The title may be a bit misleading, because each of these three examples of soft power have a mix of both three. I’ll highlight some of each, but there’s plenty more that could be drawn from them. First example is the use of recent (relatively) Russian tactics against its “near abroad”, its old sphere of influence if you will, from USSR times. Second one is the lack of soft power that China wields, which is self-inflicted. And the last one is the recent trend in the US, which if facing the loss of soft power by the government, but not by the popular culture.

James Fallows’ summary of soft power in The Atlantic is very useful for this situation:

Soft power becomes powerful when people imagine themselves transformed, improved, by adopting a new style. Koreans and Armenians imagine they will be freer or more successful if they become Americans — or Australians or Canadians. Young men and women from the provinces imagine they will be more glamorous if they look and act like people in Paris, London, or New York. If a society thinks it is unique because of its system, or its style, or its standards, it can easily exert soft power, because outsiders can imagine themselves taking part in that same system and adopting those same styles.

Use of Russian tactics against Russian tactics

First example comes from a recently written paper by the Center for Security and Strategic Research of the National Defence Academy of Latvia. It is a great piece of analysis of the recent Russian military doctrine as put in practice in Ukraine. The new approach that Russia took in its incursions into Ukraine have been quoted before, so we’ll focus on the second part of that paper, namely how to prepare the ground to stop Russia from dividing and conquering elsewhere, but primarily in Latvia:

The implication for Latvia is that the biggest challenge to its security and defense is Russia’s operationalization of the first and second phase of New-Generation Warfare, since their success determines the implementation of the following phases.

This passage refers to the following:

First Phase: non-military asymmetric warfare (encompassing information, moral, psychological, ideological, diplomatic, and economic measures as part of a plan to establish a favorable political, economic, and military setup).

Second Phase: special operations to mislead political and military leaders by coordinated measures carried out by diplomatic channels, media, and top government and military agencies by leaking false data, orders, directives, and instructions.

So what is the proposed approach to salt the earth before Russian seeds of distrust and division take place? Simple, fight cultural revisionary tactics with preemptive strengthening of cultural ties of Latvia’s minorities with their motherlands:

The most important is the division of society into Latvians and “Russian-speakers.” Since language is a strong factor determining one’s cultural identity, the result is that many ethnic groups are now culturally closer to Russia than to Latvia or to their real heritage.

Those “Russian-speakers” are actually members of different ethnic groups, such as Poles, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, etc. It also hints at the major problem that many European countries face: minorities are never fully assimilated into their country of residence. Largely that is due to the nature of segregation from their own country: they didn’t choose to leave, the changes were forced on them by the new borders.

And here’s a genius in a bottle (see what I did there?) approach:

Since these countries have their own political issues with Russia, the Latvian government should stimulate ethnic division between Russian-speakers by increasing their cultural self-awareness, thus making them proud of their real heritage. A concomitant step should be to apply the same strategy to the ethnic groups that supposedly form the Russian nation, in other words, Bashkirs, Chuvashs, Chechens, Mordvins, Kazakhs and Avars, just to name a few. It is important to establish policies to increase their awareness of being unique, and thus not part of the Russian nation. This can be done by supporting the development of ethnic communities, helping to preserve their culture, language, and history.

This approach has the ability to backfire quite badly. Done right, though it should encourage deeper integration of ethnic minorities into their countries of residence whilst simultaneously keeping their cultural heritage. The model for that can be found around the world in the countries that have strong soft power.

TL;DR: Russia is using negative soft power to influence minorities in its “near abroad” to sow discontent and create greater areas of influence for itself. This approach is impoverishing everyone, but can be fought. Ends don’t always justify the means, though.

China and why it doesn’t have soft power

James Fallows wrote why China doesn’t have soft power. Oddly enough similar could be said of Japan, yet (some) Japanese popular culture still pervades the world. It all boils down to

China is successful because we are Chinese” — the appeal to anyone else is self-limiting.

There really isn’t much more to say. China has not awoken yet to the need to influence abroad, mostly because it still believes it can pay its way to power. It also comes with a heavy chip on its shoulder and sees the world through the prism of hard, military, political and economic power. This will inevitably change as China matures both politically as well as socially. The politicians are also freely squandering the little soft power that it has through cultural heritage.

TL; DR: China has a rich cultural heritage and a massive chip on its shoulder (Opium Wars and everything that came since). CCP is playing up nationalism to shore up internal support and at the same time eradicating the little soft power China has.

How to show you are squandering soft power: the US example

And we come to the last example today. In the distant year 1997, this was penned in Washington Times:

A young neoconservative editor recently expressed his opinion that conservatives could pull the rug out from under President Clinton and build a governing consensus if only they could get rid of their "anti-government sentiment." How, the young man asks, can conservatives "love their nation if they hate its government?"

Meridian International Center and Gallup run annual “U.S.-Global Leadership Project” that surveys residents of 160 countries on their view of the US leadership. The view changes from year to year, with approval and disapproval ratings rising and falling depending on the actions of the current US administration. The survey at times serves interesting results, often requiring plenty of background knowledge to interpret results. This is frequently impossible to do if the analysts limit themselves to their own sphere of contacts, or do not understand the cultures that provided the results. Since the analysis of the results is often done by “research on Google” the results are frequently less than stellar. Such as this year’s frequently quoted and reposted “Nine Countries that Hate America Most” (leaving aside the hysterics and confusing title).

In 1997 the neo-conservatives were on the rise. In 2014 there are articles in what the US terms progressive papers that quite frankly I would have never read, were it not brought to my attention (repeatedly). According to the article that was also featured in Huffington Post, Time, USA Today, etc. Of course it also featured in The Voice of Russia where it was given a slightly different tone.

So how is this squandering of soft power? Simple: the hare-brained “if you disapprove of our government you hate our country” message in prominent newspapers and magazines is no different to what North Korean and other totalitarian regime’s propaganda outlets produce. This type of thinking and talking is generally repulsive to those who just recently got out from under the yoke. There are often also other ways to squander soft power, such as interfering in internal affairs of other democracies (NSA revelations came out after the survey was completed in Europe - wait for next year’s results to see repercussions if any).

Back story: One of the nine countries stood out for a number of reasons: member of NATO, member of EU, member of EURO zone. In all quite surprising results to see Slovenia have a 57% disapproval rating of the US government. So I started to dig a bit deeper and found at least some of the reasons why this may be so. It seems that the US Ambassador to Slovenia believes that he’s entitled to publicly comment and provide guidance on how his host country is meant to operate. I can’t imagine a country where such behaviour by a foreign diplomat would be tolerated. Seems that Ambassador Mussomeli is as prone to gaffes as the latest US State Secretary. Just in case you think this is a one-off, the new Ambassador to Germany is similarly new to diplomacy.

TL;DR: Ways to squander your soft power? Send diplomatic neophytes to serve as Ambassadors with your allies; take “you’re with us or you’re against us” mantra as your own. Sooner or later you’re realise you’re on your own.

Tags: china, Russia, soft power, United States, diplomacy