Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Twitterers and WikiLeakers

The WikiLeaked cables, no longer front-page material, are, as I noted when they first appeared, on the whole positive evidence that American diplomats in the field are doing their centuries-old job: they are carefully (and sometimes with considerable wit) reporting what they observe in the country where they are posted. And their telegrams provide interesting documentation on Embassies' public diplomacy efforts.

However, despite (because of?) the cables' detailed attention to conventional rules of traditionally accepted grammar, style, and coherence, they do read and look (with their antiquated-looking numbered paragraphs and "reftels" rather than links) totally passé when compared to the now increasingly à la mode, "minimal language/meaning" and "cool" graphics of Facebook and Twitter.

True, as the distinguished former American diplomat and author Yale Richmond reminded me after reading an earlier draft of this entry, cables as a rule begin with an introductory section summarizing their contents. But these summaries are certainly not limited, as is the case with Twitter, to 140 characters. Even if brief by twentieth-century standards, they have far too many (thoughtful?) words for our instant-communication-gratification-takes-too-long internet era to make an impact, except in a limited number of cases. And, even before the creation of information-now cyberspace, remember (if you are of a certain age) George H.W. Bush looking at CNN to understand what was going on in Somalia and Russia?

So the WikiLeaks' overly-hyped exposure of classified cables, which supposedly underscored, to some, their importance as "proof" of the American government's secret, well-planned overseas conspiracies, putatively to take over the globe through a well-orchestrated strategy -- is, to any observer of the new social media, actually an indication of these missives' growing insignificance, given their outdated nature as a mode of modern communication.

Indeed, State Department overseas telegrams are often dead, rather than read, upon arrival at Foggy Bottom headquarters -- because dedicated people there are today constantly on the phone and/or online dealing with inside-the-beltway issues that often have nothing to do, no matter what administration, with foreign policy. (No wonder the leaker of the cables was Pvt. Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst -- not a State employee -- who may have actually looked at some of the missives, presumably bored while listening to Lady Gaga).

The Andy-Warhol lookalike James Assange,

following the pop-art master's aspiration to be an enfant terrible

in order, perhaps, to gain 15 minutes of fame, is not, in spirit, at extreme odds with the ambitious not-so-young Turks at the State Department (one of whom, Jared Cohen, is no longer at Foggy Bottom, off to greener $ pastures at Google) who condemned the Department for being a communications dinosaur out of tune with the sexy "now" internet media that supposedly can lead to democracy throughout the world.

I would bet that fewer and fewer entering FSOs (Foreign Service officers) will be encouraged by their superiors to put their thoughts down in writing in cable form, for putative "security" reasons, but, perhaps more important, because few inside the hard-working State Department bureaucracy, at home or abroad, have the time/inclination carefully to read telegrams of any length anymore, including the superiors who must "clear" these communications (such superiors, however, doubtless inspected dispatches originating from their post once they were leaked, in search of any information that could embarrass them!).

So, ironically again, Mr. Assange did the drafters of these exposed cables (among them, I'm quite sure, young FSOs hoping that their reports will be noticed) a service: They got recognition for their "I got-an-A-in-Freshman-English" prose and analysis. Somebody, somewhere, actually read what they wrote other than themselves -- and what they wrote got posted over the internet for all the world to discuss!

Relative good/total confusion may come out of all this: American diplomats will become bloggers and twitterers in order to communicate with headquarters and with the rest of our small planet. But by the time they actually do so, given how slowly the State Department adapts to change, twittering and blogging will quite probably have become "oh-so-early-twenty-first-century."

Assage image from; Warhol image as portrayed by actor David Bowie in a Publicity Still for the Film "Basquait" Posters from

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Richard Holbrooke's Public Diplomacy: The Case of the US Cultural Center in Belgrade

Richard Holbrooke has died. At a time when many are grieving the loss of a temperamental but dedicated diplomat, one episode of his work in the Balkans -- that explosive and often forgotten corner of Europe -- is worth bringing to light.

