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Review by John H. Brown, Ph.D.

coverHard Diplomacy and Soft Coercion: Russia’s Influence Abroad by James Sherr, London: Royal Institute for International Affairs/Chatham House, 2013, ISBN 9781 86203 266 8, Paperback, 137 pp., $23.36  (Amazon)

Soft power is “the ability to get what you want through attraction.” So wrote the coiner of the term, Harvard professor Joseph Nye, Jr., in his Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (2004). Conceived by Nye in 1990, the term is now used by a multitude of nations throughout the world.

But soft power, while today part of the global foreign affairs vocabulary, doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody. This, as I see it, is the main point of the book by James Sherr, Associate Fellow and former Head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House. His study focuses on three characteristics of Russian soft power or, as he sometimes calls it, soft coercion: its history; its strong links to the state; and its role in legitimizing the regime at home.

Dealing first with history, Sherr underscores that Russian thinking about the importance of influence in hard diplomacy did not begin with Nye’s speculations about soft power, which “skews the equation in favour of liberal democracies” by their emphasis that such power is “a staple of daily democratic policies.”

Russia, Sherr writes, “has inherited a culture of influence deriving from the Soviet and Tsarist past. It bears the imprint of doctrines, disciplines and habits acquired over a considerable period of time in relations with subjects, clients and independent states.” He does a masterly job in dealing with this process, covering “The Imperial inheritance”; “The Leninist crucible”; “The Stalinist codicil”; and “The Gorbachevian moment.”

Second, noting that after the collapse of communism “Russia’s liberals lost ground from the moment they acquired it,” Sherr stresses that President Vladimir Putin considers soft power a central (“vertical”) government function. It is an instrument for “the revival of a great state.” (Putin, reflecting his state-first perspective, believed that the Orange Revolution in Ukraine was a “Western ‘special operation’ and a triumph of Western soft power, which to Putin is a form of state power.”)

This Russian symbiosis of state and soft power is not Nye’s “staple of democratic policies” noted above. Indeed, Nye underscores (in a passage not quoted by Sherr) that “Governments can control and change foreign policies. They can spend money on public diplomacy, broadcasting, and exchange programs. They can promote, but not control popular culture. In that sense, one of the key resources that produce soft power is largely independent of government control.”1

Underlying Putin’s state-centered soft power is the notion that “Russia is integral to European civilization. … But it will oppose the pseudo identities of ‘the West’, post-modernisms and multiculturalism.” And, in one of his most important passages underscoring the distinctiveness of Russia, Sherr notes that:

For liberals, the basis of legitimacy is consent, and when consent is strained (as in the eurozone crisis) legitimacy suffers. For Russia and its allies, the basis of legitimacy is ‘history’, which in the post-Hegelian lexicon describes what has yet to occur. Putin asserts that ‘the choice of the Russian people has been confirmed again and again—not by plebiscites or referendums—but by blood’. By this, he is not suggesting that blood is a choice, but the opposite; that blood (i.e. identity) is more important than choice and that ‘historically conditioned’ relations have greater legitimacy than consent (which can be granted or withdrawn) or the ‘notorious principle of national self-determination’.

Putin’s blood/state-centered public diplomacy (Sherr rarely uses the term public diplomacy, which he evidently considers synonymous with soft power/soft coercion) “has its own syntax and idiom. It produces a stream of analogies that only the expert would find spurious.… Along side such analogies are magisterial banalities and quarrels with straw men.”

An important part of Russian soft power is the use, in the service of the state, of Russian businesses operating overseas, especially in the energy sector, a topic dealt with in considerable and intriguing detail by Sherr. Gazprom, he notes, is “a network of accomplices that in post-communist Europe has sustained circles of influence that are collusive, resourceful and opaque.” This use of economic policy is quite at odds with Nye’s conception of soft power. Indeed, in reaction to the statement that “Economic Strength Is Soft Power,” Nye responded with an emphatic “No.”2

Another element of Russian soft power, which focuses on the “near abroad,” consists of cultural and humanitarian activities. “[I]n contrast to Nye,” Sherr writes, “the Russian state plays a key role in this institutional effort.” In 2007, a decree of Putin established the Russkiy Mir (Russian World) Foundation, which is supported by the Russian Orthodox Church and whose main aim is to “preserve and promote Russian language and culture today’s world.”

The third aspect of Russian soft power—and of its hard diplomacy—is that it is based on a strategy aiming at “the creation of an international environment [that is] conducive to the maintenance of its system of government at home.”

“As in the Soviet past,” Sherr notes, “national interest means regime interest first and foremost, and any audit of Russian policy that ignores this reality is artificial. … Moscow’s cardinal anxiety is not that its political order is vulnerable, but that it is illegitimate. To preserve its legitimacy, it must ensure that no alternative take root on its doorstep.” Contrast this view on soft power with that of Nye, who sees it (in its American form) as attracting foreign audiences, not legitimizing the political system at home.

Aside from regretting the absence of a much-needed index in Sherr’s succinct volume (it does, however, have excellent footnotes and an informative bibliography), I wish that he had dealt with the relative success of the Kremlin-funded television program RT (Russia Today) in carving for itself a not insignificant niche in the international media landscape. And an examination of how Russian authorities use foreign public relations firms in handling their country’s image overseas would, I believe, have added to the value of this volume.3

But then a diligent author can only do so much in 137 intellectually stimulating pages. And his argument— if it can be reduced to a few words—certainly comes through: soft power in Russia isn’t all that soft.End.


1. Joseph S. Nye Jr., “Think Again: Soft Power,” Foreign Policy (March 2006), <> (accessed December 15, 2013)

2.  Ibid.

3.  These two topics are well covered in a recent unpublished Georgetown University M.A. thesis by Jill Dougherty, Russia’s “Soft Power” Strategy (November 1, 2013).


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

imageDr. John H. Brown, a former Foreign Service officer, teaches a course at Georgetown University entitled “Propaganda and US Foreign Policy: A Historical Overview,” which, he notes, may eventually result in the publication of a monograph on the topic. He is the writer/compiler of the daily Public Diplomacy Press Review (PDPR).

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