Concerns about the closing of the American Center in Moscow appear to be overblown. Russia is still open to new ideas and the constructive role that can be played by soft power.
John Tefft (left), U.S. ambassador to Russia, and Igor Ivanov, president of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) , attending the reception at the American ambassador's residence in Moscow, during U.S. Independence Day. Photo: RIA Novosti
For a very different take read: "Closing the American Center in Moscow closes a door for America"
The American Center in Moscow is now under the control of the Russian Foreign Literature Library. And that means that yet another demonstration of Russian “sovereignty” has resulted in much concern on the part of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and even condolences about the end of public diplomacy in U.S.-Russian relations.
Obviously, taking over authority of the American Center by the Russian authorities is merely a symbolic step. It would be naïve to believe that information flows could be supervised in the age of the Internet and social media. Cultural centers in this respect are the most harmless institutions, especially taking into account their dramatic reduction in funding and importance even from the U.S. side.
Such offline centers are much more influential in areas that lack any access to other means of culture. In many developing countries they become a point of attraction for the young local elites and, hence, provide opportunities for much more effective introduction of competing values, if any.
However, it is important for the Kremlin to ensure that no offline soft power tools are used to undermine stability in the country. The process of the “nationalization” of the elites is under way and it is aimed at eliminating any temptations of foreign influence.
This may look like a form of paranoia, but truly speaking, the major goal is to find a fine line between culture and politics. Moscow emphasizes its desire to be open to the best international practices and cultural patterns, but it does not want them to be destructive to traditional values. Moreover, Moscow does not want these practices and patterns to get caught up with political intrigues.
This is why the Russian government supports, on one hand, various cultural festivals, attracts foreign academics into joint scientific programs and funds young Russians to study in universities abroad through the Global Education program. And, on the other hand, it uses its power to curb the leadership of exchange programs, to remove foreigners from administrative posts in higher education institutions, to ban gay parades and prevent some movies from being shown in Russian cinemas to a large audience.
Regretfully, this process of curtailing what members of the government perceive as a “negative” external influence is mainly reactive. Russia is not that energetic in promoting its own agenda. There are not enough Russian language centers abroad and those that exist lack teachers.
Many events supported by the Russian Agency for Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo) or the Ministry of Culture have limited coverage in the foreign media, attract very specific audiences and have limited social impact in strengthening the attractive image of Russia. The worst thing is that Russia is aware of best practices in this area, but deliberately (for unknown reason) refrains from using them.
Thus, the story of the American Center is not the end of public diplomacy - it died some time ago and this process has nothing to do with the current freeze in U.S.-Russian relations. Nor will it curb in any way U.S. cultural expansion – the American Center was probably the least effective instrument for that.
At the same time, it is clear that public diplomacy can become a powerful tool in conveying Russia’s message in the current information wars. Under these circumstances, Russia needs to reconsider its approach to soft power and make sure that countermeasures are augmented with a proactive policy in the fields of culture and information.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.