Friday, April 30, 2010

Swing and a Miss

The Shanghai Expo is officially open and the U.S. pavilion is officially underwhelming--a hastily cobbled tribute to eleventh hour sponsors. The Washington Post quotes a disappointed visitor who criticized the abundance of corporate logos, adding, "I thought the USA would have some brilliant and exciting stuff. . . . Except for buying some souvenirs, I can't think of anything special about it." Even its theme (Rising to the Challenge) is mildly cringe-inducing, given that the pavilion nearly folded due to lack of funds.

The exposition is of course rife with international swipes and backbiting, a tradition as old as the exposition itself. As Armand Mattelart argues in The Emergence of Technical Networks, expositions have always been symbolic affairs: "The cosmopolitan rhetoric of universal fraternity and the people's fair scarcely conceals the fact that the universal exposition was a place of rival nationalisms and the production of a public discourse--political and scientific--that consecrated the notion of 'Western civilization' as the beacon of progress for other peoples."

With the current theme of Better City, Better Life, Shanghai is putting an urban spin on the modernization message. But the environment is the same: a roiling mass of people shuttled between one exhibit after another, each nation trying to put on the best show. And in the midst of it, the U.S. pavilion, underfunded by the government and overshadowed by its corporate partners. It may not be selling a fair picture of the United States--but its representation of U.S. public diplomacy is all too clear.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

HomeSpun Goodness

Add this to a long list of fabulous Smithsonian products: The HomeSpun blog provides an online space for Indian immigrants and their descendants to describe the process of acculturation in the United States.

This recent blogpost comes courtesy of my friend Raj, who describes the tricky process of cultural identification from the perspective of a woman who knows her way around a rickshaw transmission, but resorts to YouTube videos when she needs to don a sari.

At heart are some of the essential questions underlying cross-cultural communication: What exactly is culture? And how do we identify its influence?

And now (because I just can't help myself) here's the nerdy public diplomacy spin: A lot of PD information programs are based on the assumption that anti-American sentiment arises from ignorance or incomplete understanding of U.S. culture. See, for example, President Bush's lamentation that "there is such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us" shortly after the 2001 attacks. But there's another assumption in that statement, namely that U.S. culture is something that can be defined and understood.

But, as Berger and Luckmann note in The Social Construction of Reality, reality is a social construct that is shaped by culture. The Bush administration and the Obama administration have supported information campaigns that attempt to change attitudes about the United States by spreading pro-American information throughout potentially hostile regions, using PD as a tool to reconstruct the reality of people with negative opinions about the United States.

But how can they hope to bring people around to the "right" understanding of U.S. culture when the nation's own citizens struggle to define exactly what that culture entails?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

It was more appealing when it had kittens...

Can't say I'm overwhelmed by M.I.A.'s new Born Free video, in which a group of American guards tromps through a dusty dystopia to round up a busload of unfortunate redheads and subject them to a bit of ultraviolence.

Musically, it's not her best by a long shot, and the video, skillfully directed by Romain Gavras has top-notch production values, but little to say about violence that hasn't already been covered by the hip-hop video medium.

You can take a gander below, but this is not even remotely safe for work--or any location that frowns upon nudity, violence or four-letter words.

M.I.A, Born Free from Romain Gavras on Vimeo.

It's a solid video, although I don't think I'd call it a "tough little masterpiece." Nonetheless, it's hard to look at this week without reflecting on Arizona's new immigration law. Unfortunately, I don't think any of the bill's supporters are going to be moved by the connection.

There's also the disturbing fact that anybody with passing knowledge of M.I.A.'s background knows of her connections to the Tamil Tiger rebels, although she's denied accusations that her work tacitly supports their cause. The video includes one scene involving a carrot-topped sect whose members have, like the Tigers, embraced violence as a means of resistance.

Ultimately, the video isn't complex enough to make a meaningful contribution to the problem it addresses. Which is a major issue with the Arizona bill as well. Fortunately, that bill is turning out to be as popular as sunburn, so there's hope that it may be overturned. While a stalwart few insist that the bill is necessary to counter the evils of illegal immigration, the bill has widely been decried as an unconstitutional racial profiling measure.

Illegal immigration has caused significant problems in the United States, most of which are borne by border states. Racial profiling is ineffective form of institutionalized racism. And genocide is a horrifying reality. None of this is news.

In the end, Born Free and SB 1070 suffer from the same shortcoming. Namely, they draw attention to an important problem, without offering any meaningful solutions on how to improve cross-cultural (or intra-cultural) communication.

