In recent years, Russia and China have poured considerable resources into arenas typically associated with “soft power,” a term coined by the American political scientist Joseph S. Nye and understood as the “ability to affect others by attraction and persuasion.” Either directly or through compliant surrogates, these two countries have devoted billions of dollars to increasing their global influence through media, culture, think tanks, academia, and other spheres.
Despite these immense investments, however, observers – including Nye himself – have scratched their heads, wondering why these authoritarian regimes continue to suffer a deep soft-power deficit, even as they have grown more assertive internationally.
Russia and China tend to do poorly in global public opinion surveys and indices of soft power, reinforcing the notion that attraction and persuasion are incompatible with authoritarianism. Internationally, autocrats are not “winning hearts and minds.” Nonetheless, Russia, China, and other well-resourced and ambitious regimes are projecting more influence beyond their borders than at any time in recent memory – and not principally through what Nye calls “hard power”: military might or raw economic coercion.
To be sure, Russia has used military force with some frequency in the last decade – in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, for example. But Russia’s fighter jets and tanks are not driving Moscow’s global surge in influence. Similarly, China is flexing its military muscles in the South China Sea and along its disputed border with India. But, like Russia, China has been far more active using other forms of influence over the last decade.
Theorists are therefore in a bind: these regimes are not relying chiefly on hard power, are unsuccessful at generating soft power, but are still able to project real influence abroad. Given the resurgence of authoritarianism around the world, it is an opportune time to reflect on this apparent paradox.
The Financial Times recently observed that in China’s “efforts to build soft power outside its borders,” the country “needs to tread more lightly and take a more reciprocal and less authoritarian approach.” In a recent commentary, Nye makes the similar observation that “China could generate more soft power if it would relax some of its tight party control over civil society.” The same could be said of Russia and other countries with governments that prioritize state control over openness, independent culture, and civil society – all of which are crucial ingredients of soft power.
But such exhortations to Chinese or Russian authorities are bound to fall on deaf ears. Any significant liberalization would contradict these regimes’ own political needs and objectives to retain control at any cost.
The analytical trap is to assume that authoritarian governments, which suppress political pluralism and free expression in order to maintain power at home, would be inclined to act differently internationally. These regimes have shrewdly adopted some of the forms, but not the substance, of soft power. What they pursue is better understood as “sharp power,” whose key attributes are outward-facing censorship, manipulation, and distraction, rather than persuasion and attraction.
While “information warfare” forms a part of the authoritarians’ repertoire, it is by itself an inadequate description of sharp power. Much activity undertaken by authoritarian regimes – whether it is China in Latin America, or Russia in Central Europe – falls outside of this definition, as colleagues and I detailed in a December 2017 report, “Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence.”
With hindsight, we can see the misconception that took hold at the end of the Cold War, when conventional analysis assumed that authoritarian regimes would liberalize and democratize. Nearly three decades ago, when the United States emerged from the Cold War as a global hegemon and the term soft power was introduced, political analysts did not take sufficient account of regimes like the ones in control of Russia and China today.
As my colleague Jessica Ludwig and I wrote in Foreign Affairs in November, “the democracies’ complacency concerning the evolution of malign, sharp power has been informed by their reliance on the soft power paradigm.” Analysts who view the authoritarians’ behavior in terms of efforts “to boost their countries’ soft power are missing the mark and risk perpetuating a false sense of security.”
A sound diagnosis is necessary in order to devise an appropriate response. Authoritarian governments are not playing by the rules governing democracies. Systematic repression is the autocratic regimes’ calling card, and the “sharp power” they generate cannot be shoehorned into the familiar and reassuring framework of “soft power.” Without more precise terminology, the world’s democracies will have little hope of countering these states’ increasingly multifaceted influence.