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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

Russia and China Don’t Give a Damn About Soft Power

Image of Chinese JH-6 bombers on the ready. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

‘Tis a mystery. Over at Foreign Policy this week, Christopher Walker explains why Russia and China can’t get anyone to like them while wondering how much Putin, Xi & Co. even care about amassing “soft power” anymore. Soft power is an intangible civilizational “power of attraction” according to the concept’s godfather, Harvard professor and former defense official Joseph S. Nye Jr. A nation imbued with soft power gets others to want what it wants. Its leadership stands a solid chance of rallying others behind causes it champions.

It turns out that an era of good feelings constitutes a substantial asset to diplomacy.

Professor Nye declares that soft power emanates “primarily from three sources: its culture; its political values, such as democracy and human rights (when it upholds them); and its policies (when they are seen as legitimate because they are framed with an awareness of others’ interests).” If so, Moscow and Beijing stand on flimsy ground. Run Nye’s checklist. Culture is all the twin despotisms have going for them. Their political values and policies amount to tyranny at home and aggression abroad. Now there’s a banner to which others will flock!

Threatening to ravage your neighbors—or in Russia’s case, actually doing so—holds scant appeal beyond kindred hives of scum and villainy. Nor does trying to overthrow a largely beneficent world order kindle fellow-feeling.

Moreover, even the cultural factor is suspect. You could grant China and Russia a certain quotient of cultural charm, I suppose. But whatever cachet they enjoy derives from times before communism, not from recent or contemporary achievements. Invoking the distant past thus highlights how culturally barren Marxism-Leninism has left two venerable civilizations. Russians can summon Peter the Great, Pushkin, or other cultural figures of immortal luster. Russian history is replete with them. China can conjure up Confucius or the Ming Dynasty voyager Zheng He, two icons of antiquity touted at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and other forums.

But these titans lived long ago. What has either country done since going communist that helps its leadership woo others? Not much according to Nye’s indices. Small wonder they fare so poorly in foreign eyes.

Nor is it likely they’ll improve their standing anytime soon. Stick with maritime China. There was a time not that long ago when the Chinese Communist Party consciously sought to husband soft power at sea. Officialdom made Zheng He the face of Chinese sea power in an effort to soothe foreign worries about its naval buildup. And an attractive face it is. During the fifteenth century the Ming admiral steered the world’s largest, most technologically advanced navy through a series of “treasure voyages” spanning Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. Few historical episodes can match the saga of Zheng He for sheer adventure.

The takeaway? It was once a matter of routine for Chinese spokesmen to point out that Zheng He’s treasure fleet never engaged in territorial conquest. They then extrapolated from fifteenth-century history, contending that the treasure voyages proved China was incapable of such abuses. The official narrative held that Zheng’s legacy revealed the nature of a seafaring China, showing that forbearance was innate to Chinese sea power. That being the case, contemporary China would inevitably mature into a trustworthy great power, unable to contemplate wresting territory from its Asian neighbors.

Its conduct would make a stark—and welcome—contrast to predatory seaborne empires of old.

Or so the argument went. Beijing earned some plaudits for its soft-power enterprise. About a decade ago, though, communist magnates abruptly jettisoned their own narrative. Chinese strategic commentaries on soft power stopped defining it in Nye’s gauzy terms, and started defining it as the capacity to overawe China’s neighbors into submission through displays of martial might. Beijing’s maritime outreach took on a domineering cast. Its purveyors sought to stroke fear rather than inspire admiration or affection. Rather than speak softly and carry a big stick, top leadership instructed them to carry on jackass diplomacy.

And party leaders meant business. China’s maritime militia, fishing fleet, and coast guard—backed by regular People’s Liberation Army sea and air forces—wrenched Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines while putting China’s campaign to enforce “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea into overdrive. Engineers expanded or manufactured islands, then fortified them despite solemn pledges from on high not to militarize regional waters.


None of these endeavors conformed to the carefully wrought storyline of Chinese magnanimity. They flagrantly contradicted it, with predictable results. As Nye notes, harnessing soft power demands that you hold yourself to a standard you’ve set for yourself. You had better tend to your good name. By setting a lofty standard of conduct, Beijing handed foreign observers a yardstick to judge its actions. People noticed when it fell short of the mark and seemed to take glee in malfeasance. They will not soon forget.

