Thursday, February 24, 2011

Rock Me, State Department


Gearing up for class tonight, so I checked out the latest postings from Christ Dufour over at Must.Be.AWESOME!!!

Du4 makes the case for government coordination as a key element of successful PD: "If any of us PD 'professionals' had a whit about us, we would (re)read Unrestricted Warfare by Senior Col Qiao Liang and Senior Col Wang Xiangsui and understand that global communication, global influence, requires the strategic, national integration of ALL government branches and agencies and their communications initiatives. It requires, to borrow an analogy, for America to conduct herself as a composer would an orchestra, creating multitudes of musical movements that all combine into one big, beautiful symphony."

Now, I'm a sucker for a nice symphony metaphor. But, as I posted in the comments, I do think that strategic, national integration cannot be the ONLY element of public diplomacy, if for no other reason than that the U.S. government has been known, from time to time, to have some credibility issues with certain audiences. Shocking, I know, but true. So, by all means, coordinate. But leave some space for non-government PD initiatives from NGOs, private sector reps and citizens for those cases where attitudes toward the USG are suspicious enough to compromise communication.  

I cite, as an example, the recent Masrawy.com conversation, for example, might have invited less skepticism has Secretary of State Clinton not been behind it. As The Washington Post reported, Clinton invited Egyptian revolutionaries to submit online questions and received more than 6,500 responses from various social networks. The responses "revealed both Egyptians' newfound sense of freedom and their enduring skepticism of U.S. foreign policy, including Washington's relations with their former ruler." (Emphasis mine.) This is one instance where the appearance of less government coordination might have increased confidence from the other participants in the conversation.

Of course, actions speak louder than words no matter who's doing the talking, and nothing is quite as convincing as a U.S. foreign policy that marries actions and words together. To that end, a little coordination would be just the thing.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dip Notes

It's a jungle out there.

Let's start today's news roundup with Libya, where Moammar Ghaddafi's refusal to concede power and his decision to open fire on his own citizens from the skies is of a piece with his 41-year authoritarian rule. Protests continue, but Ghaddafi's response seems more Tiananmen than Tahrir.

A few days ago, a friend and co-blogger asked how China could continue to wield soft power when its global credibility--particularly in terms of human rights and free speech--is so low. I think the answer is the same for China and Libya: a combination of hard power resources and an indifference to the pressures of international norms. It's good for the government, but bad news for the public.

For the record, it's worth noting that these protests erupted despite heavy blocks on media and communication technology, which supports my argument yesterday (courtesy of Malcolm Gladwell) that weak ties are best adapted to influencing information and idea flows, but that strong ties are necessary to promote the changes that translate into action--in short, technology has a role to play, but political revolutionary change occurs beyond the digital realm.

And speaking of the digital realm, Egyptian political parties are starting to organize as "the seismic force of the Egyptian revolution has shaken them out of years of [enforced] somnolence." Some of these efforts, according to The Washington Post are relying on Facebook and other social media platforms for organization, which supports Clay Shirky's assertion that the Internet can be used to promote the growth of a vibrant public sphere, which is necessary for the endurance of democracy.

Next up, Pakistan, where scores of citizens took to the streets to applaud the United States for its diplomatic efforts--in a dream Dick Cheney had one time, probably. In real life, the streets are full of anti-USG protesters whose frustration with U.S. activity in the country has been inflamed by the recent revelation that diplomat-turned-robbery-victim-turned-vigilante Raymond Davis is actually a CIA operative. This is a messy case because of all the uncertainty (Is Davis a diplomat or a spook? Is he a victim or a criminal? And what about the two men he shot?) but it's clear that the case has increased tension between the U.S. and the Pakistani public, and that suspicion of U.S. diplomats has grown as a result.

This is a story many of my blogging colleagues have been covering (see here, here and here). As Jacob observes, the U.S. response will require a combination of both traditional and public diplomacy, an option that is only available for states, although "the promise of network diplomacy and public-private partnerships that target diffuse groups should not be ignored."

