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China’s Soft and Sharp Power

As democracies respond to China’s use of information warfare, they have to be careful not to overreact. Much of the soft power that democracies wield comes from civil society, which means that these countries' openness is a crucial asset.

CAMBRIDGE – China has invested billions of dollars to increase its soft power, but it has recently suffered a backlash in democratic countries. A new report by the National Endowment for Democracy argues that we need to re-think soft power, because “the conceptual vocabulary that has been used since the Cold War’s end no longer seems adequate to the contemporary situation.”

The report describes the new authoritarian influences being felt around the world as “sharp power.” A recent cover article in The Economist defines “sharp power” by its reliance on “subversion, bullying and pressure, which combine to promote self-censorship.” Whereas soft power harnesses the allure of culture and values to augment a country’s strength, sharp power helps authoritarian regimes compel behavior at home and manipulate opinion abroad.

The term “soft power” – the ability to affect others by attraction and persuasion rather than the hard power of coercion and payment – is sometimes used to describe any exercise of power that does not involve the use of force. But that is a mistake. Power sometimes depends on whose army or economy wins, but it can also depend on whose story wins.

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