So Christopher Walker is right. It’s a shocker, I know. Few love their abuser—especially one that flaunts its abuses. But Beijing and Moscow no longer seem to care.

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”




    October 9, 2022 at 9:39 pm

    I see a major OSHA violation in that picture.

  2. 403Forbidden

    October 9, 2022 at 9:48 pm

    The (whole or main) point in this article is inaccurate.

    It’s the US which is the driving force behind ALL the chaos and violence and wars happening around the world today. US the true hard power.

    From fearsomely runaway inflation, corporate and national bankruptcies, severe shortages, lack of medicines, to terrorist groups and endless battlefield fighting, US has a hand, or two, in all of them.

    US has locked numerous nations into servile minions or obedient vassals ranging very far and wide, while right in its own backyard places like Haiti and mexico, El Salvador and Colombia are mired deep in drug problems, gang violence and deep-seated poverty.

    That doesn’t mean countries like Russia and china are mother Teresa’s or father Christmas. But they’re harmless compared to uncle Sam.

    NATO powes under tutelage of Washington have violently taken down other countries unable to defend themselves against their might – countries like Libya, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Mali, and others.

    Afghanistan, as an exception, defeated NATO & US fair and square due to its proximity to Pakistan. But this is just a minor bump in the road for the nation that employs hard power around the world.

    Still, US and china are today’s top two unrestrained globalists, so nobody should finger Moscow which has been hit hard by sanctions, state-directed terror (gas pipeline and Crimea bridge explosions), targeted by an unrivalled globalized agitprop machine and diplomatic boycotts.

    US will soon reveal its true identity or true self once it fully develops its hypersonic capability.

    Hypersonic capability plus ford-class carriers will allow US to use it’s iron fist and steel foot to kick down every conceivably solidly locked doors all over the world.


  3. Joe Comment

    October 9, 2022 at 11:33 pm

    I really disagree with this premise.

    The Mainland Chinese authorities have always cared a lot about how people around the world perceive China. To name a few: They always give lots of reasons for China’s positions on international disputes. They invest substantial money in international development projects (e.g. Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Belt and Road Initiative). They try to position China as a model and leader for the developing world. They put a lot of work into trying to portray Taiwan as not a real country. They care a lot about prestige achievements like the space program, the maglev train, the Olympics etc. They have a network of Confucius Institutes around the world. They have many influencers on social media.

    Russia might not have as much soft power as China, but they do love to make things awkward for Western countries whenever possible (send Maria Butina and Natalia Veselnitskaya, give asylum to Snowden, etc.)

    And last but not least, China has its wumao legion and Russia its troll factory. We see their common talking points right on this forum constantly. It’s at the point where I could write the posts for them myself now.

  4. pagar

    October 10, 2022 at 12:48 am

    Russia & china should now don’t give a damn about attending the coming G20 meet next month in Bali.

    That’s because US exercising its hidden medium hard power is fully in charge or in total control of the host.

    Putin could be targeted by biden’s SEAL Team 6 and kidnapped. This is entirely possible as the host’s kopassus unit has been trained by US law enforcement specialists.

    Kopassus needs no introduction.It’s long being famed for catching hold of all kinds of people in the past.

    Putin is eager to go to Bali next month. This is a mistake because kyiv’s secret service has launched terror attacks on Russian soil, no doubt assisted by foreign intelligence services.

    Don’t go to Bali, launch a tactical nuke on Kyiv immediately. Go for the jugular.

  5. David Candy

    October 10, 2022 at 1:41 am

    There has been lots of talk of the South Pacific recently. I note that no one in the South Pacific aspires to moving to China. Many aspire to moving to Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii. In fact a lot have relatives in these three countries.

    There are ten times more Cook Islanders living in Australia than the Cook Islands.

    China can bribe the elites, but no one move there.

  6. Gary Jacobs

    October 10, 2022 at 9:19 am

    LoL, the pro-Authoritarian trolls have come out in force this morning to pretend that all the problems in the world are the fault of the US…and China and Russia are somewhere between bit players and benevolent actors compared to that.

