A security officer stands guard near a poster depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin in St.Petersburg, Russia, Friday, May 1, 2015. Photo: AP
For a very different take read: "How Russia's soft power failed shortly after it started (Part 1)"
The latest soft power rankings are not so much about Russia’s exit from the world stage – they are more about the West’s inability to grasp the changing contours of modern international relations.
For Russia, soft power is turning out to be another of those Western liberal-democratic ideals that was imported to the nation during the 1990s and that never turned out the way it was supposed to. “Soft power” (coined in 1990 by Harvard professor Joseph Nye) ranks right up there with “Shock Therapy” (coined by another Harvard professor, Jeffrey Sachs, during the Gorbachev-Yeltsin years) as an idea that sounded good at the time, but turned out to be completely wrong for Russia.
Thus, Russia’s dismal showing in the latest Soft Power 30 Index, released by the Portland communications agency, – Russia didn’t even make the cut of the Top 30 nations in the world – may be a bit overdone. Instead of embracing the latest feel-good theories of Ivy League academics, Russia has embraced the cold, hard logic of international relations realists. Now that we’ve woken up to the fact that the “End of History” (another brilliant theory, by the way, that turned out to be false) is no longer nigh, we can stop figuring out how every nation can transform itself to look like a carbon copy of America.
It’s no longer the 1990s, who also wrote the introduction to the latest Soft Power Rankings. Didn’t 9/11 wake us up to that fact almost 15 years ago? In a dangerous world of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda, gas pipelines and guns – classic “hard power” – go a lot further than “soft power” does these days. Just consider how much return of investment (ROI) Russia got on its Sochi 2014 soft power project. The West didn’t even want to show up, no matter that Russia spent close to $50 billion throwing the blowout party of the year.
Let’s be realists here for a second. Offering to build a massive gas pipeline through your country exerts an extraordinary amount of influence these days in national political circles. Just ask China, India, Turkey, Greece, Ukraine or just about any nation in Europe these days. In the same way, other levers of economic influence – such as trade partnerships and economic development deals – go a lot further than ever before. No wonder Russia is scrambling to beef up the Eurasian Economic Union and China is working to build out its Silk Road project.
And, if all else fails, exporting guns, armor and tanks works fine, too. Who needs the Winter Olympics and biathlon events held high up in the snowy peaks of Sochi when you can host the World Tank Biathlon in Moscow and attract non-NATO nations to check out your military hardware instead? Check out all the places in the world where Russian “hard power” is winning friends and gaining influence. Consider Iran, for example. Russian political values matter a lot less than the ability to build nuclear power plants and arm the nation with the latest missiles.
That’s why it’s hard to believe the latest Soft Power 30 Index reflects the current international trends. It suffers the fate of all the other soft power rankings that have ever been released – it sounds more like a suggested tourism agenda for a grand European tour than a reflection of today’s geostrategic realities. Consider some of the names that cracked the Top 20… Spain? Ireland? Belgium? Italy?
Get this, Greece somehow managed to crack the list of Top 25 soft power nations in the world. Yes, the beaches of Santorini are nice this time of year – but it’s hard to believe that Greece has any kind of soft power influence these days when the banks don’t even open some days and the country is on the edge of an epic financial meltdown.
Which brings us to the core problem with this soft power index. Just consider how Euro-centric and Western-centric the whole index is. In the Top 20, there are only two non-Western nations: Japan and South Korea. Consider all the nations that should have been part of the conversation, but weren’t. China ranks #30 in the world in terms of soft power?
These soft power rankings – far from showing how far Russia has fallen in its soft power ambitions - is further proof of how the Western world is still unable to comprehend the rise of China, the BRICS and the non-Western world. It’s no wonder they still view Russian strategic moves through a Cold War prism – they haven’t yet grasped that China has more influence and power in the world today than, say, Denmark (#11). For that matter, how did Poland (#24) and the Czech Republic (#27) crack the Top 30? If we're defining soft power as the ability to influence and win over people, what is Poland or the Czech Republic doing right that Russia isn't?
To know what Russia is doing wrong about soft power, read: "The MacArthur Foundation's departure and 'McCarthyist' Russia" and "A blow to Russian soft power"
As a measure of soft power in the West, the ranking certainly has its merits. It does neatly define the core components of soft power and makes the case that digital assets matter today more than ever (perhaps not so surprising, given that Facebook was one of the co-creators of the ranking).
However, this Soft Power 30 rankings doesn't take into account Russia's new pivot away from the West, and the way this changes Russian thinking about global influence. Russia seems to have given up on the West, booting out American NGOs and then gloating about it. Yes, agreed, it’s heartbreaking to watch happen.
But what about China? Turkey? The BRICS? Russia doesn’t have time to build up the type of reputation and influence in these nations that are representative of classic soft power – it needs to act now. It needs to do deals, whether economic or military. The student exchanges and scientific exchanges will come later.
At the end of the day, "soft power" is really a brilliant innovation to explain and perpetuate America’s dominant role in the world. “Soft power” makes a global hegemon sound like a gentle giant. Just as Britain was forced to come up with a justification for its global empire before it faded from the world stage more than a century ago, America is looking for a way to justify its role as a global empire now – and a theory by a famous Harvard professor is as good as any. More than 100 years ago, the British imperialists would have been telling the good people of India and Africa about "British soft power" and why they should remain under British colonial control. Britain, by the way, ranked #1 in the soft power index, so maybe they are still doing something right around the world.
With time, of course, it’s possible to see the blurry outlines of the next push for Russian soft power. First, Russia has got to resolve the Ukraine crisis. Then, it has to figure out if the BRICS are really going to change the world. And it has to figure out what to do about Central Asia and the pivot to Asia. The exact form that Russian soft power will take in the future is not certain – it may borrow from the “Russian World” concept much in vogue these days, or from “Russian Orthodoxy” or from “Eurasianism” – but one thing is certain: it will always play second fiddle to the traditional instruments of Russian hard power: guns and pipelines.
Remember what former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt once said about foreign policy? “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.” For nearly a decade, Russia tried to speak softly, but nobody listened. Now it’s carrying a big stick.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.