Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Jihadists of the World Unite", and Russia's Potential PD

Before I get to my post, I wanted, firstly, to express my condolences to the families and friends of all those 38 Muscovites who died in yesterday's bombings. Tuesday is a day of mourning in Russia, but I believe many more around the world will be joining the Russians in remembering the dead.

I heard of the news at around 1 a.m. from... TWITTER. Yes. Networks. We have been talking about them since my very first day in the International Communication program: they are widely seen as the appropriate framework, the solution to, but also the root cause of many of the problems facing the world. I'll dwell on the latter part of it for now, in the context of yesterday's events in Moscow.

Although there were no official claims of responsibility, terrorist cells from the Caucasus were clearly identified as those to blame for the attacks. Fair enough. Given the history and the information that the Russian security forces managed to get, they had every reason to make this claim. After all, these are "separatist Islamic extremists," "terrorists," fighting to establish their their own "Islamic Caliphate" in the Northern Caucasus: part of the global Islamic extremist network. At least according to the official Russian perspective.

And yet, it is a widely accepted fact that "terrorism" is a very relative term, which lies is in the eye of the beholder, especially when there is international politics involved. Seems like the case with Russia and the Northern Caucasus has been a "victim" (for the lack of a better word) of this relativism: the U.S. State Department still does not include any of the Northern Caucasus groupings/organizations in its Foreign Terrorist Groups (which is often the ultimate international "terrorist" guide), while the CNN, the New York Times, or the Washington Post can cover the bombings as terror acts without referring to those who carried them out as terrorists [the preferred word is rebel: I'm grateful, at least, they were not presented as "freedom fighters"].

There has been much said about Putin's heavy-handed approach to the problems in Northern Caucasus - the ongoing struggle in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia - and certainly, many accusations in regard to prominent cases, such as that of Politkovskaya, that were in one way or another related to the plight of the people in that region. These talks have made it big in Europe and the United States. But no, I won't be going into the reasons behind this, now; nor do I want to evaluate them.

What I wanted to point out, however, was the public diplomacy challenge that Russia faces - especially regarding Western audiences - precisely because Western (and particularly, American) politicians, civil society representatives, the media, and even the movies are constantly painting a brutal image of Russia, of the Russian people, and especially, of the Russian leaders. For most part, those are incomplete, if not false. More importantly, however, is that the way Russia is always portrayed somehow makes it a "special" case among the "terrorism-stricken" countries, so much that in a Q&A/analysis program by CBS News (the full transcript is available here) there was a very serious question coming from Washington, D.C. (!!!): "This seems unusual for it to happen in Russia. Usually these suicide bombers are in the Middle East. Have the Chechens engaged in this type of terrorism before?" [Seriously?!]

Catching the moment, Russia has done well, at least in this regard, in trying to frame this as a "shared challenge" - very much alive and kicking, and much more visible - that can bring Russia closer to the West. In a speech, Foreign Minister Lavrov made it clear that Russia sees this attack in a more "global" light, referring to the "no-man's land" between Pakistan and Afghanistan and stating: "We know that many terrorist attacks — not only in Afghanistan, but in other countries too — are plotted in that area... Sometimes, the trail leads to the Caucasus." Hence: a good illustration to the Western public - which, apparently, easily forgets - that Russia has to deal with terrorism, too, and, unlike the Western countries, that terrorism is at its very doorstep, sometimes managing to get in. So, facing a "global hostile network", certainly necessitates a truly "global" network response.

Secondly, although it is a very sad occasion, the truth is that such tragic events are very emotive, and result in a lot of sympathy from foreign publics: dozens of countries from all over the world sent their condolences to Russia throughout the day. And, at least for now, there can be no "international backlash" when Medvedev and Putin refer to those who carried out the attacks as "beasts," and talk of "finding and destroying" their collaborators. Even if they are talking about Chechnya.

And lastly, I wanted to touch upon Russia Today, Russia's official mouthpiece abroad. Although I very much agree with Laura's assessment of its programming, I believe RT should be given credit for the great job they have been doing throughout the entire day. Even Peter Lavelle, as could be seen in yesterday's Cross Talk [video above], was open to some kind of a rare, uncensored, and uninterrupted discussion of the matter [everything is relative, remember?].

What is more, RT has indeed been the major source of basic information and footage for most of the American outlets that ran the story. For a host of reasons, major networks such as CNN, or even the FoxNews had to rely on RT.

Certainly, one might argue that framing and presentation would matter much more in persuasion. However, given the nature of the event, it couldn't not have been sympathetic...

...unless, of course, it involves some ever-present conspiracies. To those inclined to believe that, I would just suggest reading Sergey Minaev's Media Sapiens: fiction, but very telling.

To wrap up, although this is a very sad event that will, most probably, have wide-reaching repercussions not just for the "terrorists" in the Northern Caucasus, but for many around Russia and abroad, it also seems to be (as sad as it may sound) a good opportunity to enhance Russian public diplomacy. Finally, Western leaders and publics are reminded of the existence of terrorism in Russia as well, they are reminded that Russians are humane and vulnerable just as they are, and Russia's own [could I say, official?] footage and some of its own coverage get air time in prominent American media.

Now, time to wait for the aftershocks...

