Russia can and must create a narrative for the modern world; otherwise we will be unable to accumulate enough soft power to compete in the global contest of ideas and images. Russia cannot and must not try to please everyone. National identity is what a nation inherently is.
Soft power has emerged as a popular topic of discussion in the Russian political and expert communities in recent months. There is much talk about the tools of soft power – the Foreign Ministry, the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo), the media, and various foundations and institutions. Not to be overlooked, however, is the importance of narrative, or how we talk about the country’s current state, its values and geopolitical orientation. Narrative is the matter which feeds and puts together the diverse soft power institutions thus collectively forming a single communications “fist.”
In the age before universal information transparency, narrative could become mythologized and even divorced from reality, as the number of people shaping the information field around a country was relatively small and therefore controllable. But today a communications strategy is effective only as long as it remains truthful, given how quickly information disseminates and the near infinite number of potential sources. Joseph Nye, the Harvard professor and former prominent government official who devised the concept of soft power, said as much in his seminal article “The New Public Diplomacy”: “A communications strategy cannot work if it cuts against the grain of policy. Actions speak louder than words.”
The United States is the most glaring example of what can happen to a country’s image when its actions contradict its narrative. The disclosures by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, as Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore note in Foreign Affairs (“The End of Hypocrisy,” Foreign Affairs , November/December, 2013), are important not so much because of the information or sources they reveal (these leaks merely confirmed what knowledgeable observers have long suspected) but because “they undermine Washington’s ability to act hypocritically and get away with it.” In today’s hyperconnected world, the double standards that Washington comfortably practiced in the 1990s and 2000s are no longer tenable as a successful long-term strategy. Indeed, no country or institution (whether government or financial) can get away with it in a globalized world. Failure to understand this is the root cause of the current crisis of legitimacy engulfing heads of state, governments, banks and media around the world.
Government authorities long ago lost their monopoly on shaping the narrative. The picture of the world is increasingly multicolored thanks to widely available technology to produce and distribute content to a global audience via the internet. Almost 1.5 billion people use smart phones. This means that one in five people in the world who happen to be in the right place at the right time can within seconds show the world in color photo or video something that contradicts the official version of events.
The exponential growth of content producers and the ability to easily share information (including via social media) are a significant constraint on the influence of traditional media, which just recently was the sole source of information on events in the world and the state and development of other countries. Now it is giving way to direct contact between people.
The growing mobility of people (international tourism has practically doubled since 1995, topping one billion tourists per year; 232 million people live outside their country of birth) contributes to the emergence of a common information space with the potential to become a common cultural and civilizational space. This phenomenon is important not only from the perspective of controlling narrative, it also induces states to compete more energetically for loyalty. Formal borders are no longer as important to citizens of a global world; what matters are the ideas and values associated with a country.
Under these new conditions, countries should alter their traditional approaches to how they project their image in the international information space. Linear messaging has given way to multidimensional dialogue using public, economic and digital diplomacy tools and contacts with the media. Technological advances in messaging are also driven by the higher stakes in the battle for international public opinion. Though military and economic competition is still important, the limelight is shifting to competition in the information sphere. The battle is on for 21st-century resources, such as technology and brainpower, and the people who possess these resources are less and less bound to their country of birth. Changes in attitude toward a country can lead to considerable fluctuations in the inflow/outflow of capital, specialists and know-how. According to researchers Margarita Kalamova and Kai Konrad, climbing one spot on the Nation Brand Index (NBI) can boost direct foreign investment by 27%.
Russia can and must create a narrative for the modern world; otherwise we will be unable to accumulate enough soft power to compete in the global contest of ideas and images. And this narrative has to be an honest reflection of the nation’s values and identity.
The international dimension of national identity
By its nature, national identity has clear international dimensions. First, national identity is evaluated by public opinion and elites around the world. This is the matter for soft power. Second, the external environment influences – indirectly or intentionally – the formation or transformation of national identity at home.
