Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Medvedev "Stuck in the '90s"

RT: priceless, as always.

Noteworthy: dancing to the Russian pop-hit "American Boy".

And if you want to take a better look at his real moves, watch the end :)



Tuesday, April 19, 2011

RT: Just for the record...

It's been a while since my last post. What was I up to? Public diplomacy, of course. Presentations, papers, and now, the capstone... And Russian PD certainly makes up a large part of the work on this list. Having closely examined all the major PD-related Russian foreign policy documents, I thought I'd take a short break to share some thoughts on the latest RT "masterpiece" that I came across yesterday.

Well, nothing new. Seemingly, just another Russia Today rant. (Just to give them credit, however, I should say that I'm appalled that there are organizations, such as the one featured later in the story, that are still operating in America against foreign broadcasters - free speech, essentially - comparing them with Goebbels. But then, it's a different story I might get back to after April is over.)

What caught my attention in this video was first the implication and then the outright statement by the reporter that while Americans are freaking out about the "increasing prominence of foreign broadcasters" around the world as well as in the U.S., the American objective in regards to international broadcasting is "to influence, rather than inform." The implication here, of course, is that others - such as RT itself - are in the pure information business and have absolutely no intention to influence their audiences (something the network is still struggling to "prove", 6 years after its establishment).

I would suggest the reporter does some reading. Shouldn't take long - it's just a couple of paragraphs:

Strengthening of international position of Russia and solution of the tasks related to the establishment of equal mutually beneficial partnerships with all countries, successful promotion of our foreign economic interests and provision of political, economic, information and cultural influence abroad require the use of all available financial and economic tools of the state and provision of adequate resources for the Russian Federation's foreign policy.
An important part of the foreign policy activities of the Russian Federation is communicating to the broad world public full and accurate information about its stand on the main international problems, foreign policy initiatives and actions by the Russian Federation, its domestic social and economic development processes and plans, as well as on the accomplishments of Russian culture and science.
In public diplomacy, Russia will seek its objective perception in the world, develop its own effective means of information influence on public opinion abroad, strengthen the role of the Russian mass media in the international information environment providing them with essential state support, as well as actively participate in international information cooperation, and take necessary measures to repel information threats to its sovereignty and security.

This is from the "Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation", as updated and approved in 2008.

I'm in no way suggesting that she is wrong - the U.S. is trying to influence foreign publics. But then, that's the very point of international broadcasting, especially when it comes to its "public diplomacy role". I can even argue that the ultimate objective of any media is to influence (and influence should not necessarily be malignant, should it?). If it weren't the case, the reporter herself would most probably be out of work at the moment.

And as a side note, I wanted to share another video from last week. Again, not untrue, yet framed in a way and served with such a tone that the only word to describe it is indeed propaganda (in the "American sense" of the word).

But then it's RT. So nothing surprising, I guess...


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Gagarin's Public Diplomacy Legacy: 50 Years On

The past couple of weeks, I've been stumbling upon Gagarin-related articles, videos, discussions... the ultimate culmination of which is surely today, April 12: the day the first human flight to space took place 50 years ago. In 1961 the 27-year-old Yuri Gagarin spent 108 minutes aboard Vostok 1 on the first ever manned mission to the Orbit, undoubtedly giving the Soviet Union the upper hand in the Space Race.

Even 50 years later, or perhaps especially 50 years later, Gagarin's flight holds a major public diplomacy potential for Russia, as April 12th (originally, Russia's Cosmonaut Day) is commemorated around the world. It happened years ago, and I'm not surprised that many didn't know (or forgot) who Gagarin was; yet I am happy to see people around the world talk about and celebrate his achievement.

Image from NASA.

There is also another public diplomacy aspect to it all: as MIT's Ryan Kobrick said on Science Friday [NPR] last week, Yuri Gagarin was "humanity's first ambassador to the Cosmos," and that is an achievement surely not reserved for the Soviet Union (or Russia) only.

