How Sharp Power Threatens Soft Power

The Right and Wrong Ways to Respond to Authoritarian Influence

Russian President Vladimir Putin applauds Chinese President Xi Jinping, who delivers a speech at the BRICS Business Council and Signing ceremony at 2017 BRICS Summit in Xiamen, China September 2017. Kenzaburo Fukuhara / REUTERS

Washington has been wrestling with a new term that describes an old threat. “Sharp power,” as coined by Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig of the National Endowment for Democracy (writing for ForeignAffairs.com and in a longer report), refers to the information warfare being waged by today’s authoritarian powers, particularly China and Russia. Over the past decade, Beijing and Moscow have spent tens of billions of dollars to shape public perceptions and behavior around the world—using tools new and old that exploit the asymmetry of openness between their own restrictive systems and democratic societies. The effects are global, but in the United States, concern has focused on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and on Chinese efforts to control discussion of sensitive topics in American publications, movies, and classrooms.

In their National Endowment for Democracy report, Walker and Ludwig argue that the expansion and refinement of Chinese and

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