And it appears that the Voice of America website was hacked on Monday (possibly by Iranian supporters) asking, "Mrs. Clinton Do you want to hear the voice of oppressed nations will from heart of USA?" [sic]. CNN reports that the Iran cyber army has claimed responsibility, in response to what it labeled "interference," espionage, and misinformation from the United States.

Monday, February 21, 2011

PD 2.0 and the Strength of Weak Ties

Perhaps it's simply a reflection of my narcissism, but I keep finding connections between the readings and my day-to-day life.

This week it was the PD 2.0 article, which had some eerie parallels with a paper I wrote last year on the disadvantages of unidirectional U.S. broadcasting in Iraq and Afghanistan. (I've linked to it here just in case this blog and our weekly classes are insufficient to satisfy your no doubt unslakable thirst for my opinions on public diplomacy.) Essentially, the paper talks about the historical U.S. tendency to employ unidirectional communication in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the problems that accompany that--most significantly that it results in a tendency for all parties to view the other as less legitimate, thereby undermining communication success. That's a 30-page paper in a nutshell right there. It loses some of its nuance in the truncation.

Khatib and co haven't really convinced me that the Digital Outreach Team is the solution, and I don't think they intended to. As they note, the DOT are up against a lot of challenges, and a small, reactive, government-sponsored body isn't strong enough to force a sea change in opinions that have been long formed by attitudes toward U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. The authors suggest that greater cohesion between words and deeds in that policy would do a lot more to change attitudes, and I think there's sense in that argument, but it also got me thinking about one of the other writings, namely Malcolm Gladwell's on Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.

Full disclosure here, I'm a big time Gladwell fan, ever since reading Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg. But, bias aside, I think this essay makes a really great distinction between weak and strong ties and the actions to which they're best suited. Weak ties, Gladwell says, are best adapted to influencing the flow of information and ideas. This is the DOT's realm. But strong ties are necessary to promote the changes that translate into action, and that's beyond the DOT's reach. So the DOT and other social media may be useful in introducing new ideas into the public sphere, but those new ideas are unlikely to translate into meaningful change without some help from trusted people on the ground.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ask Facebook

More from the Internet Revolution files: The debate about the influence of the Internet and social media on revolutions continues, and while there is some disagreement about the extent to which these tools have been involved in recent revolutions, there does seem to be some consensus that they function more as facilitators to organization and idea sharing than impetuses to revolt. (But just wait until the folks at IBM give Watson a "revolution" switch....)

From The Weekend Read:

Anderson Cooper 360 Interview With the “Google Ghandi”, Wael Ghonim

BLITZER: Wael, this is Wolf Blitzer in Washington. So first Tunisia, now Egypt. What’s next?
GHONIM: Ask Facebook.
BLITZER: Ask what?
GHONIM: Facebook.
COOPER: Facebook.
BLITZER: Facebook. You’re giving Facebook a lot of credit for this?
GHONIM: Yes, for sure. I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg one day and thank him, actually. This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook. You know, I always said that if you want to liberate a society, just give them the Internet. If you want to have a free society, give them the Internet.
 From The Huffington Post:

The Islamists did not instigate these protests in Tunisia or Egypt. In Tunisia, the agent provocateur was a young merchant who immolated himself in protest against the indignity and injustice meted out by local officials. In Egypt, it was a group of secular 20-30 year old internet-savvy Egyptians fed-up with the status quo in which Egyptians were treated as though they were servants to the pharaoh. They wanted to reclaim their role as citizens - that is, as owners of the land and of the public space.

From al Jazeera:

The so-called "Facebook revolution" is not about people mobilising in virtual space; it is about Egyptian internet cafes and the youth and women they represent, in real social spaces and communities, utilising the cyberspace bases they have built and developed to serve their revolt.

