Sunday, May 30, 2010

America's message to the "barbarian" Middle East

Al Jazeera's Jassim Azzawi hosted another amazing "Inside Iraq" discussion this week, which focused on Iraq's current position at a "crossroads". Of course, Fisk and Al Tikriti represent the local, Middle Eastern perspective, while Burkman is there to "speak for the Americans." And well, he did...

Not only did he call all the people in the Middle East "barbarians" living in the desert in the 6th century, but he also "admitted" that Bush and Cheney lied to the American people about the WMDs in Iraq, because they had to "change" the region. He also mentioned - just by the way - that Syria is not as important to American foreign policy, because it does not have oil.

Honest? Fair enough. Too blunt? Certainly. And, too sad for American public diplomacy, no matter the conceptualization of it. Yes, Burkman, a "premier political consultant and strategist" in Washington, certainly does not represent the official perspective of the American government. And yet, his profile and involvement, as well as the views he expresses, conspicuously reflect the line of the previous administration. What is more, he represents opinions held by a sizable chunk of the U.S. population. Is this the message that some of the American people want to send to the Arab world?

Of course, this instance is a show of freedom for diversity of opinion and freedom of expression in the U.S. But I am sure that the Arab (and not just Arab) viewers of this program do not get that far in appreciating these values when the message itself is so culturally insensitive and preposterous. Azzawi knew well whom to invite to his show - and thus prove, once again, on Al Jazeera the ridiculousness of the American situation in Iraq - but then, Burkman was well aware of it himself, I am sure. Yet, he decided to tow the line of his previous bosses. And once again, the American point of view was undermined as too uninformed, extremely narrow, and insensitive.

If only the Americans themselves watched this...


Saturday, May 22, 2010

Sparta? Iran Responds

In a recent post I talked about the potential that Hollywood movies, such as the latest Robin Hood, can hold in promoting effective public diplomacy. Similarly, they can play on stereotypes and only promote negative perceptions, vilification, and, in many ways, build on and further push certain strands of "perception management". 300 certainly belonged to the latter category, and curiously fell in line with the overly-dramatized and vilified image of Iran in the West (well, not only).

I watched the movie with an Iranian friend and we were both disappointed with it. I was very unhappy about the poor quality, over-dramatization and over-exaggeration of events that were presented as historical facts. My friend, on the other hand, was upset about the ideologized theme of the moralistic clash between the values of the "peace-loving West" (kudos, Sparta) and the "ever-evil Persia" (pick one to your liking: Iran, "the Orient", etc...). Interesting, and very sad, indeed. If people studied history closer than the Box Office, this would not have been a major concern; however, I'm afraid, that is increasingly not the case...

The movie came out in 2007. It took the Iranian authorities three years to respond. But they did. Here is a piece I came across on IRNA (Iran's official news agency) today:

300 Spartans screened, reviewed at Tehran’s Cinema Home
Tehran, May 22, IRNA – 2nd session of 300 Spartans survey and review will be held at Cinema Home on Saturday, May 22, 2010
According to Public Relations of the Cinema Home, the Second Session in a series of workshop programs of the Cinema Home will begin at 5:30 pm with the screening of Zach Schneider’s 300 Spartans.
The feature’s story is a war between the hundreds of thousands’ strong army of ancient Persian King Xerxes and the 300 man army of the ancient Roman Commander Leonidas.
The director has presented quite a biased satanic image of the ancient Iran that is in direct contrast with the truth of the matter.
After the screening of the Warner Brothers feature, a review session of the film will be held at the presence of such critics as Keyvan Kasirian and Davoud Hermidas Bavand.
“300” is based in the time frame when Greek mythologies were at their peak several hundred years BC. The movie starts by showing the tough and heartless training that Spartan children had to go through to become true warriors. The training of the future king of Sparta is also shown who fights with other children first to prove himself fit and is then sent to a freezing abyss that contains all kinds of dangers. There he has to survive and return to claim his throne. He survives by killing a vicious beast and brings back his skin.
At that time Persia was ruled by Xerxes, a ruthless magician who claimed to be a god. He used all kinds of tricks and black magic to rule Persia and keep his people in control with fear. Those that he could not scare, he corrupted with greed of women and gold. In the lust for more power and land he turns towards Greece to conquer it. He sends a messenger to Sparta who threatens the king by showing him skulls of the kings that Xerxes killed from previous lands that he conquered. King of Sparta becomes infuriated and pushes the messenger in a well along with his soldiers. After that a glorious battle begins where only 300 Spartans go against thousands of Persians."

An extremely delayed effort to address a public diplomacy challenge, perhaps? (I wonder who will be the select few to attend this historic screening...??)


Turkey's PD Charm

(Sülemaniye Mosque in Istanbul. Image courtesy of National Geographic.)

I had mentioned before that Turkey was the other country (apart from Russia) I had been working on throughout the past semester in terms of international communication (and public diplomacy was just a part of it all). There are multiple reasons for my immense interest in the country, ranging from the fact that my great-grandparents came from Anatolia, to my fascination with its history, culture, and now, its public diplomacy.

It seems that Turkey has been a "subject" of enthrallment and awe, particularly in the West, since the early Ottoman days, and especially so in the 15-16th centuries, during the "Golden Age" of the Ottoman Empire. Over time, however, that transformed into fear and distrust. The major reason? Difference. And well, differences, especially in culture, are vulnerable to stigmatization, vilification, and manipulation for political purposes.

This has been especially true in the case of Turkey over the past decades. Indeed, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk held back no effort in trying to modernize Turkey, which, for him, was synonymous to strict Westernization. And yet, given the size and the complexity of the country, achieving that has not been easy. More importantly, Turkey has faced a significant challenge in changing the perception of its image around the world (particularly, in the West). Perhaps the most vivid examples of the latter include the fact that Europeans have been adamant in preventing it from joining the EU, while the U.S. Congress has been all too willing to pass Resolutions on the Armenian Genocide (despite the seemingly strategic interest, that would prompt a different action).

