Public Diplomacy for the 21st Century
How to Talk with Russia

Americans once knew how to effectively communicate with Russian audiences, and they in turn wanted to engage with Western voices. What went wrong, and how can we fix it?

Published on: February 26, 2018
Vasily Gatov is Visiting Fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy. This piece was originally developed as part of the Arena program at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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  • QET

    Wow, that’s quite a list of things Americans must do. Anything for Russians to do, aside from wait until America has done all of this? May we expect the Russians to assemble their own “dream team” of communicators, or is that too much to ask?

    After Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, 30 years of good will towards America were ruined when the Russian President commanded his mass media to describe America as an existential enemy. Media outlets responded with enthusiasm. Positive attitudes to the United States, which were usually in the 60 percent range and had rarely fallen lower than 50 percent (during the 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade, for instance) decreased immediately.

    If I’m America, and I am told by a Russian that 30 years of good will can be erased instantly by a single diktat of the Russian President, why in the world would I invest in another 30-year effort? Also, the bit about “media enthusiasm” contradicts the statement about good will somewhat, doesn’t it?

    As for American freedom, if Russians believe it all started with FDR, then that explains much of the confusion. Two of the four freedoms were institutionalized in the formation of this country, and the other two are not freedoms at all but propaganda, or strategic communication.

    Also–aren’t these recommendations to do the very same things that many here in the US are all wee-wee’d up about (to use a favorite expression of our newest former President)? In other words–meddling? Dream team or not, won’t these actions reinforce what the writer states elsewhere: Russians expect America to penetrate every aspect of their life and many believe the West is out to destroy Russia’s very existence. Russia’s existence may be less than optimal (according to some sort of postulated culture-independent ideal measure), but how is the following going to do anything but confirm Russians in their existential dread: Focusing on Western ideas of the future, from urban planning to economic policy, technology, and teaching can stimulate a discussion inside of Russia about where its own regime is leading it.

    • D4x

      Gatov lost me at the Gates and Clooney ‘dream team of communicators’. So many of TAI’s posts since the election seem written by ‘experts’ cut out of Federal funding, seeking to restore it in order to save ‘liberal democracy’, countering Russian influence/threats. This seems to be a pitch for a grant from the U.S. State Dep’t – apologies for not bothering to find the exact stipulation – in CAATSA, H.R.3364 – Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act*, but State must spend maybe 150MILUSD on NGOs, public diplomacy. At the time, I thought it was the wrong pushback, and you express that sentiment much better here. Adding that America could learn quite a few things from Russia. It may have been propaganda in 1935, but Moscow and St. Petersburg have the most beautiful subway stations in the world:
      Avoto Metro Station St Petersburg Russia.
      From an exhibit in 2015 “A Bright Future,” by Canadian architect-turned-photographer David Burdeny, who had special permission to photograph the cities’ historic metro stations after hours for his exhibit. In 1935, Stalin directed his architects to bring a “bright future” to life through their designs. Burdeny’sexhibit was in Vancouver, British Columbia at the Jennifer Kostuik Gallery. From:

      Considering the propaganda machine that became American education; the NIMBYist eco-drama that became urban planning; and the abyss of Hollywood; it is a bad idea to sell any of that to anyone. Russia should be inspired by French or Azerbaijan or Finnish education, and India’s Bollywood. They don’t need any help on urban planning or design. The Russian Olympics team had the smartest official uniforms by ZASport, who did just as fine with the last minute gray uniforms. I bet the Italians took notice.

      *Since I first read it in early August, 2017, someone decided CAATSA should not be easily searchable by pesky readers like me, and changed the format: I don’t feel like searching my files for the exact amount now available to aspiring ‘experts’. Just stopped by out of habit after a grueling day for Syrians, and Russia.

    • Z’ing Sui

      The part you’re quoting and responding to is not phrased well. Clearly, Russia’s 30 years of good will ended because Russia can only wait so long for US to reciprocate.

      Interfering in Russian foreign affairs can only be seen as a good thing for so long if all it yields is more corruption and more poverty for the ordinary Russians. Support for Chechen jihadis, although dropped post 9/11, was very much a relations spoiler before that. Generally ignoring Russian pleas against NATO expansion, infrastructure buildup against Russia and of course, bombing of what allies Russia had left, not to mention things like US general actually ordering an attack on Russian troops in Pristina 1999 – just how long did you expect the Russian good will to last after GIs almost opened fire on their conscripts? Surprisingly, it lasted almost 8 more years to the 2007 Munich conference where Putin was entirely open and gave his final warning in the famous speech, and only in 2008 had Russia chose to act militarily against US ally Georgia that attacked Russian troops and civilians in the nightly bombing of Tskhinvali.