From abc.net.au:

Internet is for Arabs what caf├ęs were for the French in 1789, an open space where aggrieved citizens can share their frustrations and work together towards an alternative. Social media did not cause the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, but it facilitated them.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Wall of America

Evidently the Broadcasting Board of Governors (the organization that controls US-owned media broadcasters like Voice of America and al Hurra) has begun using Facebook and other social media sites to extend their audience reach in "repressive countries." (Thanks to professor and blogger extraordinaire Craig Hayden for the link.) From the article:
"Facebook is blowing up in Indonesia, said Rebecca McMenamin, the new media director of the International Broadcasting Bureau, so the Voice of America set up a Facebook page for its Indonesian service that’s now got 278,000 Likes and counting. In Iran, Radio Farda, the Persian-language branch of Radio Free Liberty/Free Europe, has been uploading photos and videos of the past few days’ protests in Iran and sharing them on Facebook and Twitter, said Golnaz Esfandiari, who edits the service’s Persian Letters blog."


To some extent, this reminds me of Slate's occasional updates from Barack Obama's facebook feed ("VOA tags Iranian dissidents in a photo: [mass uprising]." "Iranian government gives Iranian dissidents a gift: [incarceration].") but I definitely support free speech, public diplomacy and the use of multiple platforms to spread the message, so at first blush, I like the sound of this--even if my doubts about Facebook are well documented.

If Secretary of State Clinton has similar doubts, she tends to downplay them in speeches on the importance of Internet freedom, like the one she delivered yesterday. In fact, I think she addressed some of those doubts very nicely. From the speech:

"What happened in Egypt and what happened in Iran, which this week is once again using violence against protesters seeking basic freedoms, was about a great deal more than the internet. In each case, people protested because of deep frustrations with the political and economic conditions of their lives. They stood and marched and chanted and the authorities tracked and blocked and arrested them. The internet did not do any of those things; people did. In both of these countries, the ways that citizens and the authorities used the internet reflected the power of connection technologies on the one hand as an accelerant of political, social, and economic change, and on the other hand as a means to stifle or extinguish that change.
There is a debate currently underway in some circles about whether the internet is a force for liberation or repression. But I think that debate is largely beside the point. Egypt isn’t inspiring people because they communicated using Twitter. It is inspiring because people came together and persisted in demanding a better future. Iran isn’t awful because the authorities used Facebook to shadow and capture members of the opposition. Iran is awful because it is a government that routinely violates the rights of its people."


Clinton addresses the challenges of striking a balance between liberty and security, transparency and confidentiality, free expression and civility, concluding that achieving that balance and protecting Internet freedom is one of the great challenges of our time.

Inspiring words, but for the record, I'm not entirely sure that the debate about the Internet's use is entirely beside the point. The fact is that the Internet can be used for both liberation and repression, and while I believe Clinton is right to encourage greater Internet freedom for all, I think it would be foolish to press ahead without acknowledging and preparing for its negative applications. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Social Network?

From today's Washington Post:

On Thursday night, a protester at Tahrir Square scrawled a joke on a placard, imagining a reunion among Mubarak, Nasser and Sadat in heaven. When the two deceased rulers met Mubarak, the joke went, they asked him: "Was in poison, or did it happen on a stage?" Neither, Mubarak responded. "Facebook."

And there we have an assumption that wields enormous influence over contemporary U.S. public diplomacy -- or 21st century statecraft or PD 2.0 or PD with new media or whatever you want to call it. The revolution may not be televised, but can it be tweeted?

On the one side of the equation, we have people like Jared Cohen, Clay Shirky, Alec Ross, James Glassman and Hillary Clinton, who (as James Harkin notes) argue that social media are inherent democratic, anti-authoritarian and conducive to facilitating leaderless social coordination. They cite examples like the Colombian Facebook movement to oppose the guerrilla organization FARC and the use of Twitter in the Iranian revolution--often hedging their bets by noting that social media can be used by both sides and is more a platform than a panacea.

On the other side of the equation, we have people like James Harkin, Evgeny Morozov and John Brown (diplomat and blogger extraordinaire, who was kind enough to address our class last week), who express extreme skepticism about the power of new media to effect real and meaningful change. To say nothing of Jon Stewart, who recently asked: "If two speeches and a social media site is all we needed to spread democracy ... why did we invade Iraq? Why didn't we just, I don't know, poke them?"

