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The world has changed a lot since Joseph Nye defined “soft power” in 1990. New media formats have enabled more insidious types of deception and disruption. Repressive regimes have seized upon these capabilities, allowing a new form of non-military coercion to emerge – “sharp power,” which weaponizes free speech and cultural openness. While liberal democratic societies look the other way, Russia and China continue to refine and expand their sharp power tools – legitimizing authoritarianism and advancing their own interests under cover of seemingly innocuous cultural, academic and economic initiatives. This 2017 report by the National Endowment for Democracy examines Russian and Chinese sharp power in Peru, Argentina, Poland and Slovakia. The conclusion: Civil society must rethink its understanding of “soft power” and learn to see through the subversive ploys chipping at the foundations of democracy. getAbstract recommends this report to anyone who cares about democracy and global politics.


“Sharp Power”

Around the world, China and Russia are employing seemingly benign initiatives to undermine democracy and promote their own interests. The term “soft power,” as traditionally defined, fails to capture the insidious motives and effects of these activities. The term “sharp power” better conveys their malevolent and forceful nature. Sharp power influence campaigns attempt to paint China and Russia in a positive light, but they are not merely charm offensives. In the broadest terms, China and Russia deploy sharp power to legitimize authoritarianism and their own regimes, advance their interests, and neutralize opposition. They also secure elite and popular support for these undemocratic regimes and legitimize authoritarianism in societies around the world. 

Sharp power softens support for democratic ideals and normalizes violations of rights and liberal values. Russia and China are engaging in these influence campaigns in locales all around the globe – including in South America, Western and Central Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, America, Australia, and New Zealand – but their influence can have particularly damaging...

About the Authors

Juan Pablo Cardenal is a researcher for the Center for the Opening and Development of Latin America’s Advisory Council. Jacek Kucharczyk is president of Poland's Institute of Public Affairs. Grigorij Mesežnikov is founder and president of Slovakia's Institute of Public Affairs. Gabriela Pleschová is a researcher at the University of Economics in Bratislava. Christopher Walker is vice president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Jessica Ludwig is a research and conferences officer at the NED’s International Forum for Democratic Studies.

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