Thursday, March 25, 2010

China's Public Diplomacy -- Have You Ever Tried to Call the Chinese Embassy?

"In modern times, public diplomacy is becoming increasingly important. Governments of countries worldwide attach great importance to public diplomacy to promote their soft power and influence."

"Getting smart with public diplomacy," People’s Daily Online (March 26, 2010)

Much appears in cyberspace about mainland China's growing public diplomacy programs, from media events meant to persuade to Confucius Centers meant, supposedly, to educate. As I compile my Public Diplomacy Press Review, which is based on Internet media/blog items, I find references to China's PD far outnumber those of other countries, with the exception of the U.S., Israel, and perhaps Canada (other countries often mentioned in relation to PD, but not as frequently as China, are Turkey and India). Japan and South Korea also appear on occasion. Practically nothing from Africa, except sometimes from Ghana and South Africa. Latin America? Just about nada, except for usually critical articles about Chavez from US right-wing sources.

The above general comments are, of course, observations not backed by statistics, but rather from my near-daily searches on the internet that lead me to conclude that China, far more than most countries, is striving to represent itself overseas as a soft-power, user-friendly country "into" PD. Scholars such as Joshua Kurlantzick have written authoritatively about such issues.

But have you, ordinary citizen like myself, ever tried to touch base with the Communist Chinese Embassy in Washington? Its website is, to put it charitably, under construction. If you click on an all-important part of any website, "contact us," you get the following message: "Sorry, the webpage you browsed has been deleted!" and the following image:

I did find a phone number -- only one number, for a humongous, recently-built embassy -- frankly, an architectural obscenity full of totalitarian implications -- occupying a large amount of physical space in NW Washington. The number (if you are patient enough to finally discover it on the embassy's website) is (202) 328-2500. I tried calling this number for some three hours, but it was constantly busy.

Yes, the Chinese embassy site does have a section, "Public Diplomacy" -- but it emphasizes official government statements pertaining to the issue. To me, as a former State Department bureaucrat knowing all too well that going up the career ladder all too often means making the bosses in Washington happy -- rather than worrying what the "natives" in other countries think -- that smells like Chinese Embassy employees just advertising what headquarters wants on paper (or should I say computer screens) rather than "engaging" with the host country.

I should note, at this point, that my attempts to reach the Chinese Embassy were an effort to arrange a meeting of students taking my "International Affairs: Public Diplomacy" course to talk with Chinese diplomats regarding what their government often writes about -- public diplomacy and its importance. The goal of this encounter would be to understand China's relations to the world from a PD perspective.

But, as its one phone line that's constantly busy suggests, the non-reaction of the Chinese mission to an effort from this teacher to "reach out" suggests, at least from a "micro" perspective, that Chinese Embassy officials are essentially inaccessible to expand the dialogue with the public in the host country.

We Americans, whose tendency is to preach, are all too often guilty of this kind of elitism in our own diplomatic posts abroad. Much has been written about our "fortress embassies," where diplomats are hidden behind walls for "security" reasons. Could we be just afraid to mingle with the natives, much as Chinese diplomats appear to be?


1. My "Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review" blog, which means no harm to anyone and whose essential aim is to amuse, is apparently "filtered out" in China (as I recently learned from one reliable source; please correct me if I'm wrong).

2. No, I'm not a Google contractor -- and we all know about its problems in China -- although my blog is a free-of-charge "Google" one.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Reines and Public Diplomacy

The Cabinet Room: In The Office: Philippe Reines - Amanda Erickson,

By now, you know the drill - here’s our weekly profile of a top Cabinet-level staffer. This week, we bring you Philippe Reines, who heads Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s strategic communications office.

Technically, Reines is a deputy assistant Secretary of State. But anyone who knows anything about Hillaryland knows this title doesn’t do Reines justice.

A longtime Hillary confidante and press aide, Reines has followed Clinton from the Senate to the campaign trail to the Obama administration, where he continues to handle personal press requests for the secretary.

And he’s been given an even bigger responsibility - to create and run an office on strategic communications. As far as I can tell, Clinton is the only cabinet secretary to have a staff dedicated to doing so.

In effect, Reines is developing a public diplomacy strategy for the Secretary by figuring out her media and public events abroad. “In places like Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia, we’ve put a lot of effort into public diplomacy, communicating directly with the people,” Reines said.

Easier said then done. Every event Reines plans involves more than a couple of international phone calls and a team on the ground wherever the Secretary is traveling to scope out locations, advertise events, and select local media outlets to work with. This cross-communication is part of the reason Reines’ favorite media tool du jour is one he made up himself - the ‘Townterview.’

Reines describes it as a “hybrid between a town hall and an interview, combining the audience participation and public venue components of the former with the tough questions and wide distribution of the latter” and says it works in part because the fairly novel structure requires all relevant parties to talk through what exactly the Secretary is expecting. “The reason we came up with the term Townterview was so that everyone involved in planning, especially our international media partners, would pause and say, ‘That sounds like a great idea, we’re in - but how exactly do we do it?’” Reines said.

Reines does this planning in Suite 2318, which just officially “opened” last month. He has six staffers, landscapes on loan from State’s Art Bank, and Ikea couches. His office is decked out with a photo of oil firefighter Red Adair, tasked with putting out uncontrollable fires by creating even larger explosions. Reines calls this “very fitting” to his current position.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Ambassador Robert R. Gosende on Public Diplomacy and the Peace Corps

From an e-mail from Ambassador Robert R. Gosende to the compiler of the Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review, regarding the article: Public Diplomacy: The World Should Be Teaching Us, Mr. Kristof; Gosende image from

This almost never happens but one must always be prepared for surprises. I disagree with you! (I believe only on the following issue.)