Both factors are closely interconnected. A country that takes a more deliberate approach to formulating a conceptually cohesive identity will be more successful at projecting its image abroad. Conversely, a less cohesive national self-consciousness is more susceptible to outside propaganda and its image is more vulnerable to distortion.
Russia often is excessively emotional about polls and ratings which should be seen as a tool, rather than a diagnosis. For example, 40% of respondents expressed a negative view of Russia in a BBC-commissioned GlobeScan-PIPA poll released on May 22, 2013, which almost equals negative views of China (39%) or the United States (34%). But neither Beijing, nor Washington was as aggrieved by the results as some members of the Russian elite.
Much more important than negative views of Russia is the low percentage of respondents expressing positive views of the country – just 30%, compared to 45% and 42% for the US and China, respectively. Russia lags far behind both countries on this metric. And almost a third of respondents did not have an opinion on Russia, which indicates there is no clear, stable, and accepted image of Russia abroad. People in the world simply don’t know what to think about us.
A well-known national branding expert, Simon Anholt, says that international public opinion is not unlike the mind of a seven-year-old child – highly superficial, inert and influenced by the baggage of each country’s history and relations with other countries. It doesn’t see the full picture and only snatches images from 24 news channels and Facebook. Global perceptions of a nation can shift noticeably in some 40 or 50 years, provided that a country engages in the painstaking and never-ending work of shaping its image. However, given the diversity of factors influencing international opinion (according to one classification scheme, these include a country’s politics, trade and investment, export commodities and brands, tourism, culture, and human capital), absolute success is highly unlikely.
National identity is a system of cultural and value orientations that instills a sense of affinity. It is shared regardless of ethnic, religious and political affiliation. The diverse world will by default be attracted to the identity of such a diverse country as Russia, if its external narrative is well constructed. Promotional campaigns and the patching of image holes by certain publications or TV broadcasts can yield tactical results, but strategically, projecting a nation’s real image in the world is the only thing that works. Accordingly, we should improve Russia’s image by consolidating our identity at home and influencing people, who are its bearers and are emerging as the key component of soft power.
As Russians become increasingly integrated in the global community (today we constitute the fastest growing foreign travel market and are the most active social media users), our ability to send a consistent, positive signal to the world public depends on qualitatively upgrading our human capital, behavioral patterns and business culture. For the time being, however, we have nothing to brag out. According to the Nation Brand Index 2012, respondents give Russian human capital low marks (a two on the five-point scale).
A Russian idea for the modern world
In 2013, the Valdai Club , a forum composed of leading specialists and intellectuals from different countries, discussed national identity and its place in foreign policy at roundtables in Shanghai, Berlin and Washington, culminating in its main annual conference. National identity in foreign policy is a source of pride, distinctness from “others”, the foundation of sovereignty and a compass of values which a nation defends and promotes. It is the foundation to build on as we enter the global contest of ideas, the way other countries do, not hesitating to hail their own greatness.
Charles de Gaulle wrote this in his War Memoirs : “Stripped of its greatness, France is no longer France.” The greatness of France is an inalienable part of the narrative it promotes abroad. France has had limited capabilities to sustain this image for some time, but this has not stopped French leaders from using great-power rhetoric with regard to crucial challenges of world development, from the financial crisis in Europe to the Syrian conflict.
“American exceptionalism” is another case in point. Even though political, military and economic trends are pointing in the opposite direction of a return to a unipolar world and public support is eroding for America’s self-proclaimed special mission in the world, the US establishment is mostly unprepared to renounce its claim to being “a city upon a hill.” This is also deeply rooted in historical attitudes: the religiosity of the pilgrims wedded to the cosmopolitanism and global aspirations of the political and business elite. It is clear, too, that the US foreign policy paradigm may change and become more isolationist as America’s outside business interests contract (and politically its national interests already are contracting). But it is sure to retain American exceptionalism as its ideology, based, according to Seymour Lipset, on five principles: freedom, equality, individualism, populism and minimal government interference in economy. After all, it’s the basis of US society and politics.
