Saturday, January 30, 2010

Oh, the Weather Outside...

Well, ICkateers, it's snowing in Washington, D.C., which means snowballs are flying, police are packing, and my cozy little ivory tower is frosted over and bitterly cold. It's the perfect day to be anywhere that's not an attic bedroom, and a quick scan of the Washington Post's Weekend Section revealed a fabulous article by the illustrious Michael O'Sullivan on the cultural film offerings available in D.C.

Many of these film series are organized by embassies and cultural centers, a service the United States offers abroad--although not as much as it once did. Like many aspects of modern U.S. diplomacy, cultural outreach programs decreased (as did their funding) in the wake of the Cold War. John Kerry addressed the situation in a February 2009 report titled "U.S. Public Diplomacy--Time to Get Back in the Game," in which he laments the disappearance of the American Centers of yore.

American Centers, for the noncognoscenti, were libraries of sorts that offered book clubs and lectures and civic youth programs and cultural series and English lessons to foreign publics until a trifecta of events conspired to bring about their demise. The end of the Cold War, the information revolution and the mollification of Senator Jesse Helmes led the U.S. Information Agency to be absorbed, like an extra in The Blob, by the State Department. American Centers were gradually shuttered, shrunk and otherwise underfunded until the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon convinced Congress that cultural outreach might have more value than previously assumed.

In subsequent years, the United States has stepped up public and cultural diplomacy efforts once again, but progress is slow and hindered by lack of vision, leadership and resources. This is not to suggest that U.S. public and cultural diplomacy is ineffective or unnecessary, rather that there is a general consensus on the need for reform. The catch is that the consensus is strong among people with the skills to effect reform, but weaker among people with the ability to lead the charge. There's plenty of snow on the hill. What's needed is a few kids with mittens* to set the ball in motion.

Fortunately for D.C. residents and Beltway outliers, our town is hopping with options for the foreign film enthusiast, and I encourage you to check out the article and take full advantage. Alas, I've got too much reading this weekend to join you. Eat some popcorn for me! I'll be bundling up in my tauntaun sleeping bag until the weather turns.

* A totally irrelevant aside: Why does a google search for "congressional mittens" turn up more pictures of Mitt Romney than any other U.S. politicians? Can anyone help?

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Presence of Absence

In a recent Slate article, writer Daniel Gross notes a relative decline in U.S. presence at the World Economic Forum.
The smaller U.S. presence confirms that the world's economic geography is shifting. The United States matters less than it used to, and the U.S. financial sector is continuing to shrink. This was evident as well at the most important activity at Davos—the nightlife. For a certain subset of the attendees, the high-minded conferences during the day are simply prologues to a series of receptions, dinners, nightcaps, and after parties.... The party staged by Forbes, the swashbuckling celebrator of capitalism, American-style, was sedate, sparsely attended, devoid of young people.

Mr. Forbes, a quick aside, if I may: You may dismiss the Davos dancehalls as a garnish, the conference equivalent of parsley -- charming, pleasant to look at, but ultimately little more than a festive visual complement to the meat and potatoes of the conference sessions* -- but as a representative of the United States, you have an obligation to party like it's 1999 even if you're feeling a little more 1929. "Sedate" and "devoid of young people" is a description for a water aerobics class, not a party. The private sector exercises extraordinary influence via unofficial cultural diplomacy, and it pains me to announce that your tepid gathering reflects poorly on the entire nation. When your DJ neglects to blow the speakers up, the terrorists win.

I have a modest proposal from which I believe we both can benefit. To fulfill your civil obligations, you are clearly in need of exuberant young people, unmarred by any connection to the current financial crisis. As it happens, I am intimately acquainted with a number of young patriots who would be only too happy to supply the services you so desperately seek. You provide the venue, and my associates will gladly fulfill their patriotic duty and draw the world's attention to your prestigious company, and our great nation, once again. It is -- and I mean this sincerely -- the absolute least I can do.

* That's a metaphor, kids. Try it at home, but stretch first.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Foreign Policy: Haiti's Regrowth

This NPR segment includes commentary on Haiti from Bob Perito and Larry Birns, who has the dubious distinction of being both my former boss and the only man I've ever hit with a car. While Perito and Birns agree that international support for Haiti has been less than reliable, they disagree regarding how much room there is for optimism on Haiti's regrowth.
Birns: ... the real problem that we've suffered in Haiti - and probably was a broader kind of problem elsewhere in the developing world - was a great reluctance to sustain a funding effort to a country where, for example, it may be each day that Haiti is in the news and tomorrow it may be Rwanda, Darfur or Ethiopia or some other new tragedy. And very often, what we have is an evaporation of existing commitments.

