The New Concept of “Sharp Power” in International Politics: A Critique
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By John F. Copper

The New Concept of “Sharp Power” in International Politics: A Critique

Feb. 15, 2018  |     |  0 comments

Late 2017, two American scholars, Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig, penned an article entitled “The Meaning of Sharp Power: How Authoritarian States Project Influence.” In this piece the authors coin a new term for observers of global affairs.

Sharp power, Walker and Ludwig say, is neither soft power nor hard power, two concepts frequently used by international relations scholars but also by journalists, pundits, and others to describe the nature of nations’ influence. Sharp power is different, they assert.

Soft power is based on attraction, which is generated by a nation’s culture, politics, external behavior, etc., and it comes from a “vibrant, independent civil society.” Hard power, in contrast, is coercion stemming from a country’s military and/or economic might.

Sharp power may be seen as something in between but more precisely is something unique. It employs distraction and manipulation, which authoritarian regimes use at home “to suppress political pluralism and free expression” that they then apply to their external relations. The two nations that are guilty of this, the authors posit, are Russia and China.

Simply put, Russia interferes in Western countries’ democratic processes and spreads disinformation. China spends billions of dollars to establish Confucius Institutes and buy into media outlets abroad.

Walker and Ludwig subsequently elaborated on the significance of sharp power in a rather long study sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy (where Walker serves as Vice President for Studies and Analysis). Their introduction to the work is entitled “From ‘Soft Power’ to ‘Sharp Power’: Rising Authoritarian Influence in a Democratic World.” Chapters by other scholars follow that look at sharp power’s nefarious influence on several new democracies.

To the point, Walker and Ludwig charge that Russia in the past decade plus has established a propaganda-style television network, Russia Today; has increased support for state-affiliated policy institutes that operate externally; has manipulated online information; and has built a “web” of contacts “designed to alter international views to its advantage.” Through this use of sharp power Russia has propagated the idea that the workings and goals of its “kleptocratic regime” comport with those of Western democracies.

China, the authors accuse, disrespects academic freedom where its government operates Confucius Institutes on college and university campuses abroad, induces self-censorship on issues such as Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang, and promotes “Xi Jinping Thought.”

Joseph Nye, professor at Harvard University and the doyen of the concept of soft power, has given his blessing to the new idea of sharp power. In an article entitled “How Sharp Power Threatens Soft Power: The Right and Wrong Ways to Respond to Authoritarian Influence,” Nye says Russia and China are conducting “information warfare” — citing in particular Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election and China’s efforts to control the discussion of sensitive topics in American publications, movies, and classrooms.

Democracies, Nye warns, must “inoculate themselves against malign authoritarian influence.” But this is not easy, he admits, since the line between soft power and sharp power is not always clear.

Walker and Ludwig and certainly Nye have made interesting and possibly very useful points. But one has to also consider flaws in their arguments and some salient counterarguments.

First off, Professor Nye notes that all countries employ both hard and soft power (though the latter is preferred). Arguably mixing the two constitutes bastardizing both and is not perceptively so different from sharp power. Anyway, sharp power may be a tool employed naturally and by regimes other than authoritarian ones.

Then, are there not other authoritarian regimes that use sharp power? North Korea and Iran come to mind. Perhaps Cuba.

In addition, many readers will note that the recent Trump administration’s National Security Strategy report, which came out at almost the same time as the Walker/Ludwig article, also singles out Russia and China as the bad guys or threats. Since the NSS publication is intended to support President Trump’s bid for greater budget support for the US military and may even be linked to the fall election, one has to wonder if the authors’ introduction of the concept of sharp power may be intended to hook onto a trend.

Another issue is that the proponents of the idea of sharp power speak of one of its components being fake news. Nye even cites the canard of Hillary Clinton being smeared by reports of her campaign manager having abused children in a Washington restaurant (“Pizzagate”).

Yet there are few people that don’t believe the main purveyor of fake news is the liberal Western media and that its two targets are President Trump and China and that their very focused antipathy toward the two is the main driver of their work.

The advocates of sharp power appear to brand China mainly because of it menacing the Western-built liberal world order.

