Hard Power and Soft Power

The Utility of Military Force as an Instrument if Policy in the 21st Century

by Colin S. Gray

Number of pages: 70

Publisher: Strategic Studies Institute

BBB Library: Politics and Public Affairs

ISBN: 978-1257627240

About the Author

Colin S. Gray is Professor of International Politics and Strategic Studies at the University of Reading, England. He worked at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and at Hudson Institute (Croton-on-Hudson, NY) before founding the National Institute for Public Policy. Dr. Gray served for 5 years in the Reagan administration on the President’s General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament. He has served as an adviser to both the U.S. and British governments. His government work has included studies of nuclear strategy, arms control, maritime strategy, space strategy and the use of special forces.


Editorial Review

Soft power is much cheaper than the hard power of military force. All too often, military force seems to fail as an instrument of policy and, as a consequence, it invites the view that it is becoming obsolescent and even anachronistic. Dr. Colin Gray subjects hard and soft power to close critical scrutiny and finds that the latter is significantly misunderstood and, as a consequence, misassessed as a substitute for the threat or use of military force. Each kind of power has its limitations, but the obvious and familiar challenges characteristic of military force do not mean that therefore soft power should be our policy instrument of choice. The author warns against expecting too much of soft power.

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Wisdom to Share

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.

When functioning under the authority of law to advance or protect the political interests of a security community, the soldier can be said to threaten or execute force rather than violence. This distinction in language, and even in concept, is apt to be clearer in principle than it is in practice, particularly if one is on the receiving end.

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.

Military force has less utility as an instrument of policy in the 21st century than it did in times past, even recent times past. Hard military threat and use are more difficult to employ today, in part because of the relatively recent growth in popular respect for universal humanitarian values.

Times change—history is chronological, but it is not reliably linear. The political and other contexts for the use of force today do not offer authoritative guidance for the future. To know the 2000s is not necessarily to know the 2010s.

Military force is not a simple quality/quantity that can be thoughts of and treated as an elementary particle, irreducible in substance; it is complex and comes in packages of differing sizes and contents.

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.

Soft power is the ability to achieve influence by means other than military and economic.

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.

It is essential to recognize that soft power tends to work well when there’s scarcely 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.