Friday, February 26, 2010

Citizen Diplomats

More from the news of nation-branding: In a new television campaign, Israel encourages its tourists to embrace citizen diplomacy when they travel abroad. In The Globe and Mail, Patrick Martin notes that the ads demonstrate "the Israeli government wants the world to know Israelis don't ride camels or eat only kebabs."

I'm all for citizen diplomacy, but I'd be willing to bet that among the sources for negative perceptions of Israel, "excessive dromedary transportation" and "stick-based comestibles" rank fairly low.

The ads expose an important element of nation-branding and public diplomacy in general: the need for targeted and specific outreach, based on authoritative and accurate knowledge of the target audience. Now these ads are aimed at Israeli citizens, but the ultimate targets of the diplomacy effort are non-Israelis with negative opinions of the country. They may succeed in raising awareness among citizen ambassadors, but whether heightened consciousness will translate into improved sentiment abroad is another matter entirely.

Public diplomacy is an incredibly important (and, in my opinion, under-utilized) foreign policy tools. I believe that PD, whether traditional or the "2.0" variety that uses interactive communications technology to engage foreign publics, is absolutely essential. But I also believe that it's significantly compromised when the methodology is not supported by 1) clear and valid foreign policy objectives, and 2) an understanding of the intended audience. I'll withhold judgment for the moment, but I'm not entirely sure Israel's hit the mark on this one.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mind the God Gap

America has been portrayed as a nation of Bible-thumping teetotalers sandwiched between two coastal slices of godless hedonism, but the truth is obviously much more complex than that. Nonetheless, a new study shows that a spirit of "uncompromising Western secularism" is hampering U.S. foreign policy efforts abroad. David Waters reports on the issue in today's Washington Post:

American foreign policy is handicapped by a narrow, ill-informed and "uncompromising Western secularism" that feeds religious extremism, threatens traditional cultures and fails to encourage religious groups that promote peace and human rights, according to a two-year study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs... "[The 'God gap' is] a hot topic," said Chris Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement in Arlington County and a Council on Foreign Relations member. "It's the elephant in the room. You're taught not to talk about religion and politics, but the bummer is that it's at the nexus of national security. The truth is the academy has been run by secular fundamentalists for a long time, people who believe religion is not a legitimate component of realpolitik."

In other words, U.S. foreign policy is developed and carried out without adequate attention to the religious cultures that influence the values and actions of many people in the world, for whom customs are often more powerful than laws.

The Chicago report recommends (among other actions) addressing and clarifying the role of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy. But this is easier said than done. At the heart of the issue are some persistent and complex issues about faith:
  • Is faith a private matter, or something to be proclaimed from the mountaintops?
  • How does one adhere to one's own faith while respecting the beliefs of others?
  • While religious beliefs are likely to unite those of common faith, does it not risk isolating others?
  • And what exactly is the role of faith or religion in American politics -- at home and abroad?
There are many in the "render unto Caesar" crowd who might argue that faith is faith and politics politics, and never the twain shall meet. As a fan of the separation of church and faith, I'll confess I feel more than a little reluctance toward using faith as a political tool. But closing the God gap doesn't have to mean manipulating faith for political ends. Past efforts to address the problem (as the article notes) include passing the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998 and increasing outreach to religious groups in other nations--moves that suggest openness, religious tolerance and a "God loves the equitable" spirit.

Meeting this issue head-on doesn't have to be revolutionary. An important first step could simply involve increasing awareness of and sensitivity to various religious beliefs. And as Lao Tzu said, "A journey of 1,000 miles...."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

News Bits

News from the world of public diplomacy shows that deep down inside, every nation just wants to be loved:

This Brand is Your Brand
: A Duke, a strongman and a kilt designer walk into a bar. Nope, not a joke. They're all part of Scotland's new nation branding campaign, which uses 14 "real Scots" to sell the nation's virtues to potential visitors. This effort has a definite tourist flavor to it, but political missions could potentially benefit from a similar strategy.

Spit and Image: Want to clean up your image? Use a handkerchief. There's "phlegm a-plenty" in this Chinese city, according to Al Jazeera's report, but authorities are cracking down on excessive expectoration in hopes of shining up their image before the Asian Games.

Love in the Time of Canada: At least one Canadian has been won over by Yankee friendliness at the Winter Games, citing the positive coverage of several U.S. commentators. Brownstein seems surprised that Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert has revised his opinion on the "ice-holes" and "syrup-suckers" to our North, but any devout member of the Colbert Nation knows its leader wants nothing more than for the rest of the world to love the United States as much as he does.

