Making Sense of Russia’s “Soft Power” (July 10, 2013)
Written by Yelena Osipova, Ph.D. Candidate at the School of International Service, American University. You can read her blog at Global Chaos and follow her on Twitter @LenaOsipova.
Over the past decade, soft power has become one of the hottest issues around the world. Trying to regain its international status, Russia, too, has joined the long list of countries spending millions on charming foreign publics. In fact, soft power seems to have become one of the most recent fetishes of Russian political leadership. Yet, it is difficult to find anyone who would stop and ask whether soft power is really applicable to Russia. After all, it is a Western and highly loaded concept.
Coined by Joseph Nye, soft power essentially refers to the ability to get “others to want what you want” without resorting to coercion or payments. An important point that is often overlooked, however, is that the original concept is very American-centric and mostly reflects the American worldview and international objectives. This creates a dilemma for other actors, who might not necessarily share this worldview, yet want to benefit from the ostensibly more benign forms of influence offered by soft power. Their solution, therefore, is to redefine soft power and make it more applicable to their own context and interests.
Russia has followed a similar path. Under President Vladimir Putin’s administration, the former superpower has been consistently trying to make a global comeback since around the mid-2000s. It was also about that time that the Russian political and economic elite seems to have realized that in the information age and an increasingly globalized world, an aspiring global actor could not be successful without a strong international image or broad-based international public support. Soft power promised a solution, and so myakhkaya sila quickly entered the language.
The Russian vocabulary also adopted another originally American term often used in parallel with soft power: public diplomacy. Coined during the Cold War to provide the United States with a more positive-sounding alternative to propaganda, public diplomacy refers to conscious efforts by international actors to influence foreign public opinion to benefit their foreign policy. Though many a heated scholarly battle has been fought over the semantic differences between the two concepts, within the Russian context the terms have been used synonymously, and therefore both merit attention.
The related Russian terminology and range of definitions is arguably more diverse than the original English. For example, there seems to be a differentiation between publichnaya diplomatiya (public diplomacy) and obshchestvennaya diplomatiya (social/societal diplomacy), where the former is defined in terms of informational initiatives undertaken by the government, while the latter also involves private and civil society organizations, as well as individuals. Sometimes, the effort is also referred to as people’s diplomacy (narodnaya diplomatiya), especially when referring to private initiatives and direct people-to-people programs, particularly in the former Soviet region.
Despite these differences, there is a general consensus that the ultimate objective of public diplomacy is to influence opinions by following the government’s legal and political framework. So, even in cases where the government is advised against assuming a major role in the practice of public diplomacy, the process is not seen as entirely independent from official policy. Perhaps the best confirmation of this comes in Russia’s most recent Foreign Policy Concept adopted this February, which states that the government will provide “essential state support” to the Russian media working to improve Russia’s image abroad.
Effectively, public diplomacy is defined primarily in informational terms—whether in the context of “new,” “old,” or “digital” media—with the government leading the effort. The list of examples here includes the RT television network (formerly Russia Today), the Voice of Russia radio, Russia Behind the Headlines, and the RIA Novosti website, to name but a few. All these efforts have been initiated and are financed directly or indirectly by the Kremlin, for the purpose of projecting a better image of Russia by countering the negative media coverage as well as the information dominance of the West.
On the other hand, Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept defines soft power more broadly: as a “comprehensive toolkit for achieving foreign policy objectives building on civil society potential, information, cultural and other methods and technologies alternative to traditional diplomacy.”
The examples here include cultural diplomacy efforts by organizations such as the Russkiy Mir Foundation, Rossotrudnichestvo, or the Gorchakov Fund. In fact, just in May, Rossotrudnichestvo saw a major hike in its budget (more than $500 million for the coming year) and had its mandate expanded to include the oversight of more direct and bilateral humanitarian and development assistance provided by Russia. This is a great example of the extent to which Russia is willing to go to enhance its soft power, and pursue the (perhaps misguided) assumption that money can buy true friends.
And yet, one cannot discuss Russian soft power without touching upon the concept of sovereignty, which has been central to Russian domestic and foreign policy over the past two decades. The 2013 Foreign Policy Concept suggests that “soft power and human rights concepts” can be used “destructively” and “unlawfully” to “exert political pressure on sovereign states, interfere in their internal affairs, destabilize their political situation, [and] manipulate public opinion.” Nevertheless, Russia also pledges to “actively participate in international information cooperation, and take necessary measures to counteract information threats to its sovereignty and security.”
As such, Russia finds itself between a rock and a hard place: it wants to enhance its soft power and public diplomacy while loudly resisting and countering similar attempts by others, namely the United States. For a great illustration of this dilemma, see the recent expulsion of USAID from Russia for its alleged promotion of regime change, as well as the passage of the “foreign agent law” that requires foreign-funded NGOs in Russia to register as foreign agents; all this while the Russian government hikes up its own soft power and its self-described “humanitarian budget.”
It is a thin line to walk—one on which many other governments have stumbled. It is very interesting to see how far Russia will manage to get. Yet, one cannot help but wonder why the Russians won’t come up with a (positive) language of their own—perhaps, something along the lines of “sovereignty charm” or even “sovereign soft power”—to reflect their objectives better and make the job much easier. After all, inventing new concepts seems to be a popular pastime these days.