Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tell Me When It's Over

Just days after the U.S. withdrew its final combat troops from Iraq and more than seven years after Bush declared the U.S. mission there "accomplished," President Obama tells the troops the nation's work there is not yet done.

In an age where hard power and soft power are increasingly combined in foreign policy, it's worthwhile to note that the effects and objectives of power are often equally muddled. After all, the differences between the war in Iraq, the subsequent seven years of non-war combat, and the post-combat troop era we're entering now are minuscule.

Hard-line realists would argue that the first priority of states is to ensure their own security, and they do so by exercising power--mostly hard power, but also soft power resources like traditional and public diplomacy. But the lines between war and peace aren't entirely clear cut, and neither are the potential benefits for security. The ultimate objectives of public diplomacy in Iraq have remained fairly constant over the past decade, although the philosophy and methods behind them have not.

It is worth questioning, at the beginning of this new period of ongoing conflict, exactly what's been accomplished and what remains to be done. And for those who have faith in the ability of PD to bridge cultural divides, improve mutual understanding and generate goodwill, it's worth asking how PD can help to wage peace in Iraq.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Is This Thing On?

Last week's Economist reports that international broadcasters are losing purchase on the developing world newscape, creating a need for more targeted broadcasts:

Now technology is cutting costs and stoking competition, eroding the Westerners’ advantages (see article).... As the old signals fade, rival outfits are crowding the airwaves. Iran and Russia have both launched 24-hour English television-news channels. China added a second one last month.... The right response to such challenges is not for Western countries to bin their broadcasts, but to target them better.

It's no secret that international broadcasters like the BBC and VOA are operating in an increasingly competitive environment. And the Economist notes wryly that the situation is an unavoidable consequence of succeeding in another goal--namely the spread of free expression around the world.

But as more voices join the fray, the need for good reporting becomes increasingly important, even as the job becomes exponentially harder. If only there were a correlation between need and funding for international broadcasters. But funding's not the only possible response, of course. Restructuring, outsourcing to/collaborating with local news sources, developing more reciprocal programs and targeting specific audiences have all been proposed as potential solutions to the challenges PD broadcasters face abroad.

The article raises important issues, but -- and as an international communication student, I hesitate to admit this -- the message and the media are only part of the equation. Beyond the basic acts of sending and receiving messages, there's a world of factors influencing how ideas form, gain momentum and are converted into action. Which is fortunate for me, or I'd run out of blog subjects pretty quickly.

Monday, August 23, 2010

How Tweet It Is

This week in public diplomacy: North Korea starts tweeting! Which is fascinating, except, of course, that North Korea denies tweeting.

Which means that in terms of accurately representing the views of the DPRK, Twitter source @uriminzok may not be any more authentic than parodic spin-off Fake_Uriminzok (whose recent posts include "the dear leader has decided to challenge US devil-leader #Barack Obama to a game of 1-1 basketball at his palace in Pyongyang," and "when asked 'who blew their torpedo in the #cheonan's hull?,' the dear leader affirmed the multilateral findings that 'that's what she said.'")

Just more confirmation that nations that fail to capitalize on social media to spread their messages will generally find themselves cleaning up after those who assume the responsibility for them.

Oh, what a tangled Interwebs we weave...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

All in a muddle

I had a mid-degree crisis this week that involved a lot of panicked and serious reflection on my courses, my thesis and my projected career path. It also involved a lot of stress eating and at least one phone call to my mother.

Emerging from the tail end, I've got a better grasp on what I want to do with my final year of grad school, my thesis and my life in general--for the time being, at least. But it seemed like a good time to reflect on blunders and muddled thinking, a good time to post this article, which appeared in today's Post, by Aaron David Miller.

Miller's subject is the proposed Ground Zero mosque and his perspective is that of the former advisor on Arab-Israeli relations who proposed inviting PLO chair Yasser Arafat to visit the Holocaust museum on a visit to D.C. The proposed visit never happened, as it whipped up a storm of controversy and disapproval in the press. Looking back, Miller argues that his proposal was plagued by the same problems troubling the mosque proponents today: a poisonous mixture of memory and symbolism that stifles the original impulse and its intent.

"Is it wise," Miller asks, "to risk tying a cause to these kinds of memories when the outcome wounds or polarizes, instead of healing or unifying?"

It's a fair question, but I'm not entirely persuaded by Miller's analogy. He refers to the Arafat invitation as "one of the dumbest ideas in the annals of U.S. foreign policy," arguing that "the potential conflict and misunderstanding overwhelmed any opportunity for dialogue and understanding," and there's reason to believe that that may be happening here.

But it's worth noting that a lot of the current controversy arises from the misappropriation of two powerful symbols. The "ground zero mosque" is not a mosque and it's not located at ground zero. It's a cultural center about two blocks away. And the cultural center's proponents are in no way affiliated with the radical fundamentalists responsible for the September 11 attacks.

