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SREBRNIK: The “seductive” power of the United States

Henry Srebrnik
Henry Srebrnik - Contributed

In a course I am teaching on the countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, one student gave an excellent presentation on the relationship between today’s Russia and the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan.

One of the journal articles she examined was entitled “Beyond Spheres of Influence: The Myth of the State and Russia’s Seductive Power in Kyrgyzstan,” by Stefanie Ortmann, a professor in the Department of International Relations at the University of Sussex in England.

Ortmann questions the analytical value of “spheres of influence” for understanding power and the state in the post-Soviet region, instead drawing on the concept of “seductive power” through an extended discussion of Russian influence in the central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan, a country often described as a Russian client state.

For today’s Russian Federation, the 14 other former republics of the old Soviet Union are considered the “near abroad.” They are both foreign, yet not entirely foreign.

For Moscow, she writes, “this is power at a distance, ‘seductive power’ that works to produce particular political subjectivities and is effective precisely because it draws on mutually constitutive understandings of state and space.”

Shared Russian and Kyrgyz conceptions of state and space, as well as material factors, such as enduring networks at both elite and societal level, reproduce Russian power in Kyrgyzstan, even though the latter has been a sovereign entity since 1991.

In other words, there is no simple and inexorable link between sovereign power and exclusive control over bounded territory. Seductive influence may transcend this supposedly watertight connection.

For Russians, Kyrgyzstan is not a foreign state in the sense that, say, Pakistan is. And for the Kyrgyz, the same holds true – despite the greater distance, Moscow is subjectively closer than Islmabad.

I would submit that this same type of relationship exists between Canada and the United States – and it is an even closer one.

“Soft” power is a concept that is simultaneously seductive and slippery: It captures something that most of us intuitively recognize — the capacity to influence others without twisting arms, threatening, or compelling. The currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies.

As Harvard University political scientist Joseph Nye wrote in his 2004 book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, “A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it.”

If a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes, he argued.

“This soft power – getting others to want the outcomes that you want – co-opts people rather than coerces them.”

Soft power extends beyond the operations of government, to the activities of the private sector and to society and culture at large.

What was the content of America’s soft power? Nye put it into three categories: cultural, ideological, and institutional. In these areas, the world would want to be like the United States. And that pull, in turn, would help the nation shape the world.

American soft power permeates Canada, through television, movies, songs, books and magazines, fashion, food, educational institutions, newscasts, and products of every shape and size. Its influence is so overwhelming it often escapes our notice.

Most Canadians live within a day’s drive of the U.S. border, and there are an almost infinite number of personal interactions, given a common language in most cases.

Tens of thousands of snowbirds spend winter months in Florida and Arizona. Countless numbers of Canadian students attend colleges and universities south of the border and we often accept those degrees as having more value than Canadian ones.

Canadian actors, singers, and authors frequently move to cities such as New York, Los Angeles or Nashville to further their careers.

Canada and the U.S. are similar in ethnicities and religions, as well. For all these reasons, we do not really consider he United States to be a “foreign” country, the way we view every other nation – even our former colonial master Britain.

As for the Americans, they view Canada as their “near abroad,” a kindred state with whom they retain cordial and peaceful relations. It too is not really a “foreign” nation.

Both sides, despite occasional flaps, prefer to keep it that way.

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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