Sharp Power: Book and Resource List


Sharp Power

Sharp power “is an approach to international affairs that typically involves efforts at censorship or the use of manipulation to degrade the integrity of independent institutions” and has the effect of “monopolizing ideas, suppressing alternative viewpoints, and exploiting partner institutions”.  To learn more about sharp power, check out the collection of books, reports, and resources below.

This list was created by the Democracy Resource Center and inspired by the International Forum for Democratic Studies.


Defending Democracy in an Age of Sharp Power by William J Dobson, Tarek E Masoud, Christopher Walker

Explores how authoritarian regimes are deploying “sharp power” to undermine democracies from within by weaponizing universities, institutions, media, technology, and entertainment industries. The world’s dictators are no longer content with shoring up control over their own populations-they are now exploiting the openness of the free world to spread disinformation, sow discord, and suppress dissent. In Defending Democracy in an Age of Sharp Power, editors William J. Dobson, Tarek Masoud, and Christopher Walker bring together leading analysts to explain how the world’s authoritarians are attempting to erode the pillars of democratic societies and what we can do about it. Far from offering a counsel of despair, the international contributors in this collection identify the considerable resources that democracy provides for blunting sharp power’s edge. With careful case studies of successful resistance efforts in such countries as Australia, the Czech Republic, and Taiwan, this book offers an urgent message for anyone concerned with the defense of democracy in the twenty-first century.

Beijing’s global media offensive: China’s uneven campaign to influence Asia and the world by Joshua Kurlantzick

In Beijing’s Global Media Offensive, the author provides one of the first analyses of how China is attempting to build a media and information and influence superpower around the world, and how this media and political influence power integrates with other forms of Chinese influence in other countries’ politics. The book covers China’s influence and media power in both China’s immediate neighborhood in Asia and also in Latin America, Europe, the United States, and many other parts of the world. It traces the ways in which China is trying to build an information and influence superpower, but also critically examines the new conventional wisdom that Beijing has enjoyed great success with these efforts.

The world according to China by Elizabeth Economy

An economic and military superpower with 20 percent of the world’s population, China has the wherewithal to transform the international system. Xi Jinping’s bold calls for China to “lead in the reform of the global governance system” suggest that he has just such an ambition. But how does he plan to realize it? And what does it mean for the rest of the world? In this compelling book, Elizabeth Economy reveals China’s ambitious new strategy to reclaim the country’s past glory and reshape the geostrategic landscape in dramatic new ways. Xi’s vision is one of Chinese centrality on the global stage, in which the mainland has realized its sovereignty claims over Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea, deepened its global political, economic, and security reach through its grand-scale Belt and Road Initiative, and used its leadership in the United Nations and other institutions to align international norms and values, particularly around human rights, with those of China. It is a world radically different from that of today. The international community needs to understand and respond to the great risks, as well as the potential opportunities, of a world rebuilt by China

The struggle for democracy in mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong: Sharp Power and its discontents by Andreas Fulda

The key question at the heart of this book is to what extent have political activists in mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong made progress in their quest to liberalise and democratise their respective polities. Taking a long historical perspective, the book compares and contrasts the political development trajectory in the three regions from the early 1970s – from the election-driven liberalisation in Taiwan from 1969, the Democracy Wall Movement in mainland China in 1978, and the top-down political reforms of Governor Patten in Hong Kong after 1992 – until the present day. More specifically, it sets out the different strategies and tactics political activists have taken, assesses the lessons activists have learned from both successes and failures, and considers how these experiences have informed their struggles for democracy. Importantly, the book demonstrates that at the same time, throughout the period and earlier, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been making use of “sharp power” – penetrating the political and information environments in Western democracies to manipulate debate and suppress dissenters living both inside and outside China in order to strengthen its domestic position.

Authoritarianism Goes Global: the challenge to democracy by Larry Jay Diamond, Marc F Plattner, Christopher Walker

A distinguished group of contributors presents fresh insights on the complicated issues surrounding the authoritarian resurgence and the implications of these systemic shifts for the international order. This collection of essays is critical for advancing our understanding of the emerging challenges to democratic development.

The Kremlin playbook in Southeast Europe: economic influence and sharp power by Ruslan Stefanov, Martin Vladimirov

The weakening of the EU gravitational pull leaves a power vacuum in Southeast Europe that is readily filled in by authoritarian powers such as Russia. The Kremlin is taking advantage of the democratic backsliding and the widespread state capture among dysfunctional institutions to enhance its economic and political influence in the region. While Russian economic power in Southeast Europe has visibly declined since the imposition of EU and NATO sanctions on the Kremlin in 2014, its overall ability to influence domestic politics has remained potent and has even gained effectiveness. Russia has preserved its sway over strategic decision-making in the region most notably in the energy sector where it has locked governments in costly infrastructure projects. To amplify its influence, Russia has aptly employed a range of sharp power instruments such as media propaganda, leveraging cultural and religious ties and sponsoring of civil society activities. This report looks into the Kremlin playbook instruments in eight Southeast European countries: Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.

The age of sharp power: the interference of China, Russia and Iran abroad: the Italy case by Paolo Messa

The aim of this book is to raise awareness of authoritarian countries’ influence penetration into democracies through cyber-offense, intellectual property theft, media networks spreading propaganda, bots, and fake news on social networks, and cultural exchanges that may constitute a peril to academic freedom and threaten the freedom of speech in some western institutes. The Age of Sharp Power offers an unedited analysis of the Italian case, unveiling Russia and China network of influence in the “Belpaese” and suggesting how to defend sensible national infrastructure from authoritarian States’ penetration.