To Russia, with Love: The Heritage Foundation offers several tips for countering Russian anti-Americanism: 1) Use PD (and information and communication technology) to counter Moscow propaganda, 2) audit Russian info ops, 3) keep funding freedom- and democracy-promoting programs.

This Brand Was Made for You and Me

Today's topic is ripped straight from the discussion board of my Public Diplomacy class, with a special thanks to alert classmates F. Garcia, and K. Gwira for the links.

Our focus today is nation-branding, which, for the purposes of this blog post, refers to strategic efforts to define a country's image for foreign audiences. Please note that the objectives of nation-branding are not necessarily related to achieving foreign policy objectives, and are frequently related to attracting tourists or foreign developers. According to Mathias Akotia, CEO of the Brand Ghana Office, a brand is "a country’s identity that has been proactively distilled, interpreted, internalized and projected internationally in order to gain international recognition and to construct a favorable national image. A country brand strategy therefore is a plan for defining the most realistic, most competitive and most compelling strategic vision for the country."

Like college freshmen who dream of ditching their high school nicknames and starting anew, countries around the world are working to redefine themselves. So what countries are taking a stab at being BMOC, and how are they doing it?

Abu Dhabi: Fast cars and loose planning characterize the nation’s push for greater prominence. But skepticism remains about its ability to pull off the essential infrastructure- and recognition-building efforts.

Australia: Malcolm Long argues that nation-branding efforts in Australia are both essential to its success and poorly coordinated. Better cohesion could improve its economic and diplomatic outlook.

France: Many of you have already seen this article on the French government's efforts to export French culture to foreign audiences. According to the article, France spends about $1.4 billion every year on cultural and linguistic diplomacy. Ooh la la!

Kosovo: Time magazine describes a government decision to hire an advertising firm to re-brand the nation as a land of hot, young Europeans -- a sort of Baywatch for the Balkans. But the campaign is generating heat within Kosovo's own borders from young Kosovans who resent what they see as an inaccurate depiction.

And on a lighter note, the following were coined in response to a 2008 Washington Post contest to come up with humorous nation branding slogans.

  • Austria: No Kangaroos (John Alvey)
  • China: Come Visit Your Money (Ira Allen)
  • Greenland: Site of the 2060 Summer Olympics (J. Larry Schott; Elwood Fitzner)
  • Iran: World's Largest Non-American Theocracy (Ira Allen)
  • Tajikistan: Stan of Opportunity (Cy Gardner)

And my personal favorite:

  • England: Lie Back and Think of Us (Tom Murphy)

Full list available here.

Monday, February 22, 2010

An Ounce of Prevention

I had the pleasure this evening of listening to John Trattner (of the Council for Excellence in Government) speak about public diplomacy. He raised many interesting points, two of which I'll highlight here.

The first regarded the relationship between journalism and PD. Like Philip Seib, Trattner argues that successful public diplomacy and successful journalism rely on many of the same characteristics, including clarity, consistency, credibility, accuracy, fairness, knowledgability and integrity.

His second point focused on the relationship between PD and policy formation. Communicators, he said, think differently than their colleagues. They have greater awareness of how policy announcements are likely to be received by the public. And for this reason, they ought to be included in the policy process from the beginning, and not treated like a haz mat crew whenever toxic reactions catch policymakers off guard.

The fact of the matter is, diplomats (both public and traditional) are likely to have a better understanding of attitudes within a country than politicians who have never visited it and whose attention is divided between multiple competing interests. By weighing in at the front end, they could provide valuable insight into probable responses to foreign policy announcements before they're made.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Chossudovsky: U.S. Propaganda "Out of Whack"

As I've argued before in this space, the disconnect between language and action in U.S.-Iran interactions has created room for broad (mis)interpretation. If the United States wants its message abroad to be clear, the language and actions of its representatives must be coordinated and consistent.

On RT, Canadian Michel Chossudovsky argues that the United States is beating the drums of World War III--specifically by stockpiling weapons and building public support for military activity.

What [the United States, NATO and Israel] want is to essentially have the support of public opinion, present Iran as a threat to global security due to its alleged nuclear weapons, which it doesn't have, and of course present a justification and a pretext for humanitarian intervention on behalf of the international community.... It's a clear case of distortion and double standards, it's to build a war pretext. And I think what is very serious here is that any kind of military action directed against Iran will immediately lead to escalation...

Those who decide on these military actions believe their own propaganda. They actually believe that they are going to make the world safer by waging a nuclear attack on Iran, and they may also believe that Iran is a threat. And so the whole propaganda ploy which is presented in the Western media has gotten completely out of whack.