It's a question I've asked before, in this and my own blog, and I'm still trying to come up with an answer that makes me sound outrageously clever and authoritative, but I'm not confident that I will. I certainly haven't yet. And if I'm even unfortunate enough to run for office, my opponents will find plenty of evidence of waffling in the back-and-forth musings I've posted. I agree with Shirky that the new media can facilitate coordination, and I agree with Ross and Glassman and Clinton that new media has been involved in some impressive pro-freedom and pro-democracy movements. But I'm going to hedge my bets here and say that I think they're helpful, but not essential. That's right, I'm siding with Team Local Conditions.

New technology, as Kelton Rhoads says about culture, is one of many important variables in the pursuit of influence.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

News Bits

News from the world of diplomacy, in easily digested soundbites:

Public (Diplomacy) Enemy Number One?
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on diplomacy: "I personally think — it's kind of an old-fashioned thought — that private diplomacy is preferable," he says. "Public diplomacy can have the effect of letting the world know what you think; it can have the effect of satisfying your own personal views and playing to your base, wherever you are, but it may have just the opposite effect in the country where you're making comments about."

Batter Up!
The U.S. is exporting its national pastime--in the form of baseball greats Barry Larkin and Joe Logan--to Seoul, for a visit that will involve baseball clinics and conversations about diversity. No word yet on whether the visit will involve country music or apple pie...

Everywhere You Want to Be
Former British diplomat Michael Reilly received the Friendship Medal of Diplomacy from Taiwan for promoting positive relations between the two nations. Reilly's achievements include encouraging exchanges and visa-free privileges, increasing visits and mutual understanding.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Limits of Power

Image source
I picked up a copy of David Finkel's The Good Soldiers at Politics and Prose this weekend (because a girl can't read Austen all the time) and I haven't been able to put it down. At the same time, I can't read too much of it in one sitting because there's a lot to absorb, so I've been forcing myself to lay it aside at the end of each chapter.

Finkel follows the soldiers of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion through their 15-month deployment in Baghdad as part of the surge in Iraq, and he captures the mixture of optimism and fear, boredom and danger, confusion and conviction, potential and futility in a way that evokes Michael Herr's Dispatches (my favorite war memoir). As a student of diplomacy and cross-cultural communication, I can't read it without observing how Finkel depicts the limitations of U.S. power -- hard, soft, smart or otherwise -- in counterinsurgency. The Good Soldiers is about good people with good intentions, people who are patriotic, optimistic, determined and skilled, in a bad situation.

Finkel describes the various ways in which the soldiers attempt to win hearts and minds and ensure their own security, from patrols and radio broadcasts to ostentatious displays of power and gifts of soccer balls, and the cultural divisions that impede their progress.The counterinsurgency strategy mixes hard and soft power, and emphasizes the importance of winning public support.

In the second chapter, Finkel exposes the oversimplified expectations and limitations of the battalion's public diplomacy efforts in a few sentences: "For now, Kauzlarich [the battalion leader] thought that giving soccer balls to Iraqi children ... was having an effect. A child would take home a soccer ball; his parents would ask where it came from; he would say, 'the Americans'; the parents would be delighted; their confidence would increase; they would be more willing to make the difficult decisions of reconciliation; Baghdad would become secure; democracy in Iraq would thrive; the war would be won. Eventually, Kauzlarich would give up on soccer balls."

The book covers a period from 2007 to 2008, and since then the situation in Iraq has changed in some ways and in others not. The number of U.S. troops in the country has decreased, and now questions surround the future of U.S. diplomacy in that country--what is its role, how important is it, and can it survive with limited security? These are excellent questions, but as Finkel's book demonstrates, there are no easy answers.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Food for Thought

The challenges of grad school are all made tolerable by quotes like this:

"Our identity is not simply a nice question of where we feel comfortable. Our identity is about who we would kill, who we would kill for, what kind of moral community we identify with, or to touch on the greatest taboo, whom we would eat."

I love everything about this quote, courtesy of Chris Farrands via Rhonda Zaharna--from its inconsistent grammatical accuracy to the silliness of its conclusion. One moment I'm humming to myself as I noodle along through my weekly readings. I'm naive! Innocent! Foolishly presuming that I'm in touch with my cultural identity! The next moment I'm brought up short by the realization that I do not know whom I would eat. Until this moment I have never known myself.