[UPDATE] Just read a piece on Valdai Club about commonalities between the US and Russia, especially in light of the START agreement. Take a look.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

"Fraternity" not good enough, anymore

The power of the words and the "attached meanings" has always featured prominently in international relations. So, it seems like the Foreign Affairs Committee in the British House of Commons has taken the courage to modify the 60-year-old label - "special relationship" - regarding the bilateral ties between the US and the UK. In a report titled "Global Security: UK-US Relations," dated March 28, 2010, the Committee says:

British and European politicians have been guilty of over-optimism about the extent of influence they have over the US. We must be realistic and accept that globalisation, structural changes and shifts in geopolitical power will inevitably affect the UK-US relationship.

Basically, the "special relationship" does not really work out as well for both of the sides, especially in light of Obama's approach towards the UK, which the report describes as "more pragmatic". The bottom line is, "The use of the phrase 'the special relationship' in its historical sense, to describe the totality of the ever-evolving UK-US relationship, is potentially misleading, and we recommend that its use should be avoided."

(Cartoon from The English Blog)

Hence the core issue: the over-use of the "label" by politicians and the media, while it does not truly reflect the reality (at least, not from the UK's point of view). It would just be interesting to find out which of the following factors featured most prominently in the Committee's deliberations: the attempt to"save face" by the Labor Party at home before the upcoming elections, given the ever-increasing negative public sentiment against the British involvement in Afghanistan, and especially in Iraq; a call to Mr. Obama to start looking for pets on the other side of the Atlantic; or, a public diplomacy measure, to improve UK's increasingly deteriorating image abroad due to the much-publicized Iraq Inquiry? (And here goes Tony Blair's much acclaimed participation in the International Visitor Leadership Program, and its significance in his "special 'special relationship'" with the US: down the drain... But then, the British still went into Iraq, so would it be what ultimately matters?)

Whatever the case, it reminds me of a Soviet joke about the "special relationship" that existed between the USSR and Bulgaria:

The Russian and the Bulgarian find a 25*-ruble bill, while walking in the street. The Russian, all excited, suggests, "Let's share it as brothers would!" The Bulgarian replies, "No, thanks. I'd rather share it equally."

See another priceless cartoon here.

The term "special relationship" was coined by Winston Churchill in his Iron Curtain speech in 1946 to describe the "fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples" against the common "enemy."

* [Update/Correction] I was kindly reminded that there were no 20-ruble bills in the Soviet Union. I guess I should be happy I don't really remember that time...


Friday, March 26, 2010

Turkey's Zero-Problem "PD of Culture"

Cultural diplomacy seems to include several components: exporting one's cultural products, or adopting a "culturally sensitive" approach to diplomacy and public diplomacy (specifically), to name but a few. There is another part to cultural diplomacy too: allowing "foreign insiders" to practice their culture within a country.

Turkey has been learning this lesson recently (and here I will focus on the Armenian issue, only). This month's barrage of statements and crisis-management attempts by the Turkish Government regarding the issue of the Armenian Genocide seemed to have provided a lot of good and bad press for Turkey, as well as Armenia, and although both countries' administrations tried to reiterate their commitment to keep the dialogue open, the relations reached a new low: quite naturally. The most prominent illustration of it was Prime Minister Erdoğan's March 16 threat to expel the 100,000 Armenian migrant workers, who currently live in Turkey. (Later, of course, he claimed the media misquoted him and misrepresented his statements: the easiest way to deal with unfavorable media reports, right?)

(Surp Khatch Cathedral on the island of Akhtamar, Lake Van. Image from Mimdap.)

And yet, it seems that Turkey is back on track with its "Zero-Problem-with-Neighbors" foreign policy, exploring somewhat newer avenues within its cultural diplomacy (in the broader sense, as stated above) with Armenia. Just a few observations from the last two days:

- Yesterday, Turkey's Culture and Tourism Ministry released a statement saying that it will allow annual service to be held in the Surp Khatch (Holy Cross) Cathedral, 10th Cent. AD, of the Armenian Akhtamar Monastery on the island of Lake Van. Although it has been presented as a "tourism-conscious decision", supposedly in the hope of boosting the number of visitors (quite obviously, attracting Armenians from Armenia as well as from all over the world), the one-day service to take place in mid-September is very much a symbolic gesture towards Armenians. Surp Khatch has been a major issue of controversy after Turkey set out a "restoration project" in 2007 and made it into a museum, while the Armenian side claimed that restoration would be incomplete before a cross is placed on top of the church-turned-museum (very similar story to what happened to many Byzantine churches, Istanbul's Hagia Sofia being the most prominent case, of course). Talks of allowing Armenian liturgy in the church have been going on in the past several months, and yet, the release and the timing of this final decision statement by the Ministry seems to have been very strategic. Nevertheless, although the Armenian Patriarch in Istanbul already welcomed the news, the major controversy regarding the cross still remains unresolved.

(Detail of David and Goliath from Surp Khatch. Image from ARF.)

- On Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç also stated that the government is currently trying to work out a way of allowing the children of "illegal Armenian immigrants" in Turkey to attend non-Muslim minority schools. Since many of these families do not have official documentation, it is very difficult for their children to receive education in the first place (making the accessibility to non-muslim-oriented education even more difficult). Although there was nothing concrete said about the matter, it is, again, a clear show of attempt by the administration to ease the tensions regarding Erdoğan's statement last week.