I may not agree with Chossudovsky's analysis--but others clearly do. While some U.S. politicians have advocated for dialogue and an open hand, others have adopted what is clearly being interpreted as an aggressive tone. Is there a solution? I would argue that there is a great need for clarity and cohesion in traditional and public diplomacy efforts, to reduce the risk of misunderstanding. And, as always, targeted public diplomacy outreach could go a long way towards generating goodwill and better understanding of U.S. objectives abroad.

Seeds of Diplomacy, Part II

As a follow-up to my last message, here's a link to some remarks by Agricultural Secretary Vilsack:

We need to do a better job, frankly, of developing partnerships, farmer to farmer, leader to leader, explaining these benefits.

So public diplomacy is part of our new approach. We have to focus on a rules-based and science-based system, but we also have to create new opportunities for empowering other nations in other parts of the world to assist us in carrying this message. It cannot just simply be a message carried by the United States. And so you look for countries in Africa and Asia and South America who are embracing this science, who explain to the friends and neighbors in their part of the world the benefits of it. Expanding exports is an important consideration.

And it also means developing relationships, as Jim Miller discussed. Our global food security initiative is not just simply about providing assistance to countries because it is the right thing to do. It is the smart thing to do because it creates relationships that in turn lead to ultimate business opportunities. So if you focus on protecting the market through food safety, if you put more research and development to allow farmers to be more productive and to protect their crops from pests and disease, you expand domestic markets and you increase export markets.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Sowing the Seeds of Diplomacy

Not long ago, I derailed a casual conversation by mentioning the (entirely true) fact that a google search for my name and the words bovine diarrhea will return about 50 hits. This seeming non sequitur arose in response to the question of what I did before I become a full-time public diplomacy enthusiast -- which is write for the U.S. government. Specifically, I wrote articles about studies conducted by the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, for the catchily titled Agricultural Research magazine.

I bring it up because there seems to be a significant gulf between fish disease and foreign policy, but it occurred to me that there are some areas of overlap. The Agricultural Research Service (or ARS, as we like to call it) is involved in multiple international collaborations. From overseas labs to international research collaborations to cooperative screening efforts, ARS frequently engages with foreign nationals in the United States and abroad. The purpose of such collaborations is to benefit both participants, by allowing exchanges of personnel, equipment, experience and resources, and enabling people to work in environments that are particularly conducive to solving specific agricultural problems. The people involved aren't required to submit to a full-scale public diplomacy training course beforehand, but PD objectives (fostering goodwill, improving understanding of U.S. culture, etc.) are frequently achieved through these interactions. Science diplomacy has many such benefits, but it is not a panacea.

Last year in Seed magazine, Nina Fedoroff discussed some of the limits of science diplomacy and advocated for increasing engagement:

First, I think that all of us, particularly we Americans, need to become citizens of this boundary-less world without borders. We need to see, experience, and know the peoples and the problems of other nations. We need to recognize the complexity and interconnections among the challenges facing 21st-century humanity. And we need to understand — at a gut level — that all our fates are truly intertwined.

Then we need to stop moping and mobilize each other’s boundless ingenuity. We need to invent a science that will let us wrap our minds around the complex system that is our planet and its impressive passel of human activities. (And did you notice, science is a common language, hard evidence the agreed upon standard, a common, but unvengeful god.)

During the Cold War, science diplomacy was credited with supporting conversations about nuclear arms control. Today, the greatest threats to our country are different, and often (as Fedoroff notes) transcend borders. Science does provide a common language that can facilitate communication between countries, but whether it can improve understanding is another matter entirely.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Check Is in the Mail...

Over at the Weekly Standard, Jonathan V. Last's undies are all a-bunch in response to the latest We Are the World release. (Full disclosure: I have always detested that song. Please leave your outraged responses in the comments section.)

At first blush, it may seem cruel to gird your loins with snark and vitriol and rush out to attack a defenseless song -- and a charitable song at that! But Last raises the very good point that many grand-scale pop culture charity efforts have had limited impact on their intended beneficiaries:

The $243,418 from the [1971 Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden] gate got to the United Nations pretty quickly, but the rest of the proceeds—about $8.8 million after expenses—were tied up in accounting for the better part of a decade. It wasn’t until 1981 that UNICEF received the balance, by which time Bangladesh had won its independence and was already onto its seventh presidential strongman. The money would surely have been welcome in 1981, since Bangladesh was (and remains) one of the poorest places on earth. But how much difference could $8.8 million really make? Since 1971, Bangladesh has been given more than $30 billion in grant aid and loan commitments to little effect.
Stars don't have a lock on charitable giving (or dunning, as the case may be). States, NGOs, IGOs, the private sector -- heck, just about everybody, thanks to modern technology that makes mass communication nearly effortless -- have engaged in humanitarian action. For states, the intent is often two-fold, which is how bags of rice end up emblazoned with the donating country's flag. The pitfalls of cultural charity aren't unique either. And that brings me back to what seems to be the theme o' the week: glitzy, attention-grabbing efforts to raise awareness and promote messages are frequently successful at doing just that--raising awareness and promoting messages. But they don't necessarily translate into action.

