Usually persuasion, social control and coercion are used in politics. Coercion and force are used in war. Clausewitz statement that war is the exercise of policy by other means is quite well known, this points it up exactly. To go to war is to chose to use force and coercion as the means in the pursuit of an end.   

Since we can transfer power without bloodshed and violence we should not stop the consideration of power – there are still choices to be made about ends and means.

We can think of power being exercised along a continuum from hard to soft. By hard we mean forceful, even violent. By soft we mean persuasive, not violent. Some key points on the Hard/Soft power continuum might be

  • Influence and Persuasion
  • Lies and Deception
  • Social Constraints
  • Coercion and fear
  • Force
  • Terror

Influence and Persuasion

Persuasion and influence are very closely related. Influence can be used behind the scenes by people with power, that is often what they buy with their money. Influence is indirect like advertising, persuasion is more personal like sales. Influence can be used behind the scenes by people with power, that is often what they buy with their money, they do not need to persuade if they can influence. To persuade someone to do something we use rhetorical tricks, manipulate language. Persuasion is the stock in trade of marketing and sales. It has sophistication. An example of this would be allowing someone to think that they were doing something because it was their idea.

There is a difference however, if I persuade someone they act through belief. If I influence them I may be taking away their agency. This all comes back to how change is managed - doing it to you or doing it with you.

Influence is still doing it to you, only persuasion gives you agency.


Using lies and trickery to get someone or some group to act in the desired way or withhold from acting in an opposed way. This is as old as human beings, it is how the apple came to be eaten in the Garden of Eden. According to Freedman in Strategy there are only three underlying strategic choices; coalition, deception and violence (Freedman)

Social constraints and inertia

Because we are social animals we response to group pressures, we are all familiar with the term peer group pressure. This is where norms of behaviour and self-censorship come from.

Social constraints can be manipulated. Things can be arranged so that the way someone or some groups behave is guided along the lines we want. Peer pressure is the informal version of this. It can be intimidating and bullying when an unpopular co-worker is ostracised, it can be silencing as in the case of gagging orders (non-disclosure agreements)

Much legislation falls into this category, where there is agreement that something is wrong we make rules about it. But social control can be more (or less) subtle, perhaps I don’t ask because I feel shame in not knowing, when everyone agrees things there can be “group think”, the collective view that prevails this can be as bad as it is good; it can keep down good ideas.

There is a strong overlap with Ideas and Beliefs, the notion that there is no alternative TINA (There Is No Alternative) has been very successful as a framing narrative (Note: Framing). Social control exercised in this way, our desire to fit in and inertia are a mightily powerful combination.

Refer back to Limited Participation and Disengagement

Coercion and fear

I am defining coercion as the overt use of threats that something bad will happen if you don’t go along with what is proposed. The bad can be sanctions like loss of money, fines, or it can be imprisonment, or beating. At the level of relations between countries it can be trade embargoes, blockades, covert operations.

Playing up peoples fears is a standard tactic, people who are afraid can be exhorted to do something (from vote a different way to lynching a scapegoat). When the fear is whipped up using lies it is part of a deception strategy. (Note: Scares and Deceptions, Old and New) 


When all else fails the ultimate exercise of power is – do what I want, or I will force you (ultimately using the threat of killing); all too common throughout history. By insisting on monopolising the power to kill the state always has this implicit threat behind it. (Note: State Monopoly of Force)


Terror tactics have been practiced throughout history and are nothing new. What is new perhaps is that western democracies now claim the moral high ground, notwithstanding their very recent conversion is as much based on the acquisition of technology that allows for more accuracy in guided weapons, as it is on ethics. 

Terror tactics have several styles; at its simplest the objective is to make the opponent so afraid that their will to action is sapped. Variations can be more or less cynical, for example if the state is prompted to clamp down the resulting backlash may help the terrorist by increasing the number of people who are driven to support them (radicalised); this has, at various times left, right, national and religious adherents. Examples are many: Bader-Meinhof, Provisional IRA, Jacobin France, Nazi-Germany, Soviet Union, ISIS.