Rising Experts Task Force: Seeing Beyond the Bear – Selective Processing and Russian Public Diplomacy in the West

Read Yelena Osipova’s working paper here: Russian Public Diplomacy in the West

During the Cold War, a deficit of objective information between the West and the Soviet Union led both sides to view each other in a distorted and negative light. But today, more than 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, many of the West’s old perceptions about Russia still remain. Why have negative attitudes persisted despite the free flow of information, and how has Russia tried to change this trend? Comparative public diplomacy scholar Yelena Osipova addressed this topic in her August 15 presentation, “Seeing Beyond the Bear: Selective Processing and Russian Public Diplomacy in the West.”

Osipova, a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at American University, noted that Russia’s use of public diplomacy has become an increasingly prominent topic in Russian foreign policy as the importance of soft power has gained traction there. Having realized that negative public opinion hampers its pursuit of foreign policy objectives, the Kremlin has invested billions of dollars into a large-scale public diplomacy campaign that uses educational outreach and media—including the television network RT and Voice of Russia radio—to project a more positive image abroad.

However, these efforts have thus far failed to produce significant results.According to the 2012 Transatlantic Trends survey and the 2013 Country Ratings Poll carried out by GlobeScan/PIPA, the majority of respondents in the United States and Western Europe still hold a negative opinion of Russia’s influence in the world. Osipova explained that persisting negative attitudes stem from two factors: the tendency of Western media and its audience to fall back on comfortable Cold-War stereotypes, and the shortcomings of Russia’s own public diplomacy effort, which has often come across as aggressive, overly biased, and government-directed. To the latter point, Osipova outlined the steps that Russia could take to tailor its efforts to a Western audience: namely, to decrease the role of the government as the main driver of public diplomacy, and build more networks with non-governmental players—such as independent media outlets, NGOs, and cultural and educational institutions—to increase its credibility and appeal.

Following the presentation, the audience discussed alternative ways to appraise Russia’s public diplomacy, and critically questioned the necessity of the effort itself. How have Russian media outlets fared in the West compared to other outlets, such as China Central Television or Al Jazeera? Why should governments, be they in Russia or the West, invest money into changing the minds of a foreign public that finds it easier to stay misinformed? Finally, taking a market-based approach to the issue, participants suggested that more joint ventures between the West and Russia and deeper knowledge of each other’s cultures would increase public demand for positive stereotypes while raising the costs of negative talk.