There are seemingly hundreds, of not thousands of different events and stories worldwide, and here's a rough sample of some of the most notable ones from the web:

- You have probably noticed the Google logo already. Clicking on it will show Google's search results for "Yuri Gagarin".

- YouTube is commemorating, too, with a special logo that will take you to the channel for the "First Orbit": a free movie by Attic Room Production, documenting this historic flight. Amazing shots, that I certainly recommend seeing, even if you have seen them elsewhere before.

- Celebration of "Yuri's Night": a global initiative connecting "530 events in 74 countries on 7 continents on 2 worlds [i.e. ISS]" (as of this writing). It marks both, the first flight, as well as the launch of the American Space Shuttle program exactly 20 years later. (Are you holding an event, too? Register it there!) Amazing...

- On April 8 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring April 12 the International Day of Human Space Flight. There is also a special exhibit in the UN Headquarters commemorating Gagarin's flight. (Russian Representative Vitaly Churkin didn't miss the chance. Well done!) What is more, the UN Postal Administration is releasing special stamps and souvenir sheets on the occasion.

- As I just mentioned, Russia has seized on the opportunity in terms of domestic "celebration", as well as public diplomacy abroad. For example, President Medvedev, for example, paid a special visit to the Mission Control Center, near Moscow, for a chat with the crew of the International Space Station. He also presented "state decorations to space industry employees and veterans" -- Russians and foreigners alike -- from countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Vietnam and Brazil, among others. (Impressive, I should say!) Russkiy Mir Foundation, too, has a special page marking the day and related international celebrations, too.

- "Starman" by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony: a new book documenting Gagarin's life, is coming out today. Available on Amazon.

- Some striking historical video materials resurfaced on YouTube on the occasion. And, of course, major international wires and media the world over have made sure not to miss the story:

BBC footage from 1961: an interview during Gagarin's visit to London:

A Soviet documentary from 1981, marking the 20th Anniversary of Gagarin's flight:

The 'un-embedable' BBC News and Agence France-Presse.


CNN. Also features a striking photo collection.

Al Jazeera English:


Even China's CCTV:

And certainly, more on Russia Today TV.


The launch of Soyuz from Baikonour, Kazakhstan, taking two Russians and an American to ISS, featuring Gagarin's portrait on the side (April 6, 2011).


- The subject is also hot on Twitter: #YuriGagarin, #Gagarin, #Orbit1, among other related tags, are trending topics now. There's even a special account - YuriGagarin50 - for the UK Celebrations of the 50th anniversary. And although MedvedevRussia has himself been silent so far, KremlinRussia actively provided updates on the President's activities today.

Lastly, I think it's amazing to see American astronauts paying tribute to Gagarin, too. To quote retired astronaut Thomas Stafford: "I would say here today that without Yuri Gagarin flying, I would probably have not flown to the moon."

Yuri Gagarin shakes hand with NASA's Gemini 4 astronauts, Edward H. White II and James A. McDivitt at the Paris International Air Show in June 1965. Image from NASA.

I grew up on stories about the universe, and particularly about the "great Soviet achievements" in the Cosmos. And yes, just like perhaps every other kid in the region, I wanted to become a cosmonaut when I grew up (before I was confronted with real Maths and Physics, that is). Gagarin, despite his tragic death, has inspired many, whether in space or on Earth. Here's to you, brave man!


Friday, April 8, 2011

Medvedev vs. Putin: Take II

Blogging is perhaps the last thing I need to be doing right now, but coming across this great story and not sharing it here simply won't do!

Before I get any further, I'd just like you to ask yourself: how much do you know about the Communist Party in modern-day Russia, or how often do you hear/think about it...? If I'm to take a guess: not much.

But well, they [allegedly] came up with an ingenious plan to attract attention: incredibly successful, not just at home, but also abroad. Here is a supposed campaign ad for the 2012 elections: a whole new perspective on the world (and Russian politics?)! [Unfortunately, it is available only in Russian. For a decent translation, see here.]

Obviously, the video went viral after being posted on March 30. At the time of this writing there have been close to 1,881,000 views of it. And although most of those are certainly from within Russia itself, it has raised so much interest that even PRI featured a story on it two days ago.

