Saturday, February 27, 2010

The counter-PD experience of the day

...or maybe not so PD.

Visited the Pentagon, finally. A notice read (not verbatim): "Visitors are not allowed to converse in any other language but English in the course of the tour. No translations are allowed, either."

An Egyptian school-mate asked the unaware tour-guide if Arabs are allowed in. He thought over that, but fortunately concluded that he thought they should be...

All that after almost an hour of security checks.

Sheer paranoia.

*Tours are open to non-U.S. citizens, but have to be reserved in advance, just like any other. If the foreigners are joining a group, American nationals should be the ones making the reservation; otherwise, should be done through their embassy.


Friday, February 26, 2010

An Exercise in Disinformation: Linking PKK to Nagorno Karabakh

This piece is from summer 2008. It first appeared in the August 2 issue of the Armenian Reporter.

Co-authored by Yelena Osipova and Emil Sanamyan 

Turkish and Azeri officials have frequently sought to link Armenians to the Kurdish resistance in Turkey, typically referred to as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But they have provided little to no evidence to substantiate such linkages.

These allegations made a comeback between last October and earlier this year at a fairly high level and with all the hallmarks of an organized disinformation campaign.

This analysis seeks to deconstruct the chronology of this effort aimed against Armenia.


Allegations linking Armenia to Kurdish political activism in Turkey are not new. Azerbaijan’s motivation for this is to win and maintain Turkey’s support and to position itself as fighting a “common enemy” in Karabakh.

Turkish nationalists, in turn, seek to portray the PKK as a non-Muslim and even anti-Muslim entity, appealing to religious and ethnic biases in the fight for the hearts and minds of Turkey’s Kurdish population.

In the early 1990s, frequent Turkish claims that Armenia provides support to PKK also helped build up an excuse for Turkey’s potential intervention in the Karabakh war on the side of the losing forces of Azerbaijan.

At one point in 1992, that campaign was inadvertently facilitated by Armenia’s own propaganda, which suggested, falsely, that the mostly ethnically Kurdish population
of areas between Karabakh and Armenia proper welcomed Armenian forces as liberators. (Yezidi Kurds from Armenia proper were even reported to have been bused to Lachin for that purpose.)

In fact, by the 20th century, most of Azerbaijan’s ethnically Kurdish population was thoroughly Turkified and they now mostly self- identify as Azeris.

Azerbaijan’s ethnic Kurds reportedly include such well-known characters as Azerbaijan’s late national leader Heydar Aliyev, as well as wartime chief of national police and local Grey Wolves franchise Iskender Hamidov, who famously promised to wipe out Yerevan and Stepanakert with two nuclear strikes.

First salvos

In August 2007, Yusuf Halacoğlu, head of the Turkish Historical Society, ultranationalist and Armenian Genocide denier, announced that his studies on the origins of Anatolian tribes showed many Kurds, particularly Kurdish Alevis, were originally Armenian.

As events unfolded, Mr. Halacoğlu’s comment appeared to have been motivated primarily by politics.

In an interview with Uluslararası Haber Dergisi in October 2007, Mr. Halacoğlu said many “people” who think they are Kurds may be mistaken, and the case is the same with “the terrorist groups who tried to be identified as Kurdish Alevis or Kurds.”

(Incidentally, after 15 years at the helm of Turkish official historiography, Mr. Halacoğlu was replaced by the Turkish government this week.)

Somewhat unexpectedly, this line of reasoning was reflected in the remarks made by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey during an official visit to the United States in early November 2007.

After being questioned by an Armenian Embassy staff member on Turkey’s Armenia policy in a public meeting hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Mr. Erdoğan demurred on the need to distinguish the terrorists from the Kurdish population at large, saying, “In the terrorist organization [PKK], there are Kurds, Armenians, others.” (He said this even though no ethnic Armenian member of the PKK was ever identified dead or alive, at least in the last decade.)

More importantly, during his visit, Mr. Erdoğan and Turkey’s friends in the U.S. government, succeeded in having President George W. Bush declare the PKK to be America’s enemy.

“They are an enemy of Turkey, they are an enemy of Iraq, and they are an enemy of the United States,” Mr. Bush declared that November, while also authorizing U.S. forces in Iraq to assist Turkey in their attacks against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Azerbaijan jumps in

On November 30 Zaman, a newspaper close to the Turkish government, quoted the heretofore unknown Federation of Turkish-Azeri Associations’ Secretary General Mehmet Azeriturk as claiming, “Armenia is making an effort to bring PKK militants into the cities of Şuşa [Shushi], Lacin [Berdzor] and Fuzuli, to be able to keep these cities it has occupied.”

No reference was made as to where Mr. Azeriturk acquired that information. The Zaman article also said that Armenian officials have denied any such contacts with the PKK.

But just days later, Azerbaijan’s deputy foreign minister Araz Azimov, apparently citing the “Zaman report,” declared that Azerbaijan is ready to perform “counter-terrorist” operations against PKK military units “positioned” in Karabakh.

Azerbaijan’s Zerkalo reported Mr. Azimov saying that the PKK’s presence in the occupied territories “shows the international community that we were right in our earlier statements [making the link between the PKK and Karabakh].”

Armenians had always had a penchant for terrorists, he added.

The international echo

On December 11 the Azeri allegations were promoted by the Russian journalist Aleksei Baliev. Writing for, an online political journal, he compared “the Lachin corridor” linking Armenia and Karabakh to “Iraqi Kurdistan” as a safe haven for the PKK.

An Armenian Yezidi community leader Aziz Tamoyan had, earlier in December, endorsed the presidential candidacy of then-Prime Minister Serge Sargsian. Mr. Baliev linked this endorsement to Kurdish hopes for Armenia’s support for establishing “a Kurdish autonomy” in areas between Karabakh and Armenia proper.

(Although Mr. Tamoyan’s endorsement came in a joint press community leader, Rimma Varzhapetian, who also backed Mr. Sargsian, Mr. Baliyev did not suggest that the Jews of Armenia were also hoping to establish themselves in Lachin.)

The nonsensical nature of the argument did not stop Paul Goble, a former U.S. official now employed as research director for the Azerbaijan's Academy of Diplomacy, from indirectly endorsing the claim in his personal blog the next day, suggesting that “the Kurdish initiative in Armenia provides those opposed to any settlement [over Karabakh] with yet another means to block it.”

By December 20, the Azerbaijani government allegations were presented as fact by Anar Valiev, a fellow at the Masaryk University in the Czech Republic and apparently a native of Azerbaijan.

The PKK’s (supposed) decision to move to Karabakh, Mr. Valiev stated in the December 20 issue of Global Terrorism Analysis, published by the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, is “rational, well thought-out and could benefit both sides.”

Mr. Valiev went on to suggest that Turkey would never “chase” the PKK in Nagorno-Karabakh out of fear that any such action would come to involve several other states, upsetting the fragile balance in the region.

For Armenians, on the other hand, harboring the PKK would help to bolster the region’s population and provide “hundreds – if not thousands – of experienced guerilla fighters.”

