Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Beacon No. 10: Ambassadors Without Portfolio


Recent stories by the Associated Press, Washington Post and New York Times covered the debut of Israel's Ambassador (or Hashagrir in Hebrew), a reality TV show that seems loosely based on The Apprentice. In it, 14 twentysomething contestants (seven male, seven female) vie to be chosen as an informal Israeli public-diplomacy ambassador under the auspices of a New York-based organization, Israel at Heart, which promotes Israel and its policies in the U.S., Canada, South America and Europe.

The newspapers' stories all describe the contestants' first outing, when they field questions at Cambridge University Union in England, a notoriously difficult environment that's home to one of the world's most storied debating societies. Mistakes are made by at least one contestant, whose clumsy answer to a Cambridge student's question ("Let me make it clear that Israel has not taken anything from anyone") quickly eliminates her.

(Incidentally, the show got a withering review in Ha'aretz.)

Ambassador generates a high irony quotient. It parries worldwide stereotypes of reality TV as populated only by the greedy and gullible, since its contestants compete fiercely for a thankless job.

But three things make it entertainment rather than public diplomacy. First, the show assumes that the key to public diplomacy is having the "right" messenger, which de-emphasizes consideration of having the "right" policy, whatever that may be.

Second, Ambassador's judges are all Israelis. Granted, it is an Israeli show, and it's enough that the contestants have to run a gamut of hostile crowds—pity the contestants, France is next. But if the show's producers really wanted to help Israel, they'd supplement their three judges—a political reporter and, remarkably, an ex-army spokesman and a former Shin Bet security chief—with some prominent Israeli Arabs (the only Arabs who could safely appear on such a show). That way, Israelis could learn more about how its would-be defenders can best carry the country's message. As it stands, the show's judge panel indirectly says, "Arab opinion doesn't count."

Third, the candidates are vying to become "ambassadors" not for a nation but for Israel at Heart, an NGO that already exports 21- to 27-year-old Israelis as living billboards for Israel's cause. But just as the show has no Arab judges, Israel at Heart's site provides "About Us" pages in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Hebrew and Italian—but none in the one language an observer might think crucial to public diplomacy: Arabic.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Defense Science Board Report Is Available.

A Beacon reader writes to say that, contrary to the New York Times story on which I based Beacon No. 9, the Defense Science Board's paper on strategic communications is available for download in all its 111-page, 1.8MB glory by clicking here. Grab a cup of coffee and read!

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Beacon No. 9: Problems with Both Talk and Walk


U.S. Fails to Explain Policies to Muslim World, Panel Says

The New York Times today reports on a Defense Science Board report that signals debates in the Defense Department about two facets of U.S. public diplomacy. The first centers on how a story is told:

The debate centers on how far the United States can and should go in managing, even manipulating, information to deter enemies and persuade allies or neutral nations.

... There is great concern among public affairs officials in the military at proposals for regional or even global information operations, especially if those efforts include falsehoods.

The rub is that in an environment of 24-hour news and the Internet, overseas information operations easily become known to the American people, and any specific government-sponsored information campaign not based on fact risks damaging the nation's overall credibility.

To no one's surprise, lies blow back much more quickly and severely now than ever before.

The second problem centers on what is being told. The DSB paper reportedly warns that an oversimplified, Cold War-style message of democratic liberation to Muslim populations clashes with U.S. support for undemocratic or simply irreligious Middle Eastern regimes:

"Today we reflexively compare Muslim 'masses' to those oppressed under Soviet rule," the report adds. "This is a strategic mistake. There is no yearning-to-be-liberated-by-the-U.S. groundswell among Muslim societies - except to be liberated perhaps from what they see as apostate tyrannies that the U.S. so determinedly promotes and defends."

The report says that "Muslims do not 'hate our freedom,' but rather they hate our policies," adding that "when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy."

True, the Arab world's press has not exactly trumpeted the relatively successful, remarkably peaceful elections that recently took place in Afghanistan. But there is a Cold War parallel here. The U.S. preached democratic liberation to the citizens of Soviet satellite nations for decades. It did so while opposing the Soviet Union in nearly every other arena, leading to long-term soft power for the U.S. among those satellites' peoples when they became independent nations.

The U.S. could follow this example of consistency to its eventual profit, even if the short-term costs of alienating some undemocratic regimes are high. What non-military measures can the U.S. take to promote democracy in undemocratic Middle Eastern countries?

