What the EU Can Learn From the Debate on Rollback, 1947-1954

Between the late 1940s and the early 1950s there was an acrimonious debate in Washington around the question of political warfare or psychological warfare against the Soviet Bloc which is documented in great detail in Gregory Mitrovich’s Undermining the Kremlin.  The key issue was how far can we push Stalin through support for anti-Communist guerillas, incitement of political resistance, support for dissidence in the Bloc before we create an unacceptable risk of a major war? The estimate of this distance was rapidly reduced by the development of Soviet nuclear forces.  By the end of the Truman Administration some of the hawks in this debate were jumping ship to join Eisenhower’s campaign for the presidency only for them to be disappointed when Ike reached even more cautious conclusions.  Whatever the public rhetoric of rollback or liberation these ideas were dead in the NSC by the end of 1953 or early 1954 at the latest.  Rollback was dead long before Hungary.  I’m not saying that we’re in the same situation as Truman and Eisenhower were but there’s something quite important that can be learned from this debate.

This debate was asking about how far can we pursue our political objectives before we get a forceful pushback from Moscow.  It’s was  strategy – weighing ends, means, risks and what the other side is likely to do.  In Ukraine and in East generally the EU has essentially set out to erode the Russian sphere of influence without thinking through these connections between ends, means or reactions.   Of course the EU line (and that of the West more broadly) ‘is this is the 21st century there’s no such thing as spheres of interest’.  This is basically the argument about harmony of interests that EH Carr or Bruno Latour have argued against: we pretend politics doesn’t exist and then get surprised when people get upset.

When we look to the East and talk about ‘modernization’, ‘civil society’ etc we are talking about the overthrow of the political systems as they exist.  Randomly pledging support for whoever waves an EU flag is not going to do the job.  As a starting point what is needed is a comprehensive political roadmap that either reached some understanding with Russia on the balance of interests or was backed up by sufficient power compel agreement.  Indeed even if there was such a comprehensive plan I would have grave doubts about the capacity of the EU or the West to implement it.  Given that states can’t coordinate themselves the EU isn’t going to be able to.

A final point. I’m pretty sure that in most Western capitals there is a hope that Putin and his cronies will disappear one day.  I suspect they will but whoever replaces them will still be a Russian leader and will not suddenly see the world through the lens of Brussels.

USSR-PRC Cultural Relations and the Soviet Tyler Brule Part 2

At the Cold War History Project there’s an interesting collection of documents on cultural relations activities between the USSR and the People’s Republic of China during the 1950s.  Several of the documents express the fears that rather than cementing relations between the two countries they are actually undermining them.

I’ve written before about the ‘Soviet Tyler Brule’ Boris Polevoi and his fears that the poor standard of Aeroflot was undermining the image of the USSR and he pops up again here with a blistering report to the Central Committee of the CPSU which ends with him returning to his critique of air travel in the USSR

And finally, concerning the Soviet side of the airline which is currently contributing to the connection between Moscow and Beijing.  Our international lines have improved their work somewhat to the western countries, but this portion is as before in extremely bad shape, and revealing this for all to observe, as this line is used by a large collection of people from diverse nations, from Europe and China, is becoming a matter of political significance.  Our airplane, on which there was a Chinese state security delegation headed by members of the CC returning from Poland, on 16 October was delayed for an entire day on the trip from Krasnoiarsk to Irkutsk because they could not find the appropriate fuel.  On the return trip in Novosibirsk we had to change from an international airplane, as there was a smaller collection of passengers continuing on to Moscow.  And on this plane there was a Czechoslovak delegation headed by the Minister of Foreign Trade, and a Chinese delegation.  Two flights were cancelled.  The airport building was magnificent, but the service remained the same as when it was a peasant’s hut.  In three places along this route, maintaining the connection to China, hang copies of the well-known, if it might be said, pictures of Nalbandian, which illustrate Stalin and Mao Zedong, with Mao Zedong with the appearance of an agitated student attempting to pass an exam given by a professor.  These pictures are nauseating even in the original, and here hang like copies from a bazaar.  In general it would be better to decorate the airport in the foreign fashion, with large, colored and beautiful photographs and cities and locations traveled to by the planes, instead of pot-boiler copies of well-known works which can only evoke shudders from someone possessing even a limited amount of taste.  In Novosibirsk across from the entrance to the airport on two columns hangs an enormous plywood shield, entitled “The USSR—the leading socialist power in the world.”  A giant red map of the USSR is drawn on it, and to the side are two columns, in alphabetical order, of the some ten countries of the people’s democracies; thus China in this list comes after Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary (Vengrii), and the GDR.   The Novosibirsk comrades, seeing this map, are completely devoid of a sense of humor, even as the following is written on the large map:  population 200 million people, and on the small map—China—600 million.  We ourselves have seen the amusement of foreigners as they look at this map.

