For countries, crafting the right global image is easier said than done. 

Photo source: press-photo

Since at least the days of Alexander the Great, rulers have understood that their power will be measured by their reputation as well as their capacity to physically compel.

Today we use the term “soft power” to define attempts by powerful figures and countries to shape others’ perceptions of them. In earlier times, it was known as “image,” “face” or “prestige.” Contemporary soft power, however, is different from its predecessors in more than name: it now underlies any fundamental understanding of international relations, a shift brought about by the key role of communication in our lives.  

Today, nations are perpetually in the glare of the media spotlight. Global political discourse has become a battleground of rival stories online and on screen. Satellites and social media make it all but impossible to wield the brute force of hard power without provoking a counter reaction. For countries concerned about how they are perceived by their friends and rivals, focusing the media on the right stories to project the right image has never been more important  – or more difficult.  

The theory of soft power, as articulated by Joseph Nye, rests on the notion that admirable culture and attractive values can be harnessed to the ends of foreign policy as power. His book "Soft Power" (2004) was subtitled “The Means to Success in World Politics.” The problem is that the quest for success is not itself value neutral: a nation that is too obvious in the way it uses soft power to advance its own ends can end up repelling rather than attracting. 

Countries too eager to embrace soft power can come off like the stereotypical Don Juan, whose powers of attraction eventually taught women to be wary. Others, overconfident in their positive qualities, choose the wrong aspect to emphasize and end up the butt of jokes. In the context of soft power, this mockery is leveled against countries whose public diplomacy degenerates into propaganda. 

A further problem stems from a divergence in tastes in what is considered attractive. Soft power – like beauty – is in the eye of the beholder. The same tactics don’t work in every context. For example, the soft power of the United States is rooted in an identification of its culture with the sovereignty of the individual; in contrast, Russia presents itself as guardian of the principle of the sovereignty of the nation-state. Both sets of values have their admirers, but seldom in the same location.  

Already powerful states attempting to deploy soft power face an additional challenge – public empathy and admiration naturally adheres to those who have suffered. Global outpourings of support for the Dalai Lama or the United States in the days after 9/11 are examples of this. Nations that hope to trade on their success are often met with increased skepticism or mistrust. 

What, then, does this mean for countries – the United States and Russia included – that wish to harness soft power in their dealings with the world?  

First, they must acknowledge that a nation’s soft power is not kept in a vault at the White House or Kremlin, but lies in the mind of every one of the billions of people around the world who has an opinion about the country.  

Secondly, they must realize that when attempting to deploy soft power, your opinion isn’t important; your audience’s is. Therefore, those working on soft power campaigns must be able to step outside their own cultural context and look at their country from a foreigner’s perspective.

Third, what works for one country isn’t guaranteed to work for another. India is able to leverage soft power in the form of Bollywood movies, which are loved by millions around the world. China has no cultural equivalent; Chinese calligraphy and ceramics will never be sufficiently relevant to a large enough number of people. Efforts focusing on promoting China’s development projects or spectacular scientific discoveries would likely have more success.   

And finally, while there are few moral perceptions around the world that are universally accepted, a near ubiquitous mistrust of power exists. Promoting a soft power narrative that emphasizes success and dominance in a field or organization might not be as effective as one that focuses on a disadvantaged city, region or group – which exist in every country.  

In the final analysis, soft power lies in the allure one person feels for another. And this is why the most enduring soft power strategies have been those founded on people-to-people exchanges.

Despite all the efforts of a state government to control its image through a soft power campaign, in the end it comes down to winning the hearts and minds of individuals – something that cannot be ordered from the top down. 

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.