For Bono and Joni Mitchell and the Beatles, inaction means the disappointment of seeing your goals unrealized, and the danger of being cited in snarkish articles and blogs for years to come. But for states, the stakes are much higher. Governments who engage in flashy public diplomacy outreach without the policy or action to carry their goals to fruition risk not only personal disappointment and ridicule; they risk isolating the very groups they'd hoped to target and undermining their own efforts by failing to fulfill expectations.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

U.S. to Iran: "Nice Doggy..."

Few things can derail public diplomacy efforts as effectively as inconsistency. For those of us who believe diplomacy is more than the art of saying "nice doggy" until you can find a rock, headlines like this can be disheartening. Tuesday's Washington Post reports that U.S. diplomats have been working both sides of their mouths while talking to Iran this month:
Obama administration officials still ritually say they are interested in engaging with Iran. But as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton completed her tour of the Persian Gulf region on Tuesday, it seemed clear that the bow to doing so is a mere formality and that criticism of Iran is the standard practice.

A day after Clinton repeatedly warned that Iran is turning into a "military dictatorship," officials in Tehran lashed out at the United States, with Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki denouncing her comments as "a new trick" and "fake words" intended "to divert public opinion in the region."

Perhaps one reason people remain skeptical about the efficacy of PD is that it's so easily undermined by inconsistent words and actions. Last year in American Behavioral Scientist, Philip Seib argued that adopting journalistic ethical standards could help protect public diplomacy from charges of propagandizing. Objectivity was the chief virtue in question, but I'd argue that consistency is equally valuable. This is a situation where a little coordination could go a long way--but coordination has never been the defining characteristic of U.S. public diplomacy.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Protest of Champions

USA Today reports on protests at the Vancouver games:

Hundreds of protesters have converged on the Winter Olympics host city in search of a global stage for myriad causes — from opposition to the Olympic movement to a call for Canada's withdrawal from Afghanistan.

And while the tone of recent demonstrations have become more hard-edged than last week's community center laugh-fest — at least eight people were arrested and two police officers injured during weekend clashes — police are giving protesters some room to roam.

Vancouver's response offers a stark contrast to the harsh crackdown on dissenters that accompanied the Beijing Olympics, as documented by organizations like Amnesty International. As I've argued before, permitting dissent is the smart move for countries that support free speech -- but is suppressing it the best move for countries that don't?

Obviously the prohibition of free expression looks bad to any countries that support it, and as a fierce advocate of free speech and other UDHR values, I disapprove of it myself. But I'd still like to see some statistics on how much PR damage is done by suppression, versus the amount done by protesters. Like many aspects of public diplomacy, this one is difficult to measure, but there must be some evidence proving that curbing dissent is a bad policy move. Can anyone help?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Words, words, words: In Defense of IC

As in any graduate program, there are some friendly rivalries and vicious smack talk exchanges between the different concentrations at American's School of International Service, so I wasn't too offended when a fellow student made some disparaging remarks about International Communications at a party this past weekend.

The skeptic shall remain anonymous because a) the critique was mostly facetious, and b) it's not really fair to hold anyone accountable for comments made under the influence of jungle juice, and besides, he was kind of cute. But the exchange made me realize that I've defended public diplomacy in this space before, so today I'd like to focus on IC.

It's easy enough to dismiss IC as little more than fancy talk, an expendable addition, like cilantro, to the main course -- presumably foreign policy or international development or one of the "weightier" areas of concentration. But I object to that characterization, and not simply because cilantro is a vile spice that tastes like Palm Olive.

Communication, according to the formidable Christine Chin, professor of Cross-Cultural Communication, is about nothing less than the construction, maintenance and transformation of reality. It's a process. It's constant. And it matters.

I was an English major, so I know how to vivisect a statement, isolate the words and reshape it with my own emphasis, but international communication involves so much more than just words. There are words, of course -- both the words that are spoken and the words left unsaid. But there's also physical proximity, relationships with time, nonverbal communication, overt and covert expectations and, most important of all, context.

