As democracies respond to the sharp power of foreign actors, we must not undercut our own soft power by imitating the authoritarian model.
May 16, 2019
With Responses From
May 16, 2019
8 Min read time
The solution is more democracy, not less.
Editors’ Note: This forum is part of Boston Review's special project Democracy's Promise.
The Mueller Report has shown that the 2016 disruption of our democracy was real, whether there was collusion or not. But Farrell and Schneier remind us that the dilemma our democracy faces goes well beyond Russian interference and fake news.
In the nineteenth century, the outcome of contests for mastery of Europe depended primarily on whose army won; today, it also depends on whose story wins. Or as P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking put it in their book LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media (2018), “These new wars are not won by missiles and bombs, but by those able to shape the story lines that frame our understanding.” The use of information as an instrument of conflict and manipulation in international politics has a long history. What is new is not the basic model; it is the speed with which such disinformation can spread and the low cost of spreading it.
The distinction between soft and sharp power exposes more precisely the foreign threat we face today.
Another way to understand the international stakes of this dilemma is through the analysis of power. Soft power is the ability to get what you want through persuasion rather than coercion or payment. While it relies in part on information, it differs from the coercive manipulation of information because it rests on the voluntary agency of the subject. Soft power can be used for offensive purposes, but if the degree of manipulation is so deceptive that it destroys voluntary choice, the act becomes coercive. This manipulative use of information has recently been dubbed “sharp” power. Countries, including the United States, have long used both.
This distinction exposes more precisely the foreign threat we face today. After the Cold War, Russian elites believed that the enlargement of the European Union and NATO as well as Western efforts at democracy promotion were designed to isolate and threaten Russia. In response, they tried to develop Russian soft power by promoting an ideology of traditionalism, state sovereignty, and national exclusivity. This model attracted support in countries such as Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has promoted “illiberal democracy,” as well as among the diaspora along Russia’s borders, in impoverished countries of Central Asia, and among right-wing populist movements in Western Europe. But Russian soft power was quite limited. What the country lacks in soft power, however, it has made up with its sharp power manipulation of social media. In addition to formal public diplomacy organizations such as Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, Russian intelligence units and their proxies generate false information that can later be circulated and legitimated as if it were true. And it is easy and cheap to send such disinformation across borders.
A similar dynamic has been playing out in China. In 2007 President Hu Jintao told the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party that the country needed to increase its soft power, and it has been spending billions on broadcasting, exchange programs and Confucius Institutes to teach Chinese language and culture. China’s impressive economic performance has also added to its international reputation. The political scientist David Shambaugh estimates that China spends $10 billion a year on its soft power instruments, but it has earned a modest return on its investment. (The “Soft Power 30” index ranks China 27th, and Russia 28th, out of 30 countries assessed, far below the United States and European democracies.) But China also goes beyond soft power and tries to exercise discourse control and export censorship beyond its borders by manipulation of visas, threatening loss of access to its markets, control of its information companies, covert broadcasting and payments to foreign groups and politicians. While China has not tried to disrupt the U.S. political process to the extent that Russia has, it has used cyber and other means to intervene in politics in other countries.
Information warfare is not new, but technology has changed the nature of the challenge.
Authoritarian sharp power—exerted by Russia, China, and other countries, including North Korea and Iran—has disrupted Western democratic processes and tarnished the brands of democratic countries, but it has done little to enhance the soft power of its perpetrators. In some cases it has done the opposite. For Russia, which is focused on playing a spoiler role in international politics, that could be an acceptable cost. As a rising power, however, China requires the soft power of attraction to achieve its objectives as well as the coercive sharp power of disruption and censorship. These two goals are hard to combine. In Australia, for example, public approval of China was growing until the revelation of its use of sharp power tools, including meddling in Australian politics, set it back considerably. In other words, Chinese deceptive sharp power undercut its soft power.
