Coercive Power

Máire A. Dugan

September 2003

In most treatments of power, this chapter would form the entire discussion. Coercion and force are often used as synonyms of power, and all too often are seen as the only type of power.

Hans Morgenthau offers a definition that is representative of the literature:

Power may comprise anything that establishes and maintains the control of man over man. Thus power covers all social relationships, which serve that end, from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another. Power covers the domination of man by man, both when it is disciplined by moral ends and controlled by constitutional safeguards, as in Western democracies, and when it is that untamed and barbaric force which finds its laws in nothing but its own strength and its sole justification in its aggrandizement.[1]

Power tends to be defined as force, regardless of whether the one wielding power is the initiator or the responder. No less an authority than John Locke, the 17th century enlightenment philosopher whose treatises on government provided inspiration for the U.S. Constitution, defined coercive power as the only appropriate response to the illegitimate use of coercive power: "In all states and conditions, the true remedy of force without authority is to oppose force to it."[2]

The equation of force with power is not limited to theorists. Kriesberg points out that parties in social conflict, "cognizant of inequalities in resources and what that means for domination and resistance...often think of one side imposing its will on another."[3]

Even those wishing to resolve conflict are affected by this way of conceptualizing power. For example, Ury, Brett, and Goldberg define power as "the ability to coerce someone to do something he would not otherwise do."[4] While they acknowledge that they have defined the concept "somewhat narrowly," such a narrow definition cannot help but affect the way in which we design resolution and peace building processes. At the same time, it is important to understand coercive power and to develop processes accordingly when it is operative, as it usually is in intractable conflict.

Robert L. Kahn provides an additional reason to be concerned about coercive power in intractable conflict:

To say that A has the power to change B's behavior necessarily implies that A exerts some force in opposition to some or all of the previously existing forces [including B's own needs and values] on B. This is conflict....The exercise of [coercive] power, thus, necessarily creates conflict..."[5]

Nor is the impact of power limited to the initiation of conflict. As Terrell A. Northrup points out, "[t]he distribution of power between or among parties has a significant impact on the course and conduct of a conflict....[When parties] differ greatly in relative power...settlements may be imposed by the high-power group."[6]

Forms of Coercive Power

Coercion can take many forms. I may prevent you from doing something you wish to do, by withholding some resources or by physically constraining you. For example, the modern state imprisons those who do not act in accordance with its legal mandates. In other cases, I may push you into a behavior in which you would otherwise not engage. For example, parents may use a variety of strategies for getting a resistant child to go to school, including physically taking the child to the school building. As another example, the majority of nations of the world joined in a boycott of Iraqi oil, in the hope of forcing the Iraqi government to honor the peace agreement that ended the 1991 Gulf War.

While not all of these forms are typically categorized as violent, coercion is usually associated with physical violence. As C. Wright Mills says, "All politics is a struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence."[7] Violence can produce changes in the target. The slave who is whipped may return to work, at least make the attempt to show compliance while the overseer is watching, and try to avoid additional lashes. A prisoner who is tortured may divulge sought-after information in order to end the torture. The warring enemy may sign a truce, because it no longer has resources to continue the fighting.

Coercive power is most effective, however, when the threat of violence or other punishment is sufficient in itself to get the target to accede to the demand.

The Use of Threat

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.

Advantages of Coercive Force

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.

[1] Morgenthau, Hans J. 1985. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 6th Ed. p.1. 2005 edition of this book available at

[2] Locke, John. 1952. The Second Treatise on Government. New York: Macmillan. p. 88. 2011 edition of this book available at

[3] Kriesberg, Louis. 1998. Constructive Conflicts from Escalation to Resolution. Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield Publishers, Inc. p.16. 2012 edition available at

[4] Ury, William L., Jeanne M. Brett, and Stephen B. Goldberg, 1988. Getting Disputes Resolved Designing Systems to Cut the Costs of Conflict. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers. p.7

[5] Kahn, Robert L. 1964. "Introduction" to Power and Conflicts in Organizations. Robert L. Kahn and Elise Boulding, eds. New York: Basic Books, Inc. pp. 1-2

[6] Northrup, Terrell A. 1989. "The Dynamic of Identity in Personal and Social Conflict," in Intractable Conflicts and their Transformation. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. p.61.

[7] Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University. p.171. 2000 edition of this book available at

[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 at

[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

[12] SIPRI Yearbook 2002. Stockholm: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

[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.

Use the following to cite this article:
Dugan, Máire A.. "Coercive Power." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.

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