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After hard, soft and smart, it’s sharp power

Adil Rasheed

Published: Updated:

The verbiage of the still evolving discipline of international relations grows thicker and more prolix by the day, making it ever more difficult for its exponents to keep pace with new ideas. It was in the early 90s when American political scientist Joseph Nye introduced the concept of ‘soft power’ and by the time US government started acknowledging its importance in mid-2000s, the Harvard professor introduced another concept ‘smart power’ as an extension of his earlier theoretical premise.

Power to influence

In recent months, a new term has caught the fancy of American political experts - ‘sharp power’. The coinage has not only been bandied as a legitimate concept in international relations, it is claimed that it is fast making redundant the post-Cold War terminologies of ‘hard’ power’, ‘soft power’ and ‘smart power’. Calling for a rethink of ‘soft power’, a report by the National Endowment for Democracy published last December argues: “the conceptual vocabulary that has been used since the Cold War’s end no longer seems adequate to the contemporary situation.”

To the less sanguine, ‘sharp power’ may be a hybrid of ‘hard power’ and ‘soft power’ or a sub-set of one of them. However, to its detractors the newly minted term is not a legitimate political concept but a mere instrument of information warfare launched by ‘motivated’ Western academia against the rise of China and Russia as influential ‘soft powers’.

The concept of ‘sharp power’ was first introduced in a paper ‘The Meaning of Sharp Power: How Authoritarian States Project Influence’ by Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig that was published in the noted US magazine on international relations Foreign Affairs on 16 November 2017. It was abstracted from their then upcoming report in International Forum for Democratic Studies titled: ‘Soft Power to Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence in the Democratic World’.

One of the great dangers of sharp power is that democracies might be tempted to imitate the sharp power tools of authoritarian regimes

Adil Rasheed

The paper expounds Nye’s definition of hard power and soft power in order to then elucidate the concept of sharp power. It states that Nye conceived hard power as based on coercion, and largely being the function of a country’s military or economic might through threat or payment. In contrast, soft power was “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”. Thus, soft power covers diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action, economic reconstruction and development, as well as cultural influence like art, literature, music, cinema, design, fashion, and even food.

In addition, smart power is the careful calibration of hard power and soft power to achieve political objectives against a target country or bloc, and refers to “an approach that underscores the necessity of a strong military, but also invests heavily in alliances, partnerships, and institutions of all levels to expand one's influence and establish legitimacy of one's action.”

New coinage

However, in recent months some Western political scientists have come up with the prevalence of a different power dynamic in the sphere of international relations, which they describe as ‘sharp power’. According to these academicians, ‘authoritarian states’ like Russia and China employ techniques of influence that may not be considered either ‘hard’ in an openly coercive sense or ‘soft’ as they are neither benign nor persuasive in their methods. In fact, far from using attraction and persuasion their attempt is supposed to cause distraction and manipulation. An article in The Economist recently defined “sharp power” by its reliance on “subversion, bullying and pressure, which combine to promote self-censorship.”

According to the proponents of this new concept some countries “pierce, penetrate, or perforate the political and information environments in the targeted countries,” and thus their method of influence is neither ‘soft’ or hard’ but ‘sharp’. These political scientists particularly blame China and Russia for using ‘sharp power’ to promote their national interests in the international sphere.

The argument here is that authoritarian states exploit freedoms in the Western world to covertly propagate their partisan and illiberal views. The proponents of ‘sharp power’ openly blame Russia and China for having opened media outlets and global television channels to manipulate news or establish educational or cultural centres abroad to “monopolize ideas, suppress alternative narratives, and exploit partner institutions.” It is also alleged that certain countries influence important politicians in the Western world or give election donations to political parties in order to effect change in a country’s leadership and policies.

Sharp and invasive

Interestingly, this theory of ‘sharp power’ comes in the wake of ongoing investigations by the FBI (US’ domestic intelligence agency) into charges that a top Russian banker having links with the Kremlin illegally moved money to fund President Trump’s election campaign in 2016. In Australia, Labor senator Sam Dastyari quit his country’s senate after reports that he had received money from a billionaire with ties to the Chinese government. The senator was known to have contradicted his country’s official position on the territorial dispute with China over the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, Germany’s spy agency has also accused China of contacting about 10,000 German citizens through social media, which includes legislators and civil servants, in the hope of ‘gleaning information and recruiting sources.’ It alleges that China has been using the LinkedIn business network to ensnare politicians and government officials, by having people posing as recruiters and think-tankers and offering free trips.

Western press reports also talk about China “grooming up-and-coming politicians from Britain, especially those with business links to the country”. In fact, Anne-Marie Brady of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand has gone to the extent of calling the use of ‘sharp power’ by China and Russia as the “new global battle”.

War of words

For its part, China has called the entire argument about its alleged ‘sharp power’ as “irresponsible and paranoid”. It attributes such allegations as a sign of anxiety among major powers towards the country’s growing international influence. As for Joseph Nye, the political pundit claims that one of the great dangers of sharp power is that democracies might be tempted to imitate sharp power tools of authoritarian regimes and lose their openness and soft power, which he deems as vital assets.

However, there are cynics who contend that the so-called sharp power tools and information warfare techniques are not the inventions or the exclusive preserve of China or Russia and have been used by secret services (particularly, espionage and manipulation) of various countries including democracies for a very long time.

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Dr. Adil Rasheed is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence and Strategic Analyses (IDSA) based in New Delhi since August 2016. For over 20 years, he has been a journalist, researcher, political commentator for various international think tanks and media organizations, both in the United Arab Emirates and India. He was Senior Research Fellow at the United Services Institution of India (USI) for two years from 2014 to 2016, where he still holds the honorary title of Distinguished Fellow. He has also worked at the Abu Dhabi-based think tank The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) for eight years (2006-14).

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