How democracies can counter authoritarian sharp power


All around the world, authoritarian governments are interfering with the institutions of democratic societies in ways that would have been unthinkable even during the Cold War, according to the National Endowment for Democracy’s Christopher WalkerShanthi Kalathil, and Jessica Ludwig.

Universities, news organizations, think tanks, film studios, museums, publishing houses, and every aspect of the political process are being targeted by outside influence. This kind of sharp power is so effective because institutions in democratic settings are open to the outside world and thus vulnerable to foreign manipulation. Policymakers within democracies need to grapple with the challenge of repelling outside influence while upholding essential democratic values, they write for Foreign Affairs.

The authoritarians’ full-spectrum approach demands an equally comprehensive response by democracies, with civil society playing a key role, they suggest:

Australia’s experience also shows that democracies cannot rely solely on governmental measures to address such a complex challenge. The world is still at an early stage of dealing with sharp power. … Journalists, civil society organizations, and country and subject matter experts must work together—within their own countries and with international counterparts—to analyze events, share information, and combine expertise. They should consider how they can agree upon common institutional standards to safeguard the integrity of the public sphere within their democracies.

Ideological architecture

China has been reshuffling its propaganda and censorship chiefs, according to reports, in an effort to “improve the country’s image abroad and ensure online views toe the Communist Party’s line.”

Democracies are increasingly vulnerable to the “sharp power” tactics of authoritarian regimes but should not adopt these same tactics in response, Harvard University’s Dr. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., and the NED’s Ms. Kalathil told Pacific Council members in the fourth installment of the 2018 Summer Teleconference Series, on the rise of authoritarianism.

Authoritarian regimes’ sharp power initiatives “were not necessarily aimed at winning hearts and minds in the general publics of the democracies, but instead they sought to manipulate the information environment by encouraging policy elites and thought leaders in the democracies to adopt particular narratives while at the same time acting to preempt, neutralize, and censor criticism of their regimes,” said the NED’s Ludwig, co-author of the report titled “Sharp Power”: Rising Authoritarian Influence in the Democratic World.

Authoritarian regimes tend to project values externally that they live by internally, Kalathil argued.

“When we examine the ways the major authoritarian regimes engage internationally we start to see how this manifests itself through what we call sharp power,” she said. “In China, the Communist Party is well aware that power depends not only on whose army wins but also on whose story wins. For them, this means shutting down contending views, literally erasing those views from public discourse by coercion, if necessary, and restricting that voluntary component on which true soft power depends.”

Listen to the full conversation here.

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