Soft power has emerged as an instrument used by the state to interact with civil society and deliver specific political messages.

Russia ranked 27th in the global Soft Power 30 rating. Photo: Reuters

In June, UK-based consulting group Portland presented its second annual global Soft Power 30 ranking developed in collaboration with Facebook. The report analyzes soft power and ranks the countries that occupy the top 30 positions.

The first ranking from Portland was published a year ago and was seen as an ambitious attempt to clarify the soft power concept that was first introduced by American political scientist Joseph Nye 25 years ago. Over the past two decades, the soft power concept has become an indispensable part of scholarly and expert discourse, and a way of understanding why some nations are able to exercise influence in the world without regard to hard power capabilities.

While there are some ambiguities about the Soft Power 30 methodology and some questions about the project’s commercial component, the ranking is a useful tool for helping researchers to think in new ways about the nature of soft power and its dynamics.

Russia’s appearance on the list in 2016 – despite the nation’s ongoing confrontation with the West – attracted the attention of political experts and media commentators. However, the authors of the ranking made clear that, in their opinion, the country’s 27th place had less to do with last year’s progress and more with the soft power reserves accumulated over the 1990s and early 2000s. Still there is no answer why those reserves were not revealed in the last year's rating. Specific numbers are actually of secondary importance, and no one is trying to argue that this year’s numbers are somehow better than last year’s numbers. The most important aspect is the very existence of Russia in the Top 30 at all.

While many scholars tend to think of soft power only in foreign policy terms, it may be more useful to think in terms of how soft power has emerged as an instrument used by the state to interact with civil society and deliver specific political messages.

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Soft power as a tradeoff with civil society

Soft power helps countries to develop more efficient mechanisms that enable them to maintain a competitive edge under the current conditions. However, soft power itself greatly depends on relations between the state and its citizens. When a society can act independently and enter into negotiations with the government on an equal basis, state power transforms and exhibits the ability to soften and get smarter, thus balancing the bilateral nature of such interaction.

However, interpreting soft power can prove a daunting task. Defining hard power is a lot easier due to its linear and transparent nature. At the state level, hard power manifests itself in direct administration based on strict hierarchy and compliance with established order upheld by law enforcement. It is characterized by legitimate use of force and the state’s monopoly on violence.

However, the problem with soft power is that softer governance can be perceived differently. The state’s softness towards the public is traditionally viewed as a sign of weakness that questions a country’s ability to resolve its internal issues without outside interference. If a government cannot enforce the application of its resolutions for whatever reason, whether it is objective obstacles or subjective doubts, it leads to the development of a crisis of sovereignty as a core characteristic of state power.

In a democracy where the public, or a multitude of people with various needs, is the source of power, the crisis of sovereignty is a fairly common phenomenon. The public is often divided on a wide range of issues, and politicians are frequently unwilling to take responsibility for unpopular decisions.

Still, the flexibility and advancement of modern democratic procedures support the state system in its search for ways to overcome such crises: In promoting the balance between conflicting interests and offering compromises, state institutions are evolving and developing new skills required for maintaining their stability.

Under pluralism and the growing self-sufficiency of civil society, dialogue with the state becomes increasingly complex. Soft power becomes an integral part of this dialogue.

When applied to internal communication, the modern state’s soft power actually stands for political marketing, or the government’s ability to negotiate with civil society by alluding to the competencies or resources that society lacks. In a contemporary democracy, the people have all the power, but the channels for exercising the authority are controlled by the state through the constitution, laws, elections, referendums, parties and political rights and freedoms.

The government uses these mechanisms to channel citizens’ political self-realization, their ambitions and demonstrations of will to the state’s advantage. An individual’s active political involvement promotes results desired by the state. That is what soft power is about.

At the same time, it is obvious that real-world politics does not separate soft power from hard power and uses any methods it deems effective. That is the manifestation of what is commonly referred to as “smart power.”