Here is this Footnote to history (it deserves to be capitalized): Thanks to an unwritten agreement between Holbrooke and Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, the American Cultural Center in Belgrade, closed by order of the US government through its now-defunct United States Information Agency in the mid-1990s, was reopened not long after the 1995 Dayton Peace accord -- with Milosevic footing the bill!

As the Public Affairs Officer (PAO) at the US Embassy in Belgrade in 1995-98, I was present at this re-creation of a key element in American engagement (to use a word much favored by the Obama administration's public-diplomacy team) in that long-suffering part of the world -- a five-storey cultural center located in the heart of the Serbian capital with books, films, and lectures freely available to local audiences. During the Cold War, such worldwide centers, run by the USIA (United States Information Agency) were an admirable, and tangible, symbol of US interest in other countries -- and of the openness of American society.

I must rely on my memory, never utterly reliable, to tell the story of how Center reopened its doors, due to the largesse of the Butcher of the Balkans. In ordinary circumstances, I would wait until getting hold of the lengthy unclassified cable I drafted (but did not keep, for security reasons) on the matter, but with the current focus on Holbrooke -- that able and insufferable but very human being -- I thought I should bring this story to public attention, if only to document more fully his life and accomplishments -- and for readers of this blog to correct me if my rememberance of this event contains inaccuracies.

Here's the story:

Months after the Dayton Peace Accord in 1995, Holbrooke -- as a private citizen named special envoy to the Balkans by President Clinton after leaving his post of Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (1994-1996) -- returned to Belgrade on numerous occasions to deal with the tense Kosovo situation (Kosovo, a "province" of the Serbian Republic in the former Yugoslavia, wanted its independence from Serbia or, to be more legalistic, from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY, comprising Serbia and Montenegro since its inception in April 1992). In contrast to his Dayton ceasefire, Holbrooke was not successful in finding a solution to the Serbian-Kosovar nightmare, despite many meetings with Milosevic.

At one of these meetings, Serbia's blunt cigar-smoking head gangster Slobo -- as he was called by both Americans and Serbs -- accompanied by his Foreign Minister, Milan Miliutinovic (eventually not found guilty of war crimes International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia), asked the equally blunt Holbrooke (known as "The Bulldozer" in the Balkans), "Why did you close the American Center?" Miliutinovic, ever the elegantly dressed, somewhat effeminate, gentleman and former Ambassador to Greece who was more "cultivated" than the thuggish-looking Milosevic, made clear he was enamored of the Center. Holbrooke replied that the Center had been closed "for budgetary reasons."

I was not an actual witness to this exchange, given that my job was press and cultural affairs, not closed-doors negotiations, but its contents were revealed to me by an Embassy colleague soon after it took place.

Regarding the closing of the Center, which had played a prominent role in Belgrade cultural life for decades, Holbrooke was actually telling the truth: In the 90s, after the collapse of communism, during the post-Cold euphoria characterized by intellectual illusions about the "end of history," USIA and its cultural centers were, to use inside-the-Washington-beltway jargon, put on the back-burner. Many centers were closed throughout the world, and the Agency was consolidated into the State Department in 1999.

In my job as PAO Belgrade -- and this is one of my greatest regrets as a former Foreign Service officer -- I had implemented headquarter's decision to close down the Belgrade Cultural Center soon after I arrived at the Serbian capital, replacing it with a minuscule "Information Research Center" inside Embassy walls that was meant to communicate "electronically" to "target audiences."

And now comes the most intriguing and memorable part of the Holbrooke-Milosevic exchange: In response to Holbrooke's candid admission of the USG's lack of funds to keep the Center open, Milosevic said, "If you can't afford it [the Center], I'll pay for it." (Meanwhile, pushed by the State Department and a pro-Kosovo member of Congress, the crash-strapped USIA, under the PAO's direction in the field, was working on the establishment of a cultural center in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo).

