It is Wrong to Call Russian and Chinese Disruptive Efforts "Sharp Power"

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By Andras Simonyi and Judit Trunkos

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a venerable Washington D.C. based non-profit, just released their new foreign policy analysis titled “Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence”. The report is highlighting Russia’s and China’s strategic global power use. The fundamental message of the report is the important recognition that both Russia and China are spreading their influences around the world via their not so soft soft-power strategically, deliberately, systematically and consistently.

Without a doubt Putin and Xi Jinping have "rediscovered" something that unfortunately in many Western countries is a forgotten statecraft, namely the importance of the "softer-power toolbox" to further foreign policy goals. The report is right in the recognition of Putin’s and Xi Jinping’s consistent and explicit application of "soft-power" instruments in the form of cultural, educational, media and other outlets. While Russia and China apply their influence differently, the end result is their continued creative and innovative ways in their efforts to impact the foreign public and extend their influence internationally. No doubt they have come a long way in the past thirty years since the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.

The traditional use of propaganda was easily recognized, but this current application is not always so obvious. Russia and China added to the well-known propaganda tools in the form of widespread corruption, distorted elections, massive use of fake news, intimidation of civil society at home and abroad, and the widespread use of an amorphous diaspora for their strategic purposes.

The Ned publication correctly recognizes the differences in the two authoritarian governments’ approaches, however, they also let the reader believe that this foreign policy approach is something new. The presentation of the "sharp-power" concept as new deserves a deeper analysis. While we strongly agree that China’s and Russia’s strategic use of the so-called soft power tools all over the world needs attention, calling it sharp-power [it is now out of the box] might mislead us to believe that it is something entirely new. If there is a desire to create a new name however, calling it "sharp-power" is misleading. What it is really, is a modernized version of what during the Cold War was plain and simple good old propaganda, active measures and KGB style interference in foreign countries’ politics.

Joseph Nye’s concept and definition of soft power as the ability to get what you want through attraction as opposed to coercion, is no doubt an important aspect of foreign policy, East or West. What changed is the way these "soft-power" instruments are applied today via technology including social media and local activists to attempt to sway the public opinion. But then the Soviets never shied away from dispatching their operatives to mess with democracies in the West, keep an eye on their serfdoms in the East. Russia uses this strategy to especially target vulnerable and weak democracies and attempt to destabilize politics so than they can then come in and offer their solution. China on the other hand seems more benign, but is especially in Asia and Australia, and lately in Eastern Europe equally aggressive. Both countries seek to extend their influence internationally and today they rely on instruments we would call "soft-power" tools. However, their use and understanding of "soft-power" differs from that of the Western democracies. For both, it has become a way to "coerce, while pretending to attract," softened if you will by thinly veiled cultural cooperation. The less educated or confused public, corrupt and authoritarian politicians across the globe are prime targets, and millions no doubt fall for it.

Traveling back in time to the Cold War’s bipolar system Western democracies, primarily the United States, attracted millions behind the Iron Curtain with rock and roll and jazz, the movies and television, goods, including fashion items like Levi's jeans. The attraction of the West was overwhelming. Radio Free Europe and Voice of America was of course "state owned", but they were mere facilitators. The image of the real West was attractive, period. The USSR attempted to amaze its foreign audience with technological innovations such as Sputnik. But the image of the real Soviet Union with its suppression, its authoritarian rule, with the Gulags, the absence of the freedom of speech, the shabby products and way of life was not attractive.

In this sense, there is nothing new about this “sharp” approach. It is simply the application of power soft in its appearance, hard on impact and intent to achieve short and long term foreign policy goals. While NED’s observation is very important regarding Russia’s [and China's] targeting and attempted weakening of democracies, in terms of its foreign policy instrument selection, this is more like an upgraded version of their propaganda with a more sophisticated and selective means of delivery.

Calling it “sharp power” is way too nice of a description of the damage inflicted by Russian and Chinese efforts to disrupt. On the other hand, do not blame them for launching their power tools. Let’s rather ask ourselves why we the "sophisticated West" in our complacency have yielded territory to both Russia and China in their effort to disrupt our societies through technologies and techniques we ourselves have invented? Why we have allowed our institutions of education become the strongholds of support for both Russia and China? Why the shine of our own soft power, our attraction has faded so much in the past twenty years?

We need to ask why we are not bolder in spreading the message, not through disruption and coercion, but open and honest, transparent and critical information, that democracy, freedom of speech and independent civil society and not authoritarian rule is the road to long term success.

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