Russia resurrected: its power and purpose in a new global order by Kathryn Stoner

This book offers an assessment of Russia that suggests that we should look beyond traditional means of power to understand its strength and capacity to disrupt international politics. Twenty-five years removed from its mid-1990s nadir following the collapse of the USSR, Russia has become a supremely disruptive force in world politics. Kathryn E. Stoner assesses the resurrection of Russia and argues that we should look beyond traditional means of power to assess its strength in global affairs. Taking into account how Russian domestic politics under Vladimir Putin influence its foreign policy, Stoner explains how Russia has battled its way back to international prominence.

Russia and Latvia: a case of sharp power by Andis Kudors

This book explores Russia’s relations with Latvia, arguing that Latvia, with a higher proportion of Russian speakers than other Baltic states, is especially vulnerable to Russia’s “sharp power.” The book highlights how authoritarian and totalitarian regimes are unable to exercise soft power based on the attractiveness of the country’s culture and values, which would help them gain the favour of the audience of the target countries, but instead, as in the case of Russia, use public diplomacy, compatriot policy, media policy, propaganda, and disinformation to produce a destructive effect, distorting the democracies of target countries and increasing national security risks. The book provides in-depth detail on how Russia is making use of this “sharp power” in Latvia, examines the consequences and assesses the dangers for the future.

Reports and Papers

The Cutting Edge of Sharp Power by Christopher Walker, Shanthi Kalathil, Jessica Ludwig

When it comes to the impact of authoritarian sharp power on the future of democracy, perhaps no other domain is as pivotal as that of technology. Technological interdependence has enabled modernizing authoritarians to reach across borders to censor and manipulate public discourse, sharpen polarization, and undermine democracy. From “safe-city” surveillance projects to state-linked disinformation campaigns on social-media platforms, authoritarians’ technological footprint can be seen around the world. Authoritarian regimes are also working to shape the international standards and norms that will govern the next generation of technology. Mounting an effective response will require a long-term, purposeful strategy rooted in civil society as well as in state institutions.

Gulf States and Sharp Power: Allies to Adversaries by Christopher Davidson

The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have recently been linked to a range of contentious exploits in the West. These include covert influence operations, espionage, and (in Saudi Arabia’s case) even acts of political violence. At first glance, such adversarial activity makes little sense, given longstanding economic, security, and ‘soft power’ ties. As this essay demonstrates, however, a potent mix of shared and state-specific motives has been steering these increasingly assertive monarchies—themselves experiencing intensive autocratization—into uncharted waters. Amidst serious divergences with the US, the European Union and other such partners, this has pitched Gulf-Western relations into a complex and unpredictable new era, with clear diplomatic and national-security ramifications as well as a pressing need for strengthened democratic defenses.

China’s Sharp Power in Africa: A Handbook for Building National Resilience by Glenn Tiffert, Oliver McPherson Smith

Across sub-Saharan Africa, China has burst on to the scene as a leading partner. Although this affords African nations rich opportunities, it also exposes them to the risks of authoritarian sharp power and makes the conditions for democracy in the region more challenging. Where are the red flags? And how can African nations engage with China while safeguarding their sovereignty and advancing good governance, development, and democracy?

Russia’s Sharp Power in Latin America: Global Autocracy, Regional Influence by Claudia González Marrero, Armando Chaguaceda

Global autocracies have actively influenced the Latin American political and economic environment. The patronage and projection of powers such as Russia have acted on governments and societies where political polarisation, illiberal nationalism, and limitation to the rule of law provide fertile ground for authoritarian expansion. The diffusion of autocratic values in the related media and in the positions of public intellectuals has influenced public opinion in favour of the legitimisation of autocracy. Moscow has supported the mutual recognition and strengthening of illiberal regimes, regionally limiting the defence of democracy. This article explores some expressions and results of Russian sharp power over Latin America, attending to nations with authoritarian governments and spaces of (re)production of ideas and narratives of legitimisation of the illiberal social order.

Double-edged sword: China’s sharp power exploitation of emerging technologies by Samantha Hoffman

This report describes how the People’s Republic of China (PRC) leverages emerging technologies to undercut democracies’ stability and legitimacy while expanding its own influence. The PRC’s development and global export of “smart cities” technology, for example, showcases the character of tech-enhanced sharp power and authoritarianism. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does not distinguish basic public goods, like traffic safety or the prevention of violent crime, from the authoritarian suppression of pluralism and dissent. Instead, it blends the two together. The PRC prioritizes regime security over essential rights, and uses these technologies to monitor its populace and control society. Beijing’s active role in international standards-setting enables the PRC to exploit emerging technologies to enhance its sharp power capabilities. If PRC-originated technical standards are adopted internationally, PRC-made systems will enjoy greater interoperability and market access around the world in ways that erode democratic integrity.

The Hard Edge of Sharp Power: Understanding China’s Influence Operations Abroad by J Michael Cole

In recent years, China has invested billions of dollars in an effort to boost its visibility and improve its image abroad. Investments have been made in a global media presence, international partnerships, academic outreach, and the cultural industry. Using various examples from around the world, this paper analyses the ideology that lies at the heart of the CCP’s influence operations abroad and examines the many agencies and mechanisms involved in these sharp power activities. Once we understand how sharp power is undermining our institutions, we must then ask, how should democratic societies respond? At the heart of the problem is the fact that while some sharp power involves clearly illegal activity, many other aspects of political warfare take place in the grey areas of our legal-democratic systems – not strictly illegal, and difficult to pin down as traditional foreign espionage.

A full-spectrum response to sharp power: the vulnerabilities and strengths of open societies by Christopher Walker, Jessica Ludwig
Sharp power: rising authoritarian influence by Juan Pablo Cardenal, Jacek Kucharczyk, Grigorij Mesežnikov, Gabriela Pleschová


Sharp Power Research Portal

A specialized resource designed to help recognize patterns of global authoritarian influence.

Sharp Power and Democratic Resilience Series