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.


Will Russia be able to project its soft power effectively? Photo: AP

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, a one-size-fits-all solution for soft power rarely works.

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 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 self-critical. According to him, self-criticism is “often a way to establish credibility.”

“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 self-critical as possible is crucial.

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 well-known soft power projects like the Sochi Olympics will produce soft power “if Russia does not step on its message by following them with repression. That was a mistake China made after the Beijing Olympics.” 

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 can’t be long-lasting,” she argues warning that such candy may bring about a great deal of distrust in the future.

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 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

U.S. public diplomacy in Iraq: failure or success? Photo: Reuters

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 U.S. Army lieutenant general and former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, who now teaches at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.    

Eikenberry presents as an example the so-called U.S. Counterinsurgency Doctrine (COIN) that deals with the protection of the Afghan population. It also provides higher levels of foreign assistance and support such as building schools in the local villages, establishing health clinics, creating a local government center, and even supporting gender rights via a U.S. Marine “female engagement team.”

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- or 12-month tours, somehow deliver to Afghan villages everything asked of them by the COIN manual,” Eikenberry wrote. “The typical 21-year-old marine is hard-pressed to win the heart and mind of his mother-in-law; can he really be expected to do the same with an ethnocentric Pashtun tribal elder?”

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 U.S. State Department official who spent one year in Iraq in 2009. The author compares the U.S. soft power project in Iraq with “pasting together feathers year after year, hoping for a duck.”

To prove this viewpoint, Van Buren describes the U.S. government-funded My Arabic Library project that cost $88,000 and contained classic American books translated into Arabic. Although the U.S. Embassy had high hopes for the books, claiming that they are important to educate Iraqi children and future leaders to help them build a more prosperous Iraq, nobody in the country turned out to need these books. “We heard later from a third party that, failing to sell the books on the black market, the principal just dumped them behind the school,” Van Buren wrote.

Possible role models from the U.S. and China

Will Russia be able to apply the USAID model to boost its soft power? Photo: Reuters

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 U.S. In addition, the libraries at the American Corners usually include books and DVDs on topics ranging from the natural sciences to economics to history and journalism.

The model of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is also worthwhile to study.  According to Kortunov, Russia takes into account the USAID experience with its targeted economic support for civil society institutes and regards it as a model to cerate the same agency in Russia. Yet, so far Russia’s authorities didn’t get off the ground with this idea, he noted, pointing out that this experience should be adjusted to the Russian reality.  

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.”