Pope on the Ropes

As a brief follow-up to my recent post on Vatican public diplomacy, I'm posting this classic advice from American visionary Tom Lehrer, who suggested the Vatican could do wonders for its public image by simply goosing up some of its music:

And while we're on the topic of sound advice, here's some from the Daily Show's resident expert John Hodgman:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
You're Welcome - Church Scandal Prevention
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Monday, April 26, 2010

Maybe we should reconsider the Coke-buying strategy...

The pre-Internet era was characterized by borders, international strife and undemocratic politics. And rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

Earlier this month, I posted some preliminary stats suggesting that Internet access does not promote global goodwill toward the United States. Evgeny Morozov elaborates on that theme in Foreign Policy, where he argues that the Internet has done little to usher in an era of peace and global harmony.

Morozov also notes that Twitter has not unseated any dictators: "Tweets don't overthrow governments; people do. And what we've learned so far is that social networking sites can be both helpful and harmful to activists operating from inside authoritarian regimes." Take note, unreserved advocates of social media for international communication.

Nor can the Internet be relied upon to ensure government accountability or improve political participation. The Internet is an extension, not a revolution.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

For All the PD in China

How do you say "public diplomacy" in Chinese? The Washington Post reports on a massive, $6.6 billion PD expansion effort, with PRC-funded information and broadcasting services spreading around the globe:

At a time when the Western media are contracting, China is pushing its government-run news services to expand from America to Zimbabwe. The Chinese are creating TV networks, pouring millions into English-language newspapers, leasing radio stations on all continents and broadcasting TV news to a worldwide audience in six languages.

Soon the state's official news agency will have twice as many U.S. bureaus as any Western agency has in China, generating print, audio, visual and new media products with the blessing of the Chinese government. The move is part of an open attempt to increase the country's soft power and thus its global influence. But the article claims China's early efforts are as much Rube Goldberg as 1984.

A friend of mine recently visited the Chinese Embassy to learn more about the country's public diplomacy and received a bone-white book the size of a dictionary for her troubles, so I'm willing to believe that China's still working out some of the kinks in its PD. But I also know enough about China to believe the country is capable of creating and maintaining a formidable public diplomacy machine--and the words "New World Information and Communication Order" may take on a whole new meaning.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Clash of the Titan

Different cultures have different customs. We have different understandings of how close to stand when talking, how frequently to make eye contact, how long to pause for a response before continuing to speak.... And culture clash is inevitable in war zones, where solutions are expected from people with very different backgrounds, objectives and expectations.

So it should be no surprise that U.S. efforts to supply power in Kandahar are being undermined by cultural differences--not between Americans and Afghanis, but between the U.S. military and U.S. diplomats.

The difference boils down to cultural understandings of solutions and timetables. The U.S. military wants action now, before troop withdrawal begins in July 2011. Providing electricity is not only a useful service for the people of Kandahar, it will generate goodwill for the U.S. agents who help to bring it about. So $200 million for generators and fuel will demonstrate that the United States is capable of rapid solutions to real problems. Take that, Taliban!

On the other side of the fence are U.S. diplomats, who will remain in Afghanistan long after the troops have left. They see the project as unsustainable--just one more development program the U.S. sets up and abandons without in-country infrastructure to support it.

Surely there's a middle ground. Perhaps a smaller-scale community project could be attempted for immediate impact, while plans are made to implement regular, sustainable updates in the near future?

Such an effort would require collaboration between the military, the diplomats and the people of Kandahar. Just one more example of the need for coordination in U.S. public diplomacy. If we can't resolve the cultural differences within our own PD bodies, how can we expect to negotiate the treacherous terrain with foreign populations?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lost in Translation

After a week of papers, posters and presentations, I'm in a burned out lazy mood this morning, so today's blog is little more than a shout-out to, one of my favorite sites, for regularly showing, with succinctness and flair, the importance of cross-cultural communication.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Nation-Branding: Don't Do It

In a recent article for the Economic Times, Simon Anholt critiques what he sees as indiscriminate use of the phrase "nation branding." Stationery logos are all well and good, he says, but you can't win hearts and minds with a swoosh. The key to improving a national reputation is to be reputable:
The message is clear: if a country is serious about enhancing its international image, it should concentrate on what it does and what it makes, rather than obsess about what it says or how it looks. There are no short cuts. Only a consistent, coordinated and unbroken stream of useful, noticeable , world-class and above all relevant ideas, products and policies can, gradually, enhance the reputation of the country that produces them.

In short, a nation's actions and exports should promote the reputation it wants to have. The rest is just window dressing.