And that context is where the game gets interesting. Because now you've got an enormous threatening mass (an iceberg, to use a popular IC analogy) of unconscious processes just below your range of visibility, and any one of them could sink your foreign policy or development or other IR efforts before either party can articulate the danger.

Successful international communication requires humility, recognition of one's own ignorance, observation without judgment, empathy, awareness, and a constant desire to listen, to understand and to adapt.

International communication is the foundation on which IR must rest, because without the ability to understand and express our expectations, desires and beliefs, it is impossible for any international initiative to succeed.

Reel Diplomacy: Avatar

With more passion than punctuality, I'd like to respond to the Gormogon claim that Avatar and similar films are inspiring anti-Americanism abroad. I haven't seen Avatar (I'm more of an indie film sort of girl), so I can't respond to the movie itself. What I object to is the idea that open dissent and dialogue are values we don't want to export.

Thought-provoking is definitely the word for this article (as opposed to, say, convincing) because the author's claim that movies critiquing the United States could generate anti-US sentiment is obviously possible (and even likely in some cases) but it's not universal. Box Office Mojo lists the following 10 films for all-time global earnings:

1. Avatar
2. Titanic
3. The Return of the King
4. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
5. The Dark Knight
6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
7. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
8. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
9. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
10. The Two Towers

I'll start with the obvious note that only one of these movies takes place in the United States, and follow by pointing out that the global media market seems to be hungry not for anti-American sentiment, but for escapist fantasies. A lot of these stories involve outsiders taking on corruption and underdogs beating the odds -- both of which have frequently surfaced in pro-US narratives.

Also in the top 50: Independence Day, ET, Up!, Finding Nemo, Forrest Gump, Twilight: New Moon, Spider-Man, Star Wars, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Jurassic Park and Momma Mia! (Full list here.) Which supports my first point: Anti-American movies exist, but they're not the most popular movies available. (A brief aside here, that I'm using the term "anti-American" to mean any movie with themes that suggest the United States is corrupt or malignant.)

Point two: audiences are not universal. Some people liked romantic comedies. Others like action flicks. Sometimes people like the same movie for completely different reasons. If I run a pro-American film in my cinema, you can be sure the audience isn't going to file out in lockstep whistling the national anthem. The same applies to negative depictions.

Point three: at the heart of our national identity is an unwavering commitment to democracy, which is based on dissent and the ability to voice conflicting opinions. What better demonstration of free speech can we have than the ability to openly criticize our government and institutions when we believe them to be in the wrong?

Whether you support the United States or oppose it, in this country you will always have the right to make that opinion clear. Dissent isn't the problem. The real danger lies in projecting an incomplete picture. Like showing a history of worker abuse, without showing the worker's rights advocates or legal reforms that have improved those situations over time. Or claiming that your average American knows more about Kennedy's paranoia than Kennedy himself, or that unpatriotic movies are sowing the seeds of hatred abroad, for example.

I think our Gormogon poster himself recognizes the limits of his argument, which is why he starts hedging his bets before he's finished. (Making a gender assumption here, and I apologize if I'm off.) Ultimately I think he had a clever idea and a lot of fun and clever words to describe it, without the facts to back it up. As somebody who dearly loves the sound of my own voice, I can sympathize. I've been there. But that doesn't change the fact that an interesting, cleverly written piece won't stand up to a hearty sneeze if it doesn't have solid factual support.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

What We Need Now Is Leadership

Vice President Dick Cheney attacked John Kerry. He said that John Kerry "lacks deeply held convictions." Today Kerry shot back. He said, "That's not completely true."

Jay Leno, author of the above quote, is hardly the first comedian to rib Senator Kerry for straddling the fence or waffling. In this Al Jazeera interview, Kerry demonstrates his ongoing ability to see both sides of an issue, although accusations of waffling may be unjust. Regarding the Taliban, Kerry argues that schools, education, development and dialogue are central to improvement. He emphasizes the importance of talking with Taliban fighters and helping Afghanistan to create a more effective government, but dances around the issue of current military operations there. Ultimately, his is a message that promotes open dialogue and empowering the people. Despite over 1,200 views (at the time of this posting), the video's comments feature has been disabled, making it difficult to determine how Kerry's message has been received.

Kerry, as mentioned in this blog, has advocated for revamped public diplomacy in the country, arguing that negative attitudes about our country are caused by "honest disagreements with our policies and our actions" as well as "misrepresentations of our goals, values and motives targeted at those prepared to believe the worst about us."

