In a popular 2017 Vox video titled “It’s time to draw borders on the Arctic Ocean,” video-journalist Johnny Harris visited a Russian settlement on the most-northern habited island in the world, the Svalbard Islands. Throughout the video, he visits with locals and explains the growing infrastructure that Russia is building and refurbishing in the Arctic region. He gives examples of both hard and soft power however, what exactly are these two ideas and what makes them important today?
- Both hard and soft power were used to contain the spread of communism throughout the world.
- Hard power is aggressive and can lead to more aggressive counteraction. Soft power is less aggressive, usually projected under “good faith” or even by non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
- Hard and soft power must both be used to create a global environment that is conducive to U.S. national interests and helps create and maintain global peace.
Hard and Soft Power in the Cold War
The Cold War was characterized by examples of “Hard Power” which included military action (such as the Korean and Vietnam Wars), treaties and pacts (NATO, Warsaw Pact), and clandestine operations (actions in Latin America).
These give visible examples of hard power. Hard power is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “the use of military force to persuade other nations”. While there was no direct war between the Soviet Union and the United States, there were still several examples of hard power: military buildup around the world and an arms race.
This brings us to soft power, an idea coined by Joseph Nye stating, “obtaining preferred outcomes by attraction rather than just coercion…”. An early example of soft power was the Marshall Plan (aka European Recovery Plan) stemming from the destruction across Europe and the need to contain communism after the Soviet-American split.
West European countries were offered economic aid from the United States and this would in turn ensure they were more likely to align to American interests instead of slipping towards communism. The implementation of this plan has been credited as the start of the Cold War.
Power in Today’s Political Environment
Both types of power were used to contain the spread of communism throughout the world, regardless of their final outcomes. We can use these situations to gain an understanding of how countries can influence others to get what they want; better political positions, power through a region, or protection of national interests.
Hard power by its nature is aggressive and can lead to more aggressive counteraction. Soft power is less aggressive, usually projected under “good faith” or even by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). However, these concepts still have relevance in today’s political environment.
Going back to the video from earlier, we can see that the Russians have been building a greater presence in the Arctic. This includes the re-opening of military bases and building more military infrastructure in the Arctic region, a projection of their hard power. Included in this are efforts to use soft power, such as building a mining village to have some sort of claim to the region.
This has not gone unnoticed by the United States military. The United States Marine Corps, in response to the growing Russian presence, has beefed up their own presence in the Arctic as well. Partnering up with our ally Norway, the Marine Corps has had rotational deployments in order to train in cold weather and to have overall influence in the region even with the current COVID-19 pandemic still affecting everyone around the world. This example shows that a country’s initial power move will be countered more than likely with another hard power move.
Hard and soft power is not limited to just the United States and Russia, another growing (and possibly greater) threat stems from China. Under a heavily criticized program called the “Belt and Road Initiative,” China has invested or planned to invest billions and possibly trillions of dollars in loans to other countries to build infrastructure in an effort to project soft power (though many suggest these are “debt-traps” used to give nations loans they cannot pay back in order to have bargaining tools later on).
Militarily, China has been building up military bases in order to solidify claims to the South China Sea, which logically has forced an American hard power response of bolstering military presence in that area as well.
Why it matters
Through all this one thing is certain, hard and soft power must both be used to create a global environment that is conducive to our national interests and helps create and maintain global peace. Though the current pandemic has limited us here, there will be opportunities to grow and create more partnerships so we can project our national interest. It is up to our leaders in Washington to act on this so we can maintain relevance in our current global political environment.
As a side note, linked here is the government’s foreign assistance breakdown by year, country, money spent, and more showing one example of soft power projected by the United States.
Kristopher Hernandez is a native of West Texas. He spent four years serving in the United States Marine Corps and graduated from Campbell University, earning his BS in Political Science and History. In his free time, Kris likes to play golf, workout, and travel with his rescued pup Otto von Bismark.