Mr. Valiev cited Mr. Baliev’s commentary as one of his sources.

Israeli and American spillover...

In January 2008, an unofficial and frequently inaccurate Israeli source, DEBKAfile, alleged that PKK leaders had started “acting on a decision they had reached in November to move their bases from the Qandil Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan to the predominantly ethnic Armenian South Caucasian region of Nagorno- Karabakh.”

The online publication said it got the information from its “sources [that] have picked up rumors,” which were also supported by “PKK defectors who turned themselves in to Turkish forces.”

DEBKAfile added that no transfer of the Kurdish bases had been confirmed as of January 28. However, it also said that a group of PKK chiefs were reported to have visited Kurdish villages in Karabakh looking for support. (No such villages in fact exist in Karabakh.)

A sort of a culmination of the campaign occurred in February 2008, when Mr. Azimov met with visiting U.S. State Department coordinator on terrorism Frank Urbanic (whom Azerbaijani media renamed “Urbanchik”).

Mr. Azimov told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) after the meeting that the PKK was the main focus of their talks. He expressed concern over the “PKK building ‘close relations’ with ‘terrorist groups and organizations’ that are enemies of both Turkey and Azerbaijan – a remark seen in Baku as a reference to Armenia or ethnic-Armenian forces,” RFE/RL reported.

A public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Baku was quoted as saying that the United States is “increasingly concerned about what appears to be growing ties between the PKK and other groups in the Caucasus” and the “threat the PKK poses to energy infrastructure in the [region].”

But the annual State Department report on terrorism issued on April 30 did not contain references to Azeri allegations.

These remarks were followed by several articles on the subject in the Turkish media. The Journal of Turkish Weekly, an online publication of the Turkish lobby in the United States, wrote, “It is reported that the Karabakh authorities provide a safe haven for international terrorism.”

The Journal, citing suspect sources, claimed that 56 PKK members had settled in Karabakh and that “terror camps” were established in the region. The Journal went on to claim that the Israeli intelligence organization Mossad “had warned Turkey and Azerbaijan about the PKK movements.”

…and denials

Contacted by the Armenian Reporter this week, Ehud Gol, Israel’s ambassador to Armenia, dismissed these reports as “a baseless story.”

He said he had no knowledge of the matter and viewed it as a bad piece of journalism with no credible sources.

Mr. Gol added that because of this, Israel had not issued any formal denial, adding, “We do not have any reason to believe [these reports are] true.”

While the United States did not formally endorse the Azeri or Turkish allegations, signs of interest on the part of at least some U.S. officials can be seen in the State Department’s award of a fellowship grant to Dr. Mark Yoffe to study the Yezidi Kurdish community in Armenia in September 2007.

“The U.S. Embassy in Armenia was interested in all aspects of Yezidi Kurdish life,” Dr. Yoffe told the Reporter in July. Asked about whether the Armenian state plays any role in Kurdish political activism, Dr. Yoffe said, “There are issues that might or might not involve Yezidi Kurds. However, my research does not show that Armenians are involved in them in any way.”

Dr. Yoffe, a specialist in Slavic languages at the George Washington University, held a presentation of his findings last February, noting that rather than serving as a potential connection to the PKK, Yezidi Kurds in Armenia “spoke badly” about Turkish Kurd emissaries who occasionally visited their villages, because “for Yezidis, Kurds are synonymous with Muslims and this is often given as a reason for antipathy.”

Dr. Yoffe was told that despite the emissaries’ attempts “to recruit Yezidis into their armed struggle or raise funds for their causes,” the Yezidis asked them to leave the villages, after which they stopped coming.

What it all means

“Pursuit of ‘terrorists’ or the presence of terrorists in a given territory has been used as pretext by states around the world for military operations,” Hratch Tchilingirian of the University of Cambridge told the Armenian Reporter via e-mail.

Indeed, while constantly threatening a new war in Karabakh, Azerbaijan is increasingly at a loss when it comes to providing contemporary reasons for its acrimony, with wartime grievances steadily shifting into the historical realm.

In the absence of aggressive behavior by the Armenian side, Azerbaijan has sought to invent it, coming up with baseless allegations – on subjects ranging from the environment to crime to security – that are designed to win international sympathy.

At the same time, Azerbaijan has worked to keep international access to Karabakh as restricted as it possibly can – a difficult task in an increasingly transparent and interconnected world.

Nevertheless, with the Caucasus as remote as it is, Azerbaijan frequently succeeds in having its disinformation published by reputable media and even in foreign government publications such as the many annual reports that the State Department is mandated to release.

In a drawn-out public relations war such small bureaucratic coups too can serve as small victories.

Writing on May 27 in the Soros Foundation–funded, Stephen Blank, a commentator on regional affairs who teaches at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, suggested, “The mere fact that Turkish and Azerbaijani media outlets are complaining about a Kurdish militant presence in Karabakh should spur the international community to action [on Karabakh],” he said, calling for “redoubled efforts” on the resolution of the Karabakh issue, in order to “eliminate, or at least greatly diminish the chances” of any aggressive developments.

While stressing that the allegation linking the PKK to Karabakh is unsubstantiated, Dr. Tchilingirian agreed that “for Azerbaijan it could serve as a pretext to test military operations in the Karabakh region in the name of ‘rooting out terrorists’ that pose a threat to Turkey.”

In this case, Azerbaijan attempted to piggy-back on America’s support for Turkey’s fight against the PKK, but it once again failed to win outright Turkish government support for the effort.

When contacted this week, the Azerbaijan's Embassy in Washington refused to comment on the matter.

The “Kurdish” campaign appeared to have come to an abrupt end, or at least an extended intermission in late February-early March.

It is unclear if that had something to do with Armenia’s presidential elections and subsequent domestic developments in both Armenia and Turkey; or, more modestly, with completion of pre-publication research for the State Department’s terrorism report.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Shortcomings of Tweet-o-Diplomacy

Apparently social media PD, with all its multiple "offshoots", is seen as the new panacea for all problems and inter-state tensions. Last week Ashton Kutcher, with an entourage of prominent IT reps, arrived in Moscow to encourage Russia's online community to take up social causes, as well as discuss the recent project "Electronic Russia", which is supposedly an attempt to improve communication and governance in the country.

The delegation visited Russia as a part of Clinton's "21st Century Statecraft" initiative. Lead by DoS's Jared Cohen, the group included high-profile tech people such as eBay CEO John Donahoe, Mozilla Foundation Director Mitchell Baker, and Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter. Kutcher, as the most popular Tweeter, with more than 4.5 million followers, was going to take care of the visit's "celebrity glitz". 

They were supposed to hold important meetings with important Russian officials about important technological projects and discuss the importance of social media in fostering open society. All in the name of opening up yet another field of cooperation and partnership between the two countries, and, perhaps with the hope of establishing closer ties between the web and social media enthusiasts from both the US and Russia (even if just symbolically). Buzz words such as "empowerment," "multi-stakeholder partnership," "E-Government," as well as pompous promises of creating a Russian Silicone Valley or establishing closer corporate cooperation were flying all over the place.

