U.S. Options for Responding to Sharp Power Threats

Anthony Patrick is a student at Georgia State University where he majors in political science and conducts research on Sharp Power.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  Threats to U.S. and allied nations by sharp power actions (defined below).

Date Originally Written:  June 16, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  July 30, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is an undergraduate student of defense policies and an Officer Candidate in the United States Marine Corps.  This article is written with the base assumption that foreign actions against the U.S political system is a top national security challenge and a continuing threat.

Background:  Recent U.S. news cycles have been dominated by the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the U.S political system.  Other allied nations such as the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and New Zealand have also recently dealt with foreign political influence campaigns[1].  While historically nations have projected power either through military might (hard power) or cultural influence (soft power), rising authoritarian actors like the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Russia, Iran, and North Korea are resulting to a hybrid mix of classical power projection through emerging technologies with revisionist intent in the international system known as sharp power[2].  Sharp power is more direct than soft power, not as physically destructive as hard power, and does not cause enough damage to justify a military response like Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. 

Sharp power actions are normally covert in nature allowing the perpetrator plausible deniability.  Given the combined military and economic power of western democracies, sharp power is the preferred method for disruptive actions against the international order by authoritarian powers.  The effectiveness of sharp power is amplified by the open nature of democratic societies, especially in the information age[3].  Other examples of sharp power attacks include the North Korean hacking of Sony Pictures, the Iranian hacking of a dam in New York, PRC surveillance of Chinese students in foreign classrooms[4], and Russian actions in Ukraine and Moldova[5]. 

Significance:  The effects of sharp power actions can be very dangerous for western democracies.  One effect is a decrease in democratic legitimacy in an elected government.  When the citizens question if it was themselves or foreign actors who helped elect a government, that government is hamstrung due to a lack of legitimacy.  This lack of legitimacy can create new divisions or heighten polarization in the targeted countries.  Foreign actors can use the internet as a guise, pretend to be domestic actors, and push extreme ideas in communities, creating the potential for conflict.  This series of effects has already happened in U.S communities, where Russian actors have organized a protest and the counter protest[6].  These new divisions can also heighten political infighting, diverting political resources from international problems to deal with issues in the domestic sphere.  This heightened political infighting can give these revisionist actors the breathing room they need to expand their influence.  The increasing prevalence of these effects is a direct threat to U.S national security, chipping away at the government’s freedom of action and diverting resources to the domestic sphere away from international problems. 

Option #1:  Adopt military operational planning methodologies like Effects Based Operations (EBO) and Systematic Operational Design (SOD) at the interagency level to organize a response to adversary sharp power actions.

Risk:  The U.S also has the largest pool of soft power in the world and reverting to sharp power actions would hurt that important U.S resource[7].  Also, since these adversary countries are not as open, targeting would be a difficult task, and actions against the wrong group could be used as a rallying cry in the adversary country.  This rallying cry would give these adversaries a greater mandate to continue their actions against western democracies.  Lastly, successful sharp power actions against authoritarian countries could lead to more destructive domestic instability, harming allies in the region and disrupting global trading networks[8].

Gain:  By utilizing sharp power methodologies, the U.S would be able to strike back at opposing countries and deter further actions against the U.S.  The U.S has a large pool of resources to pull from in the interagency, and only needs a methodology to guide those resources.  Military style operational planning like EBO and SOD contain important theoretical constructs like System of System Analysis, Center of Gravity, and the constant reviewing of new information[9][10].  This planning style fits well for sharp power actions since it allows the government to create an operational plan for directed international political actions.  The U.S government can pull from the wealth of knowledge within the Department of Defense on how to combine these various frameworks to achieve sharp power action given their experience with designing complex operations on the joint level[11].  Successful actions would also give the U.S more leverage in negotiations with these countries on other areas and would divert their political resources from international actions 

Option #2:  Congress passes a Goldwater-Nichols-like Act to create a horizontal organization within the interagency, to address sharp power threats[12].

Risk:  Such reform would be substantial and would take a long time to implement.  The length of this process could delay any government response to both continued foreign interference and other international problems.  The congressional process is historically slow and designing the bill would also take a substantial amount of time.  Different agencies have set rules, procedures, and operating cultures, and changing those enough to allow effective interagency cooperation would also be difficult.  Option #2 would not change the defensive posture of the U.S government, thus it would not create the desired deterrent effect. 

Gain:  Streamlining the interagency process would increase the government’s ability to counter sharp power threats.  Option #2 would lead to better allocation of resources, more intelligence sharing, better allocation of authority during interagency deliberations, and provide more clarity on rules, regulations, and processes that govern interagency cooperation.  By adopting this reform, the national security council would be able to give task to a joint structure instead of a single lead agency.  This joint structure could operate like the joint command within the Department of Defense and create broad policy for interagency work[13].  By keeping a defensive posture, the U.S would also be able to protect its soft power appeal[14]. 

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendations:  None.


