Sunday, January 31, 2010

Democratization in the Muslim world?

Yesterday I was watching Marwan Bishara's latest "episode" of Empire on Al Jazeera, where he and his guests discussed the "War on Terror" from the Muslim perspective.

Certainly, almost all of the Muslim countries are far from being genuine democracies, no matter how they are portrayed. But thanks to their energy reserves, geostrategic location, and proximity to what seems to be never-ending instability (be it Iran or Afghanistan), most of them are heavily funded and supported by the United States and some other major Western powers. Much has been written and said on the matter, but as I was watching the program, I couldn't help but think of the public diplomacy implications of this support for the largely authoritarian regimes. Since the signature characteristic of PD is its public component, what is the message the US is sending to the Muslim people in the "Greater Near Eastern" region by supporting those that oppress and censor them, and hinder their actual development? Isn't it a blunt contradiction of the very values espoused by the West?

There was also another item in the news today: the deployment of more US missile defenses around the Gulf, as an extra measure against any possible attack from Tehran. So, Obama hopes to counter Iran, the "totalitarian regime", by supporting the authoritarian states such as Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. Double standards? Or is it just that the latter are "friendly" and don't do their dirty laundry in the open?

Or... perhaps, it's all a part of a grand regional democratization plan, since the hope is that repressive regimes won't last long, anyway?

Watching the following video it seems like they've got it all worked out. Just maybe...! The problem is, the Muslim public might take a while to see the "Western reasoning" behind it...

[Although this is from almost 5 years ago, I think Bird and Fortune still make a good point. And Obama is not that different from Bush, after all... Or so it seems.]

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Years of Lightning"? Really?

Last night we watched the USIA-commissioned John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums as a part of the PD class. Impressive. Kind of slow... but powerful. Very good use of music, well-placed symbolism, and, of course, Kennedy's own impeccable charisma. Pathos were in full swing, and the message wasn't bad either. Of course, many issues were conveniently left out and many were spun or distorted. But that's just how propaganda goes, anyway.

But the movie did better than that - at certain points - by showing some of the controversies and political debates existing within the US. In that sense, it would not really fit into Ellul's vision of propaganda, which does not allow any room for alternative perspectives or voices in the message. A good point in and of itself.

Here are some of the features in the movie that struck me - as a PD student in 2010 - as being especially interesting:

- The strong reference to high culture. (Yes, I still do take an issue with this, and I do believe that the US needs to do more on the matter, if it wants to successfully compete for appeal and approval with other nations that put out more "non-commercial" and "moral" cultures out there... Pop culture is great - especially at our time - but there needs to be more on the menu, if a greater audience is to be captured.) The movie shows how the Kennedy's brought Grieg and Lizst to Washington, and makes a passing inconspicuous remark about their superiority over Broadway and Hollywood. (That moment I couldn't help but imagine Bush waltzing to Strauss in the White House Blue Room...)

- Kennedy actually made a reference to Smart Power! He didn't use the term, of course, but referred to the need of making simultaneous use of "force and talk". Certainly, he did not invent the approach, but for his time and the circumstances, even the fact that he spells it out is significant. And then, how long did it take the scholars to actually name the concept? Yeah, the guy was smart, indeed...

- In the last minutes of the film there is a scene with a group of Muslim men performing the Islamic prayer in Kennedy's memory (the footage is, most probably, from the day of his funeral). Truly global appreciation! I wonder whether it would still be the case - particularly in the Muslim world - had Kennedy been assassinated four years later (after the Arab-Israeli Six Day's War of 1967), or especially after 9/11 and the "Global War on Terror"? Or, alternatively, how differently such a scene would have been portrayed AND peceived, had the movie come out after these events?

- An issue that came up during the ensuing class discussion was who would a public diplomatist show this to in 1966, and where? Some of us in the group got carried away, identifying segments and scenes that we would censor, so that an unfriendly host government allows us to show it to its public. Yet, a classmate noted that we "should certainly keep in mind that there are images and messages that are not suitable for children and that could offend some in the audience." A good reminder to get back to the 2010 America!