I spent last weekend Thursday evening, all day Friday and Saturday, at a Model UN organized by the UN Ass'n of Rochester, NY. In attendance wereabout 600 high school students from across Upstate NY from about Uticain the east and then west to the PA border. (I did not see anyone fromOlean!) This was a scintillating group of young people. I spoke tothem twice - the group was too big to fit into the biggest hall at St. John Fisher University which had given its premises over to the UNAR for the Model UN. These students were for the most part senior and juniors. Many already knew where they would be going to college/university. The ones with whom I spoke, and there were several, indicated admission to some of the best places in our country. I sat in on the sessions forthe EcSoc Comm and the Comm on disarmament. The level of discussion was amazing. These students were wonderful, well read, and very articulate. I used my short keynote to urge them to study abroad during their undergraduate careers - telling them that this does not happen automatically - that 70% of college-bound hs seniors in the US say they want to study abroad and about 3% end up doing so. Anyway, Kristof' s idea about us sending more of our young people abroad is right on in my book - perhaps not for what they will do while they are abroad - though I will speak about that a bit below - but for what it will do for us. We know that perhaps the greatest benefit that the Peace Corps has is for how it changes the way young people think about themselves and our country.

But this is the below part from above: I recall being on a visit to Yaounde, Cameroun once when I was Area Director for Africa. Our Ambassador there was Hume Horan - I don't know if you ever came across him. He was a fluent Farsi, Arabic and French-speaker and one of the best people we ever had as an Ambassador. He was asked to leave Saudi Arabia after only being there as Ambassador for a few weeks because the Saudis could see that he understood what they were saying to each other on the sidelines of his meetings with them. He died all-too-young a couple of years ago with cancer. He said to me in Yaounde that he thought that USIS programs were good for the US image in Cameroun but that the best of all for this was the Peace Corps. He had at that time around 150 PCV's in the country and he was trying to spend a full day with each one of them while he was serving in the country.

So I think that sending more young Americans abroad is a good thing.The thought that some of the young people I was with last weekend in Rochester is ALL good for our country and for them. ...


Amb. Robert R. Gosende
Associate Vice Chancellor for International Programs
The State University of New York
State University Plaza
Albany, New York 12246

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Public Diplomacy: The World Should Be Teaching Us, Mr. Kristof

Op-Ed Columnist: Teach for the World - Nicholas Kristof, New York Times: "Peace Corps and Teach for America represent the best ethic of public service. But at a time when those programs can’t meet the demand from young people seeking to give back, we need a new initiative: Teach for the World.

In my mind, Teach for the World would be a one-year program placing young Americans in schools in developing countries. The Americans might teach English or computer skills, or coach basketball or debate teams. ... This would be a government-financed effort to supplement an American public diplomacy outreach that has been eviscerated over the last few decades."

COMMENT: Mr. Kristof seems unaware that all too many of us Americans are incapable of writing a coherent English sentence free of grammatical and spelling errors; and as for us of the USA supposedly coaching "debate teams," how many of us can actually craft a logical argument, in our land of instant "intellectual" gratification a la Tee-Vee & Twitter and uptalk?: "I mean, like you know, whatever" -- such is, increasingly, our contribution to serious discourse.

In my Foreign Service career, I found many distinguished foreigners who spoke English better than I did (and pray tell, Mr. Kristof, what is a "developing country"? Detroit, Michigan?). These distinguished foreigners had actually read English-language classics and knew the fundamentals of classical rhetoric, hence their ability to engage in serious debate. I thought they should be teaching me.

As for the Peace Corps, its main drawbacks are (a) giving jobs to all too many desperately-seeking-to-be-employed, résumé-driven, under-educated, provincial USA BA's with no knowledge of foreign languages or substantial skills, personal or intellectual, even in teaching (or even speaking) their own native language (there are, of course, notable exceptions, including among "seniors" in the program; but much of the Peace Corps is an updated, "democratic" version of "a vast system of outdoor relief for the upper classes") (b) more important, it is not a bilateral program. We "altruistic" Americans could -- to cite one of many examples -- certainly use highly trained math teachers from "developing countries" for our poorly performing public secondary schools. In this way we would be selfishly serving our own interests -- in the service of the world.

The world should teaching us, Mr. Kristof, in more ways than one.

Clinton's Personnel Headache, Public Affairs -- part of the office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs

Hillary Rodham Clinton widens her circle at the State Department - Lois Romano, Washington Post: "... One personnel headache for Clinton has been the Bureau of Public Affairs, a sprawling operation of 200 staff members that was rife with low morale and organizational issues before she arrived, compounded by new demands brought on by her celebrity, her extensive travels and her longtime staff feeling the need to do the job themselves.

One area of concern, say State Department sources close to the situation, revolves around who ultimately speaks for the department at media briefings. 'It's been like open-mike night over there,' said one aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley, who worked in the Clinton White House but had no previous relationship with Hillary Clinton, said in an e-mail that he is responding to a recent critical inspector general's report on his bureau and 'making the personnel and structural changes needed.' An earlier draft of the report touched on friction between Crowley and Reines [Clinton's Senate spokesman, Philippe Reines], who is close to Clinton. Both acknowledged rough patches. 'There is far more collaboration than there was six months ago,' Crowley said. 'We definitely have more work to do.'