[1]  Kurlantzick, J. (2017, December 13). Australia, New Zealand Face China’s Influence. Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/expert-brief/australia-new-zealand-face-chinas-influence

[2] National Endowment for Democracy. (2017, December 5). Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence. Retrieved from https://www.ned.org/sharp-power-rising-authoritarian-influence-forum-report/

[3]  Wanless, A., & Berk, M. (2018, March 7). The Strategic Communication Ricochet: Planning Ahead for Greater Resiliency. Retrieved from https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2018/3/7/the-strategic-communication-ricochet-planning-ahead-for-greater-resiliency

[4]  Sulmeyer, M. (2018, March 22). How the U.S. Can Play Cyber-Offense. Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2018-03-22/how-us-can-play-cyber-offense

[5]  Way, L. A. (2018, May 17). Why Didn’t Putin Interfere in Armenia’s Velvet Revolution? Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/armenia/2018-05-17/why-didnt-putin-interfere-armenias-velvet-revolution

[6]  Lucas, R. (2017, November 01). How Russia Used Facebook To Organize 2 Sets of Protesters. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2017/11/01/561427876/how-russia-used-facebook-to-organize-two-sets-of-protesters

[7]  Nye, J. S., Jr. (2018, January 24). How Sharp Power Threatens Soft Power. Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-01-24/how-sharp-power-threatens-soft-power

[8]  Breen, J. G. (2017). Covert Actions and Unintended Consequences. InterAgency Journal,8(3), 106-122. Retrieved from http://thesimonscenter.org/featured-article-covert-action-and-unintended-consequences/

[9]  Strange, J., Dr., & Iron, UK Army, R., Colonel. (n.d.). Understanding Centers of Gravity and Critical Vulnerabilities(United States, Department of Defense, United States Marine Corps War College).

[10]  Vego, M. N. (2006). Effects-based operations: A critique. National Defense University, Washington D.C. Institute for National Strategic Studies.

[11]  Beutel, C. (2016, August 16). A New Plan: Using Complexity In the Modern World. Retrieved    from https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2016/8/16/a-new-plan-using-complexity-in-the-modern-world

[12]  Dahl, U.S. Army, K. R., Colonel. (2007, July 1). New Security for New Threats: The Case for Reforming the Interagency Process. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/research/new-security-for-new-threats-the-case-for-reforming-the-interagency-process/

[13]  United States, Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff. (2018). Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning.

[14]  Nye, J. S., Jr. (summer 2004). Soft Power and American Foreign Policy. Political Science Quarterly,119(2), 255-270. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20202345

Anthony Patrick Below Established Threshold Activities (BETA) Deterrence Major Regional Contingency Option Papers United States

U.S. Diplomacy Options for Security & Adaptability in Cyberspace

Matthew Reitman is a science and technology journalist.  He has a background in security policy and studied International Relations at Boston University.  He can be found on Twitter @MatthewReitman.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  U.S. competitors conducting national security activities in cyberspace below the threshold of war aka in the “Gray Zone.”

Date Originally Written:  April 14, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  May 18, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of the U.S. State Department towards cyberspace.

Background:  State actors and their non-state proxies operate aggressively in cyberspace, but within a gray zone that violates international norms without justifying a “kinetic” response.  Russian influence operations in the 2016 U.S. election were not an act of war, but escalated tensions dramatically[1].  North Korea used the Lazarus Group to circumvent sanctions by stealing $81 million from Bangladesh’s central bank[2].  Since a U.S.-People’s Republic of China (PRC) agreement in 2015 to curb corporate espionage, there have been 13 intrusions by groups based in the PRC against the U.S. private sector[3].  The State Department has helped to curb Islamic State of Iraq and Syria propaganda online via the Global Engagement Center[4].  The recent creation of another interagency entity, the Russia Information Group, suggests similar efforts could be effective elsewhere[5].

The State Department continues to work towards establishing behavior norms in cyberspace via multilateral channels, like the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts, and bilateral channels, but this remains a slow and tedious process.  Until those norms are codified, gray zone activities in cyberspace will continue.  The risk of attacks on Information Technology (IT) or critical infrastructure and less destructive acts will only grow as the rest of the world comes online, increasing the attack surface.

Significance:  The ever-growing digitally connected ecosystem presents a chimera-like set of risks and rewards for U.S. policymakers.  Protecting the free exchange of information online, let alone keeping the U.S. and its allies safe, is difficult when facing gray zone threats.  Responding with conventional tools like economic sanctions can be evaded more easily online, while “hacking back” can escalate tensions in cyberspace and further runs the risk of creating a conflict that spills offline.  Despite the challenge, diplomacy can reduce threats and deescalate tensions for the U.S. and its allies by balancing security and adaptability.  This article provides policy options for responding to and defending against a range of gray zone threats in cyberspace.

Option #1:  Establish effective compellence methods tailored to each adversary.  Option #1 seeks to combine and tailor traditional coercive diplomacy methods like indictments, sanctions, and “naming and shaming,” in tandem with aggressive counter-messaging to combat information warfare, which can be anything from debunking fake news to producing misinformation that undermines the adversary’s narrative.  A bifocal approach has shown to be more effective form of coercion[6] than one or the other.

