Discussions about a country’s soft power are generally triggered by foreign policy crises or an urgent need to renew the institutions responsible for projecting such power. The recent controversy in expert and journalistic circles about the effectiveness of Russian soft power in the Middle East is an example of both. As it turns out, the theoretical achievements of domestic and foreign researchers in this field do not always work in practice. Many of those with an interest in soft influence and public diplomacy understand how all these things should work theoretically in foreign affairs and even often provide competent recommendations to relevant agencies. But Russian soft power, if its critics are to be believed, is still more soft than powerful.
A “silver bullet” often proposed for resolving Russia’s problems in this area is an appeal to the American experience. Indeed, American practices are often seen as being rather successful in promoting US national interests and a positive image of America. Yet this is only partially true: not everything the Americans are doing (especially in the Middle East) is effective, and not everything is accessible to or appropriate for Russia. At the same time, if Russia wants to conduct a quality audit of its own approaches, it would benefit from reflecting critically on the US experience of projecting soft power in the Middle East.
Dialectics of Country and State: US Soft Power in the Middle East
The soft power tools used by the United States in the Middle East are not that different from their activity in other regions: Westernisation of elites, educational and cultural exchange programmes, support for civil society and some media, and promotion of the English language and American mass culture. Given the diverse regional specifics of the Middle East, the US has to vary how it approaches each subregion and specific country.
A concept the Americans have had to consider over their many years of working in the region is the “dialectics of country and state”: while rejecting American government policy, the locals readily accept American education, culture and commercial products. In practice, of course, there are many shades to this formula: the anti-Americanism of the ordinary people in many Middle Eastern societies is generally boosted by US-led military campaigns or exacerbation of Arab-Israeli tensions. In such situations, rejection of state policy is projected on to associated cultural images, and then those dissatisfied with American politics break windows at McDonald’s, burn the “stars and stripes” or defiantly boycott American pop products (though not for long).
In the same dialectics, the effects of America’s soft power are offset by US hard power. The United States government and state-affiliated funds invest billions in public diplomacy and educational exchanges, in development of civil society and the media, but Washington’s military actions often negate its own efforts to win public sympathy in the region.
The goal of US public diplomacy in the Middle East is to project an appealing image of the United States as an open, free and democratic society of equal opportunity. The US seeks to convince the target groups that they are not the enemy but rather contributors to strengthening regional peace and security. Given the region’s demographic and socio-cultural characteristics, the United States focuses on working with young people. It is important for America to create, if not a whole generation, then at least a thick stratum of US sympathisers among intellectuals in various fields and professions who might become public opinion leaders in the future. Plus, they do not necessarily have to be pro-American. It is enough for them to have empathy for the US, which could ensure less resistance by the “social material.” There is no direct correlation, of course, between “empathy” and “non-resistance” and this can be more complicated in practice. Yet this is the aim of the techniques used; how well they work will depend on the particular recipient.
All these features of American soft power policy were more relevant before Donald Trump came to the Oval Office, even though his predecessors had already highlighted a few flaws in the effectiveness of American soft power.
The question “Why do they hate us?” was seriously discussed by experts in the United States after the tragedy on 11 September 2001. The main reasons identified at that time were “intrusive missionary work” and “persistent imposition of ideals.” Less than two years later, the George Bush Jr. administration decided to invade Iraq. Seventeen years passed and it took a few more military adventures, unsuccessful for America and disastrous for the region, to finally make sure that such approaches trigger only rejection and resistance.
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 gave the United States a chance to conquer the Middle East — especially its youth — by non-military methods. The image of Barack Obama as “the opposite of Bush” and his famous Cairo speech, among other things, gave hope for a change in US politics in the region. However, all these hopes were destroyed by the Arab Spring, the NATO military campaign in Libya, and the zigzags of US politics in Syria and Iraq. Some felt that Obama was unable to resist the American tradition of replacing “bad guys” by force. The trick of leading from behind in Libya did not help in this respect either: the United States, along with France and Great Britain, was considered equally involved in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. Others, on the contrary, were disappointed by what they thought was Obama’s insufficient determination to support opposition groups and rebels.
One way or another, the US position in the region has been shaken, as the trust in Washington and the perception of its “reliability” have been undermined. Disappointment intensified during the Democratic President’s second term, when the traditional US allies in the region, Israel and the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, also became dissatisfied with Obama’s policies, including his attitude toward Iran.
