Limitations of hard power - Ikram Sehgal - Thursday, March 03, 2011

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Power is linked with the possession of certain tangible resources, including population, territory, natural resources, economic and military strength. The term “hard power” describes the ability of a nation or political body to use economic incentives or military strength to influence other actor’s behaviours.

Strategies involving hard power include measures geared to coercing or threatening other entities into compliance. Threats of military assault or economic embargo are the “sticks.” The “carrots” include the promise of military protection or the reduction of trade barriers. For those who have the capacity to project “hard power,” the “stick” seems to be the preferred option over the “carrot.”

Hard power may prove successful in the shorter term. In the long term its gains can be elusive. Traditionally, the tools of hard power are primarily (a) military intervention, (b) economic pressure and (c) coercive diplomacy, so it has its limitations. With the advent of cyber war as an instrument of waging silent wars, another tool has been added to the armoury. The use of hard power may induce compliance, but its glaring shortcoming is the erosion of the legitimacy and credibility of those who opt for it.

Strategies that do not take into account the damage to a country’s international image may have serious consequences. When a country’s credibility deteriorates, international cooperation diminishes as attitudes of mistrust tend to grow. Thus, the country’s capacity to obtain its objectives is seriously eroded.

The consequences of American reliance on hard power in removing Saddam Hussein, a certified criminal, from power in Iraq and the subsequent crisis provides an unfortunate example of worldwide opinion mobilising against the US. Even though the cause was just, the raison d’etre, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), was incorrect.

At the moment NATO forces are poised to intervene in Libya by imposing a “no fly” zone to restrict madman Gaddafi’s excesses against his own people, anticipation of a public opinion backlash is inhibiting international action despite hundreds and thousands dying.

Hard power may be certainly necessary at times but it has limitations. Afghanistan and Vietnam are prime examples that larger armies or greater military power do not always win. Its exercise in Iraq has circumscribed the capacity of the US to attain its policy goals on many other fronts. In essence hard power can be described as “the illusion that military dominance engenders security.” Its leading proponents are the US and Israel, followed by the UK, France and India.

Despite their persisting inability to translate military power into wins, for people like Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Perle (incidentally none of them had heard a shot fired in anger), it was nearly impossible to admit that military dominance generally does not always work, particularly in modern times. The continuing tragedy remains that the US still relies too much on hard power.

The failure of the hard-power policy in the region can be seen from India’s forays in the subcontinent. While the military intervention against Pakistan in December 1971 was successful and resulted in East Pakistan’s secession and its becoming an independent country, it was only during the first three years that India could really be regarded as a hegemonic power in Bangladesh on the basis of its hard power.

After Shiekh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination in 1975 successive regimes in Dhaka were able to retain their independence so that India was not able to settle bilateral disputes unilaterally. In fact, Bangladesh is far more independent than isolated East Pakistan could ever have been. The Hasina Wajed regime is favourably disposed towards India, yet it cannot deliver all that India desires, such as the right of unrestricted passage across Bangladesh to Assam.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were trained in India by India’s intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). When the Sri Lankan army was about to prevail on the LTTE, India intervened physically. This was a golden opportunity to stamp its hegemonic authority by the projection of hard power.

Even before the India-Sri Lankan Accord for the deployment of Indian forces in Sri Lankan was signed, ostensibly to keep the peace between the majority Sinhalese and LTTE, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) had physically landed in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankans were never happy about this invasion and openly antagonistic about Indian intentions. Indian troops were forced to withdraw in March 1990 after falling out with the LTTE and suffering grievous losses.

Ironically, Indian Rajiv Gandhi, who had ordered the intervention in Sri Lanka (his son Rahul says Rajiv had presented the brutal LTTE terrorist leader Prabhakaran with his own bullet-proof vest), was assassinated in Tamil Nadu by a suicide squad of the LTTE in May 1991. The former Indian prime minister fell victim to the very monster he helped to create.

Sophisticated cyber attacks against high-value targets such as defence communications systems require a higher cost of attack. This involves large intelligence agencies to intrude physically and/or crack highly encrypted codes. The origin or motive of such attacks is often very difficult to prove as attackers can route their intrusions through servers in other countries to make attribution difficult.

On the other hand, Botnets can be illegally rented on the internet for a few hundred dollars. Organising a botnet by infiltrating a virus into unguarded computers is relatively inexpensive, individual criminals are able to do for purposes of extortion. “Botnets” of hundreds of thousands of corrupted computers (or even more) can swamp a country’s internet system and prevent it from functioning. This can be done by states or non-state actors organising a denial of service attack. Other cases may involve “hacktivists” or ideologically motivated intruders. Taiwanese and Chinese hackers regularly deface each others’ web sites. In 2008, shortly before Russian troops invaded, Georgia suffered a denial of service attack that shut down its internet access. The Russian government abetted the hackers while maintaining “plausible deniability.”

Within the international community the exercise of military and non-military power is basically the same – or, rather, it is when the power is military in nature that there is a need for strict legitimacy in its use. That hard power is sometimes exercised without legitimacy stems from a peculiar way of thinking about the use of hard power.

However, vague its legitimacy, military power can exert a coercive influence. The problem is the need to consider just what the international justification for military action might be. This can be best illustrated by comparing how Bush Senior managed a coalition against Saddam Hussein that included military forces drawn from many Muslim countries and Bush Junior who did not care to develop such a coalition against a recalcitrant Saddam Hussein a decade later. Very few countries possess the means of projecting hard power. That by itself isolates them from the majority even when the end result may well justify the means.

Advocates of hard power must remember that, in the long term, its use in the “global village” will have adverse consequences for their image, however just the cause is.

The writer is a defence and political analyst. Email: isehgal@pathfinder9. com

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