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Soft Power in the 21st Century – USA and Russia – two sides of the same coin or two different coins

by on April 4, 2014

Fig. 1. The Olypmic Games in Sochi, Russia 2014.

According to Joseph Nye, power “is the ability to affect others to get the outcomes one wants”. He argues that there are three ways of achieving power and that it can be done either by coercion, payment or attraction. (Caldwell 2005:2-3) The concept of soft power is the “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion” and that it can be developed through relations with allies, cultural exchanges and economic assistance. This supports credibility and positive public opinion abroad and strengthen favorable power relations and cooperation , (Bohorquez 2005) that are necessary for power success in an increasingly complex international system. Joseph Nye is highly critical regarding Russia´s work on soft power and says that the state leaders have largely failed to apply the concept in their power system. (Nye 2013) The question is if it is really possible to try to apply this concept (which is interpreted in a liberal democratic way) on a non-liberal state and if Russia instead seeks to develop its own structure and interpretation of the concept.

Soft power – a post- Soviet concept

In 1991, the Soviet Union and its whole comprehensive socio-political system had collapsed. (Gregory  2008:46) The USA was seen as the winner of the Cold War by scholars like Francis Fukuyama and during this time Joseph Nye introduced the concept of soft power for the first time and pointed out that the USA was not only the most prominent global actor in military and economic terms, but also had a large capacity regarding soft power, which means “the ability to influence the behaviour of others to accomplish the outcomes one wants.” by attraction instead of coercion. (Bohorquez 2005, Wroe 2002) The Soviet Union was shattered and had lost all capability of promoting any kind of soft power or even uphold a stable system, but in year 2000, Vladimir Putin took office and took control over the political situation in an effective way. This stabilized and strengthened the Russian state from within, but the system was built with the help of authoritarian methods and turned away from the 1990s relatively friendly relationship to western values. This resulted in trust in a traditional hard power structure, tied to resources like gas, oil and military power and (Maliukevicius 2013:78-79) a civil society built on a pro-Russki model which means that it is supportive of the Russian state and interlinked in a very tight, authoritative and paternalistic state-civil society system, which in many ways reflects the old style Soviet Union order and differs very much from the liberal structure in the USA. (Ljubownikov 2013:163) The historical background of the Cold War and the collapse, but also the large differences in the  political and social systems, plus a negative publicity and academic reaction might be some of the reasons why the American soft power concept has not been a popular topic in Russia and is seen as a Western power strategy. (Maliukevicius 2013:70-71)

A special report on Russian President Vladimir Putin´s life and political career.

Two sides of the same coin or two different coins

Joseph Nye argues that the state leaders of Russia have failed to understand the concept of soft power, and that it should be the civil society that produce the soft power and that the government should not be the main instrument of soft power issues.  (Nye 2013) In response, the Russian scholar Sergei Karganov highlighted in the aftermath of the crisis in Georgia, that Russia needs to maintain and use its hard power strategy because the state exists in a very dangerous part of the world and because there are not much of soft power sources to promote. (Nye 2013) However, that argument is not valid since Russia has a range of soft power abilities and promotes for example the Russian language, classical Russian literature and the Russia Today (now known as RT) in the US, UK and on the Internet. The academic scholar Mark Sleboda even argues that Putin’s “foreign policy resistance to the US and adherence to the UN Charter’s principles of sovereignty and non-interference are proving a powerful soft power weapon” (Sleboda 2013) in the Middle East.

Since the Russian political and social system is built on authoritarian ground stones where a closed instead of an open system provides the stability, it is difficult or maybe not even fully possible or desirable for Russians to change it to become more open in terms of any liberal soft power advantages. It is also important to know that the Soviet Union collapsed because of an increasing, uncontrollable openness (perestroika and glasnost) and that there might be a fear among Russian politicians that this will repeat again. Also, the focus of the state has not necessarily been to reach out globally, but to build its regional identity and the state leaders have focused a lot on internal and regional economic and political challenges where political project like the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and foreign policy concepts like “compatriots policy” and “near abroad”, were put in place to attract post-Soviet societies, instead of reaching out at an international stage. (Maliukevicius  2013:78) Instead of Russia trying to absorb a western interpretation of soft power it can be argued that Kremlin has its own way “of transforming Western concepts and making them suit Russian realities” (Maliukevicius  2013:78) and is seeking its own definition of a soft power structure.

