Monday, January 31, 2011

Catch 22 of US Diplomacy

Hillary Clinton's position on the protests in Egypt may not be the most effective public diplomacy. She mentioned in an interview with CNN that the US supports "peaceful protests" and that the US does not want to see Egypt descend into chaos and destruction. The problem I have with this position is the blatant way she seems to support working with President Mubarak to reform the government from within. This seems to be for the purpose of preserving our strong historical ties with Egypt, rather than considering the interests of the Egyptian people.

The US seems to do a good job of promoting democracy in words without forcing any hands. However this can have negative consequences. For example, in the CNN article, "Clinton calls for a peaceful transition to democracy in Egypt," Clinton's position was criticized byMohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who said, "People need to see that you not only talk the talk, but walk the walk, and people need to understand and believe that you really seriously take democracy, rule of law, freedoms seriously. And to say we have a tight rope that -- and between the people and the dictator, to say that we are asking a dictator who's been in power for 30 years to implement democracy is an oxymoron, frankly."

I have to admit that his position made some sense. The US government should not forget that we didn't walk into parliament and petition for a democracy which was granted shortly thereafter...there was a revolution. I understand that it is in the United States best interest for Egypt to be stable. However, at this point, the US government could show the Egyptian people that we understand their position and support the most viable means to a more democratic society...which seems unlikely to be through Mubarak.

Based on last weeks discussion, Clinton's monological form of PD was designed with the intent of informing the world on the United State's current position of the protests in Egypt. This one-way communication was not intended to be a dialogue, but rather informative. Clinton, however, did imply that the US would like to help "clear the air" to help Mubarak facilitate a dialogue between the government and civil society. How effective this will be remains to be seen.

Denial Isn't Just a River in Egypt...

This past week has been all about the uprising in Egypt. Thousands of Egyptians have taken to the street, protesting President Hosni Mubarak's thirty year rule. Despite the protesters' explicit calls for Mubarak to step down, he doesn't seem to have gotten the message, instead appointing Omar Sulieman as Vice President, the first in his thirty-year presidency (interestingly, according to Article 139 of the Egyptian Constitution says that the president may appoint multiple vice-presidents , and creating a new political cabinet.

These protests are said to have been inspired by those in Tunisia, which were successful in ousting President Zine el Abidne ben Ali, whom most of the protests were directed against, with charges of corruption and brutal authoritarian rule. Ben Ali fled for Saudi Arabia on January 14 and major news coverage of the protests began just a few days earlier. However, the protests began nearly a month earlier after 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 17, 2010. Bouazizi (who died January 5) was an unemployed college graduate who tried to make ends meet by setting up a produce stand. However, the police had recently confiscated the stand because he did not have a license and (allegedly) beat Bouazizi. The young man became a symbol for the frustrated youth of the country, many of whom are also unemployed (see this interesting piece from Foreign Policy on whether or not Bouazizi actually had political motives for his suicide).

There have been many parallels drawn between the two uprisings from the similarities in the governments and society to the use of social media to organize and spread the word. However, one thing that interests me, which I haven't seen discussed (and haven't been able to really find anything on over the interwebs), is the disparity in (at least) US media attention the two revolts have received. Although the Tunisia protests began in mid-December and became violent quickly after their start, the American media didn't begin covering the story in full until after the first of the year. In a quick (and very un-scientific) search of CNN's recent online archives, the first article on the Tunisia protests was published on December 24, 2010, reporting that the state security forces had killed one protester and injured four others. The next story on the uprising, didn't appear until January 4, 2011. After Bouazizi's death the next day the number of stories began to slowly climb. However, since the Egyptian uprising began on January 25 (which was discussed in three articles on that day), most mentions of Tunisia in the news have been merely citing it as an inspiration for the Egyptian protesters.

I've been trying to piece together reasons for this, but none of them seem to quite fit. Perhaps the media didn't initially think the Tunisia protests would amount to much and therefore gave it only minor coverage at first. After seeing the power of the protesters they may have viewed the start of the Egyptian protests in a different light, realizing that this too could end up being a big deal. In a similar vein, coverage may have been less because the Tunisian protests started off much smaller than the Egyptian ones. However, even after the uprising in Tunisia grew it still did not (at least from my view) receive the same 'round the clock coverage as has been the case in Egypt. Or perhaps it was a simple matter of 'branding.' I won't go into it in depth here (maybe for the next post) but this article discusses the interesting practice of

Of course my cynical impression is that Egypt is considered much more important to US political and economic interests, which prompted a greater and more immediate media response. This article from CNN says the US government was "caught off guard" by the Tunisia uprising, not really responding until after Ben Ali had fled and therefore not risk alienating a US ally by demonstrating support for the protesters. However, the Egyptian uprising was anticipated and, of course, continues as Mubarak clings to power. Egypt, and Mubarak in particular, however are key allies of the US in the Middle East and the country is an oil producer and controls the Suez Canal, a major shipping short cut for all types of goods, but especially oil. Any or all of these factors could have contributed to the differences in media coverage and I don't know if there is anyway to determine the actual causes. (Keep on the lookout for other protests gaining momentum and coverage in Sudan and Yemen)