Perito: ... last year was something of renaissance in Haitian terms. The economy was in positive growth terms, businesses were beginning to invest in Haiti. Haiti is the beneficiary of new economic incentives provided by the U.S. Congress for Trade. And so, things, you know, things were looking up ... I think that now we have to - we have to update our perspectives on Haiti.
My own opinion is considerably more moderate. I always found Larry to be intelligent, well informed and gracious (particularly regarding that episode with the car) but we didn't always see eye-to-eye, and I have in the past adopted a more optimistic view on U.S.-Latin American relations. I can't offer any insight into Perito's personality, but his view strikes me as going too far in the opposite direction. Even with the sympathy of the world and an outpouring of economic and logistical support, Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. If our goal is to rebuild Haiti to pre-quake standards, such actions would still abandon thousands of Haitians to poverty and hunger. And if our goal is to rebuild to a superior level, then we'll be relying on an increased level of support, without any indication that such support is sustainable. After all, you'd be hard pressed to prove that Phuket or New Orleans are in better shape now than they were a decade ago.

Ultimately I believe that people are moved by the situation in Haiti, and there are many individuals, governments, religious organizations and NGOs with the desire to help them. But I think it's inevitable that some will lose interest when the cameras move away, and even those that are willing will be limited by resource constraints. I hope Perito's optimism is well founded, but I suspect Birns' caution about the "evaporation of existing commitments" may have more precedence in hemispheric affairs.

But to close on a hopeful note, here's a video of U.S. marines in Haiti (courtesy of YouTube, via John Brown's Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review), showing our tax dollars at work.

Monday, January 25, 2010

News Bits

Alone in the darkness beneath layers of rubble, Dan Woolley felt blood streaming from his head and leg.

Then he remembered -- he had an app for that.

Congrats to CNN's Josh Levs for one of the more captivating ledes I've seen this week. Trapped Father Survives with Help of Phone App demonstrates some practical applications for mobile technology in a nation whose communication infrastructure has been severely limited.

And evidently nobody has explained to Slate's Ron Rosenbaum that satire loses most of its bite when you deliberately label it. In his latest article, he very nearly undermines his point by tossing the word about with a degree of literary carelessness unseen since Alanis Morissette's Ironic. Nonetheless, his "modest proposal" for improving U.S. intelligence efforts

... fire the entire CIA and our other many tragically inept intelligence agencies and outsource all intelligence operations to investigative reporters downsized by the collapse of the newspaper business. Thereby improving our "intelligence capability" (it can't possibly get worse!) and giving a paycheck to some worthy and skilled investigative types ... reporters who once made the journalism profession proud, exciting, and useful ...

deserves some consideration, if only for his bold vision of a brave new world in which TMZ monitors Taliban fashion faux pas and Page 6 starts running photos of prominent ji-hotties.

Finally, the Catholic church has never quite reclaimed the communication monopoly it enjoyed before the printing press came along, but that doesn't mean it's stuck in the dark ages! As Randy Sly reports in Catholic Online, Pope Benedict is encouraging priests to increase their online engagement. It's only a matter of time before @JC4evaaaah! is regaling the masses with such inspirational tweets as "help! 4got wine 4 vsprs! nearest lqr stor?"

Sorry, Father. There's not an app for that.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Extreme Makeover: Taliban Edition

Add this to the soft power files:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Taliban Public Relations
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorEconomy

And the GOB goes to...

Here's a good rule of thumb for foreign relations amateurs: Don't offend an entire culture.

This week's GOB award (named for Will Arnett's hapless character on Arrested Development, and awarded to an individual, group or insitution that's "made a huge mistake" in international communication) goes to Russian ice-skating duo Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin. As reported here and here, Domnina and Shabalin have offended Australian aboriginals with their loin-clothed interpretation of a native aboriginal dance, inviting the condemnation of indigenous leader Bev Manton for disrespectful, exploitative behavior.

