Power and Peace

  • Md. Rafiqul IslamEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_1385-1


Social Justice International System Human Freedom Soft Power Human Potential 
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Throughout history, the concepts of “power” and “peace” have been dominating as well as widely talked topic in the academic and political arenas. Different nations in the long journey of history have showed consistent passion for seeking and exercising power. Human beings are equally peace loving and peace pursuers and, thus, have sacrificed a lot for the quest of peace. However, thousands of wars and an uncountable number of deaths have occurred in the different phases of history. For this scourge of wars and casualties, human beings have negotiated, compromised, and signed treaties between and among nations for establishing peace and security. This complex situation of wars and craving for peace have founded the concepts of “power” and “peace” across the disciplines, such as political science, sociology, public administration, international relations, and peace and conflict studies. This essay will discuss the conceptual development of both these terms – power and peace and their interrelationship.



Power, as a complex and an elastic term, has been defined differently in various disciplines; however, the core meaning of the power is the capacity and capability of different actors – from an individual to states – to influence the actions and behavior of another actor (Dahl 1957). Although power has been a core principle of discussion in the discipline of social sciences, there is no comprehensive definition of power yet. In a simple sense, power is the capability which is relatively enjoyed by few people over others. For example, a state is called powerful when the country has enough capability in terms of economy, military, and strategy to influence and control of at least a few or more number of states. The Webster’s Third International Dictionary of the English Language defines power as “a position of ascendancy; ability to compel obedience; ‘control’ ‘domination’” and is closely associated with this: “a military force and its equipment” and “ability to wage war” (Webster’s English Dictionary 1981). This definition signifies the dominating and controlling characteristics of power which is perhaps the central concept in the literature of political science for determining the relationship between and among states. The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary similarly defines power as “possession of control, authority or influence over others” and “one having such power, specif. a sovereign state” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary 1996). Therefore, power is defined as control, dominance, possession, and influence which is applied describing relation between people and groups and even state to state relations.


Peace is the “absence of violence” (Galtung 1969, p. 168). This is the most common definition of peace that refers to absence of all forms of violence, war, confrontation, and any kind of negative actions against people. However, the definition of peace demands more than the absence of violence. Like “power,” peace is an elastic term that conveys comprehensive and varied meanings. Philosophers, religious thinkers, and political activists have defined peace and war from different perspectives since the inception of human history. The Oxford English Dictionary refers to peace as “freedom from or cessation of war or hostilities; freedom from civil commotion and disorder; freedom from disturbance or perturbation; freedom from quarrels or dissension between individuals” (In Rummel 1977). Peace in religious perspective is meant as serene, spiritual, and mental goodness of man. Pacifists define peace as the highest good of the society that can be attained through nonviolent social change. Peace is also conceded as the social order, social contract, and a state of social concord between nations. Early philosopher Saint Augustine defined peace as the “well-ordered concord between those of the family who rule and those who obey” (In Zwitter and Hoelzl 2014, p. 319). Peace is also meant as the harmonious state of mind and social relations. The medieval political philosophies, on the other hand, define peace as the social contract between the rulers and ruled. According to the legal, peace is legally binding peace treaty between and among the nations for limiting state behavior and avoiding confrontation and conflicts (Kant 1795). Peace is also viewed as the power, force, and coercion in an authoritative and persuasive manner to influence the violent behavior of the individual, groups, and the state for attaining peace. Peace is a balance of power among the nations or establishing equilibrium of power between and among the power blocks.

Discussion of Power

Since the Greek city state power has been a central issue in analyzing the social and political relations in every nation state. From Plato and Aristotle through Machiavelli and Hobbes to Pareto to Weber, power has occupied a key position in the discussion of relations between group, nations, and states (Dahl 1957). Power in the ancient time was seen as the power of virtue and innate goodness of human being. Plato’s seminal work “Republic” centralized the concept of justice and power. Plato’s teacher Socrates believed that “justice cannot be seen as the unqualified good unless it is interlinked with the human power” (In Lycos 1987, p. 2). This is a reality in all social systems as human relation depends on the mutual understanding and exercising power. But the nourishing of power in any given society should be used in such a manner so that all members of the society negotiate and satisfy with the values and behavior of other members. This is not the coercive imposing of decision over the majority people but a cooperative and consulting exercise of power. In early modern period, Hans Morgen thus, defined power as:

When we speak of power, we mean man’s control over the minds and actions of other men. By political power we refer to the mutual relations of control among the holders of public authority and between the latter and the people at large. (Morgenthau 1973, p. 26)

In the context of social relations, some political sociologists have defined power as the capability of individual person to influence the behavior of other people and members of a group. Max Weber demonstrates power as the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance (Weber 1978). In this regard, the social relation is referred to a constructive social relation in where power should be exercised for ensuring security and benefit for all people in the society. Some sociologists have viewed this “security” as the absence of anxiety from the mind of the people in their social and political setting. Beyond the concept of “dominance,” Foucault (1980) argued power as the relational force that helps all social beings to be united and come into the web of mutual influences (Foucault 1980). According to this view, power is constructive and productive force that permits all people in a social setting to come into a hierarchy and mutual social benefit for all. Giddens (1984) has given similar view about power by arguing that power is the “transformative capacity” and power is not always associated with conflict; rather, power obliges cooperation among people for their benefits (Giddens 1984).

