Tuesday, March 30, 2010
This question arose in class last night, in response to two things:
1) The approaching sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and
2) Helle Dale's assertion that "President Obama’s tendency to begin his speeches to foreign audiences with an apology for American history hardly contributes to a positive national 'narrative.'"
As Professor Quainton noted, from 2011 to 2015, we can look forward to commemorations of ever decisive battle, speech and political act that shaped our country's history 150 years ago. While no living Americans participated in the war, many are descendants of slaves and slave owners, Yankee and Rebel soldiers, war profiteers and spies, nurses and ladies aid society members, abolitionists and lynch mob participants--and even those whose families immigrated after the War between the States ended have been shaped by the narratives it set in place.
It is impossible to discuss the war without acknowledging that it arose, in part, in response to institutions that permitted the subjugation of one segment of the population for the purpose of benefiting another. And it is impossible to acknowledge that without admitting that such institutions still exist, albeit in altered and less overtly opportunistic forms.
And that brings us to the second point, which was fairly controversial. I wasn't alone in disagreeing that acknowledging past mistakes (I disagree with the use of the word "apology" in this context, but that's another matter altogether) doesn't contribute to a negative national narrative. On the contrary, I think it shows reflection, discernment and humility, all attractive characteristics. Far from weakening America's image, I think it shows strength of character and openness.
In the case of the Civil War, I think it would be impossible to discuss the war openly and honestly without recognizing the political and cultural wrongs underlying it. But how is it to be done in a meaningful and positive way? Politicians might want to pay attention to a recent UNESCO event on slavery highlighted on the State Department's blog. The even involved students and teachers around the world participating in a moderated discussion on the theme "Expressing our Freedom through Culture." The event involved collaboration, modern technology and thoughtful analysis, enabling many voices to contribute to a narrative that included both the horrors of the past and active responses for the present and future.
That's how you tell a story.
Monday, March 29, 2010
--Hugo of St. Victor
[A] towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: nonhitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet-weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have "lost". What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.
Today’s quotes come from two wise men, separated by vocation, tone and about eight centuries, but united in their focus on travelers and a shared respect for the strange and wondrous variety of the world. Expatriation, even short-term expatriation, is a tricky business that forces people out of their culturally-constructed comfort zones, but it's a necessary part of international communication.
As Hugo of St. Victor notes, the savvy traveler should approach every new location as a stranger in a strange land, unencumbered by existing prejudice or favoritism, and willing to observe it with as much objectivity as possible. Adams, on the other hand, recognizes that the world is a dangerous, strange, challenging place, but notes that it is not entirely possible – or even, perhaps, desirable – to every scrap of cultural baggage. The universe can get messy; you may need a towel.
The take-away, for the citizen diplomat, is that going abroad is a challenging experience, one that forces people to re-evaluate their assumptions. Maintaining a blind devotion to one’s homeland to the exclusion of all other places is not profitable, nor is loving all places equally and uncritically. The wise response is to find a balance between the two, drawing from one’s cultural foundation and keeping an open mind to alternatives.
In terms of cultural diplomacy and international communication, I think a common mistake is for participants to focus too intently on the end goal and not on the process, which, under the right circumstances, can be an end unto itself. Citizen diplomats, take note: Recognize, but don’t idealize, your roots. Keep an open mind. And bring a towel.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
So how does RT contribute to Russian public diplomacy? Let's just say it's not the sharpest tool in the Russian PD shed. In Soft Power, Joseph Nye notes of Cold War-era Soviet PD that it relied on methods such as promoting high culture, broadcasting and launching disinformation campaigns. These efforts were supported by the nation's considerable economic, military and technological hard power. Ultimately, however, Soviet soft power was undercut by the closed government, failure to effectively use pop cultural diplomacy and its own propaganda, which was undermined by its inconsistency with government policies.
Today, high culture still features prominently in Russian PD. Its writers, musicians, dancers and artists are renowned around the world. But the nation's pop culture impact is still minimal. The Russian film industry, for example, has produced few global blockbusters over the past decade, although Night Watch, Russia's highest-grossing film ever, made nearly $34 million internationally. And changes to the Russian film industry are creating buzz beyond the country's borders.
