Monday, May 23, 2011

Chuck Norris, and Other Perfectly Reasonable Suggestions

Judith McHale. Source
Judith McHale is stepping down as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and returning to the private sector, the Washington Post reports. No official announcement yet, but the Post expects one to surface in the coming days, and as for her successor: "No word yet on a replacement."

Finding a replacement to lead U.S. public diplomacy and public affairs is a challenging task--one to which bloggers everywhere will no doubt feel themselves called.

Allow me to start the ball rolling here:

Robert Redford

Redford has experience in government, and we know he thinks outside the box and won't stand for government corruption. Plus, he's already got experience with cultural diplomacy, as evidenced by the Film Forward: Advancing Cultural Dialogue initiative, in which his Sundance Institute partners with the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and other federal cultural organizations to promote cross-cultural dialogue via independent film.

Oprah Winfrey

She inspires near cultish devotion and encourages people to live their best lives. She's big on dialogue and collaboration, but has no patience for those who stretch the truth to their own advantage. Plus, as I understand it, she'll have more time on her hands soon.

Chuck Norris

He speaks softly and carries a roundhouse kick. And the U.S. recognizes the need to balance public and traditional diplomacy with realist geopolitics, or "diplomacy with a punch." Norris is no stranger to politics, as his 2008 endorsement of presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee demonstrates. And he could rival Oprah for fan devotion. Plus, he's pretty sure he did two tours in Iraq.

Tai Shan

Yes, I realize I have a problem. Source
OK, I know he's Chinese, but ... oh, who am I kidding? I'll use the flimsiest pretext to put a panda picture on this blog.

Ashton Kutcher

If you read this blog regularly, you'll know I'm not a Kutcher fan. But he is adept at the Twitter, and the State Department is making a major effort to embrace new media in its public diplomacy outreach. As he recently tweeted with great sagacity: "A follower a day keeps the haters away." Isn't that just the twenty-first century redux of "telling America's story"?

Betty White

Why not? She seems to be everywhere these days, demonstrating an admirable talent for both innovation and branding.

 Got more suggestions for celebrity PD leaders? Throw 'em down in the comments section.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Anti-Academic

Did I mention the jaw-clenching? Source
In addition to the many benefits of pursuing a Master's degree, there are a few down sides. Among these: you're less fun at parties, your pants don't fit as well as they used to, and you start using words like "monistic/emancipatory" in casual conversation.

For me, one of the great tragedies of higher education was never having time to go to the cinema. But this was addressed last night when my friends and I, in celebration of the completion of our studies, went to see the most non-academic movie we could think of.

If I had to describe Fast Five in one word, I think it would be "smashy." Yes, this was a great movie for smashing: people, cars, metaphors, the English language -- nothing escaped the director's penchant for pulverization. For two hours, things flew about and crashed together and emerged in a glorious, technicolor mess with a pulsing soundtrack. The movie was every bit as fast as the franchise title had promised. Also, furious.

Lest you think I have nothing positive to say about this movie, let me clarify: I found it highly entertaining. I thought the actors showed great range, drawing from an emotional spectrum that included everything from eye narrowing to jaw clenching. And the women proved to be adept at leaning forward whilst wearing tight clothing. Eric Rohmer it was not. But it was a fabulous vehicle for selling popcorn, and I enjoyed myself immensely.

I should turn this into a reflection on diplomacy somehow, or on the projection of American values via cinematic blockbusters. But it was recently brought to my attention by a concerned reader that my blog is far too academic and does not contain enough me-ness in it. So I'll leave it there for tonight, in the hopes of increasing my blogger bona fides by stepping away from academic navel gazing for a bit.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Not that You Asked, But ...

People are just about tripping over themselves to advise Obama on How to Address the Arab World in the Wake of Osama bin Laden's Death / The Arab Spring / The Exposure of the Colonel's Secret Sauce on Wikileaks, etc.

Helle Dale enters the fray with a piece in which she argues that the U.S. government should capitalize on the death of bin Laden to reassert its global leadership. With Randian confidence, Dale recommends that Obama "[reassert] U.S. leadership on the world stage rather than, as is his wont, bowing to global sentiments about American decline."

