The soft power of hard states

It’s tempting to think that hard states like China and Russia cannot offer anything in terms of soft power. But Europe and the US need to understand that this viewpoint is no longer valid


Two years ago, in the heat of the war over South Ossetia, Russian president Vladimir Putin said he wanted to hang Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili from a Tbilisi lamppost. Although Russia’s military finished its job and defeated Georgia’s forces, Mr Putin failed to finish his. President Saakashvili not only escaped the lamppost – he remains well-ensconced in the presidential palace in Tbilisi.

So what was it that stopped Russia from ousting President Saakashvili and installing a pro-Kremlin government? It certainly was not a lack of military power – Russian tanks were only miles away from Georgia’s capital. Nor could it have been a lack of will; Russia’s Vladimir Putin is not one for making idle threats. Could it have been a lack of “soft” power, an inability by the Kremlin to portray its actions as being at the service of something greater than simply Russian domination?

That is what Ivan Krastev, a noted political scientist, argued after the war: “Russia has not offered anything, articulated any larger and inclusive project to make sense of its military campaign or enable it to reach out to neighbouring states and international partners.” As if to prove his point, Russia’s allies remained conspicuously silent even as its military victory became clear for all to see. None of them backed Moscow, despite Russia’s best diplomatic efforts.

Isn’t that a comforting thought for US and European policy-makers? They may live in an era where they are slipping down the “hard” power scales of military expenditure, population numbers and share of global wealth, but where the “soft” power of their values, their way of life, and their popular culture remain powerful draws. The devil is said to have all the best tunes, but it is comforting to think that in the modern world the best records still seem to be played in New York, London and Paris rather than Moscow, Beijing and Tehran. 

You don’t have to look far to find evidence for this idea. Nobody, after all, is queuing up outside of Russian embassies to obtain the reddish Russian passports – not even a statistically-significant number of Russians in the former Soviet republics. A few years ago the Estonian foreign minister told me that only 36 people in his country had taken up Moscow’s offer of Russian citizenship. Nobody except the Kremlin’s propagandists takes the notion of “Sovereign Democracy” seriously. Petrodollars can buy Moscow respect, but it cannot purchase the affection upon which long-term hegemonic power must in the end be built.

Just look at Ukraine. Though the Orange Revolution is said to have failed and Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin’s man, has been elected president, it looks as though Ukraine will continue consolidating its independence. Russia can influence Kiev’s policies, but has had to give up on the idea of emasculating Ukraine’s sense of statehood and identity.

The same soft-power deficit can be seen in China. The country’s much-noted economic progress has been accompanied by a steady investment in its cultural and diplomatic work globally, especially in the developing world. This growth has been apparent in Southeast Asia. But while “soft” power may have been the talk of China’s recent National People’s Congress — the country’s top legislative body – it is hard to spot adherents of China’s model beyond the kleptocratic elites of resource-rich countries.

The Chinese governmental mouthpiece, China News Daily, lists Beijing’s efforts to show its softer side, highlighting the search and rescue teams it sent to earthquake-hit Haiti and Chile. “The activities”, the paper says with a straight face, “have enhanced worldwide countries’ recognition of China”. But with China widely blamed for the failure of COP 15 and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao taking to the airwaves to explain his version of events, even the Communist elite appears to be concerned about China’s worldwide reputation. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe may now look to China for a model of how to grow economically without relinquishing control – but nobody would mistake this for long-term influence. 

Yet could there be more to the “soft” power of authoritarian states than it is comfortable to admit? After all, the US is increasingly unpopular, despite President Obama’s popularity, and Europe is viewed as weak and endlessly focused on internal politicking. China and Russia can now offer not only investment and defence relations, but relationships based on dignity and respect. These philosophical underpinnings may not have the global reach of US popular culture, but they play a key role in their respective regions.

Sure, Russia has a range of new consumer products, a popular culture, a film industry, rock music, novels and a proud artistic tradition. But the softest of Russia’s power may be the most difficult to translate and for outsiders to understand: the appeal of the Orthodox concept of sobornost, salvation through community rather than through individuals.

Coined by the early Slavophiles to underline the need for cooperation between people at the expense of individualism, the idea provides the Orthodox church with a unique doctrine and gives the Russian state a philosophical framework that contrasts clearly with the individualism and materialism of the US.  It may not give Russia clout well inside the EU, but is powerful wherever the Orthodox patriarch can travel and Russia Today can be beamed.

China, too, has its own ethical and philosophical system to rival the West’s, developed from the teachings of Confucius. But unlike Russia, the Chinese government has spent millions to spread Confucian ideas. China’s education ministry has boosted Chinese-language teaching in universities and institutes around the world. Beijing University runs a visiting-scholars fund to encourage foreign PhDs to study in China. China also plans to build more than 100 new Confucius Institutes – culture and language centres – around the world.

The original definition of “soft” power came from Harvard Professor Joseph Nye. He saw it as springing from three resources: “[a state’s] culture (in places where it is attractive to others)”, its political values (where it lives up to them at home and abroad) and its foreign policies (where they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority). Only state-funded propagandists would claim that Russia and China meet these criteria. But how well is the West doing?

Take the first requirement – the popularity of a state’s culture. Coca-cola, Hollywood, German literature, British sports, French wine and a range of other Western cultural exports remain popular in all parts of the world  – but not like they used to. Competition from non-Western products is now stiff. The second point – a country’s its political values – are now put into question by Westerners and non-Westerners alike. The vagaries of the War on Terror have seen to that. Agree or not, the West is no longer seen as living up to its ideals. The final requirement, the acceptability of the West’s foreign policy, is also in doubt. The Iraq War, and US support for Israel have diminished the West’s standing in many parts of the world.

However comfortable it may be to think that the West retains the “soft” power edge, it may be using an outdated notion of “soft” power, adherence to which masks an uncomfortable truth: that both Russia and China have made remarkable strides in the “soft” power stakes while the West’s cultural influence has detached itself from its political influence.

A version of this article was published e!sharp magazine on 22 march 2010

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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