How does power work in practice? Much of the “stuff” that state agents and other international actors do, on an everyday basis, remains impenetrable to existing IR theory. This is unfortunate, we argue, as the everyday performance of international practices actually helps shape world policy outcomes. In this paper we develop a framework enabling us to grasp the concrete workings of power in international politics. Our central notion of “emergent power” bridges two distinctive understandings of power: capabilities and relations. Emergent power refers to the endogenous resources – social skills and competences – generated in particular practices from diplomacy to global banking or pirating. We illustrate the framework with the case of the 2011 international intervention in Libya. Through a detailed account of the diplomatic negotiations at the UN, NATO and the EU, the paper demonstrates how, in practice, state representatives translate their skills into actual influence. In fact, seemingly trivial struggles over diplomatic competence within these three multilateral organizations played a crucial role in the intervention in Libya. A focus on practice resituates existing approaches to power and influence in IR, demonstrating that the “essence” of power, including the relative value of resources, is never settled for good.

Rebecca Adler-Nissen is Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen, and author of Sovereignty as Stigma: Opt-Out Diplomacy in the European Union (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). She holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Copenhagen.

Vincent Pouliot is Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar in the Department of Political Science at McGill University and Director of the Centre for International Peace and Security Studies. His International Security in Practice: The Politics of NATO-Russia Diplomacy (Cambridge University Press, 2010) received the Canadian Political Science Association’s prize for the best book on international relations. He received a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Toronto.