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.

Monday, November 16, 2009

'Obama should speak to Al Jazeera'

On the very same matter that made up the core of our readings this week. Very fresh: published today...

Richard Grenell, director of communications and public diplomacy for the US permanent representative to the UN in the Bush administration, in an AJE interview.

"Like it or not, the most popular network in the Arab World is Al Jazeera and we have a golden opportunity to speak directly to 200 million Arab households through Al Jazeera.

I don't think that this conversation should be just one interview by the Obama administration or by President Obama; I think it needs to be the beginning of a constant flow of information both ways so that the 200 million Arab households who watch Al Jazeera on a regular basis can hear a variety of US policy goals."

Read the interview HERE.

The Listening Post (AJE) on the media situation in Eastern Europe

Yes, the Berlin Wall fell. Some of the countries that used to be on the other side are EU members now. And yet, freedom, and especially media freedom, is something much more difficult to achieve: certainly requires more time and CONSTANT re-invigoration (just as the cases of Italy and France show).
Another great piece from The Listening Post, and yet, far from being comprehensive...

Just last week two bloggers were given 2.5-year prison terms in Azerbaijan for criticizing the government. Read more on the case from Reporters Sans Frontières here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The failure of the “diplomatic” argument

“And I call upon the Iraqi people to reject violence, band together to insist that the country move toward a peaceful tomorrow. Iraq is changing for the better. I mean, look at the soccer team.”

– G. W. Bush, Interview with Al Zaman, May 20, 2004

Ethos. Pathos. Logos: the three Aristotelian pillars of successful argument still very much relevant today, but, for some reason, also very much neglected by several major states in their international affairs.

Modern-day conduct of foreign affairs heavily depends on communication, especially when it comes to public diplomacy and non-traditional warfare. After all, it’s about perception management and “manufacturing consent,” be it domestic, or within a foreign public: control over info. That’s the key.

A government cannot purge all unfavorable discourse from the public, excommunicate all “unorthodox” thinkers, or, for that matter, hunt down and burn all their writings: fortunately we have been out of the Middle Ages for a while, now. Yet, governments still get entangled in their attempts to literally control information, spin it to work in their interest, or improve their “international ranking” in terms of appeal. This is especially true when the government is also desperately trying to win a war of ideas, which essentially constitutes multiple communication battles.

To continue with the over-abused example of the American “War on Terror”… It indeed has a major ideological component. Yet, again, the US ended up in a situation where it had to learn the hard way. You cannot bomb ideas. You have to bend them, or you might even have to disprove them altogether. To do that, you need persuasion. Persuasion requires argument; cohesive argument. The US has been trying to persuade the Middle Eastern public for most of the last decade, and yet, its persuasion tactics have been far from even resembling a true Aristotelian argument (rather, they involved military invasions, consequent humanitarian crises, attempts to clamp down on the local media, and disaster cases such as the corruption in the “Oil for food” program or the Abu Ghraib controversy). So what is wrong, exactly?

Ethos: the ethical appeal, i.e. credibility. - The Western arrogance towards the region, and the invasion already established a “bad name” back in 2001. The outburst against Al Jazeera  (and other “uncensored” media, which freely covered the TRUE nature of the war) and the support of corrupt local regimes provided further proof that the US was unable to practice what it preached. Not to mention the constant negative framing of the Muslims and their culture by Western media – at least as perceived by the Muslims themselves. There goes credibility, down the drain. 

Pathos: the emotional appeal, i.e. sympathy and compassion. - I don’t think it is fair to expect many people in the Islamic world to feel enough compassion towards any of the coalition forces in light of the Afghanistan or Iraq invasions, and the events that followed. The local media – successfully providing counter-frames that worked – undermined all American effort to make a “sweeping victory” over the hearts and minds of the population. 

Logos: the reasoning of the argument, including cohesiveness and supporting evidence. - In this case, the initial rhetoric was that of hostility, and although it changed later on, it was far from being cohesive. As in the case of ethos, the US and its coalition partners showed, time and again, that they were unable (or were simply unprepared) to follow the very principles they were supposedly promoting, giving rise to many alternative explanations, that (at least seemingly) made more sense, especially to the local public.

This all in light of an incompetent speaker as president and a new media environment, where there is an abundance of alternative sources of information, as well as multiple channels of access to it. The US had apparently forgotten to take good note of that, and assumed that just like in the good-ol’ Cold War times the people would unquestioningly internalize whatever they were told, as long as it was coming from America. The flowers and cheers for the “liberators” were not there for the American troops. Did the US fall victim to its own rhetoric and information campaign?

