Russia Finds Success In Sharp Power Over Soft Power

Russia Finds Success In Sharp Power Over Soft Power

Soft power is a valuable tool in the arsenal of world powers, used to gather and maintain the support of foreign nations through appealing to their citizenry. The term “soft power” was coined by Joseph Nye in his work Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics. Soft power refers to “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or culture. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies. When our policies seem legitimate in the eyes of others, our soft power is enhanced” (Van Herpen Quoting Nye, P. 20). But as it turns out, not every country is as interested in obtaining a higher status on the soft power 30 rankings list. Russia, example, has dabbled with the idea of promoting their country’s soft power status and their reputation in foreign talking circles, but their tactics appear to be more concerned with what Van Herpen describes as a “soft power offensive.”

The National Endowment for Democracy has identified a subsection within Joseph Nye’s umbrella term “soft power.” Using soft power through strong-arm, authoritarian policies is referred to as “sharp power.”

“What we have to date understood as authoritarian ‘soft power’ is better categorized as ‘sharp power’ that pierces, penetrates, or perforates the political and information environments in the targeted countries. In the new competition that is under way between autocratic and democratic states, the repressive regimes’ ‘sharp power’ techniques should be seen as the tip of their dagger—or indeed as their syringe” (NEFD, P.6).

President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Like I argued in my first paper for this class, utilizing soft power — or “speaking softly” — is only effective if you have a stick in your other hand. The bigger the stick, the more softly you can afford to speak. The United States has historically excelled in both these areas: they carry a very big stick and wield tremendous influence through popular culture. These two factors together allow the United States to speak relatively softly to accomplish its national interests on the world stage.

While the United States has historically used the big stick approach as a threat and negotiation tactic, the Russians have taken a different approach. Instead of leveraging soft power to influence diplomatic relations with other countries, Russia takes a “sharp power” approach: they use coercion and force to stronghold other countries into acting in a way consistent with Russian national interests. For example, when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the world was powerless in coming up with a response. Russia certainly dropped in soft power ranking, but its sharp power allowed it to continue acting in whatever way it pleased.

The National Endowment For Democracy also expands on the idea that Russia not only uses its economic and military power to engage in  “sharp power” tactics, but they also take advantage of democratic countries’ openness to infiltrate those countries’ free exchange of ideas and cause instability within them. Such was the case in the 2016 U.S. election, as many members of the American Democratic Party have long argued. Van Herpen devotes several pages to the idea that the Russians have “bought” several individuals and many news agencies that have a lot of influence in United States and other Western countries. Van Herpen describes this as the third pillar of Russian sharp power offensive: the first being Mimesis — copying successful western tactics with a Russian twist; the second being Rollback — forbidding activities of western soft-power institutes inside Russia; and the third being Invention — legal and illegal activities influencing political parties in the West, and “buying” people to wield more influence. Taking advantage of Democratic countries’ openness and free exchange of ideas falls into the invention category. These involve initiatives to “create goodwill in Western intellectual circles, to create an opportunity for the Russian elite for networking with Western opinion leaders, to create a testing ground for ht Kremlin’s foreign policy initiatives” (Van Herpen, P.59).

The Russian government has used the invention tactic in ways that resemble traditional soft power as well. In both Poland and Slovakia, “the Russian government seeks to weaken a sense of belonging to the European and transatlantic communities, in which democratic governance and a commitment to shared liberal values have been defining and unifying features” (Van Herpen, P.17). Both the overt and covert forms of propaganda fuse with the first pillar of Russian offensiveness — mimesis. The Russian government copies the successful soft power tactics of Western countries and tries to wield influence in Democratic countries through starting intellectual debates among cultural elites in these countries. This enables the Russian government to appear distant when they actually have a strong say in the subjects of conversations within a certain country. They control the conversation in a way that allows them to use their sharp power without any repercussions. “It is clear that such a concept is completely at odds with the original definition of soft power given by Joseph Nye Jr. However, it is a constitutive component of the Russian soft-power variant, developed by the Kremlin” (Van Herpen, P. 271). But this is the whole point of utilizing sharp power, to use it in a way where the lack of soft power is meaningless.

