Sunday, November 14, 2004

Beacon No. 6: Soft Power Isn't "Everything Except Killing People"


This morning's New York Times brings a "Week in Review" story headlined, "Putin Uses Soft Power to Restore the Russian Empire." It seems the Kremlin leader is aggressively courting former Soviet republics to keep them in Moscow's orbit.

Writer Steven Lee Myers discusses how Putin offers ex-Soviet nations discounted oil and gas, places troops to counter American forces stationed in post-9/11 Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, refuses to withdraw others in Moldova and Georgia, and promises new rail and ferry links with Ukraine while campaigning there for a pro-Russian presidential candidate.

The problem is that only a few of these tactics involve soft power in Joseph Nye's sense of the term (attraction rather than coercion). Instead they involve bribery (cheap fuels) and thinly veiled threats of force (troops added or left in place).

Not until the twelfth paragraph does Myers hit on why President Putin's hard-power efforts might succeed in countries wary of the Russian bear: soft power.

Russia has the advantage of proximity and old ties, as well as linguistic bonds, because Russian remains the language of commerce and diplomacy throughout the region.

The cultural ties between Russia and Ukraine are especially deep since Kiev is the birthplace of the Russian state, and the Russian Orthodox Church was founded in Ukraine, Myers explains.

Putin does use soft power in the Nyesian sense. His charisma, even if he can rarely be said to smile, will affect the Ukrainian presidential runoff, particularly among the country's large ethnic Russian population. Also, the building of rail and ferry links has soft-power as well as economic effects, promoting tourism, pilgrimage and other kinds of information exchange between the two nations as well as trade.

But the main thrusts of Myers' story are access to Russian mineral resources and incremental increases in Russian military power, not on soft power per se. Does this indicate a watering-down of how the term is being used?

I hope not. It would be a shame to see Myers and other writers start using it to mean "everything except killing people."

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