- Today, the Yunus Emre Foundation announced that it is looking forward to opening a Turkish Cultural Center in Armenia, as soon as the "normalization Protocols" are approved and go into effect. Although it is highly unlikely that there will be any progress regarding the Protocols any time soon, the stated intent is still notable, given the history.

Again, attempts are good. The problem is, will they work? After all, credibility and trust are among the key elements indispensable in any relational communication - especially in public diplomacy - and it is a fact that building trust takes time, consistent effort, and relevant actions. Will the world and, especially, Armenia see this as a truly positive sign? So far words have been the norm. Let's see how the transition from talking to doing goes.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Iran's P2P Cultural Diplomacy?

While various PD initiatives around the world currently making the news focus mainly on information techniques, Iran is apparently trying to (also) adopt a more relational, engaging and 'understanding' approach, by providing a forum for discussion on the very pertinent topic of "Multiculturalism and Global Community." The conference, which will take place in July this year, will focus on three main themes: cultural diversity, Islam, and Iran.

Culture: Diversity or Integrity
  1. Multiculturalism and Global Peace
  2. Asia: Diversity or Unity in Cultures
  3. Intercultural Dialogue: Approaches and Outcomes
  4. Media, Communication and Common Good
  5. Globalization, Religion and Common Good
Islam: New Challenges, New Perspectives
  1. Islam and the Crisis of Modern Man
  2. Islam and Other Faiths: Truth or Salvation
  3. Islam and Woman: Rights and Commitments
  4. Islam: Traditionalism or Modernism
  5. Islam and Revivalism: Needs and Necessities
  6. Islam: Spirituality, Morality and Jurisprudence
Iran: Realities and Appearances
  1. Iran, Religious State and International Challenges
  2. Iran and the Middle East
  3. Iran and New Generation: Gap or Conflict
  4. Iran and International Society: Contraction or Expansion
  5. Cultures and Religions in Iran: Heterogeneous or Homogeneous Society

More interesting, however, are the members of the "Scientific Board," who come not only from Iran and Indonesia, but also from universities of Georgetown, Indiana, and Creighton. The conference has special discounts for students, and offers help with all the visa arrangements. So in case you're interested in paying a visit to the land of Cyrus the Great (or the Grand Ayatollah, depending on your "interests"), you should register and submit your paper abstract now.

People-to-people interactions and such international "scholarly meetings" are a major component of cultural diplomacy, especially when the subject matter itself focuses on culture. It's great to see that despite all the rhetoric from all (involved and irrelevant) sides, it seems that such lower-level interactions are still open to willing enthusiasts. And well, this demonstrates that Iran is not dormant and is actively trying to establish itself, stronger, as a leader in the Islamic world in matters of diversity and cultural dialogue (at least at an academic level): something that should not be ignored or readily dismissed by those concerned about the developments in the region, especially given the "credibility deficit" of the US and the Europeans there. Also, it is important to remember that it was Iran's reformist President Khatami who suggested and started the Dialogue Among Civilizations initiative in 2000.

Perhaps, after all, this is the right way to go about the problem Iran poses, instead of further sanctions that will only harm the people, strengthen the regime, force it to close in even further, and radicalize what (at least) used to be the most pro-American public in the Greater Middle East. But this requires long-term strategic thinking, does not yield readily available quantitative results, does not involve the military and thus, runs the risk of being neglected by those who demand measures, budgets, and quick, immediate outcomes.

(Image from the conference website)


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Swim-brief public diplomacy: à la Lukashenko

The Belarusian President has been exploring new avenues of diplomacy over the past week and, apparently, he made sure not to neglect the public diplomacy element, either. During his visit to Venezuela several days ago, he gave an interview to Argentinean Diario La Nacion newspaper on the beach wearing his swim briefs, which, just by the way, were red and green: the colors of the official Belarusian flag. The staged appearance in front of the camera also featured the President telling the Argentinean reporter about his country and people "who are the most beautiful in the world", while presenting him with two guide-albums on Belarus.

And hereby the Great Bat'ko joins the "Semi-Naked Club" of leaders from around the world who promote themselves and their countries by showing some skin!

It's noteworthy, though, that Belarus has been making the news over the past days, with Lukashenko's visit to Latin America, where he secured multiple bilateral deals, especially in the energy sphere. What is more, just a couple of hours ago, China officially announced that it will be lending $1 billion to Belarus on "favorable terms." Wonder where all this is going...


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Armenian President Sargsyan on Genocide and NK: Euronews

In an earlier post - which, by the way, seems to have instigated an over-prolonged discussion - I had touched upon the over-politicization of the Armenian Genocide recognition in the Diaspora, and the difference of the perspectives that exist between Armenia the state and the Diaspora, especially over the issues of the Genocide and Nagorno Karabakh.

Today I stumbled upon this interview by Euronews with Armenia's President Serzh Sargsyan on these issues.

Here he presents the official Yerevan perspective on the matter. Finally, Armenia realized that it needs to do significant damage control - in terms of the "image", as well as to save whatever was achieved in the reconciliation process - while he himself, as well as Erdoğan, urged third countries not to meddle in their bilateral relationship (as if it's possible at all)... It's also noteworthy that there was a protest in Istanbul against Turkish PM's recent comments threatening to expel the Armenian immigrant workers from Turkey.

