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

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