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Power in World Politics


Admission requirements

Required courses:

  • At least two of the following courses: Introduction to International Relations and Diplomacy, Introduction to Globalisation and Transnational Politics, Introduction to Peace and Conflict Studies, Birth of the Modern World, Foundational Texts in World Politics, or Thinking about Politics: Power and Sovereignty.


What is the nature of power in contemporary world politics? Who or what counts as ‘powerful’ in global affairs? Is the United States the sole superpower in the international system? If so, what are the sources of its power: its military might, economic prowess, or cultural attraction? If not, what other actors balance US power? Does the rise of the BRICS signify a global power shift? Would such a power transition stabilize or undercut world order? Or maybe power is not simply shifting; what if globalisation is transforming the very nature of power itself?

As these questions illustrate, power is a key – many would argue, the key – concept in world politics. This certainly applies to the academic study of world politics, especially the discipline of International Relations (IR) where power has always been a fundamental category. Underlying many – though, by no means all – academic debates in IR is a rather simple view of power. Power is conceptualized as a possession or resource that states can mobilize to advance their interests. Often power is measured purely in terms of military resources and, ultimately, as the ability to wield military power to coerce and control others. This view comes close to Mao’s famous slogan: ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.’

Other schools of thought challenge such a mono-dimensional view of power, highlighting its shortcomings. For example, why is it that the militarily mighty often fail to get their way? During the Cold War, both superpowers suffered defeat at the hands of nominally weak opponents: the United States lost in Vietnam, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. More recently, Western powers have neither won the peace in Iraq or Libya nor the ‘war on terrorism’.

This course introduces, surveys and critically examines the most important philosophies, theories and conceptions of power in world politics. As mentioned, different schools of thought disagree sharply on the nature of power in world politics, including on the sources of power, its effects on inter-state and transnational relations and its consequences for peace and security. Yet all of these schools offer thought-provoking perspectives on power and its relationship to connected phenomena, such as authority, hegemony, leadership and coercion. These perspectives can be turned into valuable tools with which we can analyse the various facets of power in world politics. In order to do so, we will cross disciplinary boundaries, linking political science, sociology and political philosophy. We will use concrete case studies drawn from world politics past and present to illustrate the ways in which the complex phenomenon called ‘power’ operates in global affairs.

Course Objectives

Upon successful completion of the course, students will be able to:

  • Analyze and critically assess competing conceptions of power in world politics.

  • Apply these conceptions to rigorously examine key aspects of world politics, including the sources, effects, and durability of power hierarchies past and present.

  • Connect conceptions of power across disciplinary boundaries, thereby linking political science, sociology, and political philosophy.

  • Analyze various types of inequality and domination in world politics and identify actual or potential sources of resistance.


Timetables for courses offered at Leiden University College in 2020-2021 will be published on this page of the e-Prospectus.

Mode of instruction

This is an interactive course. It consists of two seminars per week comprising a mix of a mix of short lectures, group discussions, and student presentations. During the course of the seminar, students are expected to consistently participate in seminar discussion by presenting and defending their ideas. The role of the professor is not to lecture passive students, but to facilitate collective discussion at a high level of intellectual sophistication and intellectual rigour.

Assessment Method

  • Participation (19%)

  • Presentation (19%)

  • Essay #1 (22%)

  • Essay #2 (40%)

Reading list

This is a reading-intensive course, which gives students the opportunity to engage directly with the works of leading analysts of power, including Hannah Arendt, Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Joseph Nye and Thucydides, among others. For more information, see ‘Remarks’ below.


Courses offered at Leiden University College (LUC) are usually only open to LUC students and LUC exchange students. Leiden University students who participate in one of the university’s Honours tracks or programmes may register for one LUC course, if availability permits. Registration is coordinated by the Education Coordinator,


Dr. Kai Hebel,


In order to be eligible for participation in the course, students are required to read the following texts before the start of the block:

  • Robert Dahl 1957: ‘The Concept of Power’, Behavioural Science, 2/3, pp. 201-215.

  • John Mearsheimer 2001: The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, W.W. Norton & Company. [Introduction, chapter 1]

The instructor reserves the right to drop students from the course in case of unsatisfactory advance preparation.