According to Russia World Affairs Blog, the Communist Party denied making the clip, after taking it down from its website (where it was initially posted). Whether real or not, it certainly merits attention. But as to what impact it has on the image of Russia itself? That's a different question.

It is interesting to watch the Russian "YouTube-sphere" excel in such quality political satire. There hasn't really been a major response from the Kremlin, yet, however. Curious to see where it leads, especially with the world getting increasingly interested in Russian domestic politics (2012!), and its role in the world.

Can there really be a split between Medvedev and Putin?


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

#Revolution: Alternate Take

Here's a video featured on Al Jazeera's latest "Listening Post". I find it very funny and (oh well)... amusing.

I am sure many might not share my enthusiasm. But what I find particularly noteworthy about this "piece" is that it provides an interpretation of the recent events from an outsider's perspective (one, among many possible ones of course). Since it can, potentially, speak to many, especially in the (Greater) Middle East, it indeed does a great job of using non-traditional communication techniques - namely, humor - to point out issues, inconsistencies, and... the "ironic truth".

After all, satire usually works so well precisely because it's largely based on truth and reality. It's just about framing, perspective, and presentation that makes it so funny.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"Waging Peace"

There was an interesting piece on PRI a couple of days ago. Telling a story of a former Marine-turned humanitarian, I think it is a great example of the public diplomacy work that development assistance (government, but also private) can do, as well as an example of what the human intelligence and military programs, such as the "Human Terrain System", cannot achieve.

After living in the Kibera slum in Kenya, Rye Barcott joined the human intelligence unit in the Marine corps. He later wrote a book about his experience. Here's an excerpt from the interview:

"I thought that I’d be particularly well prepared for that and to lead marines into that because of my experience in Kibera. But what I found was that it was just really difficult. I was too busy scouring the waistlines of young kids for concealed weapons to even imagine kicking a soccer ball with them. And so what I left with was a really profound sense of both the strengths as well as the very large limitations to the use of military force. It’s very difficult to build trust when you’re covered in body armor and carrying a weapon. And in the end we’re not very good at preventing violence even though that is so much more cost effective in terms of life and dollars. And I think that’s a really important point. There’s an inextricable link between development and our global security."

Image courtesy of

Good point. Trust and credibility are indispensable for effective, meaningful, and two-way communication; while no weapon can inspire trust.

More reflections on "social media revolutions"

Since I have nothing better to do on a Friday night, I thought I'll try to catch up on some writing. If I can gather my thoughts, that is (i.e. a disclaimer for yet another chaotic post).

With the MENA region in greater turmoil, it seems like the talk of social media revolutions is no where near its end. Just two days ago CNN had a piece on Syria and "internet freedom" (sic.). Here's an excerpt:

"In the wake of Egypt's "Facebook revolution," which was fueled in part by online social networks, much has been made about the role of technology in encouraging or even creating democracy.
"If you want to liberate a society, just give them the internet," said Wael Ghonim, one of Egypt's tech-savvy revolutionaries.Syria, the latest country in the region to announce reforms in the wake of protests, is a curious test of that theory."

It then goes on to discuss the "apoliticalness" of the new tools and information technologies that are rapidly spreading in the country, leaving it as an "open question" as to where this technology will ultimately lead. In short, you get the picture. A frustrating read, at the very least.

This Thursday, there was another event of interest on the subject: a "Foreign Affairs LIVE" discussion with Clay Shirky and Anne-Marie Slaughter on "Digital Power" and political change. Nothing new. Just interesting to see the two together, discussing the same topic.

Several highlights of note:

- Shirky, reiterating yet again, the importance of looking at the longer-term effects of social media and their significance in developing a viable public sphere. I love how he rejects the phrases "Facebook" and "Twitter revolution." And as much as I disagree with the purely cyber-utopian view, I think it is worth pointing out his emphasis on the fact that these new technologies were merely tools for "synchronizing grievances" and "coordinating actions," and not the reason behind it. 

