Monday, June 28, 2010

Message from the FCO: Strategic Communications Now, Public Diplomacy Later

UK - MFA - Foreign Secretary's statement on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's programmes spending – Isria: "The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, William Hague: The House is aware that I have been conducting a full review of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s spending on programmes. ... I have decided that we will: ... - Cut our public diplomacy programmes by £1.6m this financial year, focusing on strategic communications to key overseas audiences, while seeking (resources permitting) to sustain this programme in future years."

The Philosophical Dinner Party

The Philosophical Dinner Party

By Frieda Klotz (New York Times, June 28)

[JB note: This article should be a must read for persons involved in so-called "strategic communications" so that they can put this oh-so-solemn activity in proper perspective]

What is the meaning of life? Is there a god? Does the human race have a future? The standard perception of philosophy is that it poses questions that are often esoteric and almost always daunting. So another pertinent question [...] is [:] can philosophy ever be fun?

Philosophy was a way of life for ancient philosophers, as much as a theoretical study — from Diogenes the Cynic, masturbating in public (“I wish I could cure my hunger as easily” he replied, when challenged) to Marcus Aurelius, obsessively transcribing and annotating his thoughts — and its practitioners didn’t mind amusing people or causing public outrage to bring attention to their message. Divisions between academic and practical philosophy have long existed, for sure, but even Plato, who was prolific on theoretical matters, may have tried to translate philosophy into action: ancient rumor has it that he traveled to Sicily to tutor first Dionysios I, king of Syracuse, and later his son (each ruler fell out with Plato and unceremoniously sent him home).

For at least one ancient philosopher, the love of wisdom was not only meant to be practical, but also to combine “fun with serious effort.” This is the definition of Plutarch, a Greek who lived in the post-Classical age of the second century A.D., a time when philosophy tended to focus on ethics and morals. Plutarch is better known as a biographer than a philosopher. A priest, politician and Middle Platonist who lived in Greece under Roman rule, he wrote parallel lives of Greeks and Romans, from which Shakespeare borrowed liberally and Emerson rapturously described as “a bible for heroes.” At the start and end of each “life” he composed a brief moral essay, comparing the faults and virtues of his subjects. Although they are artfully written, the “Lives” are really little more than brilliant realizations of Plutarch’s own very practical take on philosophy, aimed at teaching readers how to live.

Many of Plutarch’s works are concerned with showing readers how to deal better with their day-to-day circumstances.

Plutarch thought philosophy should be taught at dinner parties. It should be taught through literature, or written in letters giving advice to friends. Good philosophy does not occur in isolation; it is about friendship, inherently social and shared. The philosopher should engage in politics, and he should be busy, for he knows, as Plutarch sternly puts it, that idleness is no remedy for distress.

Many of Plutarch’s works are concerned with showing readers how to deal better with their day-to-day circumstances. In Plutarch’s eyes, the philosopher is a man who sprinkles seriousness into a silly conversation; he gives advice and offers counsel, but prefers a discussion to a conversation-hogging monologue. He likes to exchange ideas but does not enjoy aggressive arguments. And if someone at his dinner-table seems timid or reserved, he’s more than happy to add some extra wine to the shy guest’s cup.

He outlined this benign doctrine over the course of more than 80 moral essays (far less often read than the “Lives”). Several of his texts offer two interpretive tiers — advice on philosophical behavior for less educated readers, and a call to further learning, for those who would want more. It’s intriguing to see that the guidance he came up with has much in common with what we now call cognitive behavioral therapy. Writing on the subject of contentment, he tells his public: Change your attitudes! Think positive non-gloomy thoughts! If you don’t get a raise or a promotion, remember that means you’ll have less work to do. He points out that “There are storm winds that vex both the rich and the poor, both married and single.”

In one treatise, aptly called “Discussions Over Drinks,” Plutarch gives an account of the dinner-parties he attended with his friends during his lifetime. Over innumerable jugs of wine they grapple with 95 topics, covering science, medicine, social etiquette, women, alcohol, food and literature: When is the best time to have sex? Did Alexander the Great really drink too much? Should a host seat his guests or allow them to seat themselves? Why are old men very fond of strong wine? And, rather obscurely: Why do women not eat the heart of lettuce? (This last, sadly, is fragmentary and thus unanswered). Some of the questions point to broader issues, but there is plenty of gossip and philosophical loose talk.