Monday, April 19, 2010

On Russia, With Love

In the home stretch of a semester, many graduate students find they become strangers to their friends, their beds, the finer points of hygiene, etc. Among the many end-of-term projects isolating me from high society over the past few weeks has been a collaborative examination of Russia's public diplomacy with my friend and colleague Lena, which culminated in a presentation and paper, both completed this past week. Huzzah!

Among the many discoveries this project has yielded is this: I am ridiculously enthusiastic about public diplomacy and international communication. I get embarrassingly animated when describing my research, which I do with the sort of fervor people normally reserve for extolling the merits of their grandchildren or fail-proof pyramid schemes. So I'll try to restrain myself here in sharing some of the highlights of my paper:

In 2005, shortly after a Kremlin-commissioned survey showed that the items Americans most associated with Russia included communism, the KGB, snow and the mafia, the Russian government started pumping money into a PD revitalization effort.* One aspect of this effort has been an attempt to re-brand Russia as an innovative, democratic nation with a strong economy and rich cultural history. But despite a massive information machine, cultural exports, language and education programs, exchanges, consulates, cultural centers and impenetrable fortress embassies, Russia's global reputation remains fairly negative.

Attempts to establish a new national identity have been undermined by competing interests that pull Russia toward both the past and the future. More than anything, Russia struggles to shake off its Cold War image--partly because Cold War imagery still colors much media coverage of the country, but also because Cold War attitudes still shape its interactions with the West and its neighbors.

With all the wisdom and confidence of a graduate student who's never set foot in Russia, I offer three suggestions for improving Russia's global brand:
  1. Increase free information flows within the country, and offer more support to critical media and NGO groups.
  2. Increase transparency and stamp out corruption.
  3. Encourage public diplomats to promote stories and events that fly in the face of traditional Cold War narratives and confirm the "new Russia" identity.
For what it's worth, it couldn't hurt to dust off the welcome mat at the embassy either...

Afghanistan's Empty Playgrounds

U.S. public diplomacy acknowledges the importance of engaging foreign youths--but often that term seems to apply to adolescents and young adults, and not the very young.

For a recent NPR piece, Foreign Policy's Anna Badken visited a rural village in Afghanistan, where the child mortality rate is second only to that of Sierra Leone. At a playground near a refugee settlement stands a large billboard, erected by government contractors reading: "Title of Project: Creating Livelihood Opportunities for Refugees in North Afghanistan. Project Code: 02 AFR. Component: Play Ground and safe Play area ... Donor: Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (United States of America)."

The playground is underutilized in this part of the country, where potable water is in short supply and jobs are scarce. Many children in the camp have died before they were old enough to appreciate it--not exactly an anomaly in Afghanistan, where 28 children die every hour.

"What the billboard really says," Badken argues, "is that the international aid that is supposed to help rebuild Afghanistan is tragically failing."

From a strategic standpoint, Afghanistan's weak infrastructure is troubling, as poverty and desperation could easily drive youths to join the Taliban. From a humanitarian standpoint, the problem is even more disturbing.

Foreign aid can be a public diplomacy tool, if it represents an understanding of a population's desires. But programs that confirm the donor's ignorance of the recipients needs are unlikely to generate a flood of goodwill. Resources for aid and public diplomacy are limited, of course, and playing is an essential part of development. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a parent who'd rather give his hungry child a see-saw than a loaf of bread.

It's easy to judge the effects of foreign policy from a desk in D.C., and it's hardly fair to chastise an aid project with such good intentions. Ultimately what's underlying this problem--like the foundation of so many public diplomacy issues--is the need for coordination to make sure that intentions, actions and receptions align.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Slipping through the Net

We've all heard the claim that public diplomacy benefits from modern ICTs that facilitate rapid mass communication. But such praise is almost always accompanied by caveats, from Hillary Clinton's January address at the Newseum to James Glassman's speech at the New America Foundation.

Laying aside the inherent value of Internet freedom unto itself, let's ask the PD question: How accurate is the assumption that increased Internet freedom will lead to greater support for U.S. diplomatic goals like support for U.S. governance?

I set out to test this theory, assuming that if Internet usage does, in fact, support PD, nations with higher Internet use rates would be more likely to approve of U.S. governance. I used Gallup-Meridian data to measure the percentage of a country's population that approves of U.S. leadership. To measure Internet access, I turned to the International Telecommunication Union. I'll spare you the statistical jargon, but the countries with a higher percentage of Internet users were actually less likely to approve of U.S. governance--at least in 2008, which is the year I tested.