The “Chinese dream” also implies exceptionalism, albeit cultural. While this approach makes Beijing soft power truly soft, it has almost no reflection of the sociopolitical model and realities of the modern-day Chinese state. It also seriously limits the attractiveness and popularity of the Chinese dream in the world.
But what about Russia? After two decades of emphatically ideology-free foreign policy, we seem to be joining the contest of ideas. In his Address to the Federal Assembly on December 12, 2013, President Vladimir Putin said that “Russia, with its great history and culture and its centuries-old experience of different ethnic groups living together organically within a united state, will strive to be a leader, defending international law and ensuring respect for national sovereignty, and the independence and distinctness of peoples.”
The “Russian idea for the modern world” should be based on legitimate sources of national pride – the great Russian culture, a unique blend of traditions of all the ethnic groups inhabiting this country and working in its expanses; a history of victories and suffering, whose continuity is likely to be restored shortly; the record and traditions of a multi-ethnic and multi-faith society composed of very different people united by the idea of being a unified great power.
This foundation should be used to build a progressive conservatism aimed at fostering citizens as the bearers of this identity, who will cherish and defend the traditions of Russian society and work for the benefit of the state. Internationally the goal is to have an equitable multipolar world system based on states’ right to define their own tradition, system of values and path of sociopolitical development.
We are living during a crisis of the liberal and social democratic mainstream, which is marked by growing extremist trends, both secular and religious. Therefore, this kind of universal and non-aggressive idea, open to national adaptations and oriented toward balanced and sustained global development, has a fair chance of being accepted by both traditional societies and a significant portion of the population in Europe and the United States. The important thing is that Russia is beginning to evolve a positive agenda, being “for” rather than “against” something. (Indicatively, the opponents of the Federal Law No. 135-FZ of June 29, 2013 “On Amending Article 5 of the Federal Law ‘On Protecting Children from Information Causing Harm to their Health and Development’ and to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation with the Aim of Protecting Children from Information Propagandizing Negation of Traditional Family Values” emphasize the prohibitive element directed against making propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations, rather than the positive policy of defending children and traditional family values.) I am not saying that this ideology will not clash with other ideologies. This is inevitable in such a highly competitive arena. But it should be based on the will to defend our traditional values, sovereignty and justice rather than the negation of all other ideas. A positive agenda is more likely to be attractive and influential than a strategy of repulsion.
Threats to the emerging Russian narrative come from within. There is nothing more damaging for a conservative discourse than a descent into marginality and extremism. Conservatism does not necessarily imply a reactionary outcome but it’s a risk. Carefully preserving the customs and traditions that nurture the single matrix of the composite Russian culture could degenerate into bankrupt multiculturalism. And, when taken to an extreme, defense of sovereignty is fraught with nationalism and protectionism. Marginality and extremism are intrinsically alien to Russian identity, but a reasonable measure of oversight over the narrative, its consistency and balance will be needed in order to oppose the inevitable attempts to distort it.
I’ve already mentioned the threat of a narrative divorced from reality. I can only repeat a fundamental truth of this hyperconnected world: new technologies help to distort reality as easily as to expose distortions. What we get in the final analysis is considerable reputational damage.
Nothing will be a better narrative for Russia in the world than a success story. This implies support for culture, acceptance of our past, interethnic and interfaith peace and, most importantly, developing citizens as the main “conduit” for Russia’s identity and image in the modern world. And this, in turn, implies creating the necessary conditions, including meritocracy, guaranteed ownership rights, as well as the fair and effective operation of institutions. The latter is the most important guarantee that the signal will reach the world unhindered.
Russia cannot and must not try to please everyone. National identity is what a nation inherently is. It should meet the challenges and opportunities but not the demands of the external environment. Identity is too fundamental a thing to be a tactical tool. Therein lies its value for the strategic communication of the country’s image and its soft power. Being accepted does not mean accepting alien values. Let us be different. And it’s up to us to decide how we will be different. It looks like we are well on our way.
Pavel V. Andreev is Executive Director of the Foundation for Support and Development of the Valdai International Discussion Club .
This article was originally published in Russian in Russia in Global Affairs journal .