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Hard Power and Soft Power: The Utility of Military Force as an Instrument of Policy in the 21st Century

Authored by Dr. Colin S. Gray. | April 2011

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Power is one of the more contestable concepts in political theory, but it is conventional and convenient to define it as “the ability to effect the outcomes you want and, if necessary, to change the behavior of others to make this happen.” (Joseph S. Nye, Jr.) In recent decades, scholars and commentators have chosen to distinguish between two kinds of power, “hard” and “soft.” The former, hard power, is achieved through military threat or use, and by means of economic menace or reward. The latter, soft power, is the ability to have influence by co-opting others to share some of one’s values and, as a consequence, to share some key elements on one’s agenda for international order and security. Whereas hard power obliges its addressees to consider their interests in terms mainly of calculable costs and benefits, principally the former, soft power works through the persuasive potency of ideas that foreigners find attractive. The nominal promise in this logic is obvious. Plainly, it is highly desirable if much of the world external to America wants, or can be brought to want, a great deal of what America happens to favor also. Coalitions of the genuinely willing have to be vastly superior to the alternatives.

Unfortunately, although the concept of American soft power is true gold in theory, in practice it is not so valuable. Ironically, the empirical truth behind the attractive concept is just sufficient to mislead policymakers and grand strategists. Not only do Americans want to believe that the soft power of their civilization and culture is truly potent, we are all but programmed by our enculturation to assume that the American story and its values do and should have what amounts to missionary merit that ought to be universal. American culture is so powerful a programmer that it can be difficult for Americans to empathize with, or even understand, the somewhat different values and their implications held deeply abroad. The idea is popular, even possibly authoritative, among Americans that ours is not just an “ordinary country,” but instead is a country both exceptionally blessed (by divine intent) and, as a consequence, exceptionally obliged to lead Mankind. When national exceptionalism is not merely a proposition, but is more akin to an iconic item of faith, it is difficult for usually balanced American minds to consider the potential of their soft power without rose-tinted spectacles. And the problem is that they are somewhat correct. American values, broadly speaking “the American way,” to hazard a large project in reductionism, are indeed attractive beyond America’s frontiers and have some utility for U.S. policy. But there are serious limitations to the worth of the concept of soft power, especially as it might be thought of as an instrument of policy. To date, the idea of soft power has not been subjected to a sufficiently critical forensic examination. In particular, the relation of the soft power of attraction and persuasion to the hard power of coercion urgently requires more rigorous examination than it has received thus far.

When considered closely, the subject of soft power and its implications for the hard power of military force reveals a number of plausible working propositions that have noteworthy meaning for U.S. policy and strategy.

  1. Hard military threat and use are more difficult to employ today than was the case in the past, in part because of the relatively recent growth in popular respect for universal humanitarian values. However, this greater difficulty does not mean that military force has lost its distinctive ability to secure some political decisions. The quality of justification required for the use of force has risen, which means that the policy domain for military relevance has diminished, but has by no means disappeared.
  2. The political and other contexts for the use of force today do not offer authoritative guidance for the future. History is not reliably linear. To know the 2000s is not necessarily to know the 2010s.
  3. The utility of military force is not a fixed metric value, either universally or for the United States. The utility of force varies with culture and circumstance, inter alia. It is not some free-floating objective calculable truth.
  4. For both good and for ill, ethical codes are adapted and applied under the pressure of more or less stressful circumstances, and tend to be significantly situational in practice. This is simply the way things are and have always been. What a state licenses or tolerates by way of military behavior effected in its name depends to a degree on how desperate and determined are its policymakers and strategists.
  5. War involves warfare, which means military force, which means violence that causes damage, injury, and death. Some of the debate on military force and its control fails to come to grips with the bloody reality, chaos, and friction that is in the very nature of warfare. Worthy and important efforts to limit conduct in warfare cannot avoid accepting the inherent nastiness of the subject. War may be necessary and it should be restrained in its conduct, but withal it is by definition illiberally violent behavior.
  6. By and large, soft power should not be thought of as an instrument of policy. America is what it is, and the ability of Washington to project its favored “narrative(s)” is heavily constrained. Cultural diplomacy and the like are hugely mortgaged by foreigners’ own assessments of their interests. And a notable dimension of culture is local, which means that efforts to project American ways risk fueling “blow-back.”
  7. Soft power cannot sensibly be regarded as a substantial alternative to hard military power. Familiarity with the concept alone encourages the fallacy that hard and soft power have roughly equivalent weight and utility. An illusion of broad policy choice is thus fostered, when in fact effective choices are severely constrained.
  8. An important inherent weakness of soft power as an instrument of policy is that it utterly depends upon the uncoerced choices of foreigners. Sometimes their preferences will be compatible with ours, but scarcely less often they will not be. Interests and cultures do differ.
  9. Soft power tends to be either so easy to exercise that it is probably in little need of a policy push, being essentially preexistent, or too difficult to achieve because local interests, or culture, or both, deny it political traction.
  10. Hard and soft power should be complementary, though often they are not entirely so. U.S. national style, reflecting the full array of American values as a hegemonic power, has been known to give some cultural and hence political offense abroad, even among objective allies and other friends. Whereas competent strategy enables hard military power to be all, or most of what it can be, soft power does not lend itself readily to strategic direction.
  11. Provided the different natures of hard and soft power are understood—the critical distinguishing factor being coercion versus attraction—it is appropriate to regard the two kinds of power as mutual enablers. However, theirs is an unequal relationship. The greater attractiveness of soft power is more than offset in political utility by its inherent unsuitability for policy direction and control.
  12. From all the factors above, it follows that military force will long remain an essential instrument of policy. That said, popular enthusiasm in Western societies for the placing of serious restraints on the use of force can threaten the policy utility of the military. The ill consequences of America’s much-manifested difficulty in thinking and behaving strategically are augmented perilously when unwarranted faith is placed upon soft power that inherently is resistant to strategic direction. Although it is highly appropriate to be skeptical of the policy utility of soft power, such skepticism must not be interpreted as implicit advice to threaten or resort to military force with scant reference to moral standards. Not only is it right in an absolute sense, it is also expedient to seek, seize, and hold the moral high ground. There can be significant strategic advantage in moral advantage—to risk sounding cynical. Finally, it is essential to recognize that soft power tends to work well when America scarcely has need of it, but the more challenging contexts for national security require the mailed fist, even if it is cushioned, but not concealed, by a glove of political and ethical restraint.