The Growing Appeal of Sharp Power in the Age of COVID-19

By THO Contributor, Tarik Oguzlu

The concept of power is one of the most popular and elusive concepts in the academic discipline of international relations. To many, power is the ability of one actor, in our case states, to influence the behavior, interests and identity of other actors in the image of its own priorities, preferences and values. Put differently, power is the ability of one actor to get what it wants from others. The crux of the issue here is to define from where this ability comes and whether one can measure it. This suggests that power has both residual and relational aspects. Power is residual because being powerful requires a particular actor to possess some capabilities, of both tangible and intangible sorts, and the will to use them in order to have an impact on others. If there is no will to use such capabilities, possessing them does not confer any advantage on the actor which holds them at its disposal. 

Without those capabilities in the first instance and the will in the background, it is nearly impossible to influence others. Tangible sources are those that can be quantified, measured, observed and categorized. Such sources are military capability, economic might, geographical location, population number, human development, technological prowess, environmental factors, etc. Intangible sources of power are those that cannot be easily observed, tested or measured. Moral, values, norms, societal cohesion, culture, image and identity are typical examples of intangible power capabilities.

Power is also relational because for power to exist there needs to be at least two actors interacting with each other. For example, if State B does not meet the demands of State A or change its behaviors along the expectations of State A, then State A does not have the power over State B. Possessing mere power capabilities and the will to use them does not automatically translate into being powerful. Being powerful requires the compliance of others with the demands of the state that tries to have an impact on their choices. Relationality suggests that power is also contextual. Possessing huge military capacity might not matter at all in the context of defeating global pandemics and environmental calamities. 

Coercing hard powers are those that try to get what they want from others by coercing them to meet their choices. Others would either agree to the terms of the coercer or get punished severely for their non-compliance. Coercive powers would frighten their opponents and threaten them with the negative consequences of their non-cooperation. Coercive powers try to instill fear in their targets and wish for them to respond out of necessity. Coercive hard powers might employ both military and economic capabilities. 

Inducing/enticing/coaxing hard powers are those that try to get what they want from others by pushing them to make materially construed cost-benefit calculations. Their hope is that others would be induced to cooperate if they saw that their cooperation with the inducer would yield them more benefits than costs. Rather than fear, interests based on rational cost-benefits calculations would drive compliance with the demands of the power holder.

On the other hand, the ability of attractive soft powers to have an influence on the identity, interests and behaviors of others emanates from the attractiveness of their values, policies and institutions in the eyes of others. Whether it is positional, contextual or relational, soft power springs from unintentional state or societal activities automatically in a bottom-up manner. Whereas hard power can be seen, observed and measured, soft power is hard to detect and measure. Whereas hard power is put into use by its practitioners intentionally, soft power is something in the air and in this sense much closer to latent, institutional or structural power.

As we are now fast moving to the post COVID-19 era, soft power is losing its innocence and increasingly being defined as an ingredient in the toolkit of great powers. The more soft power is seen as something that needs to be manufactured in a strategic manner, the closer it comes to sharp power. I believe the years ahead will increasingly see soft power being mistakenly defined as sharp power and turn out to become a weapon at the hands of states, most notably great powers, to be employed in their geopolitical games.

In an era of great power competition, soft power cannot remain soft; it must transform into sharp power. Whereas soft power emanates from attraction and strongly hinges on credibility, sharp power stems from well-designed propaganda and public relations efforts aiming at cultivating a positive image about one's self as well as activities of manipulation and disinformation targeting external audiences. When it becomes a tool to be employed in interstate competition, soft power can no longer be considered as soft or innocent nation-branding efforts.

I think this is the scene we have been increasingly witnessing over the last decade, and we will see more of it in the years to come. To test how it feels, just take a brief look at how Russia has been waging political warfare against liberal democracies in the aftermath of the Crimean crisis in 2014. There is a war between Russia and Western powers, and this war is being fought more politically than militarily. Apart from the ongoing proxy wars in Syria, Libya and other conflict-riven failed states, the growing power competition between Russia and liberal democracies has been evolving more in political than military platforms. Lending support to pro-Russian political parties and movements across Europe and the United States, helping manufacture a positive image about Russia and its policies through the employment of all available media platforms and resorting to disinformation campaigns with a view to tarnishing the image of the West all over the world can all be considered as textbook examples of how sharp power has increasingly become a part of Russian statecraft.

Investing in creating alternative truths and contesting conventional understanding of social realities constitute other examples of how sharp power is exercised. As universalism has begun giving way to relativism and as various practices of the globalization process have been increasingly replaced by various practices of protective nationalism in recent years, sharp power wars have inevitably turned out to be propaganda wars. It is undoubtedly clear that the shift from a U.S.-led unipolarity toward a contested multipolarity has eased this process.

I am of the view that this process will accelerate in the post COVID-19 age. The competition between the United States and China will intensify, and what will shape the end result of this growing competition will increasingly revolve around the question of how many followers China and the United States will each have in the following years. The two powers have already engaged in a propaganda war concerning the success of the measures each adopted to defeat the coronavirus.

The sad truth is that none of us is in any position to verify the authenticity and legitimacy of the narratives that American and Chinese governments radiate around the world. Should we name the coronavirus the Chinese virus as American President Donald Trump wants us to do? Is China helping others defeat the virus as a good international citizen, or is China's mask diplomacy and financial assistance to needy countries aimed at salvaging China's tarnished image in the early days of the pandemic? Is it the Chinese or American model of governance that performs better? What about the performance of the World Health Organization (WHO)? Has it actually transformed into the Chinese Health Organization as many China-bashers would have us believe, or are China's increasing contributions to global governance, most notably in the realm of efforts to defeat global pandemics, what we need as Trump's America is abdicating its global leadership and becoming more introverted each passing day?

What strikes me as a scholar of international relations is that it is becoming more and more difficult each passing day to assess the truth claims of any actor in any power competition. Objectivity is becoming increasingly contested. Multipolarity is aggravating this problem too, because as material power is dispersed among many actors, the number of alternative truths also multiply. In such an environment, it is going to become more difficult than ever to separate soft power from sharp power.