Soft power, the appeal of a country’s culture and values to enhance its strength and influence, has a new foe in “sharp power.” As employed by global adversaries like Russia and China, sharp power utilizes information warfare techniques through media initiatives, cyber activities, and cultural exchanges to achieve geopolitical goals and weaken Western influence. Russia’s efforts to subvert the liberal world order and undermine global norms by interfering in democratic processes at home and abroad provides a salient example of sharp power at work.

Representative Francis Rooney (R-FL) (left) and Representative Don Beyer (D-VA) (right) with U.S. Institute of Peace President Nancy Lindborg (center), November 28, 2018.
Representative Francis Rooney (R-FL) (left) and Representative Don Beyer (D-VA) (right) with U.S. Institute of Peace President Nancy Lindborg (center), November 28, 2018.

How can the U.S. respond to this emerging threat? Speaking at USIP’s seventh Bipartisan Congressional Dialogue, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL) and Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) discussed the threat posed by sharp power to global stability and how the United States, through bipartisan efforts, could use soft power to counter this threat. Rep. Rooney is the vice chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. A former U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, Rep. Beyer is the vice ranking member of the Science, Space and Technology Committee.

The congressmen underscored the importance of U.S. diplomatic and aid missions around the world, the need to unite in Washington around these critical tools of U.S. soft power and reflected on their experiences as U.S. ambassadors, which allowed them to see firsthand the effectiveness of soft power.

The Institute launched the dialogue series at the beginning of 2018 “to provide a platform for members of Congress who are working across the aisle on issues that are critical to our national security and to advance common interests,” said USIP President Nancy Lindborg, who moderated the discussion. “As an organization, we believe very strongly in fostering bipartisan efforts to strengthen national security.” 

Sharp Power: The New Threat

As today’s media systems are increasingly open and interconnected, they are also vulnerable to sharp power tactics. Looking back to the post-World War II and Cold War environment and the rise of the Soviet Union through sharp and soft power, Rooney pointed to the subsequent founding of international institutions to try to counter these Soviet efforts and create symmetrical and reciprocal relationships among Western powers. He highlighted the development of U.S. soft power tools such as Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, USAID, and exchange programs that created “that symmetrical bond” across nations.

Examining today’s chaotic, multipolar world, Rooney pointed to a number of examples of how sharp power has been employed, such as Russia’s “disinformation campaign” in Europe and the U.S., and China’s “coercion and subornation” in Southeast Asia with the Belt and Road Initiative and in Africa and Latin America with its massive infrastructure projects.

For his part, Beyer stressed the growing vulnerability of democracies to sharp power tactics made possible by technological advancements and the rise of social media. He noted the unprecedented prevalence of subversion, intimidation, and internal meddling by autocratic governments. “Technology gives these governments the ability to cost effectively reach into cell phones, reach into living rooms around the world and sow fear, doubt, division, undermine alliances, [and] spread fake news,” Beyer said. 

He pointed to the pervasiveness of sharp power beyond the traditional culprits, and “the centrality of the information warrior” to the security and diplomatic toolkits of autocracies. “In fact, no self-respecting dictator is without a paid legion of keyboard warriors on Twitter, or Weibo, or VKontakte, along with the pseudo-journalists, the hackers and the other agents of sharp power,” Beyer said. 

Soft Power: A Shield and Weapon

Beyer said he worried that beyond the inherent dangers of the technological tools of global adversaries, America’s declining soft power around the world makes it even more vulnerable to sharp power. In order to reassert and maintain its power, both congressmen acknowledged that all forms of power are necessary components of statecraft, but maintained the importance of employing soft power tools. Three critical components to American soft power are: “Our cultural exports, our economic preeminence, and the power of the American ideal. We are the shining city on the hill,” Beyer said. 

