Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Midweek Update

More adept at winning hearts and minds than reproducing. Source
Longtime followers of the blog were no doubt shocked that I allowed an anniversary of crucial importance to slip by unheralded. I refer, of course, to the 40th anniversary of Panda Diplomacy between the U.S. and China!

That's right. On April 16, 1972, Beijing delivered two adorable diplomats to the National Zoo -- the first in a series of pambassadors who would grace our fair city over the subsequent decades.

Over the years, China's practice of loaning pandas to friendly nations in order to bolster international relations has had its fans and critics, but I think we can all agree that pandas are adorable.

And speaking of things we can all agree on, rockets are awesome. Especially this one:

Go on. Try to persuade me this isn't totally rad. Source
You know what I love about this? I love that somebody was sitting in a meeting and said, "You know what we should do? Let's strap a rocket on a 747 and fly that sucker around town a few times." And I love that somebody thought it over and said, "Well, I can't see why not."

I love that somebody knows how to strap a rocket onto the back of a 747. I love that somebody knows how to take it off. And I really, really, really love that somebody knows how to fly a 747 with a rocket riding piggyback. That is a really specific skill set.

We'll file this one under American Ingenuity with cross-references to Whimsy and General Badassery.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

PD and pop art

You're thinking about Japanese policy, aren't you? Source
Hey, manICateers!

Two new stories for you today. First, according to the people at NPR (and they would know, right?) everybody wants to be a k-pop star. K-pop is a key part of the Korean Wave, which is a key part of Korea's cultural identity in other countries.

As the NPR story notes, some of Korea's famous k-pop stars hail from China, Thailand and the United States, and Korea's entertainment companies are willing to invest millions in foreign talent:

The fact that [a k-pop hopeful] doesn't understand the words in the songs — "I can read and I can pronounce, but I don't know the meaning," she says in broken English — isn't necessarily a cause for worry. If the top entertainment companies like her, they'll invest in her study of the Korean language and will spend up to $3 million or $4 million on years of rigorous training in song, dance, acting and more. If she makes it through that, then she might have a shot at contracts worth millions. Hong Ki-sung, the CEO of BORN Startraining Center, a company in Seoul that trains people to become K-Pop stars, says it's worth the investment.
This is sort of an example of public-private collaboration. The entertainment companies are obviously looking for the most bankable stars, but there's evidence to suggest that the government has embraced the Korean wave (or "hallyu") as a means of promoting Korean culture and identity abroad. Whether the promoters are actually Korean appears to be a moot point.

A recent article in the Washington Post described a PD visit to the city by another Asian pop band -- this one from Japan -- trotting the globe as a cultural exchange in the interest of promoting Japan's image.
It is as if Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift and the entire cast of “Twilight” were placed into a saucepan and simmered on a low boil until nothing remained but the sweet, cloying essence of fame, and if that fame were then poured into pleated tartan skirts and given pigtails.
 I'd describe these groups further, but I think the videos below will make the point even more effectively:

Let's be honest, you don't need to be wearing your Gloria Steinem pants to conclude that this brand of ... salesmanship ... may be more conducive to selling candy-colored skinny jeans than national policy. (And before you ask, my Gloria Steinem pants are the sexiest and more comfortable pants I own.) But there's no arguing that acts like these have put Korean and Japanese pop culture on the map.

The next story is a bit more provocative and makes the assertion that Google is actually undemocratic. (Sorry, Alec Ross.)
[According to Siva Vaidhyanathan] commercial platforms like Google and Facebook would rather flatter than surprise us—and ... they’re developing the tools to encase us in personalized bubbles. Vaidhyanathan also thinks the press overstates the role of social media in political revolution.
I actually think Vaidhyanathan could have taken it a few steps further -- and perhaps he does, I haven't read the book. Plenty of studies show that people seek out news sources that confirm the beliefs they already hold, so Google and Facebook aren't the only platforms reinforcing these personalized bubbles.

