In international political theory, hard power and soft power are two different means by which nations can further their geopolitical goals.
Here is the basic difference:
- Hard power refers to the power a nation has to coerce other nations through military and economic means. It is a ‘carrot and stick’ approach (Nye, 2009).
- Soft power, on the other hand, refers to the power nations have to convince, attract, and influence other nations through means such as diplomacy and cultural exchange (Nye, 1991; Qin, 2018).
While soft power is considered the ideal means because it exacts less of an economic and human toll, hard power is ultimately most effective in influencing others, so long as a nation has the means to do so.
Hard Power vs Soft Power: Overview
The concepts of hard power and soft power were proposed by Joseph Nye (1991) to explain two ways in which nations attempt to exert their will in international affairs.
In Bound to Lead (1991), Nye argued that the United States of America’s power isn’t just a result of its hard power. America’s great strength is that it combined hard and soft power very effectively in the 20th Century.
We see American soft power in their cultural exports – Hollywood, Hip Hop, fashion, and so on. America’s ability to export is culture through media and technology has been highly beneficial to its international brand and ‘public diplomacy’ – ability to ingratiate itself with the world. Its push toward establishing international norms was, for decades, a powerful influence on the world.
But we also see American power in its hard power – its enormous economic strength and influence, ability to coerce nations into embracing a globalized economic posture, and of course, its awesome military power.
Hard Power Examples
Hard power, defined in terms of being able to apply ‘carrots and sticks’ through intervention, aggression, sanctions, and threats in the military and economic arenas.
Examples of hard power can include:
- Military Intervention: A classic form of hard power is military intervention. Examples include the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, or Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The use of force to achieve a particular outcome can be very effective, but it can also be costly and often leads to widespread condemnation (Volten, 2016).
- Sanctions: Economic sanctions are another form of hard power that countries use to assert their will and to punish those who do not comply with international norms or laws. For example, the United States and European Union have imposed heavy sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program, causing huge economic difficulties for the country.
- Trade Tariffs: One of the strategies used by nations to protect their domestic industries and pressure other governments is the enforcement of trade tariffs. For instance, China and the U.S were involved in a trade war where both imposed heavy tariffs on imported goods, affecting the bilateral trade.
- Diplomatic Expulsion: Countries may also exert hard power by expelling foreign diplomats or cutting off diplomatic ties with another country as a way of expressing serious disapproval for its actions. This kind of political pressure can be seen, for example, in the case of several Western countries expelling Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the UK.
- Coercive Diplomacy: This is using threats or actual force as a diplomatic strategy to persuade adversaries to cease their politically adverse behaviors. A striking example of this was the United States’ threat of “fire and fury” against North Korea in 2017 if the latter didn’t stop its nuclear missile testing (Lemke, 2016).
Soft Power Examples
Soft power is defined by Joseph Nye as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments” (Nye, 2009, p. 2).
Nye (2011, 2021) emphasizes the importance of ‘attraction’ over ‘carrots and sticks’ in the soft power mode. Examples of soft power can include:
- Cultural Influence: Cultures that are influential or popular globally have a huge impact in soft power. American culture, from Hollywood movies to music, has a significant global influence, giving the US a significant amount of soft power. Similarly, South Korea has leveraged its cultural phenomena – K-Pop and K-Dramas – to increase its international influence.
- Diplomatic Relations and Negotiations: Engaging in diplomatic talks and maintaining good relations with multiple countries is also soft power. An example of this can be seen in Norway’s relationships in the international community, enabling them to mediate during international conflicts, for instance, between Israel and Palestine.
- Educational Exchanges: Countries like the United States and the United Kingdom attract international students from around the world, and these programs serve to spread their values and culture, influencing students who may go back to their home nations and spread these ideas further.
- Moral Authority: Countries that have a history of acting ethically in international dealings can have a form of soft power known as moral authority. For example, Sweden is often regarded as having considerable moral authority due to its commitment to humanitarian causes, conflict mediation, and adherence to international laws (Nye, 2009, 2011).
- Humanitarian Aid: Providing humanitarian aid in times of crises enhances a country’s positive image and trustworthiness in the global community, an example of soft power. Countries like Japan and Germany are known for their extensive humanitarian efforts globally.
Benefits and Limitations of Hard and Soft Power
A nation that has great hard power is formidable. It can get its own way through simply ‘pushing others around’.