Do You Really Want Another Report on British Soft Power?

Via James Pamment’s twitter feed I learn of yet another report on Britain’s Soft Power this time from the British Academy.

Given my antipathy to the concept (check the blog archives to the right)  I won’t bother to summarize it just share the recommendations.  If you want to read it, it’s here.

It recommends (comments in italics by yours truly)

On the basis of the data and analysis provided above, this report makes the following abbreviated recommendations. Governments would be well-advised:

  1. To refrain from direct interference in soft power assets.

 Ummm, so they just give money to fund them?….

2. To invest in and sustain soft power institutions such as the BBC, the British Council, and the education system over the long term, and at arm’s length.

Why?  How much, to do what?  Relative to which countries? I’m sorry if you want to use soft power as a justification for anything we need some kind of a strategy.

  1. To recognise that hard and soft power, like power and influence more generally, reside on a continuum rather than being an either-or choice.

Just junk the hard / soft thing and go back to  thinking about sources of influence.

  1. To understand that the power of example is far more effective than preaching.

Which examples for which publics?  How do you publicise them?

  1. To pay careful attention to the consequences of official foreign policy for Britain’s reputation, identity and domestic society, ensuring that geopolitical and socio-economic goals are not pursued in separate compartments.

The concern of the report seems to be that government damages soft power so don’t do anything that might upset anyone…

  1. To accept that the majority of ways in which civilised countries interact entail using the assets which make up ‘soft power’, whatever political vocabulary we choose.


  1. For their part, citizens and voters need to accept that some hard power assets, in the forms of the armed forces and security services, are necessary as an insurance policy against unforeseeable contingencies, and for use in non-conventional warfare against terrorists or criminals threatening British citizens at home and abroad, although not regardless of cost. Even diplomacy will sometimes need to be coercive (i.e. hard power) in relations with otherwise friendly states in order to insist on the UK’s ‘red lines’, however they may be defined at the time. Because soft power excludes arm-twisting, it will never be enough as a foreign policy resource.

Are there people at the British Academy who think that soft power is all you need?

  1. Lastly, those engaged in the private socio-cultural activities which contribute to soft power need to be aware that they are to some extent regarded as representative of their country’s interests. They need not and should not compromise on such principles as academic or artistic freedom, but it is excessively innocent to imagine that their work takes place in a vacuum, untouched by the manoeuvring of governments and the competing narratives of world politics – especially when they are beholden to the Treasury for funding. Whether they like it or not, the universities, the orchestras, the novelists, the sportsmen and women, the archaeologists – and indeed the British Academy – are all part of the ‘projection of Britain abroad’ (Beloff 1965).*

As James asked in his tweet

JP Tweet


The Beloff reference is fascinating because the report (like almost all discussions of soft power) is completely ahistorical and that reference opens up a whole history.  Beloff’s article was a response to the Plowden Report of 1964 on Representational Services Overseas, primarily concerned with opening the way to the merger of the Foreign Office with the Commonwealth Office it, in passing, advocated a relatively narrow instrumental view of the kind of ‘information work’ that should be undertaken by the ‘official information services’ the BBC and the British Council.  Beloff’s article can be seen as making a kind of proto-branding argument that the general image of a country affected how its political and commercial interests played out.   The title of his article alluded to a 1932 pamphlet by Sir Stephen Tallents, The Projection of England which was an even earlier iteration of the argument.  Projection was a word that cropped fairly frequently in mid-century British official discussions of national publicity and my suspicion is that it’s taken from the French notion of rayonnement, which my dictionary translates as radiation which takes us back to the Sun King himself.

So rather than progressing the British conversation on soft power seems to be regressing.

EU and Cultural Relations: New Reports

You may have missed this but the EU has been funding a ‘preparatory action’ on Culture in EU External Relations.  The European Parliament thinks that the European External Action Service should have a cultural arm and as a result there’s been a project going on researching cultural relations to with EU partner countries.  These reports are now being published and may be a valuable resource for public diplomacy/ cultural relations researchers regardless of whether you’re interested in the EU.  The reports cover the other country’s approach to cultural relations plus current activities by the EU and member countries.

There are currently seven available (Russia, India, Israel, Palestine, Mexico,  South Africa, South Korea) and I think that there will be 28 in total.  They/re here.