And it doesn't take too much imagination to combine the two stories above and conclude that a person could easily take to the interwebs in search of a k-pop or j-pop band, watch the video, and log off without any dramatic influence on his attitudes toward Korean or Japanese policy or culture. If you're looking for evidence of the limits of public diplomacy or cultural branding, I don't think you'd need to look much further.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Pajamas and press outreach

My pajamas are so much better than his. Source
I had all of these fancy plans for how I was going to spend my evening, and somehow that turned into me filling out security clearance forms in my pajamas for the better part of two hours.

Yes, the life of a public diplomat is just as glamorous as you've always imagined. And yes, I've been wearing my pajamas since 8pm. Your judgment means nothing to me.

But let's close the evening with a quick highlight from the realm of public diplomacy, this one courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, which reports that the foreign press is often marginalized while covering the U.S. presidential race:
The Ron Paul press operation, the most open and easygoing in the Republican race, has disappointed the Dutch and the Scandinavians. They are enamored with the Texas congressman's noninterventionist foreign policy but haven't been granted any interviews with the candidate, via email or in person.
"They show us pictures of Ron Paul yard signs in their country and say 'See, there are signs and stickers all over Stockholm,' " said Ron Paul spokesman Jesse Benton. "I'm not without some compassion and sympathy for them. But until we annex Denmark, there's just not much benefit for an American political campaign to be dealing with foreign press.
However, the Journal reports, the U.S. State Department's Foreign Press Centers have stepped in to create an outreach opportunity out of what might otherwise be seen as a snub.
U.S. diplomats with experience in foreign hot spots lead scores of foreign journalists on tours of the nation's electoral landscape. On the itinerary: introductions to local politicos, voters suffering from the foreclosure crisis, and special interest groups like "actual Florida seniors," according to a State Department description.
I like the idea, and I'd like to make some sort of witty or analytical observation here, but after two hours of form-filling, my brain is shot and my pajamas are cozy, so for tonight I'll just encourage you to follow the link to the original article and trust that I'll come up with something far more clever to say later in the week.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Run, [...], Run!

Something like this, but with more nachos. Source

Yesterday I joined a bevy of IR enthusiasts at a PDDC gathering in the District.

A PDDC gathering, for those of you who have never been, is pretty much exactly like the Council of Elrond, except that instead of hobbits and dwarves and elves, you've got a bunch of young nerds and wonks and academics, and instead of discussing the fate of the One Ring, we talk about international relations and the Nationals. (Go Nats!) Also, there are more nachos.

At one point in the evening I was making small talk with a new acquaintance and he asked me, "So do you run, like all Americans?" And I was a bit thrown because the answer is yes, I do run -- although up until very recently I adamantly did not, unless there was a large and ravenous animal directly behind me. I've always hated running. I find it physically and mentally unpleasant, and I'm terrible at it.

However, earlier this year I was determined that I was going to start running because I hate it and I'm so bad at it. Because now that I'm a comparatively autonomous grown-up, it is very, very rare that I ever force myself to do anything that I a) don't enjoy, and b) am not particularly good at, and I recognize that there are benefits to challenging myself. And so I started running, and after three months of running three to five times a week, I find that it is physically and mentally unpleasant and I am still really bad at it -- but less so.

But the point of this story was the caveat at the end of the question. He didn't ask if I ran, but rather if I ran, like all Americans. And that made me wonder: Is running a particularly American pastime? Is my recent determination to improve my running ability simply a latent manifestation of nationalism?

I suppose there are some elements of running that I'd identify as American. It can be a solitary or group activity, and as a runner you set your own pace, so you've got a lot of flexibility and personal freedom. And it's an activity where you can constantly raise the bar by determining to run faster or further or (in my case) less painfully, so there's always a goal to shoot for. But if you asked me to name the most American form of fitness, I'm not sure running would make the top of my list.

And I certainly can't think of any sports diplomacy parallels involving running that compare to the great moments of ping pong diplomacy or even something as antagonistic as the "miracle on ice."

