Foreign policy will be the focus when Romney and Obama square off in their third debate on October 22. We will undoubtedly hear a good deal about American power, whether we have enough, use it wisely, or are losing it to China. And it is highly likely we’ll hear about hard power and soft power. As you read commentaries on foreign policy and world politics, and listen to everyday conversations, you’ll begin to sense that there seems to be two quite different meanings of the seemingly simple idea of power. Getting power right is not just important for the sake of clarity and precision in analysis but it has immense practical implications. You are much more likely to wield power effectively if you understand how it works. That is as true in everyday life as it is on the world stage.
Sometimes we talk as if power were like money in the bank. And sometimes we recognize that the most useful meaning of power is the ability to get somebody to do something they would not have done otherwise. (In Political Science jargon the someone who is trying to change behavior is often labeled the initiator and the party who is on the receiving end is the target.)
“Power comes from the barrel of a gun.” (Mao Tse Tung)
But I guess Gandhi didn’t get Mao’s memo. And ousting Imperial England from India was a much bigger accomplishment than ousting the corrupt and incompetent Chung Kai Shek regime.
“The United States is the most powerful country in the world.”
But if “most powerful” means the U.S. will always dominate, I can think of a whole raft of folks who didn’t get this memo, from Fidel Castro, to the government of Iraq, to the Canadians.
If you watch people or countries interacting, an important question is who is going to get what they want. (Who is going to get someone to do something they wouldn’t do otherwise.) Just looking at the resources each side has isn’t very helpful for three reasons.
1) Not all of your resources are available to be used in a given situation.
Close your eyes and imagine something that – or so it seems -- would make you really happy. Might be the coolest car made, might be a super. big screen HD TV, might be a significant contribution to your favorite charity ... But by the time you pay the mortgage, buy some food, pay utilities and all those other bills, that big pile of money has dwindled to a tiny stack. The U.S. Air Force has about 5600 planes of various types. But they are stationed at close to a hundred different bases in the U.S. and abroad and committed to a multitude of missions. The President can’t just decide to send 100 or planes to bomb someone.
2) Not all of your resources are relevant to a given situation, even if they are available.
I could go up to the checkout counter at the store with a six pack of beer and say, “What ho, my good man. I am Seth Thompson, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Loyola Marymount University, author of a blog on world politics, and I have a whole semester worth of PowerPoint slides on “power” and I’m not afraid to use them!” And the clerk will yawn and wait for me to hand over the $10 for the beer.
The U.S. has some fairly serious trade dissipates with Canada that we have been unable to resolve. The United States has 450 ICBMs with thermonuclear warheads; Canada has none. But Secretary of State Clinton has not summoned the Canadian ambassador to her office on the seventh floor of the State Department and said, “Listen Jack (his name is really Gary), either you guys stop exporting cheap hogs and logs and stop stealing our fish, or we’ll reduce Ottawa to a smoking pile of ash.”
3) Not all your threats or promises are credible.
As the late Flip Wilson used to say, “A lie is as good as the truth if you can get someone to believe it.” Credibility, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The credibility of a threat or promise hinges on the extent to which your target believes  you have the resources to carry it out;  what you’re threatening or promising seems proportional to what you want the target to do (we could nuke Canada but threatening to do it over shipping lumber from British Columbia into the U.S. is incredibly over the top);  you have a reputation for making good on your threats or promises.
Couple of side notes: credibility does not demand that you carry out every single threat or promise ... just most of them. And credibility explains why it is rational to carry out a punishment even if the threat has failed to deter someone.
Power is not resources, but resources are relevant to the exercise of power. Anything that might potentially be used to threaten or promise in an attempt to change someone’s behavior is a resource. What matters in a real situation are the resources that are available, relevant and credible: your capabilities. Exercising power, getting someone to do something they would not otherwise have done, depends the initiator’s capabilities compared to the target’s, each side’s goals and each side’s strategy. Back in 1968 some researchers gathered hard data on the military and economic resources of the United States and North Vietnam and fed them into a computer. After whirling and clanking for a while the computer printed out the news that the United States had won the Vietnam war six months earlier.
When people talk about “hard power” they typically mean military resources. “Soft power” usually refers to less tangible things like culture, prestige, and business opportunities. This use of the word “power” is misleading because it equates power and resources. And since military capabilities almost always involve inflicting pain and damage on the target and the other dimensions of resources seem much more useful in making promises or providing rewards, this language runs the risk of reinforcing another misleading notion of power. Some folks talk as if “power” meant coercion, crushing your victim’s will, dragging her or him kicking and screaming to do your bidding, while “persuasion” is the softer, wimpier tactic of asking nicely or incentivising behavior.
By the way, I find it interesting that we offer incentives or encouragement to persuade people we like to do the right thing but resent offering bribes or rewarding bad behavior to persuade people we don’t like. And we find it very easy to punish our enemies but it feels wrong to threaten or punish our friends. It may feel good to be nice to the nice and nasty to the nasty, but it is not good strategy.
So it seems to me that the distinction between “hard” and “soft” power is not only not useful; it is non-sensical. For almost all foreign policy issues, the most effective strategy is going to be a mix of threats and promises. The critical question is what can you use to make threats (if you don’t do what I want, you’ll be sorry) and promises (if you do what I want you’ll be better off) that are large enough and credible enough to convince your target to go along. Question is not rock hard or squishy soft; but, does it work?
All this is more, I think, than a semantic quibble. Thinking clearly and usefully about means in foreign policy is as important as thinking clearly about ends. I find it a little disconcerting that the person we will choose to sit in the Oval Office might not be clear about the tools he’s got to pursue American interests and how to use them.