Although this is traditionally State Department turf, perhaps the DoD can devise ways to improve U.S. friendships with the ruled instead of the rulers. Befriending states may be easier and quicker, but befriending populations may pay off more in the long run, particularly when hostile non-state actors are a major defense concern.

Monday, November 22, 2004

"Rock Music, They Were Not Able to Stop Across the Borders."


From reading Beacon No. 8, readers might have gotten the idea—from all my putting-down of MTV—that I don't value rock music's role in projecting American values abroad.

Far from spending my nights listening to the Cleveland Philharmonic, I value rock and roll's contribution to spreading subversive ideas like free speech and individualism. To prove it I refer you to the following story, which aired this past Saturday on National Public Radio:

Tommy Ramone, Rocking the Hungarian Embassy

Give it a listen. It's a 4:47-long bit about Tommy Ramone, a.k.a. Thomas Erdelyi of Budapest, the only surviving member of the original Ramones and a refugee from the Soviet crackdown in Hungary in 1956. Tommy talks about being a kid in Hungary and seeing a propaganda film putting down rock as degenerate. He thought, That sounds kind of cool, and eventually joined up with the Ramones in New York.

In the NPR piece Ramone joins the Hungarian ambassador, Andras Simonyi, in a punk-rock jam at the Hungarian Embassy in D.C. While Tommy was helping create punk in New York, Simonyi was playing in Hungary in really underground rock bands. Today he's one of the top diplomats for a country that's gone out of its way as a U.S. ally—and he says he's a big fan of soft power:

"Rock music, they were not able to stop across the borders."

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Beacon No. 8: The Contextualizers


More than one observer has remarked that when foreign-born Muslims visit the United States, they are startled by number of churches and worshippers they encounter. Churches (and synagogues and mosques, it seems) simply don't show up in America's myriad exports of TV shows, movies, video games and recorded music.

Also, the world's Muslim cities don't have many Catholic or Protestant church steeples among the minarets, so few people there get to see American tourists—their shirts tucked in for once—attending Sunday services in, say, downtown Amman.

On the other hand, early Muslims had extensive contact with Christians since Islam began (sociologically speaking) as a reform movement in a corrupt Arabian Christianity. Christians and Jews were early Muslims' friends and neighbors—people who hadn't quite grokked Muhammad's revelation yet, but still deserving of tolerance and protection.

This familiarity found its way into the Qur'an in several suras discussing "people of the Book" (ahl al-kitaab), members of the other Abrahamic faiths who were specifically to be tolerated by Muslims. (See in particular Harun Yahya for an optimistic look at ahl al-kitaab, and thanks to the endlessly useful Wikipedia).

But the ongoing Arab-Israeli struggle has forced practically all Jews to leave for Israel or even further abroad. Similarly, the few Christians left in the Muslim world today are exceedingly low-key, except perhaps in Lebanon and among Egypt's vociferous Coptic population.

A similar problem exists with the presence of Americans in the Muslim world: There ain't any. This means images of Americans and other Westerners come from our entertainment programming, which is much more available and easily understood than news programming that might indicate a more serious side to our public life.

Considering the ubiquity of sex and violence in U.S. pop-culture exports, Muslims couldn't be blamed if their impression of America was of a 3,000-mile, rap-soundtracked semi-nude car chase.

Westerners know that MTV and Vice City: San Andreas aren't emblematic of the West in general, because they live here; but the Muslim world has no such check. This leaves the playing field clear for local figures to turn the horror Muslims naturally feel toward a culture that exports Baywatch into hostility toward Westerners as godless infidels.

Tennis great Arthur Ashe once said that being black in America was like having a second full-time job, such was the pressure he felt to be a role model. The U.S. now needs to find exceptional people of every race to take up where Ashe left off in the world at large and particularly in the Muslim world.

Sending a steady flow of exceptional Americans abroad is the key to contextualizing the U.S. for foreign audiences, rounding out the picture foreign audiences get.

Who are these young ambassadors? Adventurous travelers, scholars, scientists and diplomats are already out there. The U.S. government should augment their numbers, though, providing programs and funding so that many more Americans can journey overseas to do what they do at home: act, sing, study, lecture, play music and generally give Muslim audiences a look at American focus, individualism and achievement.

You say there's no market for a group like the Cleveland Philharmonic to play Mozart in downtown Damascus?

