Hard Power, Soft Power, and the Arab Spring

Soft power defeating hard power? Egyptian protesters sleep in the tracks of tanks in Tahrir Square.

The extraordinary developments of the “Arab Spring” (which are still ongoing in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere) illustrate the promise–and the limits–of “hard power” versus “soft power” in today’s world. Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power,” examines the sources and uses of different types of power in his book Soft Power: the Means to Success in World Politics.  This book remains an indispensable read for students of world politics.

Nye (and many other scholars) define power as the ability to influence other actors’ behavior in order to get the outcomes you want.  Hard power includes the use of both negative instruments (e.g., military force, threats of violence, economic sanctions) and positive inducements/bribes (e.g., development aid, the offer of an alliance) in order to get others to do what you want them to do.  You are basically taking an actor who doesn’t want to take “action X” and changing their calculations through external rewards or punishments so that they decide to do X.   Soft power involves influencing others through your attractive culture, values, or policies so that they actually want to be more like you or conform to the principles you espouse, and they therefore take action X of their own accord.

The developments of the Arab Spring, which began in early 2011, offer numerous examples of both hard and soft power in action.  Government crackdowns on protesters and rebels in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere are a classic use of hard, coercive power to affect the calculations of the anti-regime actors.  And (implicit or explicit) threats of violence by these anti-regime elements also represent attempts to employ hard power against intransigent regimes.  Such tactics do affect governments’ calculations and helped to produce the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.  NATO air strikes on behalf of Libya’s rebels is another clear example of hard power.  But the pro-democracy movements that have emerged in the Arab world were not bribed or coerced by external actors to take action–they are largely motivated by their attraction to democracy and human rights.  This is why many Western analysts have concluded that while hard power can overthrow governments (e.g., Iraq and Afghanistan), the best means for promoting democracy long-term is the soft power of Western ideals, culture, and rhetoric.  Real change, they contend, must come from within and cannot be imposed by hard power.

What do you think?  Can hard power be used effectively for democracy promotion?  What other examples of hard and soft power in the Arab Spring can you identify?

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One response to “Hard Power, Soft Power, and the Arab Spring

  1. Pingback: The Lack of Women in Foreign Policy Circles: Causes and Consequences | World Politics News Review

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