    The US is far from perfect, but reality is largely quite the opposite of the fantasy world you trolls live in. For all the mistakes the US has made, the capacity to evolve into something better is by FAR on the side of the US.

    Freedom of speech and critique of those in power is a feature that allows us to evolve. Something you trolls come here to this site to take advantage of… but if you tried that in/against Russia or China you would go to prison or be killed.

    And as Russia proved today again in Ukraine…and China proves repeatedly with Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and more… those countries are nothing but authoritarian bullies. At least when the US has a war, far more often than not we give people their country back and they have a vibrant democracy. Japan, S. Korea, Germany, even Iraq, and others… no one can say that these countries do not have the ability to criticize the US. Each of them has had a group of parties with anti-US platforms or at least some major policies that are not in line with US policy. Whereas Russia and China are almost nothing but strong arm tactics like Russia’s naked aggression in Ukraine, or debt traps like China’s Belt and Road.

  7. Jacksonian Libertarian

    October 10, 2022 at 12:15 pm

    How to do soft power right:

    The 1st world is effortlessly/cheaply destroying the Russian military by donating its aging stockpiles of smart weapons to Ukraine. Sending a message of Cultural Power to Russia, China, and other Authoritarians with territorial ambitions.

    Non-western cultures see this success and want to join the 1st world success club.

  8. HAT451

    October 10, 2022 at 12:50 pm

    Conflicts have intensity, everything from debate, to use to full war. Soft power is effective when the intensity of the conflict has not not heated up, but beyond a certain point the conflict intensifies to what the author describes as hard power and after that point soft power is useless.

    The options for an opponent of someone using hard power against them are fairly simple. Either use hard pawer to defend yourself or capitulate. Although, it may be possible to deescalate to conflict to where soft power is effective, by that time it is usually to late.

  9. GhostTomahawk

    October 10, 2022 at 12:57 pm

    China and Russia don’t have to care about people liking them when the “green agenda” goes thru them.

    Yall are stupid. They have everything the leftists want for their scam so playing nice isn’t needed. Which is why we are in Ukraine. Lithium.

  10. cobo

    October 10, 2022 at 1:28 pm

    “trying to overthrow a largely beneficent world order…” That is the key point. It might have had its faults, however the post-WWII world order has been extremely beneficent. But, that is not what western school children are learning today. Today, in fact, Russia is proving that although its military cannot hold the field, its rockets can hit fixed targets in civilian centers. The Chinese drive to power is accompanied by a fifth column, not just spewing their filth on blogs, but invading and buying influence at the highest levels of our western institutions. It won’t last.

  11. Joe Comment

    October 10, 2022 at 2:07 pm

    In my post above, I gave some evidence that China cares a lot and Russia cares some about soft power. The second part is the claim that their efforts are unsuccessful due to their overly aggressive postures in the world.

    I agree their success has been limited. How many of us have watched the “Wolf Warrior” movie or visited the now defunct “Splendid China” theme park in Florida? How many of us can read the latest screed about how Biden started the war and Russia needs to act fast while still ahead in hypersonic missiles, without rolling our eyes?

    But both countries can point to certain successes. A lot of people admire China’s rapid economic growth since the 1980s and its prowess at building infrastructure. Without going into a lot of details, I’ll say a lot of people are repeating Russian talking points about certain issues and it has been useful for them in international politics.

    How about the reasons for the limited success? In some cases, I agree. Countries that have disputes with China or Russia will be hard to sway with soft power. But that limitation applies to the US too. We can find number of places in the world where US soft power is weak.

    But mostly, I think it’s hard because cultural influence is not easy to create on demand. It has to grow naturally.

    Case in point: A Chinese dissident won a Nobel Peace Prize? Then what if China creates its own Confucius Peace Prize and grants it to Putin, Fidel Castro, etc.? It sounds like a joke to most of us, but this actually happened.

  12. John

    October 10, 2022 at 4:24 pm

    The West knows what to do and has the means, but is not following through.
    Improved nuclear deterrence, space weapons, better missile defense.
    Not happening.
    Truss, Macron, Biden. They cannot get it together. Europe and Asian allies not stepping up while America dithering. How many more simulated North Korean attacks do our allies need before building there own deterrence?
    Japan has more than enough plutonium to build its own dererrent

  13. Quartermaster

    October 11, 2022 at 6:23 am

    Pagar, you are loony. What you are suggesting is nothing short of insanity, not to mention the spewing of Putin’s lies.