Whatever the root causes and the real reasons behind the “War on Terror,” it is certainly not perceived as a war of “liberation” by the ordinary Iraqis or Afghans, or by most of the people in the region. The US attempts to promote the “democratization” rhetoric have fallen short of actual evidence to support it, while political and economic dealings get increasingly more dirty in both, Iraq and Afghanistan (and the US is conspicuously involved in most of these cases). And certainly, the most prominent example of the US not keeping to its own values is its very attempt to overtly control the flow of information: bashing of “unorthodox” (in American view) media, embedding reporters in the military (thus successfully hampering their chances of some true reporting), and sometimes even preventing journalists from reporting altogether (references can be found in all of this week's readings).

Basically, the Americans have failed to deliver; and even where they have, the means to these achievements were largely disastrous. Given the situation as well as the context, the US might not have many options left. The most promising one, however, remains true understanding of and sensitivity to the local cultures (and figuring out what is that they really value at the time, unlike "soccer," for example), as well as a better demonstration of the true American values through more effective communication and palpable evidence. Yes, openness and true freedom of choice for the people of the region might mean that in the short run the “coalition” might not see friendly governments there (but that’s just the way a true democracy works, right?). And yet, the picture might be different in the longer run, if these governments are engaged and better integrated in an international cooperation system. In the end of the day, despite the importance of communication, it’s not only about words, but deeds as well.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

EMPIRE - The Long War: The US and Al Qaeda (Al Jazeera)

Noömanagement Crisis, continued...

Marwin Bishara and notable "panelists" discuss the problem on Al Jazeera English.

The second part of the program touches upon "glocalization" of Al Qaeda's ideology, and the implications of this for the general "War on Terror."

Highly recommended...

Dictator’s Dilemma and the power of The Cell Phone

The statement that “new ICTs empower the individual and non-state actors at the expense of the state (of course)” seems to have become quite a cliché by now. Yet, although not arguing against it, this week’s readings provided an alternative understanding of the situation as well: one where the state not only retains its power, but can also use the ICTs to enhance it.
Hanson summarizes the usual argument that the modern ICTs, especially the Internet, facilitate communication, information exchange, and coordination of activities, thus providing “the physical means of building coalitions across great distances, connecting local groups with international allies and enabling them to frame their claims in global terms.” This, of course, undermines the state and particularly its role as a core international actor. A counter-argument claims that despite being a powerful globalizing force, technology can “amplify political and/or social fragmentation by enabling more and more identities and interests […] to coalesce and thrive.”  But then, this is not news.
What I found more interesting was the “Dictator’s Dilemma”: the desire to have the benefits of the Internet without the threat of political instability. How can a government give its people access to all the new technologies and information for purposes of health care, education, and commerce (for example) while blocking political information? This inevitably reminded me of Gorbachev’s “dilemma,” and his very honest attempts of reforming the USSR from within, essentially through glasnost and perestroika. The system was under extreme pressure: externally (the Reagan administration made sure of that), economically (it was turning into a starved state), militarily (Afghanistan has always been a big headache and a major waste of resources for any invader), and domestically (all of the above started making it increasingly unpopular among its own people, finally). It just needed another decisive factor to face its end. Apparently openness and (relative) freedom of information played this role, even if initially intended to serve the opposite purpose (at least, supposedly).
Again, how does one benefit from the advances of technology (Internet and other new ICTs) if the system is BASED on oppression, absence of freedom, and no real tolerance of reform? Hanson says that although the Internet generates political change (be it in the long or short-run; directly or indirectly), it does not necessarily result in democratic institutions. The people, as well as non/sub-state actors can have the illusion they have more freedom, and the expression of unorthodox ideas that are considered to be harmless can be tolerated for a while; however, states, particularly some states, learn very well how to “channel” this flow and thus ATTEMPT, at least, to manage the situation without obvious oppression (China’s flooding of the Internet with its own info in addition to the attempts of overt control, or Russia’s “Spinternet,” are good examples here). Very much like the "mainstream" media management attempts in the good old days…
Well, perhaps the cell phone, with its mobility, person-to-person platform, and real multi-modality can truly overcome all attempted limitation or “management” by the government? Castells sees its strength in being a tool that enables a personal network (i.e. trusted and having no room for potentially hostile external members), which can easily move one into action for change. Coupled with the fact that cell phone use is spreading with inconceivable speed around the world, it can indeed stand the chance of being the ultimate “empowering” tool in the coming decades (we already saw how such networks work in Iran, Moldova, Belarus… even Ukraine and Armenia, to an extent).
But such an argument ignores factors such as the need for state “permission,” if a provider is to operate in a country, cell phone viability (can the local population afford buying the phone and, later, paying for the services?), as well as its cultural applicability as a primary tool of politically unorthodox communication. In any case, it is still very much a developing issue, deserving close attention as it unfolds.