It's all supposed to be great and promising. However, the DoS seems to have overlooked several tiny-bity but very important points:

--> Kutcher - Come on! Couldn't they do better? Not only can't he put a decent sentence together [seemed like someone had given him a list of "key terms" to sprinkle his speeches with, and instead, he just came up with an incoherent sequence of babbling: see video], but his very credibility as a "celebrity diplomat" is to be questioned. The St. Petersburg Times pretty much captured the attitude. CNN's Fortune Brainstorm Tech went even further, detailing some of the Tweet-achievements of the delegation members. Certainly recommend reading the whole piece (makes for a good laugh!), but here are a couple of highlights:
# Howcast CEO Jason Liebman apparently had some advice to share with his enthusiastic young followers on how to play beer pong.
# Cohen described the visit in a tweet as "facilitating peeps-2-peeps". 

(Image courtesy of My Opera)

--> More importantly, Spinternet - While the US thinks social networking sites and 140-character-long messages can foster freedom and openness, it fails, once again, to capture foreign thinking and understand how things work elsewhere. To fall back on Evgeny Morozov's points: Kremlin is actively seeking to use the Internet and the social networking sites to "promote state interests"; while he also warns against embracing a myth of "techno-utopia", especially in less democratic states.

--> Don't get me started on corruption and the power of the state...

It seems like the visit was not very fruitful, and it even failed to gain significant media attention. Was it because the DoS's approach in this case was fundamentally wrong and not really appropriate for the circumstances, or was it Kutcher's fault?

P.S. - I just really hope Armenia doesn't come up with the bright idea of enlisting Kim Kardashian to do our official Public Diplomacy [which seems to be close to non-existent at the moment, by the way]. After all, she's got more than 3 million followers and ranks the 7th in the Top Tweeter list. But then in PD, unlike in celebrity PR, the motto "bad publicity is still publicity" can be dangerous...


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Rebranding the Iraq War: "Operation New Dawn"

Just in case you haven't heard, the "Operation Iraqi Freedom" will have a new name from September 1, 2010: "Operation New Dawn." The change in the name will coincide with the scheduled drop in the number of US troops to 50,000. In a memo to Gen. Petraeus on February 17, Secretary Gates wrote:

Aligning the name change with the change of mission sends a strong signal that Operation Iraqi Freedom has ended and our forces are operating under a new mission. It also presents opportunities to synchronize strategic communication initiatives, reinforce our commitment to honor the Security Agreement, and recognize our evolving relationship with the Government of Iraq."

So, really a "new dawn," or just a new brand? It is also noteworthy that terminology such as "synchronize strategic communication initiatives" is used, a clear indication of the intent behind the new brand: image management. It is supposed to signify the transition, and supposedly promise a new beginning. It is just really interesting to see: a beginning for what?

"Freedom" was simple, straightforward, and set a clear objective. Too clear-cut. "Dawn," on the other hand, is obscure, and not without a good reason: the elections are coming up in less than two weeks and the circumstances are more than just shady, while the US is set to withdraw by the end of 2011 and still make sure it saves face. Ambiguity is a safer bet, since the hope is (apparently) that the new name will have a greater impact on perceptions in the future, and the justification arguments - for whatever outcome - will be much easier to make.

(Image from The Onion)

Two side-notes here:

1. Marin (my greatest soul-mate!) suggested a new branding motto, which is not too unrealistic, unfortunately: "Operation New Dawn in Iraq: Sunset in Iran." Yes, indeed, Iran's role in the upcoming elections cannot be stressed enough, not only because of its economic and ideological influence in the country, but also thanks to the radical "de-Baathification" that America itself promoted so rigorously. Now, with the Shi'a power on the rise and a clear indication of Ahmed Chalabi's connections with Iran, the US seems not to be too optimistic about the outcome of the elections. While the recent war of words against Iran (still very much underway, by the way), is just another sign of increasing concern and hysteria about Iran's power in general. Certainly hope the US knows better than committing another blunder...

2. As I was reading about this, I couldn't stop thinking of my recently discovered admiration for Jacques Ellul, who wrote the following on the "promotion" of democracy in other countries:

...we do not prepare [the other people] to become a democratic nation, for on the one hand we reinforce or continue the methods of its own authoritarian government; and on the other, we cannot give the people, by such means, the desire to adhere to something else in another way. [...] [We are] asking for the same kind of acceptance of something else, of another form of government. [...] [And therefore] the 'democratic idea', when promulgated by means that lead to non-democratic behavior, only hardens the totalitarian man in his mold."

Happy New Dawn, Iraq. Apparently there's more to come.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Interesting people, great ideas...

Had an eventful day yesterday: gatecrashed a class at Georgetown (was very warmly received, nevertheless), met an inspiring young PD enthusiast and global practitioner, got a special crash course on the history of American diplomacy, and gained multiple insights into the challenges of spokesmanship. All in one day. Love D.C.!

Some quick observations and thoughts:

- John Brown: the consummate public diplomat (reference: Paul!) greeted me in Russian, kindly tolerated my lack of manners, and recommended Global Chaos to his students (by the way, please do subscribe!). Thank you, Dr. Brown!

- Paul Rockower: the self-described "wandering Jew" with a passion for public diplomacy, and apparently for extreme backpacking and photography. Do check out his blog - Levantine - and see the virtual gallery of his own version of the famous "Family of Man" exhibit. Inspiring and contagious, indeed. Oh, and if you haven't signed up yet, do join the Public Diplomacy Corps: the social networking site for all PD enthusiasts. That's where I read about his presentation.

- Richard Arndt: the renowned author of The First Resort of Kings, gave an interesting overview of the history of diplomacy. Found out that he had served in Beirut and Tehran (among others): hope to hear more about these particular experiences some time, perhaps? Although obviously nostalgic about PD's "good old" 1950s, there were two things in his account that stood out (for me, at least):
  --> He didn't deny that "Public Diplomacy" was a term initially made up as a cover for propaganda. However, it later evolved, of course...
  --> His definition of "Imperialism": what naturally happens when a high-tech society gets in contact with a low-tech society (verbatim). Fairly broad, inclusive and, surprisingly, missing all the negative connotations that come with the general understanding of the term.

- John Trattner: a retired diplomat, and a former journalist and spokesperson for the State Department, as well as for the Senate. Since I am still caught in between my two passions - international affairs and journalism - it was very interesting to listen to his take on the job of a spokesperson in our Monday PD class. Well familiar with both sides of the matter, he kept stressing the importance of maintaining credibility and trust, as well as the need to have the spokespeople involved in the policy-making process. What is more, he was the DoS spokesman when the Iran Hostage Crisis happened: not the best time to be holding the job, but he seemed to have managed it well. If only there were more people with a similar approach out there...

All I can add here: love PD, really enjoying D.C., and excited to be learning more each day!

