Smart Power in International Relations: Russia, Germany and China

Yelizaveta Kuimova
School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University;

Doroteia Todorovich
School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University;

Avsyuk Vadim
School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University;

Anastasia Kremzer
School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University.


In recent years there has been an increasing interest in the application of smart power as a means to achieve various objectives in international politics.  The subject of this research is the concept of smart power, coined by Joseph Nye in the second half of the 1980s. The relevance of the problem under consideration lies in the fact that smart power should be specifically adapted to a particular state. The article examines the strategies and policies, applied by the Russian Federation, the Federal Republic of Germany and the People’s Republic of China to exercise smart power. Using the examples of these three powers, the authors show different interpretations of the concept and analyze different sources of smart power used by them.  The research is based on the institutional approach which requires the analysis of the configuration and internal structure of the object. The main conclusion of the authors is that the concept of smart power should be viewed in the context of a specifically chosen state, considering all its features, state’s structure, historically established circumstances and the current state of affairs.

Key words: smart power, hard power, soft power, international politics, Russia, Germany, China, international relations, political science, concept, research.


Political environment in 2021 requires the international community to develop and implement different policies and strategies for ensuring peace and security. In this context, smart power demonstrates the capability of a state to combine both the use of hard power and soft power to attain foreign policy objectives. Recent changes in world politics have shaped the conditions affecting the way of looking at the growing importance of the application of smart power. The article attempts to show different means of exercising smart power by such superpowers as Russia, Germany and China. In the hierarchy of international relations, the status of a state is determined by a number of parameters, some of them are rather rigorous and measurable, and others are rough and evaluative. Understanding the concept of smart power in this article will be reflected in different policies that are applied by such a powerful state as the Russian Federation, the Federal Republic of Germany and the People’s Republic of China. The relevance of the concept of smart power is due to the need for superpowers to adhere to a policy of combining various means of maintaining status and protecting its peace. Thus, the aim of this article is to show the application of the concept of smart power approach through the prism of several interpretations of such by the three superpowers.

Analysis of the application of smart power in the Russian Federation, Germany and China.

The Russian Federation

In considering the concept of the use of smart power on the world stage by the political elite in contemporary Russia, it is logical to analyze the actions of the Russian government and the policy, pursued by the country's 21st century leader, Vladimir Putin.

Since 2000, Mr. Putin has been taking a lot of effort to restore Russia's status as a world superpower in the international arena. A special emphasis is put on the increasing role of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is regarded as a vitally important instrument to revive and maintain traditional values of Russian society. The primary goal is not just to preserve and strengthen Russian culture, but to make it attractive for foreigners through organizing Russian cultural forums, aimed at promoting the positive image of the country, for instance the establishment of Russian centers of science and culture in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and the Palestinian territories as well as the creation of an effective international news channel RT, broadcasting in many languages; the foundation of Rossotrudnichestvo, the first Russian federal agency working with the Russian diaspora.

During Mr. Putin’s presidency, Russia has demonstrated an impressive cultural openness. The Sochi Olympics, for example, showed that Russia  "changed its image into a strong, stable, modern and friendly" country. The 2018 World Cup also greatly contributed to Russia's global image of a modern open country. The brief analysis shows that recently Russia has used the potential of soft power to spread its influence and strengthen its global standing.

At the same time, over the last decade, Russia has pursued a very tough and uncompromising political course in foreign policy, aimed at securing the position of the country as a peacemaker, acting to protect its national interests and ensuring stability, which can be viewed as the manifestation of hard power.  It sided with the occupied territories in the military conflict in Georgia in 2008, engaged in conflicts in Ukraine and Moldova to protect the Russian-speaking population, and since 2015 has led military operations in Syria to resolve the conflict in the country, combat terrorism and ensure stability in the region. Tremendous strides have been made to transform Russia into a de facto global superpower in the diplomatic sphere, these successes include the recent agreements with the Taliban in Afghanistan.


Germany, like no other country in the world, understands that the use of hard power to achieve foreign policy goals can lead to disastrous consequences.

The history of Germany in the second half of the twentieth century is an example of the transition from the means of hard power, which led to the fact that the country was divided and lay in ruins, to soft power, and then, as foreign policy influence and economic power were increasing, to smart power.

