Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween Ruminations on Public Diplomacy, Propaganda, and working in the PD Field

1. In a recent Huffington Post piece, I noted that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when referring to the Cold War to students at Moscow State University during her recent visit to Russia, had broken with a long USG tradition of characterizing propaganda as solely (in the words of a Foreign Service officer kindly speaking, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, to one of my classes) as "what the other guy does" -- while we Americans, we oh-so-virtuous inhabitants, as we all too often believe, of a "city upon a hill," are only, always, telling the truth, and nothing but the truth, to the world (despite the fact that the largely unenforced Smith-Mundt Act prohibits the domestic dissemination of government-funded information products aimed at overseas audiences; if such products were "true," why can't we taxpayers, paying for them, ourselves see/hear them?).

Indeed, Clinton, for reasons that are not clear (was she trying, in a moment of jet-lag weakness, to be honest?) acknowledged that, in fact, both the United States and the Soviet Union had practiced propaganda in the last decades of the twentieth century.

Well, it now seems that the Secretary is back on the official USG track, repeating our government's oft-repeated message regarding how "they" spread propaganda while "we" tell the truth. Here, from her remarks at the United States Institute of Peace at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC, on October 21, 2009, as duly recorded by the U.S. Department of State:

QUESTION: ... I just want your comments on two questions: How to increase the speed of your counter-propaganda in Pakistan, and second is to coordinate across the whole government to ensure continuity and cohesion of approach? Thank you.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Okay. Well, I’m actually very glad that you raised your questions and made your comment, because I think we have, as a government, not done a very good job in responding to what you rightly call propaganda, misinformation, even in some instances disinformation, about our motivations and our actions in Pakistan. That became clear to me as we were doing our review, and I saw how often there were stories in the Pakistani media that were totally untrue, but we were not responding as effectively as we need to.

We have, under Judith McHale, our Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, undertaken a very thorough analysis of what better we could do, and we are moving very rapidly to try to fill that void. We have a new team going in to Pakistan. A Public Affairs officer may be already there. We have adopted a new approach, which is we do not leave any misstatement or inaccuracy unanswered. It may be that people won’t believe it at first, but we intend to counter a lot of this propaganda with the best weapon we have; namely, the truth [my emphasis].
When noticing such a righteous proclamation (rather than a well argued, fact-based ["truthful"?] presentation one would expect from a U.S. government official -- and a Yale Law School graduate to boot), I did not take out my revolver -- if I had one; I have never used a weapon in my life, except my bad temper -- but rather remembered the essay by Francis Bacon, in which he wrote: "What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer."

2. The build-up to the Iraq war was one of the most notorious and crude propaganda campaigns in U.S. history (although not entirely untypical), leading some Department of State employees to leave the Foreign Service. While Obama's decision to continue the war in Afghanistan is, in my view, a major strategic mistake, committing the U.S., as was the case with the war in Viet-Nam, to a part of the world where we have no vital national interests -- and an adventure our economically declining country simply cannot afford -- his administration's current relatively "publicly open" reconsideration of American strategy regarding the "graveyard of empires" does contrast rather "favorably" (if such a word can be used in this tragic case) with the cynical marketing of the Iraq war by the secretive White House Iraq Group, in which the person Bush was to appoint as his Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Karen Hughes, took part.

While Obama and his advisers are, in my modest opinion, wrong in getting the U.S. "engaged" (to use one of his administration's favorite words) in Central Asia (engaged, that is, in the wrong way), at least he's not selling our intervention there (and whatever form it ultimately may take) to the American public with the Bush-like hubris regarding Iraq -- that "we know what we're doing; we'll get the job done no matter what; we're sure of the outcome."

I think there is no military mission, with any kind of benefit to ordinary Americans, to be accomplished in Afghanistan, but at least Obama is not saying that he's totally sure how the mission will be accomplished.

If only Obama, and I suspect that is where his instincts lie, could go a step further -- and cancel the "mission" altogether.

Yet he must go a step further -- and get us out of a quagmire we Americans, at heart no empire builders (I say optimistically), cannot afford. But I am giving those in power too much credit.

For eerie parallels between the U.S. and the USSR in Afghanistan, see the Rhambo III video, now on my list on "must see movies" (along with, for persons who wish to join the Foreign Service, "The Man Who Would be King," based on a Kipling story: Two British soldiers in India decide to set themselves up as deities in Kafiristan).

Also, when Clinton meets with tribal leaders in "Af-Pak," I am reminded of our Indian wars -- wars that, I believe, are the forerunners of the senseless so-called "war on terror" -- a term abandoned, but an activity murderously continued, by the current administration.

3. My well intentioned reservations regarding the name of the University of Southern California student organization, Association of Public Diplomacy Scholars, have drawn critical, if not bitter, reactions from its members. I much appreciate their getting back, but I stand by my contention that the word "scholar," as used by USC MA students to describe themselves, does no service to the English language.