Trump has managed to reverse this trend somewhat: his campaign against Iran made the Israelis and the Saudis more optimistic. This American president is very popular in Israel, and the Gulf has also found a business-like approach to negotiating with him. Today the US prefers to “strangle” objectionable Middle Eastern regimes with sanctions instead of overthrowing their rulers by striking with the dagger of the military. This process is more time-consuming but less painful in terms of public perception, which means it combines more harmoniously with soft influence. To a certain extent, Donald Trump’s attitude to the projection of soft power resembles the philosophy of the Green Berets during the Vietnam War: those in the military who disagreed with President Lyndon Johnson’s directive to “win the hearts and minds” of the enemy came up with their own half-joking slogan: “If you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”
At the same time, the picture of “Trump’s America” created every day by liberal mainstream publications in the United States, the behaviour and decisions of the president himself, his anti-Muslim bans, and his image as an enemy of Muslims and a friend of Israel have done a lot to undermine those elements of a favourable perception that had persisted among the region’s population for decades.
Together with the political vacillations, the United States has demonstrated in the region in recent years, this cocktail has amplified the very same anti-American sentiments. Even so — and this is the fruit of decades of painstaking soft influence work by America — they have not completely turned their backs on the United States. For many in the region, the US is still the most coveted partner. They simply expect more from America itself, even if they do not always clearly articulate what “more” means and America is not sure whether it wants to provide this “more.”
Today, the United States is redefining where the Middle East lies among its foreign policy priorities and rethinking its global role in general. Many soft-power programmes that have worked for decades are now being phased out. Traditional US soft power instruments are being “weaponised.” American authorities increasingly do not bother to camouflage certain initiatives with considerations of “building an open society.” One specific example from 2018 is when Congress required the US-funded Voice of America to make its coverage of Iranian politics more aggressive and critical. In this sense, we are witnessing the emergence of a new era in US public diplomacy, including in the Middle East. As is usual in public diplomacy, the results of what the Americans are doing (or not doing) now will only become apparent in several years’ time.
The “Post-Syria” Middle East: A Chance for Russia?
The erosion of the regional elites’ confidence in the Obama administration and in the USA’s ability to protect them has caused many governments in the region to change their perception of America as omnipotent, even though it remains the most influential external player. Russia’s “return” to the Middle East has boosted but did not trigger this trend.
Russia has not supplanted the United States in the region, though this might be the perception following the success of Russia’s campaign in Syria. Moscow’s current presence in the region often affords a more rapid and convincing response, building the image of a “smoother operator.” Even so, the heady illusions in the wake of the triumph could throw Russia back to square one. Many regional governments are trying to use the opposition between Russia and the United States to pull ahead in their own games, often playing the Russia card at the table with Washington.
Russia’s participation in the Syrian conflict provides a vivid backdrop against which the American soft power agenda in the region is being assessed today. By engaging in a critical discussion of the growing role of Russia in the Middle East compared with the “withering” of American influence, Western political circles are reflecting on the crisis of their own American model and the image of the US in recent years and sending an implicit appeal to American elites to do what is needed to update this model.
In turn, Russia is gradually moving toward a “post-Syria” foreign policy phase in the Middle East and to a “post-military” phase in Syria itself. Questions like “Moscow has won the war in Syria but can it win the world?” have become commonplace on all western and many Russian discussion platforms. Indeed, it is one thing to monetise the image of a “strong player” yet quite another to convert it into the image of a “caring power.”
In the former area, some strategy contours are visible: increasing the number of weapons supply contracts, establishing military and technical cooperation with a number of states in the Middle East and North Africa, posing as a mediator in key conflict areas, etc. As for the latter, there are individual campaigns, such as the delivery of humanitarian aid to states in a difficult COVID-19 situation, but a more systemic approach is needed to organise soft power efforts.
In the meantime, it most important to demonstrate equal ability in waging war and building peace. In the broader sense, this is a test of avoiding the very trap of the “dialectics of state and country,” where the image of a “cruel Russia bombing hospitals” cultivated by geopolitical competitors nullifies any efforts made to project soft power.
“Be with Us — and Remain Yourself”: the Principles of Russian Soft Power
An inventory of soft power goals in foreign policy and of the tools for achieving them should begin with at least two things. First, we should set a relatively low bar for expectations, especially in the short term. Second, we need to recognise the objective limitations.
Russia obviously lacks the ability to organise exchange programmes comparable to those offered by the United States. Yet, Russia is able — and has the relevant experience — to open up its education market, especially in specific strategic specialties, to promising young people from the Middle East. This could involve various forms of assistance for their studies in Russia, followed by career support at home. Tomorrow’s elites in the region are not always formed from among graduates of Western universities.
