Hard Power

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Hard Power describes a nation or political body's ability to use economic incentives or military strength to influence other actors’ behaviours[1]. In this way it is the ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will[2].

Hard Power strategies include a wide range of measures geared toward coercing or threatening others into compliance. However, it has been argued that shows of Hard Power are much more commonly geared towards military strength rather than providing economic incentives, overemphasising military intervention, economic sanctions and coercive diplomacy[3]

Manifestations of Hard Power include:

  • Economic sanctions
  • Trade embargos
  • Physical military intervention
  • The actual threat of military or economic force[1]

Commentators have argued that to avoid questions of legitimacy and authority, Hard Power needs to be interlaced with the skillful use of diplomacy; a more nuanced approach in order to legitimate the use of power. This collaborative approach is called Smart Power and involves a mix of Hard Power and Soft Power; the ability to attract, persuade or co-opt others[4].

Problems with Hard Power

Legitimacy and Credibility

Hard Power strategies that fail to take into account public opinion and the reaction of the international community may have serious consequences. If an organisation is exercising Hard Power initiatives of publicly questionable legitimacy, their credibility both at home and abroad may begin to deteriorate. If this happens enough, attitudes of mistrust and resentment towards them tend to grow as the likelihood that others will cooperation diminishes, making it even more difficult for the organisation to achieve its objectives [5].

In this vein, some authors note the crisis in legitimacy that American Hard Power has seen in recent years. The consequences of American use of Hard Power during the 1990-1991 Gulf War provide an unfortunate example. Survey data reveals growing anti-Americanism and disillusionment with United States foreign policy among the international community, with a shift in public opinion condemning its exercise of Hard Power in following conflicts in the Middle East. This mobilisation of opinion has severely reduced the United States' capacity to achieve its foreign policy objectives on a variety of fronts[6].

Examples of Hard Power

Military Intervention

One of the most obvious and visible exercises of Hard Power is the use of physical military intervention to achieve an organisation's goals. The 21st century is littered with examples, including: the 1900 invasion of China by the 8 Country Alliance in order to quell the Boxer Rebellion; the 1939 invasion of Poland by Germany that triggered the second World War; the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, an attempt to prop up Afghanistan’s Marxist government; the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the U.S. over concerns about Iraq’s weapons capabilities[1]

Economic Sanctions

Military force is not the only weapon in a political body's arsenal; the exercise of economic pressure can be used to achieve similar ends. United States trade embargos on countries like Cuba, Iran, and Iraq in the latter half of the 20th century provide prime examples. The 1995 Iran Sanctions Act, for instance, was implemented in response to Iran’s nuclear program and its alleged funding of organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The sanctions were designed to limit investment in Iran’s oil fields and infrastructure. Thus, by impeding the development of a key sector of Iran’s economy, petroleum, the United States hoped to discourage Iran from engaging in any further undesirable activity[7].

Coercive Diplomacy

In some cases, just the threat of military action or economic sanctions can be as useful as the real thing. This strategy, often called Coercive Diplomacy, involves an organisation reinforcing its demands to an opposing force with a threat of punishment for non-compliance that is seen as credible and potent enough to make compliance inevitable. Whether the threat of military or economic sanctions is implicit or overt, it still serves to compel others to change their behaviour[8].

Illustrations of coercive diplomacy in action can be seen in Kosovo in 1998 and between China and the United States in the early 1990’s. The President of Kosovo's consent to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1199 in the Milosevic-Holbrooke agreement was influenced, according to some, by the threat of an air campaign in Kosovo by the North Atlantic Treaty Agreement (NATO)[1]. Similarly, the Memorandums of Understanding between the U.S. and China in the early 1990’s regarding IP rights were produced only after each simultaneously threatened trade sanctions[9].



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Public Diplomacy Wikia, Hard Power, Public Diplomacy Wikia website, accessed 24 March 2015
  2. Joseph Nye (2004), "Smart Power in the Global Information Age: From Realism to Globalization. London, New York: Routledge
  3. Ernest Wilson (2008), "Hard Power, Soft Power, Smart Power." The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, March 2008, pp.110-124, Sage Publications: Los Angeles
  4. Joseph Nye (2011), "The Future of Power", New York: PublicAffairs, p.84
  5. Joseph Nye (2004), The Decline of America's Soft Power, Foreign Affairs website, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2004, accessed 24 March 2014
  6. Pew Research Centre (2007),Global Unease with Major World Power Pewglobal website, 27 June 2007, accessed 24 March 2015
  7. Kenneth Katzman (2007), The Iran Sanctions Act (ISA), CRS Report for Congress, 12 October 2007. Federation of American Scientists website, accessed 24 March 2015
  8. Alexander George (2004), 'Coercive Diplomacy' in Robert Art and Kenneth Waltz (eds) "The Use of Force: Military Power and International Politics". U.S.A.: Roman & Littlefield, Inc.
  9. Charles Baum (2001),Trade Sanctions and the Rule of Law: Lessons From China, Stanford University website, accessed 24 March 2015. Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs 1, February/March, pp.46-72