After the unification of Germany on October 3, 1990, the new government embarked on a course towards European integration and raising the authority of the EU. Today modern Germany is the European capital of technology, industry and environmental standards. The government took a course towards recognizing the mistakes and horrors of its Nazi past, in Germany this course is called Erinnerungspolitik (Politics of Memory). Germany annually apologizes to all the victims of the Second World War and pays compensations.  In the context of this policy, Germany became a pioneer in resolving one of the prime burning issues - refugee crisis. Today Germany plays the first violin in the European migration orchestra.  Through smart power means, Germany tries to restore its image, tarnished after the 2nd WW, using its scientific and technological potential to improve the lives of people and at the same time ensure its dominant position in the continent.

Also, the German government understands that smart power in the 21st century is primarily a struggle for minds, a struggle that cannot be lost. Germany is distinguished by a developed political party culture. Each party has unspoken non-profit organizations and foundations whose main aims are: education of foreign target audiences; cultural exchange; promotion of German values.

The Friedrich Ebert Foundation and Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Geothe Institute and the others have contributed greatly to implementation of these tasks in more than 120 countries. The more people in the world know about the country's heritage, the more attractive it seems to others, and therefore the stronger its smart power is.


In modern global politics, the power of a state is becoming increasingly ambiguous. A few centuries ago its manifestation was mainly military and naval power, but nowadays non-coercive means of influence (namely, soft power) are the integral part of foreign policy and to a larger extent they predetermine the success of a country on the global stage.

China, the country under consideration, in its turn, uses more subtle and flexible methods of influence that are beyond the standard and are called “sharp power”. This term first appeared in the report of the American “National Foundation for Democracy” in 2017. There, American researchers Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig noted an increasing influence of authoritarian regimes, particularly China. The authors coined a concept of “sharp power” and called China an explicit representative of it: the country does not resort to open military confrontation, but actively uses information space for exerting pressure and increasing its economic power.

In Western countries, “sharp power” is considered a form of power that involves manipulation of public opinion, ideas, campaign techniques, as well as distribution of fake news. “Sharp power” is usually seen negatively as a method to shape public opinion by falsifying information flows and ignoring democratic values which form the basis of “soft power”.

Yet, China is not engaged in saber-rattling although it ranks first in terms of armed forces and second in terms of military budget. It does not participate in military operations in other countries limiting itself to the participation in the UN peacekeeping operations.

At the same time, China also develops its “soft power” in various spheres: the creation of numerous international educational centers (for instance, Confucius institutions), a policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries, and, certainly, a strong economy attracting foreign investment and human resources. The most illustrative example here is the One Belt One Road project (later known as the Belt and Road initiative) which was launched in October 2013. Since this project now involves 138 states facilitating trade and investments for the members and promoting their economic growth, China’s international attractiveness and its image on the global arena is strengthening.

The findings of the research

The article finds that the tree superpowers to a greater extent rely on the application of smart power in pursuing various political and economic goals. However, the sources of smart power are different, depending on the countries’ historical past, cultural heritage, socio-political conditions and the role they play in global politics. The results of the research indicate that Russia mostly relies on its cultural strength combined with tough military approach to manage conflicts and protect its interests.  Germany in its turn showed a slightly different approach with a greater attention to the means of soft power, taking into consideration its historical heritage that influenced their foreign policy, relying mostly on its technological potential and policies aimed at ensuring stability and prosperity in Europe. The findings emphasize a unique example of China, which uses the concept of smart power by transforming it into “sharp power” in the context of its authoritarian regime unlike the two other countries represented in this article. The findings demonstrate the importance of considering the countries’ use of smart power to understand the way how they are perceived by others in the international arena and the mechanisms they have at their disposal to exercise influence in different spheres.  With the examples of these states we came up to a conclusion that.


On this basis, one can conclude that it is important to study the concept of smart power should be studied from the perspective of socio-political, cultural resources, that a state possesses and the way it uses them to achieve goals.  The key point to be noted is that the above-mentioned examples show, that smart power does not necessarily imply a particular formula for application, but it is an art to optimize different use of power the way a particular state needs it.  These findings open the way for a new perspective to studying the concept of smart power due to its relevance in the context of the current political climate, since the new world order dictates the necessity to accommodate such changes in formulating policies.


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