Thursday, September 15, 2011

The US Advisory Commission on PD: September 2011 Meeting

The US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy - charged with "appraising U.S. Government activities intended to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics" - held its Nth public meeting today morning. Acting Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs J. Adam Ereli was the special guest, presenting all the great American efforts in public diplomacy through cultural and educational exchange initiatives.

Ambassador J. A. Ereli. Photo from US Embassy in Bahrain.

The meeting was announced early on, it was webcast live, and Executive Director Matt Armstrong did quite a good job of utilizing social media to spread the word. And although it was a public meeting, since it was taking place in the State Department, one would still need to register well in advance and go through the whole security screening process upon arrival. As a devout fan, I had decided I should go, despite the increasingly hectic schedule.

So, I did. Arriving there half an hour before the start of the meeting turned out to be insufficient, even though we were advised to show up just 15 mins earlier. After standing in one line for 20 minutes, I was told that I should probably go to the other exit. At 9:55am, five minutes before the start of the meeting, there were close to a hundred people outside, waiting in line, to be enlightened about the most recent developments in public diplomacy and exchanges. The line was there for half an hour. No one was let in. The reason? Apparently, the security screening machines had broken down. And no, it didn't matter if you had registered in advance (which involved sending them quite a bit of personal information), you still couldn't get in for seemingly obvious reasons. (Could this be a great example of the efficiency of the State Department?)

Long story short, by the time we got in it was close to 10:35am (i.e. we missed more than half of the meeting, and certainly most of the presentation), so my account starts at that point.

As we walked in, Ambassador Ereli was recounting all the virtues of exchange programs, Fulbright featuring most prominently among those. In terms of impact, he said that the Bureau's evaluation - mostly through surveys, it seems - shows that most of the participants of the exchange programs go back to their countries with better understanding of and a positive disposition toward the U.S. Ereli also talked about all the positive input of these alumni in their respective societies through the multiplier effect and their ability to engage various local networks. He emphasized on the importance of technological innovation and the diffusion of that knowledge and technology in other societies precisely through such alumni networks.

All great buzz words and ideas.

In the Q&A part, Ereli told the touching story of a young Arab-American musician who had grown up in Oklahoma and liked country music, and was invited to perform at the Ambassador's Residence in Bahrain, touching the hearts of as many as 300 high school students. He also seemed very optimistic about Middle Eastern musicians' life-changing discovery that certain American drummers can catch and actually tune into their rhythm. Seems like it is at that mysterious, metaphysical level that American public diplomacy is at its best.

Perhaps the most interesting point that the Ambassador brought up was in the very end, when he emphasized the need for more people-to-people contacts. He did not want to discount the importance of digital diplomacy, and yet, he reminded the audience that nothing can replace the in-person engagement of the public. To quote him almost verbatim: "It is only then that we can win them ["the other guys"] over".

Last weekend marked the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks: Ten years since public diplomacy supposedly regained its importance. Ten years of experimentation and theorizing... and yet, it seems the DoS still has a lot to learn. Public diplomacy is still about "winning over" and "influencing". What is more, public diplomacy - especially cultural diplomacy - is obviously not fully understood. How does it work? How does it work best? Is it really just about chemistry?

Again, I should say I missed most of that meeting. Ambassador Ereli might have discussed much more substantive and informative issues while I was waiting in the line outside. To find out, I guess, I will have to wait for some four months for the minutes of this public meeting to be released.

UPDATE [9/17/2011]: I was contacted by Matt Armstrong, the Executive Director, who said that they are aware of the issue and will certainly try to address it in the future. Happy to report that the Commission has been responsive!
Thank you.


Sunday, September 11, 2011

Joe Nye at the School of Int'l Service, American U

Joseph Nye visited American University on Thursday, September 8,  for a talk about his latest book, Future of Power. The room was packed and the small number of books available sold out within minutes. Although the book had come out earlier this year and Dr. Nye had been actively promoting it in person and in the media, this talk was particularly timely, since I had spent the first half of the week reading on Realism.

Photo courtesy of Manith Hang

Nye started the talk by briefly outlining the major points in his book. It seems that his theory has come a long way from the initial concept of "Soft Power", evolving and taking on further dimensions. Here are some highlights:

Power is the ability to affect others to get the things you want. Tools:
1. Sticks: threats and coercion
2. Carrots: payments, economic incentives
3. Soft Power: getting others to want what you want [and although Soft Power does not solve all problems, it can help you save a lot on carrots and sticks].

Smart Power, on the other hand, combines all three, and is thus most effective and valuable.

