Today’s MCIS slides installment comes from Lt. General Sergey Kuralenko, the Deputy Commander-in-Chief for Peacekeeping Operations of the Russian Ground Forces. This comes from the breakout session on soft power as a tool to pursue military-political objectives.
Sadly, it seems that the Russian MOD has not posted video or speech texts from the breakout sessions, so I’ll provide a brief summary here, in addition to the slides. Kuralenko’s speech can be summarized in three points:
- Russia is in Syria to help Syrians.
- The U.S. is in Syria to pursue its geopolitical ambitions and does not care about collateral damage.
- People in the military, regardless of country of origin, understand the consequences of conflict and seek to avoid it. More mil-mil contact would help to avert the worst consequences of war.
Kuralenko was followed by Vladimir Padrino Lopez, the Minister of Defense of Venezuela, who made the argument that many countries use soft power as a tool for political domination of weaker countries without having to resort to military force. He contrasted positive soft power, a tool for cooperation as practiced by Hugo Chavez when he led Venezuela, with negative soft power, as practiced by the United States for subjugation and regime change. He also helpfully pointed out that the United States was using the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela to destabilize the country and also noted that there was no humanitarian crisis in Venezuela…
The sole American speaker, Ariel Cohen, highlighted the transition of the concept of soft power from a national branding tool to a weapon. Starting from Joe Nye’s original conceptualization of soft power, he focused on soft power as a tool for expanding national influence through persuasion and attraction, rather than through military or economic pressure. Soft power is the idea that any product of human activity can be weaponized to achieve geopolitical goals.
He was followed by the Russian journalist and television personality Vladimir Soloviev, who gave a typically inflammatory speech. Soloviev opened by saying that he didn’t believe in soft power, since it can only be useful in addition to hard power rather than in and of itself. He argued that the West had rejected all of the norms of international law and had aggressively rejected diplomacy as well. He likened the West (and the United States specifically) to a casino owner telling the players what the rules should be. He accused Boris Johnson of lying about the Skripal case. His larger point was that the West was using soft power together with its technological advantages to solve its military and political issues, with the dollar being the most effective soft power tool. He argued that a new iron curtain was descending over Europe, but this time from the Western side.
Soloviev made the argument that Russia needs to become more active in defending itself against soft power attacks. Russia, for him, has not been pushing an ideology. Furthermore, since it does not own or operate the platforms, it will always be behind. It therefore needs to leave the casino altogether and stop playing the game.
Soloviev’s arguments were seconded by Yakov Kedmi, an Israeli expert who has developed a reputation for his pro-Russian positions. In discussing soft power, he highlighted that power is the key word in that phrase, with the soft modifier being secondary. Soft power is used to pressure opponents or support allies in circumstances when military power can’t be used. He then argued that soft power is as illegitimate as any other use of force and should therefore be prohibited through international law and countered with military power, as that is the most effective tool against it.
After a completely unmemorable presentation by the first deputy defense minister of Argentina, the final (and best) presentation was given by Dan Smith, director of SIPRI. He countered Kedmi’s perspective quite effectively, noting that power is not the same thing as coercion or the use of force. The most effective kind of soft power is silent, intangible and irresistable. It comes from culture, economic strength, and reputation and offers influence and helps diplomacy. At its most effective, it stops conflicts before they start. It can change the nature of the game. Soft power in the world has declined in general as trust of other countries has declined. No state has as much power today as it used to and none are viewed as models for others.
Here are Kuralenko’s slides… I’ll have one final post on MCIS later this week with overall impressions and takeaways.