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Daniel Mendelsohn on Avatar

The Wizard
By Daniel Mendelsohn
a film directed by James Cameron (New York Review of Books)
Two hugely popular "mashups"—homemade videos that humorously juxtapose material from different sources—that are currently making the rounds on the Internet seek to ridicule James Cameron's visually ravishing and ideologically awkward new blockbuster, Avatar. In one, the portentous voice-over from the trailer for Disney's Oscar-winning animated feature Pocahontas (1995) has been seamlessly laid over footage from Avatar, in which, as in Pocahontas, a confrontation between dark-skinned native peoples and white-skinned invaders intent on commercial exploitation is leavened by an intercultural love story. "But though their worlds were very different...their destinies were one," the plummy voice of the narrator intones, interrupted by the sound of a Powhatan saying, "These pale visitors are strange to us!"

The other mashup reverses the joke. Here, dialogue from Avatar—a futuristic fantasy in which a crippled ex-Marine is given a second chance at life on a strange new world called Pandora, and there falls in love with a native girl, a complication that confuses his allegiances—has been just as seamlessly laid over bits of Pocahontas. In one, we see an animated image of Captain John Smith's ship after it makes its fateful landing at Jamestown, while we hear the voice of a character in Avatar—a tough Marine colonel as he welcomes some new recruits to Pandora—sardonically quoting a bit of movie dialogue that has become an iconic expression of all kinds of cultural displacement. "Ladies and gentlemen," he bellows, "you are not in Kansas anymore!"

The satirical bite of the mashups is directed at what has been seen as the highly derivative, if not outright plagiaristic, nature of Avatar 's plot, characters, themes; themes that do, in many ways, seem like sci-fi updatings of the ones you find in Pocahontas. In the film, the Marine, Jake Sully—a paraplegic wounded in a war in Venezuela—begins as the confused servant of two masters. On the one hand, he is ostensibly assisting in a high-tech experiment in which human subjects, laid out in sarcophagus-like pods loaded with wires that monitor their brain waves, remotely operate laboratory-grown "avatars" of the indigenous anthropoids, nine-foot-tall, cyan-colored, nature-loving forest-dwellers called Na'vi. All this technology is meant to help the well-intentioned scientists to integrate and, ultimately, negotiate with the Na'vi in order to achieve a diplomatic solution to a pesky colonial problem: their local habitation, which takes the form of an enormous tree-hive, happens to sit on top of a rich deposit of a valuable mineral that the humans have come to Pandora to mine.

The problem is that Jake's other master—for whom he is, at first, secretly working, infiltrating the Na'vi with an eye to gathering strategic reconnaissance—is the mercenary army of Marines employed by the mysterious "Company" that's mining the precious mineral. (Anonymous, exploitive corporations are a leitmotif in the movies of this director.) It's clear from the start that both the Company and the Marines are itching to eschew diplomacy for a more violent and permanent solution to the Na'vi problem. The "dramatic arc" of the movie traces Jake's shift in consciousness as he gradually comes to appreciate Na'vi culture, with its deep, organic connection to nature (and—the inevitable romantic subplot—comes to adore a lovely Na'vi princess bearing the Egyptian-sounding name of Neytiri). Eventually, Jake goes over to their side, leading the native people in a climactic, extremely violent uprising against their thuggish oppressors.

So far, it would seem, so politically correct. And yet most of the criticisms that have been leveled at the film since its December premiere have to do with the nature of its politics rather than the originality of its vision. Many critics have lambasted Cameron's film for what they see as the patronizing, if not racist, overtones of its representation of the "primitive" Na'vi; the underlying hypocrisy of an apparent celebration, on the part of a special-effects-laden Hollywood blockbuster, of nature and of an accompanying polemic against technology and corporate greed; and the way it betrays what David Brooks, in a New York Times Op-Ed column, derides as the movie's "White Messiah" complex:

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.[1]

Criticisms such as Brooks's are not to be dismissed—not least because the ugly complex he identifies is one that has consistently marred Hollywood representations of cultural confrontation from the earliest westerns to the more recent products of a supposedly more enlightened age. (One of the many earnest movies to which Avatar has been derisively compared by its detractors is the 1990 Kevin Costner epic Dances with Wolves, in which a Civil War hero similarly goes native, leading the Indian tribes against his former compatriots.) What's striking is that so many critiques of Avatar 's political shortcomings often go out of their way to elide or belittle the movie's overwhelming successes as a work of cinema—its enormous visual power, the thrilling imaginative originality, the excitingly effective use of the 3-D technology that seems bound to change permanently the nature of cinematic experience henceforth—as if to acknowledge how dazzling it is would be an admission of critical weakness.[2]

An extreme example of this is to be found in a searching critique posted by the critic Caleb Crain on his blog:

Of course you don't really believe it. You know objectively that you're watching a series of highly skilled, highly labor-intensive computer simulations. But if you agree to suspend disbelief, then you agree to try to feel that Pandora is a second, improved nature, and that the Na'vi are "digital natives," to repurpose in a literal way a phrase that depends on the same piece of ideological deception.[3]

But our "objective knowledge" about the mechanisms that produce theatrical illusion is beside the point. To witness a critic working so hard not to surrender disbelief—the aim, after all, of drama since its inception—is, in a way, to realize how powerful the mechanisms that seek to produce that surrender really are.