She offers four suggestions for the White House's public diplomacy outreach to the Arab World:
  • "Declare unequivocal support for the democratic evolution in the Arab countries as well as for the economic freedom that will advance critically needed growth and opportunity."
  • Advocate for oppressed dissidents.
  • Assert U.S. leadership without apology.
  • Use VOA as the message medium.
Dale is definitely focusing on a message-centric form of public diplomacy, in contrast with Seib's advice that the U.S. should move away from monologic messaging towards service activities. I've got a feeling Dale wouldn't be a huge fan of that proposal, but I'll save my conjectures for another day and focus on the actual text of her message.

The first two points seem like givens. In fact, they're so likely to feature in Obama's upcoming message that I'm surprised she thought them worth mentioning. Support for democracy, economic openness and human rights have long been pillars of the nation's identity as well as its foreign policy and it would be highly unlikely for the government to step away from them now.

The third bullet point gives me pause. As regular readers of this blog (also known as my parents) know, I prefer public and traditional diplomacy that promotes multilateralism, partnership, cooperation and mutual respect. While I recognize that the United States is clearly a global leader in some things, I am equally confident that the United States is not a global leader in all things, so I balk at any attempt to assert U.S. leadership without qualification.By all means, let us celebrate the nation's strengths -- but let's do so in a manner that is nuanced and accurate.

Finally, I like Dale's support for VOA. As I noted earlier this week, the BBG has impressed me with its attention to audience reach and effectiveness, although I'm not sure it should be the exclusive medium for message promotion. Actually -- hold that thought. I take it back. Let's make the VOA The Exclusive Medium for Obama's message, then stand back and watch the fun as all the major U.S. networks discover that Smith-Mundt prevents them from disseminating VOA content produced for foreign audiences.

That ought to jump start some serious dialogue on Smith-Mundt's effect (and effectiveness) in the modern media environment. 

Monday, May 16, 2011

Wonk This Way

Wonk if you love torsos.

I'd like to add my name to the American University students and alumni who are less than enthusiastic about the school's WONK branding campaign. This is not a reflection of my attitude toward the school--which I love--or toward any of the wonkish torsos that posed for the ads (you know who you are), but rather my skepticism regarding the wisdom of associating the university with a word that sounds like an enraged goose receiving the Heimlich maneuvre.

At its best, the word is jargon--incomprehensible to all but the wonkiest. At its worst, it sounds like the noise a dog makes before it gets sick on the carpet. But much as I hate the word, I have to respect its accuracy in describing the AU community and its enthusiasm for policy and education.

What other word describes the sort of geek who spends her morning at an open government meeting ... for fun? Nothing else could account for my nerdish glee when I learned the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy was holding an open meeting today. Nor for the fact that two AU students and a professor were already seated when I walked in. I'd registered early, certain that the seats would get snapped up like Radiohead tickets, and was pleased to see that the room was full of people I knew--some personally, some by reputation. So clearly I embrace the spirit of wonkishness, if not the word itself.

One of the highlights of the meeting (for me, at least) was Jeff Trimble's presentation on the BBG. Granted, I've questioned the efficacy of some of the BBG's work in the past, but Trimble made a straightforward and persuasive case for the effectiveness of Radio Sawa, al Hurra, RFE/RL and other BBG broadcasting sources. In addition, he neatly anticipated my question about the decision to switch VOA Mandarin to a web-only platform, providing statistics about Chinese audiences and the BBG's "robust" anti-censorship mechanisms. Well played, sir. Even Kristin Lord was impressed.

Executive Director Matt Armstrong kept his comments brief, but I left with the impression that U.S. public diplomacy practitioners are making an effort to coordinate, evaluate effectiveness and streamline their efforts for maximum effectiveness. Of course, that's just one blogger's opinion. There were quite a few PD bloggers in attendance, and I'm looking forward to hearing their take on the proceedings.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Summertime, and the Living is ... Harder


Philip Seib, Director of USC's Center on Public Diplomacy, has some advice for U.S. public diplomacy in the Arab world: 

  • Encourage Israel to recognize Palestine's legitimacy, renew the Israel-Egypt peace treaty and offer assistance to new Arab regimes. Encourage Arab leaders to accept Israel's legitimacy.
  • Propose a Marshall-esque Plan to promote civil society and infrastructure building in underdeveloped Arab nations.
  • Redirect U.S. public diplomacy away from messaging toward service. ("In the Arab world, people simply don't care about such self-serving pronouncements. Anything that does not relate directly to their own lives is wasted effort.") 
While his suggestions won't meet with universal support (Shadi Hamid, for example, recently posted on Twitter: "Maybe the US should just hit 'pause' on Israel/Palestine & just focus on supporting what ultimately matters most: Arab democracy") his strategy emphasizes the importance of relationship-building and collaborative action. It's a strategy that recognizes the limitations of monologic public diplomacy. As Seib notes, Obama's famous 2009 Cairo speech "was beautifully written and radiated good intentions." After the speech, "Arab opinion of Obama improved significantly, and then it dropped like a rock. The reason? The beautiful words were seen to have been built on air, not on a foundation of policy. Arabs are a tough audience. They've heard it all before."

