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Russian soft power still has some hard edges
Russian soft power still has some hard edges
While Russia’s authorities pin hopes on soft power to improve the country’s image abroad, they should be also mindful about hidden risks and challenges the soft power concept presents.
The concept of soft power is increasingly relevant today now that countries can easily wage «information wars» across the Internet to shape and alter their image. Given soft power’s potential, the idea of changing Russia’s image abroad is becoming increasingly popular among journalists, diplomats and politicians. Yet, for now, soft power remains a very delicate tool that creates both opportunities and risks.
One problem is that the soft power concept is still too general
and vague to deliver real results, according to Marina Lebedeva, the
head of the Department of World Politics at the Moscow State
Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). She believes that improving
a country’s image should be targeted because «there are
different social, professional groups and different countries and regions that
have a different attitude toward Russia». In other words,
Russian soft power, compared to a candy bar
The current meaning of soft power has evolved since the Cold War era, when terms like «public diplomacy» were usually seen as a euphemism for propaganda. After Joseph Nye, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, introduced and legitimized the term «soft power» in 1990, it was used to describe a country’s ability and potential to be attractive for others because of its culture, education or humanitarian aid.
«Soft power is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment», Nye told Russia Direct in an email message. «For countries, the major resources that produce soft power are culture, values and policies».
Over the past twenty years, as a RD Quarterly Report on soft power highlighted, that definition has further broadened to include student exchanges, mass media and international aid. Yet, there is still one core risk for any nation attempting to deploy its soft power: Attempting to create a positive image abroad might be regarded as propaganda.
Nye argues that people pay attention to what they see as credible.
«Propaganda is rarely credible for long. Thus it is not
effective in producing soft power», he told Russia Direct,
pointing to a nation’s willingness to be open and
«Witness the BBC which is government funded, but often willing to bite the hand that feeds it», he told Russia Direct while admitting that some Russian soft power projects such as state broadcasting and media «seems to fall short of the standards».
So, Russian authorities and media outlets that seek to improve the
country’s image abroad should take into account this advice: Being
as open and
According to Nye, although Russian culture and values may be «very attractive to many societies», there are some factors that hamper Russia’s ability to project soft power.
«The curtailment of liberties, the weakness of the rule of law, and an image of corruption are not attractive to most others», he said. «When Russian policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, they can attract; but when they seem to involve bullying neighbors, they do not».
According to him, some
Lebedeva echoes Nye’s view. She warns that propaganda may «disguise» some inconvenient truths about a country’s reality. It results from the incongruity between «external» and «internal» attractiveness: Lebedeva compares propaganda with a tasteless candy wrapped in an attractive cover.
«The candy may be initially attractive. But such attractiveness
And this is a problem for Russian soft power. Lebedeva argues that Russia «should shift the focus from the cover to the candy» to improve its internal attractiveness.
In contrast, Andrey Kortunov, President of the New Eurasia Foundation and the General Director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), argues that the authorities should reassess the term «propaganda» and adjust it to the new information realities that have changed since the Cold War era. He points out that it is important to propagandize a country’s achievements, advantages and potential as long as there are alternative sources of the information.
«Propaganda should be different today», he said. «There will be always propaganda that is filled with analysis and some conclusions, that suggest creating a certain image for target audience. The task is to increase its efficiency».
U.S. lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan
Being perceived as propaganda is not only the risk
of projecting soft power. The lack of knowledge about a target
country — especially its political, educational and cultural
traditions — may hamper any attempts to increase influence
in this country. The U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan
is a good example, as indicated from the Foreign Affairs article
of Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired
Eikenberry presents as an example the
Although the U.S. authorities are hopeful about the COIN plan, Eikenberry regards this campaign as «increasingly incoherent and difficult to prosecute». One of the reasons was overconfidence that resulted from the lack of knowledge about the country.
«It was sheer hubris to think that American military personnel
without the appropriate language skills and with only a superficial
understanding of Afghan culture could, on six-
Likewise, the U.S. experience in Iraq also warns against mistakes
in projecting soft power. The U.S. wasted money (over $63 billion)
on soft power projects in Iraq that were characterized
by inefficiency and mistaken judgments, according to a book,
We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds
of the Iraqi People, by Peter Van Buren, a
To prove this viewpoint, Van Buren describes the U.S.
Possible role models from the U.S. and China
Despite its setbacks in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the U.S. is believed to be one of the most successful countries in projecting its soft power abroad. As a result, Russia should take into account positive experiences from the U.S.
Establishing American Corners in different Russian regions
is a good example. In 2013, Russia celebrated the 20th
anniversary of hosting the American Corners program. Currently, there are
more 25 American Corners scattered throughout Russia. They offer cultural and
educational programs, English language learning, and advising for people who
wish to pursue their higher education in the
The model of the
Kortunov also argues that the experience of some BRICS countries may be also helpful. He believes that Russia can study China’s system of Confucius Institutes created by Beijing to promote Chinese culture, language and history throughout the world.
«This experience is believed to have been pretty successful and we can see it as a model», he said pointing out that China as well as India can also give a lot of examples how to work with their diaspora populations to use them as a tool of expanding their cultural and economic presence in different countries.
Likewise, Lebedeva believes that China’s experience may be very useful because it is «actively integrating into the world’s science and higher education». «They have real achievements [in this sphere]», she said. «Of course, it’s becoming attractive for others».
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