In politics, hard power is the use of military and economic means to influence the behaviour or interests of other political bodies. This form of political power is often aggressive (coercion), and is most immediately effective when imposed by one political body upon another of lesser military and/or economic power. Hard power contrasts with soft power, which comes from diplomacy, culture and history. Soft power can be wielded not just by states but also by all actors in international politics, such as NGOs or international institutions. A country’s soft power, according to Joseph Nye, rests on three resources: “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 (when others see them as legitimate and having moral authority).” Soft power is hampered when policies, culture, or values repel others instead of attracting them and consequently, enforces use of hard power in its place, which mostly and erroneously seems a quick fix. According to an authentic Global Soft Power 2021 Survey (Monocle’s), the top ten countries exercising soft powers are Germany, Japan, United Kingdom, Canada, Switzerland, United States, France, China, Sweden, and Australia. However, some other international surveys do not include the USA in their list due to excessive use of hard power of military muscles.
According to Nye, hard power involves “the ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will”. Here, “carrots” stand for inducements such as the reduction of trade barriers, the offer of an alliance or the promise of military protection. On the other hand, “sticks” represent threats—including the use of coercive diplomacy, the threat of military intervention, or the implementation of economic sanctions. The use of hard power is often tedious. Insurgencies and more aptly stiff resistance against the external force can be prominent. The United States has demonstrated a ‘hard power’ policy with regards to the Iraq war, the Syrian war/ISIL, the Afghanistan war and its continued war on the Taliban, Libya, Syria, North Korea, Iran and even Pakistan.
It is well acknowledged that on its way to becoming a leading global power, the USA mostly relied on use of soft power i.e. relying on the power of example rather than the example of power. Earlier in January 2020, I had written in an article titled “Hammer Versus Nailhead USA Policy”; if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem appears to be a nail head. A close examination of the American use of military muscles abroad since the Second World War effectively proves that dictum. According to a Congressional Research Service estimate, the United States has employed hard power/military force over 200 times since the end of the Cold War. Many of these operations have taken place in or around the Middle East, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. But other, less frequently recalled interventions have occurred elsewhere, as in Bosnia, Colombia, Haiti, Kosovo, Liberia, and the Philippines. What’s more, the tendency to intervene is not simply the product of the United States’ emergence as an unbridled superpower after the Cold War. Between 1948 and 1991, during a time of supposedly stabilising bipolar competition, the United States sent its military to fight abroad more than 50 times. American military action is not, as many believe, a feature of post-Cold War overstretch; it has been a central element of the United States’ approach to the world for decades e.g. Korea, Vietnam and wars in Middle East countries.
Notwithstanding the real or imagined conspiracy theories with regards to congressmen in the US supporting American wars abroad to sustain the defence industrial complex in their respective constituencies, wars benefit elites associated with the war economy; the vainness of use of hard power stands exposed badly today. The ultimate rationale most commonly offered for getting out of the intrusion business relates to its costs, both direct ones—the lives lost and damaged, the dollars borrowed and spent—and opportunity costs. As the casualties and financial costs of the United States’ Middle Eastern wars have mounted, Americans’ appetite for new interventions and their commitment to existing ones has understandably diminished. The costs of these wars have been extraordinary: at a rally in Ohio in April 2018, Trump estimated them at $7 trillion over 17 years and concluded that the country has nothing to show for the effort “except death and destruction.” Although the precise financial cost depends on how one counts, what is certain is that more than 4,500 US military personnel have been killed in Iraq and nearly 2,500 in Afghanistan, plus tens of thousands injured in both wars—to say nothing of the casualties among allied forces, military contractors, and local civilians. Critics of these resource-intensive operations blame them for bogging down the United States in a region of second-tier importance and distracting Washington from the greater threats of China and Russia, as well as from pressing domestic issues. And above all, American reliance on NATO allies is less certain than before for the same human and economic cost; besides other more complicated foreign and economic policy objectives of each ally.
As US President Joe Biden seeks to resurrect American leadership on the world stage, the recurrent question of how the United States should respond to international crises looms large. It is encouraging to hear sane voices from within the US now supporting my broad views on the subject. In his latest book, political scientist John Mueller offers a refreshingly straightforward answer: Washington should aim not for transformation but for “complacency,” which he characterised as “minimally effortful national strategy in the security realm.” Mueller’s case rests on two claims. The first is that war is in decline; not only do wars occur less frequently, but the idea of major wars has effectively gone out of style. The second is that the US foreign policy establishment is prone to panic and often blows potential threats out of proportion, thereby justifying military interventions that frequently prove counterproductive. Almost everyone—including restrainers—would agree that the preservation of American democracy should be a lodestar of any US foreign policy. Hence, one can conclude that for the time being, at least, the United States should shrink its military and resist the temptation to put a finger in every foreign policy pie. Washington should do so because the current state of US domestic politics demands that the country turn its attention inward if it is to do itself or anyone else any good. In the near future, it may just be more practical for the USA policymakers that instead of settling into wishful thinking, they should accept that the use of military force will remain an essential tool of US strategy, maybe as a last resort with stricter congressional oversight and approval. That, in turn, requires applying the right lessons from recent decades with respect to the outcome of all interventions, cost versus benefits and above all the limits of Hard Power or kinetic military operations as continuation of state policy.
The main reasons for excessive use of hard power and its pitfalls have been discussed in detail in my pieces, “Lessons from Afghanistan Conundrum”, “Pentagon’s Foolish Friends” and “USA Needs to Revisit Newton’s Third Law”. I had opined that Washington and its allies had come to realise (or at least they should have) that an open-ended war on terrorism is futile and that a successful counterterrorism policy must address the legitimate political grievances that al Qaeda claims to champion—for example, US support for dictatorships in the Middle East. The past two decades and the forced US exit from Afghanistan and the unavoidable departure from Iraq, Syria, Libya and some other places due to unbearable human, economic and political cost, however, have made clear just how shortsighted and counterproductive the use of excessive military power as a leading component of the foreign policy was. Going by what has already been accomplished so far by the hardline US establishment; Iran seems on the anvil now as well as a successful Turkey being a new thorn in the eyes of the West despite being a NATO member. Nevertheless, Pakistan with nuclear deterrence in place and with war-hardened military forces, cannot afford to blink under any complacency as all evil designs remain focused on the denuclearisation of Pakistan. Luckily, the remarkable rise of China and resurgent Russia with prospective as well as existing regional economic, diplomatic and military alliances like CSTO and SCO, besides a long list of BRI countries are around now to make the targeted countries stand together lest they get targeted and fall one by one.
Saleem Qamar Butt
The writer is a retired senior army officer with experience in international relations, military diplomacy and analysis of geo-political and strategic security issues.