Collaborative ventures could boost Russia's film cred abroad, but funding cuts could harm the industry and decrease its ties to the government, making it less reliable a tool of cultural diplomacy. For a nation that once had an international film festival at its disposal to promote its political and cultural values (full disclosure: this blogger worked at said festival for five years, well after it had reverted to Czech ownership) reducing its industry to a handful of under-financed films is a major change. Without proper financing, Russian pop culture can't hope to compete with more lucrative foreign competitors. And, clearly, cultural diplomacy is a task Russia's foreign-language news services can't carry alone.
In an essay posted March 24, Saher Sidhom argues that "a country brand should start with a coherent brand and attitude but allow for paradoxes." Contradictions in cultural characteristics are inevitable, and highlighting them makes a nation's brand "more surprising and lively."
Sidhom cites Sweden as an example, noting that the country is progressive, but values preservation. Personally, I think a greater Swedish paradox is that their furniture looks sleek and basic, but tends to require an advanced degree in physical logic and a six-pack to assemble, but I am no expert in country branding, so I'll defer to Sidhom's judgment.
In general, I think Sidhom's advice is sound. Most nations and cultures do contain paradoxes, and it's better to acknowledge them upfront than to wait for your detractors to point them out, but it needs to be done with care and finesse. Otherwise you get something that looks like this:
There is some danger in defining a nation's characteristics according to its inconsistencies. But, of course, the act of reducing one's national character to a symbolic brand is an inevitably dangerous enterprise. As Shana Alexander notes, "the paradox of reality is that no image is as compelling as the one which exists only in the mind's eye."
Nation branders beware!
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
The Kids Corner at the Embassy of Afghanistan, for example, includes photographs, an Afghan crossword and a slide show featuring handy facts about the country. Did you know Afghanistan is home to various nomadic tribes that traverse the country seasonally, called “Kuchis”? True! The Embassy of Chile offers "Basic Information" in English and Spanish for young visitors--or so they say. Both links took me to a Spanish-language site. Denmark and Ireland both go the educational route, providing school report-friendly facts for students and merit-badge seekers. One of the most impressive sites (in terms of interactivity, age-appropriateness, style and content) was Venezuela for Kids, which crams an astounding amount of information into an engaging, kid-friendly page.
If you're curious, the U.S. embassy has a kids page, too--but not directly. You have to follow a few links to the State Department and then to the youth page, which seems to be targeting U.S. youths more than foreigners. But there's a games page where Pat the Passport will guide you through some educational games (match the flags to the country!) and teach you why public diplomacy matters.
Many embassy pages contain information and presentations that, while not kid-specific, are suitable for young visitors. In terms of nation-branding, the kids pages reveal a lot about how the country wants to be viewed abroad. They almost universally eschew any mention of foreign policy, focusing instead on culture, history, geography and people. This is outreach without any agenda beyond basic education. All in all, however, this is an area with a lot of room for expansion. So let's say you've got a fancy grant and a cracker jack staff to help you out. What would you put on the U.S. for Kids page?
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
PD on the QT: A U.S. News & World Report op-ed suggests that public negotiations will harm U.S.-Israeli relations: "If issues are to be resolved, it will happen only through private channels and private dialogue." Because nothing derails international communication faster than open, transparent interactions, evidently.
Love the Player, Hate the Game: Global enthusiasm for President Obama hasn't translated into foreign policy success, according to the Wall Street Journal. Popularity-diminishing rumors that he dated that weird girl from third period have failed to improve the situation.
Monday, March 22, 2010
This truism seems to have been overlooked in the strategic PD approach from Judith McHale's office, which emphasizes a uni-directional message approach and gives only passing attention to the importance of collaboration and dialogue with foreign publics. Last week, I mentioned Neal M. Rosendorf's support for cultural public diplomacy, and I'd like to return to his argument here. Rosendorf suggested the following as potential improvements to cultural PD outreach:
- Increase funding to support cultural PD.