But then again, there's always this:

And Prince Harry certainly seems to have found a way to capitalize on running's popularity, albeit in a particularly British way. And who could forget this this classic scene? Or  this? Both great examples of running in pursuit of a greater goal; neither American. The more I think on it, the less convinced I am that Americans have got a lock on running, but that doesn't make it any less suited for public diplomacy. In fact, it may do just the opposite.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Lowy gives USPD an A for E

You don't have to be a hipster to set trends -- but it helps. Source
So, as I'm sure you're already aware, Australia's Lowy Institute thinks the United States is a global e-diplomacy trendsetter.
"In some areas ediplomacy is changing the way State does business. In Public Diplomacy, State now operates what is effectively a global media empire, reaching a larger direct audience than the paid circulation of the ten largest US dailies and employing an army of
diplomat-journalists to feed its 600-plus platforms."
To recap: (USG * the Interwebs) > (non-USG * the Interwebs) -- where non-USG is any government of your choice, with the exception of the U.S. government, and where 'greater than' is recognized as a mathematical symbol and not a value judgment. So the U.S. is getting online to shape hearts and minds. So far, so good.

Except that as we all know, numbers aren't everything in the public diplomacy game, and reach isn't always the same thing as influence. And let's not forget that if we quantify the reach of that extensive media empire mentioned above and take it a step further than author Fergus Hanson did, we'll find that audience to be a little less than a fifth of what Xinhua estimates its own circulation to be. 

Still, it's a good indicator, and one I think most governments would rather be on the positive side of. And I think we can all agree that most of the State Department's online outreach is considerably less creepy than this video announcing the Lowy paper (courtesy of

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Captain America

Captain America: Source
In my ongoing pursuit of nonacademic entertainment, I went to see Captain America Friday night and was pleasantly surprised.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I love movies, both art house dramas and popcorn flicks, though my expectations tend to be considerably lower for the latter category. Captain America falls solidly into popcorn territory: American badassery at its finest, with buckles swashed and derring done.

Captain America starts out as Steve Rogers: a scrappy fighter with can-do gumption and lots of heart, whose feisty spirit is trapped in a puny little body as ill suited to acts of heroism as it is to leading-man status. Fortunately, for both the Allied forces and the modern moviegoer, he won't stay that way for long. Thanks to some fancy pseudoscience, the little man soon becomes a big man -- though he continues to fight for the Little Man against bullies of all stripes, and it's not long before he's taking on Hitler and the Fuhrer's psychotic colleagues. 

That includes this guy, who at one point observes that "arrogance may not be a uniquely American trait, but I must say you do it better than anyone." And that's the thing about Captain America -- he's not arrogant, exactly -- though his enemies say otherwise. But he's proud and fierce and he doesn't give up. He follows his heart and he never compromises. Which is great in Nazi Germany and comic book climates where the boundaries between good and evil are clearly delineated with bold pen strokes.

Like the latest X-men movie, Captain America is set in wartime (the Cold War for the former, WWII for the latter) with U.S. interests juxtaposed against those of a menacing foreign ideology (communism and Naziism). But Captain America doesn't delve into the murky grey areas of morality that the X-men franchise has explored. Here, there are good guys (Allies) and bad guys (Nazis), and there's never any question of which side our heroes will choose -- only whether they'll be allowed to fight.

Because the Captain is initially kept off the front lines and his talents are channeled into fundraising, as he's encouraged to shill for U.S. war bonds and stir up patriotism at home. He's good at it -- of course he is -- but we all know he's destined for more than that.

Americans love a hero whose fight is clear. U.S. foreign policy, as I've observed before in this space, is often swayed by Wilsonian rhetoric toward Rooseveltian hard power politics. The American people may be leery of hard power ideology, but that doesn't mean they reject hard power altogether. And the comic book realm is a perfect example of this, with its emphasis both on letting might make right -- in the right ideological context.

Captain America is slated to appear next in an upcoming Avengers film, set in the present day, and it will be interesting to see how his ideology translates into the murkier Tony Stark era of double-dealing, where the lines between the public and the private sector are as fraught as those between the U.S. and its enemies ... whoever they may be.