Plutarch begins “Discussions” by asking his own philosophical question — is philosophy a suitable topic of conversation at a dinner party? The answer is yes, not just because Plato’s “Symposium” is a central philosophic text (symposium being Greek for “drinking party”); it’s because philosophy is about conducting oneself in a certain way — the philosopher knows that men “practice philosophy when they are silent, when they jest, even, by Zeus! when they are the butt of jokes and when they make fun of others.”

Precisely because of its eclecticism and the practical nature of his treatises, Plutarch’s work is often looked down on in the academic world, and even Emerson said he was “without any supreme intellectual gifts,” adding, “He is not a profound mind … not a metaphysician like Parmenides, Plato or Aristotle.” When we think of the lives of ancient philosophers, we’re far more likely to think of Socrates, condemned to death by the Athenians and drinking hemlock, than of Plutarch, a Greek living happily with Roman rule, quaffing wine with his friends.

Yet in our own time-poor age, with anxieties shifting from economic meltdowns to oil spills to daily stress, it’s now more than ever that we need philosophy of the everyday sort. In the Plutarchan sense, friendship, parties and even wine, are not trivial; and while philosophy may indeed be difficult, we shouldn’t forget that it should be fun.
Frieda Klotz is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. She is co-editing a book on Plutarch’s “Discussions over Drinks” for Oxford University Press.

Friday, June 25, 2010

On Evonne Levy’s Propaganda and the Jesuit Baroque

National Post — May 29, 2004
The power of art as propaganda
On Evonne Levy’s Propaganda and the Jesuit Baroque
by Ian Garrick Mason

If asked to define propaganda, most of us would have a hard time coming up with a formal definition. But, we would probably say, we know it when we see it. Propaganda is the speeches uttered by Joseph Goebbels in the Second World War, for example, or the subtle distortions produced by the Soviet Union’s bureaus of disinformation, or the hate-filled radio broadcasts of the Hutu during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Propaganda, in other words, is something the bad guys do. Not us.

Given this, it seems natural to assume that a work of propaganda cannot be a work of art. “Art”, as we all know, is disinterested, individualistic, rebellious, and above all, honest. But artwork produced as propaganda is the opposite of this: interested, corporate, obedient, and dishonest. It is nothing more than a tool used to achieve an ideological or institutional goal.

Consider, as Exhibit A, the art and architecture of the Jesuit Baroque. Founded in 1540 by Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish soldier who had converted while recovering from a wound, the Society of Jesus grew rapidly over the next century. Essential actors in the Counter-Reformation, the Jesuits soon became the subject of ongoing controversy because of their transnational structure, comparative secrecy, mastery of argument (and concomitant political influence), and formal ties of obedience to the pope.

In its seventeenth-century heyday, the Society sponsored the creation of an immense amount of religious art and architecture. But as University of Toronto art historian Evonne Levy describes in her new book, Propaganda and the Jesuit Baroque, many of the art and architecture historians of the nineteenth-century would dismiss these works as “Jesuit Style”. The Jesuit Style, the critics charged, was meant to “intoxicate” viewers, to overawe them with silver and gold, stunningly realistic sculpture, and vertiginous vaulting. It was a mind trick, meant to convert the gullible and further the Jesuits’ aims of world domination. In short, it wasn’t art.

The notion of the Jesuit Style, however, was debunked by more systematic art historians in the early twentieth century, and replaced with the more neutral term “Baroque”. For a short time, Baroque art continued to be seen as a form of propaganda – a term that became familiar to the public after its heavy use in World War One. By our own day, even that label had vanished, and Jesuit art was free once again to be considered “art”.

Yet this is not a simple tale of enlightenment triumphing over prejudice. The reason for this last perceptual shift, argues Levy, is that twentieth century society learned to fear and distrust propaganda after two world wars and the unprecedented use of the press and broadcasting to further the war aims of various governments. Indeed, the postwar West was treated to a kind of anti-propaganda propaganda: the Soviet Union uses propaganda, we were told, and democracies do not. This story applied to art, too. “In the Cold War environment there was much at stake in maintaining that art could be pure and truthful,” she writes. Thus the perceived incompatibility of art and propaganda: a work could be one or the other, but never both.