In any case, it is obvious that there is willingness - on both sides - to move forward. It's important, then, to make sure that the progress is not stifled somewhere on the way.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Cultural Quotient, or the "CULTINT"

The relevance of culture in public diplomacy and security, as well as cross-cultural communication, have been re-emerging themes over the past couple of (very busy) weeks. Many readings, papers, research, as well as events have come to have made it a "hot" topic for me, so here are some thoughts:

On March 2 NATO and the Security and Defence Agenda think-tank held a conference on "Conflict Prevention and Resolution: the Role of Cultural Relations" trying to learn from successful examples of the use of culture in creating the space where dialogue and security can be established, thus also building relations and "inter-cultural" understanding. Al Jazeera devoted one of its Riz Khan shows to it, while here are some comments on the conference from Laura and Matt Armstrong.

This is a noble attempt. However, thanks to the ambiguity of the very term "culture", there is, in turn, a great difficulty in defining what precisely is "cultural diplomacy" or "the use of culture for relationship-building." Culture can be viewed narrowly, as in artifacts, products, and artistic manifestations; or it can be seen as being much wider, including non-verbal behavior, values, beliefs, norms, and certainly as a force shaping one's worldview. Hence, there's the chicken-and-egg argument as to which comes first: does culture shape communication, or is communication affecting culture to begin with?

In her recently published book "Battles to Bridges" Dr. R.S. Zaharna posits that identity is a fundamental component in communication, just as it is in culture. She suggests that the key to understanding the extremely limited success of the recent American Public and Cultural Diplomacy lies in the Americans' misguided approach to the world: very US-centric and not entirely understanding of other cultures.

After an interesting discussion that weaves in frameworks by Hall and Carey, she concludes that to deal with the problem, the US needs to:

- Make a thorough analysis of the publics with which it wants to communicate. It needs to "assess whether the approach, medium, and appeal have the potential to resonate positively with the culture of the public." For starters, she correctly points out that many of the studies are heavily reliant on polling data, which lack the nuanced cultural insights and contexts. And then, the ever-present problem of being oblivious to the other culture's understanding of its own attributes: most of the analysis is usually done by "Western" scholars, who fail to take account of culturally embedded meanings and connotations, as well as deeply held perceptions that escape the "outsider's" eye.

- Secondly, Zaharna raises a good point about "maintaining an in-awareness perspective of the power of one's own culture in shaping and designing public diplomacy". Tied to the previous suggestion, it basically refers to the recognition of one's own biases, predispositions, and "inherent" (to be more correct: socially constructed) beliefs, attitudes, and preferences. Being cognizant of one's own culture can bring about more cultural sensitivity when communicating with foreign publics (i.e. also being cognizant of the other's culture), but it can also help the communicator to "skillfully blend multiple perspectives" that span across cultural zones.

In this regards, it is interesting to see that the military seems to be leading the way in the attempts of utilizing culture not only for communication, but also for security purposes. The reasoning behind "cultural intelligence" (yes, it has received one of those traditional funky acronyms: "CULTINT") suggests that all, manifest and hidden aspects of culture can be studied, learned, and utilized for the purposes of (in their case) establishment of security: the classical "cook-book approach." The Human Terrain System can then be seen as playing an integral part in "gathering" this intelligence (the wording parallels are simply too obvious not to be highlighted, and demonstrates some of the controversy that has surrounded the HTS program!).

I also stumbled upon the term "cultural quotient" (CQ) which is supposed to measure an individual's "capability to function effectively in situations characterized by cultural diversity [...] [to] enhance employee, manager, and organizational effectiveness, [as well as] interpersonal interactions in a wide range of social contexts." Sounds like a very business-specific term, but the approach is already being negotiated by the military, and certainly needs more attention from the PD community as well.  It is also, essentially, what Zaharna seems to be referring to: being aware of the diversity and having the agility to adapt accordingly, in order to maximize benefits (that are supposed to be going to all the sides involved).

(Image courtesy of USDemocrazy)

An important note made by Zaharna, however, is that "publics tend to align current and future expectations with past perceptions": credibility matters, and it takes time and deeds to establish trust. Thus, it is impossible to win over "hearts and minds" by merely talking in the local language or knowing the "right" handshake. What is more, she also cautions against aggressive pursuits of the "cultural approach," especially where the public's previous communication experiences were overwhelmingly negative, since the "public is more likely to be predisposed to interpret a current communication initiative negatively."

In this light, it is interesting to watch the US military embracing a CQ and "culture-cure-for-all" approach - be it in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Africa - while American soldiers and drone attacks kill hundreds of civilians each month. Let's just hope that the American PD-side will do better in this regard. First, though, it has to start really trying.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Meeting on Interagency "Collaboration" in PD: No Questions Answered, No Questions Asked

Braved sleep and the rain yesterday to make it to the early morning meeting of the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, which was going to discuss interagency "collaboration" with a focus on the State and Defense Departments. I'm using quotation marks, since even throughout the meeting it was clear that there is almost no collaboration - particularly at the crucial planning and policy-making stage - between the two departments, let alone proper inclusion of other actors.

