Thursday, August 26, 2010

Need to Fast Forward: Just a Couple of Decades...

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I had taken a break - a fairly long one. The summer was eventful, but also calm. Now, with the start of my second year at the American U - a new set of classes, issues and perspectives - there will be many more discussions and issues pertaining to international communication, and especially public diplomacy, that I hope to bring up and follow on Global Chaos. As always, comments, ideas and suggestions are more than welcome!

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The academic year has just begun, but I already managed to get a share of frustration: as I follow the news and started getting into the class readings and discussions, it seems like I have gone back some two-three decades. Yes, the Cold War (and mind you, Cold War in its original form and shape) is apparently very much alive and kicking, at least in the minds of many. I can't say there is no truth to that contention: the fight over perceived "spheres of influence" is still there, nuclear weapons are still very much a reality (and the disarmament talks are still going on), and (surprise-surprise!) is seems like Russia is getting increasingly active in its "near abroad". And yet, an obsession with such a view can not only prevent effective foreign policy making; it can be rather detrimental.


 Cartoon from Psywar.org.

In a recent piece in Foreign Affairs - "Reimagining Eurasia: A New 'Great Game' Will Not Increase U.S. Influence in Russia's Backyard" - Charap and Petersen make a great argument against the outdated zero-sum approach to the former Soviet bloc. They correctly point out that:

"When the United States tries to best Russia in a geopolitical tit-for-tat in Eurasia, both Washington and the region lose. As a result of its geographic position and history, Russia will inevitably win a head-to-head competition with the United States for influence in the area. Russian leaders, for example, will always visit Baku and Dushanbe more often than their U.S. counterparts. The only way for Washington to "win" is not to play the game."  

Instead, they suggest, the "United States should build substantive relationships [...] providing tangible security, diplomatic, and economic benefits for the United States and Eurasian countries, while allowing for more effective support of representative government. The people of Eurasia would also benefit because local elites could stop thinking about their countries as geopolitical pawns and instead focus on economic development, institution building, and regional cooperation."

In short, the U.S. should stop perpetuating the status quo by changing its very attitude and approach to the region.

In an earlier post this year - "'New Russia': Not The Old Imperialist" - I tried to look at the Russian influence in terms of "cognitive hegemony" in the region. Policy-making in the former Soviet states (and their neighborhood) is not limited solely to "hard power" considerations: Russia has had a long historical presence there, and quite naturally, it has a much better understanding and a much more potent cultural (be it cognitive, socio-psychological, or anthropological) approach in these countries. That can explain, to a large extent, the appeal it enjoys not only among the population at large, but also among the elites.

The U.S., on the other hand, has not been successful enough in this regard, especially with the increasing disillusionment among the local people with its commitment to the ideals and values it used to so actively promote. Charap and Petersen touch upon this as well:

"The United States should engage the states of Eurasia not only when it comes to security and natural resources but also diplomatically, economically, and culturally. Very limited exchanges funded by the State Department, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and other institutions have done wonders to build human capital and encourage diversified development in Eurasia since the end of the Cold War. Exchanges and conferences involving students, mid-career government officials, entrepreneurs, musicians, and journalists should not be relegated to second-tier status when engaging states such as Azerbaijan, Moldova, or Uzbekistan."

Not only is there a need for greater engagement and a more potent, true public diplomacy; there is also a pressing need to shift away from the Cold War-style approach altogether. In an era so enthusiastically labeled as the "Information Age", where networks and network approaches supposedly take precedence, such an outdated outlook and mode of operation will not just impede, but will also ensure the failure of the American policy in the region. The "Grand Chessboard" might be out there, but the rules have started to change, and the sooner the former Cold Warriors recognize that, the more successful they can hope to be.

To be continued.

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