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Hard and Soft Power: Why You’re More Powerful Than You Think

Let me see your whole palace, or else! […] Or else we will be very, very angry with you. And we will write you a letter, telling you how angry we are.

Hans Blix to Kim Jong-il, Team America: World Police (2004)

Kim Jong-il was not impressed by Hans Blix’s threat. In the movie, the former United Nations weapons inspector ends up being fed to the sharks. No matter what letter the UN ended up sending off-screen, the scene is a great juxtaposition of two concepts famously coined by Joseph S. Nye: hard power and soft power.

Nye’s book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics is a much-discussed classic in international relations. His conceptualisation is popular to this day. Arguably because ‘power’ is such a notoriously malleable concept. Nye’s dichotomy is an attempt to break an abstract concept down into more tangible categories and characteristics.

Granted, the political scientist was concerned with the relationships between states. But that shouldn’t stop us from using his typology to gauge our personal influence in this world. What can hard and soft power do for us?

Hard Power

In common parlance, having power means to be in control, to be able to impose your will on someone. Hard power comes closest to this kind of ability. It’s the one most of us probably have in mind and would like to have. Hard power is all about deterrence and the interplay between enticement and coercion.

Hard Power in World Politics

In the international sphere, hard power can involve the very convincing deployment of forcible means such as leveraging one’s military or economy. Consequently, a state’s hard power can be measured by the strength of a nation’s armed forces, or the number of shark tanks if you will. The prowess of a country’s economy and financial system are other important criteria.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean going to war. While military intervention is the ultimate exercise of hard power, the mere ability to wield a credible threat can do the trick. The same goes for the imposition of tariffs or economic sanctions. Granting or denying access to a market would be another example. Broadly speaking, hard power is about the good old carrots and sticks, the ability to offer or withdraw incentives and issue credible threats.

As Nye points out, the upshot of hard power is its immediate and visible consequences. Whoever is at the receiving end usually doesn’t have too much of a choice. They are volunteered to give up territory, sign a treaty, or otherwise bend the knee. I think it’s that clear cause-and-effect relationship that makes hard power so tempting. But how does this apply to those of us who don’t command a standing army or preside over a national economy?

Everyday Hard Power

Analogous to the world stage, we might classify our personal economic, financial and physical strengths and abilities as a form of hard power. This extends to any tools and assets we have at our disposal. Any type of wealth or self-defence abilities come to mind.

Soft Power

I think it’s important to note that we pretty much all possess aspects of this kind of power. There are only 195 countries in the world. But I’d argue there are considerably more people in your wider social circle. Particularly over the course of your lifetime. This implies your personal hard power is much more relative than that of a nation.

Financially, we may provide or withdraw funds to and from someone, wield a credible threat when it comes to someone’s employment or exploits moral dependencies. Even the mere act of giving out or withholding information and knowledge could be seen as falling under hard power. The same applies to our physical attributes and abilities of course. While you may not stand a chance against a Mixed Martial Arts fighter in a bar brawl, you can easily overpower a toddler. In short, we can include any dependent relationships that allow for forced interactions.

So we all have hard power over someone. We have plenty of carrots and sticks that get us immediate, visible and tangible results. Perhaps just not at the level and over the people we have in mind. Regardless, there’s a solid case to be made for cultivating your hard power as an individual. Even if you only think of it as the ability to defend yourself should the need arise. Because it can also act as a deterrence, so the need never arises.

The Weak Spot of Hard Power

The benefits of hard power are obvious. It can solve problems fast and potentially pre-empt conflicts in the first place. However, it can create new ones equally quickly. When we look at hard power in isolation, it has some major weak spots:

  • Being a top-down approach, it’s not a good long-term solution. People don’t like being controlled. They love their autonomy, which is one reason why we have so much trouble saying ‘No’ without feeling guilty.
  • The more you control people the more they will find ways to evade or resist. With counterfeit obedience or by creatively breaking the rules you impose on them.
  • Hard power can give you a (false) sense of control, especially if your counterpart is smart, quick-witted and knows how to play the game from an inferior position.
  • Invariably, hard power comes with the temptation to be corrupted. The more hard power you acquire, the more susceptible you tend to be.

Overall, the potential price for imminent and visible short-term results are invisible and unintended negative long-term consequences.

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Soft Power

This type of power introduced in Nye’s eponymous book is probably less known. To the very least it entails aspects we wouldn’t normally associate with the term. Soft power hinges on persuasion, attraction and relationships.

Soft Power in World Politics

According to Nye, soft power is exerted in a much more subtle way. It entails a wide variety of non-coercive means. The art of diplomacy is among them. So is the level of trust and credibility of an actor in the international community. Obviously, it is much more likely that a state will be considered a reliable negotiating partner if past agreements were consistently honoured. This is why an administration’s track record and a country’s history can play into this type of power, too.

What may be less obvious is the significance and attractiveness of know-how and competence in science and engineering. Also, think about how a country’s entertainment sector impacts a nation’s influence in the world. American culture, for instance, with its music and movie industry, has enormous appeal. Through culture, the beliefs and values of American society are communicated. It’s Captain America and his genius, playboy, billionaire, philanthropist pal Tony who are featured in one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. Not Hauptmann Liechtenstein.

