Thursday, April 3, 2014

"Russification" of "Soft Power" -- Part 1: Russia's view of Soft Power as Hegemony

Reading the coverage of Russia and Ukraine over the past few months, one would think that whatever happened was a disaster for Russia's image and Russian "soft power" around the world. Yet, we need to get beyond that Western-centric view and look at public diplomacy writ large. Not only has Putin's popularity increased domestically and abroad (including in the West), but Russia can now claim the entire episode with Crimea as the cherry on top of its soft power success story. To understand this we need to look at the context, and more specifically, at Russian policy-makers' perspectives and worldviews. Twisted, I know. But bear with me, please.

As I had mentioned earlier on this blog, my paper for the Annual Convention of International Studies Association this year was on the Russian interpretation and conceptualization of "soft power". As it turned out, the subject could not have been more timely, and was - for better or worse - a topic of much discussion during the conference last week. There will be a separate post about observations, impressions, and thoughts on the conference itself (forthcoming soon -- I promise!), but today I wanted to share the basic points from my analysis and some conclusions from this preliminary piece of research that will, eventually, be part of my dissertation project.

Presentation slides: a very brief and watered-down version of the paper itself, but gives you an idea.

The initial idea for the paper was to provide a preliminary analysis of the Russian official discourse on soft power: how do the leading decision-makers, ideologues, and academics (many of whom are directly or indirectly associated with the government) understand the concept, and how do they contextualize it within the Russian history, worldview, and foreign policy objectives. Given the essentially American-centric nature of the concept of "soft power", I am still amazed by its international appeal and the rush of many governments, including Russia, to adopt it in their political and academic discourse.

Ukraine had just started boiling over when I really got into my research, and as I was reading all the official statements - coming from Putin, Lavrov, Churkin, etc. - and the Russian-language analysis and commentary on websites like Russia in Global Affairs, Russian International Affairs Council, and International Affairs Journal, a very coherent - albeit distressing - picture emerged. What concerned me most was not that any of this was any news, but rather the complete absence of understanding of the Russian perspective in the Western coverage of the crisis.

Of course, at the core of this misunderstanding (for lack of a better word) was the absence of the will, or the need, to understand. After all, it was (and still is) a battle of narratives, and even the attempt of looking behind the scary face of the bear would imply giving in to the Russian side. However, it is this lack of understanding that not only prolongs the tension, but also elevates the problem to a whole new level, giving rise to formulations such as "Post post-Cold War Era". Yes, since we need sensationalist (sexy?) labels for everything, this one seems to be the winner yet again -- however, this time, the tension does not seem to be going anywhere. Unless the West understands where Russia is coming from -- and no, that does not mean that it has to agree with it -- addressing the root causes of the problem will be, practically, impossible.

Cartoon from Russian Seven.

So, the paper...

I started with a discussion and critique of "soft power" (as drawn up by Nye), focusing especially on the close resemblance of the concept to that of Gramscian hegemony. Long-time readers of this blog will know that it's been bugging me for a while, now, but this also presents the best context for the discussion of the Russian case.

The chapter by Zahran & Ramos provides a wonderful discussion of this issue, so here I will simply provide a quick summary: hegemony can be interpreted as the capacity to unify a non-homogeneous social body not only through material bases, but also through ideational ones, “developing a collective will towards an economic, social, and political project that reproduces a given social order.” This process of unification leads to the creation of a “historic bloc” – which constitutes “an articulate network of cultural and social institutions including schools, churches, the press, the media, and others”, which promote and inculcate the dominant ideology, creating and reinforcing hegemony over time. The bottom line of hegemony then, is that it becomes a form of “intellectual and moral leadership”, which presupposes “an active and voluntary consent on the part of the people.” Yet, the end objective is the compliance of others, which usually comes at their own cost.

More importantly, however, coercion is not entirely absent from this equation. It remains latent while the mechanisms of consent prevail, but “emerges in moments of rupture” when hegemony and authority need to be reinforced. The bottom line is that despite what Nye would like, “soft power” cannot be a value-neutral concept, because there can be no “benign” power, and because ultimately, it is a zero-sum game.

This interpretation of the concept is key to understanding the Russian perspective on and reconceptualization of "soft power". To understand this better, we also need to look at the time and the context within which the concept gained prominence internationally, including in Russia.