It seems unlikely that offending the minority population of a foreign country was among the pair's main objectives, but it's hard to imagine who approved this idea. And given Domnina and Shabalin's Olympic hopes, it's fair to expect a little cultural awareness and sensitivity in their public performances. But perhaps we're overthinking this. Is it possible that Shabalin was simply looking for an excuse to staple a fake marijuana leaf to his forehead? Oksana, Domnina, this is for you.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Reel (Un)american Heroes

Bouncing off my earlier post, I've started thinking about cultural exchange in reverse -- not just great models of American values, but immigrants to the United States who win us over, occasionally by employing traits characteristic of their national cultures, but more commonly by employing alarmingly high levels of Pluck and Determination and Charm. Running the gamut from silly to tragic, the immigrant movie generally follows the story of an individual or group that struggles to adjust to American society. Either they learn to acculturate and blend their cultural legacy with rapid adaptation to U.S. norms or they go down like a sack of cement. (See Bread and Roses, Coming to America, The Godfather, Goodbye Solo, El Norte, and, oh, so many more....)

The bronze medal in this category goes to Ariel, the youngest daughter of an Irish immigrant family in 2002's In America. Pound-for-pound, she packs more Irish charm into every frame than any other character in the movie.

On the silver podium, Tarek, in The Visitor, softened Professor Vale's shriveled prune of a heart with his sunny outlook and enthusiastic percussion stylings. If only they'd had the same effect on the NYPD....

But the gold in this category has to be reserved for E.T. Despite some unusual customs and the odd glowing appendage, E.T. managed to fit right in with a typical American family -- until those creepy guys in the exterminator suits showed up. His childlike appreciation for life's simple pleasures (by which I mean television and candy) endeared him to a generation of young Americans. I can't be the only one who burnt my fingers on piping hot E.T. Shrinky Dinks.

Once again, I'm opening the floor to additional commentary. Which other movie characters have won the hearts and minds of American audiences?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Joe Nye, Soft Power Guy ... and China

This article from the Financial Times argues that future clashes between the United States and China (like the current Google dust up) are inevitable. Rachman cites the Google situation as a demonstration of misdirected foreign policy, noting that China has failed to develop into a liberal democracy, despite decades of free trade with the liberal democratic West.

Economically and politically, our countries are opposed in many ways, and China is particularly well suited to resist hard and soft power pressure to change. As I wrote in a paper recently, its leaders are not subject to electoral accountability and dissidents are silenced. Its geopolitical and economic strength enable China to resist many of the external pressures that might influence less powerful countries, and China's history demonstrates a fierce allegiance to its own sovereignty. China's immunity to public opinion is particularly notable in the case of non-state actors, such as NGOs which rely on methods like monitoring and petitioning to achieve their aims. Amnesty International, for example, has attempted to improve human rights around the world by shedding light on violations and shaming the offending actors. Its limited success in a country that suppresses dissent is hardly surprising.

Rachman's chief concern seems to be avoiding a trade war, an objective few would oppose. He argues for policy change, but despite his claims that "protectionism seems to be becoming intellectually respectable in the US in ways that should worry China," I don't believe U.S. businesses or politicians are on the brink of cutting ties with China, nor am I convinced that it's in their best interests to do so. Consider what happened when Bill Clinton, not long after the Tiananmen Square massacre, attempted to link U.S.-China trade with human rights. I'm not opposed to U.S. policy change, but at this stage in the game, I doubt an influx of new trade laws are going to have a transformative effect on Chinese culture or policy. That is to say I haven't got any easy solutions, just doubts and questions -- and it will take more than a quick Google search to find the answers.


Soft power guru Joe Nye gave a presentation for the British Council today, and though my own question (submitted remotely) about confronting China did not, alas, make it past the moderator, the last lucky attendant to pose a question did address a similar issue. Nye's response was that the United States should be willing to help China define a broader understanding of their self-interest to include global goods. Great goal, but I still want specifics...

Buck Rogers Technology: Haiti Edition

It's hardly news that the recent earthquake and subsequent aftershocks have decimated Haiti's communication infrastructure. So how are residents communicating with one another and with the outside world? For a fortunate few, telephone and Internet technology are still operational. But according to this article, sometimes the old technology is best.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Reel American Heroes

One of my friends, teaching English in Thailand, watched the latest Twilight movie with her students, and afterwards one of them asked her, very solemnly, if people in the United States are "like that?" Assuming he wanted to know whether all Americans were vampires, she burst out laughing, but she quickly realized his actual question was whether people in the United States really kiss before they get married. Because everything -- even cute anecdotes -- gets me thinking about international communication these days, her story made me think about cultural diplomacy and how it's frequently inundated by the tsunami of pop culture materials generated by the U.S. entertainment industry.

