Difference Between Hard Power and Soft Power

Hard Power vs Soft Power

Difference between Hard Power and Soft Power is, as the name implies, in the form of power that a country uses in dealing with other nations. The terms Hard Power and Soft Power represent two important concepts in the field of International Relations, more specifically, in the political relations between states. We are all well acquainted with the term ‘Power‘ and identify it as the ability to influence or control the behaviour and/or actions of another. Hard Power and Soft Power are two types of foreign policy tools that states utilize in their relations with other countries. Perhaps a basic idea is necessary at this point. Hard Power literally connotes something hard or strong, something with great force, such as military or economic power. Soft Power, in contrast, is more mild and subtle. Let’s discuss them in more detail before going into the difference between the two concepts; namely, Hard Power and Soft Power.

What is Hard Power?

The term Hard Power is defined as a coercive approach to international political relations, one that involves the use of military and economic power to influence or control the behaviour or interests of other states or political groups. Thus, states with a strong military and economic capacity will generally wield their influence on states that are not so powerful in such capacities. Joseph Nye describes this term as “the ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will.”1 This means that stronger countries will exert influence on weaker states through the reduction of trade barriers, offering military security or any other beneficial offers (“carrots”). Likewise, they may also influence such countries through the use of threats such as imposing economic sanctions, trade restrictions, military intervention and use of force (“sticks”).

The resounding theme of Hard Power is coercion. Therefore, the objective behind nations applying Hard Power is to coerce other states into doing their will. Generally, a country is recognized as a great power due to its size, capacity and quality of resources. This includes its population, natural resources, territory, military strength, and economic power. A nation’s Hard Power is reflected on its ability to use its abundant pool of resources. There are many examples of Hard Power in practice. The invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 by the Soviet Union or the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the United States and allied forces are classic examples of states applying Hard Power to achieve their outcomes. Further, trade embargos imposed on countries such as Iran, Cuba and Iraq in the 20th century by the United States represents an example of a state applying its economic power to achieve certain goals. Thus, in simple terms, Hard Power is a foreign policy tool used by nations. States can apply Hard Power through military means such as coercive diplomacy, military interventions, threats or use of force, or through economic means such as economic sanctions, reduction of trade barriers, and others.

Difference Between Hard Power and Soft Power

Iraq invasion 2003

What is Soft Power?

Soft Power is a term that was introduced by Joseph Nye. As mentioned before, it represents a more subtle form of power. It is defined as a persuasive approach to international political relations, involving the use of a nation’s cultural, historical and diplomatic influence. Nye explains it as a form of power that has the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, use force, or provide payment as a means of persuasion.2 Unlike Hard Power, Soft Power is not based on the idea of force or coercion. In simple terms, Soft Power is the ability of a state to indirectly convince others to desire its goals and vision. States and non-state actors such as international organizations use Soft Power to present their preferences and, in turn, transform the preferences of others to match their preferences. Nye further explains that a nation’s Soft Power is based on the use of three resources, namely, “its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (where others see them as legitimate and having moral authority).”3

Today, there are surveys that determine and rank countries that effectively apply Soft Power. For example, the Monocle Soft Power Survey in 2014 recognized the United States as the most effective country to apply Soft Power in its foreign policy. Germany follows in second place. Countries such as the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, Switzerland, Australia, and even France constitute some of the top ten countries that effectively use Soft Power as a foreign policy tool in international relations.

Hard Power vs Soft Power

US is the country that applies soft power most effectively

What is the difference between Hard Power and Soft Power?

The distinction between Hard Power and Soft Power is thus easily identifiable. While both represent important concepts in international relations and constitute two forms of power exercised by states, they differ in their nature and function.

• Definition of Hard Power and Soft Power:

• Hard Power represents a coercive approach to international relations and employs the use of military or economic power to achieve certain outcomes. The underlying theme of Hard Power is coercion and states use such power to influence weaker states to comply with their will.

• Soft Power, in contrast, represents a subtle, persuasive approach to international relations between states. States utilize Soft Power to “attract and co-opt” other states to desire what they desire. It has the ability to influence the preferences and interests of other states. This persuasive approach is applied through cultural, historical and/or diplomatic means.

• Concept of hard Power and Soft Power

• In Hard Power the theme is coercion; use force, or provide payment as a means of persuasion.

• In Soft Power, it is attracting and co-opting; indirectly convincing.

• Examples of Hard Power and Soft Power:

• Hard Power include military intervention or protection, economic sanctions, or reduction of trade barriers.

• Soft Power include cultural, historical, and diplomatic influence.



  1. Nye, Joseph. (2003, January 10). Propaganda Isn’t the Way: Soft Power. International Herald Tribune. Retrieved from http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/1240/propaganda_isnt_the_way.html
  2. Nye, Joseph S. (2004). Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York, N.Y.: Public Affairs. ISBN: 9781586482251.
  3. Nye, Joseph S. (2011). The Future of Power. New York, N.Y.: Public Affairs. p. 84. ISBN: 9781586488925.


Images Courtesy:

  1. Iraq invasion 2003 via Wikicommons (Public Domain)
  2. American Flag by  Lindsay Shaver (CC BY 2.0)