To counter sharp power with soft power, Rooney urged the U.S. to refocus on its values and culture, its symmetrical and reciprocal alignments that “allow everybody to win,” and build on multilateral trade relationships. He and Beyer both underscored the importance of USAID, cultural exchange programs, and the U.S. diplomatic corps. Rooney recalled his own experience with the Holy See and its mediation and diplomacy with the Islamic world, as well as its quiet soft power efforts in Cuba. “I think that soft power works really well when you don’t have to take credit for what you do; it keeps it soft,” he suggested. Rooney also lauded new soft power tools such as the U.S. Agency for Global Media and Farsi broadcasts into Iran, noting the positive and welcoming message they send to the Iranian people. 

The congressmen urged policy changes and better education in the U.S. to help with the regulation and responsible consumption of social media. Asked by Lindborg if the U.S. needs to compromise its commitment to an open society—which has characterized who we are as a people—in the face of these sharp power attacks, Rooney and Beyer called for the U.S. to instead “double down” on this commitment and its values.

USIP's Bipartisan Congressional Dialogues will continue to bring together leaders from both political parties to address urgent national security and foreign policy challenges.

Related Publications

Beijing’s Strategy for Asserting Its “Party Rule by Law” Abroad

Beijing’s Strategy for Asserting Its “Party Rule by Law” Abroad

Thursday, September 29, 2022

By: Jordan Link;  Nina Palmer;  Laura Edwards

Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party has taken steps to assert more influence over the international legal system and to shape the global legal environment to better serve its political and economic objectives. This report examines the potential ramifications of China’s assertive use of new legal tools for US interests and international stability, and discusses several options that the United States and its partners can pursue to bolster the rules-based order that underpins global stability and cooperation.

Type: Special Report

Justice, Security & Rule of Law

Modi, Putin and Xi Join the SCO Summit Amid Turbulent Times

Modi, Putin and Xi Join the SCO Summit Amid Turbulent Times

Thursday, September 22, 2022

By: Cordelia Buchanan Ponczek;  Mary Glantz, Ph.D.;  Carla Freeman, Ph.D.;  Vikram J. Singh

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) resumed in-person summits last week in the wake of the COVID pandemic and at a moment of unprecedent change and challenge. Member states Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are at war over their border. So are dialogue partner states Armenia and Azerbaijan. All SCO members are dealing with the economic impact of the Russian war in Ukraine as well as climate disruptions like the floods overwhelming Pakistan. Mistrust between India and Pakistan, full members since 2017, make cooperation difficult on the SCO’s original core mission of counterterrorism. And India and China, which were building toward the “Wuhan spirit” of cooperation when India joined in 2017, are hardly on speaking terms despite recent progress toward deescalating a friction point along their disputed Line of Actual Control.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy

Misreading Biden in Beijing: Perception is Everything in U.S.-China Relations

Misreading Biden in Beijing: Perception is Everything in U.S.-China Relations

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

By: Carla Freeman, Ph.D.;  Alison McFarland;  Andrew Scobell, Ph.D.

Beijing’s strong reaction to U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan highlights how the island has become ground zero in major power competition, with U.S.-China relations at their lowest point in decades. Indeed, the Taiwan Strait is now the most plausible locale for a military confrontation between the United States and China. Most alarmingly, Beijing and Washington are prone to misread the signals of the other, especially where Taiwan is concerned. Misinterpreting rhetoric or actions can be extremely dangerous because it can trigger action-reaction cycles that can spiral into unintended escalation and unwanted conflict.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & PreventionGlobal Policy

China’s Influence on the Freely Associated States of the Northern Pacific

China’s Influence on the Freely Associated States of the Northern Pacific

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

By: USIP China-Freely Associated States Senior Study Group

Around the world, Beijing is investing heavily in diplomatic, security, cultural, and economic ties in a bid to increase its global influence, strengthen its ability to protect and advance its national interests, attract support in multilateral fora and international institutions, and fracture the global consensus on key issues it views as unfavorable to its geopolitical ambitions. The Pacific Islands region—defined as the vast stretch of Pacific Ocean between Asian littoral waters in the west, Guam in the north and Hawaii in the northeast, and Australia and New Zealand in the south and southwest—has been no exception.

Type: Report

Global Policy

View All Publications