But at the same time, we ideally would live in a world of cooperation, where powerful nations didn’t coerce less powerful nations, which would in turn lead to exacerbated global inequalities (Lemke, 2016).
So, the following are key benefits and limitations of hard power:
|Benefits of Hard Power||Limitations of Hard Power|
|1. Immediate Impact: Can provide quick results and direct outcomes in conflict and negotiation scenarios.||1. Strained Relations: Can create tension and foster animosity between nations or entities.|
|2. Clear Signals: Demonstrates clear and decisive action, potentially deterring adversaries (Volten, 2016).||2. Global Perception: Can damage a nation’s reputation and standing in the international community.|
|4. Getting your Way: Ensures compliance through demonstrable means of coercion.||3. Cost: Can be economically draining, requiring significant resources to maintain, and can even cost lives in war.|
|4. Maintaining Order: Can stabilize situations through the concept of ‘peace through strength’.||4. Global Inequality: A world without soft power would be hard-edged with a lot of coercion of the rich nations over the poor (Lemke, 2016).|
A nation with great soft power that can get its way without war or economic conflict may end up better off in the end. Their positive relations with their neighbors can engender goodwill and peace (Lebedeva, 2017).
But soft power is often unrealistic. It doesn’t get you far when money or land is on the line. When a nation really wants power, it will roll over soft power nations with its hard power.
So, the following are key benefits and limitations of soft power:
|Benefits of Soft Power||Limitations of Soft Power|
|1. Enhanced Image: Helps improve and maintain a country’s global image and reputation (Fan, 2008).||1. Time-Consuming: Results can be gradual and might take considerable time to become apparent (Qin, 2018).|
|2. Building Alliances: Encourages the development of alliances, friendships, and collaborations.||2. Ambiguous Results: Outcomes can sometimes be vague, indirect, or hard to measure.|
|3. Reduced Resentment: Often encounters lesser resentment and animosity compared to hard power.||3. Limited in Crisis: May be insufficient in addressing urgent crises or direct threats effectively.|
A Middle Ground: Smart Power
Nye had already proposed proposed that great nations exert both smart and hard power. Following this proposition. Suzanne Nossel (2009) proposed the term ‘smart power’ to explain this combination of hard power and soft power strategies.
Smart power is the ability to strategically use diplomacy, persuasion, capacity building, and the influence of business, political, and civil society actors in addition to economic coercion and military intervention (Volten, 2016; Wagner, 2014; Whiton, 2013).
This sort of nation appeals (soft power) when possible but includes compelling (hard power) when necessary (Volten, 2016; Whiton, 2013).
The idea of smart power acknowledges the fact that neither soft nor hard power alone is sufficient in maintaining a country’s national security or global influence – the optimal strategy often involves the right combination of both forms of power, hence ‘smarter’ power (Nossel. 2009).
Fan, Y. (2008). Soft power: Power of attraction or confusion?. Place branding and public diplomacy, 4(2), 147-158. (Source)
Lebedeva, M. M. (2017). Soft power: the concept and approaches. MGIMO Review of International Relations, 3 (54), 212-223.
Lemke, D. (2016). Dimensions of hard power: Regional leadership and material capabilities. In Regional leadership in the global system (pp. 31-50). Routledge.
Nossel, S. (2009). Smart Power. Foreign Affairs. No. March/April 2004
Nye, J. S. (1991). Bound To Lead: The Changing Nature Of American Power. Basic Books.
Nye, J. S. (2009). Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics. PublicAffairs.
Nye, J. S. (2011). The Future of Power. PublicAffairs.
Nye, J. S. (2021). Soft power: the evolution of a concept. Journal of Political Power, 14(1), 196-208. (Source)
Qin, Y. (2018). A Relational Theory of World Politics. Cambridge University Press.
Volten, P. (2016). Hard power versus Soft power or a balance between the two?. All Azimuth: A Journal of Foreign Policy and Peace, 5(2), 91-94. (Source)
Wagner, J. P. N. (2014). The effectiveness of soft & hard power in contemporary international relations. E-International Relations, 1-2. (Source)
Whiton, C. (2013). Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War. Potomac Books.
Yukaruc, U. (2017). A critical approach to soft power. Bitlis Eren University Journal of Social Sciences, 6(2), 491-502.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]