(The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Image courtesy of National Geographic.)

Writing this post, I wanted to point out a very telling passage from a book. I finally got my hands on Kinzer's "Crescent and Star," (I had heard a lot about it, but never actually got to read it; I'm sure it's at least as good as "All the Shah's Men"!) and the following sentences from the opening paragraph are really striking:

[Istiklal (Turkish for "independence")] has special resonance in Turkey because Turkey is struggling to break away from its autocratic heritage, from its position outside the world's political mainstream, and from the stereotype of the terrifying Turk and the ostracism which that stereotype encourages. Most of all, it is trying to free itself from its fears - fear or freedom, fear of the outside world, fear of itself."

This is very true and reflects well the overall complexity and ambivalence within the Turkish culture. When I had to put together a "cultural profile" for the International PR class, finding a single "right" category for each of the cultural orientations/traits proved to be impossible. There are so many dichotomies within the general cultural traits, that the only sensible solution was combining those into some amorphous new categories: progressive yet within certain conservative limits; secular yet religious; democratic yet authoritarian; looking to the future yet highly valuing and glorifying the past; collectivist yet putting a great emphasis on the individual...

(Whirling Dervishes. Image courtesy of National Geographic.)

The list can go on, and when looked upon in this light, can be simply explained by Turkey's geographic location and its past. And yet, as Kinzer correctly points out, the Turkish people themselves seem to be finding all these dichotomies hard to deal with. So, when a nation as a whole is still struggling to define itself (which, in many cases, might be a faulty objective), what is the image that it tries to project to the world, especially when it wants to undertake a serious role in international affairs and act as a global agenda setter?

It seems that Mr. Davutoğlu, the current Foreign Minister, has found the answer. In fact, he has been instrumental in developing Turkey's current foreign policy of "Zero problems with neighbors" and its positioning as a key mediator in many of the regional conflicts: Israel, Syria, Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russia, Afghanistan, and even as far as Somalia...

Al Jazeera recently had this amazing report on Turkey's current foreign policy and it's major national and international challenges:

It covers some of the major issues fairly comprehensively, and indeed, does a good job in presenting Davutoğlu's role in Turkey's recent foreign policy. As he puts it himself, Turkey is "the litmus test for globalization," and he is certainly trying to experiment with it.

One of the most significant initiatives - except for the "Zero-problem neighborhood" of course - was the establishment of the new Public Diplomacy Coordination Agency to oversee and coordinate all the various PD initiatives by governmental and non-governmental efforts. Davutoğlu does appreciate the power of image and perception. As he told Al Jazeera:

What is our objective? Zero problems with our neighbors. I know that this is a slogan, but slogans are symbols as well. Symbols create a new mind. The most important thing is to change the concepts in the minds of the people. You can create enemies through the concepts, you can create friends through the concepts. Now, with these symbols we showed our good intentions, and with our actions, based on these symbols, we achieved a big success with our neighbors."

Whether he can claim success with neighbors is fairly objectionable, since there are still many problems in the region directly or indirectly involving Turkey. Other major challenges with its image include (but are not at all limited to) the Kurdish issue, its human rights record, the secularist-religious divide, very recent economic troubles, as well as issues such as the Armenian Genocide or the status of Northern Cyprus. And yet, the fact that Turkey decided to be more aggressive and organized about its public diplomacy, as well as the active engagements with others do indicate efforts to offset the existing challenges.

The successful brokering of the nuclear deal with Iran this week (in partnership with Brazil) - welcomed even by UN's Ban Ki-moon - definitely earned Turkey significant brownie points. And yet, the reaction to the deal seems to have taken many away from other actors who just don't seem to be really enthused about any kind of mutual deals. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu do get credit for trying, nevertheless.

There are many challenges and troubles to overcome in Turkey's public diplomacy, just as in its foreign policy; and yet first steps have been made and given the potential, Turkey just needs to keep walking despite difficulties: whether they are foreign or domestic.

(Image courtesy of GoMo News)


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Robin Hood: the "medieval tea party"?

(Image courtesy of Robin Hood, the movie.)

Last weekend I went to see the new Robin Hood, and had been meaning to write about it since then, but for various reasons I had to put the cyberspace "activity" aside, lately. As I was looking up some reviews of the movie, I was struck by a couple of prominent ones, and felt like I should share an excerpt or two.

Here is what New York Time's A. O. Scott had to say about it:

You may have heard that Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but that was just liberal media propaganda. This Robin is no socialist bandit practicing freelance wealth redistribution, but rather a manly libertarian rebel striking out against high taxes and a big government scheme to trample the ancient liberties of property owners and provincial nobles. Don’t tread on him!

So is “Robin Hood” one big medieval tea party? Kind of, though that description makes the movie sound both more fun and more provocative than it actually is."

And well, the Washington Post's Mike O'Sullivan adopts a similar tone:

At times, it feels like a political attack ad paid for by the tea party movement, circa 1199. Set in an England that has been bankrupted by years of war in the Middle East -- in this case, the Crusades -- it's the story of a people who are being taxed to death by a corrupt government, under an upstart ruler who's running the country into the ground."

It is interesting to see how movies get politicized and interpreted so differently by every viewer. And indeed, as I was watching it, it didn't even cross my mind to view it from the perspective of domestic American politics. It had many very well made medieval battle scenes (yes, it's just me appreciating war scenes, and I should say I really disagree with the reviewers' dislike of the multiplicity of arrows...), Russell Crowe (very well suited for the role and brilliant as always), pretty interesting English ("very English," that is) language that one doesn't often get in the movies anymore, and an awesome theme. And the latter was actually the thing that struck me as very relevant to what we have been talking about in the PD-related discussions over the past year.