This could be because increased connectivity provides more opportunities for people to engage online with America's detractors. Or it could be entirely irrelevant--because soft power is so hard to measure, because approval of U.S. governance isn't static across time (or administrations), because public diplomacy takes so long to make its effects known, because so many other factors are at play...

If there truly is a negative correlation between Internet access and approval of U.S. governance, it would behoove the United States to figure out why and how to avoid it. If nothing else, my numbers add a few more caveats on the PD 2.0 fire--one more reminder to be skeptical of unbridled optimism for new technology.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Let It Be

On Monday night I attended a presentation on the Vatican's public diplomacy. The takeaway was that the Church largely relies on information distribution, via resources like L'Osservatore Romano, Vatican Radio, Vatican Central Television and the Church website, but that an institutional bias towards secrecy and glacial responses to scandals were major problems.

So it was a surprise to me to learn that the Vatican has issued a rapid response to an issue of grave importance that extends well beyond the Catholic community. I'm talking, as you've probably guessed, about the Beatles, who were praised in L'Osservatore Romano this weekend for their grand contributions to pop music. Benedict, if I may presume to whisper some words of wisdom, I think the church's information and communication specialists may have missed the mark on this one.

I'm hardly the first blogger to suggest the Catholic church is blowing on twigs while the forest burns, but I am sympathetic to its position. For centuries, the Church had a near monopoly on the means of mass communication, and questioning any of its pronouncements was unthinkable. Still, it has had many, many years to adjust to the idea of non-papal broadcasters. If the Holy See wants to succeed in its goal of spreading the gospel and fostering peace and justice for all, it needs to raise its game and its pace in the global public sphere. And it needs to quickly condemn and resolve crises within its own flock--and I don't mean pop tunes.

The Church needs decisive action and rapid responses. Otherwise its message will be shaped, distorted and dispersed by a sea of snarky bloggers before it can even begin, and the Vatican will find itself writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Look On My Abs, Ye Mighty, And Despair!

For many a world leader longing to make a lasting political statement, statuary has proven an irresistible medium. What better way to make your values clear and permanent than to commemorate them in marble? It's like the old saying, "If you love something, carve its head into a mountain."

In that spirit, FP offers a photo essay on some of the world's most misguided political statues, starting with Senegal's controversial tribute to independence/President Abdoulaye Wade's virility. It's what Independence would look like if Independence were a Marky Mark tribute to Soviet stonework. Check out the monstrosities here.

Not included was the world's largest monument to Josef Stalin, a 17,000-tonne marble memorial to the leader standing at the front of what appears to be a bread line. The visionary behind the eyesore committed suicide shortly before it was unveiled and reportedly made out his will to a school for the blind, the only blessed souls who would never have to gaze upon his hideous creation, although I've never been able to determine how accurate/apocryphal that story is.

World leaders, take note: If you want the mighty to look on your works and despair, please make sure your politics and aesthetics are worthy of celebration. The world will thank you for it.

Things That Make You Go Hmm

Russia's public diplomacy ostensibly aims to promote national culture and science, and to secure regional stability. But what about Russia's less public PD aims? This article argues that Russian media fueled the recent Kyrgyzstan uprising in pursuit of an unstated PD objective, namely consolidating power within the region.

As Paul Rockower asked not too long ago, how do you say "Hmmm" in Russian?

Cookies and Crowd Control

Evidently, the young women of Poland are a lot tougher than I thought. From a Washington Post article on Poland's mourning process:

Poland's strong mix of patriotism and grief was on display Sunday for the second day in a row, with a nation united in sorrow and pride mourning the death of President Lech Kaczynski and hailing him as a champion of their national identity... [T]ens of thousands of people, some weeping, lined the streets from the airport and crowded the city center to view Kaczynski's body being returned to the presidential palace, where it will lie pending funeral arrangements.

An elegant esplanade in front of the palace was so jammed that many could not move; police and girl scouts had to lock arms to prevent the crowd from destroying islands of votive lamps that have been flickering green, red and yellow since news of Kaczynski's death in a plane crash broke Saturday morning.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Lost & Found in Translation

It's not exactly hot off the presses, but this Doonesbury strip from a few weeks ago has Jeff Redfern attempting to gather intelligence in (excrescent) Pashto. It gets at the heart of a few PD issues: lackluster U.S. attempts at polling--our foreign opinion polling budget is a fraction of the overall PD budget, and considerably lower than that of many transnational corporations--and language/cultural barriers that prevent any real progress on the ground. It's also telling that Jeff launches straight into his second, and even his third question before the elder answers the first. Asking the questions is a step in the right direction, but listening to the answers is even more important.