- Erase war imagery from official speech.
- Make embassies, consulates and libraries more accessible.
- Make traveling to the United States easier for foreigners.
- Scale back broadcasters with a propagandistic reputation (like Radio Marti) and replace them with a beefed-up version of the VOA, based on a BBC model.
- Re-engage the United Nations.
- Encourage Hollywood to export U.S. values.
- Promote Internet freedom.
- Encourage free travel of journalists.
Some people will disagree with Rosendorf's prescriptions. Encouraging media companies to export U.S. values, for example, will strike some as inappropriate and potentially propagandistic government meddling in private affairs. And some will argue, justifiably, that the success of such measures is unsure. Even the best public diplomacy cannot satisfy all audiences. For some individuals and groups, opposition to U.S. policy is insurmountable. But the U.S. government clearly recognizes that cultural diplomacy has some value.
Judith McHale's recently published PD strategy acknowledges the importance of personal connections, and recommends the following tactics for improving people-to-people relationships:
•Revitalize and establish American Centers/Corners as spaces for Public Diplomacy activities and engagement. Identify the best means of upgrading and maintaining publicly-accessible, secure American Corners/Centers. Design models for new American Centers as venues for programs beyond fortified compounds and as symbols of our desire to engage.Actively seek private sector partners in making these places showcases for American culture and technology. For example, Embassy Jakarta is developing plans for an American Place in a shopping mall.
•Reinvigorate cultural programming to drive engagement and collaboration. Scale up cultural programming that presents American art, theater, music, dance, and literature to create apolitical space for building relationships and to counter negative stereotypes about American culture. Extend American culture’s collective reach by facilitating the overseas work of other public and private cultural institutions and organizations (e.g. the Smithsonian or regional arts councils), using technologies to multiply linkages (e.g. online arts management courses taught by U.S. experts or online fora for sharing artistic content), and encouraging artistic collaboration as a springboard for enduring relationships.
The document also recommends expanding the ECA budget, increasing cultural and educational outreach, and increasing partnership with NGOs and the U.S. private sector. But the framework, for all its strengths, doesn't emphasize the importance of collaborative partnership with other countries. Whereas Rosendorf's cultural PD strategy focuses on making the U.S. more open and accessible to foreign publics, McHale's strategy emphasizes exporting the U.S. message abroad. The difference lies in their attitudes toward interaction and dialogue, an essential element of PD that is largely absent from McHale's framework.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Fortunately, they had help. They had the organization that had resettled them in the United States. And they have also received support from their church, their neighbors, the school system, the county, the state, about half a dozen volunteers from the D.C. metro area and my mother, who has managed, over the past two years, to get most of her friends and family to help out as well. This network has worked ceaselessly to keep the family afloat, and today the kids are happy and healthy and learning to read. They wear Dora and Diego sneakers. They ask for help on the monkey bars. They know all the words to "Happy Birthday." They make paper chains at Christmas and roast turkey at Thanksgiving. They are a typical American family.
I mention their story because yesterday marked the thirtieth anniversary of the U.S. Refugee Act, under which tens of thousands of refugees enter the United States every year. Many of these refugees struggle, as this family has struggled, to find work, pay their bills and adjust to U.S. culture. Some of them thrive in their new environment. Some fail to adjust. Some have supportive networks. Others fall through the cracks. The fates of these families and individuals, and all immigrants to the United States, is important to all Americans. As U.S. residents, refugees, asylees and immigrants are citizen diplomats who provide unique and direct links between the United States and their native countries. For many people living in other countries, immigrants may be their only link to the United States. And people are certainly more likely to accept the opinions of their former colleagues, friends, neighbors and families than those of a foreign government. The America they see is the America they will represent to the people they've left behind. Therefore, there is a justification for supporting new Americans that extends beyond the basic humanitarian impulse to protect and support those citizens and residents who cannot protect and support themselves.
As Eric P. Schwartz noted in an address yesterday, "the protection of the most vulnerable must be at the center of policy-making – due to the moral imperative, and the simple goal of saving lives; due to our government’s interest in sustaining U.S. leadership and building sustainable partnerships, which enable us to drive the development of international humanitarian principles, programs, and policies like no other government in the world; and due to the importance of promoting reconciliation, security, and well-being in circumstances where despair and misery not only threaten stability, but also critical national security interests of the United States."
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Cultural engagement, of course, is a broad net that covers diverse activities like photography, writing, dance, theater, music, sculpture, architecture, sports and cooking. Some of the discussants also included activities like counseling and hosted dialogue as part of the process. Kenyan youth leader George Gachara reflected on his efforts at cultural engagement following post-election violence:
We came together as young people and decided that as a country we have come to the brink of collapse, we have seen how bad things can get, but then we stepped back and get a chance to rescue and save the soul of our nation. So we decided to come up with very simple and creative projects that create a safe space for engagement amongst young people from different communities where they can reflect, they can dialogue and they can also enroll in activities that reconcile their own activities.
Gachara seemed hopeful that such collaborations would forestall future violence in his country. But will it work in Afghanistan? Ahmad Majidyar suggests that coalition forces could achieve greater success by developing locally-based solutions, instead of importing solutions from D.C. which aren't compatible with the local culture. Robin Davies of the British Council also emphasized the importance of local input. In response to a Facebook query asking why culture, ideas and opinions should be forced on others in a democratic society, Davies noted that cultural dialogue is a multi-directional, collaborative process:
Cultural dialogue and cultural relations is a relationship. It's a two-way process. It is not the imposition of one culture onto another culture.... This is a dialogue, this is mutual understanding, this is educating, sharing and connecting with people.
Neal M. Rosendorf would certainly agree. We recently read "A Cultural Public Diplomacy Strategy" for class. In it, Rosendorf argues that cultural diplomacy is essential to U.S. foreign policy and reputation reform. One point Rosendorf raises that does not come up in this video is the issue of financing. Currently, the U.S. government allocates considerably more money to the nation's military budget than it does to its diplomacy budget, indicating a lack of appreciation for the benefits of skillful cultural diplomacy. But as Rosendorf (and General Stanley McChrystal) would argue, military victory is impossible without the support of the other nation's citizens. Sure, sure, the best things in life are free--but some of the really essential things cost a mint. And they're worth investing in.
Monday, March 15, 2010
Thursday, March 11, 2010
According to a recent Washington Post report, the Kabul embassy is straining at the seams, and new employees keep wedging themselves in like so many frat boys in a phone booth, taxing the embassy's ability to accommodate them and run effectively.
The ongoing demand for more personnel has meant that hiring orders are sometimes approved without designated jobs. In one case the inspectors cited, an agency had requested authorization "to create up to ten full-time positions in Afghanistan but had not yet decided what those positions would do when the employees actually arrived in country."
I'm gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that pulling ten embassy newbies into a war zone before you've got work for them to do is a poor use of resources. And how exactly do you fill a job position before it's been defined? Just hire somebody who looks reasonably competent and hope they're adept at writing memos and/or detonating mines, whichever need you decide you need met?
The situation's not much better in Iraq:
In Baghdad, the new embassy compound still crowds 1,100 people into 700 one-bedroom apartments. Christopher R. Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said during a recent visit to Washington that those accommodations are better than the boxlike trailers where most civilian embassy personnel were previously housed.
"But in the long run," Hill said, "we're not going to be able to attract people when they're two to a one-bedroom apartment. . . . It's like college. And, you know, I didn't have that great a time in college."
On behalf of all Americans who didn't have that great a time in college, I hear you, Chris. One of the great joys of graduation is knowing your days of coming home to find a sock on your doorknob are over. It's bad enough you're asking these people to serve in a land with camel spiders; the least you can do is provide personal bedrooms.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
It's worth noting that the new framework isn't bad--it's just not very inspiring. Despite a few small cosmetic changes, this new vision isn't particularly visionary. It seems a lot like a spit-polished version of existing practices. But I'd like to reserve judgment until I see what it looks like in practice. It's hard to judge a house by its blueprints, and I'm hoping the realization of U.S. public diplomacy will carry it above and beyond its current foundation.
