About the Series

The Sharp Power and Democratic Resilience series aims to contextualize the nature of sharp power, inventory key authoritarian efforts and domains, and illuminate ideas for non-governmental action that are essential to strengthening democratic resilience.

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About the Author

Nadège Rolland is senior fellow for political and security affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research and nonresident fellow at the Lowy Institute. Her research focuses mainly on China’s grand strategy, foreign and defense policy, and the changes in regional and global dynamics resulting from the rise of China.

This report describes the ways in which authoritarian countries seek to use think tanks as instruments of sharp power, focusing specifically on why and how authoritarian powers target foreign private organizations dedicated to policy-related research. Authoritarian think tanks operate much like their democratic counterparts—organizing public conferences and events, publishing research in academic journals and on their websites, and sharing analyses with media outlets. But the antiliberal and antidemocratic political systems to which these entities belong repress any form of dissent and claim control over the discursive and ideational space. The overall effect lends regime-backed narratives an artificial legitimacy. Democratic think tanks and other civil society stakeholders have a critical role to play in strengthening democratic resilience and countering authoritarian attempts to undermine intellectual freedom.

Seeking to engineer a perception of global support for their political system and to shape a landscape that will be more favorable to their policies, talking points, and version of the truth, some authoritarian regimes—including those in Russia, China, and the Persian Gulf monarchies—have encouraged the creation of their own national think tanks.

key ideas

  • Democratic think tanks must develop and follow strict codes of conduct when it comes to their relationships with authoritarian actors. They should also be expected to publicly disclose all of their sponsors and corresponding donation amounts, and to commit not to sign any secret agreements.
  • Think tanks in open societies should develop a healthy habit of proactive due diligence, searching carefully for any potential conflicts of interest. The correlations among sponsor, research project, and output are not always straightforward.
  • Private foundations and philanthropists in democratic countries should prioritize funding for think tanks that abide by strict codes of conduct governing potential relationships with authoritarian-linked entities.
  • Think tanks in democratic countries should proactively engage with rising think tank professionals from emerging democracies in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South and Southeast Asia to offset the draw of authoritarian alternatives.
  • The media and civil society groups can play a critical role in raising public awareness and informing and educating broader constituencies about the nature and tactics of authoritarian think tanks—and the risks they pose to independent inquiry.


download the report

Commanding Ideas: Think Tanks as Platforms for Authoritarian Influence [PDF]