Monday, October 11, 2004

Beacon No. 1: British Council on the Rocks

How would Americans feel if one of the federal government's top spokesmen—the White House's Scott McClellan or the State Department's Richard Boucher—was caught penning anonymous op-eds against Hispanics in his spare time, painting them as some kind of threat to Western Civilization?

It would be a disaster for already-touchy American relations with Latin America and Spain, not to mention angering millions of U.S. Latinos. The op-eds would fan post-9/11 fears that the U.S. is no longer the place for huddled masses yearning to breathe free. After all, a high government official said so!

Investigations would begin, ambassadors would scurry to smooth ruffled feathers, and the U.S. would practically be forced to make some highly conspicuous pro-Hispanic moves domestically.

Thank goodness it didn't actually occur—in the U.S., anyway. But this imaginary scenario is almost exactly what did happen to the British Council this summer.

A series of four op-ed articles appeared in the London Sunday Telegraph that were highly unfavorable to Muslims, comparing them with dogs and Nazis and denouncing "the black heart of Islam." The op-eds offered some of the ominous, we're-being-swamped-by-aliens rhetoric normally seen only in white-supremacist pamphlets—and yet there they were in one of Britain's most respected newspapers. They were bylined "Will Cummins," which the Telegraph later admitted was a pseudonym; and the big game became figuring out who the previously unknown Cummins was.

Enter the Manchester Guardian, which on July 29 said that "Will Cummins" was most likely Harry Cummins, a press officer at … the British Council!

To understand the shock waves this caused in the U.K., note that the government-funded Council's whole reason for being is to "build mutually beneficial relationships between people in the U.K. and other countries and to increase appreciation of the U.K.’s creative ideas and achievements." This means teaching English and generally spreading the good word about the U.K. and its culture at a worldwide network of centers—in 110 countries at last count.

In other words, take a little bit of Peace Corps, a dash of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a pinch of national pride, and you've got the tremendously successful British Council.

Cummins denied that he was the author, but was nonetheless suspended pending an investigation. Then Council director general David Greene tried to stem the storm of outrage that broke over his head, quickly assuring the Muslim Council of Britain (and anyone else who would listen) that "there is no place in the British Council for people who utter such hateful utterances."

The Cummins affair is a case study in how "soft power" can be earned and lost.

Harvard's Joseph Nye coined the phrase to describe "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments." It involves using popular or favorable institutions and ideals to convince other countries to cooperate with your nation's goals, rather than compelling them via "hard" military or economic power.

Soft power is something that accumulates slowly over time and is notoriously hard to measure, leading some to dismiss it. But when the U.S. sends Peace Corps volunteers to Paraguay to build fish ponds, or broadcasts objective reporting to other nations through the Voice of America, or funds a symphony's trip abroad, it is slowly making deposits in a soft-power account. These deposits eventually yield interest in the form of favorable public opinions of the U.S., or even cooperation from a prime minister who still recalls the first time he saw an American—playing the violin during some long-ago goodwill tour.

Soft power is not just propaganda, but relies heavily on matching reality to rhetoric. If a country like Britain preaches multiculturalism—and it does—its soft power suffers when racial or religious discrimination appear at home, particularly when it comes from someone funded by the government.

Damage to the beloved British Council, a premier soft-power asset celebrating its 70th year, and to larger U.K. interests has already been done. A week after Cummins' July 29 suspension, articles on the controversy had already appeared in Pakistan and Canada, in Asian Age magazine, on the BBC, and on Muslim and jihadi sites worldwide.

At this point, regardless of whether "Will Cummins" is actually Harry Cummins, the British Council has to regain some credibility in the Muslim world. Standard public-relations tools include apologies, diversity training for Council staff, prominent hires of Muslims (particularly to replace Cummins, if guilty), and sponsoring Muslim-oriented events at home and abroad.

In the long term, though, British Council officials abroad will have to find creative ways to shore up relations with host countries and their citizens. The drill now involves patience and consistency: Show over time that "Will Cummins," whoever he may be, has nothing to do with the Council's drive to teach English and to, in its Web site's words, "present the very best of [the] modern, diverse U.K."

I plan to use this space for frequent discussions of soft-power topics both foreign and domestic. It's an exciting time to be commenting on it because just behind the headlines, nations seem to be building or using their influence everywhere:

—China is mounting a long-term "charm offensive" to counter decades of bad press over its human-rights records and regional bullying, frequently dispatching president Hu Jintao and other top-drawer officials on high-visibility, highly successful diplomatic and trade missions. Much more than just PR, Beijing is pouring time and money into assuaging fears about its coming Pacific pre-eminence. (Believe me, you want Hu's frequent-flier miles.)

—As of September 1, France was calling in years' worth of friendships across the Muslim world in an attempt to save the lives of two of its journalists, kidnapped by Iraqis who oppose the French ban on headscarves in public schools. At press time both Hamas and Hizb'allah had signed on to call for the journalists' release, despite their opposition to the French ban.

—In January 2002, President Bush called for a doubling of the size of the Peace Corps at exactly the moment when the U.S. needed to start promoting its non-military nation-building efforts.

In the future I plan to talk about how these and other countries build up soft power over time and then reap the benefits—or allow it to dissipate in a series of bad moves. I'll also be venturing into hard-power territory from time to time in an effort to illustrate how hard and soft power work together in policymaking.

So please stay tuned, and thanks for reading.

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