One might also wonder if the success of sharp power stems from the fact, as Nye states, many democratic countries “have not developed adequate strategies for deterrence and resilience.” But why not? The answer may reside in the fact democracies are in serious decline in both the West and among developing countries.

According to a recently published report by Freedom House, entitled “Freedom in the world 2017,” democracies have been in retreat around the world for more than a decade. Opinion polls in the US and Europe indicate a sizeable portion of their populations are dismayed by democratic governments’ elitism and/or simply do not believe in democracy anymore.

Some attribute this to the widespread belief (cum fear) among citizens in many Western democracies of the deep state. In fact, a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that nearly half of Americans believe the deep state is working behind a “façade of constitutional government” and manipulates policies and citizens behavior.

Related to this, readers may wonder if the main reason the authors assail Russia and use the term sharp power to do that is its alleged succoring of Donald Trump to win the US presidential election in 2016. They had already concluded Trump is a threat to liberal democracy — even though the situation that causes them distress was palpable long before Trump entered the political scene in the United States, and Trump has been seriously at odds with the deep state.

The advocates of sharp power appear to brand China mainly because of it menacing the Western-built liberal world order. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a case in point — a huge project that connects East Asia, Central Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia and will involve more than 100 countries. It will cost more than a trillion dollars (that may grow to as much as 8 trillion) and eclipse anything the US has done (its biggest project was the Marshall Plan to facilitate Europe’s recovery after World War II at a cost, in current dollars, of something over 100 billion).

Alas, China has created a new global financial structure that is centered in China and which Beijing controls. In the process China has become known as the “world’s builder” — an honorific that used to belong to the West.

Meanwhile, China has become an icon for its role in eliminating global poverty and helping developing countries grow their economies. According to the Economist, China is to be credited for three quarters of the progress made in global growth set forth in the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. African leaders state that their region boasts the second highest economic growth rate in the world (after Asia) and this they attribute to China’s foreign aid and investments. This is not good news to the supporters of the Western world order.

Then, President Xi’s world order is refreshingly new and different. It is based on a “community of shared human destiny” — a new kind of globalization wherein Cold War security alliances are replaced by a system of common security. Xi wants a global system that is equitable, inclusive, and fair.

The West’s world order, which Walker and Ludwig and also Nye strive to preserve, assumes anarchy and is based on military power and a winner-take-all dynamic. To many, especially in developing countries, it is also associated with the worst aspects of capitalism, imperialism and colonialism. Furthermore, as Richard Haass argues in his book A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order, it is unsustainable and on the verge of collapse.

Walker and Ludwig also castigate China for spending $10 billion on buying into the global media. But, since the global media is controlled by liberal news organizations, this should be seen as a positive event inasmuch as it offers more diversity of views and breaks the monopoly of the Western liberal news organizations that are increasingly biased in their reporting. Anyway, $10 billion is not a lot when compared with the money China spends on global economic development and what the Western media spends on pushing its narratives.

The two pointedly criticize Joshua Kurlantzick, the respected author of Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World (2008). They do not like Kurlantzick’s praise of China’s use of diplomacy, trade, and cultural and educational exchanges that Kurlantzick says demonstrates China’s successful economic model and its use of a new style of diplomacy to rise fast in international influence.

They must also be vexed by Kurlantzick’s subsequent books: Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government (2014) and State Capitalism: How the Return of Statism is Transforming the World (2016). The former assesses in depth the reasons behind the decline of democracy. The latter examines China’s economic success and its impact on the world and widespread admiration for its political system.

Another quibble about China’s use of sharp power is its efforts to influence academe and Hollywood in the US. But this may be said to offset to some extent the racism found in these institutions as practiced against Asians and Chinese in particular: bias in admission to the best universities in the U.S., anti-oriental stereotypes in Hollywood’s movies, and television shows that rarely feature (especially in a positive way) Chinese.

In conclusion, soft power and hard power are arguably useful concepts to elucidate nations’ abilities to exert influence in international affair, though the definitions of the two need to be refined to catch up with recent profound changes in the nature of international politics. The concept of sharp power doesn’t help.

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