(Photo courtesy of Olga Drochkova :))


Monday, February 22, 2010

"Explain Israel": Yuli Edelstein on Al Jazeera

The discussions and arguments over Israel's recently launched citizen diplomacy campaign have been raging for more than a week now. Essence: total public diplomacy, Israeli version. Smart. Interesting. Controversial.

What is more interesting, though, is that the issue of the alleged assassination of a Hamas leader in Dubai by the Mossad, and the latter's use of forged passport duplicates of several Jewish-Europeans hit the news right at this time, when Israel set out to convince the world that 99.9% of its ordinary citizens live normal lives and to foster stronger bonds with its Diaspora (see the video below). Of course, this cannot undermine one's identity; however, I am sure that Jewish Diasporans will give it a second thought next time they travel to Israel. They won't be the only ones, for sure.

What is most worrisome is that in this appearance, Yuli Edelstein, Israel's Minister of Information and Diaspora, says that he "sincerely believes that it's not such an [unheard-of] issue [...] especially taking into consideration the fact that the names and identities [of the Europeans involved] are known." Basically, it's normal, he says.

He also takes an issue with the excessive media coverage of the conflict, which, inevitably affects the public perceptions of Israel. And when asked about whether changing the policies and the facts on the ground would be the best way of addressing the problem, the response is that it's none of his business. Unfortunately, given the way media and perceptions work, as far as Israel's international "appeal" is concerned, the conflict will keep overshadowing all attempts at perception management, particularly when it comes to political perceptions.

It is noteworthy, however, that he made a special appearance on Al Jazeera English. Testing the ground, perhaps...?

Here is a clip from the Israeli Government's official website for the "Explain Israel" initiative:

With all due respect for the noble intentions behind this anti-camel-and-hummus talk, it will most certainly be very limited in its success, and most probably backfire, especially in the long run. Not only is it stepping up the government's efforts at image control abroad, but it has also set out to involve its own citizens and non-governmental organizations in promoting the current government's official line, while turning up nationalism and stifling any semblance of opposition or questioning.

Dangerous. So long, and thanks for all the... .


Friday, February 19, 2010

Culture, diplomacy, and ...Khachaturian

Tonight, I was joined by two lovely friends for an experience I'm sure I will cherish for a long time: I finally saw Aram Khachaturian's "Spartacus" performed live by Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet, at the Kennedy Center. I admired Khachaturian's work since I was at elementary school (all those hours spent practicing the "fortepiano"...); and later, as I explored classical music a little further, I came to the conclusion that the Armenian-Soviet composer was certainly one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century (not that I'm biased, of course!).

In a Washington Post review, Sarah Kaufman wrote: "Ballet lovers, Russophiles and fans of the bright, unsubtle pageantry in Aram Khachaturian's music would do well to catch any performance before the run closes on Sunday." Since I'm all of the above, despite the cost, the temptation was too strong to resist. So I simply didn't.

The Choreography was done by Yuri Grigorovich, who had choreographed the very first performance in 1968, while the performers were simply wonderful. I had seen Grigorovich's co-production in Yerevan last summer, but it was certainly no match for the Bolshoi. I had goose-bumps throughout the entire 2.5-hour performance, and yet the all-time favorite "Adagio" still managed to surpass all expectations. Indescribable.

At the same time, sitting next to Laura, I couldn't help but think of the cultural diplomacy involved, since we had been discussing it for a while. Firstly, it is noteworthy that the performance was organized as a part of the "Focus on Russia" initiative, sponsored by the HRH Foundation. This two-year initiative is meant to help the American public re-discover the Russian culture, and will involve various events and activities, including ballet, music, and theater. Although there is no official support from the Russian Embassy noted anywhere, the Russian Cultural Center is encouraging enthusiasts to attend.

Secondly, I was happy to see that despite the cost, the hall was almost entirely full, and there was a significant proportion of young people in the audience. I am sure that every person there was impressed and walked away with positive emotions, which would logically bring along positive emotions towards "Russian-ness" as well (even if not Russia itself). Nevertheless, that is still a major component of public and cultural diplomacy, since in a longer term, it enhances a country's appeal and soft power.

Then, the question arises: why make it so prohibitively exclusive? Why should the faith in a "person of culture" (or what Russians would appropriately call "kul'turniy chelovek") be increasingly worn away, while attention focuses away as Britney's new single hits the charts, or Paris Hilton comes up with a new scandal? And why is such a great channel of PD not getting more attention and prominence?

Any government that engages in PD runs the risk of its programs backfiring, since the "audience" might perceive it as propaganda, especially when the message or the mode of communication is too blunt. Products of "high" culture, however, are more likely to be positively received, since they are usually not perceived as "propagandist," even when supported by their government.

Do we need separation between pop culture and "high" culture? Absolutely. And the latter is more valuable as a tool, since it is more likely to be perceived as having an "intrinsic value" (as well as the obvious "acquired" one) and since the associations that the audience makes are more likely to be positive. Pop culture, although lighter and seemingly more appealing, is very culture- and time-specific, and in that sense, can be less successful, especially in societies that feel threatened by "cultural encroachment." High culture is prestigious and is said to "enrich" the person without necessarily becoming a part of their everyday life. This is not to say that it can afford being culturally insensitive (for example, such a ballet performance in a deeply Muslim society would certainly backfire), but it can rely on its high value for acceptance and understanding.

And yet, there are various forms, kinds, and styles of culture and arts that can be appropriate and welcome in various societies for various reasons. If properly chosen and delivered, culture can provide a strong people-to-people connection, which currently constitutes one of the foundations of PD. It can have underlying themes - such as freedom in the case of "Spartacus" - which, when thus communicated, might be much more willingly accepted, than when repeated time and again as a line in a certain "national patriotic" song.  (By the way, there had been some worry over the Communist Party's acceptance of the "Spartacus" when it came out in 1968, precisely because of the underlying message and the extent of openness involved.)

Since values, especially those that are to be communicated across cultures, are supposed to be more about themes rather than specific or concrete ideas, such cultural approach can be much more promising in the longer run. That is why, although high culture should not be transformed into a mass culture, it should be actively supported (including support by the government in cases where private donations run short) and promoted through various educational programs and subsidized events (that would be more accessible to a wider public). After all, this is one of the very first spheres where acceptance and understanding can be easily achieved, so why not use it as a platform for dialogue more often?

[Stage photos from The State Academic Bolshoi Theater of Russia.]

UPDATE: a personal pic!


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Clinton at a town hall meeting in Doha | Al Jazeera

Hillary Clinton speaking at the town hall meeting in Education City in Doha, co-sponsored by Al Jazeera and Qatar Foundation. A good example of America's highest diplomat engaging in direct public diplomacy.

Interesting to see how she is trying to spin the Iran story, smoothly swaying away from the Palestinian issue on which the moderator apparently wants to focus. See my recent post for a further discussion on the matter.

She's a good speaker, though. That goes without saying.


Twitter & Kutcher promote US-Russia relationship

One of those "palpable" steps toward closer inter-state cooperation through the use of new media, social networks, and... celebrities! To all those PD skeptics out there: Kutcher and Twitter might actually be saving the day...