Why did Milosevic want the American Center to reopen? I was never told the reasons, but doubtless he wished, after the Dayton peace talks, to obtain some kind of "official" recognition from the United States by means of the renewed presence of a prominent American establishment in downtown Belgrade (FRY was not officially recognized by the USG, even though the United States maintained a large embassy in the Serbian capital; the head of the US diplomacy mission was not an ambassador, but a chargé d'affaires). In an email, a former Foreign Service officer familiar with Central Europe and the Balkans offered other reasons for Milosevic's interest in the Center: "A little voice in me asks whether the Serbs had wired the building and collected an intelligence bonanza about their own dissidents that they were reluctant to lose. But more likely they missed the nice old place they remembered." That last sentence rings true to me: It should be remembered that Milosevic, when he worked as the head of Beobanka in the late 70s, had often travelled to New York, and spoke an accented English that was American rather than British. In fact, Milosevic "liked" America and its popular culture, as I could tell when watching him interact with Americans. He thought, I'd venture to say, that Americans were tough guys, as opposed to flaky Europeans.

Not long after the Holbrooke-Milosevic meeting, I was told by my Embassy superiors to go to the FRY agency dealing with diplomatic missions and inform it of Milosevic's open-the-American-Center decision. I dutifully did so and, during a not unpleasant conversation with a functionary sitting below a framed photograph of Slobo, it was confirmed that the American Center would indeed be provided to the USG free of charge, which had certainly not been the case before -- I can't remember exactly what the exact yearly rent had been, but it was a considerable sum.

The American Center thus reopened, after having earlier given its book collections away, including to recipients in Kosovo. Some of its floors were eventually occupied, rent-free, by USAID, not exactly part of Slobo's secret police. Meanwhile, I helped arrange for B-92, the dissident radio station at the time, to set up an "Internet Cafe" on one of the Center's floors, using funds provided by USIA's "Democracy Commission."

So a war criminal ended up subsidizing an American "propaganda" establishment, equipped with the latest computer technology, and housing an anti-Milosevic media outlet to boot. Thank you, Mr. Holbrooke.

I'm surprised that the American media, which followed Holbrooke wherever he went --"What's the most dangerous place in the Balkans?" the joke went. Answer: "between Dick Holbrooke and a TV camera" -- did not pick up on the unusual Cultural Center-Milosevic connection. Needless to say, I did not volunteer information about this oral agreement to the press. It would certainly have made an attention-grabbing headline: "Bulldozer-Butcher Deal: Slobo Blood Money Bankrolls Former Belgrade US-Supported Freedom Bastion" but public knowledge of this arrangement would not necessarily have placed the US Government (or Mr. Holbrooke) in a favorable light.

End of story: The Belgrade Cultural Center was vandalized at the time of the NATO bombings in Belgrade in 1999 and ended its operations. Today, its work is (somewhat) continued by "American Corner Belgrade," which according to its homepage was "created to help increase mutual understanding between Serbia and USA. AC Belgrade was founded on May 16, 2003, as a result of cooperation between Belgrade City Library & US Embassy. On October 17, 2006, American Corner was reopened at its new location in Cultural Center Dom omladine. American Corner Belgrade is one of the 7 American Corners in Serbia and one of the 400 Corners in over 60 countries world wide."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Freedom on the front line

Freedom on the front line By Peter Aspden, Financial Times

Published: December 17 2010 19:19 Last updated: December 17 2010 19:19

In Mr Smith Goes to Washington, currently playing at the British Film Institute as part of its Frank Capra season, James Stewart plays an ingenuous and, in truth, rather dim US senator who is set up by conspirators to do their dirty work for them. He is asked by the press if he has brought any big ideas to Congress. “Well yes,” he replies shyly, “a big summer camp where boys can learn about ‘nature and American ideals’.” How would it be financed? Why, the grateful boys would gradually pay the nation back, in “nickels and dimes”, if need be.

Although this sounds spookily similar to the UK’s present higher education policy, be assured that those were different times. Capra’s films were admired for their high-minded idealism (more often than not held by lowly figures). Yet they were also derided, even at the time, for their off-the-scale cornball factor.

The montage in which Mr Smith tours Washington for the first time, all stars and stripes and lofty nouns, appears faintly ridiculous, not least to Jean Arthur’s hard-bitten secretary, who explains that she arrived in the city with “big, blue question marks” in her eyes, only for them to turn into “big, green dollar signs”.

When Mr Smith decides to take on the forces of darkness, he is mocked further. He is “David without a slingshot”. But he defies the odds and does the decent thing. And he wins. And the whole cinema-viewing world raised a silent cheer to the power of goodness.

Except it wasn’t quite the whole world.

Such was the popularity of Mr Smith with the American public that it was regarded as a cultural masterclass for those parts of the globe that were slow in learning to appreciate the supremacy of American values. During the cold war weekly screenings of the film were held in Cairo, until a field officer asked his superiors to put a stop to them, as the backlash they provoked far outweighed their positive effects. It was a vivid example of how tricky cultural diplomacy can be.

Western powers have moved a long way since the stuttering homilies of Jimmy Stewart were regarded as a powerful propaganda tool. More subtle weapons are used in today’s battle of ideas. According to recent WikiLeaks revelations, it is television comedies such as Friends and Desperate Housewives that are highly rated by diplomats for attracting young foreigners to the American way of life.

We could deconstruct those programmes to tease out the threads that make them such effective ambassadors but we would be overlooking some of their more obvious charms: Jennifer Aniston, Eva Longoria, shiny hair, bright dental work, good jokes, and a moral universe that, though rattled, remains cheerfully intact.

There is nothing here about the founding fathers or the primacy of individual liberty. But there are plenty of evidently free people, choosing to live their lives as they wish, in attractive circumstances. American life is desirable here, not because of the values it espouses but because of its very modernity. That is the dividend of hegemony. Richer countries make for shinier hair.

They make for great art too. When the CIA championed abstract expressionism during the cold war, it was to hammer home the point that America’s artists could do whatever they liked. Those works also happened to be among the most vital and highly prized of the century. The Soviet Union retaliated with orchestras and dance troupes ever better-drilled and steeped in tradition. They, too, were magnificent. But they didn’t thrillingly push artistic boundaries forward in the way that a Jackson Pollock action painting did.

It is a dilemma for public policy makers: the most effective cultural ambassadors are rarely those with the most explicit messages. The international tours of the “jambassadors”, some of the great jazz musicians of the postwar years, were popular and highly acclaimed. But the musicians themselves, like the abstract expressionists, just wanted to weave new patterns for their art forms, not make fatuous statements of cultural superiority. Louis Armstrong, resentful at being used to illustrate the progress of the “Negro Race”, pointedly refused to go to the Soviet Union.

As long as the US remains a cultural hegemon, it will continue to make art that will be attractive to the whole world. No one outside the Tea Party wants to hear lectures about the US Constitution but everyone loves a sexy movie star. How to harness that power? Well, you can’t. That’s the pesky thing about freedom.

A coda: just three years after making Mr Smith, Frank Capra was forced to make his political views more explicit, as he attempted to persuade his fellow Americans of the necessity of going to war in a series of propaganda films. In the first of these, Prelude to War, showing at the BFI on Saturday, we see the startling footage of the Nazi officer (not, as commonly held, Hermann Goering) who boasts that he pulls out his revolver whenever he hears the word “culture”. As he delivers the infamous phrase, he really does pull out his revolver.

Poor Mr Smith. He didn’t have a clue.

‘Rediscovering Frank Capra’ is at the British Film Institute, London

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Public Diplomacy, of a Kind, during the Cold War: Louis Armstrong Speaking Russian

See the great blog entry at Cold War Radios: A look at international radio broadcasting in the Cold War, in particular the history of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty

Friday, December 10, 2010

VOA, NPR, and Public Diplomacy/Propaganda

During the thought-provoking event co-organized by Professor Shawn Powers at the New America Foundation, "International Broadcasting, Public Media, and the News Deficit," many noteworthy comments were made by its distinguished panelists.

