they at first appear. For example, a highly educated population may limit a state’s ability to wage or sustain warfare. For example, after the Vietnam War public opinion and the media were highly critical of any potential military adventures. This resulted in decades of US withdrawal from overseas military intervention. and natural resources may impair economic growth, as in the so-called ‘paradox of plenty'. For example, Russia has abundant natural resources but has failed to develop a diverse manufacturing economy.
Subjective factors may be as significant as quantifiable, objective factors. These include the will and resolve of the armed forces and what can be called national morale. The Ukrainian army showed far more determination and better morale than the Russian army in 2022. Strategy and leadership may also be decisive, allowing, for instance, weaker actors to prevail over stronger ones in so-called asymmetrical wars such as terrorism and insurrection.
It may only be possible to translate resources or capacities into genuine political efficacy in particular circumstances. For example, the possession of nuclear weapons may be irrelevant when a state is confronting a terrorist threat or fighting a guerrilla war, and such weapons are ‘unusable’ in most political circumstances.
Power is dynamic and ever-changing, meaning that power relations are never fixed or ‘given’. Power may shift, for example, due to economic booms or slumps, financial crises, the discovery of new energy resources, the acquisition of new weapons, natural disaster, an upsurge in ethnic conflict, and so on