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As democracies respond to sharp power, we have to be careful not to undercut our own soft power by imitating the authoritarian model. Much of U.S. soft power comes from our civil society—including Hollywood, universities, and foundations—more than from official public diplomacy efforts; closing down access or ending openness would undercut our crucial asset. Authoritarian countries such as China and Russia have trouble generating their own soft power precisely because of their unwillingness to free the potential talents in their civil societies: consider Chinese censorship of its film industry or the harassment of the artist Ai Weiwei which undercut its soft power overseas.
Soft and sharp power are hard to combine successfully in the long term: seeming arrows in the quiver of political warfare may turn out to be boomerangs.
Moreover, shutting down legitimate Chinese and Russian soft power tools can be counterproductive. For example, if China and the United States wish to avoid conflict, exchange programs that foster U.S.-China relations, and vice versa, can be good for both countries. And on transnational challenges which pose a shared threat such as climate change, soft power can help build the trust and networks that make cooperation possible. But the programs have to be open and transparent to pass the test of soft power.
It would be a mistake, therefore, to prohibit Russian and Chinese soft power efforts simply because they sometimes shade into sharp power. Congress has required that RT be registered as a foreign entity, but it should not go further and ban its broadcasts. At the same time, it is important to monitor the dividing line carefully. Take the 500 Confucius Institutes and 1,000 Confucius classrooms that China supports in universities and schools around the world to teach Chinese language and culture. Government backing does not mean they are necessarily a sharp power threat. Only when a Confucius Institute crosses the line and tries to infringe on academic freedom—as has occurred in some instances—should it be treated as sharp power intrusion and be closed.
Openness and limits on deliberate deception distinguish soft from sharp power. When RT or Xinhua broadcast openly in other countries, they are employing soft power. Similarly, properly labeled advertising in U.S. media are legitimate exercises of soft power. If their messages are too blatantly propagandistic, they will not attract support and thus fail to produce soft power, but democracies can deal with open information. When authoritarian states covertly back radio stations in other countries, or secretly promote news on social media, however, that deception crosses the line into sharp power. Transparency and proper disclosure is necessary to preserve the principle of voluntarism that is essential to soft power.
Democracies must also be careful about our own offensive information actions. It may make sense to establish a “political warfare” capability and strategy in an age of hybrid warfare, but a good strategy must be carefully designed and implemented. Public diplomacy and broadcasting should be public. It would be a mistake to imitate the authoritarians and use major programs of covert information warfare as we did in the Cold War. Such actions will not stay covert for long, and when revealed would undercut our soft power as we saw in the 1970s when many CIA covert cultural operations were disclosed. Some argue that in the information struggle against authoritarian systems, democracies should use every weapon available. But soft and sharp power are hard to combine successfully in the long term: some apparent arrows in the quiver of political warfare may turn out to be boomerangs. In the long term, central manipulation of information can make authoritarian states brittle, and openness may make democracies more resilient.
A robust defense of democracy in an age of cyber information war cannot rely on technology alone.
In the realm of defensive measures, democratic governments must counter the authoritarians’ aggressive information warfare techniques, but openness remains the ultimate defense of liberal societies. The press, academics, civic organizations, government, and the private sector should focus on exposing information warfare techniques, inoculating the public by exposure. Openness is a key source of democracies’ ability to attract and persuade. Even with the mounting use of sharp power, we have little to fear in open competition with autocracies for soft power. If we succumb to temptation and lower our standards to the level of our authoritarian adversaries, democracies will squander our key advantage.
A robust defense of democracy in an age of cyber information war cannot rely on technology alone. It will require a strategy with several strands—domestic resilience, as Farrell and Schneier urge, as well as deterrence and diplomacy—and will have to involve many government departments and close coordination with the private sector. American actions have been inadequate on all three dimensions, but some useful steps have begun, and this discussion has suggested more that can be done. We are only at the beginning of a long process of protecting democracy in an era of cyber information warfare.
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