Understanding Georgia's Soft Power

Soft power is generally associated with large and, perhaps obviously, powerful countries. The US, for example, exercises soft power in myriad ways including supporting local NGOs, exchange programs for students and others, and even through less overt methods such as American film, music, literature and culture more broadly. European countries exercise a similar kind of soft power in Georgia, albeit to a generally lesser extent. The other major source of soft power in Georgia is Russia. Russian soft power, while not playing a constructive role in Georgia, has its foundations in the Russian language, media and culture as well as in less subtle forms including Russian support for various anti-western NGOs and political movements. 

Georgia has been on the receiving end of American, European and Russian soft power for years. This has probably led many in Georgia to believe that it is a consumer, willingly and sometimes not, but not a producer of soft power. While that view is understandable, it is not accurate and can be damaging for Georgia. 

It is clear that Georgia does not have the ability to use foreign assistance as a means of creating soft power comparable to the way the US and wealthy European countries do. Similarly, while the occasional Georgian film, performance or other cultural entity breaks through in the west, that too cannot compare to the constant stream of American culture that floods the world’s televisions, radios, Twitter feeds and concert halls.

Georgia’s soft power is limited, but it is real. Georgian soft power takes the form of formal government related events like sending dancers or other performers to the west, inviting young Americans to teach English in Georgia, even handing out bottles of wine to every tourist arriving in Georgia and more. Cultivating this soft power and employing it strategically will help Georgia build its economy, navigate the security and other geopolitical challenges it continually confronts and help Georgia craft an image for itself in the eyes of much of the world.

Some of this is already in place. People in many parts of the post-Soviet region continue to think of Georgia as a place of good food and wine, vacations by the shore or in the mountains and its own brand of hospitality and charm. Georgian soft power has taken on a slightly different form among people from other parts of the world, but it still is oriented around the food, wine and natural beauty narratives. In Europe and North America, Georgia remains largely unknown, but those who do know it usually have good things to report about it.

For Georgia, every tourist who visits the country, European or North American who drinks Georgian wine, eats at a Georgian restaurant, experiences Georgian culture or reads about Georgia in a non-political context represents a possibility for Georgia to increase its soft power. However, for that to have an impact it is necessary to have a strategy for reaching more people and to determine more precisely what image Georgia seeks to create for itself.

Many in the west, probably to a greater extent in the US than in any other country, understand smaller countries that are not constantly in the news through quick schemas. For example, for many Americans, the Dominican Republic is simply the country of great baseball players, New Zealand the place where “Lord of the Rings” was filmed, and Fiji a place for beach vacations. These are all positive associations that drive tourism and other American financial resources to those places.

On a less positive note, many Americans see Colombia as a place of drug production and related criminal activity, Vietnam as the sight of an ugly war a generation ago and, of course, numerous Arab countries as hotbeds of Muslim fundamentalism and terrorism. Georgian soft power, if employed wisely, can help people in the west develop that brief schema about Georgia that in turn, perhaps not always consciously, will contribute to framing how people in the west think about Georgia generally.

The most important targets Georgian of soft power are not just western elites who work on developing and implementing foreign policy, particularly as many of those people already have an understanding, albeit incomplete, of Georgia. Instead, the primary target for Georgian soft power is elites who rarely become directly involved in foreign policy, but nonetheless influence others. These include everybody from congressional staffers who do not serve on foreign policy committees, and ordinary Americans and Europeans who are among the most educated, affluent and influential in their respective countries. 

Substantively, the primary challenge for Georgian soft power, or image making, is to present itself as different from other countries in a region that is understood to be unstable, war torn and not particularly pleasant to visit. Georgia has been working to push back against that generally unfair characterization for most of the last two decades with some success, but with some remaining obstacles.  

People, whether potential investors and tourists, domestic opinon leaders or policy makers, will respond both to rational, policy based arguments about Georgia, but also to less concrete soft power approaches as well. Data about the pace of reform, economic growth or market opportunities are obviously important, but if they are understood in the context of a Georgia that is viewed as dangerous, ugly and unstable the data will have less of an impact. On the other hand, in the context of a country that has surprisingly good food, is less frightening than a cursory look at a map of the region suggests and that produces high quality cultural products, that data is much more powerful.

Creating and using soft power needs to be tempered by several considerations. First, the need to generate a positive image to the west is often used, by many countries, as an excuse for squashing debate, limiting democracy and concealing the bad news from both foreign and domestic audiences. Clearly the cost of doing this outweighs any positive stories that could be misleadingly presented to the west. Soft power is not the same as presenting a country as flawless, rather it is tapping the less tangible political and cultural resources of a country to server broader foreign policy goals.

Second, without the resources to amplify Georgia’s soft power attempts, it is very difficult to make a meaningful impact. This underscores the need for Georgia to be targeted in these efforts and to craft a holistic strategy where different soft power elements are building off of each other. Georgia has already begun to do this by generating good media coverage of Georgia’s food and wine, particularly as more Georgian restaurants are beginning to open in the US. This has helped to place Georgian cuisine potentially on the cusp of breaking through as a new exciting cuisine for foodies and others. If Georgian food could become even the 20th most popular ethnic cuisine in the US, reaching the level where most major cities have a few Georgian restaurants and knowing what khachapuri or Saperavi is becomes the same kind of status symbol in the US as knowing what banh mi was a decade or so ago or what sake was 35 years ago, Georgia will have earned a place in the western consciousness that is totally distinct from war, politics or its Soviet history.

Obviously cuisine and culture is not in itself a foundation around which to build Georgia’s relationship with the west. China, for example, has great food and is still viewed, rightly, as a dictatorship. Most educated Americans recognize Russia’s extraordinary literary history, but have no illusions about that country being a democracy or a force for good in the world. Soft power, therefore, cannot be a substitution for the political and economic realities of a country. 

Good food, wine and a fascinating culture cannot gloss over democratic shortcomings, security questions, a struggling economy or any of the problems with which Georgia has struggled in its nearly quarter century of independence. However, soft power helps fill in the story about a country in a way that can be very important. Alliances are built around shared foreign policy, economic and security interests and goals, but friendships and special relationships between countries are built on a sense of understanding and affection between the peoples and the cultures. Since independence, Georgia has crafted a foreign policy that has made it an ally of many western countries, albeit one that has not yet been admitted to NATO. Increasing and refining its use of soft power will help Georgia become a closer friend of western countries as well. The latter will help build public support for Georgia, encourage mid-level economic activity with Georgia and make it easier for Georgia to achieve its political and security goals.

The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space.  If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email lincoln@lincolnmitchell.com.