Concerns about the closing of the American Center in Moscow appear to be overblown. Russia is still open to new ideas and the constructive role that can be played by soft power.
John Tefft (left), U.S. ambassador to Russia, and Igor Ivanov, president of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) , attending the reception at the American ambassador's residence in Moscow, during U.S. Independence Day. Photo: RIA Novosti
Obviously, taking over authority of the American Center by the Russian authorities is merely a symbolic step. It would be naïve to believe that information flows could be supervised in the age of the Internet and social media. Cultural centers in this respect are the most harmless institutions, especially taking into account their dramatic reduction in funding and importance even from the U.S. side.
Such offline centers are much more influential in areas that lack any access to other means of culture. In many developing countries they become a point of attraction for the young local elites and, hence, provide opportunities for much more effective introduction of competing values, if any.
However, it is important for the Kremlin to ensure that no offline soft power tools are used to undermine stability in the country. The process of the “nationalization” of the elites is under way and it is aimed at eliminating any temptations of foreign influence.
This may look like a form of paranoia, but truly speaking, the major goal is to find a fine line between culture and politics. Moscow emphasizes its desire to be open to the best international practices and cultural patterns, but it does not want them to be destructive to traditional values. Moreover, Moscow does not want these practices and patterns to get caught up with political intrigues.
Regretfully, this process of curtailing what members of the government perceive as a “negative” external influence is mainly reactive. Russia is not that energetic in promoting its own agenda. There are not enough Russian language centers abroad and those that exist lack teachers.
Many events supported by the Russian Agency for Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo) or the Ministry of Culture have limited coverage in the foreign media, attract very specific audiences and have limited social impact in strengthening the attractive image of Russia. The worst thing is that Russia is aware of best practices in this area, but deliberately (for unknown reason) refrains from using them.
Thus, the story of the American Center is not the end of public diplomacy - it died some time ago and this process has nothing to do with the current freeze in U.S.-Russian relations. Nor will it curb in any way U.S. cultural expansion – the American Center was probably the least effective instrument for that.
At the same time, it is clear that public diplomacy can become a powerful tool in conveying Russia’s message in the current information wars. Under these circumstances, Russia needs to reconsider its approach to soft power and make sure that countermeasures are augmented with a proactive policy in the fields of culture and information.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."