Few would argue that U.S. goals, values and motives have been misrepresented in Afghanistan, and that U.S. efforts to reframe the story have been countered by opposing views. But how can the United States hope to set the record straight when our nation's representatives call for dialogue and shortly thereafter launch a major offensive? Kerry explains the seeming incongruity with the deftness of a seasoned politician. But the people influenced by the military's actions likely outnumber the people who have been exposed to U.S. information efforts, and it's easy to believe that the military's presence in Afghanistan will continue to generate conflicting, and frequently negative, responses in the region until our policy, action and communication align more simply.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Got snow?

Vancouver is, evidently, the only city in the northwest quadrant that's short on snow. But the Olympic Games are, as always, a perfect arena for international narratives to unfold.

Did the end of the Cold War take all the zest out of Olympic competitions? Stephen has a solution for engaging twenty-first century enemies in physical combat.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Sport Report - Global Snow Drive - Al Michaels
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorSkate Expectations

And NBC opens the games with a montage of athletes grimacing, exulting and otherwise emoting while a sober voiceover lays out the characteristics of the U.S. team: ambitious, indomitable, passionate, graceful, speedy, charismatic, original, redeemable. Let those who doubt the private sector is capable of spinning a public diplomacy narrative take note...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Oh, It Doesn't Show Signs of Stopping ...

You are aware, no doubt, that the blogging multitudes surrounding our nation's capitol have been transformed into a collection of wonksicles by back-to-back blizzardy mayhem, so I'll withhold my personal gripes this week and cast my gaze somewhere hotter, namely Iran.

In a recent Slate article, Jason Rezaian questions the accuracy of "Iran experts" stationed beyond the nation's borders:
There is a growing schism between people battling for change inside Iran and those based outside the country. Individuals and groups operating outside Iran's borders hold little sway with the domestic protesters. A 25-year-old graduate student and office worker in Tehran told me, "I think most of those who have left forget about those of us here very quickly. I can't think of one person speaking on behalf of Iran who I believe is out for anything besides their own gain."

Nevertheless, she expressed a strong belief in the validity of the protest movement. "We exist. We're not sure what we are yet, but we're struggling to find out. And we keep growing in numbers. Ultimately, though, it's up to us who are here. We wish the world would respect that and just encourage us."

Rezaian's article underscores an important truth for foreign policy: An incomplete understanding of a foreign nation's populace is a surefire way to derail any soft power initiative -- but understanding a movement before it understands itself is entirely impossible. For a nation like the United States (among whose virtues, patience rarely tops the list) it is essential that this point be recognized. After all, firm intelligence includes not only what we know, but what we don't know. As the saying goes, it's not what we don't know that gets us into trouble, but what we know for sure that just ain't so.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Fight at the Museum

Tonight, on When Cultural Exchanges Go Bad: the British Museum's decision to hold on to a Babylonian artifact has prompted criticism from Tehran, where Iran's National Museum had expected to receive it. At the heart of the dispute is the Cyrus Cylinder, believed to be the oldest known bill of rights, and allegations that the British Museum has reneged on a promised loan.

Evidently somebody forgot to call "no backsies."

Situations like this rarely bubble over into full-blown meltdowns, but they have a tendency to reveal underlying differences in cultural and political outlooks. Read about it here, here or here, or watch this report.

The dispute is likely to go to the UN for a ruling. Will UNESCO remind Iran that nobody likes a tattletale, or will the UK be urged to just play nice? More importantly, was this entire situation not avoidable? Cultural exchanges -- of personnel, equipment and artifacts -- have a lot of benefits. Why let a communication hiccup derail the entire operation?

Monday, February 8, 2010

From Science, with Love

We all know that the technology produced from scientific research can make international conflicts more deadly than ever. But can science help stop war?
As a perfect complement to yesterday's post, KC Cole takes on Science Diplomacy, elaborating on some of the potential benefits of using science as a public diplomacy tool.