Van Herpen argues that countries that use sharp power have authoritarian regimes in charge domestically. “Through sharp power, the generally unattractive values of authoritarian systems—which encourage a monopoly on power, top-down control, censorship, and coerced or purchased loyalty—are projected outward” (Van Herpen, P.13). The caveat to the argument that sharp power is only used by countries with authoritarian regimes is the fact that the United States under President Donald Trump has transitioned from “soft power” to a more “sharp power” foreign affairs plan. Since both Van Herpen and the National Endowment for Democracy couple sharp power usage with authoritarianism, this may seem to be a negative. Indeed, the National Endowment for Democracy compares the Russian tactics to the Chinese ones: “While there are differences in the shape and tone of the Chinese and Russian approaches, both stem from an ideological model that privileges state power over individual liberty and is fundamentally hostile to free expression, open debate, and independent thought. At the same time, both Beijing and Moscow clearly take advantage of the openness of democratic systems (NEFD, P.7)” However, a closer examination of how the United States has implemented — or at least has tried to implement — its sharp power under President Trump reveals that a Democratic country can indeed utilize sharp power and remain one that still places a great importance on individual liberty domestically. President Trump’s shift toward sharp power is evident in his demands that United States European allies pay their fair share in NATO and that United States allies pay the military for support in the form of U.S. bases on foreign ground, among others. That said, individual liberty in the United States has not suffered as a consequence of President Trump’s tactics. Perhaps he is simply discovering that these tactics are more successful in international diplomacy — either that or he is experimenting.

Leaving President Trump out of the equation, the question then becomes why does Russia seem not to care about soft power as much as sharp power and offensive tactics. The United States certainly has the potential to use soft power in international diplomacy, but it has chosen not to in recent times. What about Russia? Van Herpen offers one possible explanation:

“Today’s Russia does not offer anything … [Russia’s] soft power, nonaggressive attraction, and moral and ideological influence have dropped to zero. It does not promote either a democratic ideal *similar to the United States) or a fundamentalist ideal (similar to some Islamic countries and movements). It does not serve as a model of successful integration on the basis of democracy (like the EU) or a pattern of speedy development (like China that has aroused global interest with the so-called Beijing Consensus” as an alternative to the Washington Consensus.” (Van Herpen Quoting Lukin, P.24-25)

Van Herpen seems to believe that Russia has no choice but to go with an offensive push to gain influence on the world stage; in other words, they have no soft power to offer. But what if there is another explanation for Russia’s decision to wield influence through sharp power, one that Americans might have been cautious to admit until recently under the Trump Administration: perhaps Russia’s tactics are more effective than the traditional soft power tactics. Maybe soft power has gone extinct. Take the Saudi Arabia Khashoggi slaughtering case as an example: certainly Saudi Arabia’s soft power is weak and has only decreased since the news came out; nobody wants to be like Saudi Arabia. But because of Saudi Arabia’s oil supply and strategic positioning in the Middle East, Western countries can do nothing but speak angrily toward the Saudi crown prince. Van Herpen alludes to this idea: “These powerful and determined authoritarian regimes, which systematically suppress political pluralism and free expression in order to maintain power at home, are increasingly applying the same principles internationally to secure their interests” (P.10). These countries’ sharp power is incredibly strong; it overpowers any of their soft power deficits. The same, perhaps, is true with Russia. Just like both these countries oppress their citizens domestically, they use similar tactics to suppress any criticism of their policies internationally.

Clearly there are many ways for countries to grab, maintain, and make use of their power. A government’s power must, of course, originate in controlling its affairs domestically, repressing any domestic threats to their power. Only after all domestic problems are resolved, can a country begin to look outward and expand its power on the international stage. Russia has managed to accomplish both these tasks and more. Russia has not only continuously quashed all domestic threats including protesters and political enemies who garner support, they have not only seized control of other territories by force and economic power, but they have also managed to successfully utilize soft power tactics to maintain the purity of their name as best they can among intellectual elites in other world powers. Russia is certainly a dangerous threat to the national interests of the United States, and perhaps the United States ought to study Russian tactics thoroughly. So long as they don’t, these tactics will continue to be used against us.


Works Cited

Herpen, Marcel H. Van. Putin’s Propaganda Machine: Soft Power and Russian Foreign Policy.

Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016. Print.

“”Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence”: New Forum Report.” NATIONAL

ENDOWMENT FOR DEMOCRACY. N.p., 05 Dec. 2017. Web. 19 Mar. 2019.




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