With the development of sovereign nation, state power has been characterized as the capability and performing abilities of individual state within and beyond the boundary. Power in this context refers to military strength, economic sufficiency, performance of the governance to attain internal stability, and also the sustenance of the government to absorb pressures that come from outside of the border. In fact, the concept of powerful state laid down the philosophy of competition among the states to become powerful and keep dominance on other states. In nineteenth and twentieth century, some states in Europe had been engaged into an unholy struggle of capturing power for expanding their state boundaries. Military power was primarily used by the colonial masters to keep dominance and expand their territory. The United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy severely used military power and have been able to expand their boundaries occupying states all over the world. Morgenthau (1973) has termed this system as “the international system struggling for power” (Morgenthau 1973). Colonial expansion by the United Kingdom is regarded as the “Pax Britannica” or the British in the Europe and the world through dominance and hegemonic construction.

During the twentieth century, the concepts of collective power, cooperative power, or “shared power” have appeared in international system to redress and deter unwanted tyranny, aggression, and war. This type of power is grounded on the collective strength of at least few or many states who are ready to use force in case of emergency. The establishments of the League of Nations in 1920 and the United Nations in 1945 were the reflection of cooperation which laid down the concept of “collective power” and “collective security” for all nation states. Collective power is defined as the state power and capacity of the international community for the common benefits for the nations. Here, the common benefit is meant as the territorial integrity and ensuring peace and security for each and every nation. Johan Galtung (1985) defined power as “the power of a system is its influence potential, i.e., its potential to induce it will on other systems” (In Carroll 1972, p. 586). System is referred to the political system of a state that influences other political system in a rational manner.

Power in the modern period is demonstrated as the capacity of a state which is measured on the basis of some indices, i.e., population, geographical position, natural resources, national product, economic strength, military forces, and budget (Krasner 2009). The national character of a state, quality of the government, national morale, diplomatic character, technological know-how, education, social mobility, and political and religious charters are also measured as the sources of power in current political situation (Carroll 1972, p. 587). However, peace researchers have suggested an alternative concept of power which considers power as the “collective form of power” bestowed upon the overarching institution for exercising through the consultation and compromise for attaining common goal (Singer 1963).

From the discussion of “power,” it is evident that there are different forms of power such as dominance to cooperative, “soft power” versus “hard power,” and destructive power to constructive power. Soft power or constructive power is a form of power required for reshaping the social system through cooperation, mediation, personation, balance, and negotiation between and among the people in a social setting, whereas “hard power” or power based on dominance, is the military might, economic dominance, and hegemonic construction. Power is also legitimate and illegitimate in nature. Legitimate power is derived from the constitution within the country which prescribes rules of business for the government to operate the functions of the state. In the international system, legitimate power is attained through establishing alliances or organizations where states confer upon their individual power for the collective benefits; on the contrary, illegitimate power is founded on the force and repression and exercised against the will of the people. In the international context, illegitimate power is referred to a system in which power is exercised out of the rules and regulations prescribed by the international organizations, like the United Nations and International Court of Justice.

Discussion of Peace

Although peace has been defined in different perspectives, the development of peace research has been initiated to study peace systematically. Thereafter, peace is discussed in the negative and positive perspectives taking into account the violence and insecurity existed in individual state and international system. The negative peace is the absence of direct, intentionally organized violence, whereas positive peace is social justice, welfare, as well as absence of physical violence (Carroll 1972, p. 599). Johan Galtung has popularized the term peace in the academic discussion of political science, international relations, and peace and conflict research coining it with direct and structural violence. In analyzing the concept of peace, Galtung (1969) has mentioned three principles: peace is the social goal which should be agreed by the common people; the social goal is difficult, but it is not impossible to attain; and the last principle is the absence of all kinds of violence (Galtung 1969, p. 167). The core meaning of these principles is the perfect social order where violence, confrontation, and conflicts are absent. Galtung (1969) termed this concept as the negative peace which is attainable by eliminating human’s personal drawbacks such as psychological and physical attacks; hindrance is absent (Galtung 1969). However, Galtung (1969; 1985) and other peace researchers have expanded the meaning of peace considering the social and political reality and growing needs for the human beings. Peace, under this context, is defined as positive peace which means presence of human rights, social justice, cohesion, and material benefit for the realization of human potential and development. Positive aspects of peace can be attained through the elimination of both direct and structural violence from the society and international system (Galtung 1985). Social justice replicates this peace for the attainment of mental and physical well-being of the people.

