Wednesday, June 27, 2007

"Our Independence from Foreign Funding Is Our Only Strength"

The Times magazine ran a depressing little piece this past Sunday on successes and failures in public diplomacy toward Iran ("Hard Realities of Soft Power"). It dissects the disposition of about $75 million in funds meant to influence Iranian opinion, but unfortunately, the funds—and administration officials' pronouncements in support of Iranian civil-society organizations (CSOs)—have had unintended consequences.

It seems like most of the failure has come from this combination:

Publicized U.S. Funding of Iranian CSOs + Administration Sabre-Rattling + Absence of External Oppressor = Tehran Crackdown on CSOs

I occasionally give Cold War-era FSO and USIA types a hard time, because some seem to reflexively reach for a toolkit that contains some combination of Voice of America programming and touring American musical groups as our front line of public diplomacy; but in this case, it would be nice to head back to a Cold War model that looked something like this:

Highly Covert Funding + Steady But Judicious U.S. Talk About Democratic Futures + External Oppressor + Patience = End of USSR

Maybe it's time to redouble U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are at least externally inspired and supported—and get out of Iraq, where we are the external oppressor of some large fraction of the population.

Monday, June 18, 2007

That Was the Zombie War That Was


It’s an article of faith among fans that any time science fiction says something important, it is not taken seriously outside the fan community. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War fits this model, as novels with much larger palettes (Dune and Foundation) did before it.

Author Max Brooks sets World War Z 10 years after the last major world power has subdued a plague of zombies, which occurs sometime in the near future. It includes wide-ranging interviews with those who survived the decade-long war against the undead, putting the novel’s “present” somewhere around 2030 and gazing back at the 2010s.

Brooks’s zombies are pure George Romero: mindless yet strong, vulnerable only if you destroy the brain. Hungry. They spread, of course, by killing and partially eating victims who then return to ‘life’ as zombies themselves. They generally cannot climb obstacles, and the moans of one attract others within earshot to an unlimited extent.

But zombies are just the gory gift-wrap for some acute social commentary. Like Warner Brothers cartoons featuring smart-aleck rabbits and overconfident coyotes, World War Z works on several levels. For teenagers and young adults, Brooks paints a pulp picture of the near-destruction of humanity.

For adults who think about U.S. society and international relations, the book has a second level:

Take a threat with X qualities (add robustness and strength to normal humans; subtract reason, speed and tool use; the zombie disease spreads by direct contact). How will X threat affect Y type of society (post-industrial, high-tech, increasingly insular)?

Seen through this lens, World War Z is an examination of society’s weaknesses and strengths relative to that threat.

The zombies overrun large sections of the earth, including the entire U.S. east of the Rockies, before humanity manages to counterattack years later. World trade collapses, and widespread fires combine with a small nuclear exchange to drop global temperatures 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit.

Various societal weaknesses aid the zombies’ rise:

The high-speed international trade in bodily organs speeds zombies’ spread via transplants—especially from China, where the zombie plague is thought to originate. It also makes advanced Western hospitals the sites of zombie outbreaks, quickly crippling nations’ medical capabilities.

First-world militaries’ shock-and-awe attacks fail against opponents that cannot be shocked and awed (read as “non-deterrable” in current jargon).

Training riflemen to aim for center body mass, rather than to take head shots, also works against human forces.

Many spend time Googling for answers rather than grappling with physical-world factors that could help them escape or fight the zombies.

A sedentary class of white-collar workers is useless to a society that suddenly must fight a large-scale infantry war. Physical stamina and blue-collar skills (as farmers, machinists, factory workers, etc.) are suddenly highly prized, leading to general social upheaval.

The unwillingness of some societies to accept an unimaginable threat causes much unnecessary death, adding to the zombies’ numbers. For example, many Arabs initially believe the zombie plague is merely a Zionist lie.

China’s penchant for secrecy catches up with it, as it successfully deceives foreign intelligence agencies into thinking that early zombie outbreaks are themselves rumors spread by the PRC government to hide a massive political purge.

On the other hand, various societal strengths help humanity eventually beat the zombies:

White South African paranoia emerges as the unlikeliest virtue, in the form of an apartheid-era plan that becomes the basis of each country’s merciless decisions about which human groups to protect and which to abandon, essentially as bait, so that others may reach safety.

As with invaders throughout history, even one that gets behind its lines, Russia’s vast interior and unforgiving winters give it periodic respite from the zombie invasion (the zombies are inanimate when frozen, then thaw each spring).

After a disastrous opening engagement in Yonkers, N.Y., the U.S. military completely redesigns its weaponry, doctrine and training to fight a years-long war on foot, which sweeps the U.S. from west to east. Needless to say, this infantry focus does not please the Air Force, whose high-tech weapons platforms are now useless and largely mothballed in favor of low-tech aerial resupply.

Max Brooks had previously written The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead, which treated episodes from horror movies as straight-faced fact and showed how one could avoid the mistakes that caused the deaths (and undeaths) of so many B-movie actors. World War Z is a logical brand extension—but one that also happens to illuminate some of our current world societies’ weaknesses.

I contacted Brooks’s publicists about an interview for Beacon in which we could discuss this further—does he realize this is the most entertaining social commentary in years?—but they replied that Brooks won’t be doing interviews until the fall release of the World War Z paperback. I’ll try and get hold of him then.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Drift of “Public Diplomacy”


For years the term “public diplomacy” has been fought over by specialists and pundits. I’d initially thought that public diplomacy could and should be defined as:

governmental expressions of the best of your nation’s culture, science and style of government in all their messiness

but the term has drifted as its use has widened. Readers will recall me insisting over the years that “public diplomacy” should not consist of a Karen Hughes-style rapid-reaction force that sat there watching TV all day, responding instantly to foreign badmouthing, but I lost that one and PD went through a period of being defined as:

top-down unity of messaging and prompt correction of disinformation about the U.S.

and now “public diplomacy” is becoming synonymous with mere “diplomacy”—the actions of our ambassadors. This latest watering-down of “public diplomacy” is illustrated in a bit of critique from Davids Medienkritik, which purports to analyze the German media:

The fact that members of the American Foreign Service haven't more effectively engaged German media has been a costly failure. The system of two year rotations in the US foreign service clearly makes it more difficult to establish an effective media program. The fact that the Foreign Service and State Department tend to lean undeniably to the left also means that there is currently less desire to go out and explain and defend the positions of the US government on mass media forums - despite the fact that that is the very mission of the public diplomacy officials.

No, day-to-day explaining and defending is not what public diplomacy is about! But I’ll probably lose this one, too, since “public diplomacy” now seems reduced to:

ambassadors and staff staring down hostile local media.

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