Levy argues that the idea behind the Jesuit Style was not wrong, that Jesuit art and architecture was indeed propagandistic in both intent and effect. At the core of the Counter-Reformation project was the recovery of souls lost to Protestant sects, so from the beginning emphasis was placed on content over artistic style, and on the power of art to move a spectator, to induce them to change. “For Christian images there is one end: to persuade to piety and bring people to God,” wrote bishop Gabriele Paleotti, articulating the Catholic alternative to European society’s ever more secular view of the arts. Even the term “propaganda” was a partly Catholic creation, its present meaning deriving from the Sacra Congregâtio dê Propagandâ Fide – the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith – an organization of cardinals formed in 1622 to carry out missionary work.

The Jesuits were well aware of the effect that artistic and architectural grandeur could have on observers; they hoped that the admiration so generated would be transferable, “passing from the building built for God to God, producing devotion,” explains Levy. Yet this was merely a general effect. Propaganda must carry a message, and through the cult of St. Ignatius the Jesuits were able to communicate more than one of these.

By the time of Ignatius’s death in 1556, the Society of Jesus had become well-known for its willingness to perform missionary work overseas. Thus the story of the conversion of Ignatius, his founding of the Society, and the Society’s conversion of peoples around the world formed a perfect narrative for illustrating the hierarchical flow of divine grace: from Jesus to Ignatius, from Ignatius to the Jesuits, from the Jesuits to the world’s laity, both converted and yet to be converted.

Which is the very hierarchy painted by Andrea Pozzo on the vault of the Church of St. Ignatius in Rome. “The worldwide mission of the Society of Jesus” shows the Holy Trinity high up in the clouds in the centre of the ceiling. As described by Pozzo in his 1693 treatise Perspectiva pictorum et architectorum, from the wound in Jesus’ side “issue forth rays of light that wound the heart of St. Ignatius, and from him they issue, as a reflection spread to the four parts of the world…”

As a visualization of God’s grace passed down through his agents on earth, the painting conveys a precise, easily understood message. Yet at the same time it is conveyed with the most stunning of effects: the vault is painted as if the walls extend higher before opening out into a blue sky of puffy clouds, with angels and saints clambering and floating upward from the tops of the walls into an almost infinite distance. Pozzo was one of the outstanding theorists of visual perspective in the seventeenth century, and the effect he achieves is awesome – enough to humble the sinner, or to convert the wavering.

In order to boost the cult of St. Ignatius, the Jesuits decided to renovate the Chapel of St. Ignatius in Il Gesù, the Jesuit Mother Church in Rome, a commission which, after a controversial public competition, was awarded to Andrea Pozzo, himself a Jesuit. Completed in 1699, this chapel too has a typically overwhelming effect on a viewer — but again, the overall effect is only part of the story. Levy highlights several of the most message-laden elements in the chapel’s profusion of art. One, the chapel’s central image, is a remarkable silver statue of Ignatius on the road to La Storta, where Jesus came to him in a vision and called him to found a society in Rome. As a saint, Ignatius was believed to be “radiant” – emitting the divine light one sees depicted around the heads of holy figures – and this effect was recreated by Pozzo by adding a small window behind the statue’s head. With the sun shining through the window onto the silver, the radiance around Ignatius would have seemed physically real, not just metaphorical. Again, the intent was to drive home a message, and if possible to turn a viewer into an adherent.

For all their sophistication, however, these propagandistic techniques were marks of insecurity rather than dominance. Levy points out that the Jesuits were competing for adherents on a worldwide scale, pressed hard by Protestant alternatives in country after country. What the Jesuits most feared was failure: their famously centralized control over church design, for example, was maintained so that Jesuit churches built outside of Rome by architects of varying competence would not fall down – which, if it happened, would reflect poorly on the Society.

