Monday, August 30, 2010

"Welcome to Hizbolandia"

How do you like the idea of a theme park featuring resistance and martyrs who sacrificed their life for it? Well, of course, one would have to define the term "martyr" in the first place, since it all depends on the perspective: one's freedom fighter (and martyr) is most definitely the other's terrorist.

But I have no intention of getting into that debate; instead, I wanted to introduce what a Spanish newspaper called "Hizbolandia": Hizballah's brand new open-air museum (dubbed a "theme park" by those who are familiar with the concept) in Southern Lebanon, bringing to life and perpetuating (at least, for the time being) the history of the "Resistance Movement".

The following video (courtesy of Time magazine) is pretty telling.



The Party of God's "Tourist Landmark of Resistance" opened its doors in the end of May, and has already attracted attention from several prominent international publications (mostly thanks to the "news multiplier effect"):

- BBC
- Time Magazine
- Foreign Policy Magazine
- The Independent
- La Stampa
- The Vancouver Sun
- The Sydney Morning Herald

... to name but a few (and surely there are many more pieces to come, as the word gets out). I would certainly recommend taking a look at articles by Time and Foreign Policy, since they pretty much cover, in detail, the essence of the park. For a more amusing take, I would also suggest reading the post by Sietske (by the way, her photos are hilarious and very worrying at the same time).

(Courtesy of Sietske In Beiroet.)

After spending most of my Sunday reading on terrorist media strategies and the "theater of terror", and after taking a quick look at Hizballah's presence in the international information sphere, this seems to be an appropriate subject to turn to.

Hizballah is a terrorist organization, or at least it is considered as such by Israel, the State Department, and much of the "international (a.k.a. Western) community". It is an organization that specializes in unconventional, asymmetric warfare, primarily relying on publicity, fear and intimidation to achieve certain political ends. However, at the same time, Hizballah seems to be having an identity-crisis (can it be genuine transformation?): it has become an influential player in Lebanese official politics and, as such, cannot really fit Jenkin's description of an organization that carries out "violence against the system, waged outside the system," since Hizballah, itself, is a part of that system. At least, supposedly.

In such a case, can Hizballah be said to have a public diplomacy strategy? An attempt, perhaps? Not that there is no audience to reach out to: be it the Lebanese Diaspora, the greater Arab and Muslim public, or the international community, in general (they might be hoping to find sympathizers here and there). Certainly, they have (as in the past) various means of putting out their message, most prominent of which is Al Manar TV. The latter not only streams its programming live online, but also provides English, Spanish, and French versions of its official website.

However, with the construction of the Mleeta Museum, the organization seems to have come up with another great way of "telling its story" to the world: the "park" clearly aims to attract foreign attention and interest, as well as act as a major domestic PR and/or indoctrination tool.

The official website of the "Tourist Landmark of the Resistance" is available in English (it should be noted that the "quality" of English is not bad, either - much better than Google Translate, at least), and although the About Us section is still "under construction", the Introduction page provides a meticulous description of the museum. The website features explanations of the "idea" behind the emblem and the architecture, and, more importantly, emphasizes the historical and geographical significance of the site. For those interested, there are also photo galleries, [promised] videos, and even a special selection of "stories" about Israeli Mirkava tanks.

(Map of Mleeta, from Mleeta.com)

What is more significant, however, is that the museum provides tours in English, French, Spanish, Farsi, and German, as well as in Arabic: all free of charge (Sietske even described her tour guide speaking "perfect American"!). It also "contains panels explaining all scenes and listing all divisions in Arabic and English."

But that is not all: future development plans for the site include a five-start hotel, swimming pools, conference centers, a paint-ball battlefield, and a cable-ride with a scenic view of "Occupied Palestine". Obviously, the intended "target audience" is not limited to the local population.

As for becoming a potential target itself, I will leave you with an excerpt from Foreign Policy:

Hezbollah's ambitious expansion plans, and the care with which the party looks after the ideological foundations of its power, prove that it is digging in for the long haul. When I asked Daher [the park's supervisor] whether he worried that another war could lay waste to Hezbollah's construction plans, he simply shrugged. "If they bomb us, we will simply build it all again," he said. "Resistance takes patience."

After all, that is the image Hizballah wants for itself.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Putin and the Lada. Yellow.

This is a new episode in the "Vova Series".

