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

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  • CHRISTOPHER WALKER is Vice President for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy.
  • JESSICA LUDWIG is a research and conferences officer at the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies.
  • This essay draws on the forthcoming International Forum for Democratic Studies report From “Soft Power” to “Sharp Power”: Rising Authoritarian Influence in the Democratic World.
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  • More By Jessica Ludwig