If these themes – competition for customers, centralized control of design – seem familiar, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, modern organizations use techniques very similar to those of the Jesuits to advance their own causes and to win adherents. To raise money, conservation groups don’t send out detailed studies listing the scientific names of threatened species, but broadcast commercials that show the majestic beauty of whales and the viscerally disgusting pollution of factories. Likewise, to win public support, governments strive to stay “on message” at all times, and create simplified narratives about public policy issues that citizens can understand.

Propaganda is a technique of persuasion. Perhaps it is going too far to say, as advertising pioneer and WWI propagandist Edward Bernays did, that “whether, in any instance, propaganda is good or bad depends upon the merit of the cause urged, and the correctness of the information published.” But demonizing propaganda may be even worse, by leading us either to deny that it’s part of our society at all, or, if we do accept that it’s present, to demonize our society along with it.

For Levy, though, it’s a matter of how we understand art. The main problem with today’s anti-propaganda attitude is that it boxes us into a one-dimensional view. If we see only the propaganda, as the nineteenth-century anti-Jesuit historians did, we turn art into “evidence”, its aesthetic nature denied. And if we see only the art, as the twentieth-century museum, “its galleries filled with objects separated from the altars of their original gods”, does, then we turn art into a false idol, stripped of its context and purpose. Her point is simple: can we not learn to see both?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cultural Diplomacy: Message from Dan Sreebny, Senior Media Advisor, Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs

[Posted with the kind agreement of Mr. Sreebny]

Sreebny image from

"John - I read your discussion of the Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy caucus meeting, and noted your short description of the discussion of Cultural Diplomacy by Ms. DiMartino. I was surprised you only included what you did – Ms. DiMartino also underscored how cultural diplomacy is a critical tool in our toolbox for engaging foreign publics, talked about how it furthers our interests by allowing us to establish contacts with people who we might not otherwise engage with, and noted how cultural diplomacy allows us in many instances to engage with the important change agents within societies.

Best regards,


Dan Sreebny
Senior Media Advisor
Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (R)
Department of State"

Organizational Insularity and Public Diplomacy

"I won't belong to any organization that would have me as a member."

--Groucho Marx; image from

I guess these days we all try to make sense of the "news," given the bombardment of "information" that assaults us every second through the media.

Some pessimistic thoughts about what we see on the Internet/TV, in a century that regrettably does little to inspire optimism:

BP's CEO Tony Hayward and the oil spill in the Gulf; General McCrystal and his "team America" in Afghanistan; Crescenzio Sepe, "the archbishop of Naples, ... accused of taking kickbacks when he headed the Propaganda Fide – that’s the body which handles the Vatican’s vast property porfolio which funds much of the Catholic Church’s missionary work."

All these persons, God bless 'em, are members of vast, insular organizations with their hermetic subdivisions (a corporation and its many layers of "management"; a military within-a-military; a church's propaganda arm) that have their own inner workings, agendas and priorities.

The "small people" -- persons not working for these organizations but under their impact/control -- are all too often seen by these organizations -- and their sublayers -- as "outsiders" -- respectively, as consumers, civilians, and captive souls -- whose main value to the organization is how they can be used for the greater profit/control/survival of the organization.

I should note, as an aside, that the term "small people," uttered by English-challenged Swedish BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, may have been a reflection of a "humanistic" education on his part: perhaps he was "translating" into his international English the term, popolo minuto, "craftsmen and labourers," according to a University of Calgary website, "who were forbidden to organize into guilds. Since, in many communes, guild membership was a prerequisite for political office, the popolo minuto were effectively excluded from involvement in civic government. This discrimination generated much of the civic restlessness that characterized Italian politics in the late Middle Ages and beyond."

But I digress. Back to my main point: An organization, at its worst, uses/abuses the "small people" primarily for the benefit -- financial, political, "spiritual," depending on the nature of organization -- of the various "niches" of the organization, which often despise one another but, when push comes to shove, will stand up for the organization as a whole to protect their own narrow privileges within the organization -- and in the rest of society.

The organizations claim, perhaps rightly at times, that they fulfill our needs. BP justifies its existence by suggesting the "small people" want oil-powered motion (we drill for you, even if we believe, truly believe, in "beyond petroleum"); the military contends ordinary citizens want protection (we kill for you, but we spare Afghan/Iraqi women and children); the church says mere mortals want eternal salvation (we illuminate illusions for you, but that's to keep you away from hell).

