Competence and Soft Power


I fear this might be one of a dozen Sochi posts this week but I just wanted to try and look at the current media attention surrounding the event in the context of this week’s soft power (henceforth SP) readings.

A lot of the time, when we look at a country’s image abroad, we focus on things such as that country’s foreign policy and stance on human rights. However, I would like to bounce off Nye’s text and say that a state’s competence is equally valuable.

What I mean by this is that morality aside, people are drawn towards states that can provide for their citizens and somehow excel on the world stage. In the case of the United States, it has the world’s largest military, a high GDP/capita and the epicenter of the English-language entertainment industry, among other things.

While I’m still a big proponent of geopolitics and the ‘hard’ elements of power, I would argue that public perceptions of state competence has a great potential to shape interstate relations. Rumblings of a ‘Beijing consensus’ came about to a large part due to the near-collapse of the U.S. financial system.

So back to Sochi.  Putin could have chosen one of so many other ski-friendly places to hold the Olympics but chose a place a stone’s throw from where it went to war with Georgia during the 2008 Olympics. Was this an attempt to show how far the country has come since its embarrassing struggle to put down Islamist militants in the 90s? And what does it mean if the (so far) violence-free games are overshadowed by shortcomings in basics like accommodation and infrastructure?

23 thoughts on “Competence and Soft Power”

  1. This is a very interesting question to pose—I haven’t thought of the choice in location from this perspective before.

    In my opinion, these Olympics have been one giant dichotomy. The infrastructure has been bad—poor road conditions, stray dogs, incomplete hotels, and incorrectly constructed event venues (I’m looking at you half-pipe). On the other hand, the Opening Ceremony was largely a success. It did a good job glossing over the negative times of Russian History and lauded its successes and good fortune throughout the decades.

    One of the historical aspects that were ignored, was the various times Russia has faced war. While it could be argued that some wars were alluded to—like the race to space and cold war era—aspects like the conflict with Georgia were not included.

    This being said, I would have to agree that Putin practiced soft power well with the choice of Sochi—if that was his reasoning—and especially with the Opening Ceremony.

    To speak to your second question: I don’t think it means much that the so far violence-free games have been overshadowed by shortcomings in basics like accommodation and infrastructure because I believe that the media would have found something to complain about no matter what and in this case—these complaints were not unfounded. More to the point—I think it is the best possible scenario if we never report on any violence at the Olympics. If the hotels and roads are the worst aspects of these games, then I would argue Putin’s soft power did something right.

    1. I think that’s a fair point. I don’t want to paint the entire games as a disaster. I think something I should have also written about is what the games has illuminated about the lives of Russians today.

      The possible take-home from incidents such as the bad hotel water is that this is the kind of thing Russians in regional areas have to put up with even in the best of times. In other words, the Russian state is yet to fulfill basic needs like potable water nationwide. You could probably counter that there are parts of the U.S. suffering similar problems, but the games appear to highlight a much more pronounced problem.

  2. Hey,
    I couldn’t agree more with your idea of state’s competence as a tool of public diplomacy. I definitely support the idea that people, sometimes unconsciously, are attracted to knowledge and competence- be that on a personal, professional or political level.
    Moreover I think that many times even those who advocate for human rights/ democracy/ etc. tend to put less emphasis on it when it comes to consuming goods or services they need from a particular country. For example one might protest against child labor or employment abuses but still carry a mobile device that was made in countries that practice these violations. When a country carries a particular ‘expertise label’ and knows how to utilize it, its abusive practices are likely to be overlooked.
    Going back to the case of Russia- I would say that Putin is well aware of the critic he receives with regards to human rights practices, but chooses (wisely) to focus on leveraging Russia’s diplomatic presence (The case of Syria, Iran). In the end the ‘small’ stories about local protests, failing infrastructure and jailed politicians and artists are overshadowed by the big headlines coming out from the Geneva talks or any similar big diplomatic success. Acknowledging that for better of for worse is a very wise PD strategy.

  3. I wonder if this perception of a country’s “competence” partly explains the difference between the international media coverage of the Beijing and the Sochi Olympics. While I do recall media coverage on human rights abuses in China (as well as environmental problems) in Western media in 2008, it seems like it was not nearly as scathing and persistent as the coverage of Sochi. I think much of this has to do with the impressive organizational success of the Beijing games, coupled with the spectacular opening ceremonies and the successful performance of Chinese athletes in those games.

    I also think that Alona is right on the money when she states that proponents of human rights and democracy (in this case, the Western Media) are quieter when it comes to countries with a higher level of “expertise”. In the same way, I believe that members of the Western Media are somewhat easily seduced by impressive shows of national competence, which is why the more “mundane failures” of Sochi, such as the incomplete construction of hotels, and the continuing drama of slushy half-pipes and ski-slopes are widely reported in ways that play into Western stereotypes of “Russia’s backwardness” (

    In my opinion, the choice of Sochi is as much about domestic politics for Putin as it is about sending a message to the world of a super-power on the rise. Domestically, polls show that 62 percent of Russians approve of the Olympic project, and the Kremlin has emphasized the projects in Sochi as part of its ongoing plan to develop the Russian regions. I honestly think Putin couldn’t care less about the way that Western media is reporting the small-ish failures of Sochi. I would also argue that while pointing out human rights abuses is a very important job of the media, the constant deluge of stories reporting on every single small problem of the Games runs the risk of looking a bit petty, and hypocritical in the light of the way that other Olympics held by non-democratic countries (specifically Beijing) have been reported on.

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