As it happens, the movie that haunts Avatar—one that Cameron has often acknowledged as his favorite film—is one that takes the form of a fable about the difference (and sometimes traffic) between fantasy and reality; a movie whose dramatic climax centers on the moment when the protagonist understands that visually overwhelming and indeed politically manipulative illusions can be the product of "highly skilled, highly labor-intensive simulations" (a fact that does not, however, detract from the characters', and our, appreciation of the aesthetic and moral uses and benefits of fantasy, of illusion). That movie is, in fact, the one the Marine colonel quotes: The Wizard of Oz. Consideration of it is, to my mind, crucial to an understanding not only of the aesthetic aims and dramatic structure of Avatar but of a great and disturbing failure that has not been discussed as fervently or as often as its overtly political blind spots have been. This failure is, in certain ways, the culimination of a process that began with the first of Cameron's films, all of which can be seen as avatars of his beloved model, whose themes they continually rework: the scary and often violent confrontation between human and alien civilizations, the dreadful allure of the monstrous, the yearning, by us humans, for transcendence—of the places, the cultures, the very bodies that define us.

Humanity and human life have never held much attraction for Cameron; if anything, you can say that in all his movies there is a yearning to leave the flesh of Homo sapiens behind for something stronger and tougher. The movie that made his name and established him as a major writer-director of blockbuster successes, The Terminator (1984), is ostensibly about the poignant conflict between the human race and a race of sentient, human-hating cyborgs—"part man, part machine...fully armored, very tough. But outside it's living human tissue. Flesh, hair, blood...." Its plot, which essentially consists of a number of elaborately staged chase sequences, concerns the attempts by one of these, famously played by Arnold Schwarzenegger—an actor notorious for his fleshly armor as well as for his rather mechanical acting—who returns to the present from a post-apocalyptic future in order to assassinate a woman called Sarah Connor who will, we are told, one day give birth to the man destined to lead a successful human uprising against the cyborgs.

But whatever lip service it pays to the resilience of the human spirit, etc., the film cannot hide its more profound admiration for the resilience of the apparently indestructible cyborg. As the story evolves, this creature loses ever-increasing amounts of its human envelope in various encounters with the woman and her protectors—an eye here, a limb there—and is stripped, eventually, of all human characteristics. By the end, it emerges out of an explosion as a titanium skeleton, hell-bent on pure destruction. (In an interview with The New Yorker that appeared last fall, just before the release of Avatar, Cameron recalled that the inspiration for the movie, which he says came to him in a dream, was this sole image: "a chrome skeleton emerging out of a fire." Everything else came later.[4])

It would be hard to claim that Cameron—who has managed to wring clanking and false performances from fine actors like Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Billy Zane (Titanic), and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (The Abyss)—is an actor's director; his films' emotional energy, and certainly their visual interest, lies in their awed appreciation of what machines (and inhuman creatures) can do, from the seemingly unkillable cyborgs of the Terminator movies to the unstop- pable alien monster queen of Aliens to the deep-sea diving capsules and remote-controlled robots featured in Titanic. The performances that work in his films, significantly, are either those of mediocre actors like Schwarzenegger who actually play machines or good actors playing tight-lipped, emotionally shut-down characters, like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens (1986), which Cameron wrote and directed.

The Terminator had a dark sense of humor about our relationship to technology, an issue that is at the core, in its way, of Avatar. In one memorably disturbing scene, a woman can't hear her boyfriend being beaten to death by the Terminator because she's listening to loud pop music with her headphones on; in another, we—and the Terminator—overhear a crucial message on Sarah Connor's answering machine, which greets callers with the sly announcement: "Ha ha, I fooled you, you're talking to a machine. But that's OK, machines need love too." The joke is that they don't—and that's their advantage. It's no accident that, by the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Cameron's hit 1991 sequel to the original, Sarah Connor has become rather machine-like herself—pointedly, even cruelly suppressing maternal feelings for the child she has borne, strenuously working out, hardening her body, arming herself to the teeth with an eye-popping arsenal of hand- and machine guns.

The fascination with the seeming invincibility of sophisticated mechanical objects, and an accompanying desire to slough off human flesh for metal (and a celebration of flesh so taut it may as well be metal: Cameron's camera loves to linger on the tightly muscled bodies, male and female, of the soldiers so often featured in his violent films), is a recurrent theme in the techno-blockbusters that cemented the director's reputation in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Aliens famously ends with Weaver's character, Ellen Ripley, battling the dragonish alien monster queen after strapping herself into a giant forklift-like machine whose enormous pincers she mechanically controls by maneuvering her own slender arms—a technology that puts the puny human, finally, on a par with her gigantic, razor-toothed, acid-bleeding adversary.

This kind of exaggerated mechanical body gear, which endows people with machine-like strength and power, is a recurrent prop in Cameron's films. It's crucial in Aliens and it pops up again in his 1989 submarine fantasy The Abyss, which imagines an encounter between a deep-sea oil-drilling team and an ethereally beautiful, bioluminescent species of marine aliens. Even in Titanic (1997), the clunky "human interest" subplot, about a doomed romance between a feisty Main Line nymphet and a free-spirited artist in third class, cannot compete with the swooning representation of machines: the ship itself, the pumping turbines and purring hydraulics and, later, the awful, methodical disintegration of those mechanical elements—and a lot of glittering modern-day gadgets, too. For the famous disaster sequence is intercut with scenes of present-day dives to the great wreck, during which human operators remotely manipulate treasure-hunting drones by means of sympathetic arm movements.