The preliminary RT coverage:

A discussion to be coming soon. Hopefully...


The Word War: Iran

(Image courtesy of Al Jazeera)

Although Iran seems to be an ever-present issue in the news (for many reasons that include, but are not limited to, its nuclear program or its state of human rights), over the the past week there has been a dramatic increase in the volume, aggressiveness, and rhetoric not only from the West, but also from Russia and the immediate Middle East. Although worrisome, it seems to be more of an attempt of perception management at the public as well as governmental levels. To name but a few:

- in Iran: remind the government of the actuality of the possible threat it might be facing; also as an indirect encouragement to the opposition, hoping that it might change something (as if change is always necessarily for the better!);
- in the Middle East region: the US reminding its ally governments, as well as their publics, that it will not tolerate a misbehaving Iran;
- in Israel: Netanyahu making a show to his people about his "ability" to deal with the Iranian threat;
- in Russia: things are not that bad with the Americans;
- in US: "We said we will take a stand. So we are." Also, why not create a new "hot" topic to divert attention from the domestic problems, the Marjah offensive which is proving to be tougher than expected, or the upcoming Iraqi elections (very likely to be fraught with corruption, fraud, sectarian/ethnic tensions, etc.)?

Yes, the tensions might be running high, but I still do have faith in political leaders, especially those who realize the global implications of their actions. Talk is different from deed. But talk is important, and the general hope is, it seems, that this time it might just work in terms of putting up the pressure on Iran and talking it into submission. Here are some interesting observations from the past several days:

-- Last week, in a rally on February 11, that marked the 31st Anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Ahmadinejad boasted that Iran has the capability to enrich sufficient uranium to cause concern abroad. He reiterated, once again, that nothing will stop Iran's nuclear program, and no threats can intimidate him or his country. (Nice propaganda, by the way!)
-- On the same day, the US said it does not believe Iran has the ability to enrich uranium at a level that it claims. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs dismissed Ahmadinejad's claims as mere rhetoric. France followed suit. It all came as the US introduced new sanctions against several members of the Revolutionary Guard.
-- In several media appearances over the weekend Joe Biden devoted some time to talking about Iran to the American public, and reiterated the belief that it does not possess the nuclear capabilities it claims it does.
-- On Sunday, though, Clinton had a revelation: speaking at the US-Islamic forum on Sunday, she talked of Iran's nuclear capability as a major threat to the region. Of course, she did not forget to emphasize that the US is working to protect the region from that threat. (Well, since there are few "shared values," she needed to focus on shared threats and shared interests, at least.) Oh, and she also managed to mention, just by the way, that Iran is getting closer to becoming a military dictatorship.
-- It is noteworthy that when talking to Al Jazeera the same day, State Department Spokesperson PJ Cowley said that there was no new information to prompt Clinton to change her mind. His explanation was: "Given the current trajectory that Iran is on - the fact that it still has centrifuges spinning, and the fact that it is unwilling to constructively engage the international community - we have to assume that Iran is pursuing a nuclear program. [...] Given all the steps that Iran has taken and all the actions that Iran refuses to take, we can only begin to draw the conclusion that Iran's intentions are less than peaceful." (From what I remember, last time they were "assuming" and "drawing conclusions" it didn't turn out all that well...)
-- While Clinton was working on the Gulf states, Benjamin Netanyahu was paying a visit to Moscow, in the hope of getting support for a new UN Security Council resolution that will impose tougher sanctions on Iran.
-- Turkey's Erdogan came forth, forgetting the inconvenient tensions of the past couple of months, restating that Turkey is willing to be the venue for an exchange of Iran's uranium, under a plan suggested by IAEA some time ago.
-- Yesterday, in a public statement to the press, Nikolai Makarov, Chief of Russia's General Staff, warned against any military attack on Iran. Coming right after Netanyahu's visit, this raised concerns about the real "behind-the-doors" talks that took place in Moscow. Russia has begun showing signs of being increasingly inclined to support some further sanctions, but it certainly does not like the idea of a military action.
-- It was also on Wednesday that Russia announced it will be delaying its delivery of S-300 air-defense missiles to Iran, due to "technical problems." This surely came as a disappointment to Iran.
-- Meanwhile, Under-Secretary of State William Burns was in Syria for "in-person" talks on relations with Iran. This comes after Obama nominated an American ambassador to Syria for the first time in five years.
-- Iran keeps denying it all, deriding the West for the hysteria, invoking past hatreds, turning up the rhetoric, and staying defiant.

What to make of this all? Given Iraq and Afghanistan, given the financial crisis, and given the fact that 40% of all seaborne oil traded in the world passes through the Straight of Hormuz, there is absolutely no reasonable explanation for a military attack (these is just to name but a few reasons, of course...). What is more, Iran does have the ability to put up a strong resistance in case of an attack; however, it is also a rational actor that comprehends the implications and the consequences of such an event. And, of course, we should not forget the importance of having China's backing in any such endeavor - something that seems unlikely, at the moment, even with UN sanctions.

So, the attack is out of question. Obama's "extended hand" is turning into Clinton's "clenched fist." Regional tensions are rising. While Iran is getting lots of fodder to fuel its domestic propaganda, vilify the West (and not only), and boost internal support. It's unlikely that Iran really has the capabilities it claims it has; however the announcement and the ensuing hullabaloo only strengthen the regime. Perhaps the hope in the West is that more pressure and more sanctions will eventually bring the Ayatollah's down. But from what we saw in the summer, changes might not happen soon enough, or even if they do, they might not necessarily bring about a government that is willing to embrace the West. Unless Iran is engaged in a dialogue - even if through concessions on behalf of everyone - the tensions and the instability will stay high, justifying and making the Iranian regime ever more stronger. Perhaps PUBLIC diplomacy could help...?

Word wars are good, as long as they don't end in violence and aggression. It's all relative, after all.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Kosovo Birthday: II

And this is the under-reported side of the story. Although biased, it is NOT far from reality, and represents the perspective that clearly runs the risk of being ignored.

RussiaTV's agenda, however, it not that clear...

And here I should note a discussion we recently had in class about differing values and time-orientation, including the time-frames within which historical change is perceived. Talk of "forgetting the past for a vision for better future"...


Happy Birthday, Kosovo! (a.k.a. Oh, these map wars...)

February 17 will mark the second year from the day Kosovo declared independence: a fact that only 65 countries recognize so far. The issue behind it is of course a convoluted Balkan story, rooted in multi-layered historical claims (and that refers to all sides involved - directly, and indirectly), confused identities, artificial boundaries, and oh, so many passions. Serbia, despite the mounting pressure, has vowed it will never recognize Kosovo's independence. Russia is still trying to maintain at least a semblance of influence in the region and thus, is conspicuously siding with Serbia (despite its own recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia). While Kosovars have realized that their international recognition relies - at least to a great degree - on perceptions, necessitating an image war that can, at least, attempt to attract smaller countries such as Nauru or Malawi. The hope is, perhaps, that achieving a majority acceptance within the UN General Assembly will provide the ground for greater legitimacy (since many of the arguments against independence are indeed based on International Law, and since the International Court of Justice is currently looking into the case).

As I already said, the Kosovo issue is complex, and I don't want to get into a discussion on the legitimacy of its independence. What I found noteworthy, however, is an online paper by André Aprigio, where he analyzes the importance of public diplomacy for Kosovo, and its recently launched nation-branding campaign. He rightly points out that in circumstances where conducting traditional diplomacy is impossible - due to international factors, as well as lack of strong domestic institutions - public diplomacy can play the role of a viable substitute, and perhaps even provide Kosovo with a comparative advantage in the international sphere (since the techniques rely on new media and the Internet, particularly on facebook, YouTube, and Twitter). For a nation that made the latest alteration to Europe's political map (even if acceptable to just 65 countries around the world), where the people are still struggling to recover and rebuild, and where the average age is about 26, a brand motto "Young Europeans" seems to be more than just appropriate. [Image courtesy of Kosovo: The Young Europeans]

[The official branding video made by Saatchi & Saatchi, who are in charge of the campaign]

The problem, however, is that a positive image cannot really be built on weak foundations (local population's skepticism attests to that), and therefore, Kosovo will need a much faster and stronger economic and social recovery. It has to have something to put on the negotiating table - a bargaining leverage - and unfortunately, soft power or a "positive image" alone cannot provide it. This is alarming, since the West seems to be getting increasingly wary of unconditional economic aid, largely due to the financial crisis, but also due to corruption and the government's inability to deliver sufficiently rapid reforms.

[Although a year old, this video from Eurinfo captures many of the problems that are still relevant today]

Universal recognition, although a major issue, should not be the only priority for Kosovo at the moment, as it has to secure its livelihood, first and foremost. Recognition will require a lot of time, especially when it depends on passionately-held identities and national myths. Even if there are some 21st-century "Great Power Politics" still at play, the actual challenge is convincing the people in the region (immediate, and not-so-immediate) to get over their history, essentially. It has happened in the past, largely through force and oppression. The big question now is whether it can happen again, but this time without any further bloodshed.

Happy Birthday, Kosovo!

[UPDATE] Given the time difference, here are some updates from today:

- An interesting article on TIME about re-branding Kosovo.

- The full text of President Fatmir Sejdiu's speech to the Kosovo Parliament.

- The Russian take on the matter.

- The latest statement from the Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic on Al Jazeera:


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

PD and PR: estranged bedfellows. Or so they say...

Since I started reading on Public Diplomacy, I keep coming across attitudes that dismiss marketing and public relations as useless for promoting "national interest and national security through understanding, informing and influencing foreign publics, and broadening dialogue between citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad." Arguments range from the need to champion the "primacy of reason over passion" (the assumption being, for some reason, that advertising is all about passion) to the already-redundant "You can't sell America as you would sell Uncle Ben's" (referring to Charlotte Beers, the Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, 2001-2003). Then, I have also come across views that dismiss "nation branding" as futile commercialization of values and ideals that are essentially political, social, and cultural.

These are all reasonable arguments that make sense. But I think they all rely on two major, but faulty assumptions:
- The international "political marketing" is conducted as just another advertising campaign in the US (i.e. the target audience is American, and thus the basic strategy is built on approaches that would resonate with and be culturally appropriate/relevant to Americans).
- When talking about marketing and public relations, the reference goes to ads or commercials only.

What is more, there is an expectation that such an approach should be the silver bullet for fixing all problems the Americans are facing abroad.

Many of the ideas and concepts from International PR (in which I am fortunate to be taking a class now) seem to be challenging such a view.

First of all, there is a need to clarify the "expectation" element. Many, even in PD, do agree that it is the actions and the policies of a country that form the foundation for its PD. As Simon Anholt, coiner of the "nation branding" term says: "The only sure way places can change their images is by changing the way they behave: they need to focus on the things they make and do, not the things they say."
Then, there is need to shift the perspective, a little. Marketing, and especially public relations, are not restricted to airing commercials, planting newspaper/online ads, or putting up billboards. As defined by the American Marketing Association, "Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large." The most official definition for Public Relations is that it "helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other." Very broad, indeed, and perhaps that is why one a lot can be read into them. But the actual point here is that international marketing and public relations can bring a lot to public diplomacy, especially in terms of techniques.

GLOCALIZATION: a well-familiar term to many by now. Every major international company does a thorough research of the market before entering new territory (history, underlying values, approaches, narratives, etc., come to supplement the basic demographic, geographic, and consumption pattern data). And if it is really keen on succeeding, the company then customizes its products/brands to make them relevant to the local customer base. Well, they realize that altering the product - a little - is much easier than changing the entire culture, which provides the underlying basis for both, reason and passions, with which the product is supposed to resonate.

Certainly, there is the question of brand integrity: "Does the essence of the brand remain unchanged if the product is altered/customized?" The Integrated Marketing Communication approach suggests that it does not. The main principle is to find the "core competency" - the broader platform - upon which the organization can build its image. It is also a platform that defines the limits and boundaries of the extent to which the brand can be "customized" to make it more appealing to the local market: "mutually adapting the interests of the organization and its target public."

There has been a lot of debate whether the US can or should be "branded," and if yes, what its brand would be. Building on the explanation above, I would say the US does not need a brand per se; however, it would certainly benefit from identifying a core competency that would provide the foundation for further building and hammering out of the message based on the culture of the target audience. Core competency should be vague, globally applicable, and therefore, also malleable. Ideas such as freedom, democracy, and justice can be a good start. However, there should also be the realization that they are, and they should be seen as, culturally relative. These values have not been static (or, at least, have not been perceived as such) throughout the history of the US, and there is no way they can be universally accepted in the way that the US wants them to be. The main question here is what is the goal: cooperation, partnership, and mutual benefit; or imposition and domination? If it is the former, the US should stop determining - to the very last detail - what is "right" in other societies based on what is perceived as right by the Americans. After all, such universalism is impossible in the post-modernist age America itself helped create.

(Image courtesy of Savage Chickens)

In terms of application, the core competency can provide the major themes running through all communication - public and not-so-public - that the US has with the world. However, when getting to the details, extra effort should be made in ensuring that they are applicable to the local audience: their perceptions, narratives, issues of salience, and most importantly, their interests and vision for the future (i.e., where the US can fit in it). In short, there is a need to be mindful not only the medium, but also of the message, since one message cannot be good for the entire world.

Integrating Marketing Communication also calls for active engagement of the target public, since it has an inbuilt feedback mechanism that helps adjust and refocus the strategic approach based on shifts and changing patterns. Yes, it is much more difficult to measure the effect of PD - since it deals with ideas, values, and emotions - and yet, some of the mechanisms suggested at Nation-Branding can be very useful, and perhaps, can be as good as it can ever get given PD's nature. These mechanisms should engage as well as act as a source for generating ideas. To name but a few: they can range from essay or video competitions, seminars and discussion groups, the use of online social networking websites, to call-in programs on TV and radio (where the US would be the listener of the concerns raised). That said, it would also be very important to educate the American public as well: in geography, global history, cultural awareness, and, most importantly, tolerance to difference.

Of course, a good ad can never replace a faulty "product". But when the "product" is viable, such international techniques can be coupled with PD as well as traditional diplomacy to provide the US not only with many more friends around the world, but also with an enhanced ease of conducting its foreign policy (in terms of its core national interests).

Perhaps, in that sense, PD does have a lot to learn from PR?

(Disclaimer: There is no way all the ideas involved could be sufficiently expanded in one post. However, do stay tuned for follow-ups as I keep making sense of the chaos!)


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Trapping PD

In mid-December, 2009, the House of Representatives passed a bill making it possible to prosecute the owners of transmitting satellites, not just the TV networks, for spreading anti-American propaganda from and in the Middle East. The bill, which clearly targets channels such as Hizballah's Al-Manar or Hamas' Al-Aqsa, will require the president to present an annual report on anti-American incitement in the region.

Although it still needs the Senate's approval, the bill has been a matter of discussion for quite some time. The irony is that Arabsat, for instance, is the "carrier" for both, Al-Manar and Al-Aqsa, while it is also the conveyance for America's Alhurra TV (read more on the details and possible ramifications on Layalina Review and on Kim Andrew Elliot's blog).

The question, of course, is not just whether the coverage falls under "Clear and Present Danger" (to justify the breach of the First Amendment), but also whether the US is becoming increasingly intolerant of any criticism. Public diplomacy is being flushed down the drain, while the Americans are seen - once again - as trying to impose their own rules and laws, based on their likes and dislikes, on people they are desperately trying to reach out to.

Double standards? Too many contradictory messages.

Not only is this confusing and frustrating for the Arab public, but it also provides one more reason to distrust and dislike America: not only for the terrorists that were supposedly targeted by the bill, but also for the countries that are considered to be American allies (another irony, since Egypt and Saudi Arabia were the ones to take up pro-active measures in response to the bill).

Yes, propaganda is bad. But imposition and oppression of rights is not better, either. If the bill becomes law, American PD - around the world - will suffer a major blow. Instead, extra efforts should have been made in reaching out to the local public with a message that truly appeals to them, and with a strong argument that would confront and discredit the "terrorist propaganda", instead of fueling it.

Here is Al Jazeera's take on the matter (the satellite network will also be affected by the legislation). The entire first half of The Listening Post this week deals with the issue.

Need to watch Al Jazeera. Even if just once in a while...


Friday, February 12, 2010

The Snowpocalypse: Round III

Tuesday night. More than half of the weekend's 20-25 inches was still not gone, and we had to gear up for Round 3: about 10 more inches. It should just NOT snow in DC!

A view of my roof. Had the window open for some of that real fresh air: just 15 mins and the snow was encroaching upon my territory!

Real blizzard. Arctic conditions. Loved the swirls!

Snow dunes, ridges, and other formations...

Did I mention the Artcic...?

And apparently, this winter Washington broke its 110-year record with 55.9" of total snowfall. The bad news is: we might have even more, some time soon...

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Smart Power", the Military, and Public Diplomacy

As a part of our PD class readings this week we had to look at strategic communication, and more specifically, at AFRICOM. Seib's piece on the "mission" does a great job in discussing the various complexities involved, and does not seem to shy away from criticism. And although the Africa Command might seem a great application of Nye's "Smart Power", it might not only prove ineffective, but also counter-productive in the long run.

Smart Power essentially constitutes a complex combination of soft and hard power, which, working together, are supposed to make the attainment of state interests smoother and easier. So, the military, along with its actual "hard" tactics, also decided to take on aid and development missions, since those are among the fundamental parts of the "soft power" component. Although well-intentioned (in a sense), such projects should be dealt with great caution, since military will always stay military with their short-term goals and interests, as well as the inherent ability to cause and attract distrust, disapproval (especially from the perspective of the "receiving" side), and aggression.

In a post written in December on the development efforts (and arguably, the failure thereof) of the US military in Afghanistan, I touched upon some of the reasons for their unpopularity with the local people. Although papers and books can be written on the subject, particularly pertaining to fighting extremism and terrorism (and I really hope I will come across more of such materials as I delve deeper into the field), I will try and put out some ideas in a single blog post.

Certainly, the challenges in the 21st century are well captured by Kaldor's "New Wars" framework, which acknowledges the changes brought by asymmetric warfare, globalization, and the ICTs revolution. She also suggests that the breakdown in social systems and sustained instability cause lawlessness and insecurity, which, coupled with poverty, create the perfect breeding ground for extremism and terrorism. Organizations such as Hizballah or Hamas then come to fill in these "black holes," providing welfare, education, healthcare, jobs, and social support networks for the desolate: these all separate from the militia wings that engage in violence.
(This is a ppt on Israel's 2006 War with Hizballah prepared for a paper presentation last year)

So, a "New War" requires innovative 21st-century responses, which would quite naturally address the underlying problem of the "black holes" and fight poverty as a major enemy in the war: enhance the welfare, provide education, create "in-system" employment, and put a greater emphasis on the use of media (as an ideological battleground). However, an army is not the best actor for this. Foreign military presence - be it a full-scale invasion or one of altruistic benevolence - can only provide further grounds for extremist recruitment, since foreign armies are seldom trusted. The lack of trust is not only due to past experience or "historical legacy," but also because despite the aid, armies still engage in aggression and destruction, inevitably undercutting the development efforts, and causing bitterness and hatred among the local population, who might not have been inclined to support extremism in the first place.

And, certainly, another good example of such distrust (although not an institutionalized "mission" yet) is the case in Haiti. Yes, the US military was among the very first to respond: thousands of troops were sent over the weeks to assist the relief efforts (or, hamper them, as some claimed). Yet, many question whether this effort is altruistic or just another manifestation of not-so-hard power pursuing age-old interests, especially since throughout several months before the earthquake there had been increasingly more talk of Haiti's oil reserves. Therefore, no matter how successful the relief effort, the longer the US military remains engaged in Haiti (and, if sustainable assistance is to be provided - at least a "medium-term" one - involvement might last fairly long), the greater and more vocal such distrust might become (and wait till more of the private sector gets there).

Haiti is not Afghanistan, Iraq, or Lebanon, and there is little chance that fundamentalist extremism will grow there, but all the talk about the US military's role on the island is a good illustration of how its humanitarian assistance efforts might be undercut by popular long-held perceptions, fed by the spin (not to call it propaganda) by not-so-friendly international actors. Looking at societies where ideological extremism is much more probable, the spin and distortion might become more dangerous and destabilizing in the long term, since the military presence will only perpetuate the will to fight it and hence, perpetuate the instability.

