The latest survey of global soft power from Monocle and the Institute for Government offers a blueprint for Russia to follow after the conclusion of the Winter Olympics.
The torch-bearing camel had won the Olympic relay committee's contest as the most disciplined and enduring animal. Source: RIA Novosti
Perhaps the only way to rationalize the Russian government’s massive $50 billion investment in the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics is that hosting a mega-sporting event is one of the most effective ways to project soft power on a global scale. After all, if you add up the expected financial return on investment for the infrastructure, the stadiums, the ski resorts and the gleaming new hotel resorts in Sochi, it won’t add up to $50 billion. But hosting the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics is the shortest and quickest path to bolstering Russia’s soft power and shifting the perceptions around Russia’s global “brand.”
Take, for example, the latest global Soft Power Survey from Monocle and the London-based think Institute for Government, which lists the Top 30 nations in the world in terms of soft power. For the first time ever in the four-year history of the survey, Russia broke into the Top 30 (#27) and Monocle specifically tagged Russia as one of the nations most likely to break into the Top 20 in 2014. The answer, quite simply, is the soft power advantage provided by Russia hosting the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.
And that appears to be the case for many of the other nations that recently broke into the Top 20 for soft power. Brazil came in at #19, thanks primarily to its hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016. As Monocle noted in its rankings, “The World Cup in 2014 still offers Brazil its best chance of bolstering its soft power.”
The same holds true for China (#20), which successfully used its hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics to launch a massive soft power offensive around the globe. As a result, Xinhua now has more clout than Reuters in some parts of the world and CCTV has “cunningly bought credibility” by hiring skilled television journalists to present China’s viewpoints around the globe.
And lest you think that “soft power” is some type of magic fairy dust that only “emerging markets” or “developing nations” can sprinkle on themselves, consider how many nations in the Top 10 – such as the UK, Japan and Canada - all make it on the basis of their Olympic prowess.
The UK is now #2 in the world in terms of soft power (trailing only Germany), largely by “basking in the post-Olympic glow of a successful games.” Japan, at #5, just won the right to host the Summer Olympics in 2020, “giving the country something big to aim for over the coming years.” Canada, at #9, got a huge lift from the 44 Olympic medals it has racked up at the past two Olympics, including the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
The reality is that, in a modern information economy, a nation’s top diplomatic assets are often those that can be transmitted via digital bits and bytes around the globe instantaneously. Media, culture and sports – all of these can be beamed around the world 24/7 via the Internet and modern satellite communications. No wonder the USA has traditionally been the soft power leader – it’s films, stars, celebrities and sporting events can be downloaded, streamed and broadcast anywhere in the world, making it possible for anyone to pick up the basics of the American way of life.
For Russia, the Sochi Olympics are a perfect storm of media, culture and sports. That means that images we’ll see of the majestic Caucasus Mountains surrounding Sochi during the Olympics could help to erase some of the painful memories of the recent wars in the Caucasus. Scenes of the futuristic, state-of-the-art competition venues in both Sochi’s Coastal and Mountain Cluster could convince people that the new Russia looks nothing like the rusting, worn-out hulk of the Soviet period.
Seeing Russian culture like music and dance showcased throughout the two-week sporting extravaganza – and especially during the Opening and Closing Ceremony – could make Russia seem like a more attractive place to visit and explore. And seeing plenty of Russian Olympians on the medal stand in February could help Russia present a new, more youthful face to the world.
Of course, there are other things that go into soft power rankings other than just Olympic medals. Monocle lists factors like number of embassies abroad, number of foreign tourists visiting each year, number of universities ranked in the global Top 200, and even the number of top footballers playing abroad in the world’s best leagues.
Practically any aspect of a nation’s traditions or culture can become part of a nation’s soft power, as long as it helps to bolster the international “brand.” Poland, for example, came in #30 in the rankings, largely based on a new advertising campaign that promotes Poland as an attractive destination for investors in Eastern Europe.
All of this offers a blueprint for Russia to follow in the aftermath of the Sochi Olympics. Assuming that Russia pulls off the Games successfully – no terrorist attacks and no major international outcry over Russia’s homophobic, anti-LGBT laws - here’s what Russia should aim to do over the next 24 months: Take steps to make it easier for tourists to visit the “new Russia”; promote a multi-cultural, subtropical Sochi as integral to the “Russian brand” (which most people take to mean either snowy Moscow or St. Petersburg); continue to build up a massive sports infrastructure for the nation (to win medals in future Olympics, naturally); and take continued steps to promote Russian language and culture across the globe. By doing all of these well, Russia can get what it wants by persuasion and not by coercion.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.