Over the last couple of months, the story around the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has become more and more dramatic. Most recently, thousands of people gathered all across Russia to protest against the jailing of Navalny. He was detained after returning from Germany, where he was hospitalised, due to a nerve agent poisoning. Although the Russian government behind President Vladimir Putin denies to be responsible for the poisoning, there is a commonsense around the poisoning being ordered by this very government. It would not be the first time that the Russian government poisoned a critic of the system. In 2006, the former officer of the Soviet KGB, the Soviet Union’s intelligence agency, and later officer of the Federal Security Service, Alexander Litvinenko, was subject to a nerve agent poisoning in the United Kingdom, too. He openly criticised the Russian government, its politicians and state institutions, revealing the extent of corruption and misconduct. This sparked worldwide outrage, since the motives behind the assassination were so blatant. The Russian government patiently sat out the criticism. In the case of Alexei Navalny, he survived and is still politically active, drawing attention to the large extent of corruption and unethical conduct within the government. During the current protests, over 1000 people were arrested. In general, the government is harshly cracking down on people who criticise Vladimir Putin and his government.
Silencing opposition by means of violence is a popular tool of many governments and every government has ordered violence against dissident individuals or groups of people at some point. By doing so, governments want to force everyone to accept its way of doing things and hope to deter people from organising further uprisings. Well known examples for this kind of behaviour are France, North Korea, Turkey, the United States of America (USA), China and the Philippines. But there are also states, which only resort to this kind of tactics on an ad hoc basis, like Germany or the Netherlands. Each state has different reasons for resorting to violence against protesters or individuals. North Korea and China, for example, control virtually everything within their countries and have a “zero tolerance policy” in terms of political expression. In the USA, the violence is mainly directed against black and hispanic people, while in France Blacks and Muslims are target of institutional violence. In Turkey, only critique against the current government is harshly punished, while in the Philippines the government is persecuting drug dealers and addicts – even ordering police officers to kill them.
Certainly, a first reaction to these developments would be a denouncing one, based on the argument that the use of violence to enforce the own agenda is unethical. Of course it is, but this argument has no practical value. Someone who is entrenched in the belief that people need to be forced to behave in a certain way will never seize applying violence, because it is unethical; also she could not, but we will dive into that later. In this article, we will explore how the application of violence, instead of supporting, is harming the respective governments’ agendas and can rightfully be labelled as “fake power”. Alternatively, another form of power exceeds the application of violence in its utility and longevity.
Power Comes in Different Forms
When we think about power, there are a lot of concepts that we automatically link to it: strength, control, success, money and knowledge are only few of many other connected ideas around the concept of power. Often, we make sense of power in relation to the context it is mentioned, since it has so many faces. Its core meaning, however, is universally applicable: “Power is the ability to make others behave in one’s own desired way”. Whether you lift heavy weights, employ a person, ask someone for a favour or blackmail someone, being able to alter others’ behaviour means that you are powerful. In general, we can differentiate between hard power and soft power.
Hard power means that material power is exercised to reach a certain goal. This material power can be brute force, such as raping someone, or threatening someone with a pistol if the other person does not behave in the desired way. In the world of politics, hard power can come in form of military interventions or, as it is the case in Russia right now, in form of arresting protestors. But hard power can also come in form of economic incentives. Bribery is a great example for the negative use of economic hard power in the political sphere. On the positive side, we can think about our monthly salaries. By being paid, the employer incentivises us to work for her. So, imposing power does not mean that the gain is always one-sided, but as it is the nature of it one side always benefits more within a power relationship.
The example from the work place leads us to the second form of power: soft power. Sticking to the example of the employee, imagine that you are working at your dream job. Since the work in itself is rewarding, as you enjoy your work, the employer does not need to pay you to ensure that the quality of your work remains on a high level. Of course, you are receiving a salary, but you are willing to put in more effort than is asked from you, because you love the work. In other words, you are convinced that what you do is good. Accordingly, soft power is based on the effects of belief systems on our behaviour. This form of power operates through the interaction with our individual norms, values and beliefs. While hard power tactics force us to do something, because we fear the consequences or desire the consequences, soft power guides us to do something, because we are personally convinced that the action in itself is good. For example, often we buy certain products, because they seem cheap and are, therefore, a good deal. Sometimes, however, we may pay more for a similar product, because it is marketed in a way that appeals to us. In other words, we can describe soft power to be the ability to make somebody want to do what you want them to do.