All snark aside, I actually liked the argument Zaharna raises later in the chapter, namely that cultural differences could limit U.S. communication credibility. The U.S. has a fairly individualistic culture, whereas the majority of the world has a more collectivist culture. This results in different attitudes about the role of the individual and the group within society, how identities and relationships are formed, how stability is maintained, how truth is defined and how power is determined.

Culture isn't just an export to influence soft power, but a determinant of its formation. So whether or not we know whom we would eat, having a better understanding of the intrinsic elements of U.S. and other cultures could improve our ability to communicate.

Or, as Zaharna says, "All of the differences in cultural patterns have the potential to cause misunderstanding and misperceptions of U.S. public diplomacy. The more that is known about the underlying cultural assumptions that shape U.S. public diplomacy, the more culturally alert U.S. officials will be to potential unshared communication assumptions that can cause a public diplomacy initiative to fail, or worse, backfire."

Friday, February 4, 2011

More Fun with Ngram

One more astonishing discovering from Google's Ngram:

This one is really uncanny. A comparison of "the best of times" and "the worst of times" shows considerable variability over time, with optimism on the rise for over a century. But the real kicker here is the overlap, exactly once, in what appears to be 1859: the year Charles Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities. (Cue Twilight Zone theme music...)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

On the Rise

Google's got a fun new tool called an Ngram viewer, which essentially lets you chart the popularity of a word or phrase over a specific time period. It does this by measuring its occurrence in its reserves of digitized English-language books. (It came to my attention via this article.)

So just for fun, today I plugged in the terms "public diplomacy" and "soft power" and traced them from 1970 to 2008, the last year for which Ngram has results. See the chart below (and yes, I do realize it's difficult to read. You can see the original here).


 And check out the results for diplomacy v. propaganda, over a larger time span:


And here are some interesting parallels between the rise and fall of democracy and propaganda's popularity:

Of course, it would take additional research to determine what -- if any -- significance the trends show. But I encourage you to try it. And if you come up with any interesting charts, be sure to let me know.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Rage (or Reason) Against the Machine

Image Source
NPR had a fabulous story on communication, counter-terrorism and public diplomacy this morning. I'll summarize below, but I highly recommend visiting the source.

The story discusses the dual nature of information and communication technologies, citing examples where they've been used to promote and challenge democracy--and terrorism as well.

It also discusses "credible messengers," or people like Carie Lemack (the daughter of a 9/11 victim) or Abdullah Kemal Sharayed (a former al Qaida operative) whose perceived credibility enables them to reach out to potentially marginalized groups and counter misconceptions and conspiracy theories. This is seen as part of a larger fight against terrorism and the misinformation available online.

The key to their success is their perceived credibility, and it speaks to the realization that public diplomacy cannot be carried out by governments alone--particularly in environments and among people where governments have little credibility.

I've been reading a lot lately on the theory (or lack thereof) of public diplomacy and the importance of credibility is a recurring theme. But another major theme is the difficulty in identifying PD's actors. There are many different perspectives on whether PD involves governments, militaries, citizens, NGOs or private sector reps--and even more perspectives on whether it should.

This story demonstrates that fuzziness surrounding that question beautifully. Here we have private citizens working with counter-terrorism officials and NGOs to promote a shared foreign policy goal (discouraging terrorism) in a multi-national context. It's a mess.

But nobody ever said international affairs was a straightforward business.

Putting the "Dip" in Diplomat

It's been a while since we here at manIC have nominated anybody for a GOB Award. The GOB, named for Will Arnett's character in Arrested Development, recognizes ill-conceived diplomatic actions and is awarded periodically to dips who "have made a huge mistake."

Today's candidate: The unnamed Russian diplomat Ireland booted off the island for identity theft. Read about it in the New York Times. Evidently this diplomat stole six Irish identities and handed them over to Russian spies in the U.S. in what is both a horrendous breach of diplomacy and really incredible set-up for an offensive ethnic joke. (So a Russian spy walks into a New York bar with an Irish passport....)

Kudos, anonymous Russian diplomat. This one's for you: