Monday, April 25, 2011

“U.S. State Department Reaches Out to the World Online”

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty recently published an online article entitled “U.S. State Department Reaches Out to the World Online.”

The article discusses recent State Department foreign-language social media, such as its Persian Twitter and Facebook pages. A month ago, Iranian democracy activist Amir Hossein Etemadi tweeted hoping for a condemnation of the house arrests of Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi. He received no response. More recently, he wrote on the Facebook page: “I hope that this connection will be two-way, meaning that it's not just us following your page, but more importantly, that you follow the Persian pages and the profiles of Iranians.” He did receive a response to this message, where he was thanked for his message and promised that Washington is listening and responding.

Secretary Clinton recently said: “We have our ear to the ground, talking to digital activists about where they need help, and our diversified approach means we're able to adapt to the range of threats that they face," Clinton said. "We support multiple tools, so if oppressive governments figure out how to target one, others are available.” The department now tweets in 10 different languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and Persian. However, as this article points out, the Arabic Twitter has 6,000 followers, but this is not as significant as it seems – many millions of Arabic speakers use the internet worldwide.

Some comments on the department’s Facebook page express skepticism over the true effects of this listening campaign. Yes, there is increased outreach and communication, but what does this mean in terms of policy? Others say communication via social media does help to decrease the gap between themselves and the United States. They feel that any dialogue is a move in the right direction.

Moroccan blogger Hisham Almiraat brings up an interesting observation. He says that Tweeting with Alec Ross, Clinton’s senior advisor for innovation and key player in the social media effort, is much more of a “two-way conversation” than his interactions with the official State Department Arabic account, which he characterizes as robotic. And apparently Ross developed quite a following among middle-class, English-speaking Arabs, as he consistently responded to tweets during the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Clay Shirky suggests that the State Department “will actually never be able to use Twitter in a completely open way,” partially due to conflicting communications goals. He says “their inability to say the same thing to all parties is not a function of which technology they're using. Their inability to say the same thing to all parties is a function of what foreign policy is like.”

Similar discussions came up in class last week, as to whether or not listening necessarily needs to be followed up with action in order to have a positive effect. While publics might like to see changes in U.S. foreign policy, foreign-language social media does appear to express interest and provides a new channel of communication that did not exist previously. In this way, public diplomacy can perhaps more effectively reach particular audiences – at least that is the strategy.

Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian blogger and human rights activist, suggests that this might improve the image of the U.S. among young Arabs, for example. She says: “At least they take [these views] into account when trying to address different political issues in the region […] Especially [it's] that the audience they are targeting is not those people who are watching TV anymore; The Internet today is our TV and radio and everything. It's our media today.”

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Satire, alienation, and why neither Samuel Clemens nor the Czech Republic care if you like them

The Czech people have experienced thousands of years of foreign occupations, damaging, cruel dictatorships, deadly regime changes, epic revolutions, and they have yet to be impressed.

In a similar vein, Mark Twain lived through his fair share of tumult and tragedy, both personally and on a national scale. Slavery, the Civil War, the Gilded Age, and the premature deaths of both his wife and daughter all affected his sensibilities and expression. Yet, both the man and the nation have nurtured an amazing satirical wit that cuts through the mediocrity and pandering that plague so much of the public sphere today. We are taught to believe that we cannot say anything spontaneous, write anything incriminating, or express any ideas that are not part of a cohesive self-promotional campaign, and this has a result of diluting our creativity to a point where it loses almost all flavor. This has never been a problem for the writer or the Czech people.

Throughout his later writing, themes of skepticism of, and disenchantment with, revolution, democracy, and capitalism are paired with a retention and purification of his affections for individual human beings, and illustrated by his intelligence, empathy, and wit. In fact, according to a recent article commemorating him in Harper's, "research can find few elements of the age that Mark Twain did not burlesque, satirize, or deride." He unfailingly chose the liberties of the individual over the ambitions of the state, pitting the force of his intellect against the "peacock shams" of the world's "colossal humbug." But he was not spiteful, as he clarified when he said:
"When I build a fire under a person, I do not do it merely because of the enjoyment I get out of seeing him fry, but because he is he is worth the trouble. It is then a compliment, a distinctions; let him give thanks and keep quiet. I do not fry the small, the commonplace, the unworthy."

Likewise, the Czechs do not poke fun at negligible nations, or bully defenseless victims. They endeavor without malice to shine a public light on national stereotypes and flaws, but for some reason it is misinterpreted abroad and the international community tends to overreact. For instance, Czech artist David Černý’s Entropa exhibit, which mocked each self-important sovereign European nation with equal mercilessness, was condemned as insensitive and inappropriate, when in fact it was an insightful commentary on the countries of the EU and their self-perception and views of one another. The installation subscribed to a Czech school of thought called Mystifikace, or Mystification, which is explained by Zdeněk Dostál on Radio Praha as the following:
“We don’t like systems, political systems. It comes from history because for a long time we were under the system of the Austrian monarchy, then under the Russian occupation. So in the present day it’s still [topical]. So maybe it’s because of that. But I think we, as Czech people, we like to play, we want to have fun, and we are able to watch ourselves from [a detached point of view], and that’s why this sort of sarcasm or mystification is part of us. And I think it’s good because you don’t take yourself as seriously. Yeah, it is a joke, but if you look deeply it’s a joke with a deep topic. It has always been the case that a king needs a clown by his side to see the truth.”

It seems that on a global scale, we cannot take a joke, or see intelligent art for what it is.

Luckily for the endlessly scathing Mark Twain, he did not allow his autobiography to be exposed to the public eye until 100 years after his death. Unfortunately for the Czech Republic, they cannot take up a similar strategy, and will have to sustain the unsolicited criticism of other countries until... Well, probably forever.

Monday, April 18, 2011

"What is Foreign Aid for?"

Paul Miller, one of the contributors to the Shadow Government blog on Foreign Policy’s website, wrote an interesting piece on foreign aid a couple months ago. As aid has come under fire, Miller rejects the argument that aid is merely a handout from rich to poor. In the current economic climate, questions have arisen over the effectiveness of U.S. aid. But what is aid supposed to accomplish?
Miller explains the two general perspectives on aid – national bribery and charity – and proposes a third: strategic investment, in which “foreign aid helps countries whose interests align with our own [to] increase their capacities. The United States gives money to help select countries -- not the entire world -- improve specific abilities, like their ability to provide public security, defend their borders, or buy and sell goods.”
This is a more realistic view of aid, and Miller gives the example of the Marshall Plan, which was in part an act of charity but also a strategic investment to improve European stability and attempt to prevent the spread of communism. The Plan also helped Europe become a strong trading partner.
Miller argues that the strategic investment view of foreign aid would help protect it from major budget cuts proposed by Republicans. He says: “Aid is hard power. It is a weapon the United States uses to strengthen allies and, thus, ourselves.” On the other hand, this realistic view of aid “would also help save it from the kind of limitless, grandiose visions Democrats sometimes seem to have for it.” Miller had hoped this view would be incorporated into Secretary Clinton’s QDDR, but argues that it did not seem to offer a framework of prioritizing among U.S.  aid.  
However, Secretary Clinton does touch on this in the article we're reading for this week. She says “it is important to acknowledge that although the world’s problems are vast, the United States’ resources are not. As stewards of American taxpayer dollars, the State Department and USAID must be strategic in pursuing the most critical needs and in making decisions based on hard evidence to ensure that investments deliver results.” She talks about targeting countries with responsible governments and favorable conditions for development.
Bringing this back to public diplomacy, foreign aid is a hard power resource that can boost the image and soft power of the U.S. abroad. Development can be closely tied to diplomatic efforts to make the two “coordinated, complementary, and mutually reinforcing.” In addition, aid is not just charitable, but strategic as well.

Japan's Odorless Public Diplomacy

Japanese culture and products have been popular for as long as I can remember. However, in my experience they have had little affect on Japan's soft power influence over the United States. When I was younger everyone had to have a Tamogatchi pet, those annoying little egg shaped key chains with a fake pet that you have to keep paying attention to or else it will die (great for kids...). Pokemon were also huge and my brothers were obsessed. I think they new all 100-some odd Pokemon back then (I've heard there are hundreds now, it's crazy). I also have friends and family who love anime and Japanese video games, however, very few have expressed an intense desire to become much more involved in Japanese culture.

As discussed in class, when I think of Japan, I do think of it's Japanese culture fads, like Harajuku and J-Pop, and it's innovative technology. In that respect their branding efforts are clearly working. But this acknowledgement and occasional appreciation (especially of all the advanced things they get before us!) haven't made me more likely to support Japanese policies or activities.

I think this has something to do with the phenomenon discussed in Iwabuchi's article on Japan's odorless culture from the International Communication class. The promoted features of Japanese society don't feel like things that are authentic and unique to Japan. Although Harajuku girls might have a cool style, I know that not very many people in Japan dress that way. And while Japan does have a great deal of technological innovation, it somehow seems disconnected from culture and more related to the global marketplace. I don't think of Japan when I hear about these products, I tend to think about the companies first, Sony, Nokia, Toyota. In this way, the culture doesn't seem to have an odor. It doesn't linger (at least not for me) in a meaningful way. This may just be the way that Japanese culture is and I'm just not drawn to it, but I find that somewhat hard to believe. In order to resonate with people, Japan's culture needs an odor, and needs to promote it's unique fragrance, not a sterile polite version of the real thing. After all, smell is the sense most closely tied to memory.

Public Diplomacy Guidelines: An Oxymoron?

This blog post feels especially strange, I'm blogging about a blog post about a report about how to conduct diplomacy.

I'm pretty much sticking with my theme of writing about the UK's public diplomacy, seeing as I've got a bit of a lengthy paper coming up on that exact subject. Anyways, the report here itself was a quick read - basically, it's a series of guidelines produced by the Foreign Office in order to streamline policy actions across the ministry and for the future. Or, as blogger Robin Brown puts it, "the steps that the UK can take to exert influence on an issue or situation while recognizing the the UK is unlikely to be able to control outcomes." Granted, it also seems incredibly formulaic, which I don't think allows for the necessities of thinking on one's feet.

Public diplomacy is uncertain. Determining what it is can be difficult, as well as what it is not. Measuring its success is even more impossible. PD is so ambiguous, and while the FCO recognizes its effects are hard to quantify, the charts, boxes, and step by step directions are too formulaic for the flexibility required on the international stage. This seems out of step with what I've so far seen in my research as successful British public maybe there's something to say about this approach after all.

Tacos and Kimchi...Great, now I'm hungry.

It would seem to me that Korea is on the right track in realizing it needs a re-branding strategy. I mean, I didn't even know Hyundai and Samsung were Korean...let along LG (Lucky Goldstar? What?!). So either Korea has been lacking greatly in the branding department, or I have been living under a rock like the Geico commercials. I'm leaning a little towards both.

According to a blog post "Korean Tacos and Kimchi Diplomacy" posted through the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, Korea's recent branding efforts have come from the realization that their products seem to have more recognition than the country itself. Clearly not an ideal situation. So the solution? Gastrodiplomacy. Korea is going to win the hearts of minds of the international community with Kimchi. And let's not laugh this off, it seems to have worked with Thailand. I mean seriously, who doesn't eat Thai food?

But really, will I visit Thailand, or even Korea, because of some Thai food or Kimchi? The article emphasizes the importance of listening in diplomacy, ever proving to be a difficult concept to understand and implement apparently. Rather than just advocating its gastrodiplomacy out, Korea could be looking for local opportunities to sponser gastro-events in foreign locales. Not a bad idea. Because then my taco wouldn't just be a taco that happens to be Korean, but it would be, say, a "brought to me by Korea" taco from those convenient food trucks that DC has grown to love so much. And that could make all the difference.

Monday, April 11, 2011

China Should Listen Up

Based on our readings and class discussions it seems that Chinese public diplomats have failed to read Cull's categorization of public diplomacy actions. If they had they would understand that listening to foreign publics is the "foundation" of all successful PD campaigns (Cull, 18).

China is relentlessly promoting its admirable culture and history, however not always in ways that will resonate with its audiences. As we saw in class at the beginning of the semester, one of China's attempts to promote itself in the United States involved rather boring video screens depicting accomplished Chinese citizens. While this would have caught my eye had I been in Times Square, it would not have held my attention and I doubt it would have much improved my knowledge or opinions of China.

If China were to elicit more feedback from its audiences it would have a much better idea of what programs will succeed and which will fail. In addition, as Professor Hayden said in class "They need to read audience analysis studies since the 1970's." China is aggressively pursuing international broadcasting operations in the US and around the world. However, much of its programming seems disingenuous  and reeks of propaganda. If it listened to its audiences, China would find that they are a bit more perceptive than the country believes and are turned off by these types of messages. It is telling that opinions of China are plummeting in the West, where it is attempting to implement these types of informational campaigns, but skyrocketing in the global south where it has invested in development aid. Clearly China is cultivating the soft power it desires through development actions, but loosing it based on unidirectional broadcasting.