Washington has been wrestling with a new term that describes an old threat. "Sharp power" refers to the information warfare being waged by today’s authoritarian powers, particularly China and Russia. That challenge is real. Yet in the face of that challenge, democratic governments and societies should avoid any temptation to imitate the methods of their adversaries or overreact in ways that undercut their advantage.
That advantage comes from "soft power" (a term I first used in a 1990 book), meaning the ability to affect others by attraction and persuasion rather than through the hard power of coercion and payment. Sharp power, the deceptive use of information for hostile purposes, is a type of "hard power."
As democracies respond to sharp power, they have to be careful not to overreact, so as not to undercut their own soft power.
Authoritarian governments have long tried to use fake news and social disruption to reduce the attractiveness of democracy through the manipulation of ideas, political perceptions, and electoral processes. Although sharp power and soft power work in very different ways, the distinction between them can be hard to discern—and that’s part of what makes responding to sharp power difficult.
As democracies respond to sharp power, they have to be careful not to overreact, so as not to undercut their own soft power by following the advice of those who advocate competing with sharp power on the authoritarian model. Even with the mounting use of sharp power, democratic governments have little to fear in open competition with autocracies for soft power. By reducing themselves to the level of their adversaries, democracies would squander their key advantage.
Read the full article at Foreign Affairs.
Dr. Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is a University Distinguished Service Professor, Emeritus, and former dean at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He will speak about "sharp power" on our August 9 teleconference.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.