“Sharp Power”: Rising Authoritarian Influence

December 06, 2017
11:00 am - 02:30 pm

Panel 2:

About the event

In recent years, China and Russia have invested significant resources in media, academic, cultural, and think tank initiatives designed to shape public opinion and perceptions around the world. These authoritarian influence efforts have traditionally been viewed by the democracies through the familiar lens of “soft power,” a concept which has become a catch-all term for forms of influence that are not “hard” in the sense of military force or economic might. Yet the 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. Rather, 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. These regimes are not necessarily seeking to “win hearts and minds,” the common frame of reference for “soft power” efforts, but they are surely seeking to influence their target audiences by manipulating or distorting the information that reaches them. “Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence,” a report published by the International Forum for Democratic Studies, examines Chinese and Russian influence in four young democracies in Latin America and Central Europe.



11:00 AM – 12:30 PM: Authoritarian Influence in Central Europe and Latin America


  • Carl Gershman, President, National Endowment for Democracy
  • Juan Pablo Cardenal, Researcher, Center for the Opening and Development of Latin America
  • Jessica Ludwig, Research and Conferences Officer, International Forum for Democratic Studies
  • Grigorij Meseznikov, President, Institute for Public Affairs

Moderated by: 

  • Shanthi Kalathil, Director, International Forum for Democratic Studies


12:30 PM – 1:00 PM: Lunch


1:00 PM – 2:30 PM: From “Soft Power” to “Sharp Power”: Revisiting the Conceptual Vocabulary


  • Sarah Cook, Senior Research Analyst for East Asia, Freedom House
  • Jacek Kucharczyk, President, Institute of Public Affairs
  • Alina Polyakova, David M. Rubenstein Fellow, Brookings Institution

Moderated by:

  • Christopher Walker, Vice President for Studies and Analysis, National Endowment for Democracy

About the Speakers

Juan Pablo Cardenal is a researcher at the Center for the Opening and Development of Latin America and is a journalist, writer, and researcher. Over the last eight years, he has conducted on-the-ground research in over 40 countries on the topic of China’s global reach, including more than 1,300 interviews. He has co-authored three books which have been published in eleven languages: La Imparable Conquista China (China’s Unstoppable Conquest, 2015), El Imperio Invisible: El Exito Empresarial Chino y Sus Vinculos Con la Criminalidad de Espana y Europa (Invisible Empire: The Success of Chinese Businesses and Their Ties to Crime in Spain and Europe, 2013) and La Silenciosa Conquista China (China’s Silent Army, 2011). He is also the author of a chapter about China in the book, Democracy under Threat (Oxford University Press, 2017). He was the China correspondent for the Spanish dailies El Mundo and El Economista for a decade and is now a contributor to several international media outlets. He has also been a speaker and panelist at numerous international institutions and forums. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and an Executive Masters in International Relations from the Geneva School of Diplomacy.

Sarah Cook is a senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House. She manages the editorial team producing the China Media Bulletin, a biweekly news digest of media freedom developments related to the People’s Republic of China. Ms. Cook is regularly interviewed by the press regarding human rights, media, and internet freedom developments in China and other parts of East Asia. She is the author of several articles and numerous country reports examining media freedom and democratic governance, as well as a special report on how Chinese media controls affect news outlets based outside of China. Her comments and writings have appeared on CNN, The International Herald Tribune, the Taipei Times, and the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China. Before joining Freedom House, she co-edited the English translation of A China More Just, a memoir by prominent rights attorney Gao Zhisheng, and was twice a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva for an NGO working on religious freedom in China.

Carl Gershman is president of the National Endowment for Democracy, a private, congressionally supported grant-making institution with the mission to strengthen democratic institutions around the world through nongovernmental efforts. Prior to assuming the position with the Endowment, Mr. Gershman was Senior Counselor to the United States Representative to the United Nations, in which capacity he served as the U.S. Representative to the U.N.’s Third Committee that deals with human rights issues, and also as Alternate Representative of the U.S. to the U.N. Security Council. Mr. Gershman has lectured extensively and written articles and reviews on foreign policy issues and is the co-editor of Israel, the Arabs and the Middle East (Bantam, 1972) and the author of The Foreign Policy of the American Labor (Sage, 1975).

Shanthi Kalathil is director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies. Previously a senior democracy fellow at the US Agency for International Development and a regular consultant for the World Bank, the Aspen Institute and others, she has authored or edited numerous policy and scholarly publications, including the World Bank’s Developing Independent Media as an Institution of Accountable Governance, and (with Taylor C. Boas) Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule, a widely cited work that examined the Internet and authoritarian regimes. A former Hong Kong-based staff reporter for The Asian Wall Street Journal, Ms. Kalathil has also been an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, and has taught courses on international relations in the information age at Georgetown University and the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

Jacek Kucharczyk is president of the Institute of Public Affairs, one of Poland’s leading think tanks, where he has worked as a policy analyst since 1997. Mr. Kucharczyk has been a co-founder and board member of a number of international NGOs, including the Prague Civil Society Centre, the Policy Association for an Open Society (PASOS) and the European Partnership for Democracy (EPD) in Brussels. He is also a former member of the Think Tank Fund and Scholarship Program Advisory Boards at Open Society Foundations, as well as a former board member of the National School of Public Administration in Warsaw. He has authored and edited articles, reports, policy briefs and books on European integration, democratic governance, democracy assistance and populism. He frequently comments on current domestic and European affairs and political developments for Polish and international media.

Jessica Ludwig is research and conferences officer at the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies. In this capacity, she serves as the managing editor of the International Forum’s Power 3.0 blog, which explores how authoritarian governments survive and thrive in the globalized information age, and how democracies contend with this challenge. She is a contributing author to the report, Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence and her writing has been published in Foreign Affairs. She holds a master’s degree from the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and an undergraduate degree from Baylor University.

Grigorij Mesežnikov is a political scientist, president of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), a Bratislava-based think tank he helped found in 1997. He has published expert studies on party systems’ development and political aspects of transformation in post-communist societies in various monographs, collections, and scholarly journals in Slovakia and other countries. He regularly contributes analyses of Slovakia’s political scene to domestic and foreign media. He has co-edited and co-authored a number of books, including the Global Reports on Slovakia*(1995 – 2011), the annually published comprehensive analysis of country’s development in all relevant sectors of society. He was a key author of the report on Slovakia in Nations in Transit published by Freedom House (1998 – 2014). He served as a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the NED in 2006.

Alina Polyakova is the David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe. She specializes in European politics, far-right populism and nationalism, and Russian foreign policy. Polyakova’s recent book, The Dark Side of European Integration, examines the rise of far-right political parties in Western and Eastern Europe. She has also written extensively on Russian political warfare, Ukraine, and trans-Atlantic relations. Ms. Polyakova’s writings have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The American Interest, as well as a number of academic journals and media outlets. She has also been a fellow at the Fulbright Foundation, Eurasia Foundation, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, National Science Foundation, Social Science Research Council, International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), and a Senior Research Fellow and Lecturer at the University of Bern.


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