Hard Power and Soft Power: Time for a Bigger Umbrella

February 19, 2011

Yesterday I made the point that soft power is used to cover a range of different mechanisms of influence – I listed five but there are a lot more:  in the paper that I took the list from (Brown 2005) I also discuss ideas of rhetorical entrapment (Schimmelfennig 2001) , social influence (Johnston 2001)  and communicative action (Risse 2000)  but this still isn’t an exhaustive list – for instance Nye has at points mentioned Gramscian notions of hegemony (Nye 1990).

The result is that soft power can be seen as an umbrella for a range of mechanisms but the same is also true of hard power.  The distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ obscures three important points.

Firstly, it is extremely difficult to analytically sustain the hard power/soft power distinction.  Coercion depends on the manipulation of beliefs about the future and issues of credibility and reputation are central to this.  The ability to use military force is a function of a shifting political landscape that is shaped by questions of legitimacy and interest.  Even at a resource level having large armed forces in itself doesn’t do very much the issue is how others actually see them – and of course using them might actually reveal their fragility.

Secondly, much writing on soft power tends to concede the primacy of an under theorized ‘hard power’.  A more detailed engagement with coercive strategies raises serious questions of cost and effectiveness.  I’m not saying that they never work only that it’s a mistake to assume that ‘hard power’ is automatically effective.

Thirdly, I think that the soft/hard distinction obscures the centrality of bargaining, exchange and negotiation in international relations.  What these three ideas share is a mixture of cooperation and conflict.  While the parties want a deal they want it on the best terms.  They also may include a mixing of material and ideational elements.  You negotiate and reach a partial consensus (ideational) then trade concessions to reach a final deal.

While soft power is an umbrella term in that it covers a range of social mechanisms so is hard power.  Rather than maintaining the separation between them we would be better off merging the two to take account of the overlap between them.

In the next few days I’m going to expand on this question of how we should understand power and influence both within the field of public diplomacy studies but also how it should influence our understanding of public diplomacy practice.

Brown, R. (2005) ‘Information technology and the transformation of diplomacy’, Knowledge, Technology & Policy, 18: 14-29.

Johnston, A.I. (2001) ‘Treating International Institutions as Social Environments’, International Studies Quarterly, 45: 487-515.

Nye, J.S. (1990) Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. New York: Basic Books.

Risse, T. (2000) ‘”Let’s Argue!”: Communicative Action in World Politics’, International Organization, 54: 1-39.

Schimmelfennig, F. (2001) ‘The Community Trap: Liberal Norms, Rhetorical Action, and the Eastern Enlargement of the European Union’, International Organization, 55: 47-80.


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