So the Organization Says We Are Serving You, despite oil spills, disastrous wars, and corruption. Through PR/psyops/"religious" ceremonies ("public diplomacy" as they see it) the organization proclaims, over, over, and over again, that The Organization Has the Answer.

This is the kind of propaganda which we "small people," perceived as midgets by so many CEOs, generals, and archbishops of this world, so frequently accept (see Jacques Ellul), in order to find emotional comfort in our chaotic age -- an era marked by an explosive mixture of excessive technological "rationality" and sheer societal madness.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

BBG response to article in Layalina Review on Public Diplomacy and Arab Media

To the Editor of the Layalina Review on Public Diplomacy and Arab Media VI.12
[courtesy of Len Baldyga via email]

Dear Editor,

BBG broadcasters report the story before they write the headline. It’s unfortunate that the anonymous author of the Layalina item “The BBG is Out of Touch with Reality” did not follow the same standard of professionalism. The author did not bother to contact the BBG before publishing this error-filled piece.

First, the BBG is having no difficulties “retaining its staff." The author twists the comment from Senator Lugar’s report that, “since 1995, the Board has only been /fully staffed/ for 6 of the subsequent 15 years of operations, and has not been so since 2004.” This comment refers to the 9-member, Presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed, BBG board. As is true for a wide swath of government agencies, the BBG has nominations that are pending Congressional approval. In the meantime, four sitting Governors and the Secretary of State, through her representative on the Board, are conducting business as usual.

Second, the BBG is well aware of the complications, in the Internet age, of abiding by the domestic dissemination prohibition in the Smith-Mundt Act. Congress, not the BBG, is the decision maker on legislation. Our agency is responsible to act within the statutory restriction.

Third, in reference to trying to reach audiences in China, Russia and Iran, the BBG is a leading force to promote press freedom around the world including cutting-edge anti Web censorship and counter jamming tactics for radio and TV. We make every effort to sway the Chinese to allow more BBG reporters into China, just as we opposed Russia’s crackdown against the radio and television stations in that country that once carried VOA and RFE/RL broadcasts.

Calling Alhurra’s budget “disproportionate” to those of Radio Free Asia, Radio and TV Marti, and VOA’s Persian News Network (PNN) is uninformed. Radio and the Internet – Radio Free Asia’s primary delivery platforms – are relatively inexpensive in comparison to the costs of creating television content. Radio and TV Marti broadcast to a single country versus the 22 countries of the Middle East that comprise Alhurra’s audiences. Likewise, PNN – VOA’s broadcast service to Iran -- targets a single country and can be compared more closely to Alhurra’s targeted programming to Iraq (Alhurra Iraq) than to the entire MBN television network. In fact, the BBG is devoting more resources to broadcasting to Iran this year than to any other country in the world. VOA’s Persian News Network and RFE/RL’s Radio Farda reach more than 22% of adults each week on TV, radio and online. In Iraq, Alhurra reaches over 60% of adults weekly.

Fourth, allegations by the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five that the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) was improperly influencing U.S. public opinion and particularly the Miami area jury pool by paying local reporters to generate negative coverage in the case of “The Cuban Five” are baseless. As we have stated publicly, OCB did not pay local reporters to influence coverage of “The Cuban Five.” Payment of outside talent (journalists in this case) to contribute to on-air programs as guests and hosts is common across the broadcasting industry and was well reported three years ago when all the OCB contracts were publicly disclosed. And Radio and TV Marti are broadcast to Cuba, not to the U.S.

The BBG is fully engaged with the realities and challenges of broadcasting to a changing media environment where hostile governments seek to block the free flow of information. We are engaged in vigorous efforts to reach populations in countries of strategic importance including Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to continue to advance the research-driven and performance-oriented culture that has produced a 75% rise in the BBG's global audience since 2002.


