UK Carrier Strike Group Phase 2 in convoy as they transit through the Suez Canal. HMS Queen Elizabeth transits in the convoy 20210706 Credit MOD Crown Copyright.jpg
UK Carrier Strike Group Phase 2 in convoy as it transits through the Suez Canal (Picture: MOD).

Hard Power And Soft Power Explained – What Is The Difference?

The Prime Minister has said the Carrier Strike Group will project hard and soft power – but what's the difference between the two?

UK Carrier Strike Group Phase 2 in convoy as they transit through the Suez Canal. HMS Queen Elizabeth transits in the convoy 20210706 Credit MOD Crown Copyright.jpg
UK Carrier Strike Group Phase 2 in convoy as it transits through the Suez Canal (Picture: MOD).

As the UK's Carrier Strike Group (CSG 21) left for its 28-week deployment in May, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it would project both the UK's hard and soft power.

"The people who will be going on this mission will be doing a number of things," Mr Johnson said.

"They'll be projecting not just Britain's hard power – our military capabilities which are obviously extraordinary – but also our soft power: our values, what we stand for, our belief in democracy, in the rule of law."

In July, as part of the CSG21, the Strike Group made its way into the contested South China Sea.

Ironically, China is credited with bringing soft power back to the forefront of foreign policy.

But why? And what is the difference between Soft Power and Hard Power.

Soft Power

The dictionary definition of soft power is a persuasive approach to international relations, typically involving the use of economic or cultural influence.

The term was coined in the late 1980s by Joseph Nye, an American political scientist and former Clinton administration official.

Watch: Indo-Pacific region – why is the UK interested?

Mr Nye argued the US could use non-coercive power to establish itself as world leader and split this power into three main categories: cultural, ideological and institutional.

In his view, the rest of the globe would want to follow the US' lead in these areas and the desire to be like the US would, in turn, give America power and help the country shape the world.

"If a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes," he said.

When applying a soft power approach to international relations, it is vital to come across well.

"If its culture and ideology are attractive, others will more willingly follow," Mr Nye said.

Just as Hollywood has helped promote the American lifestyle, institutions such as the BBC and English Premier League push Britain's mass cultural appeal.

Britain can also push its soft power through a number of different means, such as promoting trade and prosperity, making sure Britain's voice is heard through alliances such as NATO or the UN and using the Armed Forces for humanitarian roles.

Watch: Icy warnings from Beijing as Carrier Strike Group arrives in disputed South China Sea.

The US' use of soft power, persuading rather than coercing, in the post-Cold War era saw their model of liberal democracy and free market economics exported around the globe.

Mr Nye said in the current climate, "networks and connectedness become an important source of power and security".

"In a world of growing complexity, the most connected states are the most powerful," he said.  

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), "a 21st Century silk road", is a perfect example.

Consisting of Chinese investment across the globe, made up of both the on-land ‘belt’ and maritime shipping lanes, the initiative connects China to a vast amount of countries.

This approach, and the economic development on offer, can also be seen as a form of soft power, as China hands out billions in financial incentives to those countries signed up to the BRI.

Hard Power

Hard Power is, as expected, the opposite.

It usually consists of a coercive approach to international relations, frequently involving military power.

Watch: NATO not seeking 'new Cold War' with China.

It is often looked at through both an economic and military lens – using force or the threat of force to make others do what you want.

Mr Nye said it was "the ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will".

And just as economic incentives can be seen as a form of soft power, economic sanctions can be seen as a form of hard power.

Recently, the US froze roughly $9.5bn in assets belonging to the Afghan central bank, following the withdrawal of western troops from the country and the return of Taliban rule.

This could be seen as a hard power approach by the US to continue influencing Afghanistan, albeit without the use of military force.

From a UK perspective, CSG21 can potentially be seen as both a soft and hard power approach to foreign policy.

In May, during an inspection of HMS Queen Elizabeth before she deployed, the Prime Minister said CSG21 will show China the UK believes "in the international law of the sea, and in a confident, but not confrontational way, we will be vindicating that point".

He went on: "We don't want to antagonise anybody, but we do think that the United Kingdom plays a very important role, with friends and partners – the Americans, the Dutch, the Australians, the Indians, many, many others – in upholding the rule of law, the international rules-based system on which we all depend, and that's one of the many things that this Carrier Strike Group will be doing."