• Panel discusses ‘soft power’ influences in Americas

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  • Harry Sarles | Army University Public Affairs
    “Cultural and Soft Power Influences of China and Russia in the Americas” was the topic of the Command and General Staff College’s Cultural and Area Studies Office’s second presentation of the year March 28 at the Lewis and Clark Center’s Arnold Conference Room.
    Dr. Frank Mora, former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for the Western Hemisphere; Dr. Evan Ellis, research professor of Latin American Studies at the U.S. Army War College; and Dr. Gary Bjorge, retired professor from the CGSC’s Department of Military History, provided insight into the efforts of China and Russia to exert influence in the Americas.
    Dr. Mahir Ibrahimov, CASO director, moderated the event and Dr. James Martin, CGSC dean of academics, provided opening remarks to the full-house audience. Ten remote stations viewed the presentation via videoteleconference, including the faculty, staff and students at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, Fort Benning, Ga. and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
    Ellis led the discussion, saying one of the differences in soft power for China is its expectation. Where most Western nations consider soft power in terms of culture and values, Chinese soft power is more often looked at in terms of expectation of benefit. There is still a large amount of distrust in Latin America when dealing with the Chinese, he said.
    However, Ellis warned, we cannot discount China’s cultural influence. There are 39 Confucius Institutes in Latin America. The Chinese also put much effort into people-to-people influence with more than 6,000 Latin Americans scheduled to make cultural visits to China between 2019 and 2021.
    Expected benefits can be seen in both political and business sectors, Ellis said. China has $114 billion invested in Latin America. Loans from Chinese banks are looked at favorably because they often come with less oversight than loans from U.S. and other Western banks.
    Russia, Ellis said, has expended limited resources in Latin America and has focused on its strengths, including long-term knowledge of the region going back to the Cold War and expansive experience in information operations. The tools Russia uses include the publications Sputnik and Russia Today and social media.
    Mora began his talk by introducing the term “sharp power.” “Hard power,” he explained, is coercive or military power. “Soft power” is attraction and influence. “Sharp power” includes projecting influence but also efforts to undermine the influence and prestige of “the other.”
    For China and Russia, “the other” is the United States. They use multiple resources to attack the U.S. including misinformation, propaganda and social media tools, Mora said.
    Mora said the Russians seem to be following the doctrine of Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Russian Army chief of the general staff. Gerasimov advocates hybrid information warfare. Two examples are the 2018 elections in Colombia and Mexico, he said.
    Page 2 of 2 - The Russian efforts didn’t seem to favor one party or one candidate in the elections, he said. Rather, they were intended to sow distrust and doubt about the election process and the leadership of the country. Mora said he did an interview before the Colombian election and within 30 hours the Russians had prepared a video countering his points, discrediting the U.S. and portraying the U.S. as exerting colonial influences, which went viral on WhatsApp, the preferred social media platform in Latin America.
    Bjorge has studied the Confucius Institutes intensely and calls them “The (Chinese Communist Party’s) wondrous (information operations) platform.” Although several U.S. universities have closed their Confucius Institutes, there are still about 110 that are active.
    He explained that the institutes began as a program of the Chinese Haiban in 2004. The University of Maryland opened the first institute that year. Locally, institutes opened at the University of Kansas in 2006 and Kansas State University in 2015.
    The Confucius Institutes offer Chinese language instruction and culture instruction. They are also staffed with Chinese instructors and are funded by China. Many universities have adopted the institutes as a way to create intellectual and ethnic diversity.
    The institutes’ objectives, Bjorge said, are just the opposite. They intend to shape opinion, influence how China is taught and studied, deliver propaganda on Chinese issue, and plant the seeds of CCP ideology in foreign cultures. Issues that the institutes have covered include Tibet, Xin Jian, Taiwan, human rights and Falun Gong, Bjorge said.
    Following the panel presentation, a question and answer period began. Although CASO’s panel presentations have always included VTC audiences, it was the first time remote audiences were active in asking questions and making comments.
    Mora said the focus should go beyond threat-based analysis of Russia and China.
    “I’ve got to tell you that sometimes the focus tends to be more about what they’re doing and not what we’re doing or not doing. We can draw a list of things China’s doing and conclude that they present threat. And that’s fine,” Mora said. “But what the Chinese are doing is forcing us to compete. So, rather than focus on what they’re doing, let’s focus on what we’re doing or not doing in terms of our policy.”
    Ellis added that there should be a compelling strategic concept. That concept includes governance, working with like-minded allies and intervening selectively in areas where Russia or China are doing things that would overturn the apple cart. That includes things like technology theft and infrastructure, he said.
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