Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Identity crisis and the shortcomings of “Ice Age” Diplomacy

No, I’m not referring to global climate change here. I’m talking about the cartoon, Ice Age 3, which, according to Amb. Glassman who spoke at SIS on Nov. 5, can do a far better job in getting the foreigners to like America than many other traditional PD techniques (the cartoon is said to have got into the top five record-breakers in terms of worldwide market revenues). I cannot really see how Sid or Scrat are promoting the American image and values abroad… especially to the more conservative of the audiences. And still, it’s better than Britney Spears. That’s for sure.

Image courtesy of All Movie Photo.
In a recent article, R. Reilly, former director of VOA, says the shortcomings of the American PD can primarily be attributed to “lack of clarity about what the West stands for” and the over-reliance on advertising . The first major issue Reilly identifies is the loss of American credibility due to its embrace of pop culture and promotion of “tolerance based upon moral relativism.” He also takes an issue with the fact that the current main objective of the US – the promotion of democracy – requires “the primacy of reason over passion,” while advertising, which is extensively employed to achieve that end, does not appeal to reason or rational calculation, but rather to desire and “emotional impulse.” The result? Lack of clarity and inevitable confusion.
This all in light of the new media environment, the rise of non-state actors, and the boom (at least in the developed world) of the so-called iDiplomacy. Last year, Glassman talked of Public Diplomacy 2.0, network building, and its potential for engaging foreign publics in a conversation: an innovative and effective way of conducting PD and achieving national security interests. But that’s according to the Ambassador. Not only do I agree with Hayden on that it is questionable whether an “open source PD” can ultimately translate into improved public opinion abroad, but I also think that it can further undermine the American message
Both, Nye and Hanson point out that the lack of attention and of credibility are major issues currently impairing the American PD effort. By flooding the foreign publics with PD 2.0 attempts and iDiplomats, the US runs the risk of not only losing the attention of its target audience, but also making further damage to its cause through the haphazard “free market” noise that will only undercut the message AND its credibility. Nye cautions against leaving the PD endeavor completely to the free market, stating that is can project an image of the US that is “too facile.” I could only add that coupled with “open source PD” it might completely confuse the foreign audiences about what the US really stands for and what are its true objectives.
But well, the US itself is unsure as to what its message is. There are national security interests, and there is certainly a need to persuade foreign publics. But when there is no proper argumentation and overt “relativism,” the US is seen as attempting to make others “believe without knowledge” – essentially the definition of “moralist” propaganda (see J. Brown’s discussion on the subject); and well, when recognized as such, propaganda undermines credibility by default.
Reilly says that in order for PD to function, “there must be a recovery of purpose and this purpose must be related to justice.” I think the message would also benefit from abandoning relativism and what can be seen as “double standards.” Certainly, all these cannot be incorporated into the purpose without a proper understanding of the audience and their view of matters. While when it comes to defining a purpose, there should be a core power that can clearly formulate the message and deliver it through multiple channels.  PD 2.0 and iDiplomacy MIGHT be able to do a good job in delivering the message and providing feedback about its perception. However, to have an effect the process should be well organized, otherwise the result is havoc.  To quote Reilly again, “in order to fight a war of ideas, one has to have an idea.”
American PD seems to have entangled itself in the ambiguity and the unmanageable plurality that it, itself, has created. There has to be the realization that no matter the channels and the ways of projection, the American image is still largely perceived by many (particularly in the Middle East, where there are many counter-messages that DO work) as fuzzy and devoid of real substance, at best, while immoral and nihilistic, at worst. This is especially so when there is a multitude of contradictory sources conveying multiple vague underlying promises of freedom, peace, and gradual prosperity that, for some reason, keep failing to materialize.

Image courtesy of Rising Powers.
Whose responsibility it is, then, if not the government’s (that is, just by the way, entrusted with leading the nation and promoting its interests) to make sure that the process of message formulation and delivery is properly administered? Certainly, there has to be input from all the levels of the society, especially from those who manage to think outside the box; however, at the end of the day, the government is still the one that has to deliver on the promises and live up to the cultivated expectations. For all these reasons, without an effective government oversight, there is the risk of further ambiguity and loss of American credibility.
I couldn’t agree more with Nye on that “developing a long-term relationship is not always profitable in the short term.” Leaving PD entirely to the “market” – be it the private sector or the self-branded citizen diplomats – will not only “lead to underinvestment” in what is currently considered a primary concern for American national security, but can also hamper all future attempts to regain what was lost.

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