But that's the trouble with (and the beauty of) symbols; they're so open to interpretation. Symbolism is an important element of PD, but can be dangerous because they're so easy to misappropriate. Which is why actions--like domestic and foreign policies--carry so much weight in forming public opinions. The controversy surrounding the proposed cultural center says much more about prevailing national attitudes towards religious tolerance in general and Islam in particular than any symbolic gesture could.

Radio Sawa can broadcast as many pop songs as it wants; it won't drown out the clamor of fear and intolerance.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

How to Win Friends and Influence People

If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less...

John Donne knew a thing or two about communalism, and even though he lived many years before globalization he appreciated the interdependence of humans and countries. Tragedy affects groups, not individuals. Some may suffer more than others, but nobody suffers in isolation. No man is an island offers insight not just into the human condition, but into modern international politics as well.

Fortunately, for the optimists in the crowd, there's a flip side to the coin. Catastrophes have repercussions beyond the communities they affect -- but rapid and effective solutions also have a ripple effect. Today's Washington Post reports on Pakistan's devastating monsoon floods, and a $55 billion U.S. assistance package:

While the ultimate impact on Pakistani public opinion is unknown, the United States has earned rare and almost universal praise here for acting quickly to speed aid to those hit hardest.

Rapid, visible and effective aid has gained immediate approval from a desperate nation. However -- as the article points out -- "that feeling is unlikely to translate into any immediate improvement in underlying Pakistani attitudes toward the United States." Here again is one of the major themes underlying discussions of effective PD: Even effective campaigns are unlikely to overturn opinions rooted in cultural differences and attitudes about foreign policy. The solution to this problem may lie not in the method of outreach, but in its underlying ideology and in policies grounded in a respectful collaboration towards mutual goals.

The catch, of course, comes in situations where two countries must work together without sharing the same objectives. In such cases, it may be helpful to come back to Donne and remember that no man -- or woman, or country for that matter -- is an island. It's overly simplistic to imagine that such a solution is universally applicable. Some people and nations have irreconcilable goals. Faith and trust may not be automatic solutions, but they are essential components of successful public diplomacy (and foreign policy) campaigns.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The blogger returns

This is my last week in Oaxaca, and on Saturday I'll return to the United States after two months abroad. I'm about to get academic here, so if you're looking for humorous reflections on crustacean-infested hotel rooms, grasshopper snacks, pinata abuse and generic cross-cultural shenanigans, I suggest you check out the AU Oaxaca blog, conveniently located here.

It's been a great trip and I've learned a lot about Mexico and indigenous rights and development. I'm currently working on an independent research project focusing on the Guelaguetza, a two-week festival of cultural heritage held every year in Oaxaca.

On the surface, the Guelaguetza looks a little odd to some tourists--men dancing with turkeys, women hurling pineapples at spectators, etc.--but the festival is a mixture of pre-colonial, colonial and contemporary influences. Representatives from Oaxaca's indigenous regions, wearing traditional clothing, perform folk dances from their region while a band plays folk music behind them. At the end of the performance they distribute the "Guelaguetza" (reciprocal gift), which is generally something representative of their region (hence the pineapple projectiles, courtesy of the ladies of Papaloapan).

My research focuses on the Guelaguetza's dual role (increasingly emphasized in recent years) as both a cultural celebration and a tourist attraction. Are the roles in conflict? How do tourists and locals view the event--and one another?

My interest in the subject is based on the assumption that tourism represents a unique space where representatives of different cultures interact in unique ways. Tourism can effect perceptions of culture, power and diplomacy. I've discussed the question of deliberate v. unintentional representation on this blog before, and I think it's fair to say that national representation isn't the primary goal of most tourists--but it ends up being a function they perform.

Without totally scooping myself, I'll say that my research showed that cultural authenticity was important to most of the tourists attending the official Guelaguetza, although few of them could articulate what constituted "authentic" indigenous culture in any detail. The event emphasizes cultural differences, but in a positive way. And while it offers an opportunity to witness the different clothing, music and dances of various regions, it doesn't provide much information on other cultural differences (such as customs, challenges, history, etc.) So the Guelaguetza is pretty successful in terms of entertainment, but less so in terms of education or cultural interaction.

From a public diplomacy perspective, this seems to be a missed opportunity, as tourism is one of the Mexican government's most effective PD tools. Then again, the majority of tourists attending the Guelaguetza are domestic, not foreign, so the opportunity may not be particularly significant. Like a good grad student, I'll conclude by saying that more research is needed to clarify the issues, but I definitely enjoyed putting in the groundwork. Below is a brief clip from the unofficial ("popular") Guelaguetza. Enjoy!