Just a couple of weeks ago, in my final report for the PD class - which comprised recommendations to the U.S. Embassy in the Russian Federation in improving their PD effectiveness - I mentioned film as a strong tool with a lot of potential. Although the U.S. government rarely, if at all, produced movies for "public diplomacy" itself - with one prominent exception - it has somehow outsourced the job to Hollywood. And yet, with over-commercialization and lack of cultural sensitivity, over-reliance on Hollywood in this respect has also, arguably, backfired in many cases. That is why, those increasingly rare cases, where the movie makes a good point without necessarily going into over-dramatization of "Americanness" itself while carrying "a message", should be taken up and their spirit encouraged around the world.

Thus, for example, liberty and empowerment lie at the core of the current U.S. foreign policy objectives, and are supposedly the drivers behind most foreign engagements. This version of the Robin Hood - fighting tyranny, promoting of what turns out to be some sort of a pre-Magna Carta version of a charter of rights and liberties, empowering the people to strengthen the nation, etc. - goes a long way in reflecting U.S. ideals and its message abroad, without any reference to America (the events take place in the late 12th century).

The important point here is that unlike war movies like Saving Private Ryan, Tears of the Sun, or The Kingdom, Robin Hood is not American-centric, and yet is very telling about the values that the U.S. aims to project, especially to peoples of countries with governments of the less "freedom-loving" type. After all, a major problem with the U.S. public diplomacy is that instead of focusing, as much as possible, on values and shared (or desired) interests - which would, certainly, be way more successful in appealing to foreigners - it seems to be drifting, time and again, towards "self-centrism" and ignorance of "the others."

Encouraging and promoting the screening of movies like Robin Hood (2010) - be it at American Corners, IRCs, or even universities (original or dubbed) - will only benefit the work of any American (and/or British) PAO/public diplomat. Although it can be "just" another movie based on a medieval legend that comes way before anyone in Europe even knew the American continent existed (or so the story goes), it can speak to the hearts of many. At the very least, it can make them think, once again, about liberty, its significance and value; and perhaps, make them more appreciative of it, since it is not perceived as coming directly from America.

As for the "tea party movement" and all that fish: that will, most certainly, stay within the federal bounds of the United States. Given the public diplomacy potential of this sort - although indirect and vague - Robin deserves better.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Cultural Diplomacy Conference

On November 5, 2009, the International Communication Program of American University’s School of International Service, with the co-sponsorship of the Public Diplomacy Council, hosted a 1-day conference on the AU campus exploring a fundamental question: What is the role of “culture” in the work of cultural diplomacy?

The subject is very interesting, of course, and made for a very engaging and profound discussion. Although it took us very long to put the material together, now that the content is available online, I would like to direct attention to the official webpage. There, you can view both, the videos and the texts of the presentations. (See the conference "trailer" here.)

Here is the list of conference speakers:
  • James Glassman, former U.S. Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
  • Richard Kurin, Under Secretary for History, Art and Culture, Smithsonian Institution
  • Helle Dale, Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation
  • David Firestein, Director of Track II Diplomacy at the EastWest Institute
  • Nancy Snow, Associate Professor of Public Diplomacy, Syracuse University
  • Frank Hodsoll, former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts
  • John Brown, Adjunct Professor of Liberal Studies, Georgetown University
  • Kathleen Brion, President of the Public Diplomacy Alumni Association
  • Lawrence Wohlers, Senior Advisor for International Activities, Smithsonian Institution
You can also read the closing remarks by Prof. Rob Albro here.



On International Perceptions and Communication

I am pleasantly surprised, again, by the extremely interesting (transnational) discussion provoked by my previous post. Since my response is long, I think it deserves a separate post.

Firstly, though, I wanted to officially invite both Vlad and zApl3zzz to contribute to this blog! :) I would be delighted to "cooperate"!

To respond to some of the major points that both of you brought up:

- I have not seen any of the Rambo movies (fortunately, or not - is a different question). Yet, I know that you are referring to. General "anti-Russian"-ism is widespread in both, the mass media, as well as in pop culture, including entertainment. That all has deep-running historical and cultural reasons, and is not, in any way, what you would call "propaganda proper". Tying into this issue is also "self-censorship" and "selective broadcasting" that you brought up, which is only more than natural. To be a successful news/media outlet, an organization or project needs to cater to its audience and/or owners. Thus, if we are talking about American TV networks, for example, they all depend on advertising, so they need to make sure they appeal to the largest possible audience, which in its turn brings the reliance on entertainment + viewpoints with which their certain audience is comfortable with (hence, the deteriorating quality of general programming). If we take Hollywood: they need to sell, too; so again, catering to their greatest market, which would be the U.S. And if we go to politicized "owned" media, such as Fox or most of the Russian TV channels, they need to play into the rules and fulfill the demands of their owners to further their interests, and thus, either cultivate certain perspectives among the general population, or play into the already existing ones. What I am referring to, in short, is the constant reinforcement of existing (mis)perceptions for a variety of reasons (commercial and political ones being the most prominent).

- The Internet: I cannot but agree with what both of you said regarding it. Yes, perhaps I am still very optimistic about it, but I did not mean that the WWW, by itself, can provide a solution, or act as a "system" in which we all operate. No. Internet is a tool, and not an end in itself. It is especially important when it comes to transnational communication, but indeed, if seen as the ultimate objective, can bring about a lame army of "remote patriots and kitchen revolutionaries". I do remember the March 2008 events in Armenia (which, by the way, are completely ignored in the Wester, just as those in Belarus or Moldova, for example, unlike the Iranian case. "Wonder why"...?!), but I also remember that I would get lots and lots of news over Facebook, for example. People started groups and mailing lists as a response to the complete blackout of the mainstream media (most of the activists, in fact, were those same journalists, just gone "underground"). The Iranian case was similar, since some of what happened online served to mobilize the people in the streets. But it was GRAVELY exaggerated, since a vast majority of communication came from outside the country, apparently, while the authorities learned very well how to play by the "new media rules" (I will skip mentioning certain names here, for various reasons, but I'm sure everyone's familiar with the major story line).
And yet, I cannot but stress the increasing importance of the Internet again. At least in the more technologically advanced societies, there is increasing reliance on the WWW (ok, now there are Blackberries, and iPhones, and 3 and 4-G networks, etc.). But then there is also increasing realization of its vulnerability, which, in its turn, brings about increasing efforts to ensure its security. So, no, I don't think there is any way back to the pre-Internet age, but I agree that it will take decades to make it what it really is hoped to be. Anonymity? Forget it.

