Hard Power in an Age of Soft Power

In Hard Power and Soft Power: The Utility of Military Force as an Instrument of Policy in the 21st Century, Professor Colin S. Gray has written what is perhaps one of the most thoughtful contrasts between the virtues of hard power (read “military force”) and soft power written since Joseph Nye fully outlined the concept of Soft Power nearly two decades ago.

Gray is cynical not so much of Nye’s original proposition, but of the growing buzz around soft power as some form of alternative to armed force. Some of Gray’s major points resonate, and suggest that thinking about soft power in Washington and elsewhere is a little “soft.” Specifically, Gray notes that hard power and soft power are not substitutable for each other, and and that military force is not an anachronism.

At the same time, Professor Gray is no mindless advocate of military power, he openly acknowledges the limits of military power. Even better, he tosses a wide critique at military faddists with a quote I am going to have bronzed. “When adopted uncritically and without noticeably perceptive situational awareness, nearly every idea in the strategist’s conceptual arsenal can be dangerous.”

This is a superb work by a strategist of the first order, and it belongs as a companion volume to Nye’s writings or any discussion of strategic communications.

I have a few quibbles, because I feel that Gray overstates at least two of his conclusions, and misses one point that would fit well in his analysis. First, he suggests that strategic competency is less relevant for soft power. I disagree. I would argue that because the western democracies have never generated the means, doctrines, or methodologies to translate grand strategy into the employment of soft power, we are unable to wield such power in a strategic manner. Nye, in identifying strategic power as an axis, has given us a useful starting point, but we have yet to develop the concepts that would allow us to make “strategic communications” truly strategic.

Second, Gray argues that soft power merely “co-opts the readily co-optable.” I respond that soft power operates on longer timelines than most operational art is prepared to consider. Soft power, unlike an air strike, must be built over time, its targets selected, and action taken sometimes years in advance of the actual start of kinetic operations.

Finally, Gray overlooks the soft power aspects of hard power. Respect for the military capabilities of a nation from other nations are a large – and sometimes significant – contributor to a nation’s soft power. Indeed, it was probably the belief in the prowess of the Red Army and its weaponry more than its ideology that contributed to the influence of the Soviet Union in the three decades after the end of World War II.

But these issues do not detract from the book’s core value in the debate over the changing nature of power in the 21st century. This thin volume belongs on every strategist’s bookshelf.

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