Journalists and think-tankers adopt the Kremlin’s take on the term, speaking of “Russian soft power” when they really mean manipulation practices and disinformation. This corruption of a valuable IR concept has serious ramifications for the freedom of speech.
The Kremlin’s disinformation activities produced an unfortunate mutation of the term “soft power”, not only in Russia itself but also in the West. Like many other Western concepts, “soft power” was appropriated by Russians – and misunderstood in the process.
Nye’s original definition referred to the non-military power of attraction that stemmed from a country’s culture and political values. In Russia “soft power” was reinterpreted in much more sinister shades, as an information war weapon, meant to destabilise societies and bring down governments.
Following the Ukraine crisis of 2014, the Western policy community has paid increased attention to the Kremlin’s subversive operations, and “propaganda” and “hybrid war” became buzzwords.
Sadly, in this context, some journalists and think-tankers adopted the Kremlin’s take on the term, speaking of “Russian soft power” when they really meant disinformation and manipulation practices. This conflation does not only corrupt a valuable IR concept which can be used to analyse genuine Russian soft power. It can also have serious ramifications for key Western freedoms – such as the freedom of speech.
The power of attraction
Soft power is a concept which is well-known to IR academics and practitioners alike. In Joseph Nye’s original definition soft power stood for the power of attraction or the power of “making others want what we want” – as opposed to coercing them or bribing them.
Soft power, thus, stood in contrast to military power (hard power) as well as the power of sanctions or even economic power. Nye specified three main sources of soft power, namely culture (including popular culture), a country’s political values (democracy in the case of the United States), and its foreign policies.
Coined by Nye to analyse various dimensions of US power, the term has long spread beyond the specifically American context. Discussions on China’s soft power potential are vast, and small states have also discovered the idea for themselves. At some point, however, it became clear that the concept was having a rather ambiguous career in some places. The author himself had to come forward in order to explain how it was misunderstood.
In 2013 Nye published an article, clarifying “What China and Russia Don’t Get About Soft Power”. Authoritarian governments had appropriated the concept in their own, state-centric way, without realising that much of soft power comes from a free and autonomous civil society and culture which must exist independently of the government.
And while Russia and China created GONGOs and set up propaganda tools in attempts to increase their influence and improve their international image, often through deception and manipulation, the best propaganda, reminded Nye, was not propaganda. Soft power could not grow on lies.
In sum, certain governments confused soft power with what they were much more used to, that is a culture of the ruling elites manipulating their own and other societies. In Russia, the perverted understanding of soft power rhymed rather well with the Soviet tradition of “active measures”. The term refers to clandestine operations by KGB and other secret services, aimed at confusing and deceiving the public, both foreign and domestic.
In the same vein, the construction of the so-called “managed” or “sovereign” democracy in the first decade of Putin’s rule was built on emasculating the competitive democratic process and replacing it with a surrogate system of “virtual politics” which was meant to lull the citizens into believing they were still living in a liberal democracy.
The Russian narrative on soft power was, at times, quite revealing as to the continuity with the “political technology” of active measures. While the Russian government undertook some efforts to foster its soft power through public diplomacy frameworks, Western “soft power” was increasingly securitised, i.e. presented as a threat to Russia and to the stability of its domestic political order.
Following the 2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the narrative on foreign soft power increasingly became part of the Kremlin’s maidanophobia, that is, of the paranoid fear that the West would somehow organise a “colour revolution” in Moscow. Russia’s 2013 official foreign policy concept warned about the destructive and unlawful use of ‘soft power” that had become a tool of “intervening into and destabilising domestic affairs” of sovereign states.
In Putin’s mind, “unlawful use of soft power” was also behind the Arab spring, where it was used as a method “to foster and provoke extremism, separatism, nationalism, and to manipulate public consciousness”. Soft power was also framed as a threat by those nationalist and traditionalist forces in Russia (including members of the Orthodox clergy), who saw Western and globalised culture as a challenge to what they called Russia’s “spiritual sovereignty and security”, a danger to the authentic “Russian civilisation”, which always stood in spiritual opposition to the morally corrupt West.
In short, “soft power” increasingly became interpreted in zero-sum game terms, as a sinister tool of deliberate manipulation and destabilisation, rather than as a more spontaneous “power of attraction” which stemmed from non-governmental actors as well as government policies. This was a notable and malign mutation of the original concept. Also, one could assume that the Russian narrative on Western soft power revealed much on what the Russian leaders would themselves like to do to the West in terms of their “active measures” abroad. The latter became subject to the increased attention of the Western policy community following the 2013-2014 Ukraine crisis and Russia’s semi-clandestine involvement in Crimea and Donbas. The so-called “Gerasimov doctrine” was said to represent Russia’s new mode of “total warfare” to which propaganda served as only one of the many legs. At some point, the narrative on the much-discussed – and much-criticised – notion of a “hybrid war” seems to have also sucked in the term “soft power”.
The Russian use was uncritically imported by various Western think-tanks, journalists and politicians, who were addressing the security issue of the Kremlin’s subversive activities. They spoke of “Russian soft power”, sometimes in quotation marks and sometimes without them. It took several years for a new conceptual distinction to arrive, as the respective activities of authoritarian regimes were dubbed sharp as opposed to “soft” power.
The term soft power thus had a peculiar career. Having mutated in Russia, it was now being reimported back by Western experts, but with a meaning that stood miles away from the originally benign “power of attraction” that Nye spoke of. While think-tankers may sometimes have insufficient time to think about the implications of concept usage, it is important to avoid this conflation for several reasons.
First, by surrendering to the Kremlin interpretation of the term, we lose a valuable analytical instrument that can be used to study the phenomena of genuine soft power.
This may sound surprising to some, but even after the Ukraine crisis, which exposed the rogue nature of Putin’s regime, Russia continues to enjoy some – albeit relatively limited – soft power. That soft power continues to exist even independently of and sometimes even despite Moscow’s actions.
According to Nye foreign policy is an important but not exclusive source of soft power. And if the international popularity of the US certainly dropped following its disastrous humanitarian interventions, American popular culture, for instance, continues to be globally influential.
Consequently, Russia may enjoy its own sources of soft power that have little to do with the government as such. Some countries like Serbia or Slovakia may be sympathetic towards Russia because of the historical legacies of pan-Slavism. (Somehow, I am inclined to believe that some sports fans in Slovakia may support Russian hockey players in the next world cup even if they are banned from representing their country as a team owing to Moscow’s manipulations with doping probes).
In other circumstances the Russian language and high culture, its classical music and literature can be held in high esteem, preserving Russia’s privileged spot on mental maps. And not to forget about popular culture. The global success of the Masha cartoon, for instance, turned it into a merchandise industry with an international outreach.
Medium for political influence
The cartoon controversy exposed the difficulty in drawing a line between popular culture and “propaganda”. Some argued that “Masha and the Bear” were a tool of Putin’s influence (what was seen as particularly controversial was Masha’s hat, which resembled the uniform worn by the NKVD, the predecessor of KGB, responsible for mass atrocities during the Soviet period). Popular culture does indeed often serve as a medium for political influence (and this is what soft power is about).
However, lumping together “soft power” and “propaganda” and, thus, treating culture as an instrument of “total warfare” can also be potentially dangerous.
In fact, it would be mirroring the Russian approach, and taking after those in Russia who would shield their country’s “spiritual sovereignty” from the West at all costs. During the Soviet times, blanket censorship was part of the totalitarian practices, as Western culture was securitised as having “corrupting influence” on Soviet citizens (and the Dulles Plan conspiracy theory about the Western plot to destroy the USSR through cultural corruption is alive and well in today’s Russia).
In sum, the conceptual conflation of soft power and disinformation, “propaganda” or “hybrid war” is not only analytically counter-productive. It can also be dangerous of its totalising and potentially totalitarian implications. This is why it should be avoided.