Sharp Power Five Years Later | Forum Focus: December 2022

Monthly news from the National Endowment for Democracy‘s International Forum for Democratic Studies on issues related to democracy around the world.


Authoritarian regimes have been waging an active assault on democracy for quite some time. After years of turning a blind eye to authoritarians’ corrupt practices, succumbing to self-censorship, or otherwise letting authoritarians set the terms of engagement, most democracies are still in the early stages of tackling the threats posed by the secrecy, elite capture, and divide-and-conquer tactics that are integral to authoritarians’ outward facing engagement.

Five years ago, the International Forum introduced into the public domain a new framework for understanding and responding to this challenge: “sharp power.”

The “sharp power” concept shifted the frame of reference for understanding modern authoritarian influence and altered public debate. Since the publication of the International Forum’s Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence report in 2017, the term has become a widely adopted analytical point of reference for civil society, scholars, news media, and policy makers. In this special edition of Forum Focus, we’re looking back at five years of research and reactions—and looking ahead to promising civil society responses to this global threat.

The International Forum has produced a range of content on sharp power, including published works and podcast episodes on different dimensions of the challenge. The Forum’s work has focused on bolstering the democratic response to authoritarian influence (especially in at-risk settings) through cross-sectoral and cross-regional collaboration.

The Sharp Power and Democratic Resilience series systematically analyzes the ways in which leading authoritarian regimes seek to manipulate the political landscape and censor independent expression within democratic settings, and highlights potential civil society responses.

This initiative examines emerging issues in four crucial arenas concerning the integrity and vibrancy of democratic systems:

Three of these reports—one on China’s efforts to shape media content around the world, another on China’s tech-enhanced authoritarianism, and a comprehensive overview summarizing the series’ findings—were translated into Spanish to reach local audiences in Latin America and elsewhere who are affected by these activities.


Given the limited tools dedicated to tracking and monitoring global authoritarian influence, the International Forum developed the Sharp Power Research Portal, an online resource database that illustrates how authoritarian actors have adapted modern repression techniques for application abroad. A regularly updated collection of more than 1,000 resources in five languages provides examples of the influence activities undertaken by state or state-linked actors from China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates. The patterns of compromising influence captured in these resources (and accompanying interactive map) extend across diverse countries, regions, and sectors, with consequences for the trajectory of democracy around the world.


Christopher Walker’s essay in the October 2022 issue of the Journal of Democracy offers new strategies for countering the corrosive effects of sharp power on democratic norms and institutions. Such strategies include rolling back secrecy and opacity, rebuffing elite capture, defending the freedom of expression, addressing knowledge asymmetries, creating new metrics for measuring authoritarian influence, and incentivizing transparent and accountable technology.

In the Journal of Democracy’s July 2022 issue, a cluster of essays examines efforts to combat Beijing’s sharp power and considers how successful interventions could be replicated in other settings. Civil society played a pivotal role in exposing PRC surveillance and interference among diaspora communities and strengthened the government’s resolve to deal with sharp-power activities in Australia, Taiwan, and the Czech Republic.

In the Journal of Democracy’s July 2021 issue, Rana Siu Inboden recounts how the PRC has misused its position and influence in the United Nations to handicap the role of civil society in the UN and bar many organizations from participating in this global body.

Kevin Sheives and Rachelle Faust joined the Montreal Institute for Genocide Studies’ “Human Rights Talks” podcast to discuss the concept of sharp power and how it differs from both soft and hard power.

The sharp power concept has informed the global debate on the challenge of modern authoritarian influence and been adopted by leading think tanks, civil society actors, policy figures, and opinion leaders.

“Sharp power” has also been cited in recently published notable books, such as The World According to China by Elizabeth C. Economy, The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats are Reinventing Politics for the 2st Century by Moisés Naím, and Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World by Joshua Kurlantzick.