More significantly, it's a strategy that acknowledges the importance of promoting individual agency. Seib's suggestions aren't about the U.S. projecting a message or exporting policy. They focus on working with people in the Arab world to achieve their own society-building goals in a way that promotes peace and prosperity. Public diplomacy becomes the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness via the public sphere. It's a Music for the Jilted Generation approach that steps beyond open-source media to embrace open-source action.

Is it tenable? That remains to be seen. As The Washington Post reports, the hope of the Arab Spring is rapidly giving way to a harsh and challenging Summer. And the outcome for the region will depend on whether the Spring's rebels are able to direct their enthusiasm for overthrowing the old regimes into the difficult task of building new ones.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Best Face Forward?

And the award for Understated Segue of the Day goes to FP for this little gem:
"Towns around Daraa, [Syria] the southern city at the center of the protests, have reportedly been raided. A western suburb of Damascus has been cut off completely by government forces. Thousands of demonstrators have reportedly been arrested. Despite the crackdown, reports indicate that some demonstrations are continuing throughout the country. Syrian opposition groups say between 600 and 800 people have been killed since demonstrations began in March. Syria is now expected to drop its bid for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council." Emphasis mine.

Syria is reportedly considering a 2013 bid, and the optimist within me would like to believe that they'll take advantage of the delay to bring their own human rights record up to snuff--although there's not a lot of evidence to support that hope.

Granted, Syria wouldn't be the first country to sit on the UN Human Rights Council with a questionable human rights record, but its decision to drop its bid is telling. The move demonstrates a disconnect between domestic and international goals--as well as a disconnect between stated and demonstrated values.  This sense of disconnect isn't unique to Syria. The Washington Post today reports on two nations in similar straits: Libya and Bahrain.

Simon Denyer says that "Libya is simultaneously trying to play the roles of touch guy and victim in its dealings with the outside world as it unleashes venom and shellfire on its opponents but pleads for a cease-fire and dialogue." And Philip Kennicott states that "As international human rights groups and Western governments condemned Bahrain's reprisals against participants in the Arab Spring uprisings, one particularly cherished part of the country's image took a hard hit -- its reputation for promoting arts and culture."

Both articles underscore a divide between image projection and perception, between future goals and present realities--demonstrating the difficulty of controlling an international image in the face of domestic turmoil. Ordinarily I like to keep an open mind toward the workings of foreign cultures and societies, but in the case of human rights abuses like those we've seen documented in Libya and Bahrain, it's hard to be sympathetic.

I touched on the theme of international cooperation in yesterday's post, and it's one I've written on before. Multilateral action is an important component of traditional and public diplomacy because it promotes legitimacy (or at least the appearance of it), creates international bonds, and assists in the establishment or promotion of values and norms (van Ham's "social power"). And in terms of international norms and values, the UDHR principles have got to be at the top of the list.

Maybe it's my American upbringing, but in a word association test, the phrase "human rights" conjures up an instant response of "inviolable." The benefits of democracy and equality, and the human right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are truths that I've always held to be self-evident.As Secretary of State Clinton has said, "In democracies, respecting rights isn't a choice leaders make day by day; it is the reason they govern."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

America, the Exceptional

A provocative quote from Richard Cohen's essay in the Washington Post: "Therein lies the danger of American exceptionalism. It discourages compromise, for what God has made exceptional, man must not alter. And yet clearly America must change fundamentally or continue to decline. It could begin by junking a phase that reeks of arrogance and discourages compromise. American exceptionalism ought to be called American narcissism. We look perfect only to ourselves."

