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).
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.