One of the points that both Rosa Brooks of the DoD and Walter Douglas (former PAO) of the DoS pointed out was that they are immensely happy and "extremely proud" of the recent institutional achievements on both sides regarding innovation, collaboration and coordination. And yet, they both stressed the need to go much further, especially in Washington (the claim was that "in the field" there is far more interagency collaboration). So, they are "talking" to each other, but at the same time they are not. Especially when it comes to serious matters that matter, like policy-making.

And the other thing that struck me was Douglas' response when asked about other potential members within the larger American PD collaboration: "Come to us with an idea" and "let us know about your initiatives." Effectively, DoS excuses itself from taking a proactive role in the process.

Overall, it was a disappointment, since I did not hear anything particularly new (despite the fact that I have started "listening" only very recently), which was made even more ironic as several members of the Commission expressed gratitude for having "learned a lot." And, the most discouraging fact was that the meeting was adjourned well before the scheduled time - not allowing a proper Q&A session that would provide greater involvement and insights from the audience - with a large number of hands left hanging in the air.

Obviously, the commission was not enthusiastic about listening to the audience or going into detail beyond what was already presented. How is the US planning to make its PD efforts more coordinated, inclusive, "receiver-centric", or engaging, if official representatives are not even willing to listen to Americans (to begin with), be it the wider PD community, or the general public?

Image courtesy of NSaneLabs


Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Illusion of Knowledge?

"The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge."
-- Stephen Hawking

On Thursday, Dr. Craig Hayden gave a talk on "The Uncertain Future of Public Diplomacy 2.0" at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at AU. After providing a brief history of PD, he focused on the need to reconceptualize the field, as well as traditional diplomacy, in order to be able to meet the new challenges in the age of new information technologies. He specifically emphasized the need for a cognitive shift: away from the want to "posses" the message toward a more "facilitating" role that would, certainly, involve a much greater engagement on behalf of the wider public. In short, "the medium is the message" and by promoting and coordinating "a platform for cooperation, perception, and mediation" - be it the Internet, cell-phones, TV, or radio - the US will be best equipped in addressing the inconceivable plurality of foreign publics that it needs to reach. Here, again, the emphasis and the hope is on people-to-people communication, which seems to be the only viable channel of effective PD, especially in the current "paradox of plenty". (Read Dr. Hayden's recent blog post on the need for a "theoretical innovation" in PD here.)

An interesting theme that emerged in the Q&A session afterwards, however, was something that I have been struggling with since my first visit to the US in 2008, and an issue that we have been touching upon in all my classes over the past couple of weeks: Americans' lack of information and education about the world. This is, certainly, a grave generalization that does not apply to everyone; and yet, unfortunately, this seems to be an increasingly serious problem, which threatens not only the public diplomacy efforts, but the very success of the American nation in the increasingly globalized world.

(Image courtesy of Wild Style at City-Data Forum.)

To start in the beginning: how did the US manage to become the most advanced and dynamic economy in the world (many could question this statement at the moment, but at least a few years ago that would certainly stand true)? The answer is, clearly, it's persistent investment in education and strong human resources. After all, education is an investment with very high returns (not necessarily in monetary terms, only), and it is something that cannot be taken away, unlike any other possession. And yes, the "American educational system" has been praised and highly valued for decades.

But recently, especially with the financial crisis and the need for the states to cut back their budgets, schools seem to be among the worst hit, for some weird reason. And it's not just schools, but also colleges, where students are in dire need for further support - especially at those tough times - to still get a decent education, with marketable skills and, hence, the ability to contribute to the much-needed economic growth. (Yet, it seems that even before the downturn, there were grave concerns about the deteriorating situation with the American education.)

That is the domestic side of the story. Turning to international affairs, America's position in the world, and PD, specifically, there is even more trouble. And here, I will focus on two issues: general education (the foundations of which are put at the primary school level), and the Americans' knowledge and interest in the world in general (or, rather, lack thereof).

- As already said, having a poorly educated nation will not only harm America economically, by decreasing the competitiveness of its citizens in the globalized world market,  but it will also undermine the Americans' opportunity to engage in and maintain a decent conversation with the world. This issue becomes even more prominent, as greater emphasis is put on direct, people-to-people, contacts. As it turns out, sometimes foreigners might know more about American geography and the English language - as John Brown recently noted - than Americans themselves.

- And yet, it's inevitably intertwined and strongly connected with the Americans' lack of knowledge and understanding of the world. Being a large, isolated "island" cannot be a good excuse anymore. And yet, it seems like the thinking hasn't made the necessary leap to keep up with the changing times and the introduction of technology that cuts across time and space.

Interest and understanding, however, don't materialize out of thin air: they need to be inculcated through education, even if it's through the simple learning of the political map of the world, or the history of other nations. To be able to talk to "others", the Americans, first and foremost, need to know who they are talking to. Then, there should also be the understanding that there are other worldviews and attitudes out there (distinct from a simple Republican/Democrat divide). Oh, and don't get me started on the languages...

I don't want to count all the times I have been asked about where Armenia is, or heard way too uneducated guesses about its language, religion, or history. Armenia is a tiny, insignificant country, in a sea of chaos. But can it be acceptable that the majority of Americans don't know where Iraq or Afghanistan are, after the military involvement and all the media coverage? Or that they are ignorant of the fact that English is not the most widely spoken language in the world?

(Although this satirical video made by the Brits is a little too harsh, it still shows how they see the Americans. Doesn't this matter?)