It's a tough point to sell. What politician would cop to being unexceptional, let alone unamerican?  But exceptionalism is a problematic concept -- particularly when it's applied to justify unilateral action or arrogance, or when it limits diplomatic negotiation. There's nothing wrong with celebrating national values and characteristics, but there is a problem with overlooking the benefits of collaboration, cooperation and compromise.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Give Us This Day Our Daily Blog

The Vatican may be many things, but a public diplomacy power house it is not (see my previous comments on the subject here and here).

Just over a year ago, when the Vatican stepped forward to address not a new manifestation of the Catholic church's sexual abuse scandal but the pop contributions of the Beatles, I made this observation: "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."

Evidently, someone up there is listening.

The Vatican this week invited those snarky bloggers into the fold by hosting its first ever blogging summit. According to USA Today, this is part of a larger digital outreach effort: "The Vatican has taken several steps to promote and use Web tools in recent years, attempting to clear up miscommunication on false rumors like 'Pope okays condoms' and using the outlets to spread Catholic teaching and news."

Summit organizers underestimated the interest, and were only able to host 150 of the estimated 750 bloggers who expressed an interest in attending. So is the Vatican embracing Faith 2.0? Will the Holy See acknowledge the importance of rapid communication by establishing a cyber-campaign? While the blogging campaign represents a nod to the importance of modern communication technology, it seems to be just that--a nod. The article stresses that the Vatican has no plans to coordinate Catholic bloggers or start a blog of its own.

On the other hand, summit speakers did reflect an awareness of some of the Church's PD weaknesses. Fr. Antonio Spadaro began the panel by saying "the Church needs to listen" to the blogosphere. So it looks like a mixed bag at the moment. I'm curious to see how this plays out, and will definitely be checking in to see how it develops.

Check out blogger feedback on Twitter (hashtag #vbm11).

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Dual Britannia

This flawless smile defies you to
make a British dental joke. Source
Is this the face that launched a thousand tweets?

It is! About 237 per second just before the service, if you trust the London Telegraph.

But if the royal wedding didn't slake your thirst for all things British, rest easy! Anglophiles will be delighted to hear that the wedding--which attracted about 2 billion viewers, inspired millions of Facebook status updates, and brought an estimated £630 million into the British economy--was little more than an appetizer, a teaser, a "dry run" for 2012.

According to the Bearsden Herald, British Prime Minister David Cameron believes the London Olympics and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee will present "a fantastic opportunity next year to show all faces of Britain both modern and traditional."

Oooooh, modern and traditional? Be still my corn-oil-clogged American heart! Kudos to the PM for recognizing the importance of branding and public diplomacy. And kudos for emphasizing multiple aspects of the nation's appeal. But let's hope Cameron navigates the rocky terrain of public diplomacy more successfully than Tony Blair.

In the 1990s, Great Britain--no doubt tired of its reputation as a dentally-challenged nation of stodgy, old-fashioned corgi-worshipers and cow-maddened, Cure-loving soccer hooligans--embarked on an ill-advised nation-branding campaign. (No, I'm not payed by the hyphen. But after that last sentence, I kind of wish I were.)

"Cool Brittania," as the campaign was dubbed, quickly became known as the Waterworld of nation-branding efforts: expensive, flashy and laughably unsuccessful.

From the Public Diplomacy wiki's entry on Nation Branding: "Intended to reinvent the U.K.’s image as an energized and liberalized nation, the campaign attempted to shed the traditionally formal image of Great Britain as well as reflect the shifting political model of the Blair administration... Despite the millions of dollars poured into the initiative, however, the campaign is largely considered a failure because of its limited focus, lackluster results, and the general perception, both within Britain and abroad, that the campaign’s gimmicky approach had actually hurt the nation’s international image."

Can Cameron avoid the pitfalls of his predecessor? Will the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee drive up the nation's global stock? It's hard to say. Judging from purely superficial early speculation, London hasn't truly grasped the full potential of branding. Let's consider just for starters the 2012 Olympic logo--a nearly illegible jumble of numbers that looks sort of like a tangram after a long night at the pub--and the mascots--which Jon Stewart described as "creepy one-eyed circumcised penis monsters."

OK, so they've got some room to grow. But still, by all accounts, the royal wedding was a great success--not just for the happy couple and their families, but for the nation as a whole. With a little bit of coordination, Cameron can keep the anglophilia going. But that's the catch, of course. You can't just rest on your laurels and assume that big events = big publicity = big love. You've got to put some work into it.

Just ask Kevin Costner.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On PD and Communication

It's not whether you win or lose... Source
Today is World Press Freedom Day and National Teacher Day -- two events that encourage us to honor two professions that influence communication flows and shape our understanding of the world.

With that in mind, I've been thinking about my last unofficial class in graduate school. Last Thursday, Chayden arranged a role-playing exercise for the last meeting of our Public Diplomacy class. Given his interest in LARPing, we were a little nervous about how the class would unfold, but we needed have worried.

With the assistance of PD blogger Chris Dufour, Chayden divided the class (or the meager portion that actually showed up -- the rest were presumably finishing the final paper) into four groups: public affairs, public diplomacy, traditional media and angry public/interest groups. Then they presented us with a scenario: Hours before the royal wedding, U.S. security forces apprehend a U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent in London, in connecting with a bomb threat. They gave us a few details about his contacts (in Virginia, Guantanamo and Yemen) and set us to work to prepare our communication strategy.

We'd spent the semester studying public diplomacy, not crisis management, so there were a few stumbles. But for the most part, the students instantly adopted the communication personalities of their groups--with considerable creativity and humor. In the aftermath of the weekend's big news stories, a few of us have been talking about the exercise. Most of us were impressed by the prescience of the exercise. And to some extent we were impressed by our own ability to anticipate the official and unofficial responses of the public to a major development on the U.S. security battle--a success that might reflect as much on the predictability of those groups as on our own genius.

It was a fun class. People got really involved in their roles and came up with some very clever and very funny messages. I think the take-away Chayden wanted us to leave with was a greater appreciation for the complexity of the information environment. Public affairs and public diplomacy professionals can't control the narrative any more than they can control the news, not completely at any rate, because the world is constantly changing and new crises and victories and opinions and issues are constantly arising. To some extent, that's half the fun.

I'm starting to think PD isn't really a field for people who are focused on Winning, because it's so difficult to measure success and there's no easy rubric for gauging progress. I'm not saying that success is unattainable or that the end goal doesn't matter. I'm saying that the process is the most important thing. That's why it's essential to have confidence not just in the end product, but in the act itself -- the constant process of communicating and building relationships.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Ta-da! Source
As many of you are already aware, I completed the final requirement of my Master's program on Friday by dazzling Craig Hayden (professor of Public Diplomacy and International Communication) with my command of the International Communication field.

The aforementioned requirement was not to dazzle per se, but rather to demonstrate competency in discussing trends and thoughts in International Communication over the course of an hour-long conversation with one of the program's core faculty members--a process known as the oral comprehensive exam, or the "oral comp." I assume my conversation was dazzling because Chayden signed the form and I am now set to graduate and have already begun encouraging my friends to address me as "Master."

As a soon-to-be-graduate, I am currently residing in the harrowing halfworld between student and professional, so if your organization is in the market for a dazzling public diplomacy enthusiast, do give me a call. In the meantime, I'm celebrating my freedom by helping others celebrate theirs. Specifically, I'm volunteering at World Press Freedom Day this week.

After a day spent stuffing stylish totes with free press swag, I headed home to rest before an early morning shift tomorrow. Tragically, this means I departed before hearing PD maven Judith McHale address the masses during the opening ceremony. I'd hoped to follow from home, but didn't realize until I arrived that the livestream isn't operating until tomorrow morning, so I was reduced to re-tweeting choice nuggets from the State Department, such as "RT @WPFD2011 Under Secretary McHale: protecting the rights of a free press is the responsibility of every citizen. #wpfd #pressfreedom." Try not to envy my rock star lifestyle.

I'm thrilled, of course, to see public diplomacy front and center at the conference. As McHale herself says:
"Compelling ideas are infectious. They always have been. Today, immediate and widespread access to information allows ideas to circulate virally. It empowers people to participate in the public lives of their countries. It equalizes voices. The Internet has made it possible to reach more people in more places. But it has also shifted power and influence to such an extent that it is necessary to engage with a much wider spectrum of public voices worldwide. So we, at the Department of State, are doing everything we can to connect with people — all 6.8 billion of them — to create a new environment that will better ensure the stability and security of our country, our region, and our world. We take this mission very seriously. We recognize that government-to-government diplomacy by itself is no longer enough."

From the sound of it, McHale could have done pretty well on the oral comp herself.

For those of you who are curious, May 3 is WPFD proper, a day "to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession."