Louis Kriesberg offers a succinct definition that captures the essence of coercive power: "Coercion involves trying to make the other side yield by reason of fear or actual force."[8] When he refers to fear, he is referring to threat; we feel threatened when we think that force will be applied if we do not accede to the other's demands.

The most pervasive form of coercive power is totalitarianism, a system maintained by threat and use of force, in which control is concentrated in the hands of a despotic individual or small group. Unfortunately, examples abound. Colonial incursions were totalitarian regimes, with the foreign ruler conquering through superior arms, often inadvertently aided by diseases carried by the troops. Modern examples of totalitarian regimes include Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Uganda under Idi Amin.

Threat of force can sometimes be as effective as force itself. "Jim Crow" institutions in the U.S., enforced through violence, law, habit, and casual acquiescence on the part of white Southerners, were effective for decades in maintaining white control over blacks. The effects of threats on the behavior of individuals in an oppressive social system are tellingly expressed by Richard Wright in Black Boy.[9]

The things that influenced my conduct as a Negro did not have to happen to me directly; I needed but to hear of them to feel their full effects in the deepest layers of my consciousness. Indeed the white brutality that I had not seen was a more effective control of my behavior than that which I knew.

Nor was this impact accidental. "Lynching was an instrument of social discipline intended to impress not only the immediate victim but all who saw or heard about the event."[10]

In many cases, implicit or stated threat is sufficient to affect the behavior of the target. At one extreme no physical force is used, or it is used selectively (e.g., lynching). The tools needed to implement the threat severely and systematically, must be available, however, or the threat will not be credible. Further, if the target does not comply, the demander must follow through on the threat or risk losing credibility when making future demands.

Threats thus affect target and demander alike. An effective threat generates fear in the target, and pushes the target toward behavior in which she or he otherwise would not engage. For the threatener, the threat is a constraint on her or his own future action. The less the threatener wishes to engage in the threatened action or the more it would cost, the more likely the threatener is to be fearful of noncompliance. If on the other hand, the threatener is looking forward to implementing the consequences ("Go ahead, make my day!"), the threatener is constrained by having offered the opponent the opportunity to avoid the punishment.

For the nation-state, the military is the primary institution of coercive power and the threat thereof. The extent of its power is a function of four dimensions:

  1. Numbers: of men, weapons, equipment, and resources;
  2. Technology: the effectiveness and sophistication of weapons and equipment;
  3. Organizational: the coherence, discipline, training, and morale of the troops and the effectiveness of command and control relationships; and
  4. Societal: the ability and willingness of the society to apply military force effectively.[11]

In 2001, the nations of the world spent $839 billion (U.S. dollars) on military expenditures, representing 2.6 percent of the world's Gross Domestic Product and a full $137 for every man, woman, and child on the planet.[12] This represents enormous numbers of armaments and personnel, which are unequally distributed among the world's nations.

Sometimes, one's superior military might is sufficient to encourage others to not incur one's wrath. Sometimes, no matter the extent of military strength, even threats and ultimata are insufficient to bring about the desired change in behavior. Witness the 2003 war against Iraq. All would agree that the United States and its allies held greater military power than Iraq. Nonetheless, Iraq did not capitulate to clearly stated demands, and President Bush directed a military attack.

A decision not to capitulate can be based on several factors:

  • the target may underestimate one or more dimensions of the demander's military might. In the case of Iraq in 2003, the greatest potential for underestimation lay in the societal dimension. The United States had not previously initiated a preemptive war, most of the world's nations were opposed to doing so, and strong arguments could be made that such an attack was a violation of international law. Hussein might have therefore guessed that while the U.S. might threaten attack, it would not follow through with the threat due to social pressure.
  • a threatened nation may lay greater emphasis on the strength of its own military powers, than the pundits in the demander's circle. Saddam Hussein seems to have believed that his troops' loyalty would make them much harder to defeat than the Bush administration believed.
  • a leader may be more concerned with his own reputation than the well-being of his nation. Saddam Hussein long seemed more concerned about his own position of power than the well being of his people.

Aside from assessing the relative strength of the coercive force of the opponent and oneself, a state that threatens attack as a consequence of noncompliance is well advised to consider other factors.

  • How much destruction is the opponent willing to endure?
  • Will defeating the adversary bring about a peaceful or more stable situation, one that is more to the liking of the threatener?
  • Is the opponent rational?

In terms of the first question, Hussein knew that the new war would cause more destruction than the previous Gulf War, but there was no reason to presume he was unwilling to bear this (or at least have his nation bear it). As for the second, Bush and his advisors seemed to think that defeating Hussein and removing him from power would stabilize the region; it remains to be seen whether this is true. Judging from other cases, most recently Afghanistan, however, it is difficult for an external force to bring peace and stability to a conquered nation. This should not be surprising, given that peace and stability are a function of integrative (power of love, respect, and sense of community) and to some extent, exchange power (the power of negotiation and reciprocity). Coercive power may overwhelm competing coercive power; it cannot build integrative power, and it destroys or diverts the bases of exchange power.

From the above discussion, it should be apparent that threat systems depend on assumptions that rational calculations are valid. This is one of the many limits of coercive power.

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By Máire A. Dugan 




[8] Kriesberg, Louis. 1982. Social Conflicts, 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. p. 116.

[9] Wright, Richard A.. 1945. Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth. New York: Harper & Brothers. 2009 edition of this book available athttp://books.google.com/books?id=wiAYUw-zlHoC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

[10] Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. 1993. Revolt against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women's Campaign against Lynching. New York: Columbia Uinversity Press. p. 136

[11] Huntington, Samuel P. 1997. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Touchstone Books. p. 88. 2011 edition of this book available at http://www.amazon.com/Clash-Civilizations-Remaking-World-Order/dp/1451628978/ref=reader_auth_dp.

[12] SIPRI Yearbook 2002. Stockholm: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). http://projects.sipri.se/milex/mex-trends.html

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. http://www.beyondintractability.org