Of course, some people are genuinely interested in starting a dialogue. This post from the Sandbox (the military blog on Doonesbury's webpage) discusses a new Facebook page and the Afghani interpreters who launched it:

The interpreters are very important to our mission, adding the ability to communicate with and teach Afghans of all types. The Afghan National Security Forces are obviously key partners, and they need to be able to apply the principles of COIN* in their own country. It is, after all, their fight as well. They are the ones who are going to have to live here in the future.

It raises an important question for PD and all international communication. Who speaks and who listens, and how do we move towards a common understanding?

GOB Award: Qatar

Today's GOB Award (for the PD personality who's "made a huge mistake") goes to Mohammed Al-Madadi for not only smoking on a U.S. flight, but attempting to extinguish the flame on his shoes. The Qatari embassy official's questionable judgment understandably set off a few red flags and resulted in massive delays for his fellow passengers, who had to submit to additional security screening at the far end of their flight. Mr. Al-Madadi, for putting the "dip" in diplomat, this one's for you:

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Russia's Public Diplomacy: Have You Ever Tried to Call the Russian Embassy?

The Russian Embassy welcomes you.

Not long ago, in the Huffington Post, John Brown lamented the difficulty of trying to reach the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. My own attempts to contact the Russian embassy have been similarly frustrating. I'm working on a paper about Russian PD in the United States, and I'd hoped to include some first-hand information on the embassy--so I decided to try to set up a meeting.

The embassy's website is in decent shape. The links work, the translations are good, the layout is modern, and the press releases in the "Latest News" section are all from this week. But every time I called the number on the website, I got a busy signal. I tried a number from an older website without much faith (it listed an incorrect address for the building) and found my doubt well justified. The phone rang. And rang. And rang. Eventually I hung up. Trying a different tactic, I called 411 and asked to be connected. After a brief pause, a fax machine started screeching in my ear. Clearly more decisive action would be necessary.

Today I decided to storm the embassy. Leaving my derelicte-style grad fashions in the closet, I dusted off my glad rags and set out for the Northwest quadrant.

The embassy is an imposing building, made all the more inviting by a thick iron fence. A barrier greets cars with the welcoming message: STOP. Undaunted, I marched up to the gate and pressed a buzzer. A voice greeted me in Russian. "Hi," I said. "Hello," said the voice. I explained that I'd like to speak with somebody at the front desk. There was silence.

I waited for a response, or for somebody to materialize and open the gate, or for a buzzer to sound, indicating that I could enter. Nothing. I waited a few minutes, strolled around the gate to see if there was another entrance, then tried again. This time, nobody even responded to the buzzer. After several long minutes in the balmy D.C. sunshine, I gave up and headed to campus.

The embassy, of course, is not the only destination for the PD-curious. A visit to the Russian Cultural Center a few weeks ago proved much easier. My colleague and I marched right up to the entrance and received a friendly tour. But it's not totally unreasonable to expect an embassy to open its doors--or is it? Mr. Brown questions whether U.S. diplomats and their Chinese counterparts are afraid to mingle with the natives, but the Closed Door Policy isn't simply the province of U.S. and Chinese embassies.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Who's Legit?

I spent this glorious weekend on the wrong side of a library (that is, the inside). But despite my disappointment at missing the beautiful April weather, I did get a lot of interesting research done. I'm currently working on a paper about U.S. radio broadcasting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the course of my research I stumbled across an article describing Duke Ellington's tour of the Middle East in 1963.

Although their shows were well attended, Ellington and his orchestra were disappointed to find that they were consistently playing for the nations' elites, and not for "the people," leading their sympathetic State Department handler to conclude that they had misunderstood the meaning of the word "people."

For the jazz musicians, the "people" were the working class men (and women) on the street. For the State Department, the "people" were the elites who were best positioned to help the U.S. government realize its foreign policy objectives abroad. Underneath these assumptions are questions about legitimacy. What makes a legitimate audience for public diplomacy? For the United States, the answer is often related to national security concerns. U.S. public diplomacy has traditionally been best funded during times when the nation perceived itself to be threatened (by Nazis, Soviets or terrorists, for example) and public diplomacy was seen as a tactic to counter opposition.

But by categorizing the people of foreign nations according to their legitimacy, or their utility, does public diplomacy not risk isolating vast segments of the population? And what does that reveal about underlying assumptions about those people and their culture? Somehow targeting specific segments of a society for message reception seems a little cynical and self-serving. At the very least, it seems less likely to succeed than working together with foreign publics to construct a message people in both countries can support.