A scholar may be a perpetual student but a student is not an accomplished scholar.

(Full disclosure: although I was charitably given a Ph.D by Princeton University, in no way am I a "scholar," fully realizing this after having had the privilege of meeting some scholars worthy of that name -- and, believe me, there are not too many -- while in academic life).

Also, on a very practical level, I don't think the eager and ambitious USC students pretentiously labelling themselves "Public Diplomacy Scholars" -- yes, I'll repeat the adverb pretentiously -- will help them get real, paying jobs during these hard times (and after the considerable costs -- frankly, I would say outrageous costs -- of getting an MA in PD).

Monday, October 26, 2009

Association of Public Diplomacy Scholars

Scholar: a learned person (especially in the humanities); someone who by long study has gained mastery in one or more disciplines

An essential element, for career Foreign Service officers (FSOs) who seek to practice public diplomacy on behalf of their government overseas as best they can, is modesty.

An FSO does not expect to become an ambassador* after two years of service, the time usually spent acquiring an MA degree at US institutions of higher learning.

Similarly, at serious universities, graduate students pursuing MA degrees don't assume they'll become "scholars" unless they prove their credentials through many additional years of research and publications.

It is somewhat striking, therefore, that the nation's "first student-run organization in the field of public diplomacy" calls itself The USC Association of Public Diplomacy Scholars (APDS).

And I thought only old geezers were pretentious.

P.S. I can just see a no-nonsense employeer looking at an APDS member's résumé and wondering, "What the hell is a 'public diplomacy scholar'?'


*Of course, incompetent political appointees make such "standards" irrelevant.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Toward a New Public Diplomacy: Redirecting U.S. Foreign Policy

The below draft is an invitation for comments from persons interested in public diplomacy:

Toward a New Public Diplomacy: Redirecting U.S. Foreign Policy

Review by John H. Brown

Philip Seib, editor. Toward a New Public Diplomacy: Redirecting U.S. Foreign Policy

New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009ISBN: 978-0-230-61744-5, ISBN10: 0-230-61744-1 257 pp. Trade Paperback, $30.00; Hardcover, $90.00

The purpose of the book under review, according to its editor, is to “prove useful to the new administration by offering an array of approaches to public diplomacy that are worthy of exploration.”

It is divided, like Gaul, into three parts. The first, “American Public Diplomacy Today,” contains articles by William Rugh on soft power, by Nicholas Cull on the United States Agency (USIA, 1953-1999) and post-USIA era; and by Shawn Powers and Ahmed El Gody on Al Hurra Television.

The second section, “Appraising American Public Diplomacy,” has contributions on how American PD has been received in Russia (Victoria V. Orlova), China (Guolin Shen) and Egypt (Hussein Amin).

The third segment, “Where Go from here,” consists of pieces by Amelia Arsenault (“Public Diplomacy 2.0”), Kathy R. Fitzpatrick (“Privatized Public Diplomacy”), Neal M. Rosendorf (“A Cultural Public Diplomacy Strategy”), Jennifer A. Marshall and Thomas F. Farr (“Public Diplomacy in an Age of Faith”), and Abiodun Williams (“The U.S. Military for Policy Makers”).

The volume concludes with remarks by Professor Seib, Director of the University of Southern California Center of Public Diplomacy, who notes that “[t]he issues addressed in this book do not cover every aspect of public diplomacy, but the range of topics shows how important it is for policy makers to adopt an at least equally broad perspective as they reappraise this part of the U.S. foreign policy process.”

Among the topics not covered in this 257-page book is the perspective/experience of U.S. Foreign Service officers practicing public diplomacy in the field. Aside from Ambassador William Rugh, whose publications on public diplomacy are must-reads, no contributor has been professionally engaged in PD as an American diplomat.

This might explain the dry, academic quality of some chapters about a down-to-earth activity that, at its most undirected and thus at its best, is about American diplomats exchanging ideas face to face with persons who make a difference in other societies about significant matters of common interest.

Moreover, the main message of the book -- that PD is in deep trouble and needs to be redirected -- has been the subject of dozens of reports and countless other publications in recent years, including by some of the distinguished authors of this volume.