Now, the biggest difference between hard and soft power is the temporal expansion of it. Starting with hard power, we can go back to our employee, who works at her job solely because she needs the money, but she does not really enjoy the work. Once the employer stops paying, the employee will seize to work. However, if someone who loves her job is not getting paid, she is at least more likely to continue for a little bit longer, as she enjoys the work. The same goes for bribery. Once the bribes stop coming in, the politician will not continue to push for the other person’s agenda. We can apply this reasoning to all other cases as well. Returning to the protests for the release of Navalny, the protestors might be imprisoned, but they will not seize to support his cause, as they are convinced that he is right – hard power is, therefore, ineffective. Hence, hard power needs to be constantly upheld, in order for it to work. If not upheld, the power relation disappears.
Soft power is much harder to enforce, but is, once successfully applied, much stronger than hard power. Making someone wanting to do what you want them to do is extremely difficult and a lengthy process, but once they want to do it they will continue to do it out of their own conviction. There is a big ethical concern, as it intervenes with the idea of the free will. For example, companies like Google and Facebook, as well as television channels, have considerable power over what we see. By actively managing what we get to see and what we do not get to see, they are influencing our perception subliminally. At some point, we develop tendencies towards these ideas and as we are convinced of the presented ideas, we are carrying them forward in our lives and defend them without being told to do so. Although this is referred to as soft power, we can call this manipulation, too. Nonetheless, this shows how powerful soft power can be and what danger comes with it. Certainly, it can also be used to convince people to do good things, such as stop eating meat or to start exercising. Once they genuinely believe in the value of your idea, they will need no further external incentives to continue the action.
Soft Power in Politics
Returning to the developments in Russia, we see a clear pattern of violent behaviour towards government opposition and critics in general. From what we learned about hard power from the previous parts, Vladimir Putin and the people around him would need to constantly uphold the level of violence against their opponents and even increase the level of it. This drains considerable resources, time and energy, while damaging reputation and not producing any useful results. Once the hard power becomes weaker, the opposition becomes stronger. So what to do?
Usually, in the case of repressing oppositional forces, it is difficult to convince the other side, which is why hard power is applied in the first place. Rather it is then important to allow for opposition and hear their perspective. This gives the opposition a feeling of being understood and respected. By doing so, people automatically develop more favourable views of the side that is allowing the dialogue to unfold. This does not mean that they approve Putin’s actions right away when he starts allowing oppositional ideas, but it makes him a bit more sympathetic to those that are usually against him. Further, Putin should rather opt to strengthen Navalny. He should praise him for speaking up and thank him for indicating the flaws of the Russian government. That sounds counter-intuitive at first, but that takes away Navalny’s main source power: the fact that others are convinced that he is standing up for the right thing. Putin should make Navalny and his goals as strong as possible, but then state why it is still better to not side with Navalny. This strategy is often applied in scientific arguments, because the strength of your argument is measured against the strength of the arguments that you can undermine. The same strategy can also be applied by Navalny to gain more followers. Thinking about an example that is closer to our daily lives, we can think about a famous athlete. Her success can be measured in medals and championships, but what puts great athletes atop others in any discussion about who is the greatest in the discipline is the comparison of who was beaten, in order to obtain the medals or championships.
In heated political settings, such as the current one in Russia, the best strategy is often to move away from direct confrontation and rather embrace a more supporting stance towards the opposition and give them some credit. This convinces people of the good intention one has for the country and towards the opposition. Having such a high seat, the following steps should build on increasingly gaining sympathy and providing good reasons for others to follow. We can see how effective and long-lasting this course of action is, when we think about the movements that Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King led. They all were up against brute force for decades, but their ability to take away the strength of their opposition by basically reaching out their hand for compromise, put them on a high seat against an opposition that has nothing else to offer but violence.
Politicians that are keen to uphold the status quo will eventually fail, as they are trying to stop the natural flow of change. Their hard power attempts to build a legacy will ultimately make them not more than a footnote in the history books. However, adapting to change, embracing the opposition and making them as strong as possible, will add to the strength of any regime.