Nye's Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics came out in 2004, just as Putin was starting his second term in office and, having consolidated the state and power domestically, was setting out on a more assertive foreign policy path. NATO was expanding and had reached Russia's immediate borders. Russia had also just witnessed the "Rose" and "Orange" revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, which were overtly and covertly supported and financed by American and European benefactors, NGOs, as well as governments under the umbrella effort of "soft power" and "democracy promotion". The Russians perceived those "color revolutions" as posing direct threats not only to their interests in the "near abroad", but also to their actual domestic and national security. This, then, was coupled with Russia's increasing frustration with:
1) a unipolar world order where Russia had been cast as a country of secondary, if not tertiary importance;
2) its opposition to norms of "humanitarian intervention" (because it blamed the West/NATO for abusing and misusing these norms to further their interests at the expense of others' -- think, Kosovo, Iraq, and then Libya); and
3) its strict definition of "sovereignty" and the rise of "sovereign democracy".

Elevator button in Russia. The writing reads: "Rockets [missiles] to America." Image from Lockdog.

A few years later, with the events in Moldova, Iran and later, the Arab Spring, and particularly after the protests in Russia itself in 2011-2012, the term "soft power" took on an even more negative connotation in the official discourse. The first evidence of this comes from Putin's famous pre-election article from Feb 2012, where he outlined his worldview and the foundation of Russia's foreign policy for the years to come:
Unfortunately, [soft power is] often used to foster and incite extremism, separatism, nationalism, manipulation of public consciousness, and direct interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states. […] the activities of "pseudo-NGOs" and other structures that, with external support, are pursuing goals of destabilization in different countries, are unacceptable. […] Another hindrance to strengthening of the bilateral relationships are the American attempts at “political engineering”, not just in parts of the world traditionally important to us, but also during election campaigns here in Russia. […] The US and other Western countries are seeking to usurp the human rights agenda, politicize it completely, and use it as an instrument of pressure.

This view was reinforced in Russia's most recent Foreign Policy Concept document, adopted in 2013:
[I]ncreasing global competition and the growing potential of crises create the risk of destructive and unlawful use of “soft power” and human rights concepts, with the intention of exerting political pressure on sovereign states, interfering in their internal affairs, destabilizing their political situation, and manipulating public opinion, including the cases where this is done under the pretext of financing cultural and human rights projects abroad.

Soft power is seen as a means of foreign interference, and NGOs and international organizations doing "soft power work" were recast as foreign agents or kicked out of the country (see the 'Foreign Agents' Law and the USAID debacle). In short, in Russia's eyes, foreign-supported NGOs, non-profits, and other civil society organizations/networks represent a Gramscian "historic bloc", which, although rely on consent and cooperation from many, are essentially promoting Western hegemony, thus undermining Russia's own interests at home and abroad. Russia, then, sees is as being its primary duty to stand up to this Western "challenge", transform the world order with which it is so unhappy, and reestablish itself as a global power with recognized interests and capabilities to withstand Western/American pressure.

Ironically, in so doing, the Russian government does not seem to have any qualms about using those very same Western approaches and mechanisms of soft power that it criticizes to promote its own interests. Thus, in this context, Nye's naive (yes, I won't shy away from this adjective), liberal concept of supposed mutual gains and benign influence has been completely reconceptualized to fit Russia's realist worldview (reality?), and has become yet another terrain for geopolitical competition and maneuvering between the West and the Kremlin.

I will address Russia's own response and approaches to soft power in Part 2 of this post. (You can read it here: "Russification" of "Soft Power" -- Part 2: The Russian Twist & Ukraine.)

For further reading on NGOs, hegemony, and soft power, I highly recommend two two-part articles by MGIMO's Yelena Ponomareva, who neatly summarizes the dominant perspectives on the matter (sorry, in Russian only):

From Свободная Мысль

"Color Revolutions": Modern Technologies and Political Regime Change -- Part 1

"Color Revolutions": Modern Technologies and Political Regime Change -- Part 2

From Однако

"The Iron Grip of 'Soft Power'" (Part 1)

- "Their Name -- A Legion" (Part 2)


P.S. [4.4.2014] -- Just as a side note, after I posted this entry yesterday, the news broke that USAID had funded the development of "underground Twitter" in Cuba, intended to stir public unrest and bring about government change. Oh well..

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