Cole's comments were inspired by a conference hosted by the USC Center on Public Diplomacy last week. Her focus is somewhat philosophical, reflecting on the potential for scientific discoveries to generate ideas that promote cosmopolitan attitudes, and says less about the potential of professional exchanges.
Science can eliminate many of the irrational fears that drive the worst of human behaviors. We no longer burn mentally ill people at the stake for being possessed by demons, or slay maidens to change the course of wars or weather. (Can science find ways to eliminate our often irrational fears of each other?)
I admire her optimism, but I think her question overlooks the fact that many fears, while not entirely rational, are more than justified. Not to mention that plenty of unpleasant human behaviors aren't driven by fear, but by impulses that seem perfectly rational to the actor whose beliefs derive from different assumptions than our own. Science certainly has a lot to offer curious human beings, but I'm skeptical about its ability to generate sweeping change to international conflicts. Then again, I never thought I'd see a crustacean on a treadmill, so clearly my scientific imagination could be expanded.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Snowtorious BIG

Like many a D.C. area resident, I'm "sheltering in place" this weekend, curled up on the couch with a cup of cocoa and a warm dog. And with nowhere to go -- and no way to get there until the plows come through -- there's nothing to distract me from my studies. Of course, I understand there's some sort of sporting event in which I should be feigning interest, but I doubt the labrador is going to chide me for my indifference, so I've been free to devote my time to reading and reflecting on the current state of U.S. public diplomacy.

Thanks to my Public Diplomacy syllabus, I got to spend some time with Barry Fulton this morning -- his writing, that is, but if the plows are efficient, I'll get to meet the man himself in class this week -- and I was intrigued by his recommendation to "stimulate the imagination of those who make a difference within their own cultures," and to recruit artists, scholars and scientists as public diplomats to that end.

This is the area of public diplomacy that most directly engages my interests. As a recovering English major, I have deep respect for the power of narrative, imagination and creativity. Fulton is hardly unique in emphasizing the need for reform in U.S. public diplomacy; the need for change seems to be one of the few areas on which most writers in the field can agree. But he was the first I've encountered to advocate imagination and creative thought as a solution.

Fulton underscores the importance of public diplomacy with an Edward Murrow quote: "There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference."

While Murrow and Fulton are emphasizing the need to correct ignorance, intolerance and indifference abroad, I wondered if that quote couldn't be directed inward as well. Is there not a great battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference within our own government? I said before that the need for change in the field of public diplomacy is one of a few areas of agreement. A general lack of understanding and appreciation for its importance is an equally dominant theme in the literature. It's no secret that support for public diplomacy operations correlates strongly with perception of foreign threats to U.S. security. Financial support wanes in times of peace and peaks in times of crisis, as if the only time our nation needs to communicate directly with foreign publics is when they're least likely to listen to us.

Our habitual cycle of complacency and alarm may stem from a false assumption that our allies must necessarily understand and love our nation -- and the reverse assumption that our enemies do not. In The Conquest of America, Tzvetan Todorov shows that both of these assumptions are false. Understanding, appreciating and equality can exist alone or in combination, and anything less than all three will lead to an imperfect relationship between cultures.

All of this is a fancy way of saying that long-term public diplomacy is necessary not only to foster understanding, appreciation and equal footing for the United States in other countries, but to generate better understanding, appreciation and assumptions of equality for other countries and cultures in our own. Our nation's tendency to withdraw funding for communication efforts and similar programs when we imagine ourselves to be comparatively safe betrays a lack of interest in the voices of others and a lack of appreciation for the benefits long-standing public diplomacy programs can confer.

Unfortunately, measuring those benefits is notoriously difficult, and persuading Congress to finance programs without easily measured benefits is even trickier. If I come up with a solution, I'll be sure to post it here, but at the moment I've got other obligations. There is, evidently, one thing in the house to distract me from my studies, and right now she wants a walk in the snow.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Indulge My Whims

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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Happy Birthday, Norman Rockwell

Inspired by a 1941 speech by President Franklin Roosevelt, Rockwell painted the "Four Freedoms," which he planned to donate to the War Department. When the government expressed little interest in the work, Rockwell sold it to the Saturday Evening Post, which received thousands of reprint requests. It is worth noting that Rockwell's work was later used by the government for war loan drives. While it was originally intended for an American audience, the iconic series has since spread around the world, contributing to an understanding of American values in foreign countries.

For a peerless photo essay on Rockwell and Socialist Realism, check out John Brown's Notes and Essays.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Of Rice and Men

Last night my roommate dropped the Washington Post in front of me and asked what I, as a student of International Communication, thought of the photo on the front page. A Haitian walked away from a UN distribution area carrying an enormous sack of rice, on which was printed a bright U.S. flag.

"I think it's good public diplomacy," I said.

"You don't think it's propaganda?" she asked. I looked at the photo again, but as far as I could tell, there was no articulated message being distributed, so I said no.

"It's just a bag of rice."

"Is it?" she asked. "Or is it a stuffed American flag?"