Jon Barnett argues that Galtung’s positive peace concept is not clear to understand and comprehend peace comprehensively (Barnett 2008, p. 75). Therefore, peace has been associated with the meaning of development, sustainability, and human cooperation for achieving common goal. This is also called the “lasting peace,” “green peace,” or “sustainable peace.” Barnett (2008) defines peace combining the theory of “absence of violence” (Galtung 1969) and presence of “human freedom” (Sen 2014). The absence of violence protects people from being physically harassed, and the presence of human freedom ensures the realization of human potential and choice to do whatever people like. So, peace as a comprehensive concept is meant not only the absence of war, confrontation, exercise of any forms of violence in group, national and international perspective, but also presence of conductive social and political system where human potentials are fully realized and actualized. More specifically, peace refers to the presence of human rights, human freedom, sustainable development, and ensuring basic and fundamental needs of the people. Positive peace implies on overall environment of a society where people can flourish them without any hindrance. Peace is, therefore, broadly defined as the nonviolent social change, social justice, ecological sustainability, and popular participation of people in all domains of social and political relations.

Interrelationship Between Power and Peace

The above definition and conceptual discussion denote that both the terms power and peace are closely related and at the same time opposite from each other. Power is perceived as the way or medium of establishing peace; on the contrary, power is considered as the main spoiler of peace and security of humanity. Therefore, question has come whether power is detrimental for peace or power promotes peace. One school suggests that exercising power hinders and hampers peace and security for all or at least for a section of the people over whom power is exercised. Power is destructive based on the dominance that undermines human potential and interrupts human progress. Another school suggests that peace is a normative idea which believes in promoting both human and social progress. Power does not promote comprehensive security and development for all people; rather, it brings security and prosperity for the few in expense of harmony and peace of the majority of people. Peace is a holistic approach and takes stance for opposing any kind of forces and power in the national and international system.

Power is closely associated with armament and ownership of the lethal weapons. Sophisticated weapons are considered as the symbol of modern power in many respects. Powerful states are heavily engaged in arm race, production, marketing, and the ownership of sophisticated weaponry system. Powerful states, blocks, or alliances perceive weapons and military technologies which are the only means of acquiring power and keeping dominance over the other states. On the contrary, peace researchers consider the weapons and military technologies as the main spoiler of peace as well as the main elements for damaging environment and development efforts. War and conflicts are inherently connected with the armament and arm race. Peace researchers also consider this arm race and sophistication of weaponry system of as “threat system,” which encourages the use, production, and research on arms and ammunition in the world. This threat system is often blamed as the main instrument for threatening peace and security. In the domestic arena, the “threat system” is equally applicable as and when a government or ruling class imposes excessive power and dominance controlling the social institutions by the low enforcing agencies. Under this condition, peaceful situation and human rights condition are seriously hampered. The use of power by few and unequal distribution of power in the regional and international system also contribute to emergence of structural violence.

But modern peace researchers opine that power is a necessary instrument for establishing peace and security. Kenneth Boulding (1989) argues that power is the ability to change the future. Power promotes peace when people interact with each other and surrender their realistic power to cooperation power. Kenneth Building (1970) has termed this power as “exchange power” and “integrative power” which lies on the will of the people (Boulding 1970). Under this view, power has been presented as the constructive power which is the strength when people, nation, and states come forward to combine their power as a force against the tyranny, injustice, and any kind of odds against the humanity. History shows that lasting peace was established in different phases when nation states compromise their power and come into cooperation and common ground. Immanuel Kant (1795) mentioned that war is inevitable in the society; therefore, “republican” constitution is essential for attaining perpetual peace in the society (Kant 1795). The example of Westphalian peace treaty in 1648 and creation of the United Nations in 1945 are the examples of how nation-states compromised and surrendered their individual power to the common power.

Buzan (1984) has depicted the objectives of power and peace in international system. Peace promotes the attention of eliminating all forms of violence in regard to the relations between and within states. The concept of peace argues that insecurity in any social system is existing for the anarchy and unequal power distribution; therefore, elimination of roots of wars and conflicts is extremely essential. On the other hand, concept of power gives priority to the individual state who can be controlled internally as well as pursue interest within the state system. The concept of power identifies the problems of insecurity and conflict within the unit level and thus urges to solve the problem using power rationally both within the country and international system.


In sum, it can be concluded that power and peace are opposite in terms of meaning and application, but in some respect complement for each other. Power as dominance and control is used for waging war coming from the outside and managing resistance coming from within the state. Power in this case is being institutionalized for maintaining statuesque of the government or the state. This process according to the realist perspective is essential for peace and security of a country. However, exercising power for the goal causes sufferings and destruction instead of establishing peace and development in many places in the world. Even the liberal democratic countries exercise power over its citizen as a tool of capturing and exercising political power. On the other hand, power is also seen as a tool for establishing peace when it is exercised collectively or based on the internationally accepted norms and values. For this ground, people are still rethinking how best the power can be exercised for the sake of common benefit and well-being of the people in the universe.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Peace and Conflict StudiesUniversity of DhakaDhakaBangladesh
  2. 2.School of History and International RelationsFlinders UniversityAdelaideAustralia