Courtesy Reuters

Few would doubt that there have been significant changes in the world power structure since, say, the unilateral declaration of American economic independence on August 15, 1971, or even the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Yet what does such a statement mean? Power may be a relatively clear concept, describing the capacity to assert interest effectively, or more simply, to make others do what one wants them to do; but the reality of power is much less clear. Indeed, the same phenomenon occurs both within societies and between nations: those who feel that things are happening to them believe that somebody must have done them and must therefore have the power to do them; whereas those who are thought to have this power realize that much of the time things simply happen. Circumstances and constellations are more important than intentions and actions. Those who feel constrained suspect the hand of those in power; those who have power sense, above all, the constraints under which they are acting.

It may be as well therefore not to pursue any further the theoretical question of what international power is and how one can describe its shifts and changes - except to say this. It is my

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  • Ralf Dahrendorf has been Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science since 1974. He was a member of the Commission of the European Communities from 1970 to 74, Parliamentary Secretary of State in the West German Foreign Office in 1969-70, and previously Professor of Sociology at various universities. He is the author of The New Liberty: Survival and Justice in a Changing World, and other works.
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