Democracies are increasingly more vulnerable to the "sharp power" tactics of authoritarian regimes but should not adopt these same tactics in response, Dr. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., and Ms. Shanthi Kalathil told Pacific Council members in the fourth installment of the 2018 Summer Teleconference Series, on the rise of authoritarianism.
Nye is a University Distinguished Service Professor, Emeritus, and former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University who is credited with coining the term “soft power.” Kalathil is the director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. The discussion was moderated by Ms. Jessica Ludwig, the research and conferences officer at the International Forum for Democratic Studies.
Listen to the full conversation below:
Nye defined soft power as resting on the ability to attract and sharp power on the ability to manipulate.
In November 2017, the National Endowment for Democracy released a report titled "Sharp Power": Rising Authoritarian Influence in the Democratic World which sought to understand why authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia were investing billions of dollars in efforts that might be typically regarded as forms of soft power to shape public opinions and perceptions around the world.
"Their initiatives were not necessarily aimed at winning hearts and minds in the general publics of the democracies, but instead they sought to manipulate the information environment by encouraging policy elites and thought leaders in the democracies to adopt particular narratives while at the same time acting to preempt, neutralize, and censor criticism of their regimes," said Ludwig. "We determined that a new term was needed. Whereas soft power tends to emerge in a more organic fashion from the values, cultures, and civic institutions of a society, ‘sharp power’ reflects the ability of authoritarian regimes to pierce, penetrate, or perforate the information environment and public sphere of targeted countries."
Nye pointed out that the rise of information technology has made sharp power much more important and effective today.
"While the rule of law and openness make democracies asymmetrically vulnerable, they are also critical values that we need to defend."
"In the 1990s, there was a lot of optimism that the internet would be marked by decentralized and democratic effects," said Nye. "President Clinton once argued that China’s efforts to censor the internet would be like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. But today, in the face of successful Chinese control of the internet and Russia’s interference in the 2016 American election, the democracies find themselves on the defensive."
He added that autocracies are able to protect themselves by controlling information while the openness of democracies create vulnerabilities that the autocracies can exploit through cyber information warfare. While this is not necessarily a new phenomenon, he argued that the speed and low cost of spreading disinformation has changed.
"Ironically, one of the causes of these vulnerabilities is the rise of social media and mobile devices," he said. "If you go back to George Orwell and his image of Big Brother, citizens now voluntarily carry Big Brother around in their pockets. Along with Big Data and artificial intelligence, technology has made the problem of defending democracy from information warfare far more complicated than was foreseen a decade ago. While the rule of law and openness make democracies asymmetrically vulnerable, they are also critical values that we need to defend."
"In China, the Communist Party is well aware that power depends not only on whose army wins but also on whose story wins."
Kalathil argued that authoritarian regimes tend to project values externally that they live by internally.
"When we examine the ways the major authoritarian regimes engage internationally we start to see how this manifests itself through what we call sharp power," she said. "In China, the Communist Party is well aware that power depends not only on whose army wins but also on whose story wins. For them, this means shutting down contending views, literally erasing those views from public discourse by coercion, if necessary, and restricting that voluntary component on which true soft power depends."
She pointed out that these tactics go beyond controlling the narrative within China, citing an example of African journalists working in Africa and hired by Chinese state media who were not allowed to report negatively about their own African governments.
Kalathil also argued that democracies do not yet know which metrics should be used to measure the success of autocracies’ sharp power efforts, noting that public approval or "winning hearts and minds" might not necessarily be the right metric, such as when measuring the success of soft power efforts.
"Today, in the face of successful Chinese control of the internet and Russia’s interference in the 2016 American election, the democracies find themselves on the defensive."
"How do you show self-censorship, for example?" she asked. "Also, people to people exchanges—which are usually considered some of the most fundamental ways by which countries can engage in soft power—can at times shade into sharp power. We in the democracies need to be fully aware of the conditions that surround our expectations for these exchanges and the expectations on the other side. For example, when Chinese students come to the United States, are they really free to speak their minds? Do they really feel as though they are getting the most out of that exchange experience without feeling some pressure to self-censor?"
Kalathil argued that democracies should live by their democratic values while calling out authoritarian behavior and avoid engaging in xenophobic activities that would diminish their true soft power.
Both Nye and Kalathil said there needs to be greater transparency on the part of universities and other institutions in democracies who have partnerships with cultural institutions such as China’s Confucius Institute to determine whether benign cultural activities start becoming manipulative sources of sharp power.
"We shouldn’t kid ourselves that people in China can go against the wishes of the Communist Party," said Nye. "On the other hand, we benefit from having contact with Chinese students. We can slightly open their minds or give them broader perspectives. It doesn’t help us to close down these institutions, but we are going to have to monitor them more carefully. We have to set the value framework."
"Democracies need to get off the back foot and understand it’s not just a case of reinvigorating institutions that may have been effective during the Cold War, but rethinking how democracies can most effectively project their voices and define their values."
Nye and Kalathil agreed that the closing of the U.S. Information Agency in the late 1990s was a mistake, noting that institutions such as USIA would be valuable instruments in the information warfare playing out today. Nye pointed out that USIA recognized that developing soft power takes time.
"The closing of USIA and other moments where the United States and other democracies retreated from that space were emblematic of that post-Cold War moment where the defining sentiment seemed to be, ‘Well, we won, so let’s pack it in,’" said Kalathil. “Now we’ve arrived at this post-post-Cold War moment. That’s a terrible term for it and we’re still trying to define what the current era is. Someone defined it as an era of ‘strategic competition between authoritarian regimes and democracies.’ If that’s the case, democracies need to get off the back foot and understand it’s not just a case of reinvigorating institutions that may have been effective during the Cold War, but rethinking how democracies can most effectively project their voices and define their values."
Justin Chapman is the Communications Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy.
Learn more about the Summer Teleconference Series and read summaries of previous installments in the series.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.