- Slaughter, continuing on a similar note, expressed appreciation for all those individuals and leaders in the past who had managed to bring about revolutions and "enormous social change" without having access to any technology and media of this sort. (By the way, she included the Founding Fathers and Lenin in her list.) Later, she said that the fundamental idea behind the recent events in North Africa and the Middle East was the basic "pursuit of happiness": an ideology that goes back to the "18th century." (Apparently, if revolutions cannot be appropriated, one can at least make the attempt to appropriate the ideas and aspirations behind them...)

- A good quote from Slaughter: "Technology of oppression has increased dramatically. The technology of liberation has to keep pace. [There is a] need [for] counter-technology." And although she wasn't advocating for the export of new/social media to serve America's foreign interests, she did highlight the importance of Internet freedom and access to information.

- Nonetheless, she also said the following: pretty interesting, given the above claim:
"Diplomacy in the 21st century is not just government-to-government. it’s about government-to-society, government-to-people. And what we did for the past two years was to work on all the different ways we could do that. Without Internet freedom that can’t happen."

So is "Internet Freedom" an American public diplomacy tool - essentially a means through which the American government can communicate with other people? Or, it is a "universal right", in line with the right to freedom of information and expression? Seems she's a little confused, and quite understandably so: it's both (well, add the American people to the equation, too). And yet, talking about it in terms of American foreign policy interests will only add fuel into the burning fire of oppression, defeating the purpose of the democratization efforts.

Image courtesy of Activist News.

- And lastly, I wanted to point out Shirky's discussion of the "dictator's dilemma": the inevitable dilemma facing any dictator who realizes the importance of technological innovation (especially in the technology-driven era), while doesn't want to give up authoritarianism. Slaughter, in turn, pointed out the power of social media and new technologies in demonstrating the "gap between the word and the deed" of any given authoritarian ruler. According to her, people can use these tools to demonstrate this gap to their own compatriots, as well as to the wider international public.

Hence, "modern dictators" seem to be experiencing tremendous challenges to their authority, if they want to maintain viable economies and development, that is. Researching certain aspects of the information and communication policies of the "pre-uprising" Egypt for a class project these weeks, it is indeed interesting to track this very phenomenon there: the Mubarak regime did want technological development and innovation; they did want to attract foreign investment; they even created an entire "Media Production City" and a "Free Media Zone" in Cairo - a media cluster of some sorts - hosting news, media and production companies from all over the region and beyond.

However, that, by itself, wouldn't have brought about a "revolution" (OK, to get the semantics right, let's use "uprising" for now). This technology was effectively - to say yet again - just one of the many components and one of the enabling factors, but not "the one".

Cartoon courtesy of The Fosbury Flop.

Implications for public diplomacy? Spread technology, educate on its use, and help people communicate and connect. Yet, any talk of "foreign policy interests" or mention of direct communication between the American government and foreign publics will only undermine the effort and backfire, giving the local authorities the perfect excuse to clamp down. Most importantly, social media is not a panacea, and most certainly, does not guarantee outcomes that are necessarily favorable to U.S. foreign policy interests - in the short term, at least.

UPDATE [4/2/2011. 7:35 AM]: I was reading one of Dr. Robin Brown's most recent papers on public diplomacy and social networks, and here's a great quote directly relevant to this whole discussion of social media being "the ultimate solution" to all PD-related problems:
"A theory of public diplomacy needs to be comprehensive.   In this type of analysis it is important that the discussion does not become one dimensional, for instance focusing on technology or culture as the key element of the problem without contextualizing them. Public diplomacy is a practical activity that is undertaken by specific organizations in specific circumstances [...]." (pp. 4-5)

Indeed. This, coupled with the need not to ignore the political and historical context, cannot be stressed enough.


On a related note: the OpenNet Initiative recently published an interesting report on the use of Western technologies for censorship in the Middle East in 2010-2011. Obviously, it's not just "freedom" that the West exports to MENA: yet another great illustration of that. Do recommend taking a look!