In political theory, hard power refers to the use of military and economic force to influence the actions and behaviors of other political entities.
It is contrasted to soft power, which refers to tools like diplomacy, cultural exchange, and foreign aid in order to exert influence.
While hard power is seen as an extremely powerful way of achieving geopolitical ends, it is also generally decried as overly interventionist, violation of rights, and even contravening established global norms.
Hard Power Definition
Hard power and soft power represent two fundamental strategies in international relations, with different mechanisms and impacts.
Soft power, a term coined by American political theorist Joseph Nye (1990; 2011; 2021), was defined by Nye as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments” (Nye, 2009, p. 2).
Nye regularly uses the term “attractiveness” when referring to soft power (Nye, 2009). In his view, the best way to achieve geopolitical ends is to convince others that your perspective is the most attractive, legitimate, and desirable of all perspectives.
With Nye having defined soft power, it was only natural that the opposite would also be defined – hard power.
Hard power, as the name suggests, is a more forceful approach involving military might and economic leverage – carrots and sticks (Qin, 2018; Wagner, 2014). It operates under the philosophy that might makes right, using coercive tactics like:
The use of hard power often indicates a power imbalance, as it tends to be exercised primarily by powerful entities against weaker ones, and often only after they were unable to use soft power to get their way. Soft power, after all, is much less costly, and therefore the preferred route. Nevertheless, when soft power fails, nations often turn to hard power to get their way.
Go Deeper: Hard Power vs Soft Power
Hard Power Examples
1. Coercive Diplomacy
Coercive diplomacy refers to the tactic of using threats or limited force to persuade an adversary to halt or undo an action. Typically, it involves verbal threats, shows of force, or small-scale military actions that underscore the risk of a larger confrontation if the adversary remains non-compliant. A famous example is the U.S. quarantine (a kind of naval blockade) of Cuba during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
2. Economic Sanctions
Economic sanctions represent a type of economic warfare aimed at depriving a target nation of resources or trade opportunities to force it to comply with the sanctioning nation’s political or policy objectives. It can involve trade embargoes, freezing of financial assets, and the withdrawal of foreign aid.
3. Military Action
This is the most explicit form of hard power. Military action uses a nation’s armed forces to dominate, damage or destroy an adversary’s military capabilities, or to seize control of their territory. Examples include the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States. Historically, this was the means by which the world was divided up, and was the ultimate form of power, because the strongest military wins all.
4. Military Alliances
A military alliance is an international agreement concerning national security, where the countries commit to support each other in case of a crisis. These alliances, such as NATO or the Warsaw Pact, can be seen as a form of hard power, because they serve to deter potential enemies by creating a military force that is greater than the sum of its parts.
5. Trade Embargoes
Trade embargoes are a type of economic sanction that prohibits trade with a target country. This can be damaging for economies that heavily rely on international trade. A notable example is the United States’ embargo against Cuba, which lasted for over five decades. We consider this to be hard power because it’s the use of coercive foreign policies designed to harm another country’s economy, even bringing it to its knees.
6. Financial Asset Freezing
This involves the freezing of a country’s assets that are held in foreign banks in order to cripple the country’s economy. This is often used as a means to deter countries from engaging in undesired activities. Famously, Iran’s financial assets were frozen by the United States for decades following the 1979 anti-democratic takeover and creation of the Islamic Republic. Similarly, following the invasion of Ukraine, Russia had many of its assets frozen by the international community.
7. Tariffs and Import/Export Controls
These measures influence trade relations by manipulating the prices and quantities of goods that can be imported or exported. Tariffs can be used to make foreign products more expensive and unappealing to domestic buyers, promoting domestic products. Import/Export controls can be directly limiting the amount of certain goods a country can buy or sell internationally. While this action can harm economic competitors, it often also causes harm to your own economy because the costs of tariffs end up being passed-on to consumers.
8. Suspension of Aid
This involves stopping of financial or humanitarian assistance to a target country. Countries that are heavily reliant on foreign aid can be significantly impacted by such moves. Oftentimes, aid from Europe, the United States, and the World Bank is contingent upon economic liberalization and political reforms. We saw this, for example, when the European Union made their post-2008 funding to Greece dependent on liberalization. Here, the threat of suspension of aid was enough to coerce Greece into changing their policies.
1. The Iraq War
Type: Military Action
In 2003, the United States, alongside its allies, initiated an invasive military action against Iraq, primarily based on the disputed grounds that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs).
This move can be viewed as a clear demonstration of hard power, as it involved the use of direct, tactical force to achieve political objectives.
Despite its clear demonstration of military might, the action received widespread international criticism. In particular, the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan declared it as illegal since it violated the UN charter.