I feel compelled to point out another problem here: the media. Commercialization and the obsession with entertainment have certainly limited the coverage of international news. In the best case, one might get some, "embedded" reports from the war zones, or some talk of a major disaster in some far-away country. Yet again, even those come with a very American-centric perspective, which is OK, as long as there is an accepted diversity to provide the balance. However as soon as a different (really different) perspective comes to the fore, it quickly gets dismissed as "propaganda", or the current hit-phrase: "terrorism incitement".

In many parts of the "not free" world, people get used to approaching everything they are told - especially, by the media - with skepticism, since there is an awareness about the hidden "motives" behind the information that is given out. In the past, people in the Eastern bloc, for instance, would turn to Voice of America, or Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, even if they had to spend hours trying to fight the jamming efforts of the government. Today, after getting the "official line" of the story from their respective domestic perspectives, some might still be turning to VOA or RFE/RE, but they can as well go to Russia's Channel 1, EuroNews, CNN International, BBC, Al Jazeera, or China's CCTV-9 (to name but a few prominent TV channels/networks), and after getting the really different sides of the story, they might try and make out the golden mean: the best reasonable version of the actual event. (An American Philosophy and Ethics professor - PROFESSOR!!! - responded to me once that he is just "too busy" to care. He was serious.)

The Internet makes this all way much easier, and despite all these opportunities, all this technology and "information capabilities" available to the Americans, they seem to be oblivious to the world, entirely immersed in the latest episode of the Lost or, what is worse, preferring the Colbert Report as a credible news source.

Again, interest and understanding should come from an early age, and should be fostered through education as well as through the media. Being the strongest country in the world is not a simple given, and is something that needs to be constantly maintained and worked on. America is not, and cannot, be isolated anymore; but, in order to be able to take a constructive part in international affairs, and especially in PD, its people need to have global skills and a good understanding of others.

This might be difficult and dangerous to "teach", since these are decisions that should be based on personal preference and choice. However, learning of other cultures and viewpoints can be encouraged and promoted, and people can be taught to become more "savvy" and informed media consumers. Funds should not be taken away from the educational sector, but on the contrary, they should be re-diverted into it, with a better planning and strategic use. What is more, international exchanges and scholarships should be made even more prominent - taking Americans abroad, but also bringing foreigners in - since it is through personal experience that one can learn best.

To wrap-up, the Americans have to know the world they live in, and the world which they want to communicate with. At the same time, it is very important to know their place in the world and be able to identify and capture changing dynamics, to be able to respond to these shifts adequately. A people-to-people PD approach would necessitate well educated, well informed, culturally-sensitive (note: cultural sensitivity not in terms of political correctness or specific information about a certain country, but rather in terms of awareness of the existence of the "other" and their treatment as equals) and engaged citizens. Otherwise, the others will keep seeing the American people as uncredible international communicators, especially given all the opportunities that are available to them, but are not made use of. Americans simply can't afford amusing themselves to death, anymore.

And, of course, there is an inexplicable paranoia about the government's attempts to "propagandize" its own people, or the "waste" of the taxpayer's money when supporting education (yes, I'm still in the dark about this. I refuse to accept the "politicization" argument). But what better use for it can there be, if not an investment in the nation's well-being...?


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Size doesn't matter. As long as it's "holy"

Seems like Israel's "hasbara" is increasingly accelerating as it goes downhill. Not only has it not achieved its objective, but it has also started backfiring: with a new vigor.

The Foreign Policy magazine picked up on this ad - which is part of a larger campaign by the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy and the Canadian Federation of Jewish Students - to provide an analysis of the current "Masbirim" efforts put together by Netanyahu's administration. Apparently Canada's Jewish community decided to take initiative in taking Israel's relationship with the world's young people to "a new level."

The "Size Doesn't Matter" campaign is an honest attempt to educate foreigners - who are mostly in the dark - about Israel's  big diversity, big tolerance, and big environmentalism (despite its small geographic area, that is). Also, if you're interested in wild parties or in hanging out with sexy Israelis, now you know where to go (some university students won't even have to leave their campuses!). All nice, neat, and slick! (Somehow reminds me of Kosovo's "Young Europeans" initiative...)

Israeli model Bar Rafaeli (photo courtesy of Size Doesn't Matter)

And yet, here's a good example of how reckless marketing and public relations can be devastating for overall PD efforts. What's more important, however, is that the "Big Appetite for Peace", "Diversity", or "Environmentalism" conveniently ignore facts such as the 50,000 new housing units planned to be built in Eastern Jerusalem, the results of a new poll showing that half of Israeli students oppose equal rights for Arabs, some alarming rates of pollution, or the well-known issue of Israel's water resources "mismanagement" (among others)...

Again, the problem lies at the core: public diplomacy (especially when put in such "terms") cannot make up for bad policy. Israel is walking a very thin line between PD and propaganda here. I wonder if the Canadian Federation of Jewish Students really thought this is what "masbirim" is about...?

Further recommended reading:

- Forward: The Jewish Daily goes "behind the scene" of the ad
- "Sex sells" says YNetNews
- Jewish Tribune: Jewish-Canadians unwilling to comment 
- Haaretz' take
- The Media Line 
- Global Chaos: Edelstein on Al Jazeera 
- Levantine on the Masbirim initiative


Friday, March 5, 2010

Diasporan public diplomacy gone wrong. Wake up, Armenia!

