Sun, Jan 07, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Defending against China’s soft and sharp power

As democracies respond to China’s use of information warfare, they should be careful not to overreact

By Joseph Nye

Illustration: June Hsu

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 rethink 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. However, that is a mistake. Power sometimes depends on whose army or economy wins, but it can also depend on whose story wins.

A strong narrative is a source of power. China’s economic success has generated both hard and soft power, but within limits. A Chinese economic aid package under the Belt and Road Initiative might appear benign and attractive, but not if the terms turn sour, as was recently the case in a Sri Lankan port project.

Likewise, other exercises of economic hard power undercut the soft power of China’s narrative. For example, China punished Norway for awarding a Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波). It also threatened to restrict access to the Chinese market for an Australian publisher of a book critical of China.

If we use the term sharp power as shorthand for information warfare, the contrast with soft power becomes plain. Sharp power is a type of hard power. It manipulates information, which is intangible, but intangibility is not the distinguishing characteristic of soft power. Verbal threats, for example, are both intangible and coercive.

When I introduced the concept of soft power in 1990, I wrote that it is characterized by voluntarism and indirection, while hard power rests on threats and inducements. If someone aims a gun at you, demands your money and takes your wallet, what you think and want is irrelevant. That is hard power. If he persuades you to give him your money, he has changed what you think and want. That is soft power.

Truth and openness create a dividing line between soft and sharp power in public diplomacy. When China’s official news agency, Xinhua, broadcasts openly in other countries, it is employing soft-power techniques, and we should accept that. When China Radio International covertly backs 33 radio stations in 14 countries, the boundary of sharp power has been crossed, and we should expose the breach of voluntarism.

Of course, advertising and persuasion always involve some degree of framing, which limits voluntarism, as do structural features of the social environment. However, extreme deception in framing can be viewed as coercive; though not violent, it prevents meaningful choice.

Techniques of public diplomacy that are widely viewed as propaganda cannot produce soft power. In an age of information, the scarcest resources are attention and credibility. That is why exchange programs that develop two-way communication and personal relations among students and young leaders are often far more effective generators of soft power than, say, official broadcasting.

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