Both my daughter and my wife yelled (because I am downstairs) for me to do something. I inform my daughter that if I don't respond to my wife, I am certainly not going to respond to her since my wife has power over me and my daughter does not (or at least not so much). My wife joins in, pondering how she could have power over me when I went to Europe for two weeks, something that she did not desire much.
And that is where IR comes in (and poli sci in general): power is not control. The US has a great deal of power--with the classic definition of getting people do to what they would otherwise not do--but cannot control events, as Egypt has reminded us yet again. Of course, one of the big problems in figuring out power is whether someone did something because they were pushed or because they wanted to something. Did the Soviet Union not invade Western Europe because of US threats and efforts at deterrence or because it had no interest in French food and mayonnaise on their frites?
As important, ours is an interdependent relationship, so there are significant constrains on how we use our power. The US cannot exert too much power over China because China holds US debt, and vice versa.
So, my wife then ponders what powers does she have? Not super-powers (she would prefer telekinesis, whereas I think she would most benefit from super-speed), but what resources does she possess that give her the ability to get me to do things I would otherwise not do?*
- Guilt: the ability to make one's partner feel bad for either doing bad things or not doing enough good things is a significant resource.
- Information: Usually one member of a relationship has a far better memory about the past (I am an absent-minded professor. Also, one member may have far greater understanding of the present (whoever manages the money, for instance).
- Service Provision: In each relationship there is a division of labor (fair or unfair). A partner could do less, making the other do more or do without. Of course, this power resource is the most subject to spirals of retaliation in a tit-for-tat manner.
- Love: If you love someone, you will heaps for them. Dumbledore would certainly think that love is powerful magic indeed.
Of course, this is all subject to confirmation bias. A spouse will notice, perhaps, the times where the partner does not do what is desired rather than notice all the times that the exertion of power actually works.
Happy Valentine's Day!
* Marriage is not a competition with adversaries competing with each other and outsiders, and is not a zero-sum game. But yet there are relative and absolute gains to be had if one is at all self-regarding.