- Russia being America's "natural ally"? Interesting that you suggest that, since I was thinking that no matter the "diplomatic dances" and the PD initiatives, there will always be rivalry (if not, hostility) between the two as long as they are both so vast in size and among the leading "world powers". It is obvious that any alliance and/or friendship between them has always been based on pressing convenience and/or necessity, and I really don't think that will change (unless, of course, either one agrees to join the federation of the other; but then, that cannot guarantee "cultural" coherence, either - in every sense of culture). I do think that the current Russian administration is much more adept in talking the "American language", as well as listening to it, but I am sure that would have been impossible had there been a different administration in the U.S., for example. Public diplomacy challenges, despite that, still persist, and that illustrates the distrust among their publics. A crucial factor here would also be the extent to which the U.S. is willing to listen to Russia and how proficient the latter becomes in communication, in general. They're still learning, and it's interesting to follow that process!

- The loss of "weight" of the word, as you put it, is indeed a major problem, not only domestically, but also internationally, especially when it comes to PD. This has become an even greater problem with the Internet boom. So now, as you pointed out, there are increasing explorations of alternative "methods" for communication, that can reach the intended audience, and have the intended effect. What I believe is essential, though, is credibility, which, unfortunately, takes very long to earn and is very easy to lose. There is increasing realization of that, and now the emphasis is on "relationship building" for example (as opposed to one-way communication). And yet, this approach is still mostly prominent in political discourse and the academic sphere (print and online! :)). Since it might look politically (or militarily and economically) unfeasible, we still see that one-way communication tends to dominate.

- An important aspect of the previous challenge is also education (or rather, lack thereof). As I keep pointing out, apathy and lack of awareness of a bigger world or alternative perspectives is one of the greatest problems in PD. It ties into credibility, since there is no way one can achieve it, if the other side narrow-mindedly believes in one and only, supreme, perspective - that is, their own. The concern about the "invasion of Georgia" of the woman from Tennessee is not a surprise (though, funny!), and it only illustrates the painful ignorance prevalent in the education system, as well as the media here, in general. I recently wrote a paper on the subject, as you know... (I can go on for ages about this, so I'll just stop here.)

- As for the demise of the Soviet Union, I think it is wrong to reduce the causes to one single "major" reason. Of course, I have not lived throughout that period (I just lived the consequences, which I should say I did not like), but having studied it extensively, it seems to me there were many structural, economic, military, as well as ideological and societal problems. Yet, it was shaky from the start and it was based on coercion. As cracks started to appear, and as more "freedom" was introduced by a certain Nobel laureate, the end was inevitable, since the whole structure could not withstand the pressure (both internal and external). I'm afraid I have to agree with you that a similar outcome would not be possible today, and trying a similar approach of external pressure and intrusive "public diplomacy" with Iran (or China, for that matter) might only backfire.

Do consider the blogging offer!


Monday, May 10, 2010

Historical Relativism?

As I was following Russia's grandiose celebrations of the 65th Anniversary of WWII Victory, I had a post on President Medvedev's interview aired on RT, where he talked about the need to "correct the historical distortions" in the West regarding USSR's role in the WWII. There were two comments on it, and this post is a response:

Anonymous: The Bear shall reach out and claim its well-deserved glory!
Be very afraid...
Vlad: Stereotypes die hard, as evidenced, inter alia, by the above comment.
I think the Western perceptions of Russia is a specific, particular case of a more general trend, which, in my view, should be dealt with within the PD framework...
My point is that all political correctness notwithstanding, some people, nations and groups of nations firmly believe (or at least try to make others believe that they firmly believe) that Truth (and the only Truth at that) is their birthright. Their pronouncements are supposed to be (almost) absolute truths (I mean with regard to other countries and nations; obviously that does not apply to domestic affairs).
The whole idea of natural rights, which was in due time properly codified, claims equality as not only virtue but also a fundamental principle. Why, then, are "some animals more equal"?
I think it is a good question for PD. If someone engaged in PD efforts, be it politicians, media or researchers, why not address some of these simple questions? Why, for instance, Russia (or Soviet Union) has always to be apologetic for what it did or does?
I am not trying to exonerate the terrible things done by the Bolshevik regime, Stalin, etc.
OK, take Katyn. Terrible crime. But why, while demanding (and justly demanding) from Russians to apologize, etc,. for that crime, Poles (and the West that supports them) do not apologize for 60 or may be 70 thousand or even more deaths of Russian prisoners of war in 1920?
The "great" Great Britain, when an empire, did terrible things. (First concentration camps for civilians is just a minor episode). I have yet to hear constant recriminations.
Who used A-bombs? Who used them against civilians? Who used chemical warfare?
Who used a scorched-land tactics in modern times? Who used napalm indiscriminately? The list may go on and on.
But for some mysterious reason it seems like no one is to blame because they are "good guys". Russians, on the other hand, are "bad guys". Well, not only Russians.
Now, for a change, it is Iranians. Uf...
So, if there are clear moral standards and principles, why some countries are "entitled" to having nuclear weapons, while others are not? Why is it tenable to believe that someone can have monopoly on truth? The WWII is merely an example.
Simple statistics and facts show who bore the brunt of the war.
Just an episode. In Schindler's List they make fun of a dumb Soviet soldier. But the plain truth is that, as many Jewish survivors testified, in most cases it was the Soviets who liberated them sacrificing many more lives of their soldiers than otherwise they would.
Anyway... It is easier to invoke an image of a menacing Russian Bear than to take the trouble of learning some history and to not subscribe wholeheartedly to moral relativism

I couldn't agree with you more! History has always been a major matter of contention, especially in cases where bitterness and hostility persisted after the end of the actual conflict. After all, history IS the national myth, and myths, although sometimes based on partial truths, mostly consist of grave distortions and/or exaggerations of true events. Now, given the interdependence, interconnectedness, and the rise of new channels for wielding power, "controlling the narrative" is an increasingly (even) more prominent foreign policy priority for most countries. In many cases this control goes beyond current events and extends into history. That, obviously, is the case with WWII as well.