Understanding soft power in political context

When discussing soft power, it is important to understand that, just like hard power, it is an attribute of force and as such, maintains a coercive, compulsory nature. Bidirectional influence is a purely methodological, not substantive quality, which creates the illusion that many are involved in the decision-making process, but the sole main beneficiary is still the state that is projecting its power.

The state can also project its influence by bringing people from other countries into the discussion. The coercive nature of soft power has been emerging this decade since the Arab Spring, which started in 2011 when political instability ceased to be an internal issue of separate countries or a local matter of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

The “manufacturers” of one state’s political product directly communicate with another country’s citizens and create the “demand” that leads to a conflict between the people and their national government. It is the result of the competition of ideas and values reflected in the relative attractiveness of the state. It seems like a projection of economic crises deriving from stock market speculation onto a political plane.

As a result, the tactics of communicating with other communities over the heads of their states is no longer just a nice gesture, but a vital necessity for any country that cares about its future. While some caution against it, others have long been acting on their own accord without issuing any warnings.

Soft power and the element of surprise

In remaining a power, albeit soft, the new influence mechanism will strive to discover new, more effective instruments for consistent softening of the force component and encouraging voluntary action on behalf of the ones subjected to it. At the moment, it is hard to understand how such effect will be achieved.

However, we can already discern that modern soft power possesses a useful quality in its ability to surprise. It employs novel, unorthodox and unpredictable approaches to attract consumers’ attention, which is the first step towards building loyalty. The most effective soft power is the one that knows how to impress the target audience.

What is the surprise value of soft power? The same as it has always been: its ability to respond promptly to societal demands. Even though challenges that modern political systems are facing today are unprecedented, the competition for people’s minds has always existed, albeit to varying degrees.

All regimes and rulers held propaganda, ideology and information management in high esteem. Wording, goals and priorities may have changed, but major state institutions have been actively controlling, if not orchestrating, politics as a method of communication.

The well-known concept of the Overton Window first introduced by American lawyer Joseph P. Overton is a rather vivid example of the surprise value of soft power. The Overton Window ensures the change in public opinion through managing the acceptability of certain policies within the political discourse.

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Soft power and the role of the media and think tanks

The development of mass media – first printed and then electronic – incentivized the use of technology to influence mechanisms and predetermined the actualization of soft power that relies heavily on communication.

The media as the so-called “Fourth Estate” opened a Pandora’s box that brought forth countless influence mechanisms that often do not require the support of formal executive, legislative or judicial institutions.

While the media work to deliver soft power, its development is the domain of conceptual institutions that are typically separated from the state apparatus. Just like instruments of hard power (weapons and military equipment) are manufactured by engineering companies, mechanisms of soft power can be created (i.e. “manufactured”) by various research centers, such as think tanks.

Think tanks are similar to the media in that they are market participants and compete for state attention and funding. For the state, they are experts in the broader sense of the word capable of tying state interests with the demands of the civil society and the needs of its citizens as consumers of a political product.

Politics itself as a complex of interconnected ideas, tasks and events becomes a product that a state is increasingly struggling to produce. In doing so, the state faces a lack of the necessary competencies caused by the shortening of the electoral planning horizon.

Developed networks of think tanks make up for this deficiency. De facto politics is being outsourced by the state, and think tanks compete to show which one can utilize the least amount of state resources to create a product with specific characteristics. The authorities then only have to legitimize the product.

Thus, think tanks are a core element of global expert knowledge and help to ensure its accumulation and marketing, i.e. attractiveness and relevance. Actually, universal expert knowledge currently represents the essence of a modern state’s soft power.

However, the problem is that in many countries, including Russia, political elites are not yet keen on navigating expert knowledge. Russian think tanks are quite capable of increasing their role in national foreign policy choices. Moreover, Russian think tanks have their work cut out for them if they want to hold leading positions in world rankings, such as the Global Go To Think Tanks Index prepared by the University of Pennsylvania.

Still, it is important to factor in the influence of think tanks and boost their activity, for they are a key element of smart power and provide governments with the opportunity to demonstrate maximum flexibility. This, in turn, creates competitive advantages and shapes further global development.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.