A violent variation on the same mechanical bodysuits reappears, memorably, in Avatar, which culminates in a scene of bloody single combat between a Na'vi warrior and the evil Marine colonel, who has strapped himself into one such machine. If anything, the recurrent motif of humans inserting themselves into mechanical contraptions in order to enjoy superhuman powers reaches its fullest, most sophisticated expression in the new movie, whose characters can literally become other, superhuman beings by hooking themselves up to elaborate machines. All this seems to bear out the underlying truth of a joke that Linda Hamilton, the actress who played Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies, told about her first, unhappy interactions with the director (whom she later married and divorced): "That man is definitely on the side of the machines."

The awed appreciation for superhuman powers—and an understandable desire by human weaklings to lay claim to them, in times of great duress—that recur in Cameron's work before Avatar surely betrays a lingering trace of his formative encounter with The Wizard of Oz, which so famously shows us a helpless twelve-year-old, set loose in a strange world inhabited by scary monsters and powerful aliens, discovering her own hitherto unknown powers (and learning that certain supposedly supernatural powers are produced by knowing how to maneuver the right gears and levers).

Another inheritance from that visually revolutionary work, of course, is Cameron's taste for plots that have to do with encounters between humans and aliens of one sort or another. Avatar would seem to be the most obvious manifestation of this particular debt that Cameron owes to his favorite movie. Apart from a number of explicit allusions to Oz—the line about not being in Kansas anymore, a corporate stooge's sneering reference to the Na'vi as "blue monkeys," which recalls the blue-tinged flying monkeys of the 1939 movie—the encounter between the human world and the world of the Na'vi is imbued with a sense of thrilled visual amazement that deliberately evokes a similar experience provided by the Hollywood classic. In the latter, Dorothy's life in Kansas was filmed in black and white; only when she awakes in Oz does the film move into dazzling three-strip Technicolor. In Avatar, Cameron quotes this famous gesture. Jake Sully's world, the world of the humans—the interior of the marine transports and fighters, the hangars and meeting rooms, the labs of the scientists and the offices of the nameless corporation—is filmed in a drably monotonous palette of grays and blues (the latter being a favorite color of this director, who uses it often to represent a bleak future); the world of the Na'vi, in contrast, is one of staggering color and ravishing light.

The colors, apart from the opulent greens of the Na'vis' jungle homeland, tend to be lusciously "feminine" on the flora—violet, mauve, delicate peaches and yellows. They grow stronger on the fauna, a series of brilliantly imagined creatures among which, persuasively, certain morphologies recur. (Crests, say, and hammer-heads.) All, the plants and animals both, share one trait that clearly owes much to Cameron's lifelong passion for marine exploration, and which provides Avatar with much of its visual delight: bioluminescence. As the characters tread on plants or trees, the latter light up delicately, for a moment; the ritually important Tree of Souls looks like a weeping willow made of fiber-optic cables. It's a wonderful conceit that had me literally gasping with pleasure the first time I saw the movie.

This visual ravishment—which is the principal experience of the movie and which is, too, enhanced by the surprisingly subtle use of 3-D technology (there are gratifyingly few shots of objects projecting into the audience's field; you just feel that you're sharing the same plane as the creatures in the movie)—is part of a strategy intended to make us admire the Na'vi. Not surprisingly, given all this natural synergy and beauty, the native people, as we are told again and again, enjoy a special bond with all those colorful creatures and, more generally, with the ecosystem (to whom they have given the name Eywa; Cameron, apparently as much a stickler for linguistic as for biological verisimilitude, had his underlings work up a functional Na'vi language).

This, in turn, is part of the film's earnest, apparently anticolonial, anticapitalist, antitechnology message. These creatures, rather sentimentally modeled on popular notions of Native American and African tribes, are presented as being wholly in tune with nature—as preagricultural hunter-gatherers who subsist on the flesh of the animals they kill by means of their remarkable skill at archery. (When they do make a kill, they solemnly apologize to the victims: "All energy is borrowed and one day you have to give it back," Neytiri rather officiously informs the avatar-Jake when he makes his first kill.) They stand, therefore, in stark contrast to the movie's humans (the "sky-people"), with their heavy, rumbling, roaring copters and tractors and immense, belching, grinding mining-machines—the representatives of destructive "technology" who have, we are told, "killed their mother": which is to say, destroyed their own planet.

All this would be well and good enough, in its ecofable, Pocahontas -esque way, but for the fact that Cameron is the wrong man to be making a film celebrating the virtues of pre- technological societies. As, indeed, he has no intention of doing here. For as the admiring scientists—led by a chain-smoking, tough-talking woman called Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver (the chain-smoking is an in-joke: Ripley had the same bad habit)—protest to the trigger-happy Marines, Na'vi civilization is in fact technologically sophisticated: by means of a pistil-tipped appendage, wittily described by Crain as a kind of USB cable, which plugs into similar appendages on both plants and animals, they can commune not only with other creatures but with what constitutes a planet-wide version of a technology with which we today are very preoccupied. "Don't you get it?" an exasperated Dr. Augustine shouts at the corporate and military yahoos who clearly intend to blow all the Na'vi to kingdom come. "It's a network—a global network!"

Dr. Augustine goes on to describe how, by means of the pistil-thing, the Na'vi can upload and download memories, information, and so forth—and can even communicate with their dead. One such upload to Eywa herself, transmitted through the Tree of Souls by Jake's avatar, will, in the end, help lead the Na'vi and their furry friends to victory over the human exploiters. (This, of course, is the Dances with Wolves paradigm.)