To address the point on teaching of history per se: well, not that these things are not mentioned in the books, or not explained (in many cases, at least, they are still recognized as historical events). The problem lies in that they are just not emphasized enough, or even worse, are being completely distorted in their "framing" - be it in textbooks, in class discussions, in the media, in literature... So, the line would be: "Yes. The A-bomb happened. Hundreds of thousands died as a result (immediately, and later). There is no denying that. But well, it was done out of necessity, and without it the war would not have been won." (Very questionable, yes, but interestingly, still the major argument!) Sometimes, uncomfortable events are so de-emphasized in everyday "public life" (when references are made to it, that is), that people just forget about "the bomb part" altogether.

With the Brits, the case is similar. Decolonization made up, in fact, one of the 6 modules of the A'Level exam in 20th Century History (that was in 2005. I'm not sure if it's still the case, but I think it should be). Although we studied the Boer Wars and cases like the Amritsar massacre, there was never "enough time" to discuss all the details and various sides of it in depth because of the sheer volume of the material (a hundred-year period is just too huge; while we would spent months on other modules: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, or the Cold War). So, that history is taught. But, how aware of it are the British people in their daily lives? How often is this dark past invoked in the media, in the popular culture, etc.?

It is indeed amusing - and at the same time, oh so sad! - to see all the reporting done on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, or the entire continent of Africa, with absolutely no mention of history and the root causes of the plight. It's very difficult to analyze events in such light, so "leaving it to historians" is an overly convenient solution. (But for some reason, reminding the readers about the communist/socialist past of Eastern Bloc countries every time there is a story on one of them is not difficult.) Yet, the most important factor is the national myth, but the reasons behind it are more than just obvious, so I will not be venturing out in that direction here.

Even if one is to leave out current political motives behind the distortion of history, it is obvious that the "single truth" perspective is internalized so well over time, that it falls into a cycle that is constantly reinforced by the media, popular culture, other countries' propaganda (I cannot call it "public diplomacy" in these instances), etc. The following CrossTalk 'episode' on RT (this one belongs to the "exceptional" category) makes this point very well:

The trouble is, people seem to increasingly rely on popular culture - "embodied" by Hollywood, or Channel One Russia (seemingly, the major movie production company at present) - for their lessons in history. In CrossTalk they touch upon "Saving Private Ryan" , which, although a great movie, was completely biased and left out large parts of the history altogether (I would add another major example, on Vietnam - "We Were Soldiers"). That, in turn, reflects the general society's view of the events, which, initially constructed by government officials and interested parties, has been perpetuated by the media, history books, etc.: a perfect cycle.

Countries, then, see this not just a propaganda opportunity in terms of shaping other nations' (past or future) narratives of history (see below), but also as a major public diplomacy challenge, since these deeply held internalized "truths" (i.e. myths) are not easy to get rid of, even if the circumstances and initial reasons are gone. Therefore, "shaping the narrative" works not just in terms of the present, but also in the depiction of the past (walking a thin line between PD and propaganda, though).

To stay on Russia: a major recent "contention" has been the 2008 Ossetia War. Both sides - Georgia and Russia - deny being responsible for it, although both are to blame to varying extents. Nevertheless, despite the ever-present blame put on Russia in the American media, this view will be further promoted and preserved in an upcoming Hollywood movie, "Georgia". It is being made by a fairly prominent (although "mediocre") Hollywood director Renny Harlin, while Andy Garcia will be starring as Saakashvili. Take a look at the trailer:

Although the movie is supposedly "objective" and tries to focus on the human aspect of the conflict, claiming to be generally "anti-war", just a look at the trailer makes it obvious that such claims are far from being true. Rather, they are true according to a certain Western perspective. But, since there is a firmly held belief that it is the only perspective, and given a reality where far more people watch movies than read history books, Russia runs the risk of having another major historical challenge to resolve in the future. After all: "Situations defined as real become real in their consequences."

In short, it is all politicized - again - while relativism, particularly in public diplomacy, is brought up only when it suits the "narrative." Breaking such cycles is difficult, especially when they take on a "total" nature.


Sunday, May 9, 2010

Friday, May 7, 2010

Medvedev on Historical Distortions

In my most recent post I tried to show how the current Russian government is trying to overcome the historical distortions - especially, in the West - that tend to keep the Soviet contribution to the outcome of the WWII out of the history books. With the May 9th and the grandiose 65th Anniversary of Victory celebrations already under way, President Medvedev made this appearance on RT, sending a clear message to the world: Russia (along with the other post-Soviet countries) wants proper acknowledgment of its role.

One of the reporter's questions highlighted the issue very well:

While Russian history books contain most of the details, in Western countries victory is attributed to the West – the Allies won, and the Soviet Union just participated. So it’s like we are losing our victory. Many people don’t know anything about the major losses of the Soviet Union in this war, they don’t know that it was the Red Army that entered and seized Berlin, and they don’t know many things. What can we do in order not to lose our victory?

As the interview shows, the "New Russia" (as the current administration calls itself) sees this herculean task of "correcting" the historical perspective as playing a key part in their overall public diplomacy effort: it is directly related to the way others perceive modern Russia.

This is a great interview, in that Medvedev is trying to explain the Russian attitude and reactions to the West in the post-Cold War period:

[...] people in Russia, too, are suspicious of America, other NATO members and even other countries that are simply major players on the international arena. Why is that? It’s because of our history, the way we used to perceive each other. You and I remember well what we had in the Soviet period. We had a set of stereotypes concerning each other. Just recall what they used to tell us at school about Americans and Europeans. This position was totally based on ideology. It pursued obvious goals—to make us consider people who lived there as our enemies. It was a way of keeping the government efficient and achieving certain political goals.
They had the same thing. In fact many stereotypes of the past are still here today, more or less. Perhaps it is particularly true in the West, because, frankly speaking, many of our people wanted a new life in late 1980s and the early 1990s. And there was a kind of romantic period in our relations with the West. We thought they would welcome us as an open, modern country that no longer threatened anybody. We thought we would quickly and easily be integrated with other civilised developed nations.
Something different followed though. First of all, we ourselves were not fully ready to do this quickly since there was a certain inertia to our thinking. The need to create a modern economy in our country remained, and remains up to the present moment. There is also the process of civil society institutions maturing. But the people in the West, too, were not fully ready to give up their stereotypes.

It is obvious that he is painfully aware of the persisting "negative" image of Russia in the Western popular culture and perceptions, as well.
You know, sometimes I watch Hollywood movies, and even though they have excellent actors, an excellent cast, perfect scene sequence and a big budget – the way they portray Russia today is just a bunch of absurd, ludicrous ideas. Russia is a country where it is always raining or snowing, where everything is bad, people are mean, all they can do is drink vodka all the time, they are aggressive, they like to fight, they can attack you any moment – you have to keep an eye on them, otherwise, they will stab you in the back. Everything is bad!

So what is the message? "Work actively and fairly, and [...] abandon extreme positions."

Well done, Mr. President. Don't stop here, though! It will take much more effort and time, on all sides, to really resolve the problem..

You can read the transcript of the entire interview on RT's website.


Victory 65 - Russia's "Historical" PD

I grew up with my grandparents' stories from the WWII - rather, "The Great Patriotic War". Even though it took me a while to fully comprehend what they were telling about, I was well aware of the major events, and most importantly - the cost of the war for the Soviet people.

Tanks rehearse for the May 9th Parade, Red Square, Moscow. Image courtesy of Media Support.

That was about to change when I started learning WWII history as an international student, using a British textbook. The Soviet Union, even if mentioned, was not given proper acknowledgment (that is, "proper" according to me), and almost the entire focus was on the Western Front. I literally had to look at the map from the other side. (As a thirteen-year-old, that was my first true experience of "multiple/alternative perspectives", which, perhaps, got me obsessed with history in the first place.)

Given the post-WWII years and the Cold War context, it's easy to see why the Soviet role in the war in general, and in the Victory in particular, was downplayed and perhaps, even, distorted. The same happened - to varying degrees - within the USSR about the American and Western European war effort. But now, with the Cold War (supposedly) over for more than 20 years, and the relations getting increasingly normalized (at least on the surface), Russia has come forward with its well-justified claim for its proper place in history books around the world.

Here are some passages from Foreign Minister Lavrov's address to the Council of European Parliamentary Assembly on April 29, 2010:

Russia has never divided the victory into its own victory and that of others'. The war was won by all allies of the anti-Hitler coalition, and on the 9th of May we will honor their veterans on the Red Square. However, we, the Russia, will never forget that the Soviet Union with its territory, cities and villages took the brunt of the Hitler invasion.
[...]  This is our common victory. The victory of those values that make us human. We all want the same for our children and grandchildren [...] In other words, we want a common future. For the sake of this future, we should tell each other in all due honesty and clarity, that only the full knowledge of facts, historic truth without omissions and without any politicization for the sake of short-term considerations can ensure the strength of Greater Europe that we are building.
[...] Even when the veterans of the World War II, participants and witnesses of those events lived on different sides of the Iron Curtain and quite often happened to be enemies in the Cold War, in their hearts they shared deep respect for each other, mutual understanding, and brotherhood sealed by common trials and a common victory.
[...] Russia has always stood in the joint work of historians in the study of the most intricate periods of common history. And today we are ready for this. New Russia has officially condemned Stalinism and has never advocated its ideology and practices. At the same time, we strongly reject any attempts to falsify history and to shift onto Russia all the faults of European politics."

Lavrov lays out - very eloquently - what seems to be the major goal of the unprecedented "lavishness" of the 65th Anniversary Commemoration.

Events promise to be memorable. Firstly, of course, there's the May 9th Victory Parade: the first military parade that will involve the participation of foreign armies, at the Red Square. Ironic perhaps, but a wonderful public diplomacy move. Not only does it bring together peoples who had, 65 years ago, fought side by side, but also provides an opportunity for Russia to showcase its military might for the world to see. After all, awe and reverence - according to some - can still be regarded as a product of effective public diplomacy (perhaps, "Militarism PD"?).


Secondly, there is Russia Today. Since March, it has been heating up the scene with special historical "pieces" and daily progress reports from the Red Square. It has also been running a series of short videos, featuring personal stories from Russian, Soviet, as well as foreign veterans and survivors: "War Witness." An interesting emphasis, in most of them, is made on the notions of shared tragedy as well as mutual support and cooperation, which allowed them to survive in the first place. A great PD theme, indeed!

St. George's Ribbon. Image courtesy of  RIA Novosti

Then, there is a host of other events that - in one way or another - are related to the Victory celebration. For example, there is RIA Novosti's St. George's Ribbon campaign that aimed to distribute the commemorative ribbons around the world. Russia will be giving out commemorative medals to American Veterans who have participated in war supplies-carrying operations and the "Frantic" missions of the U.S. Air Force. There was a major conference/forum held on the subject: "U.S.-Russia Relations: From Past Join Victories to Future Accomplishments" in Washingon, D.C, by the World Russia Forum. The entire May 9 parade will be broadcast live at Russia's pavilion at the Shanghai Expo. While, to make sure it facilitates the expected legions of reporters covering the May 9th parade, Moscow also set up a "special support" website for journalists, in Russian, English, French, and German. These all, to name but a few.