And, just by the way, as I was watching the movie and as we had the discussion later, a Soviet cartoon - from around the same time (1963) - kept creeping in to my mind. It gives an "alternative view" of the elite life in the domain of capitalism.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

01:20:2010 - Public Diplomacy running out of time?

Unfortunately, I still hadn't got to Washington to be able to attend Obama's inauguration last year - I didn't even watch it on TV (I was too busy planning my Bachelor's Senior Thesis on Iran's Presidents, in the far-away Bulgaria). But later I found out that hundreds of millions around the world had tuned in to witness the event that was supposed to be a watershed in the course of global affairs. A year on, and well... things don't seem to have changed all that much. YET.

The last couple of days we all have been bombarded - quite literally - with analyses and assessments of Obama's first year in office. These, for most part, have not been positive, put mildly. There is general disappointment, disillusionment, and even, increasing hostility against many of the things he stands for (and Brown's victory in Massachusetts only underscores that). The case has been very similar - if not even more prominent - around the world, where hopes have been raised, but also swiftly destroyed by speeches such as those in Prague, Cairo, and Oslo... and certainly, by actions that were far from what was read into his words.

I cannot and do not want to get into trying to assess his successes and failures. I just wanted to share a great video from Al Jazeera's "Fault Lines," where, I think, Avi Lewis does a remarkable job of portraying some of the major issues involved, on the domestic front.

Now, turning over to the foreign policy domain.

Obama's presidency seemed to have given a new image - a new air of some sort - to the American policies abroad; or, at least, they were perceived as such. Yes, he might have had the best intentions last January, but just as with any official position, there are dozens of institutional constraints, unpredictable crises, and considerations that any president has to deal with (and you don't have to be the President to know: anyone, who has ever taken part in political simulations, such as the Model UN or European Parliament, can testify to this). Well, and we should not forget the financial crisis, which took things to a whole new level of "BAD," globally. It has just been a year, and, if he is lucky, circumstances might still come together to enable him to move forward with his own plans. We need to wait and see. The question is, however, who can afford the time?

Yesterday, Joseph Nye, in his lecture in London, talked of a three-tier view of soft power: the "matryoshka" approach (Russian wooden dolls that fit into each other). He differentiated between "rapid reaction," "strategic communication," and "building lasting relationships," time period required for each being the basic determinant of these differences (and, certainly, the approaches and means of their application varying accordingly). What he stressed specifically was the building of lasting relationships - which is not news, of course. And yet, it is interesting to see how this major factor is being mostly neglected by the public, as well as analysts, who want immediate, measurable results (the realm of "rapid response" and "strategic communication") almost upfront. But that is just how politics works; or, at least, the "right" political system that we call democracy.

It's easy to point fingers and find scapegoats. What's more difficult is finding socially shared patience and the political will to allow for some more room for maneuver. He came, carried in by all those who believed in the change he promised. He was the perfect and the highest ranking American "public diplomatist." But the thinking should focus on the longer term. He needs time and support, since he can't do it all by himself. Yet, it seems like neither the world, nor his own people are willing to grant him that...

Just to quote Dennis Kucinich, Democratic Congressman from Ohio, speaking in the end of the "Fault Lines" video:

"You hear people are disillusioned. Well, it's OK to be disillusioned, because it means that we are free of our illusions, so that we can look at things as they are, and look at people as they are. We did not elect the Wizard of Oz. We elected the President of the United States."

But then, seems like the world needs a wizard to be saved from itself...


Monday, January 11, 2010

"The First Caucasian": Public Diplomacy 101. Georgian style?


