Meeting Russia Blog

The West Does Not Acknowledge Russia's Right to Public Diplomacy

September 25, 2023
Author: Natalia Burlinova, President of Creative Diplomacy; PhD; Assistant Professor at the Moscow State University, the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation, Russian State University for the Humanities; RIAC Expert. Originally published by RIAC


PD is a system of governmental and nongovernmental structures aimed at a dialogue with foreign societies. Whether political or not, the dialogue is the key task of PD that can be fulfilled via the expert community, civil society (NGOs), the sphere of education (academic exchange, etc.), culture (theatre, etc.), mass media (international mass media like RT and Sputnik). Today all these elements of classic PD (by the way, we use the classification of PD elements offered by the West) exercised by Russia are declared in the West a threat to their national security. Western experts have come to use a new term, "sharp power", to name the Russian PD.

"Sharp power" is a fresh (2017) idea American experts [1] from the National Endowment for Democracy came up with. NED is the notorious American fund, a non grata American GONGO in Russia that claims to be promoting democracy worldwide and "making democracy work". According to the concept of "sharp power", China, Russia and other countries the U.S. consider "authoritarian" exercise not soft power but propaganda only. The "sharp power" is considered inimical and undesired for the western society because, as the concept's authors claim, "the regimes strive to manipulate their target audiences by means of disinformation". The theoretical concept itself refuses Russia and a number of other countries the right to exercise PD.

Joseph Nye, the author of the soft power concept, was not enthusiastic about that new "sharp power" concept. According to Nye, "sharp power" could only be used to describe such activities of China or Russia as, for instance, secretive support of radio stations in other countries or creating fake accounts in social networks, whereas RT and the Chinese CGTN have always broadcast legally and openly abroad, which made RT and CGTN legal PD instruments, even if the content of broadcasts did not make the American side happy [2]. Joseph Nye further warned that democratic countries had to react to other countries' "sharp power" carefully enough not to undermine their own soft power.

The trends of the past five years, however, show that the U.S. government and the governments allied with the U.S. are much keener on the "sharp power" concept and pay more attention to practicing it than to Nye's warnings. In fact, the West is engaged in an uncompromising struggle with any Russian soft power [3].

Interestingly, when the NED experts proposed promoting the "sharp power" concept they knew exactly what it was about because, without realizing or admitting it, they assumed the concept and the term that perfectly described their own PD methods and behavior. Indeed, the methods Washington has been applying to the Russian PD are those of "sharp power". Trying to put the Russian side at a disadvantage, Americans have been removing any signs of the Russian presence from their own public space, step by step, with a surgeon's precision, and leaving only negative information about Russia and Russians in order to put a scare of any contacts with our country into the western audiences.

In the first round of the struggle, the Russian information influence was removed through the campaign of demonizing RT and attaching a foreign agent status to it. In the second round, the struggle affected certain persons, for example, Maria Butina and Elena Branson [4], who were banned from making any informal social or political contacts between Russia and the U.S. The third round was on the "ring" of diplomacy and NGOs: non-granting visas to Rossotrudnichestvo staff, closing down the Russian House in the U.S., introducing sanctions and restrictions against Creative Diplomacy and the Meeting Russia program. Parallel with the technical work on the restrictions, the American side did the ideological work, too, by making another spy scare and marking any public figures from Russia as "Kremlin agents". By now, the U.S. – Russian contacts are frozen even in the cultural sphere, on the American initiative. In the sphere of expert diplomacy, American specialists are afraid of contacting their Russian colleagues, there are no big projects running. The same applies to the sphere of education. American citizens who are currently in Russia, or are returning from Russia, get under strict control from the U.S. authorities.

However, the blocking of the Russian PD by the West entails practically no mirror measures. Americans continue brainwashing the Russian society, the programs of the U.S. Embassy in Russia keep operating, American colleges and universities keep admitting Russian students [5]. It is true that implementing the programs are now technically more difficult, but the U.S. still issue visas and grants for Russians [6]. And in Russia there are people who take advantage of the situation: in 2022 the U.S. Department of State issued twice as many "talent visas" for Russians as in 2021, and Great Britain issued five times as many.

How is Russia "fighting back"? For the time being Russia is unable to stop the destruction of the Russian PD infrastructure in the U.S. and Europe. Nor does a rivalry of concepts make sense.

But, using the moment, it is worth focusing on other areas. There are countries in the world eager to strengthen ties with Russia and to receive our PD with hospitality. The Russian PD has proven adaptable and has already concentrated its initiatives in the spheres where they can be freely launched. It is important to keep promoting the Russian education for foreigners. Let the Estonian securities worry about the growing number of citizens wishing to travel and study in Russia.

Another important problem concerns the necessity of adjusting and coordinating the Russian PD activities [7]. It is high time we faced the problems of the Russian intellectual tradition. There is a content-related crisis in the humanities that affects PD as well. The reasons are multiple: from underfinancing to the gap between generations. Also, the government is reluctant to put the suggestions of the academia into practice, and many valuable research results are left in cold storage. The connection between theory and practice is thus very weak, and the scholars and practitioners do not interact. All these factors must be taken into account, together with the existing and potential circumstances. Russia needs to determine her priorities and outline the essence on which the Russian humanities should focus.

Turning to the U.S., the strength of the American PD is, admittedly, in the harmony between political and expert activities. They resemble communicating vessels and allow not only to work out hypotheses or theoretical recommendations but also to implement them and gain practical experience. The work of the U.S. Public Diplomacy Commission sets an example of efficiency. The Commission brings together experts, scholars and practisers, and has been providing a platform for their cooperation since 1948; it issues annual U.S. PD reviews where the PD is analyzed from all angles. The review is not just a report but also a set of recommendations for the government that are taken into consideration by decision-makers.

Once Russia has her own commission for PD under the President of the Russian Federation, we shall be able to say that, in spite of sanctions, restrictions and prohibitions, in spite of cancelling the Russian PD in the West, the Russian PD is alive and working in different parts of the world. Hopefully, the current generation of diplomats and international relations experts will catch the happy times.

  1. Concept of "sharp power" is authored by NED experts Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig.
  2. Joseph Nye made a thorough analysis of the correlation between soft power and sharp power in his article, Soft Power and the Public Diplomacy Revisited, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy (14 April 2019), pp. 16-20.
  3. The struggle against Russian mass media (RT, Sputnik), Russian Houses and NGOs began long before the special military operation; the SMO only expedited the removal of the Russian information and humanitarian structures from the social and political spheres in the U.S. and many European countries. More on the "sharp power" application in political technologies against geopolitical opponents: On Use of Sharp Power" Technologies in Modern World By Naumov А., Beloussova М. // Public administration. Elektronniy Vestnik (e-journal). – Issue #98. (June 2023), pp. 73-85.
  4. Maria Butina is a Russian citizen who was arrested and tried in the U.S. for alleged breach of foreign agents regulations. Elena Branson was the chairwoman of the "Coordination Council of the Russian Compatriots Organizations in the U.S.A."; she left the U.S. after being charged with a breach of the foreign agents regulations and threatened with up to 40 years in prison.
  5. For example, Russians may still make their PhD in a U.S. college or university, especially on subjects where Russia is susceptible.
  6. In particular, through the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan.
  7. For example, see: Expert Review of Russian Public Diplomacy in 2018-2019. 10 Steps to Efficient Public Diplomacy in Russia: Report 52/2020 By Burlinova N., Vassilenko P., Ivanchenko P., Shakirov O. [edited by Timofeyev I., Pylova О.]; RIAC, Moscow (2020), 58 pages.
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