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Law and Politics

Hard vs. Soft Diplomacy

The critical difference between the two types of power

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  • Diplomacy is the act of negotiation between nations and the formation of their relationship. [Merriam-Webster

  • Hard diplomacy or “hard power” is the use of force in negotiations, such as military acts or threats of violence. [Cambridge Dictionary

  • Soft diplomacy or “soft power” is the use of persuasion through cultural or economic influence in negotiations with foreign nations. [Cambridge Dictionary

  • Most nations use both types of diplomacy, with some relying more on one than the other.



CIVICS: Each nation has a deep history of foreign allies and enemies that have affected different diplomacy strategies. In order to maintain general peace in the world and prevent outbreaks of war and inhumane treatment of people, many nations, including the United States, must use these diplomacy strategies when dealing with other governments. 


SOCIAL: This idea of “hard” vs. “soft” power is used outside of foreign affairs too, such as in business dealings where the threat of hard power could be a lawsuit and soft power could be fair negotiations.


Although soft power seems like the easy way to go, some countries have had a difficult time transitioning to this form of diplomacy through growing their cultural impact and shedding their past reputation. [Council on Foreign Relations


Why Use It?

Hard power is best used in the short-term because it generates faster negotiations, or if negotiations are not reached, the use of the military can sometimes efficiently get what a nation wants from others. [PBS




It is easier to get people to listen to you if there is the threat of violence, death, or war and thus some countries are stronger with hard power. In essence, it respects through generating fear. [Brookings Institute




Hard power tends to be harmful, especially if violence breaks out. However, other forms of hard power, such as economic trade sanctions, might also financially hurt businesses in each country. Sanctions could last until nations reach a mutual agreement. [Brookings Institute


Why Use It?

Soft power is peace-making diplomacy and is a long-term tool, often strengthening the relationship between two nations to eventually become allies. [The Huffington Post




Soft diplomacy allows for both nations to maintain their cultural presence, reduces the risk of a foreign invasion, and increases the sense of nationality for a country in the global sphere. In essence, it respects through making friends.




Some countries might be all talk and no action in negotiations since there is no violent threat to them, thus creating more hurdles in diplomacy that take a long time to overcome. [Forbes]  


  • Many believe that the United States is one of the most powerful soft power nations but that the Trump administration has reduced American influence in the world. [CNBC

  • Read more of a breakdown of the Trump administration's diplomatic moments from Reuters.

  • In 2015, the U.S. was ranked #3 by the World Economic Forum; in 2019, the U.S. dropped to #5 and is labeled as a "downward mover." [The Soft Power 30]


  • Other concepts of diplomacy include “smart power” (the combination of hard and soft power), “military power” (a blurred line where there is foreign military presence but with the purpose of helping a nation grow), and “sharp power” (the use of soft power internationally but authoritarianism domestically, like in China).

  • Think about if you were leading a nation, what kind of diplomacy would you use, and with what countries?

  • Is it important for the U.S. to be a top leader in soft diplomacy? 

  • Some question if the U.S. should maintain a high level of involvement in foreign affairs. What do you think? What are the pros and cons of being involved in international relations?

Key Vocabulary