      Author probably doesn’t see it quite that way, so he doesn’t phrase it quite so harshly, but he understands the way Russian popular opinion works. Right now, almost any diplomatic efforts on Russia’s part would be stillborn, because no high-profile US politician would even converse with a Russian person because Russia became so toxic. Putin might or might not be responsible for those 15 people everybody’s talking about that posted 40 hours of YouTube video and some tiny portion of Facebook ads, but Russians at large are clearly not responsible for American public opinion being swept by paranoia peddled by MSM. This is probably the underlying reason Mr. Gatov focuses on what the US can do to revive communication.

      You’re right to worry about interfering in Russia’s affairs. But the difference right now between Russians and Americans, at least some of them, is that Russians don’t see talking as interference.

  • Suzy Dixon

    I haven’t been on these threads for some time. I have just returned from an extensive Asia trip, work-related. I was in Osaka, Seoul, Vladivostok, Harbin, Shenyang, and Beijing. Obviously, I spent much the time in China, but I visited four countries nonetheless. The only country that an Westerner or Western government faces real challenges in, insofar as communicating to the population, is in China.

    Even in the much less developed Russian Far East, I had access to Google and Gmail, foreign news, and I had to choose the English version because it’s available in the native language. This is not the case in China. The availability of predominately English language news and sites is limited, and if it’s in Mandarin it’s likely blocked on a permanent basis.

    This website is available in China, for example, because virtually no Chinese know exists, and it’s only in English. However, Disqus is one of thousands of websites banned by the regime. It’s not banned in Russia. Emblematic of just how extensive the censorship is in China compared to Russia or really anywhere outside DPRK.

    So, if you’re having difficulty communicating with Russians today it’s not about censorship. I can tell you that to a certainty. You’re having difficulties because perhaps there are values judgements that are genuinely different with some government propaganda on top, to be sure.

    I would say you should be worrying more about simply being able to access western services in China, if for no other reason than fair trade and reciprocity, but also of course to communicate with the population. You think that’s going to happen? Doubtful. The Chinese Communist Party didn’t unveil a successor to Xi last fall, and now they think he can just stay on. He doesn’t look to healthy though, so we’ll see.

    You can already communicate with Russians though. Russians have CNN and all the MSM playing in the airports. I saw it. They also have access to YT, FB, etc and so called alternative media here. You might find that a midwestern American, for example, has far more in common than anyone else in America with the average Russian because of values judgements, way of life, etc., but at least you can find that out with relative ease.

    • KremlinKryptonite

      That’s all fair and true, Suzy. Probably a large contingent of any communications issues stem from them seeing CNN lol. Partisan american MSM making bold claims with little to no evidence is bound to anger Russians if its angering Americans, and it is. But if you’re trying to draw a comparison between Putin’s reluctance to leave his post and Xi’s then I’m going to call that into question. Those are two very different situations.

      Putin is as much a prisoner of the Kremlin as he is the boss of it. The man was facing possible and probable corruption charges in St. Petersburg in the 90s. His rise nearly 20 years ago was predicated on his pardoning the horribly corrupt Yeltsin family, as well as cutting deals with the then-new oligarchs. Putin’s problem is that there’s no one to do for him what he did for Yeltsin. No one he can really trust to guarantee his freedom and his billions. He’s essentially an inmate of the Kremlin.

      Xi’s situation is quite different. China as you know it can only exist as a national security state. Times are a lot tougher today than they were five years ago, especially tougher than they were 10 years ago. The regime knows it probably can’t survive a leadership transition within the next five years. That’s also one more reason why the censorship crackdown is picking up steam, as you’ve alluded. It’s a very unstable and frail system. Just as the Party can’t survive a full leadership transition at this time, they also can’t survive another Tiananmen Massacre. Blocking thousands of sites and heavily scrubbing those sites allowed might, in the Party’s collective mind, prevent people from organizing, marching, and then requiring another blood bath.

      • QET

        Your remarks about Putin recall Julius Caesar’s situation when he crossed the Rubicon. At least I think so. If I recall rightly, Caesar needed his term as proconsul of Cisalpine Gaul to be extended, or to be made consul, so he could remain free from prosecution for corruption and other acts during his proconsulship (and probably also to enable him to procure more $$$ for more bribes). Anyway, we all know how that turned out.

