Power Structures

Whereas the capabilities and relationship models of power clearly assume the existence of an actor or agent, usually the state, structural power links the distribution of power to biases within the social structures through which actors relate to one another and make decisions. This is also sometimes characterised as a post-modern approach to international relations. A principal figure in the rise of postmodern thought was Michel Foucault (1926–84), who pioneered a ‘genealogical’ form of analysis. This interrogates truth claims posing as objective knowledge about the world while concealing the machinations of power. Foucault argued that each society possesses its own ‘regime of truth’ that exists as a set of discourses and which is imposed on, but generally accepted by, society at large. Foucault further proposed that the human sciences have themselves played a leading role in this concealment, lending a mantle of authority to all kinds of knowledge claims which, in the end, can be exposed as serving power.An influential writer on structural power was provided by Susan Strange (1996), who defined it as ‘the power to decide how things shall be done, the power to shape frameworks within which states relate to one another, relate to people or relate to corporate enterprises’. Strange further distinguished between four primary power structures:

  • The knowledge structure, which influences actor’s beliefs, ideas or perceptions.

  • The financial structure, which controls access to credit or investment

  • The security structure, which shapes defence and strategic issues

Strange insisted that the same state or states need not dominate each of these structures, but rather that their structural power may vary across the structures. This analysis of power provides an alternative to state-centrism and highlights the important and growing role played by regimes and international organizations. Nevertheless, structural power operates alongside relational power, providing an alternative way of explaining how outcomes are determined. The issue of structural power also clearly demonstrates how questions about the nature of power are closely linked to debates about the shape of world order. During the 1980s, Strange used the theory of structural power to reframe the debate about hegemonic stability theory and to challenge the then fashionable notion of US decline, which had largely been based on the USA’s economic decline relative, in particular, to Japan and Germany.


Case Study America's War in Iraq

Susan Strange (1923–98) UK academic and leading exponent of international political economy. A selfdescribed ‘new realist’, Strange made contributions in a number of areas. Her idea of structural power challenged the prevalent realist theory of power and reframed the debate, fashionable in the 1980s, about US decline and its implications. In States and Markets (1988), Strange analyzed the growing ascendancy of the market over political authority since the 1970s, an idea further developed in The Retreat of the State (1996), in which she declared that ‘state authority has leaked away, upwards, sideways and downwards’. In Casino Capitalism (1997) and Mad Money (1998), Strange examined the instability and volatility of market-based economies, particularly in the light of innovations in the way in which financial markets work.