There’s a common philosophical question we conflict theorists ponder; “Who had more power, Adolph Hitler or Mahatma Gandhi?” This question is relevant because it exemplifies the use of the two types of power, hard coercive power and soft power.
In his article, “The Place of Soft Power in State-Based Conflict Management,” Joseph Nye defines power in terms of behavior. “Power,” he says, “is the ability to effect the behavior of others to get the outcomes one wants.” Effecting outcomes may be achieved by either using soft power or hard power. Gandhi used soft power to transform a nation because he was able to develop legitimacy regarding his objectives, and widespread respect for his moral authority. Hitler, on the other hand, used coercive power. He led through dictatorship. Sadly, his tyranny was powerful enough to effect the behaviors of millions. But what’s important to note about both Hitler and Gandhi is that they each understood how soft and hard power might be useful. In the case of Hitler, his rise to power was not entirely done through coercion. He appealed to a majority of the populace’s set of values and convinced them that theirs and his were one in the same. Ultimately, his soft power currency ran out just as his hard power resources were bled dry. Conversely, Mahatma Gandhi’s movement of non-violent non-cooperation better known as civil disobedience was a kind of coercion that threatened the British Economy. Therefore, Gandhi’s leadership was an example of a soft power model with a thread of hard power woven through it.
But which of these men was more powerful? Since I and many others analyze conflict under the assumption that it is a dynamic process and can’t be captured under just one lens, the question of whether Adolph Hitler had more or less power than Mahatma Gandhi may always be in dispute…unless, of course, we measure the final outcome against the objectives each leader struggled to achieve. Then Mr. Gandhi would surely be the more powerful of the two.
Looking at recent world events, I have to wonder if something else isn’t also at play here. As I struggle to confront the enormous suffering of the Japanese people in their natural disaster, and the profound violence in Libya, as well as many other places where mass human despair is occurring, I feel overwhelming sadness mingled with hope. The human spirit when it is in it’s most dire situation often rallies with the most powerful weapon of all, compassion. Compassion is our saving grace. It is our living acknowledgment of our human connection. Gandhi knew it, lived it, spoke of it, and transformed a world with it. The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. knew it. Sister Mother Theresa knew it. And I believe you know it too. We must all help each other nurture our compassion for one another if we’re going to survive this difficult space and time. We are human beings after all, capable of extreme acts of love. And it is love and compassion that will see us through.
Peace be with you,