Sharp power is the use of manipulative diplomatic policies by one country to influence and undermine the political system of a target country. Sharp power can include attempts by one country to manipulate and manage information about itself in the news media and educational systems of another country, for the purpose of misleading or dividing public opinion in a target country, or for masking or diverting attention away from negative information about itself.
Sharp power is distinguished from soft power, which are attractive policies that project a positive impression of one country and promote greater understanding with another country, ultimately to influence the decisions of another country through persuasion. Soft power policies can include student exchanges and the sponsoring of cultural and sporting events. Sharp power is also distinct from hard power, which are coercive policies by one country to compel another country into taking action or changing its decisions. Hard power can include military force, economic sanctions, and diplomatic threats.
The term "sharp power" was coined in November of 2017 by the National Endowment for Democracy, and published in an article in Foreign Affairs Magazine, to describe aggressive and subversive policies employed by authoritarian governments as a projection of state power in democratic countries, policies that cannot be described as either hard power or soft power. The NED article specifically names the Russian state-funded RT News Network and the Chinese state-sponsored Confucius Institute educational partnerships as examples of sharp power. According NED, autocratic states "are not necessarily seeking to 'win hearts and minds,' the common frame of reference for soft power efforts, but they are surely seeking to manipulate their target audiences by distorting the information that reaches them."
Since 2018, the term "sharp power" has been used in news articles, scholarly discussions, and Congressional hearings. Even representatives of the Chinese Communist Party have used the term, dismissing Western claims that their country has engaged in sharp power practices.
- Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig (Nov 16, 2017). "The Meaning of Sharp Power: How Authoritarian States Project Influence". Foreign Affairs.
- "Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference spokesman addresses Western charges of China using 'sharp power'". China Global Television Network. Mar 2, 2018.
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- Walker, Christopher, and Ludwig, Jessica. The Meaning of Sharp Power: How Authoritarian States Project Influence. Foreign Affairs (November 16, 2017). https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2017-11-16/meaning-sharp-power
- "From 'Soft Power' to 'Sharp Power': Revisiting the Conceptual Vocabulary." National Endowment for Democracy. December 8, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAmNcLYu-3w
- "Rubio Chairs China Commission Hearing on Beijing's Exporting of Authoritarianism." Senator Marco Rubio (December 13, 2017). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0H4OuSJVHdQ&feature=youtu.be&t=10m58s
- "Sunlight v subversion: What to do about China’s 'sharp power'." The Economist (December 14, 2017). https://www.economist.com/leaders/2017/12/14/what-to-do-about-chinas-sharp-power
- "Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference spokesman addresses Western charges of China using 'sharp power'." CGTN (March 2, 2018). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLe5ZF6qeX8
- "China's Sharp and Soft Power." The Stimson Center (May 31, 2018). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Dx8aBAhaUw&feature=youtu.be&t=29m11s
- "Sharp Power, The Growing Challenge to Democracy." The Heritage Foundation (June 6, 2018). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2yPK_GxxeSU