Friday, December 7, 2012

On Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy or, Don't Fence Me In


Don't Fence me in - Roy Rogers, YouTube; image from

Below a piece of mine "provoked" by "Pentagon drops 'strategic communication,' but Washington will never let go of such a dubious concept," Kim Andrew Elliott reporting on International Broadcasting:
Having been privileged to be a taxpayer-funded "PD (public diplomacy) practitioner" for some twenty years, many of them in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, I feel that the best way to characterize "strategic communication" as dictated/charted by some ideologues/bureaucrats at DC federal headquarters today -- not to speak of specialization-defined academics, in various USA provincial minor learneries far away from the imperial capital, longing to exert their petty influence there -- is that in fact "straitjacket [strategic] communication," which so often shows little sense of local overseas conditions/opinion, is based, at inside-the-beltway "inter-agency meetings" and upon "expert advice," on a priori constructions of an often overly abstract, incomprehensible "Plan" reminiscent of similar illusion-driven fantasies devised by oh-so-passe communist regimes.

(I frankly hate to quote them, given how much I despise their publicity/twitter-driven vulgarity and superficiality, the social media spin-masters/self-proclaimed establishment servant-gurus Cohen and Ross, as they are living contradictions of what they preach: “The 21st century is a really terrible time to be a control freak.” But there is a grain of truth in what they say, so long as it does not pertain to what they themselves are actually doing, one of them working for Google and the other for the State Department -- both dutifully and oh, so, so carefully/controllably!).

While some guidance from Washington was certainly obligatory during the Cold War -- any diplomat worth her professional standards/salt owes allegiance to her country, even as interpreted by the USG, which supposedly represents the American people -- the best PD officers who were my supervisors gave a "field guy" like me enormous flexibility in how to present/represent our nation abroad to support its interests without my being bound by line-by-line regulations and "immediate-result-oriented" deadlines on how to communicate with "target" local audiences in order to achieve a so-called "strategic" goal. (When I heard the word "target," I often thought, as a non-armed person, that perhaps I was supposed to shoot foreign enemies of America).

Indeed, I believe that I was most effective, as a diplomat serving my country, not at aiming bullets (or ideology) at fellow-human beings overseas, but sharing bread and intelligent conversations with them at a good restaurant with windows -- host-country nationals who made a difference in determining how they, and their country, viewed the United States without strong suspicions on their part that they were in the presence of a strategic-communications military robot/USA-version of a totalitarian-serving apparatchik trying to brainwash them.

This, I would suggest, is the public-diplomacy non-"strategy," often cited as described by Edward R. Murrow, head of the USIA (United States Information Agency)  -- and actually a fast-media person, as a long-time reporter rather than a "humanist"; indeed a precursor of social media -- during the Kennedy Administration:
The real art in this business is not so much moving information or guidance or policy five or 10,000 miles. That is an electronic problem. The real art is to move it the last three feet in face to face conversation.” 
Simply put, and as something of a cynic, I would say the least propaganda (oh, sorry, I meant the least strategic communication) is the best propaganda. Sure, any PD officer has to realize whom she's working for (the taxpayer, via the USG) and why she's doing it (for the American national interest), but please, dear DC bosses, don't use the pretentious meaningless term "strategic communication" to tell us -- diplomats working for your/our country -- what we're supposed to do on every dotted line.

A little more subtlety, elasticity please. And please, no charts. And skip the PP presentations in dark rooms without windows. We need to breathe freely to be effective. Don't fence us in. Let the natural light in. Open the windows.

Life is too complicated to be reduced to regulating it for the national interest by a point-by-point "strategy." Business people and military planners, God bless 'em, have their own understandable agendas on their self-defined terms, which often include a "strategy." So be it. (But many, I would say, doubt about such simplistic platforms).

And let's not mix apples and oranges. Diplomacy is not like selling a product or exterminating an enemy (even by "winning  the information battle" by "blowing" their hearts and minds). These are distinctions, may I suggest, State Department planners themselves sometimes fail to take into consideration.


Please, please dear Imperial Capital SC Planners, drop/strop your Master of the Universe Plans (here's a free acronym for you: MUP) and your jaw-breaking planning Orwellian language.

Admit that much of the time, as you sit getting indigestion from a brown-bag lunch drinking sugary sodas from a can in your stuffy, neon-lit, window-less rooms during your inter-agency meetings at Federal agencies, to which you've been assigned "on rotation," with so many of you not having been/lived in the countries you are "planning for," that you just really don't know what you're really talking about (not to speak of your not knowing hardly a word of the languages of the countries you are "planning" for), except for having read/composed (at most) "committee reports."

My having said that, there is one (dated) report (2004) connected with Strategic Communications that is worth noticing for anyone interested in America's relations with the so-called Muslim world. It was by far the best of dozens and dozens of reports (many of them useless, except for contributing to "reports fatigue") to appear on the disastrous years of U.S. public diplomacy during the Bush II year. Its important phrases, still noted today, stated:
• The information campaign — or as some still would have it, “the war of ideas,” or the struggle for “hearts and minds” — is important to every war effort. In this war it is an essential objective, because the larger goals of U.S. strategy depend on separating the vast majority of non-violent Muslims from the radical-militant Islamist-Jihadists. But American efforts have not only failed in this respect: they may also have achieved the opposite of what they intended.

• American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies.

• Muslims do not “hate our freedom,” but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.  
• Thus when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy. Moreover, saying that “freedom is the future of the Middle East” is seen as patronizing, suggesting that Arabs are like the enslaved peoples of the old Communist World — but Muslims do not feel this way: they feel oppressed, but not enslaved.)he main problem of the above-mentioned imperial-capital SC produced report  -- as I said, the best among many that deserve at most a C+ --  is that while it stresses the importance of what persons in Muslim lands think, it keeps on talking about "Muslims" as a group -- "Muslims do not hate our freedom ...").
This report (about "Muslims") deserves more than a C+, unlike others on the subject.  But can you imagine trying to understand the "Christian" world by lumping together, say, the U.S. -- a "Protestant" country and France -- a "Catholic" country -- because they are "Christian," despite their enormous cultural, historical, religious, and linguistic differences, not only between, but among them?

So this blogger is not against "Strategic Communications," so long as it speaks in plain English/common sense and drops -- I mean dump -- this silly term and talks about communications in human, rather than robotic terms: a free-wheeling exchange of opinions and ideas, granted (for persons serving the USG) with a purpose in mind, but without "do this-do that" directives from Pentagon/State Department charts looking like an engineer's dream (or nightmare).

Why is it, when I think of "strategic communication," I get an instant flashback of the movie Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, starring Captain Nemo, which I watched as a kid?


Meanwhile, SC-ers, watch Casablanca. Far better for you (not to speak of the rest of us) trying to figure out the below pretentious, "high-brow" chart (what the hell does it actually represent?), which really belongs on Saturday Night Live -- or like Captain Nemo's organ.

Above image from; below Image from

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