In an era of globalization coupled with authoritarian resurgence, the institutions of a growing number of democracies are straining to comprehend and to deal with the projection of authoritarian influence through more diverse channels than ever before. In the July 2018 issue of the Journal of Democracy, Christopher Walker defines the pervasive threat of “sharp power,” a term coined by the NED’s International Forum for Democratic Studies to identify authoritarian influence efforts that seek to pierce, penetrate, and perforate the political and information environments of targeted countries. On an unprecedented scale, authoritarian regimes are employing “sharp power” tactics to manipulate the very institutions that serve as the foundation of democracy, such as free media. Defining and unmasking authoritarian “sharp power” initiatives is a critical first step in counteracting the distorting effects of authoritarian influence in free and open societies.
Sharp power is part and parcel of the internationalist turn that authoritarian states have taken in recent years, and its effects are increasingly visible in the institutions critical to democracies’ being able to function as free and self-governing societies.