The 65th Victory Anniversary Commemoration is a great PD initiative on behalf of Moscow. This will certainly keep Russia in the headlines around the world (as it already has, more or less) for days, if not weeks. It will also provide an opportunity for a military show, à la russe, and very effective images for the history books of the future: prominent foreign dignitaries watching more than a 100,000 troops, hundreds of combat aircraft, tanks, and missiles parading on the Red Square. (Amazing!) Most important, however, is the effort to set the "historical record" straight, and present the "New Russia" in a new, albeit military, light.

(This would be my favorite Soviet song/march from the WWII. Enjoy!)

RT and RIA Novosti are going to broadcast the parade live on Sunday (I'm sure they will be streaming online, too). Can it beat the over-commercialized "celebrations"  of the Mother's Day in the U.S., though?

[UPDATE] RT just had a report addressing the issue openly.



Thursday, May 6, 2010

The UK Election & its PD potential... in Russia

I'm sure many around the world are intently following the 2010 British Elections (still underway at the time of writing), which have already been dubbed as "historic". The interest in the U.S. is understandable: the campaign process, although much shorter, had taken on a strikingly "American" character. More interesting, however, is the "Russian connection", which has, apparently, ignited the interest of the Russian media.

As it turns out, Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader who had been making all the headlines in this election campaign, is a descendant of prominent Russian aristocrats. Clegg, as reported, can trace a direct bloodline to Ignaty Zakrevsky, an attorney general in the imperial Russian senate, and Baroness Moura Budberg, the prominent ("most certainly") double-agent, working for the British and the Soviets after the 1917 Revolution.

But the Russian prominence in the current election doesn't stop there: James Cameron, the Conservative Leader, and David Miliband, Labor's Foreign Secretary, are also mentioned. (Too bad Brown couldn't put out a similarly "exotic" story over the past weeks...!)

So, how does this "revelation" affect Clegg's political outlook? Certainly, his Russian ancestry makes up only a part of his complex identity and the "very mixed" background. But they all mattered. As the Guardian put it, "early awareness of his roots [might have] endowed him with the understanding that politics is full of grey areas and contradictions." Moreover, he has had some extensive experience working on Russia and the post-Soviet region. This, then, gives better context to his party's  internationalist line.

Elections in major countries, especially those involved around the world, always draw attention from other publics (see the Obama case), and although the latter are not the electorate that parties and leaders are trying to charm, they still do matter (to varying degrees). This UK election, seems to hold an even greater potential in terms of excitement and worldwide interest. Now, many Russians (and Ukrainians, since that is where the Zakrevskys lived) can choose a favorite candidate, too, for example!

Given the (so far) uncertain results, a success for Clegg can have major reverberations not only in British-Russian elections, but also among the Russian (and Ukrainian) people. They might even open a museum. And they will most certainly be proud of it.

Will Clegg be proud of it, too, though?


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

RT: One Last Time

As I kept mentioning before, Russia Today does produce amazing journalistic masterpieces every day (with only some noteworthy exceptions, now and then). Repeating it is tiresome (as, I'm sure, is the reading about it), but since a recent story I stumbled upon is too priceless to ignore, I will indulge one last time.

I guess this takes RT off the "family friendly" TV channels list.

What I'm curious to find out, however, is whether the Russian people know what their taxes are paying for... and whether there is anyone out there, in the unbreakable fortress that is RT (yes, I've been trying to contact them since January... to no avail!), making any editorial assessment of the content before it is aired; especially, in terms of its "public diplomacy" function.

Way to go... indeed!


Monday, May 3, 2010

Public Diplomacy. So What?

Now, as I came home from my last class, submitted my last final paper, and am only beginning to realize that I'm half-way through my MA degree, it's worth taking another look back at the past year. It's been interesting, exciting, engaging, and oh, so challenging! But it's also been a lot of fun, and especially as I started getting more into my concentration field - public diplomacy and strategic communication - I realized that its discovery was more than just an organic process for me.

Just a year ago I was not even aware that the field, as such, existed at all. Double-majoring in International Relations and Journalism as an undergraduate at AUBG, and taking classes such as international affairs and the media, or political communication, had made it clear to me that I was immensely interested in these issues. But I didn't have a name for them, neither could I explain properly what was that I wanted to do. Was it "soft power"? Was it "propaganda" and/or "PR"? Was it international political communication? Nation branding?

As I was applying to graduate school, I focused on programs that involved international or global communication (even if remotely), and I was very fortunate to have ended up at SIS. I had the flexibility to look around, think it through (once again), talk to awesome professors, meet some great people, discover a field with a counter-intuitive name, and finally, I was able to formulate my passion in words: public diplomacy.

Now, every time I tell someone about my field of study, the first thing I get (after the weird looks, of course), is: "Oh, propaganda?" What ensues from it, then, is a long discussion - but, of course! - on the "fundamental differences between propaganda and public diplomacy", and an unfortunate focus on the former. That is all because of what countries (in the real world) tend to make of it, unfortunately. That's the part people notice, or the easy label they choose order to make sense of it. Yet, I cannot but agree that what PD essentially comes down to is influence, and it doesn't matter if one prefers to see it as something benign or evil, since everything is relative, anyway (especially when it comes to perspectives and ideas).

Why is PD important? So what?

An important thing I had to learn as a journalism student - apart from asking questions, of course - was explaining relevance. After all the What, Where, When, Why, How, etc.. there would always be the "So What?" part. PD is certainly not different in that sense.

It seems that in International Relations (and public diplomacy, especially) it's easy to get bogged down in idealistic theories, come up with unrealistic models, and beautiful ideas on how things "should work". But then, simple realism, on its own, cannot explain seemingly irrational behavior, either. In a world where people are becoming mobile as never before (even if just on the Internet), where economic interdependence can bring down entire country blocks, and where the information flow is simply overwhelming, getting a chance to "shape the narrative" can, indeed, be crucial. It's interesting that new technologies have made what was traditionally a battle over history into a battle over the present. And apparently, with increasing globalization, a greater number of states and actors realize that they need to join the global "PD cacophony".