Frankly, I'm not sure I want Edward Cullen representing our country as a cultural ambassador. His eyebrows alarm me, for one thing. And then there's the whole undead influenza victim thing. My prejudice against the broody hemophile got me thinking about which film characters I would want to represent the country and I came up with three. They're fairly different from one another, but I think each embodies a particularly "American" character. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Atticus Finch: Finch comes in at the top of the AFI's list, for obvious reasons. He's wise, steady, courageous and passionate for justice.

2. "Cool Hand" Luke Jackson: Granted, he was arrested for public drunkeness and vandalism, but Luke was a man who refused to stay down, even after he'd lost the fight.

3. Norville Barnes. His story follows the traditional American rags to riches cycle, with a few Coen-esque twists. What he lacks in savvy he makes up for in spades with innovation and enthusiasm. At the end of the day, he's a great role model. You know, for kids.

4* Dottie Hinson (A League of Their Own): Not only is Dottie a farm girl who supports the troops, she's an incredible athlete who supports the war effort by hitting fast balls in a short skirt. She's got brains and heart and cat-like reflexes. What's not to love?

5* Diana Guzman (girlfight): Not to inundate the list with athletes, but there's something about the sports movie that lends it to American Dream narratives. Guzman scrabbles to the top with little more than hard work and determination. She may lack Dottie's easy charm, but she trumps her in toughness.

This isn't a comprehensive list, by any stretch of the imagination. But it's late and I'm tired, so I'll pose the obvious question: Which character would you add?

* Predictably, I received a few comments regarding the absence of any women on my list, so after a cup of coffee and some inspired reflection, I've added two names to the list.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Booking It: Beyond Culture

During my first winter as an English teacher in Prague, I asked my students to brainstorm words related to the eve of St. Mikulas, which Czechs celebrate on December 5. Hell was a popular response, as were devil, angel, candy, chains, potatoes, coal and tears. None of my classes mentioned the words saint or bishop, the position for which Mikulas is celebrated. When I asked some of my students to elaborate, they explained: “At night, Mikulas comes and puts in the socks many good things or maybe, if child is bad, potato or coal or onion.”

It didn't sound too different from the American Christmas stocking. Then they explained that people frequently dressed up in groups of three: one angel, one devil and one saint. I was shocked to hear that the devils sometimes grabbed the children and stuffed them into large sacks.

"Maybe if the child is not so well in school, the devil he say, "Ah, I know you are not so good at school so maybe I take you to the hell," they explained.

I spent the better part of a rainy Sunday with Edward T. Hall's "Beyond Culture," which essentially makes the argument that people, over long periods of time, create "extensions" like language and institutions as specialized responses to specific problems and that these evolved extensions make up what we refer to as culture. He also argues that culture influences the way certain behaviors and skills are valued, and that failure to acknowledge and respond to cultural differences can lead to confusion and anxiety.

Telling young children that they're going to Hell wasn't a fashionable holiday celebration where I grew up, but it was the sort of cultural difference I was prepared to encounter in another country. Threatening toddlers with damnation was just one more thing that made Czechs Czech, like eating fried cheese with mayonnaise or advertising erotica on public trams. What caught me off guard were the cultural differences I wasn't prepared for, the kind I hadn't even thought about before I moved.

My entire education, up to that point, had occurred on the East Coast of the United States in the mid-Atlantic region, most of it in Maryland. I had eight years of Spanish lessons, six of French and two of Chinese to give me a sense of how to learn language. I knew how to elicit repetition, build vocabulary, and explain grammar. What I didn't know was how to teach adults who'd grown up under Soviet rule, with a completely different style of education. Some of my students resisted responding to questions unless they could do so as a group. Others demanded rote repetition and book work, two tasks I'd found particularly dull and unhelpful in my own studies. My experience highlights another factor Hall discusses in his book, namely that it's difficult to recognize the characteristics of one's own culture unless directly contrasted with another system because people tend to assume that their habits and actions are universal.

Some of Hall's arguments seemed overly simplified to me, which may have simply arisen from the necessity of making his argument clear to a diverse group of people. But I agreed with most of what he said, particularly in terms of recognizing that different cultures, despite their differences, are not all the same. We have different ways not only of acting, but of thinking and perceiving the world, and recognizing those differences is an essential step towards successfully working together.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Welcome to my blog, in which I propose to subject you to my observations and opinions on all things related to international communication, diplomacy, networking, power relationships and whatever else catches my fancy.