Apparently, Mr. Putin is not only promoting his own image as a man of action and a PM who, finally, brought a decades-long construction project to completion; he is also actively promoting domestic car production. His trip along a part of the newly-built 2000 km Amur (Khabarovsk-Chita) Highway in Russia - in a yellow, stick shift Lada - was enthusiastically covered not just by the domestic media, but also by prominent news outlets such as the AFP, Telegraph, and even Herald Sun (in faraway Australia).

I just find the whole thing extremely funny... and wanted to emphasize the significance of the color choice: Yellow most certainly grabs attention and goes in very well with Vova's image as the "energetic, can-do leader of all Russians".

Enjoy!



And the major story: from the state-owned national 1TV Channel [in Russian].



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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.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Iran's Prospective "Beacon of Culture"

If you haven't yet heard, Iran is planning on building a new super-sleek embassy in downtown London. Although the Iranian Foreign Ministry has just recently submitted the building plan for approval, it has already become a subject of controversy: the residents of the wealthy neighborhood are evidently unhappy about the architecture (they claim the building will not "blend in well" with the surrounding historic area) and are worried about it attracting violence and protests to their neighborhood.

The really interesting part of the story, however, is the actual building itself and the idea behind it. The six-storey, £100 million building will feature "a dramatic cantilevered arch, acutely-angled walls and irregularly punched-out windows", and will embody "Iran's public image in London." What is more, it will host a contemporary art gallery and a cultural center.

The planned Iranian Embassy building. Image courtesy of the London Evening Standard.

As quoted in the Guardian:
"The cube-shaped building at the corner could be accessed freely by the public and feature exhibits such as contemporary artworks made by young Iranian artists," said Armin Daneshgar, the Vienna-based Iranian architect who is working with a leading UK environmental engineer, Battle McCarthy, to make the building sustainable.
"We believe Iran's rich cultures, especially contemporary movements, are still largely unknown to the west."
Great public (and cultural) diplomacy initiative (wonder if it came from Mottaki himself..?), indeed! After all, the diplomatic mission is a country's first and foremost "public image" abroad, which can (and should) be utilized as a substantial PD tool.

On this note, I wanted to talk about the planned new building of the American embassy in London, as well. The plan was made public in February this year: a "modernist glass cube protected from attack by an earth bank, a semi-circular lake and bomb-resistant glazing" that will cost the DoS about $1 billion. Not only is it supposedly "on the leading edge of sustainable design" - very "green" and considerate of its surroundings - but it also represents The Grand Idea. The "Concept" of the building, as described in the architect's blog:

• The concept for the New London Embassy is the result of KieranTimberlake's efforts to resolve, in architectural terms, what an embassy aspires to be and what present realities dictate it must do.
• The expressive challenge is to give form to the core beliefs of our democracy - transparency, openness, and equality - and do so in a way that is both secure and welcoming. At the same time, the building must confront the environmental challenges all nations face with leading edge sustainable design.

 The new U.S. Embassy-to-be. Image courtesy of KieranTimberlake.

And to quote the Guardian again:
"The state department's architect, James Timberlake of the firm Kieran Timberlake, said it would be "a beacon of democracy – light-filled and light-emitting". Critics said it was a modern "fortress", more like the Tower of London."
There has been quite a substantial discussion of the "Cathedral and the Bazaar" approach as applied to American foreign policy, and public diplomacy in particular. I took a special liking of the metaphor, especially when talking about the American embassies around the world, since it can be regarded as a fairly literal representation, too: the fortress-like, impenetrable, condescending structures look much more like military outposts than chanceries. [Yes, I do understand all the security-related reasons behind it; but in this case, I am talking about the public diplomacy aspect of the issue: Daryl Copeland, in particular, has been very vocal on the latter.]

Now, a more aesthetically pleasing structure for an embassy is certainly a great idea, especially when it stands for a special "concept". (A short walk along the Embassy Row in DC makes this more than just obvious.) Whether it will be sufficient to conquer the "hearts and minds" of the British is very questionable - especially after all the criticism and controversy surrounding it - but the DoS deserves credit for the attempt, at least.

So does Iran, of course. And although it is still unclear whether the Foreign Ministry stands a chance of actually getting the building permit in that specific location, it has come up with a strong "concept" of its own: culture, progress, openness... It is an obvious effort to break certain (cultural) stereotypes about Iran, as well as an attempt to reach out to the rapidly increasing Muslim population in the UK. A "progressive" Iran is a good image; I'm not quite sure many people will actually buy it in Britain, though.

[As for openness, Iranian MFA should really try fixing its London website, first and foremost. As of this writing, http://www.iran-embassy.org.uk/ was inaccessible from four different locations in Washington, D.C. Could the location really be the reason, though?!]