Risk:  Depending on the severity, the combined and tailored compellence methods could turn public opinion against the U.S.  Extreme sanctions that punish civilian populations could be viewed unfavorably.  If sanctions are evaded online, escalation could increase as more aggressive responses are considered.  “Naming and shaming” could backfire if an attack is falsely attributed.  Fake bread crumbs can be left behind in code to obfuscate the true offender and make it look as though another nation is responsible.  Depending on the severity of counter-propaganda, its content could damage U.S. credibility, especially if conducted covertly.  Additionally, U.S. actions under Option #1 could undermine efforts to establish behavior norms in cyberspace.

Gain:  Combined and tailored compellence methods can isolate an adversary financially and politically while eroding domestic support.  “Naming and shaming” sends a clear message to the adversary and the world that their actions will not be tolerated, justifying any retaliation.  Sanctions can weaken an economy and cut off outside funding for political support.  Leaking unfavorable information and counter-propaganda undermines an adversary’s credibility and also erodes domestic support.  Option #1’s severity can range depending on the scenario, from amplifying the spread of accurate news and leaked documents with social botnets to deliberately spreading misinformation.  By escalating these options, the risks increase.

Option #2:  Support U.S. Allies’ cybersecurity due diligence and capacity building.  Option #2 pursues confidence-building measures in cyberspace as a means of deterrence offline, so nations with U.S. collective defense agreements have priority.  This involves fortifying allies’ IT networks and industrial control systems for critical infrastructure by taking measures to reduce vulnerabilities and improve cybersecurity incident response teams (CSIRTs).  This option is paired with foreign aid for programs that teach media literacy, “cyber hygiene,” and computer science to civilians.

Risk:  Improving allies’ defensive posture can be viewed by some nations as threatening and could escalate tensions.  Helping allies fortify their defensive capabilities could lead to some sense of assumed responsibility if those measures failed, potentially fracturing the relationship or causing the U.S. to come to their defense.  Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enhanced defense systems aren’t a silver bullet and can contribute to a false sense of security.  Any effort to defend against information warfare runs the potential of going too far by infringing freedom of speech.  Aside from diminishing public trust in the U.S., Option #2 could undermine efforts to establish behavior norms in cyberspace.

Gain:  Collectively, this strategy can strengthen U.S. Allies by contributing to their independence while bolstering their defense against a range of attacks.  Option #2 can reduce risks to U.S. networks by decreasing threats to foreign networks.  Penetration testing and threat sharing can highlight vulnerabilities in IT networks and critical infrastructure, while educating CSIRTs.  Advances in AI-enhanced cybersecurity systems can decrease response time and reduce network intrusions.  Funding computer science education trains the next generation of CSIRTs.  Cyber hygiene, or best cybersecurity practices, can make civilians less susceptible to cyber intrusions, while media literacy can counter the effects of information warfare.

Other Comments:  The U.S. Cyber Command and intelligence agencies, such as the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency, are largely responsible for U.S. government operations in cyberspace.  The U.S. State Department’s range of options may be limited, but partnering with the military and intelligence communities, as well as the private sector is crucial.

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  Nakashima, E. (2017, February 7) Russia’s apparent meddling in U.S. election is not an act of war, cyber expert says. Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2017/02/07/russias-apparent-meddling-in-u-s-election-is-not-an-act-of-war-cyber-expert-says

[2]  Finkle, J. (2017, March 15) “North Korean hacking group behind recent attacks on banks: Symantec.” Reuters. Retrieved from: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-cyber-northkorea-symantec

[3]  FireEye. (2016, June 20). Red Line Drawn: China Recalculates Its Use Of Cyber Espionage. Retrieved from: https://www.fireeye.com/blog/threat-research/2016/06/red-line-drawn-china-espionage.html

[4]  Warrick, J. (2017, February 3). “How a U.S. team uses Facebook, guerrilla marketing to peel off potential ISIS recruits.” Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/bait-and-flip-us-team-uses-facebook-guerrilla-marketing-to-peel-off-potential-isis-recruits/2017/02/03/431e19ba-e4e4-11e6-a547-5fb9411d332c_story.html

[5]  Mak, T. (2017, February 6). “U.S. Preps for Infowar on Russia”. The Daily Beast. Retrieved from: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2017/02/06/u-s-preps-for-infowar-on-russia.html

[6]  Valeriano, B., & Jensen, B. (2017, March 16). “From Arms and Influence to Data and Manipulation: What Can Thomas Schelling Tell Us About Cyber Coercion?”. Lawfare. Retrieved from: https://www.lawfareblog.com/arms-and-influence-data-and-manipulation-what-can-thomas-schelling-tell-us-about-cyber-coercion

Below Established Threshold Activities (BETA) Cyberspace Diplomacy Matthew Reitman Option Papers United States