My frustration with the US government response is mostly the opposite of my frustrations with the media's response. In the case of Tunisia, as I noted above, the US seemed to take a fairly strong stance in promoting democracy and the will of the people. Of course, only after the sitting president was deposed. With Egypt, the government seems to be hedging its bets and attempting to stay in the good graces of any and all potential victors. It won't directly call for Mubarak to resign, but has advocated a "transition to a democratic regime." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also called for real elections as opposed to "faux democracy." I found this statement particularly irritating because it demonstrates the typical hypocrisy of the American foreign policy. For the last 30-years the US has been supporting Mubarak's "faux democracy" (yes, I'm sure he does win re-election with 90% of the vote...) and constant "state of emergency" because he has helped the US achieve its goals. However, in Iraq (and somewhat in Afghanistan, but that's more complicated) the US had to invade in order to bring democracy to the Iraqi people and end the despotic rule of Saddam Hussein (oh right, and find those WMDs...). These diverging responses to similar governments, hurts America's image in the world. We claim to want to support and fight for democracy around the world, but then only do it under dubious circumstances when it benefits us. Another Slate piece discusses the US's attempts to maintain "stability" in the Middle East through the support of authoritarian government's.

I do understand the US's desire to not alienate Egypt as a continued ally, but it seems to have done this at the expense of its fundamental values of "liberty and justice for all." Laura McGinnis explores this in her most recent blog post on monologue and dialogue in foreign relations and public diplomacy and the CPD blog discusses "Obama's Missed Public Diplomacy Opportunity" by not calling for Mubarak to resign.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Is Jon Stewart in our class?

I'm still always surprised when class topics randomly appear in my daily life, even though I probably shouldn't be by now. Although, to be fair, Muhammad Yunus and a microfinancing storyline on the The Simpsons this fall was pretty unexpected. However, last week after our class this was the opening monologue of The Daily Show.

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It was all about Chinese President Hu Jintao visit to the US and the power struggle between the two countries. The United States' response to Hu's visit was a combination of traditional diplomacy, with the numerous meetings and negotiations that occurred, and public diplomacy, with the fanfare of the ceremonies and state dinner that were held in his honor. These public displays would seem to benefit both the US and China, by showing the rest of the world (and particularly citizens of each country) that two of its most powerful countries are, at least trying, to work together on major issues such as the economy, the environment and world conflicts. The State Dinner, it has been said, was held in part to appeal to the genera belief among Chinese officials in proper protocol, who apparently found Bush's lack of ceremony insulting (see this Guardian article on Hu Jintao's visit). However, it is unclear if these were particularly effective, at least in the United States, as the White House was criticized for bestowing the honor of a state dinner on China in spite of its problematic record of human rights abuses. From the coverage I saw, these events weren't particularly effective, as it seemed clear they were all for show and that the relationship between the US and China is still somewhat strained.

Coincidentally, the same show's guests were Kambiz Hosseini and Saman Arbabi, the co-creators of the Voice of America's satirical Iranian news show Parazit, a kind of Iranian version of the Daily Show.

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As we briefly discussed in class, the VOA is a form of International Broadcasting and has long been seen as a type of US propaganda (although it is trying to re-brand itself). Since this program is broadcast by the VOA it seems that it must be, at least in part, a product of US public diplomacy efforts. However, the creators are both Iranian born immigrants, who have legitimate issues and concerns about their home country's government and state of affairs. From the little I have seen of it, the show also does not seem to directly promote the United States. However, it seems as though it would indirectly promote the US values of freedom of speech and democracy, as the hosts are able to say things on the show they could never get away with in Iran. Hosseini said in the interview that his country "oppressed" him and his right to free speech and that they are trying to "transform" things with dark humor (although it was not clear if they want to transform Iranian society and government or transform it by providing those with a similar mindset an outlet for their anger and frustration). In addition, they say the Iranian government has attempted to counter their messages with an "anti-Parazit" show.

While the show may indeed provide catharsis for those in Iran who already agree with its creators and possibly bring some others over to their way of thinking, it remains to be seen if it could produce real and lasting societal change. If the US is using it to promote traditional American values, it could help inspire some to lead movements in the country against their oppressive government. However, as we saw during the 2010 Green Revolution, the current government seems determined to hang onto power by whatever means necessary, which would be a major hurdle for any movement to overcome and one unlikely to be toppled by public diplomacy.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Chinese Public Diplomacy: Confucius Classrooms

I recently read an article on CNN titled, "China-sponsored programs language in U.S. raise concerns, hopes." The article was expressing surprise that Chinese language classes taught in American schools are being sponsored by China. I'm not surprised, It's called public diplomacy.

Maybe this comes as a surprise to some because many Americans don't exactly realize what public diplomacy is or that we practice it for that matter. However, that's besides the point. These Chinese language programs, called Confucius classrooms, have apparently tripled in the US in recent years. By being a Confucius classroom, the American school is given $30,000 to sponsor a visiting teacher from China and to build a relationship with their sister school.

After reading Nicholas Cull's paper, "Public Diplomacy: Lessons from the Past" China's Confucius program seems like a mixture of cultural and exchange diplomacy. It is cultural diplomacy in that the program is directly promoting the Chinese language to a foreign public-America. The exchange diplomacy is that a Chinese teacher is brought to America to teach the American student first-hand the Chinese language and to expose them to Chinese culture. This ensures that the students are being exposed to Chinese customs and values.

I think the Confucius classrooms are a smart move for the Chinese government. Americans realize that with the large population of Chinese in America, and with China becoming a huge economic power, it's practical to learn Chinese. The Chinese government can capitalize on this opportunity to not only teach Americans Chinese, but impart them with Chinese values as well. Both countries benefit from this example of public diplomacy.

The CNN article can be found at