In sum, soft power is a passive and rather underestimated type of power. The impact of its means cannot easily be seen. As opposed to the hard stuff, their effect is not immediate and is difficult to evaluate. As Nye explains, there’s also no guarantee that soft power will yield results. Or did Avengers: Endgame have any measurable effect on Australian foreign policy decisions?

Everyday Soft Power

It’s fairly obvious. Individuals can attract, persuade and build personal relationships as a means of soft power, too. Expertise, know-how and competence are attractive features that build relationships and invite collaboration. How we conduct ourselves, the values we convey, our customs and traditions take the place of culture. The art of diplomacy, constructive disagreement, ability to debate and negotiate enable us to persuade and solve conflicts without coercion.

We could even argue that it’s easier for a private person to exert soft power. Our individual resources are limited. But being a single actor, our credibility is more reliant on the current and past versions of ourselves. Not the collective deeds and misdeeds of past administrations spanning over centuries and across party lines.

No doubt, the invisibility of impact is a concern. Though, there are prominent examples of an individual’s ability to take on a powerful regime with soft power alone: Václav Havel’s 1978 The Power of the Powerless comes to mind. In his essay, the former Czech dissident and statesman dissected the nature of the Soviet regime. Using Nye’s terminology, we could say that Havel encouraged people to cultivate their soft power by making the case for the importance of living a truthful life. The essay gave people hope and caused them to realise that they mattered.

So soft power is fairly accessible. It starts with learning how to think, read, write and otherwise communicate in the pursuit of a goal. It’s the opposite of forced interactions without reciprocity. That is not to say there aren’t downsides. It looks like the growth of soft power tends to be organic. It is cultivated slowly and exerted passively. Nye’s caveat also applies to us. Don’t expect immediate tangible results. If there are outcomes, they might not be directly attributable to a particular action you took. Also, trust and credibility are fragile commodities that can be destroyed in an instant.

The Sharp End of Soft Power

It is no surprise people tend to underestimate soft power. While it may not be perceived as power at all, it has a distinctly sharp end:

Soft Power
  • It”s the ability to attract and persuade, build relationships and collaborate in a way that people would deal with you again.
  • This is done by creating opportunities and things people love and find useful.
  • It’s the ability to define a problem, expose a situation, bring attention to a potential solution or attract supporters for your cause.
  • Instead of relying on carrots and sticks, you plant ideas in people’s heads, make them think, and help them solve problems without expecting something in return.
  • Since it requires competence, patience and consistent effort, it’s a sustainable long-term strategy for long-term goals.

Oddly enough, soft power can become the source of hard power, which you might be given sooner than you think.

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Balancing Hard and Soft Power

On the one hand, we have deterrence, coercion, carrots and sticks. On the other hand, we have relationships, persuasion and attraction. Clearly, both approaches have their merits. So the question is: How should you balance the acquisition and use of both? Well, here’s one way to think about it.

Hard and soft power are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Though, striving for both comes with trade-offs. While strength and the mere ability to coerce if needed can be attractive features, adopting too much of a threatening posture tends to be off-putting by design. Then there’s the possibility that mere competence is perceived as threatening; a phenomenon Australians have dubbed Tall Poppy Syndrome. Having limited resources also means we have to prioritise one over the other.

It all depends on your personal circumstances and goals. Since soft power is associated with long-term success, it seems reasonable to prioritise it. The better your relationships, the more you can attract and persuade, the less often you need to threaten or coerce. Wielding soft power also gives you options, including the ability to walk away from a toxic job or when you’re dealing with a cut-throat negotiator.

Talking someone out of punching you in the face is not always possible. But since using the means of coercion can cost you trust and credibility, hard power should only be wielded in exceptional circumstances. With minimum necessary force, guard yourself against coercion, while not creating more new problems than needed. In essence, the limiting principle to acquiring and using hard power could be the preservation of your ability to pursue your long-term goals.

I don’t think there’s virtue in avoiding or rejecting any type of power. On the contrary, ultimate virtue lies in having ultimate hard and soft power without being corrupted.

Closing Thoughts

YouTube video

Puppet Blix made a spectacular and deadly mistake. He tried to exert hard power with the means of soft power. Like threatening to stab someone with a feather and not being John Wick. It makes for an entertaining movie scene. The real Hans Blix, however, doesn’t underestimate his soft powers.

I still can’t get over the fact that he referenced his portrayal in Team America during a press conference. While having a giggle about his alter ego’s fate, Blix contends that writing a letter to the board was “not such an innocent thing”. In other words, soft power is a form of power, albeit an underestimated one.

You see, I’ve never met Nye, the screenwriters of Team America, or Hans Blix. I have a sneaking suspicion they don’t even know I exist. What I can do, though, is confirm that neither of them has coerced me into amplifying their work in this post. Now, what about you? Can you think critically? Can you write? Do you have a pen and paper at hand? Then you have more power than you think.

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