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Power: hard, soft and smart

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By Ikram Sehgal

Ikram-SehgalPower is nothing more than the ability to get others to do what you want. For doing that you require tools of coercion or payment, or ‘hard power’, and tools of attraction, or ‘soft power’.

Soft power is when a state, an organisation or even an individual exercises power with means other than violence and force, being able to convince or persuade others to follow your example, to want what you want, rather than coercing them. Persuasion, diplomacy, foreign aid, cultural influence (like movies and music) etc are some resources of soft power.

Hard power is about power politics, force, and violence. It refers to the military force of a country and is commonly associated in international relations with realism. Hard power is perhaps the oldest form of power. At present the only superpower left standing, the United States of America, frequently uses both hard and soft power to protect its interests and maintain its influence around the world.

A relatively new concept coined by Harvard intellectual Joseph Nye Jr, the term ‘smart power’ is increasingly being used to describe how any nation can wisely employ (and preserve) both hard and soft power in the world. Nye says ‘smart power’ should be separate from the ‘hard power’ embodied in military, economic and technological strength and should be separate from the ‘soft power’ embodied in (a nation’s) news transmission capacity, cultural influence and capacity to channel public opinion. This special sort of power results from the intertwining of soft power with hard power – the ‘third way’ in the complex jungle of power relations.

Soon after Hillary Clinton was appointed US secretary of state in the Obama administration, she moved to employ ‘smart power’ as the guiding force of US policies overseas, maintaining that foreign relations (and not military might) would be the centrepiece of American foreign policy in the future. China is using ‘smart power’ extensively to convey the idea of its ‘peaceful rise’ and thus head off a countervailing balance of power.

Smart power is not only a technique but also a kind of ability and capacity. A nation may have strength (hard power) and influence (soft power), but it must be able to apply these cleverly, and in ways that are mutually reinforcing so that the purpose is advanced effectively and efficiently. In essence this involves the strategic use of diplomacy, persuasion, capacity-building, and the projection of power and influence in ways that are not only cost-effective but have political and social legitimacy as well.

Writing in the Boston Globe in 2006, Nye said: “The current struggle is not a clash of Islam vs the West, but a civil war within Islam between a minority of terrorists and a larger mainstream of more moderate believers. America cannot win unless the mainstream wins, and needs to use hard power against the hard core like Al Qaeda because soft power will never attract them. But soft power is essential to attract the mainstream and dry up support for the extremists.

“By failing to be smart about how we combine our hard and soft power in the struggle against jihadist terrorism, we fall into the trap set by Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, who want to cast the conflict as a clash of civilizations. But Islamists, much less all Muslims, have a diversity of views. America needs to be wary of strategies that help its enemies by uniting disparate forces behind one banner.”

Today ‘psyops’ is the changed name for psywar. Psychological warfare (psywar) uses soft power – the power of attraction – as a weapon. It lures citizens into believing or doing things they would otherwise not do. It does so by changing the way they view themselves, each other and the world around them. Great states use it to gain territorial power by manipulating human perceptions; even to the extent of strategically promoting ethnic conflict and war. Used during peace time as well as emergency, the term psywar has been discarded to avoid the negative connotations of war.

Psyops’ objectives are: (1) conversionary – to change emotional allegiance to ideology; (2) divisive – to split the country into regional and sub-cultural entities; and (3) counter-propaganda – countries need to adopt scientific techniques to rebut enemy propaganda and also to keep in mind that only countering does not achieve results. Propaganda needs to be an offensive weapon and not a reactive one.

Soft power is integral to national power and must therefore be understood and applied strategically – within a holistic, comprehensive context. It’s not either/or, but both: ‘soft’ (persuasive) and ‘hard’ (coercive) power are complementary and synergistic – they are co-multipliers. Hard power is too expensive and risk-laden in a world in which the margins of error among decision cycles flattened by 24/7 information are too small. In the 21st century, hard power must support soft power more than the other way around. Thus, the civil-military relationship must reflect this practical reality as well as align with the moral imperatives of a democratic society.

The media is one of the most powerful tools for influencing national and international public opinion. Through round-the-clock coverage of worldwide events, we can also perhaps harness the power of our media potential. The strategist can make much more informed decisions by treating the media as a critical element of smart power. Governments have been using the media, especially the electronic media, to conduct diplomacy and wage information warfare. Non-state actors, too, have exploited the global media to stage events – and sometimes to pull off publicity stunts – to attract attention to their causes.

For long the media was the privileged forum of global diplomacy and opinion shaping. There is an evident shift from old media to new media as an effective platform of global diplomacy, communication and opinion shaping with the rapid emergence of web-based forms of journalism, information and propaganda. Online networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube challenge the traditional function of established media by diffusing media power towards individuals. These networked web platforms are powerfully effective tools for ‘digital activism’ by non-state actors, including individuals. They are also deployed by states to exert influence in the theatre of global diplomacy.

Even as the world turns increasingly to ‘smart power’, Pakistan lags behind. Other than our weak economy we are straitjacketed into a particular mindset, tending to look for short-term gains instead of long-term benefits. We have to learn from friends like China and their experience of using soft and smart power.

Hard power and soft power must be mutually reinforcing in ways that the actor’s purposes are advanced effectively and efficiently. Driven by the long-term structural changes in international conditions, advancing ‘smart power’ must become a national security imperative. Only through the adept use of ‘smart power’ can one overcome one’s opponents.

(Extracts from a lecture on ‘Non-kinetic warfare’ delivered at the National Defence University (NDU) Islamabad. Acknowledgement and gratitude to Joseph Nye, Jr, the ‘soft power guru’ and his writings on the subject)

The writer is a defence and political analyst. Email:


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