2. U.S. Sanctions against Iran
Type: Economic Sanctions
In an attempt to pressure Iran to cease uranium enrichment activities, the U.S. government has imposed a series of stringent economic sanctions on Iran.
These measures, intensified since 2005, aimed to isolate Iran economically by cutting off its financial and business transactions with other countries.
They targeted not only the energy and financial sectors of Iran, but also industries such as shipping, airlines, and automotive. The sanctions significantly impacted the Iranian economy, leading to a fall in the value of the Iranian Rial and increases in inflation and unemployment.
While critics argued that the sanctions primarily hurt ordinary Iranians rather than the government, proponents argue they put necessary pressure on Iran to deter the country from developing nuclear weapons.
3. The Cuban Missile Crisis
Type: Coercive Diplomacy
In 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. President John F. Kennedy engaged in a famous act of coercive diplomacy. The Soviet Union, under Nikita Khrushchev, had installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, sparking a severe confrontation between the two superpowers.
In response, Kennedy ordered a naval “quarantine” (effectively, a blockade) of Cuba to prevent the Soviets from bringing in additional missiles, and demanded the removal of those already installed. This threatened the potential for escalated military action if the demands were not met.
Eventually, Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the missile sites in Cuba, demonstrating the effectiveness of Kennedy’s strategy of coercive diplomacy, thus wielded as a type of hard power.
Benefits and Limitations of Hard Power
Hard power holds numerous benefits especially for nations with strong military and economic resources.
A country successfully implementing hard power can bring about swift and direct change in line with its national and international objectives.
- Quick Results: Hard power can produce immediate outcomes when time is of the essence. For example, using economic sanctions or military force can quickly pressure a country to alter its actions.
- Deterrence: Hard power can act as a deterrent to potential adversaries. The exhibition of strength, through military might or economic impact, can deter other nations from engaging in aggressive behaviors against a country.
- Protection of National Interests: Hard power can be essential for protecting national sovereignty, maintaining territorial integrity, and enforcing a nation’s interests at the international level (Lemke, 2016; Qin, 2018)
Despite these benefits, there are significant drawbacks and limitations associated with the application of hard power.
- Breeds Resentment: The use of military action or sanctions can breed resentment among the targeted populations, creating an environment conducive to radicalization or revenge, which can lead to prolonged conflicts.
- Damages International Relationships: Over-reliance on hard power can lead to strained relationships with allies and other countries who may view such actions as oppressive or imperialistic.
- Humanitarian Costs: Particularly in the case of military action, the use of force often leads to death, displacement, and suffering among innocent civilians.
- Economic Costs: There are also economic costs to hard power. Engaging in war or imposing economic sanctions can have financial repercussions for the country enforcing them.
- Failure to Solve Root Problems: While hard power can sometimes stop immediate challenges, it often fails to address the root causes of conflict, and may even exacerbate them. (Lebedeva, 2017; Nye, 2009)
Smart Power: Beyond Hard vs Soft
‘Smart power’ is a term in international relations used to describe a strategic balance between hard and soft power approaches (Volten, 2016; Whiton, 2013).
Coined by Suzanne Nossel (2009) and popularized by Joseph Nye, it emphasizes the necessity of a strong military, but also invests heavily in alliances, partnerships, and institutions at all levels to expand one’s influence and establish legitimacy.
This approach prioritizes diplomacy, economic investment, and cultural exchange as effective means to project influence, but integrates the use of coercion and force when necessary.
One notable example of smart power can be seen in the U.S foreign policy approach towards China.
The U.S. attempts to use a mix of hard and soft power in dealing with China’s rising influence. On the one hand, it uses hard power by strengthening its military presence in Asia-Pacific and by implementing tariffs and trade restrictions. This is also reflected in the tough stance taken on issues like South China Sea disputes and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
On the other hand, it employs soft power through strong cultural and educational ties, with a large number of Chinese students studying in U.S. colleges. Also, the U.S. diplomatic efforts to bring China into international institutions like World Trade Organization (WTO) and World Health Organization (WHO), and engagement on global issues like climate change, reflect the elements of soft power.
Together, these strategies represent an integration of soft and hard power, embodying the concept of smart power (Whiton, 2013).
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. (January 28, 2009). “Smart Power”. Foreign Affairs. No. March/April 2004
Nye, J. S. (1990). Soft power. Foreign policy, (80), 153-171.
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.
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.
Wagner, J. P. N. (2014). The effectiveness of soft & hard power in contemporary international relations. E-International Relations, 1-2.
Whiton, C. (2013). Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War. Potomac Books.
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]