Monday, March 8, 2010
In recent months, the topic of Internet freedom has surfaced in the news--from Hillary Clinton's January remarks at the Newseum to a recent New York Times article on Internet impact on closed societies to ongoing coverage of the Italian court case involving Google Video and privacy laws.
In January, Clinton compared Internet-enabled information flows to samizdat--censored publications circulated in the former Soviet Union which were credited with helping to end the Cold War. As an advocate of free speech and unhindered international communication, I support information expansion, but I'd also like to caution against premature celebration of its effects.
That ICT development has opened the door to new methods of diplomacy is indisputable, but the success of such innovations is not a foregone conclusion. Diplomacy works best when it is multi-directional—not simply one hegemonic source swamping foreign nations with a torrential outpouring of its views, but a collaborative process that takes into account the history, culture, needs and objectives of all partners. New technologies, particularly those with networking and interactive elements, are uniquely adapted to facilitate such collaborations.
Multi-directional communication is a laudable goal, and can be used not only to disperse a uniquely domestic message abroad, but to collaborate with foreign nations and their citizens to identify common goals and values from which to build stronger relationships. But it is important to recognize that ICT development has not been universally positive. After all, the same tools that facilitate civil society organization have been used by al Qaeda and other anti-U.S. groups to recruit and distribute misinformation.
As Clinton noted in her speech, free information doesn't necessarily translate into free society. Nor can it be expected to automatically lead to the wide scale embrace of U.S. foreign policy objectives. Supporters of U.S. policy need to be prepared for the reality that supporting the right to free speech means supporting everybody's right to free speech, including--and perhaps especially--the rights of people with opposing views. By exporting online services to Iran, Cuba and Sudan, U.S. companies will be opening doors not only to allies, but to opponents as well. I'm not suggesting that the U.S. halt its outreach efforts; rather, I believe we should proceed, but with full awareness of the potential danger. When it comes to free speech, it is impossible to have one's cake and eat it too.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
His recommendations for brand refurbishing: monitor brand perception and employ a crisis-management team. It's a short report, but well worth watching, if only to see the blurry havoc wreaked by a leaking shark tank in one of the world's largest shopping centers.
So what steps has the emirate's Brand Dubai office taken to mitigate the damage? Despite the fact that it was established to interact with international media and promote Dubai's image abroad (as reported in the Huffington Post and Arabian Business, among other sources, in June 2009), Brand Dubai declined to comment for the al Jazeera report. But don't imagine that BD is resting on its laurels! Here's a sampling of tweets the office has released over the past week:
- #Dubai Womens College students participate in a recycling campaign http://bit.ly/9XKBBD
- #Dubai Horse Fair to showcase equestrian safety http://bit.ly/9zaOVu
- #Dubai Fashion 2010 has audience mesmerized http://bit.ly/aGgeRD
Brand Dubai's tweets are short, sweet and steady, but the news that female students are recycling is unlikely to wrest the attention of the international press (or their readers) away from the news that Dubai's stock continues to plummet--or even from soft news topics with as much glamour as last week's marine mall mayhem. Rebuilding Dubai's brand is going to require an emphasis on the values on which it was originally founded. Safety, modernity and luxury are a good place to start.
Monday, March 1, 2010
So last night, watching the closing ceremonies, I started to wonder: If I were scanning the ranks of 2010 athletes for future diplomats, who would I recommend? Personally, I think I'd have to go with Shaun White. I've loved this kid since the 2006 games, when his half-time performance saved my friends and me from a serious case of Bode Bummer. He never fails to please. Plus, they call him "the Flying Tomato." There's just something inherently likable about him. Obviously snowboarding finesse isn't going to resonate with all foreign publics, but I think White has a lot of the characteristics a good public diplomat needs: charisma, patriotism, optimism. Plus, he's laid back, good natured and incredibly talented. What's not to love?
I'll open the Comments section to more suggestions. Who's your pick for 2010 Sports Diplomat?