Friday, March 23, 2007

Soft Power, the Undiscovered Country


With absolutely no news hook, Jackie Northam still ran “Bush Team Explores Use of Soft Power” on Morning Edition today. It’s deadly boring unless you’ve never heard of soft power or public diplomacy, or dislike breaking news.

Northam’s thesis: the Bush Administration may be taking a softer line on foreign policy!

The usual soft-power suspects were there: Ex-neocon Francis Fukuyama as “The Penitent,” Joseph Nye as “The Thought Leader,” ex-Colin Powell deputy Richard Armitage as “The Unshackled,” plus some of the usual D.C. think-tank talkers (James Carafano, Edwin Luttwak) in supporting roles. Kevin Spacey was about the only one missing from this line-up.

And what did these Wise Men say? The same things they’ve been saying for years—the right things, words about the value of soft power, about the need to mix hard and soft power, about the need to win when you use hard power. The same things, Northam points out, that candidate George W. Bush proclaimed during the 2000 campaign:

“If we're an arrogant nation, they'll view us that way. ... But if we're a humble nation, they'll respect us."

Soft power, all too easily discovered by the rest of the world, remains the Undiscovered Country at 1600 Pennsylvania—deathbed conversions to diplomacy and soft power notwithstanding.

(Thanks to Len Baldyga for the initial item.)

Monday, March 19, 2007

Tough. Durable. Forages for Fuel.


With all the PD-practitioner focus on high-tech ways of getting the U.S. message or activities across, I worry that low-tech solutions like walking around and conversing with people in other countries gets lost in the shuffle.

This morning my UC Berkeley Arabic prof, John Hayes, forwarded this Kevin Kelly squib about a camel-based “bookmobile” program in the Kenyan outback. Strap a couple of sturdy crates filled with books to your local land beast, and away literacy goes into the countryside.

The U.S. cavalry once maintained enormous numbers of horses in a broad range of environments, and even tried camels in the Southwest during the 19th century. Not to get all Lawrence of Arabia or anything, but might not a latter-day overseas Camel Corps be an excellent vehicle for promoting literacy, vaccinations, broader medical care, and other types of outreach on a mass scale throughout the camels’ natural range? Not to mention the benefits that would come to PD practitioners in terms of their health (lots of walking), language skills, and overall familiarity with rural cultures.

Hmm. ...

P.S. How would you write “camel bookmobile” in Arabic? سيارة ألكامل ألكتب "car of the camel books"? سيارة كامل ألكتب "camel car of the books"? Or am I way off base to begin with? Any help would be appreciated.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Drinking Problems


For about nine years I’ve followed Coca-Cola—not as a soft-drink purveyor, but as a nation-builder and one of the few corporations with a truly distant planning horizon. This long-term view is one of the reasons why the company thrives; like Toyota, it can afford to invest heavily in projects that may not bear fruit for decades.

The Wall Street Journal nicely bears out my interest with yesterday’s “Why Coke Aims to Slake Global Thirst for Safe Water” (sorry, no direct URL):

Hoping to restore some of the goodwill that made its flagship product a global icon, Coca-Cola Co. has gone on a clean-water kick in the developing world.

In Kenya, where more than half of the rural population has no access to clean water, the Atlanta beverage giant brought water-purification systems, storage urns, and hygiene lessons to 45 school in a poor western province. Children learn how to use a chlorine-based solution to kill diseases that come from contaminated, muddy pools or remote wells—and are taught to teach their parents.

In Mali, Coke is helping extend municipal water taps beyond the country’s capital of Bamako. In India, where the company has been accused of draining water from poor communities for its own use, the company is building rainwater-harvesting structures to help alleviate chronic water shortages. Coke’s bottlers are also implementing water-efficiency measures.

And so on. This is the definition of enlightened self-interest by a company that isn’t concerned about selling you soda—you were sold (or not) by the time you were 10. They’re concerned about selling to your kids’ kids.

Happily for consumers in Coke countries, that means making sure the current generation survives to have children in the first place.

Monday, March 05, 2007

MIT Lives the Enlightenment


The New Republic reports on MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative, which publishes MIT course materials online in every area from aeronautics and astronautics to writing and humanistic studies—free.

Want to try MIT’s “Introduction to the American Political Process,” including Professor Adam Berinsky’s lecture notes and downloadable assignments? Voilà. Or perhaps brush up on “Welding and Joining Processes” with Professor Thomas Eagar—cold welding, cracking resistance, solidification, that sort of thing? You got it.

MIT’s project is part of the OpenCourseWare Consortium, which has about 15 countries’ schools actively participating. It’s a phenomenally impressive counter to the Wikipedia model; here are authorities teaching from authoritative institutions, for nothing.

It’s also a boost to U.S. public diplomacy: One of the world’s leading technical universities is letting the world’s people harvest large amounts of its knowledge.

MIT doesn’t award degrees or certificates through OpenCourseWare, but if someone wants to be educated rather than degreed, this looks like a great starting point.

(Thanks as always to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item.)
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