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  • Documents on Democracy


On December 6, the National Endowment for Democracy's International Forum for Democratic Studies convened a half-day conference to launch its new report, "Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence." (See p. 187 below.) The report assesses Chinese and Russian efforts to influence the media, culture, and academic spheres in young democracies, and proposes a new conceptual vocabulary to define this variant of nonmilitary power. Excerpts from the report appear below:

Over the past decade, China and Russia have spent billions of dollars to shape public opinion and perceptions around the world, employing a diverse toolkit that includes thousands of people-to-people exchanges, wideranging cultural activities, educational programs, and the development of media enterprises and information initiatives with global reach. As memory of the Cold War era receded, analysts, journalists, and policymakers in the democracies came to see authoritarian influence efforts through the familiar lens of "soft power." But some of the most visible authoritarian influence techniques used by countries such as China and Russia, while not "hard" in the openly coercive sense, are not really "soft" either.

Contrary to some prevailing analysis, the attempt by Beijing and Moscow to wield influence through initiatives in the spheres of media, culture, think tanks, and academia is neither a "charm offensive" nor an effort to "win hearts and minds," the common frame of reference for "soft power" efforts. This authoritarian influence is not principally about attraction or even persuasion; instead, it centers on distraction and manipulation. These ambitious authoritarian regimes, which systematically suppress political pluralism and free expression at home, are increasingly seeking to apply similar principles internationally to secure their interests.

We are in need of a new vocabulary for this phenomenon. What we have to date understood as authoritarian "soft power" is better categorized as "sharp power" that pierces, penetrates, or perforates the political and information environments in the targeted countries. In the new competition [End Page 180] that is under way between autocratic and democratic states, the repressive regimes' "sharp power" techniques should be seen as the tip of their dagger—or indeed as their syringe. …

Taken separately, authoritarian influence efforts in particular countries may seem fairly harmless or ineffectual. However, when the seemingly disparate activities of Russia and China around the world are added together, a far more disturbing picture emerges.

This report suggests that even exchange-related activities backed by authoritarian governments should be approached with greater skepticism. Although some of these initiatives may appear to advance admirable goals, many are designed to promote a particular political narrative, which in turn creates favorable conditions for authoritarian regimes.

While there are differences in the shape and tone of the Chinese and Russian approaches, both stem from an ideological model that privileges state power over individual liberty and is fundamentally hostile to free expression, open debate, and independent thought. At the same time, both Beijing and Moscow clearly take advantage of the openness of democratic systems. …

Journalists, think tank analysts, and other policy elites need to recognize authoritarian influence efforts in the realm of ideas for what they are: corrosive and subversive "sharp power" instruments that do real damage to the targeted democratic societies. The conceptual vocabulary that has been used since the Cold War's end no longer seems adequate to the contemporary situation.


Following a tumultuous week defined by Robert Mugabe's detention by the military and his expulsion from the ZANU-PF ruling party, Mugabe announced his resignation from the presidency on November 21 after 37 years of uninterrupted rule. On November 24, Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa delivered his inaugural address as interim president, calling for a new era of internationalism and growth. Excerpts from his address appear below:

For close to two decades now, this country went through many developments. While we cannot change the past, there is a lot we can do in the present and future to give our nation a different, positive direction. As we do so, we should never remain hostages to our past. …

Our country is all ready for a sturdy reengagement program with all the nations of the world. … Whatever misunderstandings may have subsisted in the past, let these make way to a...