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Hard Power

Power is the measure of influence exerted by nations over other nations. Power falls on the spectrum from hard to soft power.

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Power is the measure of influence exerted by nations over other nations. Power falls on the spectrum from hard to soft power.

Hard power is “The ability to get others to act in ways that are contrary to their initial preferences and strategies”(1)

In simple terms, hard power is how nations express their influence through force. Force could be in the form of threats, economic sanctions, or military force.

Physical hard power is now less common. Conflicts are no longer two armies on a battlefield. There is a global difference in the military sizes to the overall power status of a nation. For example, the emerging powers of China and India have a high ranking in terms of military size but much less for measures of soft power. Furthermore, the ability to control other nations’ economies through economic sanctions is increasingly used.

Mackinder’s geo-strategic location theory determines changes in power status, amongst other development theories in geography. For more on these, see Development Theory Geography.

Examples of hard power

Here is a chain of recent hard power examples in the United States:

  • The UK and the United States imposed sanctions on Iran following news of its nuclear development program.

  • Donald Trump proposed sanctions on imports from China as a tactic to reduce Chinese influence on the domestic manufacturing industry. This included taxes on $500 billion worth of ‘Made in China’ goods and the rejection of Huawei Technologies, one of China’s largest mobile phone and tech companies.

  • However, according to Forbes magazine, Trump did not join the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal designed to exclude China. (2) The Trans-Pacific Partnership never came into effect.

  • Arguably, China is now the centre of global supply chains, thanks to the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership of 2020. Other nations could be held hostage if imports were blocked in geopolitical decision-making. This is an imaginary future hard power scenario.

Hard Power Global Leaders StudySmarterWorld leaders at Armistice Day 2018. Image: Titlutin on Wikemedia Commons, CC BY 4.0

Hard power in international relations over time

Traditionally, military strength, including naval forces, demonstrated the brute force of hard power on other nations. The Victorian British Empire nearly conquered the world with its impressive naval fleets.

But, look more closely… cultural identities were also passed onto the colonised countries. The Boston Tea Party, a protest in 1773 against British taxation policies in North America, marks the beginning of the revolution against the British Empire as a physical symbol of rejection of the English tea-drinking culture. The British Monarchy is still the honorary head of several countries. Superpowers may initially exert power from characteristic measures of dominance, but their presence requires varying levels of soft and hard power. See Development Theory Geography for discussion of other strategies.

Look at the development of emerging powers; do they follow similar patterns?

  • The United States has suffered from a loss of confidence in hard power following the well-publicised difficulties with the Vietnam War, Afghanistan withdrawal, and the continued war on terror.

  • China has followed the traditional route of first expanding military size to project hard power but is thought to be moving towards more soft power influences such as in the building of Africa under ‘China’s New Africa Policy’.

  • The future of superpowers will rely on smart power, which is a balance between soft and hard power.

Hard Power Boston Tea Party StudySmarterThe Boston Tea Party Image: Public domain

How do you measure hard power?

The Comprehensive National Power Index measures factors typical of hard power and measures other factors that are more linked to smart or soft power metrics. Likewise, the Index of National Power is swayed by hard power measures rather than soft power.

Comprehensive National Power IndexIndex of National Power
Hard power measuresThe number of resources and military and economic potentialAbility to compete in war
Soft power measuresScientific, educational and diplomatic potentialAbility to compete in business and sports

What are the 2021 rankings for the Index of National Power?

1. The United States

2. Japan

3. Germany

How successful is the use of hard power?

Hard power is risky, and failure has many consequences:

  • Active military is expensive to expand and maintain.
  • Increasing the number of nuclear arms is politically discouraged.
  • The Vietnam War and the Afghanistan withdrawal are conflicts that did not have the most favourable outcomes for the United States.
  • There has been a growing sense of disillusion following the Vietnam War: hard power is less attractive and less diplomatic. Nye (2009) worries about the United States’ reputation following its pursuit of the ‘war on terror’ (1).

Security is no longer the main issue in international relations. According to the democratic peace theory, state leaders fear losing re-election if they propose war and want to avoid general accountability on risky military decisions. Economic interdependence through international trade and international institutions enhances cooperation and binds states to almost alliance-like relationships, so war and military use are not in their mutual interest.

Hard Power - Key takeaways

  • Hard power is the method by which nations exert their power through force.

  • Hard and soft power exists along the same spectrum of competition and conflict to persuasion and attraction.

  • Traditional hard power is becoming less utilised as a method to exert dominance.

  • However, it is exerted by less obvious methods such as threats and economic sanctions instead.


Sources:

(1) Quotes from John Nye, 2011

(2) Pesek, https://www.forbes.com/sites/williampesek/2021/05/28/china-missing-trump-terribly-as-biden-hits-hard-power/

(3) World Leaders picture, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Armistice_Day_2018_-_World_leaders_(2).jpg

Frequently Asked Questions about Hard Power

Modern hard power can come in the form of threats, economic sanctions or military force.

Case studies on StudySmarter to illustrate each include: China Rivalry (threats), Conflict in Middle East (economic sanctions); Pakistan Nuclear Arms (military force).

Hard power is force in the form of:

  • Threats e.g. Trump did not join the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal designed to exclude China

  • Economic sanctions e.g. The UK and the United States imposed sanctions on Iran following news on its nuclear program development.

  • Military force: e.g. Pakistan vs India Nuclear Arms


Hard power is the method by which nations exert their power through force.

There are no specific hard power measures but the Comprehensive National Power Index and the Index of National power that measures some additional soft power measures are frequently cited.

Hegemony is the largest superpower. The United States is ranked as the top spot on the Index of National Power.

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