But the observations that struck me most were those made by Loren Jenkins, senior editor of NPR's (National Public Radio) foreign desk, and Steve Redisch, VOA (Voice of America) Executive Editor, in answer to a question about the possibility of the Voice of America -- funded by the U.S. government -- and National Public Radio -- which calls itself "an independent, self-supporting media organization" -- joining forces. Jenkins replied that NPR provided accurate information/news (including from overseas) to Americans; Redisch said VOA provided same to foreign audiences.

Most significant, though, was how Jenkins and Redisch defined why their organizations provided information/news. Jenkins said NPR's purpose was to "educate"; Redisch, a former CNN producer, said that VOA must (among other goals, education not cited among them) provide "entertainment."

Educate and entertain. Pick your choice. Personally, I would simply say, "Tell it straight."

A footnote: Jenkins said VOA was propagandistic; former Bush White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, appearing on another panel, asked the question, "Isn't NPR itself propagandistic"?

Comment by Shawn Powers, who was kind enough to read this entry in draft form: "Despite similarities in profession and mission, it seems clear that the divide between publicly funded international and domestic media is not only legal (i.e. the Smith-Mundt Act), but also cultural. The conversation at the New America Foundation was helpful in highlighting both the potential for and opposition to productive collaboration between organizations like NPR and the VOA."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sham on You, Ben Barber

Ben Barber's recent Salon article, "WikiLeaks and the sham of 'public diplomacy': Our diplomats spout jingoistic nonsense about American supremacy -- instead of engaging with the rest of the world," shows his heart in the right place but his history way out in left field.

Barber's doesn't miss a beat when he writes that, "[a]s a foreign correspondent in the 1980s and 1990s," he found that
Foreign students, journalists and researchers found it easy to visit the American libraries attached to the USIA buildings [the United States Information Agency, 1953-1999, known overseas as the United States Information Service], which were deliberately separate from the intimidating American embassies.

The American Libraries were a breath of fresh air in countries that either lacked freedom or were so poor that most journalists could not afford to buy its varied publications, dictionaries, encyclopedias and newspapers.
But he's way out in the left field, far away from history, when he claims that
[T]he field of international relations that is called "public diplomacy" is a new breed of animal that emerged only in the past 15 years -- since Jesse Helms, installed as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after the 1994 elections, began pushing for the USIA to be absorbed by the State Department and shut down, something that officially happened in 1999. Its staff was now under the control of State Department bureaucrats, forced to rein in the open, informal style of their contacts with the international and U.S. media. "Public diplomacy" was thusly born.
In fact, "public diplomacy" was coined in the mid-1960s (though the term had existed before) by Dean Edmund Gullion and his colleagues at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy to describe (in Gullion's words), the following:
Even beyond the organ of the Government set up to handle information about the United States and to explain our policies, what is important today is the interaction of groups, peoples, and cultures beyond national borders, influencing the way groups and peoples in other countries think about foreign affairs, react to our policies, and affect the policies of their respective governments.