Here is another unfortunate fact about public diplomacy, the "Thomas theorem catch": a genuine belief that "situations defined as real become real in their consequences." (Alternatively, the "Lenin catch": "a lie told often enough becomes the truth." Pick one!) What many still seem to be missing in terms of public diplomacy is that the biggest issues it faces is the lack of credibility and attention (and not the lack of information or perspectives). After all, actions speak louder than words, and no matter the icing, it's easy to see the bad cake when it is cut. With the 24-hour news cycle and increasing scrutiny, the mere act of defining does not translate into reality anymore. 

Public diplomacy, if carried out and/or coordinated properly, can indeed provide the space where dialogue takes place not just between governments, but also between people (and yes, I still to cling to the idea that all problems stem, at their root, from miscommunication of one sort or another). A good public diplomacy requires an "in awareness" approach (to quote Zaharna) that is culturally sensitive and cognizant. It also needs to accept the idea of mutuality and the absolute need for a reciprocal "communication flow"; otherwise, it might, indeed, border propaganda. Understanding each other in the international sphere, promoting openness, cooperation, and a truly reciprocal engagement can only benefit all of the sides involved, and help to genuinely accept that everything is relative. Perspective matters more than the image, and it is only through cooperation that these two can effectively converge (of course, the alternative is direct control through coercion, but I'm assuming we live in a benign world).

Am I drifting away from reality, again? After all, nothing is what it seems. And yet, that matters.

[Thanks to Paul Rockower for the "Un-involved" image!]


Istanbul 2010: I'm inspired. Are you?

The virtual Global Chaos was recently neglected because real chaos had taken over. Now, with the end-of-semester overload almost over, I will try and catch up with some of the issues I have been coming across.

As a part of a semester-long project for my International PR class, I did some work on Turkey, particularly related to public diplomacy. Istanbul 2010 was something I kept coming across, so I ended up doing a paper on it. Here are some thoughts...

What is Istanbul 2010?

Since 1985 the EU has been nominating various cities as "European Capitals of Culture" (ECOC), giving them cash and fame to preserve cultural heritage, and promote sustainable development and tourism. (Basically: bring Europe closer together, while benefiting the locals.) In 2006 Istanbul was chosen to be one of the cities to hold the ECOC title in 2010 (the others are Essen in Germany and Pecs in Hungary). This, of course, was of special significance, since Turkey has so far had a bumpy ride with its EU membership bid: Istanbul 2010 was seen as an opportunity to prove Turkey's "Europeanness" to Europeans.

Millions were spent on restoration and preservation projects as well as the city's development, while hundreds upon hundreds of various cultural events are planned to take place throughout the year (for more, see here and here). This, certainly, is being accompanied by a promotional campaign, which was designed to "inspire" foreigners (with a particular focus on Europeans). Here's your share of inspiration:

Beautiful. Fascinating. Inspiring?

Perhaps. The campaign is not limited to video ads, of course. It also involves giant billboards at the Heathrow Airport in London, Gare du Nord in Paris, or Piazza San Marco in Venice: presumably, "key major spots" around Europe. The opening ceremony was apparently huge, with some special events held in Brussels. The idea behind the attempted "brand" is also noteworthy: diversity and complex identity - the old and the new, the traditional with the progressive, the religious and the secular, etc. - certainly stand a high chance of appealing to Europeans.

And yet, it seems the campaign has not met the expected success so far.

Firstly, it was not properly implemented. Starting off too late (December 2009!!!), the organizers limited the focus to Europe, and failed to properly explain what Istanbul 2010 stands for, or what ECOC is all about (there seems to be virtually no promotion elsewhere, except for the "central stage" in Turkey's Shanghai Expo Pavilion). It certainly is losing a lot of potential ground by ignoring another major tool - the Internet and the social networking websites - which could, indeed, prove very successful in such tourism promotion/branding campaigns (conventional ads, but also sharing of experiences, videos, photos, tips, etc). There are no major headlines, no grabbing images, or discussions about Istanbul 2010: all search efforts resulted in detailed coverage of the events/activities at home, with virtually no attention paid by the foreign media.

Even when there was coverage, it seemed to neglect the ECOC theme, by focusing more on the problematic aspects. The BBC, for example, highlighted some issues between NGOs and the government, as well as problems related to corruption, neglect of contemporary culture, and the insufficient effort "devoted to confronting the painful twentieth century legacy left by the mass expulsion of the Greek and Armenian communities, whose buildings, many of them derelict, still litter the city."

And then, there's this report:

Inevitably, makes me think of Anholt's warning about place branding:
The message is clear: if a country is serious about enhancing its international image, it should concentrate on what it does and what it makes, rather than obsess about what it says or how it looks. There are no short cuts. Only a consistent, coordinated and unbroken stream of useful, noticeable , world-class and above all relevant ideas, products and policies can, gradually, enhance the reputation of the country that produces them.

Indeed, nothing can speak louder than actions. Turkey has been trying to make some progress in this regard as well: the recent commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in the middle of Istanbul, or the sanctioning of a May 1 demonstration at Taksim Square (which also commemorated the victims of 1977 clashes). But then, Turkey's human rights record is still very much tainted, while there are also concerns about the security of its secular, democratic nature given the most recent wave of high-profile arrests.

In short, this was a great chance for Turkey to attract attention from around the world. And although it might still be early to make assessments, it seems that the promotional campaign, at least, has not been successful enough. Istanbul 2010 is (or could be) about so much more than just tourism... And to improve its image, especially in the eyes of Europeans, Turkey should perhaps start paying greater attention to genuine public diplomacy as opposed to conventional marketing.

Nonetheless, Istanbul is indeed an inspiring place: one I'm certainly looking forward to going back to some day.

[UPDATE] Just found another promotional video. The kid: absolute cuteness! And yet, it's still not clear how the ad speaks to foreign audiences, let alone "inspire" credibility.