Yes, they made a full circle and we are seeing the whole Armenian Genocide Resolution circus played out all over again. No, I'm not happy with what happened yesterday. I'm very concerned, and I don't think it's going to have ANY positive outcome for Armenia. On the contrary, it might, and I'm afraid, it will only make things worse.

First of all, a clarification: both my parents are diasporan repatriates, grandchildren of Genocide survivors from Nevshehir and Kars. I was brought up with all the horrid stories, and attended a diasporan high-school (Melkonian Educ. Institute in Cyprus) that was initially established as a shelter for surviving Armenian orphans. I know the history. I grew up with it. I lived its consequences.

Do I support the Armenian Genocide bill? I don't know. Rather, I'm being realistic about it. And, the truth is, there isn't much of a light at the end of the tunnel to look forward to. We live in a realist world, and unless we follow its rules, we won't get too far. At least, Armenia won't. And that's my problem.

American-Armenians are all upbeat about it. They learned well how to play this game called "American politics" and they want to stay politically relevant, especially this year, when the mid-term elections might turn out to be unusually interesting. The Genocide bill theater has been played out by the Congress before, just as the empty promises by Presidents - during their campaigns - to recognize the Genocide. Somehow, the politicization of the issue works out really well for American politicians, the Armenian-American lobby, and might even prove to be a great campaign issue for the Turkish nationalists in their parliamentary elections next year. But where's Armenia in this equation?

Here's the situation at the moment:

- The Foreign Affairs committee passed the bill, but already there are statements saying that the Obama administration has reached an agreement with congressional leaders not to schedule a full House vote on the matter. Voilà: déjà vu; back to 2007. The stakes are just too high for the US right now: Turkey is a key military and strategic partner in the region and, at a time of heightened tensions throughout the entire greater Middle East, its position as a major mediator is just too much for the US to jeopardize. What is more, the move had concerned the defense community as well, who quickly moved in to criticize it. The Armenian-American lobby canNOT be of any match.

- The Turkish ambassador has already been recalled from Washington, and almost all Turkish officials have come forth to criticize the move and point out that not only will it negatively affect Turkish-American relations, but also the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process that had made some progress last year.

- Azerbaijan was quick to condemn the resolution too, and some officials even threatened to recall the Azeri ambassador... all in the name of the great brotherly love.

- Armenia? Well, certainly there has been coverage and many different views were expressed by "experts" and "non-experts." But the President seems to be silent so far. The Foreign Ministry has issued a one-paragraph statement, saying that it "highly appreciates" the step and conveniently avoiding getting into any greater detail.

And for a good reason. The problem is that despite the prominence of the Genocide issue, it is not the priority issue for the Armenian state and its foreign policy. For Armenia, still under economic blockade by both of its larger neighbors, the resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh problem may prove to be a matter of existence in the near future, especially with the rising prominence of Azerbaijan, its role in the region's energy geopolitics, as well as its rapid rearmament. What is more, just by the way, Armenia's primary issue with Turkey is over Nagorno Karabakh (and not over the Genocide), since that is the reason Ankara has cut all diplomatic and economic ties with Armenia and that is the reason behind the delay of the ratification of the Turkish-Armenian protocols by the Turkish Parliament. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is for their ratification, and certainly the hope is that such a move will be followed by the Armenian Parliament as well.

There is evidently a disconnect between the Diaspora, which, quite understandably, clings to the Genocide problem as a basis for its identity, and the Armenian state, which is striving to survive, attain stability, and establish itself as a significant player on the international arena. The Armenian-American community might as well see the passage of the resolution by the Foreign Affairs committee as a symbolic show of recognition, or some sort of a success - even though they knew from the start that success would be very limited - while the House members that voted "for" and have substantial numbers of Armenians in their districts, have earned themselves significant support. The bill won't go any further, the Turkish-American relations - after a long diplomatic dance - will come back to stability again, the Armenian-Turkish reconciliation process will slow down at best (if not die altogether), while the nationalist feelings inside Turkey will only grow stronger, perhaps even putting the lives of Armenians in Turkey in danger.

What did Armenia get out of this? I'm afraid years of diplomatic efforts to improve ties with Turkey have just been flushed down the drain. The anti-Armenian rhetoric inside the US has gained quite some air-time with all the arguments for the support of Turkey, while Armenia's major foreign policy issue has ended up in an even more fragile state.

(Image courtesy of Azad-Hye)

Perhaps it's high time the Armenian government stops relying on the Armenian-American lobby to do both advocacy and public diplomacy in the US on its behalf? After all, many Americans don't even know about the Nagorno Karabakh issue, although they are well familiar with the details of the Genocide. Yes, it is very commendable. But, it is also detrimental for Armenia, since the foreign policy of one of the most influential countries in the world toward it is being dominated by an issue the significance of which many, on both sides, don't even understand anymore. (How many times have I heard Americans asking, "Why, after almost a century, do we still keep emphasizing the matter so much?" While Armenia is preoccupied with its own troubles in the region...) What is more worrisome, however, is the fact that the Azeri lobby has started making its own moves in the right direction (right for itself, that is), starting a campaign of "education" of the American public and policy-makers on their side of the Karabakh issue. If Armenia doesn't move in to balance these efforts, the effects might be far more damaging...