Although smart power is a great approach and arguably very reasonable, it should not be undertaken by the military itself, but rather by the country as a whole, i.e. there should be a clear separation between American "hard" military structure and the "soft power" activities: American aid workers, teachers, doctors, or volunteers. And, what is even more important, the local population should be involved in the development efforts - at all stages and levels - in order to maintain the trust in the process and the end goal itself, even if they do not trust the Americans. Otherwise, sustainable results might be unattainable.

And no, in this case, taking credit for such work should not be the primary concern, since such public diplomacy should be looked at as a medium-to-long term effort, and taking overall credit for the long-term success will be much more effective and useful for US interests. But since the military culture is not necessarily concerned with that, this very important consideration runs the risk of being effectively forgotten.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Subversive Activities Registration Act": a.k.a. Terrorists Required to Register

Yes. Stumbled upon it and thought it is TOO invaluable not to share!

As ridiculous as it may sound, South Carolina's Legistlature has passed an act requiring "every member of a subversive organization, or an organization subject to foreign control, every foreign agent and every person who advocates, teaches, advises or practices the duty, necessity or propriety of controlling, conducting, seizing or overthrowing the government of the United States [...] [to] register with the Secretary of State on the forms and at the times prescribed by him." [Image from Wikipedia]

The Subversive Activities Registration Act requires potential revolutionaries and "foreign agents" (read: terrorists) to submit a "Subversive Agent Registration Form" with the name of their "subversive organization," names of all members, and a copy of the bylaws or minutes of meetings from the last year ("if applicable"). There is a $5 filing fee. Oh, and those who plan subversive activities but fail to report and register might face up to ten years of imprisonment and/or a $25,000 fine. (Logically: if you were planning subversive or terrorist acts, you are granted the liberty of continuing with them, as long as you register, voluntarily. PRICELESS!!!)

This falls into the same category as Point 38/3 of the American Nonimmigrant Visa Application (DS-156 form), which asks the applicant:

"Do you seek to enter the United States to engage in export control violations, subversive or terrorist activities, or any other unlawful purpose? Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization as currently designated by the U.S. Secretary of State? Have you ever participated in persecutions directed by the Nazi government of Germany; or have you ever participated in genocide?"

The noble intentions of such legislation are clear enough. What I am not sure about is whether the authorities really think that anyone planning (and/or someone who has participated in) such an activity would report it in the first place? Or is it just a cosmetic precautionary measure to further prop up the general perception of threat, and everything else that it enables...?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Riz Khan - The Role of Media in the U.S.

Although not new (from Jan 18, 2010), certainly worth watching.

See other episodes of the Riz Khan Show here.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

PD vs. Propaganda

So where does one draw the line?

The following is not false. Neither is it exaggerated. Yet, I hope I'm not the only one to find something deeply wrong with both of these videos...

Somewhere half-way through the following piece, things start getting real weird.


RussiaTV does have some insightful reporting, SOMETIMES. Way to go on lame Russia promos, though!

The Snowpocalypse: Round II

LOTS of snow...
Yet, beautiful!

Park Rd. :)

Shoveling it all was NOT fun at all!

..and some smart people :)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

"Total Public Diplomacy"?

Thanks to the PD class I'm currently taking, I discovered Jacques Ellul and some of his striking ideas on propaganda: striking not in terms of novelty, as much as in terms of formulation and relevance for PD and all the talk that currently surrounds it.

The battle for a clear differentiation between propaganda and public diplomacy seems to have been going on for quite a while now, and I am not trying to suggest that they should be equated (although, sometimes they look as they could). And yet, I think Ellul does a great job in exploring the meaning and implications of Total Propaganda: in terms of utilizing all available techniques and media  for "reaching and encircling all men and the whole man" through continuous, consistent, and inclusive information. He sees it as "furnishing men with a complete system for explaining the world and providing immediate incentives to action," since total propaganda not only affects ideas and wills, but also the feelings, the needs, and the unconscious. Thus, it is an all-pervasive myth of some sorts, which gradually becomes the "ultimate truth" accepted and promoted by all and for all. Although "propaganda is bad," certain aspects of the "totality" part of Ellul's approach deserve more attention, especially in regards to public diplomacy.

The most common definition of PD states that it "seeks to promote the national interest and the national security of the United States through understanding, informing and influencing foreign publics, and broadening dialogue between American citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad."

In more recent years, the element of "dialogue" in the definition has been particularly emphasized, with much greater attention paid - in theory - to equality in the conversation, especially with the increasing prominence of network-based approaches. Dialogue is essentially "a conversation between two or more persons" or "an exchange of ideas and opinions," i.e. a two-way exchange and mutual acceptance, which certainly includes listening. (Image courtesy of College Candy)

Unfortunately, seems like it has not really been the case with public diplomacy, since it relies on the assumption of "universality" of certain values, which, for whatever reason, have been established as "ultimate truths" to be exported (not to use the word "imposed"). Consequently, values and ideas such as materialism, democracy, or even human rights, are deemed as fundamentally "Western" (if not American) when communicated in such a manner, and thus, are much more likely to be rejected by societies and cultures that see themselves under threat. (Here, the reasons might be somewhat similar to the ones Ellul identified as undercutting the effectiveness of international propaganda.)

It's not that democracy or human rights are bad. It's more about how their universality is explained by the "democratic" world, and how they are understood by the Third World. Reading U. Narayan and G.W. Musambira provides a perspective that is more compatible with the notion of dialogue engagement: local, intra-cultural forces can also be liberating, democratizing, and "progressive," even if their understanding of these concepts - their "truths" - are not wholesome replicas of the Western views. The postmodern approach of "multiple-truths" and of discussions based on an equal exchange of ideas and mutual respect would then be the best choice for public diplomacy.

This is where Ellul's concept of "totality" can come into play. Firstly, all media and techniques can be put into action to engage in a genuine two-way dialogue, involving not only the foreign public, but also the domestic one: many-to-many. Secondly, being continuous and spanning long periods of time, it can ensure an uninterrupted two-way communication, that will incorporate and reflect the changing circumstances and patterns within both ends. And lastly, since it "reaches and encircles all men and the whole man," it will be inclusive, engaging, and truly representative.

(Image courtesy of Cox and Forkum)

Total PD can thus create the space where meanings are formulated, discussed, debated, and understood, as opposed to explained. It can provide the place where these meanings are socially constructed and accepted as legitimate, as opposed to imposed or persuaded. This can also be the space where the sides engage in communication for the sake of the "ritual", and not necessarily for utility (bringing about a common change in the "unconscious" on all sides manifested in the acceptance of the plurality of truths). Ultimately, it is in this space that they can become similar and yet different in their own ways.

The realist in me keeps reminding that political, economic, and institutional constraints might not be permissive of such an approach. But if we go with the three-tier view of PD, it seems like the third - long-term - dimension has got a lot of room to welcome Total PD. So, perhaps, it's not all that hopeless, especially in view of open-source PD or PD 2.0. After all, understanding and acceptance is what everyone is after. And these should come from all sides... if stability and peace are to be achieved, that is.

To be continued... as I delve further into cross-cultural communication, PD, and international PR.