Fig. 2. Russian bears.

References/Bibliography

Online journals

Caldwell, Dan (2005) The Zen of Soft Power. International Studies Perspectives. Nov2005, Vol. 6 Issue 4, preceding pi-ii. 2p. (Online) EBSCO HOST

Available at: http://0-web.a.ebscohost.com.emu.londonmet.ac.uk/ehost/detail?vid=5&sid=633f8b8d-1d68-4082-9415-d5ecd03aa773%40sessionmgr4002&hid=4204&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=a9h&AN=19316082

Accessed: 1st of April 2014

Gregory, Paul (2008) How the Soviet System Cracked. Policy Review. Oct/Nov2008, Issue 151, p45-60. 16p. (Online) EBSCO HOST

Available at: http://0-web.a.ebscohost.com.emu.londonmet.ac.uk/ehost/detail?vid=10&sid=633f8b8d-1d68-4082-9415-d5ecd03aa773%40sessionmgr4002&hid=4204&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=a9h&AN=34945970

Accessed: 2nd of April 2014

Ljubownikov, Sergej (2013) The state and civil society in Post-Soviet Russia: The development  of a Russian-style civil society. Progress in Development Studies 13, 2 (2013) pp. 153–166 (Online) EBSCO HOST

Available at: http://0-web.a.ebscohost.com.emu.londonmet.ac.uk/ehost/detail?vid=3&sid=633f8b8d-1d68-4082-9415-d5ecd03aa773%40sessionmgr4002&hid=4204&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=a9h&AN=85191797

Accessed: 1st of April 2014

Maliukevicius, Nerijus (2013) (Re)Constructing Russian Soft Power in Post-Soviet Region. Baltic Security & Defence Review. 2013, Vol. 15 Issue 2, p70-97. 28p. EBSCO HOST

Available at: http://0-web.a.ebscohost.com.emu.londonmet.ac.uk/ehost/detail?vid=8&sid=633f8b8d-1d68-4082-9415-d5ecd03aa773%40sessionmgr4002&hid=4204&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=a9h&AN=94249642

Accessed: 2nd of April 2014

Online News Articles

Bohorquez, Tysha (2005) “Soft Power -The Means to Success in World Politics”. (Book Review) UCLA International Institute (Online)

Available at: http://www.international.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=34734

Accessed: 2nd of April 2014

Nye, Joseph S. (2013) What China and Russia Don’t Get About Soft Power

Beijing and Moscow are trying their hands at attraction, and failing — miserably. Foreign Policy (Online)

Available at: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/04/29/what_china_and_russia_don_t_get_about_soft_power

Accessed: 2nd of April 2014

Sleboda, Mark (2013) What Joseph Nye doesn’t get about soft power. Voice of Russia

(Online)

Available at: http://voiceofrussia.com/2013_05_27/What-Joseph-Nye-doesn-t-get-about-soft-power/

Accessed: 2nd of April 2014

Wroe, Nicholas (2002) History’s pallbearer. The Guardian (Online)

Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/may/11/academicexperts.artsandhumanities

Accessed: 2nd of April 2014

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4 Comments
  1. This is a fascinating and intelligent discussion of different understandings of soft power. My impression is that Putin just doesn’t get it or care much for it, despite the huge investment in the Sochi games (I think he saw that more in terms of traditional prestige, rather than soft power attraction). He isn’t afraid to use hard power, even it significantly erodes Russia’s soft power.

    I also agree that, as Nye defines it, soft power is very much an American concept. If you have some additional words to add to this entry when you add it to your portfolio, I’d love to hear a bit more about the arguments of the Russian commentators you cite on this subject.

    Finally, the insertion of one or two images would have been nice.

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