I could see what she was getting at, but I wasn't willing to bend. In "Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes," Jacques Ellul cites the following definitions of the word:
· "a manipulation of psychological symbols having goals of which the listener is not conscious" (popular in the United States during the 1920s)
· "the expression of opinions or actions carried out deliberately by individuals or groups with a view to influencing the opinions or actions of other individual groups for predetermined ends and through psychological manipulations" (Institute for Propaganda Analysis)
· "an attempt to modify personalities and control the behavior of individuals in relation to goals considered non-scientific or of doubtful value in a specific society and time period" (Leonard W. Doob).
Ellul doesn't accept or reject any of these definitions, but goes on to argue that propaganda encompasses psychological action, psychological warfare, re-education, brainwashing, and public and human relations. He also states that propaganda persuades not with facts but with myths and that it success when dissent becomes negligible or non-vocal.

Ellul's is not the only definition of propaganda, but it is the one I had recently finished reading in preparation for a two and a half hour class from which I had only just returned, so it's no wonder that it was the first to come into my head. But despite the fact that I'd just spent two and a half hours talking about public diplomacy (or maybe because of it) I couldn't articulate my main point, which was that there's an important distinction between public diplomacy and propaganda, and I put the patriotic rice bag in the first category.

I can't remember exactly what I did say, but I know it was neither clear nor convincing. We went around in circles for a few minutes, and because my roommate is too polite to point out that I was a terrible debater, we let it drop. But it bothered me that I couldn't express myself better, so I'm taking another stab at it here.

According to the USIA, "Public diplomacy seeks to promote the national interest and the national security of the United States through understanding, informing and influencing foreign publics and broadening dialogue between American citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad."

A bag of rice with an American flag tells a story: This rice comes from the United States. One could take it a step further and assume the bag was donated as humanitarian aid. Another step could allow one to assume either that the United States is a generous country, or that the United States wishes to be perceived as a generous country for ulterior motives. But that ambiguity is precisely what makes the rice a tool of public diplomacy and not propaganda: It allows room for dissent. It doesn't tell the entire story, it simply alludes to it. It's a generous action, designed to instill good will.

Ultimately, I think my roommate was objecting to the second message, which seemed stronger to her. She said it seemed arrogant to take such obvious steps to achieve recognition for a kind action. I imagine – although she did not specify – that she sees the alternative as a selfless act of anonymous charity. And while I approve of such actions for individuals, I'm not sure it's reasonable to expect the same for states. To make my case with a grotesque degree of oversimplification: 1) States wage war against one another, 2) One factor that can decrease the likelihood of war is to generate goodwill between states, 3) The objectives of public diplomacy can be useful in this pursuit. For me, the alternative to the flag-adorned rice isn't a blank bag; it's a missile defense shield.

But I'm new to the study of public diplomacy and I'm still not sure I'm making my case coherently, or even accurately, so I'm open to other opinions. Is it arrogant for a state to throw its emblem on every charitable act, or is it simply pragmatism?

Monday, February 1, 2010

News Bits

Can’t Buy Me Gov – Or, on Second Thought…

The U.S. Supreme Court rules 5-4 that corporations and ideological groups can spend unlimited money on political advertisements during campaigns and elections. At issue is the little man—whether he be an unsuspecting U.S. voter or an opinionated corporation. Such organizations are now free to devote endless funds toward the shaping of public opinion.

Aid is Enough

Relief efforts continue in Haiti—but to what end? Some Haitians have expressed a desire for the United States to replace the Haitian government, but that is certainly not Washington’s aim. Foreign aid is both an extension of our country’s humanitarian values and a tool of public diplomacy, but Haiti needs significant restoration. While it’s likely that the United States will contribute to the effort, it’s unrealistic to assume that the country will assume all the responsibility. Nonetheless, humanitarian aid has become a battleground for nations and ideologies to win the hearts and minds of foreign publics.

From the Hard Power Files:

U.S. and Chinese officials square off over arms sale to Taiwan. The Obama administration’s decision to sell arms to Taiwan suggests a willingness to disappoint Chinese expectations. Or is it just another example of bold action characterizing the beginning of a U.S. president’s term before he realizes the wisdom of avoiding the economically muscular country’s wrath, lest China snap at him with a rolled up towel and shove the country into a gym locker?

I Can't Believe It's Not Butterstick!

Whatever its flaws may be, the international exchange is a cornerstone of U.S. public diplomacy and has, for many years, improved international understanding by enabling students and professionals to travel abroad. Today the United States bids farewell to a beloved individual as he returns to his native China: Tai Shan. The popular panda has been living at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. since July 2005, but today he heads home to his native China. The Asia Trail won't be quite the same without him.

Courtesy of the Washington Post: