Wednesday, May 15, 2013

On Russia, Spies, Soft Power, & Dissertation

If you haven't yet heard of the most recent spy story from Moscow - a la 70's - I highly recommend you take a closer look: it's very entertaining, featuring wigs, paper letters, and GMail setup instructions.

Russia's RT "broke" the story, and Voice of Russia followed the lead. Here are the basics:

[And for more realistic analysis, I suggest the "Vintage Espionage" piece on BBC.]

Watching this story break and then chewed, analyzed, and recycled by Russia's main "public diplomacy" outlets (and, later, the others) was an amusing process. I highly doubt this was a serious "spying" case - at least I hope it wasn't - but even if it was, the Russians are clearly trying to make a point here.

(And if Fogle was a "spy" for real, we can all rest assured now -- GMail has been proven as the most reliable means of communication! 5-star rating provided exclusively by the CIA...)

Those of you who know me and/or follow this blog, know that I'm currently working on a dissertation on Russian public diplomacy. And yes, now that I successfully defended my prospectus (last week!), it is as official as it can get. During the prospectus defense I was kindly reminded about the need to have an "elevator speech". I'll admit that I haven't made much progress on it since last Tuesday, but I'll give it a try here.


Russia is convinced - and perhaps for a good reason - that it is still in some sort of an "ideological" conflict with the West (namely, the US). In this competition over hearts and minds, the Russian foreign policy elite thinks the "winner" will be the one that proves to have stronger informational and cultural influence, with concrete results on the ground. They know that at the moment they are on the losing side, but they are convinced that if they borrow Western concepts and terms, reinterpret and "indigenize" them (i.e. make them their own), they might just have a chance in succeeding -- at least in their traditional spheres of influence: the former USSR and parts of the developing world.

Sounds naive, but if we turn the tables and look at some of the rhetoric coming from the US on the same subject over the past couple of years, it's not all that different: information warfare, competition, dominance, influence, etc. etc.

[Yes, although the officials themselves might be "downplaying" the incident, RT is more than happy to beat the drums on their behalf.]

Cold War, all over again?! [*evil grin*]

Perhaps. But not necessarily. It might be easy to dismiss this as yet another example of Cold War inertia [or, in academic-speak: path-dependency]. Yet, we should look beyond this simplistic explanation and dig deeper to better understand the actual reasons for why Russia does what it does, and how that reflects her vision of her (desired) place in the world. Most importantly, we should look at it from the Russians' own perspective, since the American-centric "Cold War" explanation fits the convenient narrative just too perfectly. 

The other important thing to highlight is how the Western concepts are adopted and internalized by the "emerging Public Diplomacy powers", Russia and China among them. In his recent Foreign Policy article, Joe Nye slammed Russia and China for not really "getting" the meaning of "soft power" (I would add "public diplomacy" to the list of the confused terms, as well).

But what he failed to note is that the concept of "soft power" is very problematic itself, and, at its essence, a very American one, that can apply - truly and sincerely - only to the US. No wonder why others can't have a similar level of reach and success -- it's more of a descriptive term, that covers what is already there, as opposed to a predictive or prescriptive one, that can serve as an "objective" that other actors set for themselves. They might use the same terminology (sometimes translating it verbatim into their respective languages), but when it comes down to the essence, the American term remains American.

That is why it is so important to look at how other actors understand those terms, which they so readily adopt to serve their own - very different - ends. Gary Rawnsley highlighted this issue by calling for a "need to 'de-Westernize' our understanding of soft power". Beyond that, however, we also need to understand how the meaning of the term transforms within the other contexts and how it fits within history and meanings already existing within that context to formulate and justify new goals and objectives.

Liu Aming's recent response to Nye's piece touches on this point. Yet, my favorite example still comes from Russia, where "soft power" has not only managed to swiftly replace the word "propaganda" in the foreign policy discourse, but is also seen as an opportunity to adopt America's own tool to fight against what they see as "American hegemony" and encroachments upon Russia's sovereignty, autonomy, as well as her traditional "sphere of influence". (Yes, there is an actual, rational reason behind the government's pressure on foreign-funded NGOs, as much as we might dislike or disagree with it.)

Without fully understanding all this complexity and context, coming up with an adequate response will be difficult, if not impossible. Yet, it is important to have that understanding and "response", especially at times like these, when both stakes (Syria, North Korea, Iran, China... to name but a few) and tensions are high.


In a nutshell, this is what I want to spend my next 2-3 years on. I know this might be a touch too long to pass for an "elevator speech", but I'll keep working on it. Meanwhile, if you have ideas, suggestions, advice... please feel free to share. I'll only be glad and grateful to hear them!


  1. Lena -- A recent article on soft power that may be of interest to you.

    Best, John

  2. thanks for the link! I remember seeing it, but only now got to read it in full. He brings up wonderful points, of course, and especially Part I reminded of his own take at what Bially-Mattern has theorized as "representational force". And true... the weakness of the concept is undeniable, however, it's been adopted by the public (and, increasingly, the world) to an extent where, unfortunately, we cannot avoid it. The critique is left to the academic debate, while the political actors on the ground will keep using it as window dressing...