Letitia King
Director, Office of Public Affairs

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Cultural Diplomacy and Strategic Communications/Public Diplomacy

On Thursday, June 17th, bright and early at 9:00 am at 121 Cannon on Capitol Hill, I attended, at the kind invitation of Michael Clauser, Congressional Aide in Rep. Mac Thornberry's office, a briefing of the Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy caucus. The purpose of the briefing (which lasted over an hour) was to discuss the White House's National Framework for Strategic Communication, the “1055 Report” on Strategic Communication (Defense Department), the Strategic Framework for Public Diplomacy (State Department).

The speakers who (in order of their presentations) summarized these reports were Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications; Rosa Brooks, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Rule of Law and Humanitarian Policy; and Kitty DiMartino, Chief of Staff for the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy.

There was time for a few questions after the speakers' presentations. I was among those who raised their hands, in order to ask about the role of cultural diplomacy (CD) in the administration's plans for strategic communications.

Noting that the impact of American culture was problematical in some countries, I asked why CD -- which I defined as a government's presentation of its country's culture -- had not been mentioned during the briefing, except (in a related way) when Ms. DiMartino cited "cultural programming" as one of public diplomacy's activities.

Mr. Rhodes politely said mine was "an important question," stressing the White House's interest in culture as seen in the April Muslim-focused entrepreneur's summit hosted by President Obama. He then went on to show the administration's concern with culture in its emphasis on using US education, science-technology, and sport (he mentioned basketball in Turkey) as vehicles to promote the US overseas.

Ms. Brooks, who spoke next, simply exclaimed "American Idol," to which I retorted by uttering "Sex and the City."

In a lengthier reply, Ms. DiMartino said that cultural diplomacy had been a topic of discussion in the recent Public Diplomacy review at the State Department at which "field officers" (Public Affairs Officers -- PAOs) had taken part.

Ms. DiMartino underscored that cultural diplomacy is a tool of US foreign policy, not an activity in and of itself; those who see it thus, she said, should work for organizations other than the State Department, such as NGOs.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Afghanistan as Pandora: We're there because of unobtanium!

So is seems we've found rare minerals in Afghanistan! From the Huffington Post:

By now everyone has just about lost their damn minds about this New York Times article detailing Afghanistan's "discovery" of vast amounts of mineral wealth. Yes, it's way crazy old information (like the 70's old). Yes, it's Soviet Pentagon propaganda. If you've been reading us here, you already know ISAF's counter-insurgency strategy is a flaming wreck, and you already know what they're going to do about that. Propaganda and misinformation are all part of it.
So that's why we're in Afghanistan ... to find/enrich ourselves with the mineral(s) "unobtanium."

Whoever at Pentagon psy-ops is trying to justify our idiotic, costly occupation of the graveyard of empires that is clearly turning out to be a disaster, by invoking a blockbuster movie, has totally "misread" Avatar.

Or has a wicked, if not mean, sense of humor.

Doesn't it take a five-year old to realize that "unobtanium" is unobtainable in Afghanistan under current, if any, conditions? (We ordinary Americans, taxpayers that we are, know down deep we can't afford imperial misadventures such as getting "unobtanium," especially light of the oil disaster in the Gulf).

Meanwhile, I suppose, some inside-the-beltway pundits think "public diplomacy" will solve the madness of the US Afghan occupation, by a country (ours, the beloved country) deep in debt, with oil being spilled, unchecked, over its tender, historic gulf and beaches, with its urban crime rampant, with its educational system failing, and with a military that has no idea where, in "Afghanistan" it's actually "fighting" -- or why. (Most US troops there and elsewhere in Central Asia and the Middle East, I'm willing to bet, think they're on planet Mars, despite their so-called, much-hyped "intercultural" training.)

But hey, guys, get real! Why are we Afghanistan, wherever the hell it is! To get unobtanium!

Yes, guys, let's celebrate our getting unobtanium from the "bad guys" (a favorite of the military for enemies they cannot define; such was the term used by General Petraeus at his presentation at Georgetown I attended some years ago).

Unobtanium all the way ... Go, go unobtanium team, go all the way ...

And make sure BP does the proper drilling/excavation job.

