Russia Needs To Develop Its “Hard” Soft Power

My latest for VoR/US-Russia Experts panel:

I think we have to make a distinction here between “soft” soft power and “hard” soft power.

The US’ “soft” soft power is, of course, overwhelming. By “soft” soft power, I mean its accumulated cultural capital: The popularity of the English language, Hollywood, the Ivy League, Apple and American Pie, and so forth. If this were a Civilization game, the Americans would be maxing out the “culture” meter. There is no feasible way for Russia to ever overtake the US in this respect, if only because its limited population constrains the ultimate scope of its civilization (China is another matter).

What is of greater interest, and CAN be influenced relatively cheaply, is “hard” soft power. By “hard” soft power, I mean the ability to harness support for a sovereign internal and foreign policy line. “Hard” soft power is promoted by media and cultural organizations catering to foreign audiences, and can be measured by indicators such as a country’s international approval rating, which the BBC World Service measures every year. This rating can, in turn, affect diplomatic influence, investment attractiveness, and promulgate a general sense of moral vindication among the citizenry.

Lavishing resources into raising international approval ratings – that is, building up “hard” soft power – can produce vast returns on investment. There are several ways this can be done:

(1) Avoiding embarrassing situations so far as possible, and responding to them in a timely and comprehensive way AS SOON AS they arise. The entire Magnitsky debacle is a case study in how NOT to manage a genuine screw-up followed up by an oligarchic PR attack. Khodorkovsky is an earlier example. The ECHR eventually concluded that the case was NOT politically motivated, but so far as everyone and their dog is concerned the Menatep bandits are martyrs for democracy. The scope of the PR failure here is astounding. But the Russian government just doesn’t seem to care, leaving the heavy lifting to bloggers (!) like PoliTrash.

(2) Countering negative “hard” soft power. As one of the few countries to pursue a truly sovereign foreign policy – China is another example; so is Venezuela and Iran – it is not surprising that Russia would come under intensive information attack. One need do little more than recall Western coverage of the 2008 South Ossetian War, in which the victim was literally presented as the aggressor. Even institutions like the EU were later forced to acknowledge the truth, but no matter – the first week of coverage permanently implanted the perception it was big bad Russia that attacked plucky democratic Georgia, and neocons continue to push the lie even though a 5 minute perusal of Wikipedia would totally discredit it.

Information attacks are an inescapable price of sovereignty. However, the effects of such attacks can be minimized by establishing a special office that could coordinate the writing of press complaints to combat factually wrong and/or defamatory coverage; working with non-Western countries to reduce Western dominance in various international financial and regulatory bodies; promoting the integration of the Russian media space into the global media space, first and foremost via the Internet; creating and popularizing alternate, more objective indices of freedom and corruption than the politicized Transparency International and Freedom House ratings.

(3) Building up the keystone institutions of “hard” soft power. Every self-respecting country needs a channel or two to promote its views abroad (The BBC, France 24, RFERL/Voice of America, CNBC, Al Jazeera) and Russia, through RT, RIA, the Voice of Russia, and RBTH, performs solidly in this respect. But other aspects need touching up. For instance, the main vector of Russian cultural influence abroad is Rossotrudnichestvo, which no foreigner can even pronounce properly; compare and contrast with the British Council, the Goethe-Institut, or the Confucius Academies. It definitely has to step up its game here: Rebrand (Pushkin Schools?), and expand.

“Hard” soft power is fairly easy to increase with targeted investments (unlike “soft” soft power), and it is comparatively very cheap (unlike “hard” military-industrial power). There are no Great Power wars on the horizon, which makes the vast spending on military modernization rather questionable; while the task of building up “soft” soft power isn’t a matter of years, but of decades or even centuries. In contrast, “hard” soft power can be maximized relatively cheaply and quickly. Although Russia is much better in this respect than it was even a decade ago, there are still many low-hanging fruits left to picked.


  1. A Nobody says:

    Anatoly one element that also is missing is the Russian language promotion. Russkiy Mir Foundation could do well to learn from the Goethe Institute which has a much broader reach in far more global cities as well as online.

    Sure German is closer to English than Russian but it isn’t THAT much easier and both languages are easier for foreigners to grasp than Chinese.

    Looking at it from a long term perspective integrating as many talented Greeks, Spaniards and Italians as possible over the next several years as those economies collapse under the weight of their pensions combined with an inability to devalue could be a historic coup almost on par with the talent injections under Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

    • moscowexile says:

      This language question is indeed key and a comparison of Russian with German an interesting one.

      The world domination of English as a result of the British Empire followed by the United States empire-in-all-but-name will, I think, last for the forseeable future.The huge majority of published material and emails, faxes etc. are in English. However, last time I checked, the second most published language after English is German, largely because of Germany’s scientific and technical prowess, namely the second highest number of scientific and technical publications after those written in English are in German.

      When I was at school some 50 years ago, students of chemistry who had no knowledge of German had to do an intense course in the German language so as to help them read treatises written in German. As regards science and technology, Russians are no dullards, yet few learn Russian and read Russian works and scientific journals in the original, relying only on translations.

      As regards cultural exchanges andible misunderstandigs, this often leads to problems. Bronsky once said that the reason English speakers cannot discern the differences between the thinking of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is because they have never read these illustrious writers’ works,.only Constance Garnett’s translations of them.

    • Goethe Institute in the UK only exists in Glasgow and London. I heard that in the past they used to have many more branches. No idea what happened, but it looks like Germany is also neglecting this side of soft power.

  2. A Nobody says:

    I also think the online component is key because it’s the only way Russian will ever get taught at all but the most elite high schools around the world, including in the U.S. Otherwise it’s hard for the language to have the kind of staying power that German should have through the mid-21st century. It’s also about shifting the model of education — why should the so-called ‘elite’ Western universities grab all the global market share simply because MIT and others are the first to put complete courses online?

    For example, the Gubkin Institute of Oil and Gas in Moscow could offer introductory courses to petroleum engineering majors and those in community colleges considering a PE major (since the average age of PEs in the U.S. is something like 58 right now). Think of the Williston Community College in the North Dakota oil patch offering a Gubkin course…after all, you have a lot of guys who never went to college and are making a lot of money on the rigs but who could see the value of acquiring an engineering degree over the long haul (or an accounting one to become an oil and gas exec in the future).

  3. A Nobody says:

    “(1) Avoiding embarrassing situations so far as possible, and responding to them in a timely and comprehensive way AS SOON AS they arise.” The latest shock outrage is over a New Economic School professor being ‘forced’ to leave Russia due to pressure from the authorities. I’m sure more will come out to the story just as Broward hasn’t proven to be squeaky clean in the Magnitsky case but it’s another embarassment if true. If not then someone needs to get the facts regarding Sergey Guriev out pronto.