That's not the point. Foreign audiences can and do turn out in large numbers to see American groups' performances or lectures wherever they go, as was the case during the Cold War. Individuals and families in Muslim countries would be exposed to serious, dedicated, perfection-minded Americans at the top of their professional game.

With a little forethought and an infusion of cash, symphony halls, theaters and auditoriums around the world can become the new secular "churches" that allow Muslim audiences to see a side of the West that MTV doesn't provide: the up close and personal side.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Beacon No. 7: No Foreign Service Officer Left Behind


In "Compromise Sought on Intelligence Legislation," the Post's Charles Babington and Walter Pincus report on what may or may not wind up in the intelligence-reform bill that's pending in the lame-duck 108th Congress. Surprisingly, though, the story's major focus is on public diplomacy and how the bill may change the State Department's soft-power approach from top to bottom:

The intelligence reform legislation would vastly increase spending and activities in international broadcasting, expand educational and cultural exchanges in the Muslim world, and boost the stature of public diplomacy not only in the State Department but throughout government as well.

The House bill contains a requirement that the secretary of state provide an annual assessment of public diplomacy's impacts on target audiences in the previous year and an outline of goals for the coming year. It would also increase foreign service training in that field and would require foreign service officers to have one tour involving public diplomacy as a prerequisite for promotion.

This is not the usual tossing of money at the problem, but potentially a structural change in how State handles public diplomacy. First, if these provisions survive the conference-committee sausage grinder and become law, pending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will have to produce an annual document that may get the same fanfare as reports certifying 'allies in the war on drugs' or 'nations that support terrorism.' The report—and the process of preparing it—will make headlines and cause the State Department to account for how it promotes U.S. soft power abroad.

Second, foreign service officers would suddenly need to get a public-diplomacy ticket punched. Every serious officer's career track would suddenly include helping present the U.S. to a worldwide audience. The result is more people in government with a stake in aiding the development (or recovery) of U.S. soft power—and a decreased reliance on Madison Avenue.

Basically, these measures mean new energy and new accountability for public diplomacy. One can only hope that the Congress fully funds the bill's mandates when it does eventually pass.

Babington and Pincus mention a Defense Department examination of public diplomacy as well:

The Defense Department is taking a closer look at what it could be doing, at the suggestion of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. A recent Defense Science Board study of public diplomacy, prompted by Rumsfeld's questions after the Pentagon's initial attempts to run a media network in Iraq failed, called for expanding media and other cultural exchange programs across the government.

I haven't seen the report but would love to hear what lessons the DoD learned from the Iraq experiment—and how they can be generalized to improving U.S. soft-power efforts overall.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Beacon No. 6: Soft Power Isn't "Everything Except Killing People"


This morning's New York Times brings a "Week in Review" story headlined, "Putin Uses Soft Power to Restore the Russian Empire." It seems the Kremlin leader is aggressively courting former Soviet republics to keep them in Moscow's orbit.

Writer Steven Lee Myers discusses how Putin offers ex-Soviet nations discounted oil and gas, places troops to counter American forces stationed in post-9/11 Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, refuses to withdraw others in Moldova and Georgia, and promises new rail and ferry links with Ukraine while campaigning there for a pro-Russian presidential candidate.

The problem is that only a few of these tactics involve soft power in Joseph Nye's sense of the term (attraction rather than coercion). Instead they involve bribery (cheap fuels) and thinly veiled threats of force (troops added or left in place).

Not until the twelfth paragraph does Myers hit on why President Putin's hard-power efforts might succeed in countries wary of the Russian bear: soft power.

Russia has the advantage of proximity and old ties, as well as linguistic bonds, because Russian remains the language of commerce and diplomacy throughout the region.

The cultural ties between Russia and Ukraine are especially deep since Kiev is the birthplace of the Russian state, and the Russian Orthodox Church was founded in Ukraine, Myers explains.

Putin does use soft power in the Nyesian sense. His charisma, even if he can rarely be said to smile, will affect the Ukrainian presidential runoff, particularly among the country's large ethnic Russian population. Also, the building of rail and ferry links has soft-power as well as economic effects, promoting tourism, pilgrimage and other kinds of information exchange between the two nations as well as trade.

But the main thrusts of Myers' story are access to Russian mineral resources and incremental increases in Russian military power, not on soft power per se. Does this indicate a watering-down of how the term is being used?

I hope not. It would be a shame to see Myers and other writers start using it to mean "everything except killing people."

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