In its confused treatment of that favorite Cameron preoccupation—the relationship between the natural and the technological worlds—the film, for all its richly imagined and dazzlingly depicted beauties, runs into deep and revealing trouble. As we know by now, Cameron's real attraction, as a writer and a director, has always been for the technologies that turn humans into superhumans. However "primitive" they have seemed to some critics, the Na'vi—with their uniformly superb, sleekly blue-gleaming physiques, their weirdly infallible surefootedness, their organic connector cables, their ability to upload and download consciousness itself—are the ultimate expression of his career-long striving to make flesh mechanical. The problem here is not a patronizingly clichéd representation of an ostensibly primitive people; the problem is the movie's intellectually incoherent portrayal of its fictional heroes as both admirably precivilized and admirably hypercivilized, as atechnological and highly technologized. Avatar 's desire to have its anthropological cake and eat it too suggests something deeply unself-aware and disturbingly unresolved within Cameron himself.

And how not? He is, after all, a Hollywood giant who insists on seeing himself as a regular Joe—a man with what he called, in the New Yorker interview, a "blue-collar sensibility"; more to the point, he is a director whose hugely successful mass entertainments cost hundreds of millions of dollars obligingly provided by deep-pocketed corporations—a "company" man, whether he knows it or not. And these shows depend for their effects—none more than Avatar—on the most sophisticated technologies available, even as that director tells himself that the technology that is the sine qua non of his technique isn't as important as people think; that, in fact, what makes Avatar special is the "human interest" story, particularly the love story between Jake and Neytiri:

Too much is being said about the technology of this film. Quite frankly, I don't give a rat's ass how a film is made. It's an emotional story. It's a love story. They're not expecting that. The sci-fi/fantasy fans see the trailer and they think, Cool—battles, robots. What you really need to get to is, Oh, it's that [a love story], too.

But of course, when you see Avatar, what overwhelms you is what the technology accomplishes—not only the battles and robots, to be fair, but all the other marvelous stuff, the often overwhelmingly beautiful images of a place that exists somewhere over the rainbow.

Even beyond the incoherence that mars Avatar and hopelessly confuses whatever it thinks its message may be, there is a larger flaw here—one that's connected to Cameron's ambivalence about the relationship between technology and humanity; one that also brings you back, in the end, to The Wizard of Oz; one that is less political than ethical.

If it's right to see the movie as the culmination of Cameron's lifelong progress toward embracing a dazzling, superior Otherness—in a word, toward Oz—what strikes you, in the end, is how radically it differs, in one significant detail, from its model. Like the 1939 classic, the 2009 film ends with a scene of awakening. By the end, the Na'vi have triumphed but the human Jake, operating his avatar from within his computerized pod, has been fatally hurt. His dying body is brought back to the Tree of Souls where, in a ceremony of the greatest holiness, the consciousness of the human Jake will be transferred, finally and permanently, into his Na'vi avatar. (Technology at its best, surely.) In the closing moments of the film the camera lingers suspensefully on the motionless face of avatar-Jake; suddenly, the large, feline eyes pop open, and then the screen goes black. We leave the theater secure in the knowledge that the rite has been successful, that the avatar Jake will live. (And that there will be sequels.)

This moment of waking is, structurally, a crucial one; at the very beginning of the film, during Jake's introductory voice-over, the crippled man has poignantly described the liberating but ultimately deceptive dreams of flying that he often has: "I start having these dreams of flying...sooner or later, though, you always have to wake up." The final image of the redeemed and healed Jake waking up to his new Na'vi life is clearly meant, then, to be a triumphant rewriting of that sour acknowledgment.

But the implications of this awakening—in a character that Cameron himself described as an unconscious rewriting of The Wizard of Oz 's Dorothy ("it was, in some ways, like Dorothy's journey")—are not only different from but opposite to the implications of Dorothy's climactic wakening. When Dorothy wakes up, it's to the drab, black-and-white reality of the gritty Kansas existence with which she had been so dissatisfied at the beginning of her remarkable journey into fantasy, into vibrant color; what she famously learns from that exposure to radical otherness is, in fact, that "there's no place like home." Which is to say, when she wakes up—equipped, to be sure (as she was not before) with all that she has learned from her remarkable odyssey, not the least of which is a strong new awareness of her own human abilities—she wakes up to the realities, and the responsibilities, of the human world she'd temporarily escaped from.

The triumphant conclusion of Avatar, by contrast, takes the form of a permanent abandonment of the gray world of Homo sapiens—which, as Dorothy learns, may contain its own hidden marvels—for the Technicolor, over-the-rainbow fantasy world into which Jake accidentally strayed. This represents something new in Cameron's work, something you can't help thinking is significant. In the director's films of the 1980s and 1990s, in the Terminator films or in Aliens, in the misbegotten Abyss and even, in its way, in Titanic—just before the advent of cell phones and iPhones, of reality TV and virtual socializing, and, indeed, of mashups, of this new moment in which each of us can inhabit what you might call a private reality—the encounters with radical otherness or with extremes of violence and disaster always concluded, however awkwardly in some cases, with a moment of quiet, a return to the reassuring familiarity of life as most of us know it.

The message of what is now James Cameron's most popular movie thus far, and the biggest-grossing movie in history—like the message of so much else in mass culture just now—is, by contrast, that "reality" is dispensable altogether; or, at the very least, whatever you care to make of it, provided you have the right gadgets. In this fantasy of a lusciously colorful trip over the rainbow, you don't have to wake up. There's no need for home. Whatever its futuristic setting, and whatever its debt to the past, Avatar is very much a movie for our time.