It is hardly worth counting seriously on the cultural “Russification” of considerable parts of third country populations. Russian culture is, by nature, more “elitist” than American mass culture. Products of the latter are a priori targeted on diverse segments of the population and are almost universally digestible. In addition, Americans use other tools, such as their influence in the international economy and ability to market brands properly and appealingly either by offering accessibility and simplicity or, if appropriate, pushing others aside. Perhaps it would make sense to adopt some of these tricks?
A change is needed in the very approach to organising Russian centres of science and culture abroad. The notorious “Soviet touch” cannot compete with what the Americans, Europeans, or even Turks offer to the region’s population. Assuming the traditional specifics are a projection of nostalgia for the Soviet past on the part of some of Russian officials and diplomats, we cannot expect third country populations to share this nostalgia. Soft power is not a way to maintain historical inertia but an opportunity to direct passionate young people, tomorrow’s public opinion leaders in their own countries, to follow the right imperatives.
Discussions of soft power resources generally avoid the obvious: the basis of soft power is, first of all, how well things are going in your own house. It is difficult to call to combat lawlessness and injustice in international relations until there are clear victories over similar social ills on the domestic front. It is not easy to get nations and societies to embrace your culture, language and education, while you are condoning their decline at home, be it deliberately or through negligence. You cannot expect a third party to adopt your “thought codes” if your predominant attitude is to “chase the moment”, when what matters is that the budget is spent and an event ticked off the list. One reason “balalaika diplomacy” has been replicated so much in foreign policy is because it is stereotypical and therefore understandable, so seen as a quick, lazy and supposedly effective (though not always cheap) way of doing things.
It is important to understand that most elites and the ordinary populace in the Middle East base their impressions of Russia and assessments of its foreign policy on reporting in the Western media and materials from British and American think tanks. Since the collapse of the USSR, foreign policy information support has become one of the most flawed areas. Only in recent years have institutions started appearing in Russia that are at least somehow capable of making up for Moscow’s political and reputational losses over the past decades, telling about Russian politics directly, presenting the Russian narrative without distortions introduced by foreign propaganda, and attracting an increasing number of people in the Middle East who are interested in Russia.
In this work, among other things, it is crucial to make the right choice of communication strategy in each specific case: sometimes, Russia needs to create and consolidate its positive image (Syria, Egypt), at other times it has to improve it (Syria, the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf), and at yet others, it has still to “repackage” Soviet or imperial “codes” (Iraq, Iran, Algeria).
The humanitarian area is another complex and emotionally taxing way to the hearts of the target audience. It is hardly worth the effort if the country’s public diplomacy is focused primarily on quick and short-term public relations. Yet, in a situation where some powers are depriving important international organisations of financing while others are using the economic difficulties faced by states to buy up their assets in order to penetrate deeper into their economic and political structure, work in this direction can cultivate the image of a “caring power.” This is an opportunity to literally saturate the human dimension of the relations between the donor country and the population of the recipient country. There is already an understanding of how to build humanitarian policy in this direction correctly. It is important to preserve and direct this impulse in the right direction in practice.
Finally, a frequent criticism leveled at the Russian projection of soft power is the lack of any pronounced ideology in Russia’s foreign policy. Those who disagree believe that Russia does have a quasi-ideology for these purposes: for some, it is “conservatism,” for others “pure pragmatism,” both of which can work in the Middle East. Others, in contrast, are convinced that ideology confounds unnecessarily the freedom of foreign policy manoeuvre. They talk rather about the need for “one big idea” that can “anchor” the entire foreign policy strategy. Russia supposedly lacks such an idea, while each of the US, the European Union, China, Turkey and Iran do have one. And if the United States’ soft power policy seems to say: “do as we do — and become us,” then the EU’s logic is “do as we do — and be with us.” Russia’s several years of activity in the Middle East might allow us to formulate such an idea today: “be with us — and remain yourself.” This idea reflects the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of the Middle East states, on the one hand, and an orientation on cooperation, on the other; that is, without encroachment on the traditions, values, culture and political systems of these countries.
In general, soft power is often less costly than “hard” power and depends largely on the quality of local agents. Unlike military contracts, it does not bring quick profit, but investment in soft power is denominated in a different currency: people, their loyalty and gratitude (even if not expressed), their acceptance of your narrative, your vision of the future (if any) and the “thought code” of how to make this future real. If all these are available, the projection of soft power can be a valuable long-term investment.
From our partner RIAC