        • KremlinKryptonite

          Oh I see it more closely relating to Caligula. He was, of course, a Caesar relative and he died in a similar fashion, albeit for somewhat different reasons.

          Like Caligula, Putin was not very well known until just a short time before his rapid ascension, despite being well-connected otherwise. Also, very early on, Putin consolidated Russia’s federal districts, all 89 of them, into seven basic jurisdictions, and shortly after that the rubberstamp factory Duma helped him change the process by which one becomes a governor of one of those 89 districts. Changing it from a popular vote to presidential nomination.

          Both putin and Caligula knew that they were not particularly well known, and certainly did not particularly deserve such office. Both needed support from three basic people. The common man. The generals. The oligarchs (senators in caligulas case). Both spent quite a bit more money on the military than their predecessor. Check. Caligula spent money on huge celebrations and games whereas Putin spent on improving some infrastructure and diversifying the economy somewhat (not nearly enough) for the common man. Check. Caligula initially appeared before the Senate and acted very deferential and called himself their son. Promised there would be no more of the dreaded treason trials that his predecessor and uncle Tiberius had conducted. He made peace with them. Putin sort of did the same thing with the oligarchs. Essentially let them keep all of their stolen wealth and looked the other way on corruption so long as they didn’t challenge him. Of course he was also guilty of corruption anyway. Check.

          In Caligulas case the excess and the spending was out of control. He turned on the senators when they began to question him, and he never did secure the sort of mandatory military victory early on during an emperor’s reign to secure the generals loyalty and respect, money wasn’t quite enough. Putin has been trekking into similar terroritory, and particularly with the oligarchs.

          • CheckYourself

            Caligula probably shouldn’t have taken things so far with the senators and sleeping with their wives and making them feed him at banquets like common servants, etc lol

          • KremlinKryptonite

            Oh hold on now, you have to understand that some of those actions that may be perceived by us as crazy today were not crazy at the time, and perhaps wouldn’t be so crazy today either. You see, his predecessor, Tiberius, had essentially retreated to his palace and resort on Capri (a terrible place of wanton sadism, pedophilia, and other debauchery).

            So, the senators had, more or less, had their own way ruling things without having to deal with an emperor for several years until Tiberius’s death. Caligula initially made nice with the senators, but, as they started to question him, he certainly did things, like slept with their wives, poked fun at them in public, asked them to feed him at dinners or bark like dogs, and all manner of silliness.

            But he did these things for two important reasons that weren’t crazy. First, it essentially took the senators down a peg, gave them a reality check, however you want to phrase it, and made sure that they did not mistake Tiberius’ rule for Caligulas. Second, it was popular! Imagine a farmer from Kansas or a plumber from Toledo Ohio becoming the president and essentially talking down to some of the richest, snobbiest, and frankly useless people often with no real skills, and having never picked up anything heavier than a pencil. The kind of people who’ve never opened their own car door. That’s going to be pretty amusing and pretty popular with the working class. You know, the people keeping the lights on, the heat on, plumbing, the networks, the food, you name it, ie the people who actually make the world go round.

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    • Paul Lies

      That’s so funny yet sad. The Chinese can type in the URL and come strsight to this website because they probably can’t understand it. But Disqus is banned just in case they do understand and they’ve something bad to say about the Amazing Supreme Eternally Wonderful Communist Party

  • Jonathan Dembo

    There is certainly the germ of an idea here. But handing over American “public diplomacy” over to a left wing looney like George Clooney is a non-starter. In case Mr. Gatov doesn’t know, Republicans and conservatives are in power now and they are not going to let their enemies speak to Russians on their behalf anymore than the Kremlin is going to let Chechen rebels speak for them. But not one of the persons on Mr. Gatov’s list is known as a Republican. The generals might be but they are usually apolitical. It seems to me that Mr. Gatov is trying to create a new subsidized monopoly for the left: a government funded and run international film and entertainment body that would save Hollywood from its failed, money losing, business model and now well-known moral depravity. Maybe George Clooney the only star who has not yet run foul of the sex harrassment scandal sweeping Hollywood? Mr. Gatov wants to create a government agency to let these people “appeal” to the Russians? How insane can you get? Better we should subsidize individual “friendly” Russian filmmakers to travel and live in the West and to make films that would appeal to the film audience in Russia. It would be far cheaper. My guess is that you could get a dozen Russian films made this way than one made by Americans or Europeans. And it would be authentic. All they would have to do is to film American life in small towns and villages away from the coasts to convince Russians of the essential generosity and friendliness of the American people and the American system.

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