    Putin started the war, and he is hating the consequences of a war against a country he wildly underestimated. Putin could end it tomorrow by simply agreeing to get out of all of Ukraine. He won’t because he is much to used to getting his way. Putin is simply wrecking his country.

  14. Leidsegracht

    October 11, 2022 at 2:46 pm

    Sometimes I think we miss the mark in assessing soft power particularly when it comes to governments with autocratic leanings. Often the soft power component is simply “I’ll give you financial / economic / security aid and I won’t attach human rights / democratic oriented strings to it.” This “you be you and I won’t preach” attitude must be attractive to certain developing countries such as the Solomon Islands as opposed to listening to sermons from the US. For example, if Sleepy Joe can lecture MBS about the killing of a journalist, when the US actually *NEEDS* the Saudis and their oil, imagine how Sleepy Joe would interfere with some one of lesser strategic importance like the Solomons, Horn of Africa etc.?

  15. Ti

    October 16, 2022 at 2:54 am

    Putin a massive COWARD it’s a COWARD AND BULLY that seeks to destroy a nation being Ukraine ?? viva Ukraine and wipe them off the map, then threatens end world scenario when Russia are crushed by NATO. This is the warped mind of a small man a repulsive little runt Putin how pathetic is this small man a vulgar grotesque piece of SCUM on legs. Your days are numbered Putin if you oder to fire nuke your Generals will kill you when Russia is beaten in war by Ukraine you Generals will kill you.Cumuppance awaits the EVIL SMALL MAN PUTIN IN BUCKET LOADS.

  16. Fuc

    October 22, 2022 at 2:19 am

    Russia is a pathetic state of liars and thugs they try to blame NATO for the situation in Ukraine you know the one they said they would not attack and did the one where Russian scum rape young 10 year old girls and boys women and men torture them horrifically castrate men murder Ukraine civilians by shooting in the back of head targeting babies infants civilians and civilian infrastructure to wreak as much pain sorrow misery and turmoil on innocent Ukraines as possible.Russian scum do not deserve life on earth nuke the barbarian terrorists now decimate the scum

  17. CASE Mueller

    October 29, 2022 at 10:28 am

    USSR, People’s Republic of China, DPRK, Vietnam and Cuba were all against Apartheid in South Africa,and White minority racist rule,in Africa as a whole. Communist Party USA and foreign Communist parties, were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Communist Atheists were always on the right side. Right wing, white Christian Racist,that wouldn’t cut an African man’s hair, doesn’t want an African man marrying his daughter, doesn’t want an African going to same school as White children,etc. have always been the problem.
    The only thing America and “Western” culture is good for is racism, segregation, Apartheid, destruction. American Racist culture does not attract me nor should it attract anyone else.

  18. ATM

    October 30, 2022 at 1:37 am

    Soft power is about “trust” and no one trusts the United States at the moment. The author must be in a time warp living 30 years back. The US gave up it’s soft power during the Bush administration and the war on logic that came after that.

    The Iraq war, put an end to anyone believing the US abides in any way with the Geneva Convention. When you run over torture norms and start preemptive wars based on complete lies, what are people supposed to think. Imagine the comedy of a top US general slamming a vial of anthrax on the table surrounded by heads of state. If they did not get your number before they certainly have it now.

    Then Trump proved that our treaties are not worth the toilet paper that they are printed on when he pulled out of Paris Climate Accords and Iran treaty.

    Furthermore no one can predict the kind of nut job or ideology the US electoral system will produce next and that means that whatever the US said yesterday could be false tomorrow. Dealing with the US anymore is like having a big strong wako in the family. It is scary you no idea what they are going to do next.

    Basically all you have left (after pulling out of major treaties were you were the major sponsor, like the Geneva convention, climate accords, Iran deal, completely disregarding international orgs like the UN, and giving up your trusted word) is hard power. Nowadays US soft power is mostly about giving other nations some of our never ending supply of freshly printed greenbacks. I sure hope they US get’s it head screwed on right soon.

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