Again, I am not saying that the Genocide should be neglected or forgotten. What I'm saying is that the focus should switch, since with the resolution of the Karabakh problem might just open a leeway for more constructive and reconciliatory dialogue on the Genocide as well. If the Diaspora lets Armenia be, that is...


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Union of Soviet States of America?

Yeah, I agree, Lavelle might be pushing it a little too far this time. But it's certainly an amusing discussion to follow: is the "American empire" slowly finding itself at the point where USSR was in the 1980s (economically, militarily, and ideologically)?

A side note: it's funny that such a discussion is almost completely absent in the mainstream media here. Why? Despite being somewhat extreme, the guest speakers do make some good points throughout. Several months ago I had a post on the issue of absence of real diversity in the US media discourse, which, inevitably leads to a resistance to any "politically incorrect" (read: unorthodox) messages that might be out there.

Lavelle's mission is, apparently, to break those boundaries and go beyond what he calls "Western media hegemony." Good point. After spending days on a paper about the need of a post-modern approach to international and cross-cultural communication, this all just makes perfect sense (to me, at least).

Yes, this is how a multitude of people (the exact number is and will remain unknown) perceive the United States out there, in the world, and the better informed the Americans are about these perceptions, the better they can address the public diplomacy challenge. After all, it is supposed to be a dialogue and a two-way street...

As for RT's "success" in promoting Russia's public diplomacy, I will get to it in a separate post some time in the near future. Stay tuned to Global Chaos, and follow RT on YouTube: just for fun (amusement and many laughs are guaranteed, trust me)!


"Olympic post-mortem": Russia's PD disaster?

I never watch Olympics. Never follow the course. Usually, I would check the final medal count - in the very end - just to "be informed." This year was not different in that respect, despite all the fuss people made about Vancouver's importance or lack thereof. I'm totally ignorant. Sorry.

The new thing this time, however, was the fact that I didn't have to search for "the interesting" in the Olympics after the games were over: the news just jumped at me as I opened my YouTube homepage in the morning. "Medvedev: Those Responsible Have to Resign." And well, bouncing off Laura's enthusiasm about PD and Olympics, I couldn't help but think about the public diplomacy loss that Russia suffered thanks to its poor performance in Vancouver. After all, Olympics is one of these occasions where each country gets to shine and show off the best they've got: a perfect chance for bold public diplomacy.

Vancouver for Russia, however, was the complete opposite. It came in 11th (11th!!!) with 3 gold, 5 silver, and 7 bronze medals. Russia? Winter Olympics? Whatever happened to hockey and figure skating?

Certainly, no one can measure in any quantitative terms the damage done to Russia's popularity abroad (I don't even want to start talking about the public opinion implications at home), but I think it is a safe bet to say that it was quite substantial. It's all about expectations after all, expectations that were not met:
- this was Russia's worst performance since 1912 (the worst ever, since it started competing in Winter Olympics in 1912, according to CNN);
- there had been a lot of talk from the sports officials this year, and they promised to return with 30 medals;
- panic about Sochi 2014!

Since it was all over and there was no going back, the first thing Mr. Medvedev did (note: the very next day after the closing in Vancouver), was to hold a staged meeting with the heads of his party Yedinaya Rossiya and give a public lashing for Russia's top Olympics officials. It's a big deal, he and his party had done all they could, and someone's got to bear the blame, right?

Here's the official segment posted on Kremlin's YouTube channel [just love the uber-serious and somber looks on the faces!]:

Yes, he promises to do better next time: the "fat cats" need to resign (oh, and "We will help them, if they don't!"), everyone should work harder, and Sochi 2014 will be Russia's show: in every sense.

Apparently, there has been a public outcry on the Russian Internet sphere on the matter: I would recommend taking a look at just one very telling piece on RIA Novosti that reflects the sentiment, more or less. Interestingly enough, Medvedev's announcement caught lots of attention in the US, receiving wide coverage (to name but a few) in Washington Post, FoxNews, and staying CNN's top international story on the website for the entire day!

RT, on the other hand, had a very short piece on Medvedev's take both online and on TV; instead, they put up a 13-minute "looking to the future" report. (Curious to see if Lavelle dares to take it up as a subject for any of his future CrossTalks...!)


After all, Russia's been pretty busy over the past month in Vancouver, "raising awareness" about its awesome Sochi project. To get a better feel for the Russky Dom and its exclusive programs I would suggest visiting their official websites here and here. Too bad the team itself didn't live up to the expectations...

Now, it's interesting how this story will be played out over the coming days. Although the resignation of the Olympic officials, and perhaps even of the Sports Minister (even if Medvedev did not mention any names, specifically) is a done deal, Russia will need to make up - seriously - for the damage suffered. The Sports Minister has already come forth to respond to the President's fury, blaming the losses on "bad weather, ski wax and unsatisfactory meals, hard snow, managerial problems, [or] a biased attitude of judges and doping control officers." He also said there is nothing to worry about, since "the Vancouver games were only a warm-up ahead of the Sochi Olympics." Too late...

2014 better be good!


P.S. -  Had forgotten to mention that Medvedev did not attend the Official Olympics Closing Ceremony, a trip that was initially planned and publicized. Obviously, it would be humiliating for him to do so.

And here comes Al Jazeera. The shock-waves are spreading fast and wide, apparently...