Barf bag, anyone?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Public Diplomacy, Sport, and the Waning Influence of American Popular Culture

Some years ago, I wrote a piece, Is the U.S. High Noon Over? Reflections on the Declining Global Influence of American Popular Culture, in which I suggested that:

Pundits of all nationalities are convinced that American popular culture will remain the dominant world culture for decades to come.

But I have my doubts about this triumph-of-American-pop-culture view, just as I was unpersuaded by assertions that the conflicts of history had ended after the U.S. prevailed in the Cold War.

In my view, there are growing indications that American popular culture, in its current form, is losing its global influence.
As I watched the corporate US evening "news" today, which gave extensive coverage to the soccer World Cup in South Africa, I realized that in the above article I neglected to mention another indication that the 21st-century world will not necessarily be culturally "American."

I am referring to sport.

Soccer, an international sport par excellence, has only feeble roots in North America. Some overseas audiences may like the National Basketball Association (especially if their own nationals are among its highly remunerated basketball players), but baseball and American football are not exactly world favorites.

Yes, they do play baseball in Japan and Latin American, including in our "mortal enemy" Cuba. And in Germany, where "American football will never come close to challenging soccer's dominance in Europe," there is a "thriving subculture that has embraced the American game."

But soccer, that non-American sport, is no. 1 worldwide in a big way. All-American sports -- baseball, football, basketball (all sports that, interestingly, use hands rather than feet) haven't been able in our century to electrify the global masses as much as soccer.

Of course culture, including in its popular form, is not a zero-sum game. Just because the world prefers a ball being kicked for most of a game doesn't mean America is on the road to perdition. Indeed, we Americans are becoming more interested in soccer, which may bring us closer to the rest of our planet, and that's just as well. And at one point we may come to realize that the baseball "world series" are not world series, after all.

We may even call soccer "football" (as much of the world does identify it) one day, but that's unlikely, given how the NFL will want to hold on to its brand name.

Whatever we Americans name it, the prevalence of soccer as the universal sport suggests that "identifiably" American idols in the field of entertainment -- and what else are spectator sports but entertainment -- are not necessarily what the world prefers in our new millenium.

True, in the twentieth, so-called "American" century, US sports never had the overseas impact of our music, film, or language. But the universal popularity of soccer vs. our "own" sports suggests "the American way" is losing its "soft power," as was the case, arguably -- and I don't want to sound apocalyptic -- with other militarily overextended geographical expressions that declined economically -- Rome, Spain, France, England -- and lost their cultural cachet, the last remnant of the power they once held.

These speculations may have implications for those who formulate US public diplomacy -- how the American government deals with overseas publics to advance its national interests.

As the worldwide popularity of fútbol/футбол -- a game that decidedly not every all-American kid plays, at least for now -- tells us, US soft power, as concerns sport, may not be as automatically seductive to the rest of the world as we Americans sometimes naively assume it to be.

Image from

Message from Deirdre Kline Communications Director, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc. re Lugar USIB report

From: Deirdre Kline (
Sent: Fri 6/11/10 10:15 PM
To: (


I saw that you picked up a couple of the mentions to Lugar’s report. I wanted to forward you MBN’s response to the article[at].



We appreciate Senator Lugar’s report pointing out the success of Alhurra in Iraq where research shows it has a weekly reach of 64 percent and is the third most trusted TV news station in the country. However, it is equally important to highlight the success Alhurra has had throughout the Middle East. As the chart on page 31 of Sen. Lugar’s report shows, Alhurra’s audience has consistently averaged more than 25 million weekly viewers for the last three years – a significant audience by any standard - and an unprecedented audience by international broadcasting standards. The network is the leading international non-indigenous news television channel broadcasting to the Middle East.

Surveys conducted by international research firms such as ACNielsen also show that a majority of Alhurra’s audience finds the news to be credible. Respondents also said that Alhurra contributes to their understanding of current events including 85 percent in the UAE, 80 percent in Syria and 70 percent in Morocco. Additionally, Alhurra is regularly cited as a source of news for other Arab media outlets.

In a region filled with anti-American sentiment and with the local media regularly distorting U.S. policy; Alhurra’s steady inroads into the competitive Middle East marketplace are noteworthy.

Deirdre Kline
Communications Director
Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc.

[note: Lugar report at