The Meaning of Sharp Power

How Authoritarian States Project Influence

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow, July 2017. Sergei Ilnitsky / Pool / REUTERS

The term “soft power” has become a political science catch-all for forms of influence that are not “hard” in the sense of military force. According to Joseph Nye’s original definition, a country’s hard power is based on coercion, largely a function of its military or economic might. Soft power, in contrast, is based on attraction, arising from the positive appeal of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies—as well as from a vibrant, independent civil society.

As the Cold War era faded, analysts, journalists, and policymakers in democratic countries came to view influence efforts from authoritarian countries, such as China and Russia, through the familiar lens of soft power. But some of their techniques, although not hard in the openly coercive sense, are not really soft, either.

Contrary to some of the prevailing analysis, the influence wielded by Beijing and Moscow through initiatives in the spheres of media, culture, think tanks, and academia is not a “charm offensive,” as the author Joshua Kurlantzick termed it in his book Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power Is Transforming the World. Nor is it an effort to “share alternative ideas” or “broaden the debate,” as the editorial leadership at the Russian and Chinese state information outlets suggest about themselves. It is not principally about attraction or even persuasion; instead, it centers on distraction and manipulation. These powerful and ambitious authoritarian regimes, which systematically suppress political pluralism and free expression to maintain power at home, are increasingly applying the same principles internationally.

Russia and China have blocked external political and cultural influence at home while preying upon the openness of democratic systems abroad.

Over the past decade, China has spent tens of billions of dollars to shape public opinion and perceptions around the world, employing a diverse toolkit that includes thousands of people-to-people exchanges, wide-ranging cultural activities, the development of media enterprises with global reach, and educational programs. The most notable of these is the ever-expanding network of Confucius Institutes, which

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