I just came across a blog post shared by a friend on a story that seems to have been largely ignored in the Western media: The First Caucasian, a Georgian TV channel in Russian, with the goal of "effectively informing [the people of the Caucasus] about what is going on in Georgia and in the world." The 3 million-dollar channel, launched by Georgia's Public Broadcaster (read: "state-owned"), went on air online in the beginning of January, and is said to start broadcasting over satellite and cable within several weeks. The website is still incomplete, with dysfunctional "English" and "Blogs" sections. However, it has started posting regular news-logs, along with several programs such as "Without a Statute of Limitations" (which will "tell about the crimes committed by the Bolshevik regime from the moment of occupation and the forceful Sovietization of Georgia" [translation]), or "At Mykhalych's" (a talk-show featuring prominent figures from the region discussing the "reestablishment of contacts and building of friendly relations with neighboring Caucasian as well as once-friendly republics" [Ok. Too many hints. WE GOT IT!]).

Here is the very first video - the formal intro - that was posted online [in Russian]:

Certainly, the channel has caused some outcry from Moscow, despite pledges by channel representatives, and even Saakashvili himself, to tell the truth, and the truth only.

Its brief mission statement reads [translation]: "We do not want to give assessment; we want to give facts, as well as talk about what is left out by other Russian-language channels."

The Russian attitude, nevertheless, is summed up well in the RT coverage:


(An interesting fact: the English-language Western media somehow failed to notice this development, coverage being limited to a tiny piece on RFE/RL and a Russian-only article on VOA)

There are various sides to this issue, of course:

- Saakashvili and domestic politics - Saakashvili has been criticized - at home as well as abroad - for his crackdown on opposition and for a systematic "rooting out" the of the Russian language. Recently, rumors have started going around that he might run for a third Presidential term in 2013, and obviously, the more Aces he has up his sleeve, the better. Undermining Russia's media influence (or, alternatively, pretending that there is a "pseudo-discussion" going on), pretending to satisfy the info needs of the Russian-speaking population, and appeasing NATO with its "truthful reporting," The First Caucasian might have been the best gift Saakashvili gave himself this New Year.

- Georgia vs. Russia - since the so-called Rose Revolution in 2003, Mr. Saakashvili has been thinking - hard - as to how else to provoke Russia. He has successfully managed to do so on several occasions by now, the most prominent being the war last summer. Having a mouthpiece in Russian not only allows to undercut Russia's media influence in the region, but can also instigate a great deal of security trouble in the South of the Federation (one of the primary target areas of the channel). There are, already, several videos on the website about the Chechens as well as the Dagestanis and the Ingush, and the programs focusing on "Caucasian identity" certainly carry an agenda..

- Public Diplomacy? - On behalf of Georgia, as well as of the entire Caucasus region. "Georgia with Oleg Panfilov" will serve as a guide to the country, while the children can enjoy the "Fairy Tales of the Caucasus People." And well, if you ever wondered how people in the Caucausus celebrate the new year, you can tune in for some olivie or kholodets.

Certainly, this is just another drop in the ocean of the media war that is currently going on between Russia and Georgia; and at the moment it seems that the latter is getting the upper hand - at least, in its immediate region - in terms of innovative approaches. There is no doubt that hard power will carry the day, if it comes to it, but Russia does need to come up with something better than RT's Peter Lavelle singing its praise, or Medvedev joining facebook. Of course, there's always the option of dismissing The First Caucasian as a "mouthpiece of terrorists" and propaganda... but that will, most certainly, be an overstatement. Again.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

New Year's messages to the Russian people [updated]

A hilarious programming for the New Year's eve on the state channel ORT. A nice "public diplomacy" move by Kremlin...?

Enjoy! [Unfortunately there is no English translation... not yet, at least]

Putin and Medvedev performing the Russian chastushki...

Obama delivering the New Year's message from the other side of the Atlantic...

...and, Sarkozy... well, making his love for Gazprom "public" :)

P.S. - Just by the way, a special message for the Belarusian people from their bad'ko: "Sex becomes legal in Mogilyev. Even on the weekends...!"

Thanks to Marin for pointing these out to me!