27 May 2013, 15:16

Russia can tap new sources of soft power, while the US often undermines its own appeal through its actions

experts blinova

Joseph Nye is right about the lack of soft power in Russia today. And the US certainly is the unchallenged leader in the use of this powerful instrument, which helps to popularize Western values. Indeed, the US is winning the soft power global competition hands down thanks to its highly developed social institutions and well-articulated ideology of freedom, democracy and justice, not to mention cutting-edge technologies and popular culture.

This article is part of Voice of Russia Experts’ Panel Discussion

In the 20th century the Soviet Union had an active and highly developed propaganda machine – internal and international. Despite the flaws of its Communist ideology, it possessed a network of international institutions and deployed its impressive achievements in science, culture and sports as a PR instrument, not dissimilar to that of soft power. After the collapse of the USSR, most of the important connections abroad were lost or “frozen” and the propaganda machine stopped in its tracks.

Professor Nye is absolutely right. Soft power should not be generated and deployed by the government but by free society with the financial backing from the private sector. Owing to its historical traditions the Russia state will continue to play a major role, while the private sector will increasingly take over the task. Unfortunately, however, Russian billionaires do not appear to be spending their money on creating a “positive image of Russia”. They are not exactly eager to donate to patriotic or Russophile organizations or sponsor the international popularization of Russian culture, art and traditions. And, of course, there is a lack of such NGOs inside Russia, let alone abroad.

The rise of Internet opens new opportunities. However, the notion that the global Internet community can somehow supplant the nation-centered approach is, in my view, wrong. Although there exist universal values, such as for example “human rights,” the civilization- and ethnic-centered approach is here to stay. We live in a world of myriads of traditions and national and ethnic diversity, which is intrinsically very valuable. The world is not ready yet to form some kind of homogenous Internet society based on unified values.

Since the Kremlin today subscribes to realpolitik and a pragmatic approach that has no ideological message, Russia has an opportunity to win new allies – the traditionalist regimes, which fear a new “Western crusade” on the one hand and the Western right-wing conservatives who abhor the model of an ultra-liberal society on the other. Some European commentators have already drawn attention to this. For example, Marcel H. van Herpen, Director of the Cicero Foundation, writes in an article titled “Putinism’s Authoritarian Allure”: “A surprising phenomenon is increasingly apparent in Western Europe: far-right parties are moving away from their traditional anti-communist and anti-Russia ideologies, with many expressing admiration – and even outright support – for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime.”

In any comparison of Russian and US foreign policy, we must take a look at the other side of the coin. American foreign policy suffers from serious flaws that partly undermine the achievements of US soft power, namely interference in the domestic affairs of other nations and the attempts (often premature) to change countries’ social and political environments. Furthermore, some Western human rights foundations pin the label “dictator” on any state leader who shows disloyalty to the US, thus laying the groundwork for a possible regime change.

In this context, we should recall the UN Resolution 39/159 (at the 102nd plenary session of 17 December 1984) on the “Inadmissibility of the policy of State terrorism and any actions by States aimed at undermining the socio-political system in other sovereign States”. It states the following: “The General Assembly… urges all States to respect and strictly observe, in accordance with Charter of the United Nations, the sovereignty and political independence of States and the right of peoples to self-determination, as well as their right freely, without outside interference and intervention, to choose their socio-political system and to pursue their political, economical, social and cultural development.”

Ekaterina Blinova
Fellow of the American University in Moscow
Nizhniy Novgorod

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