[1]David Brooks, "The Messiah Complex," The New York Times, January 7, 2010.

[2]A notable exception was the New Yorker review by David Denby, which begins, "Avatar is the most beautiful film I've seen in years." See "Going Native," The New Yorker, January 4, 2010.

[3]Caleb Crain, "Don't Play with That, or You'll Go Blind," his blog post at Crain is more resistant to the film's beauties than I would be, and sees the director as "cynical" instead of unresolved in his treatment of technology and "primitive" cultures, as I see him.

[4]Dana Goodyear, "Man of Extremes: The Return of James Cameron," The New Yorker, October 26, 2009.

Public Diplomacy Off the Seventh Floor

I've heard from two reliable sources that the office of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (yes, the "real-world," physical office) is no longer on the prestigious Seventh Floor at the State Department. One source said this office has been moved "down" to the fourth floor; the other to the fifth floor.

As where you sit is all-too-important in the foreign-policy bureaucracy, I wonder what the "lower" relocation of the Under Secretary's Office means for public diplomacy in the Obama Administration. My inclination, perhaps wrong-headed, is to think that this move is something of a demotion for PD (see my March 2, 2009 article, Smart Power In, Public Diplomacy Out?). Consider this quotation:

Washington jargon gives buildings human powers and characteristics: The White House says, the Pentagon wants, Treasury insists, Commerce drags its feet. In the Department of State, this kind of language is applied to floors -- and to letters. Letter codes designate all State Department offices. The secretary of state is S. The executive secretariat is S/ES, which manages information to seventh-floor principals like P, the undersecretary for political affairs, or M, the undersecretary for management. The Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs is EAP, the Office of Japanese Affairs (also called the Japan desk) is EAP/J, and so forth. It is quite possible for the seventh floor to be furious when S/ES bounces a memo that P tasked to EAP back to J, because the sixth floor did not sign off. ...

The office of the secretary of state would probably hold some two dozen employees if it were on the third or fourth floors.

--From Harry W. Koop and Charles A. Gillepsie, Career Diplomacy: Life and Work in the U.S. Foreign Service (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2008), p. 38; above image from

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Testimony of Joseph S. Nye, Jr.: Restoring America’s Reputation in the World and Why It Matters

Testimony of Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

University Distinguished Service Professor
Harvard University

Before the Committee on Foreign Affairs
U.S. House of Representatives

March 4, 2010

Restoring America’s Reputation in the World and Why It Matters
[posted with the kind agreement of Professor Nye]

I developed the concept of soft power in 1989 while writing a book that questioned the conventional wisdom about American decline. After examining American economic and military power, I found that something was still missing – the ability of the United States to attract others and thus increase the probability of obtaining the outcomes we wanted. It has been interesting to see an academic concept migrate to the front pages of newspapers, and to see it used by top leaders in China, India, Indonesia, Europe, and elsewhere over the past two decades. But wide usage has sometimes meant misuse of the concept as a synonym for anything other than military force.

Properly defined, soft power is the ability to affect others to obtain preferred outcomes by the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuasion and positive attraction. My friend Andrew Kohut will present the evidence about how America’s attractiveness to other countries has changed in recent years, so I will confine my remarks to the mechanisms by which such changes produce power, which I define as the ability to affect others to get the outcomes one wants. My remarks are drawn from my forthcoming book on smart power.

How Soft Power Works

There are basically two models of how soft power works – direct and indirect. In the direct form, leaders may be attracted and persuaded by the benignity, competence or charisma of other leaders. Friendships sometimes matter in world politics, and elite networks often play an important role. More common, however, is a two step model in which publics and third parties are influenced, and they in turn affect the leaders of other countries. In this case, soft power has an important indirect effect by creating an enabling environment. Alternatively, if an actor or action is perceived as repulsive, it creates a disabling environment.

Judging the causal effects of soft power varies with each model. In the first case, judging direct causation requires careful process tracing of the sort that good historians or journalists do, with all the incumbent difficulties of sorting out multiple causes in trying to trace whether a given influence effort was an important part of achieving a preferred outcome. The second model, indirect causation, also requires careful process tracing because multiple causal factors are involved, but here public opinion polls and careful content analysis can help provide a first estimate of the existence of an enabling or disabling environment.

Even though polls can measure the existence and trends in potential soft power resources, they are only a first approximation for behavioral change in terms of outcomes. Where opinion is strong and consistent over time, it can have an effect, but its impact in comparison to other variables can only be determined by careful process tracing. This is often difficult to catch in the metrics that financial officials demand when considering funds for public diplomacy budgets.

Some skeptics discount polls completely. They argue that the fact that the state controls public opinion rather than being controlled by it in the realm of foreign policy is a fact that undermines the logic of soft power. For that to be true, however, one would have to ignore direct effects, matters of degree, types of goals, and interactions with other causes. Moreover, even in autocracies, public opinion sometimes matters as a constraint on authoritarian leaders, and in many authoritarian states where internal dissent is muted, international opprobrium is not welcomed.