So, despite its editor’s claim that it is a reappraisal, Redirecting U.S. Foreign Policy is, even from a strictly academic perspective, quite unoriginal, containing as it does oft-repeated litanies proclaimed by pundits since 9/11:

--soft power, “the ability to affect others to obtain what one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment,” a term coined by Joseph Nye in the 1990s, should be considered important;
--the dissolution of USIA (on p. 75, the book says it was in 1998; on p. 161, in 1999) caused many problems for PD;
--public diplomacy cannot be divorced from policy;
--the U.S. must listen more to foreign voices;
--PD involves two-way communications;
--Al-Hurra, a propaganda television station established in the Bush era, is a failure and Middle East broadcasting projects need (in the words of Professor Seib, certainly no terrorist) to be “blown up”;
--the Internet and the new social media are changing the communications landscape (“the world belongs to the Internet,” writes Mr. Seib);
--meanwhile, in our age of mass communications, don’t forget cultural diplomacy and long-term mutual understanding;
--the USG should work with the private sector in improving America’s global standing.

There are, granted, subjects in the book that are not as familiar as others. The contributions by Orlova, Shen, and Amin about their own nations’ attitude to U.S. public diplomacy, although lacking in detail and intellectual depth, present a point of view that is not entirely stale.

And the final two pieces of the volume -- by Marshall/Farr and Williams -- do make somewhat “out of the box” arguments, at least in the overall context of the recent PD literature.

Farr/Marshall contend that religion should play a greater role in public diplomacy: “The United States,” they write, “needs an overreaching policy that communicates a consistent message about the importance of religion and religious liberty in a constitutional order.” They believe “religion attachés could fill a critical void in current [State Department] staffing.”

As for Williams, vice president of the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the United States Institute of Peace, he goes against conventional wisdom by saying that the Defense Department should have a greater, not lesser role in public diplomacy, citing the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM, a creation of the previous administration), as an example of this need.

“Public diplomacy,” he writes, “is too important to be left entirely to civilian agencies.”

In an effort to understand why this volume was ever published, one cannot help but speculate, perhaps erroneously, that its only original (unintentional?) recommendation is to “redirect” American public diplomacy by means of the cross and the sword.

But is this really the time for another medieval crusade?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

More on the September 17 public-diplomacy disaster

For days I have been trying to find out why September 17 was chosen as the date for the U.S. government's announcement on the new architecture of anti-missile systems, originally meant to be land-based in Eastern Europe.

For Poles, even those opposed to this senseless (in my opinion) Bush-era scheme (which, again in my view, unnecessarily provoked the Russians: Would we want a Russian anti-missile system in Mexico?), it was -- again, for Poles -- an abandonment of American "engagement" (to use the fashionable Obama-era foreign-policy word) in the heart to Europe.

The Bush missile system was crazy to begin with, but the Obama timing for announcing its dismantlement was crazy as well. The timing -- on the date of the USSR invasion of Poland in 1939 -- was a major public-diplomacy faux pas; no, not a faux pas (forget the French) -- too soft an expression -- a public-diplomacy disaster, in Poland at least. Another great-power deal, the Russians and Americans "ganging up" against the Poles -- or so, I would say, many Poles felt.

As Lech Walesa said,

"It wasn't that the shield was that important, but it's about the way, the way of treating us."

Ted Lipien -- a VOA veteran in his capacity as foreign correspondent and executive of that organization; and who knows more about Eastern Europe than he does? -- has written about this topic, writing that:

"Displaying unprecedented boldness for a US diplomatic mission, the US Embassy in Warsaw conceded on its official public website that Poles believe that the 'insensitive timing' — as the Embassy put it — of the Obama administration announcement on canceling the US missile shield system in Central Europe 'shows that Obama does not understand Poland.' In what may be a deliberate US public diplomacy effort to repair the public relations damage in Poland, a news item on the embassy website, posted in both English and Polish, acknowledged that 'the timing of Obama’s announcement upset Poland and Polish Americans because it came on Sept. 17, the 70th anniversary of the Russian invasion of Poland at the beginning of World War II.' …

But what does the State Department actually say about the choice of this date?

I called the State Department, with the phone operators (they have numerals, not names, when they "answer" your call ["Operator, e.g., "20"]), switching me from one office to the other. Finally, I was able to reach the answering machine of the State Department Poland Desk Officer, who professionally acknowledged my call in a later communication.

I got back to her a few days after my initial call. During our phone conversation, she proclaimed (wish I could use a better word, but that's how it sounded to me) that "I can't talk to the press." Regarding my question on why September 17 was chosen as a date, she said "look at CNN." The U.S. Embassy Warsaw piece by Lipien? No comment. She underscored that she was a "political officer." My question as to what a political officer actually does (since she can't, evidently, "talk to the press") was left unaswered.

She gave me another number to call at the State Department. The person who answered my call (let's call him/her "Off the record [OTR]) said h/she -- OTR -- had no official or "background" information as to why this date was chosen.

OTR allowed me to cite the following OTR statement during our phone conversation: "State Department sources could not explain the choice of that date."

The polite, tactful OTR then said that I should check with the White House as to why that date was chosen.

Next! Trying to reach the White House ... The saga continues.

Editorial comment: What did Truman say about the buck?