Major power shifts of the 21st Century:
Power Transition: shift among states, namely from West to East (i.e. Asia)
Power Diffusion: from states to non-state actors

Power Transition

According to Nye, the center of world politics is rapidly shifting towards Asia, which he sees more of a "recovery" than emergence. Yet, he specifically underscored his belief that it applies to all of Asia - which is not a unitary entity - and not just China. Skeptical of Americans' most recent "scare", Nye warned against too much hype around "The Rise of China" and the basic Realist belief that wars often start due to perceived threats. Firstly, he suggested that a more economically (or militarily) powerful China will not necessarily engage in conflict with the U.S. Secondly, he argued that although China might be doing better overall - whether in terms of total economic prosperity or relative to its own former military capabilities (as it is still too far away from the U.S. in those terms) - when taken per capita, it is easy to see that it can in no way compete with the United States.

As for Soft Power... Indeed, the Chinese government has been making a concerted effort to improve its global performance over the past several years. Nye said, however, that China doesn't seem to realize that much of American Soft Power doesn't come from its government but rather its civil society as well as its values. Noting China's authoritarian political system, as well as its top-down and centralized "Soft Power activities", he argued that China will most likely achieve very little success in that regard.

Nye discussing his then newly published book with Al Jazeera's Riz Khan, in April 2011

Power Diffusion

The Information Revolution of the past several decades has also significantly affected the nature of global politics. Various ICTs have become much more affordable and widely available, giving rise to new non-state actors as well as empowering the already existing ones - whether positive or negative (the latter will largely depend on the perspective). What is more, Nye pointed out the significance of the "new alternative" power capabilities and vulnerabilities, emphasizing the importance of thinking beyond the military security realm, per se. He rejected the idea that the state is no longer relevant; however, he pointed out that it now has to function in a much more crowded environment.

The 3D Chessboard:

Based on his categorization of three "kinds" of power, Nye has developed the idea of a three-dimensional distribution of power around the world. According to him:

- First Dimension: Military relations --> are still largely unipolar, with one dominant power (the U.S.) in the lead

- Second Dimension: Economic relations --> largely multipolar, with a number of major actors dominating the field

- Third Dimension: Transnational relations --> chaotic distribution of power, often held by non-state actors, results in a large number of issues of a new nature.

Nye seems to be focusing mostly on the latter dimension, emphasizing the need for state actors to cooperate so as to be able to find a solution to the problems they face. Again, he is not discounting the importance of the other aspects of power; yet, he insists on a holistic approach that incorporates elements of all, i.e. "Smart Power".

There were a couple of things that struck me about his talk, particularly in light of my recent exploration of Realist thought. Keeping to his criticism of it, Nye pointed out that power, especially the 21st Century power, is not a zero-sum game: it's not a "power over" but rather "power with" others. States should not perceive military threats from other states simply because their overall economic indicators seem to be improving. On the contrary, they should start paying more attention to "non-traditional" transnational threats and devise innovative approaches to dealing with them. That is where he suggested that the U.S. and China should cooperate, for example, instead of engaging in a competition over perceived threats.

Yes, got it signed :)

It was interesting to see Nye emphasizing the the third dimension of power (i.e. the transnational issues) to that extent, as well as focusing so much on the short to meduim-term. Indeed, it might be decades before the various dimensions of power really shift towards Asia (and here I mean for real), but what would he suggest as a reasonable course of action after that point has been reached? What is more, what if China - precisely due to its authoritarian nature - does use its newly found riches to keep investing heavily in military capabilities, despite the inadequacy in terms of per capita income? Nye does reject the Realist perspective, and yet he still seems to be trying to make a "rational choice" argument, falling victim to several of the latter's most prominent fallacies: wishful thinking, readjustment of desires with the perceived set of given (and increasingly limited) opportunities, and - the very basic - tendency for irrational choices.

What is more, I'm still stuck with the question: if this is where anarchy persists, and if this is the more "problematic" dimension, why should states try to dominate over those non-state actors if he is indeed advocating against a Realist approach? Does that imply that there should, still, be an aspiration to achieve hegemony - even if just regional - so as to have a more stable and predictable "system" for states to operate in?

Yet, I should admit I have just started reading the book and most of these questions might be answered or clarified there already (i.e. more thoughts coming later, after I've gone through it). Dr. Nye had a noteworthy quote about Realism, however, which is quite telling and is hopefully explored further in the book:

"Realism is a good place to start the analysis of international politics, but it's a lousy place to end it."

I certainly look forward to reading more!

