Sharp Power, Not Too Hard, Not Too Soft, Just Right

Sharp Power, Not Too Hard, Not Too Soft, Just Right

By Tim Anderson – IPA Contributor

Terms like the gray zone, active measures, weaponing information, and similar remain topical when looking at the information environment and cognitive security.  Sharp power is another term worth consideration.

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) crafted the term sharp power.  Last month at their event, NED offered a description of sharp power as authoritarian influence techniques that have gained pace and traction in recent years, while not hard in the openly coercive sense, are not really soft, either.  The NED also emphasized that authoritarian influence efforts in young and vulnerable democracies are “sharp” in the sense that they pierce, penetrate, or perforate the information and political environments in the targeted countries.

Recent Economist articles highlight sharp power in reference to China’s influence.  The Economist reviewed China’s influence globally and how they may not seek to conquer lands but many fear that it seeks to conquer foreign minds.

Why these types of power (related to information and cognitive security) and why care?  I suspect the answers are as much to provide a framework to appreciate, discuss and participate as anything.  Coercive or hard power (violence and war) is clearly understood and felt with examples throughout history.  Soft power is a term coined by Joseph Nye who sought to highlight a state’s use of persuasion to get other states to do what they want.  The term sharp power is somewhere in the middle.

It appears that Ben Nimmo can be credited for distilling Russia’s information warfare strategy to four tactics; dismiss, distort, distract and dismay.  The four words seem at home within a sharp power definition.  Those Economist articles identify China’s sharp power’s interlocking components as subversion, bullying and pressure.  In the same manner, Alex Jones’ Infowars website is an acknowledgement of information as something used to win an agenda and is perhaps as relevant with the sharp power definition.  Other examples exist but these three different examples offer perspectives on sharp power.

Some references:

John B. Emerson.  Exposing Russian Disinformation.  29 June 2015.

John White.  Dismiss, Distort, Distract, and Dismay: Continuity and Change in Russian Disinformation.  13 May 2016.  The Institute for European Studies, Brussels, Belgium,

National Endowment for Democracy event, “Sharp Power:  Rising Authoritarian Influence”. 6 December 2017.

Economist magazine.  Two articles with the titles of Sharp Power and At The Sharp End.  16-22 December 2017.