Types of Power in International Relations: Strengths & Weaknesses

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  • 0:03 Power and…
  • 0:56 Hard Power
  • 2:17 Soft Power
  • 4:14 Smart Power
  • 5:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How do nations interact to share or maintain power? In this lesson, we'll look at three kinds of power in international relations and see what each has looked like throughout history.

Power and International Relations

Power is always a tricky subject. What is too much power, and what is too little? How much power should a person or government hold? How does power define our relationships? These are difficult questions, and they become even harder when we advance to the international scale.

The first step is to ask a different question: What is power? Here's one possible answer: ''The ability to influence the behaviors of others to get a desired outcome.''

That definition came from Joseph Nye, Jr., an American political scientist born in 1937 who has defined many of our modern theories of power, and particularly power in international relations. So, how does power impact international relations? In Nye's model of international relations, power can be understood in three different forms, which will be the main focus of this lesson.

Hard Power

The goal of power is to influence others to do something. Hard power, according to Nye, sees coercion as the best way to get this done.

Countries that have foreign policies of hard power rely on their military or economic strength to basically force other nations to cooperate. As a result, nations with the best resources tend to be the strongest in a hard power system. They have more room for economic development and can impose their will over others via either a carrot or stick. Empires, for example, influence foreign policy by conquering another people and forcing them to contribute to the imperial economy. Modern nations that threaten military force, or attempt to out-compete each other in international markets, may be employing hard power tactics as well.

To be frank, proponents of hard power policies result in stuff getting done. There's no negotiation or compromise, and it's a simple matter of survival. Those who oppose hard power policies point out that it tends to cause destruction (in terms of both lives and resources) and builds up resentment. Nobody likes being pushed around, and international markets and relationships can become quickly destabilized. You really don't need to look any further than World War I to see the result of a world of competing hard power policies.

Soft Power

The next power is soft power. This term was actually coined by Joseph Nye, and it is the opposite of hard power.

Nye describes soft power as a policy based around negotiation and subtle influence. In short, hard power policies make other nations cooperate through coercion and aggression, while soft power policies try to gain cooperation through persuasion and example. In this system the concept of legitimacy is critical, as it is believed that in order to persuade people to voluntarily adopt a viewpoint, one must prove that it is worth adopting.

We've seen this before in American history. In fact, American democracy was founded as an ideal that was meant to inspire others to follow this example. The goal was not to conquer other nations and force them to become democratic, but rather to provide a model that inspired them to adopt this system on their own. Much later in the Cold War, the USA tried a similar tactic by sending capitalist products like nylons and Coca-Cola to developing nations. The message: Choose capitalism instead of communism...look at all the great stuff we have! That's different than a hard power response of toppling a communist regime and forcing the targeted country to adopt capitalism.

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