Lastly, I found it interesting that Nye specifically pointed out that in the U.S. power is still overwhelmingly thought of in traditional (i.e. Realist) terms. John Mearsheimer, however, had suggested that the American public is averse to Realpolitik and the discourse surrounding it, and that is why policymakers - among whom Realism is actually quite alive and kicking - often tend to cloak their actions in liberal rhetoric.

That was Mearsheimer ten years ago and quite obviously a lot has changed since, both in U.S. foreign policy as well as in domestic public discourse: both seem to have become much more Realist, despite the increasing realization of the significance of the so-called "Soft Power" dimension. I'm curious to see if the American public sentiment will stick to this trend (or rather, dare I say, will keep reacting to all the rhetoric from certain political circles), creating yet another intellectual/practitioner divide over theoretical analysis that has been trying to chase reality.

Most of all, I'm curious to see how it affects American public diplomacy and its effectiveness.

And, to end with another highlight, since it's the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, here is a Joe Nye piece from New York Times, reflecting on the events and subsequent developments:

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

[New] Chaos is Back

It's been a while since I last blogged, for which, I realize, I deserve a reprimand. But now, well into my second week as a Ph.D. student, I guess I no longer have an excuse to be lazy about it.

Where had I been all this time? Mostly in DC, getting ready to start school for the forth time, which involved stocking up on lots and lots of books (most on International Relations). Unfortunately, universities are still to start offering a Doctoral degree in Public Diplomacy - for better or worse - so if you're a PD enthusiast, like myself, who wants to take the time and the effort to explore the field thoroughly (and here I'm talking about years of time and effort), you're most likely to end up in a Communication school. But then, since the debate on public diplomacy's location (discipline-wise) is still raging, and - as I found out - some would even argue over whether public diplomacy can be theorized at all, I decided to go the IR [International Relations] route.

Cartoon from

There are multiple reasons for this choice. Firstly, I see the difference between the "communication" and "IR" approaches as being similar to the one between marketing/PR and public diplomacy. PD should be based on and informed by good old communication and persuasion techniques. It can also gain a lot from understanding how various media and media systems work in shaping, changing and maintaining certain images and perceptions. However, since PD deals essentially with foreign publics, since it emphasizes genuine understanding and engagement - beyond mere product promotion or image management (or at least, it should) - and since it takes place within a certain political and international context, isolating its "subject matter" within the field of Communication is clearly insufficient. IR, especially the flexible and multidisciplinary program at the School of International Service, therefore, provides the complexity, the freedom, as well as the openness necessary for such an approach.

And yes, my semi-stated aspiration for the next several years will be to build a coherent and inclusive approach for studying public diplomacy (I won't go as far as calling it a "theory", of course). This endeavor will need to incorporate elements not just from communication and international relations, but also from cross-cultural communication, anthropology, psychology and perhaps sociology.

Heh... good luck to me!

Cartoon from

Yet, in line with the typical "American academic approach", we will be spending our first year or two reading (and re-reading) the major works of thought and methodology in the field of International Relations. My PD perspective on all that will, most probably, remain largely unchanged. However - and here comes the disclaimer - given the slightly different focus of the literature, as well as its sheer volume, you might start finding more IR-related discussions and thoughts on Global Chaos as well. My hope is that it will only enrich and complement the subject of public diplomacy, and yet, not all thought (and certainly not all practice) in IR is relevant or compatible with PD.

In short, I will not be giving up the blog, even if you see my posts becoming increasingly infrequent at times. If anything, I hope Global Chaos will incorporate new perspectives and ideas, as I advance. And, as always, I will greatly appreciate any comments and suggestions from the reader!

A lot has happened in the past two months - i.e. since I last blogged - that merits attention. I hope to catch up on it all some day. As for now, I wanted to share two more or less new pieces with you here:

The first is yet another of my papers published in the Fall 2011 issue of the Journal of International Service: "Hizballah’s Media Strategy: Creating a 'Theater of Terror'." Although it does not focus on public diplomacy per se, the paper analyzes the communication strategies of the Lebanese terrorist group within the larger framework of asymmetric information warfare. What is more, the subject does still carry PD relevance, since I was focusing primarily on Hizballah's foreign-language outreach when analyzing its "new media" strategy. With the increasing prominence of non-state actors and transnational issues, the analysis of such cases has become indispensable, even if for the simple reason of devising a "counter-attack".

And yes, this was just a test-run. Larger and broader projects will hopefully follow.

The second piece I wanted to share here was a program recently made by Al Jazeera, as a part of their "The 9/11 Decade" series (which, by the way, features a great collection of reports and perspectives). This one is called "The Image War" and, I should say, is a very interesting, insightful, and (perhaps) at times provocative take at some of the major PD-related issues that dominated the past decade.

Stay tuned...