Coercive force is particularly useful in situations of imminent danger. The parent watching a child run toward a busy intersection does not caress, cajole, or offer a reward. The most likely response is a physical one, born of the parent's physical advantage: to block the child from entering the intersection, or to physically remove the child from it. The parent is also likely to render some form of punishment, whether physical or verbal, such as withdrawal of a privilege. In any case, the parent does not negotiate with the child about the pluses and minuses of playing in traffic. He or she has made a decision and is willing to enforce it. The police officer confronting a robbery in progress, or the head of state facing an imminent invasion, is in a similar, if larger and more complex, situation.

Coercion may also be useful when dispute involves something of great value to the threatener, both in the initial and ongoing maneuvers. For example, European countries relied on extensive and often brutal coercive power to establish their rule over Africa and other regions, particularly Asia. After conquest, exchange and even integrative forms of power were utilized. But, as the colonies began to assert their demands for self-determination, the colonizers almost always resorted to coercive power whatever the cost, as the decades-long struggle for Indian independence showed.

An additional advantage of coercive power is its function in assuring internal cohesion.[13] Convincing one's potential followers that they share a common enemy is perhaps the quickest route to uniting them behind a leader. If, however, the leader has no coercive power with which to threaten the enemy and protect his or her followers, the followers are likely to unite behind another leader. Therefore, it is clearly to the leader's advantage to have coercive capability. Morton Deutsch extended this notion even further by looking at specific advantages it provides for leaders, in dealing with their own followers. Of the former U.S.S.R., he wrote:

[a]mple evidence suggests that a hostile, competitive orientation to the outside world fosters internal cohesiveness and permits Soviet leaders to justify and exert repressive controls to inhibit internal dissidence and challenge to their leadership.[14]

Limits of Coercive Power

Although coercive might is impressive, it is inherently useless in some situations. Karl Deutsch points to the "autonomous probability" of a behavior that a threat is meant to inhibit. "Even the most intense and credible threats may not stop people from sneezing; nor might they stop social revolutions...Related factors are those of the need and the motivation for the behaviors that the threat is intended to prevent."[15]

Deutsch's last point deserves further discussion. You may be unable to force me not to sneeze, because I have no control over my sneezing. You may not be able to stop me from defying your repressive power, because my need for self-determination is greater than my fear of you. In the first case, I simply cannot control that which you are demanding I control. In the second case, I choose not to.

From the point of view of human needs theory, even the long-term outcome of the second case may be preordained:

[A]uthority maintained by coercion is ultimately untenable. If human needs theorists are correct, people have needs which must be satisfied and which cannot be suppressed. These needs include identity, both individual and collective; security, for themselves and their loved ones; and recognition, of themselves and their communities.[16]

To be effective, coercive power rests on the target's acquiescence. If I am willing to die rather than capitulate, your most sophisticated weapons and techniques are meaningless. Jimmy Cliff captures the sentiment and puts it to a reggae beat: "I'd rather be a free man in my grave/Than living as a puppet or a slave."[17]

I learned this lesson early through an Irish revolutionary song. The patriot hero is threatened:

"Turn informer or we'll kill you,
Kevin Barry answered no.
Another martyr for old Ireland
Another murder for the Crown
Whose brutal laws may kill the Irish
But cannot keep our spirits down."

Mistakenly, I heard the word "kill" as "crush" and sang it that way on first rendition. My parents quickly corrected me; I had missed the point.

Songs and other folkways spread the word, both of specific atrocities and of the need to band together and withstand the onslaught of the hated foe. Often, the population targeted by coercive power creates more internal integrative power in response than they had before. The British exhibited this lesson during the Second World War. Hitler hoped he could break the will of the British by attacking civilian targets; instead, he created an entire island of warriors.

Costs of the Use of Coercive Power

The cost of coercive power, in the extreme, is succinctly stated by Boulding: "It is ironic that the more threat power [Boulding's term for coercive power] and the power of destruction are exercised, the less the chance that the exercisers will survive."[18]

More broadly speaking, coercive power invariably involves a negative-sum game, that is, a situation in which either both parties lose or in which the winner's gain is less than the opponent's loss. At least two factors affect the final sum. First, there is the cost of the threat itself, which is that of making a threat credible. To use Dwight Eisenhower's oft-quoted statement, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."[19] Boulding estimated that the cost of deterrence in the 30 years after World War II amounted to the equivalent of two full years of the world's productive capacity.[20] When we expend funds to purchase firepower that will bend another to our will, we may not be spending such funds on other necessary things. So, even when our opponent capitulates in the face of our greater power, we have still incurred a cost. Rational calculation would demand that we compare the value of what our opponent gives us with what it has cost us to get it.

Second, when coercive power is used, our cost includes both the cost of creating and maintaining the threat, and the cost of implementing it. Some of our soldiers will be killed or injured; some of our equipment will be damaged. Our bombs and bullets will damage or destroy their targets, be those animate or inanimate. After the campaign is over, there will be a cost attached to rebuilding. In earlier times, this was not the concern of the winners; they could leave, taking battlefield loot with them, or stay, continuing to demand tribute from the captured land. In any case, the spoils belonged to the victor. In an interdependent world, winners tend to be less able to leave the mess for the vanquished to clean up.

The Backlash Effect

A final cost of coercive force is the threat of backlash. People do not like to be forced to do things against their will; they like even less (quite an understatement) to be forced to do so through violence. So even after a conflict is over, if the victims of aggression do not feel that justice has been done, they are likely to try to build up their power to "get even" at the first available opportunity. For this reason the victor must maintain a high level of credible threat, just to maintain the status quo, and not be attacked themselves.

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By Máire A. Dugan  


[13] Coser, Lewis. 1956. The Functions of Social Conflict. New York: Free Press, pp. 87-95.

[14] Deutsch, Morton. 1964. "Producing Change in an Adversary," in International Conflict and Behavioral Science: The Craigville Papers. ed. Roger Fisher. New York: Basic Books, Inc. p. 152

[15] Karl Deutsch. 1963. The Nerves of Governement: Models of Political communicaiton and Control. New York: Free Press. p. 69

[16] Dukes, E. Franklin. 1996. Resolving Public Conflict: Transforming Community and Governance. New York: Manchester University Press. p. 136. 2006 edition of this book available at

[17] Cliff, Jimmy. 1972 "The Harder They Come" <>.

[18] Boulding, Kenneth E. 1989. Three Faces of Power. Newbury Park: Sage Publications. p.144

[19] "Dwight D. Eisenhower Quotations," Eisenhower Center (2003), available at; Internet. 

[20] Boulding, Kenneth E. 1978. Stable Peace. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978.

Máire Dugan is currently directing Race Relations 2020, which she founded. She also developed the Masters in Conflict Resolution curriculum at Columbia College. Dr. Dugan is a member of the Board of Directors for the SCCCR. She developed the "nested theory" to delineate how a given interpersonal, familial, or organizational conflict is symptomatic of over-arching societal systems and structures. Dr. Dugan suggests an intermediate level, which she calls the sub-system, as an arena that practitioners can use to simultaneously address the conflict at hand, the relationship, and the larger system.