To connote this activity, we at the Fletcher School tried to find a name. I would have liked to call it “propaganda.” It seemed like the nearest thing in the pure interpretation of the word to what we were doing. But “propaganda” has always a pejorative connotation in this country. To describe the whole range of communications, information, and propaganda, we hit upon “public diplomacy.”
Public diplomacy became, as scholar Nicholas Cull points out, USIA's main Cold War activity and justification:
The reason that the term ‘public diplomacy’ took off in 1965 was that there was a real need for such a concept in Washington DC. A dozen years into its life, the United States Information Agency needed alternative to the anodyne term information or malignant term propaganda: a fresh turn of phrase upon which it could build new and benign meanings. Gullion’s term ‘public diplomacy’ covered every aspect of USIA activity and a number of the cultural and exchange functions jealously guarded by the Department of State. The phrase gave a respectable identity to the USIA career officer, for it was one step removed from the ‘vulgar’ realm of ‘public relations’ and by its use of the term ‘diplomacy,’ explicitly enshrined the USIA along side the State Department as a legitimate organ of American foreign relations. The term itself became an argument for USIA and against the rump of exchange and cultural work at State. If public diplomacy existed as a variety of diplomacy in the modern world – the argument ran – then surely the United States surely needed a dedicated agency to conduct this work, and that agency was best structured to control all work in the field. The term paid dividends a decade later. In 1978 USIA was reorganized according to the logic of the new terminology and at last acquired dominion over the entire range of American activity in the information field. The interdependence of the concept of public diplomacy and USIA is suggested by the fact that following the demise of the USIA in 1999 the Murrow Center at Tufts became – and remains – the Murrow Center for International Information and Communications. Yet the phrase had, by 1999, more currency than a single agency or a single country. It was destined to live on.
So yes, Cold War US cultural centers were America at its best overseas, but public diplomacy was not a post-Cold War fabrication. True, the demise of USIA arguably hurt America's ability to communicate with the outside world. But well-intentioned people like Ben Barber should really check the historical record before pouring their nostalgic hearts out.

The Death of Phil Taylor

One of the greats in the study of the art of rhetoric -- and its often discomforting 20th century manifestation (vulgarization?), propaganda -- has passed away, as one of his fellow-scholars just informed me. Phil Taylor, Professor of International Communications, University of Leeds, contributed much to the history of propaganda, arguing that it was a morally neutral tool that has existed since antiquity. One may not have always agreed with him, but he shed much light on how human beings communicate, and for what reasons, making our complicated lives on this small planet more understandable. Image from Phil's website which was a treasure of information on public diplomacy/propaganda.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Business for Diplomatic Action to Close Operations at Year’s End

Business for Diplomatic Action to Close Operations at Year’s End

For more information contact:
Keith Reinhard, 212 415-3028

Business for Diplomatic Action to
Close Operations at Year’s End.

(New York – Nov. 29, 2010) Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA), the not-for-profit group formed in 2002 to enlist the U.S. business community in actions to lift America’s standing in the world, will bring its operations to a close effective December 31, 2010.

In announcing the decision, BDA founder and president, Keith Reinhard, noted that BDA has, over its eight years of operation, been a significant force in raising awareness of the need for the United States to be more positively engaged with the world. He went on to highlight some of the group’s more important accomplishments, including:

• the development of a “World Citizens Guide” that was distributed to hundreds of thousands of young Americans studying abroad;
• a four-year Arab and American Business Fellowship that brought high-potential young Arab executives to the United States for business and cultural exchange while sending American counterparts to the Middle East;
• the creation of a cross-cultural management training workshop and materials for U.S. business executives and government officials.
• implementation, with the Department of State and the Entrepreneurs Organization (EO), of the “New Beginning” program, which brought entrepreneurs from 28 countries to the U.S. for immersion and orientation in entrepreneurial skills – a result of President Obama’s Summit on Entrepreneurship in April 2010.

In addition, Reinhard said, BDA representatives advocated for business-led public diplomacy through hundreds of speeches to business, civic and academic audiences across the country, appearances in major national and international media and engagement with government – such as through Mr. Reinhard’s testimony before Congress and his service on advisory committees of the U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

In explaining the decision to end BDA’s activities, Reinhard said “our research has shown a clear shift toward more positive perceptions of America and its leadership role in the world. This makes our mission a less urgent priority for U.S. corporations who have joined and supported our initiatives.”

“We are proud to have lent our energies and our voice to the improvement of America’s relationship with the world,” said Reinhard. “And while there is always work to be done, we are pleased that so many U.S. corporations are integrating best public diplomacy practices into their day-to-day operations. We hope our efforts have laid a strong foundation for a new era of public-private partnerships that will continue to improve America’s global leadership position.”