Regarding specific goals, sometimes we see the one step model with direct effects on policy makers that does not go through public opinion. Student and leadership exchanges are a good example. Forty six current and 165 former heads of government are products of US higher education. Not all of the nearly 700,000 foreign students who come to the US annually are attracted to the country, but the large majority are. “Research has consistently shown that exchange students return home with a more positive view of the country in which they studied and the people with whom they interacted,” and foreign educated students are more likely to promote democracy in their home country if they are educated in democratic countries. The results can be dramatic. For example, at the end of the Cold War, Gorbachev’s embrace of perestroika and glastnost was influenced by ideas learned in the U.S. by Alexander Yakovlev when he was an exchange student. Although it took two decades to materialize, that was a huge return on a small investment.

With the two step model, public opinion affects elites by creating an enabling or disabling environment for specific policy initiatives. For example, in regard to Iraq in 2003, Turkish officials were constrained by public and parliamentary opinion and unable to allow the American 4th Infantry Division to cross their country. The Bush Administration’s lack of soft power hurt its hard power. Similarly, Mexican President Vicente Fox wished to accommodate his friend George W. Bush by supporting a second UN resolution authorizing invasion, but was constrained by Mexican public opinion. When being pro-American is a political kiss of death, public opinion has an effect on policy that the skeptics’ simple proposition does not capture.

Moreover, in addition to specific goals, countries often have general contextual goals such as democracy, human rights, and open economic systems. Here the target of soft power is broad public opinion and cultural attitudes. Most historians who have studied the period agree that in addition to troops and money, American power to promote such goals in post war Europe was strongly affected by our culture, ideas and reputation. As one Norwegian scholar argued, “federalism, democracy, and open markets represented core American values. This is what America exported.” That made it much easier to maintain what he called an “empire by invitation.” Today, many acts of terrorism are less designed to overthrow a particular government than to create a climate of polarization in which an extremist narrative can spread to wider parts of the Muslim world.

Not only do actors try to influence each other directly and indirectly through soft power, it is also clear that they compete to deprive each other of attractiveness and legitimacy, thus creating a disabling environment either in public opinion in the other country and/or in the eyes of relevant third parties. For example, after the US Senate passed a $30 million bill to document and publicize human right violations in Iran, the Iranian parliament created a $20 million fund to expose human rights violations in the U.S. Sometimes leaders are prepared to ignore the opinion of third parties (somewhat misleadingly labeled “world public opinion”), but other times their concerns about diplomatic isolation can inhibit their actions.

Interestingly, military analysts trying to understand counter-insurgency have rediscovered the importance of struggles over soft power. In the words of General David Patreus, “we did reaffirm in Iraq the recognition that you don’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency.” More recently he warned against expedient measures that damage our reputation. “We end us paying a price for it ultimately. Abu Ghraib and other situations like that are non-biodegradable. They don’t go away. The enemy continues to beat you with them like a stick.” In Afghanistan, the Taliban have embarked on a sophisticated information war, using modern media tools as well as some old-fashioned one, to soften their image and win favor with local Afghans as they try to counter the Americans’ new campaign to win Afghan hearts and minds.

In 2008, after its invasion of Georgia, Russia carefully controlled its domestic media, but seemed ill prepared to press its case internationally. Georgian President Mikhail Saakasvili used his fluency in English to dominate coverage in the rest of the world. “The Kremlin’s reluctance to muster support for its position with the same intensity that it sent tanks into Georgia offers an insight into its worldview.” Russian military power dominated, but Russia was not as adept in wielding soft power to consolidate its military victory.

But there is also a danger of thinking of information campaigns in terms that mis-understand the essence of soft power. “The military has to understand that soft power is more challenging to wield in terms of the application of military force – particularly if what that force is doing is not seen as attractive.” If the other levers of soft power are not pulling in the same direction, then the military cannot create favorable conditions on its own. In the words of Admiral Mullen, America’s top military officer, “no amount of public relations will establish credibility if American behavior overseas is perceived as arrogant, uncaring or insulting.” Or as the Australian COIN expert David Kilcullen notes, “this implies that America’s international reputation, moral authority , diplomatic weight, persuasive ability, cultural attractiveness and strategic credibility – its “soft power”—is not some optional adjunct to military strength. Rather, it is a critical enabler for a permissive operating environment… and it is also the prime political competence in countering a globalized insurgency.”

There are a wide variety of basic resources that can be converted into soft power by skillful conversion strategies. Basic resources include culture, values, legitimate policies, a positive domestic model, a successful economy, a competent military and others. Sometimes these resources are specially shaped for soft power purposes. Such shaped resources include national intelligence services, information agencies, diplomacy, public diplomacy, exchange programs, assistance programs, training programs, and various other measures. Shaped resources provide a wide variety of policy tools, but whether they produce positive or negative responses in the targets (and thus preferred outcomes) depends upon the context, the target, and the qualities of the power conversion strategies. Sometimes skeptics complain that soft power and attraction do not always produce the outcomes we seek. That is true. Soft power is unlikely to get Kim Jong Il to give up his nuclear weapons, and President Obama’s popularity did not divert the Dutch government from its plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Particular events like this have multiple causes, but this is true of all types of power, not just soft power.

The conversion of power resources into preferred outcomes always depends upon particular contexts. A strong tank army is likely to prevail if a battle is fought in a desert, but not if it is fought in a swamp. The soft power of attraction and persuasion can create enabling or disabling environments that affect the probabilities of obtaining favorable outcomes, but human power relations, unlike the laws of classical physics, are probabilistic rather than deterministic. Does soft power matter? Yes. Does it always predict the outcome? No. Are we better off with it than without it? Surely. That is why a smart power strategy combines hard and soft power resources.