Prof. V.P. Gupta, Director, Rau’s IAS Study Circle, New Delhi – Jaipur – Bengaluru

Defining Sharp Power

Sharp power is a term coined by Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig of the National Endowment for Democracy, a think-tank based in the United States. The text referred to Sharp power as a form of information warfare that is being waged by authoritarian powers such as Russia and China to shape public perceptions around the world, by using communication formats such as social media. They consider Sharp power as form of power which penetrates or perforates the political and information environments in the targeted countries by exploiting the openness of democratic societies.

Thereafter, an article in The Economist modified the understanding of Sharp power as information warfare which relies on subversion of information, bullying and pressure tactics that seeks to promote self-censorship by targeted audiences in other countries. Sharp power therefore is a behavioural aspect of International relations that uses information, both genuine and fake, as a warfare tool to weaken the targeted country by augmenting the socio-political cleavages in the targeted country. Moreover, it seeks to control the flow of negative information about itself by using economic sanctions, threats, etc. on media houses, research institutes and other forms of pressure tactics.

Hard and Soft Power

The term Soft power, as coined and defined by Joseph Nye Jr., harnesses the allure of culture and values of a country to enhance a country’s strength and the ability to affect other countries by attraction and persuasion. While, Hard power is the ability to affect other countries by coercion and payment. According toJoseph Nye Jr., if someone puts a gun to your head and demands your wallet, it does not matter what you want or think. That is Hard power. If that person is trying to persuade you to freely give up your wallet, everything depends on what you want or think. That is Soft power.

Soft power is rarely sufficient on its own for power projection, but when coupled with Hard power, it is a force multiplier. Power thereby depends on whose army wins, but it also depends on whose narrative also wins. A strong narrative therefore is a source of power. For example, the United States may have had a military victory in the War in Vietnam but the narrative of ‘who won’ or the ‘moral victor’ is attributed to Vietnam. Similarly, Joseph Nye Jr. provides the analogy of Osama bin Laden having neither threatened nor paid the men who flew aircraft into the World Trade Center—he had attracted them with his ideas. Therefore, soft power can be used for evil ends, but its means depend on positive attributes of voluntarism, allure and attraction.

Difference between Soft and Sharp Power

The ability to harness Soft power is based upon the voluntarism of the targeted audience through forming an allure and attractive opinion, while Sharp power is based upon compelling the behaviour of the targeted audience through manipulation of opinion. The distinction between Soft power and Sharp power becomes hard to discern wherein which action would constitute voluntarism or a compelling scenario, or which information is targeted to attain allure or manipulation. Sharp and Soft power therefore are also inversely proportional to each other.

Joseph Nye Jr. considers that all information to enhance Soft power provides the ability for the
audience to choose on how to frame that information. Only when that information attempts to limit the framing ability of the targeted audience, the information delves into deliberate deception and a mean to coerce and not allure the targeted audience. He concludes by asserting that it is this quality—openness and limits on deliberate deception—that distinguishes Soft power from Sharp power since without proper disclosure, the principle of voluntarism has been breached. Sharp power through the deceptive use of information for hostile purposes, therefore becomes closer to Hard power.

Using Sharp Power

The manipulation of socio-political perceptions and electoral processes has been resorted to by the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union in other countries during the Cold War, to reduce the attractiveness of ideological frameworks of communism and free-market economics respectively in foreign countries. Similarly, the private sector such as Cambridge Analytica, Facebook hearing in US Congress, etc. have become, knowingly and otherwise, as means of information warfare by Russia to manipulate electoral processes such as in United States and increasing the socio-political cleavages such as between Brexit voters in UK.

The fear from China, as earlier with US and the USSR during Cold War, is that it seeks to conquer foreign minds with its thoughts and ideas. Australia became the first nation to raise a red flag against Chinese tactics of Sharp power with allegations of interference in research in Australian universities and publishing houses, bribing members of Australian parliament for positive image construction in Australian parliamentary discourse, barring critical researchers from access into China, spying on Chinese diaspora and other tactics.  

Information through government-backed formats does not necessarily mean they are a Sharp power threat. Al-Jazeera, BBC,  Doordarshan, etc. are government-backed institutions but it is only when they use deceptive information for hostile purposes such as forming animosity between groups in other countries, promoting civil disobedience, etc., it is then that the actions of these institutions can be treated as Sharp power projection. The use of information warfare by Pakistan through separatist organisations and PTV to promote communal and ethnic feud in Kashmir can be attributed as Sharp power projections.  

Democratic societies are more prone in providing opportunities for other countries to employ techniques of information warfare since hostile information even after identification becomes protected as fundamental freedom till decided otherwise. This leaves an opportunity to only countering information with information as means to protect against malign influence. This identification and countering ability by democratic societies such as India therefore becomes essential.

Chinese Response to Label

China has asserted that the new expression of ‘Sharp power’ has been concocted by the West to vilify China and is a continued reflection of Cold War mentality of portraying Western adversaries with negative labels. Chinese media has highlighted the controversial conditionality’s prescribed by Western organisations such as International Monetary Fund, World Bank, etc. as form of socio-political interference in recipient countries, in contrast to Chinese developmental aid approach of providing recipient countries to choose their own independent trajectories and developmental requirements. They further highlight the example of the US and UK who lobbied for invasion of Iraq using fake information of presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Moreover, Rupert Murdoch, a US citizen, owns two thirds of Australian media and was persecuted in UK for ‘fake news’ and political lobbying in the United States. Similarly, the US President Donald Trump and the American media have accused each other of providing ‘fake information’ to the public. These and other several acts showcase the use of Sharp power by Western countries, wherein the projection by an American think-tank of China as using Sharp power and the subsequent reiteration by Western or West-sponsored media across the world is in itself an example of deceptive use of information against China for hostile purposes of portraying China as a coercive rising power.

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