Thursday, April 1, 2010

Cold War 2.0

About a week ago the Heritage Foundation held a panel discussion on "Russian Anti-Americanism: A Priority Target for U.S. Public Diplomacy," the purpose of which was - or at least, so it seemed - to point out the lack of streamlined American PD efforts in Russia and the former Eastern bloc in general. The major conclusion was that the Russian "elites" have been championing anti-Americanism for domestic purposes, and thus, the organizers of the event called for more attention and a greater need for a "clear" and a "thought-out" American information strategy in those countries. Some outrageous points made here and there. You can judge for yourselves.

Quite interestingly, though, I came across yesterday's CrossTalk on RT, which looked at the same issue, just from the opposite perspective (I highly recommend watching the entire segment).

Several questionable (and for some, perhaps, outrageous) points were made throughout this discussion as well. However, what is most interesting is that these "panels" illustrate, quite vividly, the mutual perceptions of each other. Just by listening to both discussions it becomes clear that the people of the US and Russia do not have a good understanding of the other former "enemy." Although the panelists (some of them, at least) tried to emphasize that the Cold War is long over, they all agreed that perceptions, especially among the influential decision-makers, are still very much the same, and even the arguments of the speakers themselves often reflected that.

Obviously, the problem can be traced back to the lack of proper and realistic education in both countries about the society of the other, which would, hopefully, help understand the motivations and goals behind respective actions and tendencies. Yet, I should also note that the actual policies are a major factor in this (already historical) mutual distrust and dislike to begin with:

- human rights record of Russia is poor, democratization is questionable at best, and the economy is performing below the perceived capacity (or so the argument goes).

- Russia, when dealing with its direct neighbors, is often seen as following imperialist aspirations.

- the US is often very aggressive in promoting its own version of "democracy" in the region, and although it has proved to be a failure in many of the former Soviet countries, the missionary work persists thanks to certain interests (be they energy, geopolitical, or purely economic).

- double standards are apparent in many decisions and moves, and when they are imposed along with the "universally true" message, they become simply unacceptable to many in the Russian leadership, as well as the Russian public.

Problems are many, and unfortunately, it is reasonable to expect no change in these policies from either of the states. However, there are attitudes and tactics that can be changed, and that can, at least - as already said - help understand why certain decisions are taken. There has been much talk about network-building and relational approaches to public diplomacy, and that can be the key to addressing the problem successfully. (Image: American WWII poster. Courtesy of War Stories.)

Cold War-style information campaigns are obviously not working anymore, not just due to the rise of the Internet Age, or the increasing prominence of horizontal and truly pluralistic information "terrains", but simply because of the credibility deficit on both sides. In this case, pursuing associative public diplomacy - to use Dr. Zaharna's term - between the two publics can, potentially, create the much needed mutuality that can, over time give way to trust and commitment. Thus, the "elites" should, instead of lashing out at each other, foster and coordinate the building of these networks, that will, eventually, provide the space for better understanding, acceptance, and closer cooperation.

I should also emphasize a point I tried to outline in a recent post: the importance of education of the local publics. Not only will that enhance much more successful inter-societal networking, but it can also help the governments in their cooperation, since their closer ties will not be perceived as unpopular anymore (at least, not to extent they are now). Social networking, the media, the educational system, as well as public discussions such as those above, can indeed play a great role in this matter.

The realist in me is yelling now. And I think she has a point. All this public diplomacy talk is great, but it cannot work unless there are real changes in the mentality of the leaders (be it political, business, military, or cultural). Such a shift is absolutely necessary, since it is also the key to shifting the relationship away from the Cold War model, toward a dynamic that would better reflect the pressing needs and challenges of today. Both sides have to compromise, recognizing that they both will benefit as a result (and again, the big assumption here is that they indeed can benefit from close cooperation).

This would necessitate opening up, being willing to learn, and adapt (note: not duplicate) certain modes of "other" government and societal interactions that seem to work. It would necessitate discarding the old "information battle" approach of messages and "stories" to tell or teach, as well as putting aside aspirations to achieve unipolarity and spread one's own version of "universal truth." And most importantly, it would require abstaining from statements, at least in public, that incriminate what was labelled as Putin's "multi-polar vision in which Russia and many other states would check American influence."

Now, what would be the sentiment here, if Cuba actively sought to join Russia in a "security alliance"?



  1. This might be besides the point but I absolutely love the poster. I think there should be more of those... Can you tell a message simpler than that?!

    The others are also good. My favorite: "When you ride alone you ride with Hitler"

  2. Hahaha :))) Indeed! I just love em, those propaganda posters! I guess I'll start a separate posters' section here - just a nice reminder of how things used to be, but also how history just keeps repeating itself. Too bad people don't really like learning from it... :-/