Arab Spring, Global Communication, Middle East

The Transitive Problem

DISCLAIMER: Many of my writings on Take Five will propose concepts that seek to describe state communication activities.  Concepts are critical for building theory, my overriding interest.  I want make sure my concepts and theory resonate with students, more experienced academics and practitioners, a marker of validity.  I am using this blog for testing my ideas and welcome your feedback, whether constructive or dismissive.

The Transitive Property Reviewed

The transitive property in formal logic is essentially:

If a = b and b = c, then a = c.

This is useful shorthand for one problem facing public diplomacy practitioners and states’ strategic communicators.  How does one better a country’s image when it is vulnerable to “guilt by association” when that country’s friends are seen as bad actors?   Alliances between countries are something like equations, at least in terms of public perception, even if those alliances are complex and nuanced, combining elements of cooperation and competition.  Alliances require defending or at least very lightly criticizing allies while keeping relations normal, which is easily interpreted as complicity.

Rooted in Cognitive Processing or How People Perceive Political Problems

While this seems a perfect mathematical formula, perceptions of countries to do not transfer so easily, of course.   The emphasis is then on the basic dynamic, drawing on a notion of how people process politics cognitively, or associational thinking.  Psychologist Drew Westen and pollster Celinda Lake write about “what psychologists and neuroscientists call networks of associations,” or:

interconnected sets of thoughts, feelings, images, metaphors, and emotions that are unconsciously active in people’s minds and brains at any given moment.

People think through links, through series of relations in which one analytic or sensory unit calls up another.  Perceptions are shaped by what associations a certain subject produces.  International alliances are both actual associations but also useful mental associations in how people cognitively process the complexity of foreign affairs.

For communicators and public diplomacy specialists, perception is their central currency and it matters more than actual policy even as the two are often, though not always, related.  Thus, even if the guilt in question is not fairly ascribed, it must be addressed.  Their challenge is to create new associations.  The transitive dilemma suggests that old associations can be affirmed, or new ones established, due to the actions of allies. This poses an agency problem, that is, they are ultimately responsible for more than just their own government’s activities.

Applied to US-Bahrain Relations

Let’s take a recent example P.J. Crowley covered on this blog.  When Bahrain commits excessive violence against protesters, the government’s image is rightfully tarnished (Bahrain = Bad).  The American alliance with Bahrain (America = Bahrain), however, means that the United States cannot take a strong, critical public stance because of its well-known alliances in the region, and thus looks bad by association (America = Bad).

When it comes to how people view American policy in the Middle East, Bahrain’s state violence and repression prime among many observers and attentive regional publics American foreign policy inconsistencies.  P.J. Crowley called the United States an “interested spectator with Bahrain.” Its relative silence, he wrote, stood in contrast to its “loud” push for reform in neighboring countries.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch similarly observed that the “Obama administration’s grudging acquiescence to the Saudi-driven fait accompli [supporting the Bahrain regime] opened a gaping wound in American credibility.”

The transitive problem is exacerbated when an allies’ malfeasance reveals double standards, holes or hypocrisy in one’s own policy – suggesting an inconsistent adherence to state principles.

This puts public diplomacy and communication workers in an awkward position.  While the state may be invested in projecting an image, for example, supporting human rights or democratization, an ally’s antics can directly undermine this.  Practitioners’ hands are further tied in responding. They cannot threaten the health of the alliance without mandate from their government’s policymakers.

The sponsoring government’s alliance thus also prevents corrective action that addresses directly and credibly the substance of the guilt by association perception caused by the alliance.  Public diplomacy workers are then expected to work on positive relations or find new ways to outreach to publics without taking on this one elephant in the room, even though it’s a substantial, contrary point to the message they are supposed to deliver.

Another Example: Hamas and Syria 

This dilemma is a universal problem not just afflicting democracies or even states necessarily.  While some actors may not care about transitive problems, others will abandon allies, even sponsors if the pressure due to unsavory alliances grows strong enough.  Hamas, for example, seemingly turned against Syria by withdrawing its officials after a year of sticking with the Bashar al-Assad regime by default.   It was in the uncomfortable position of claiming to support liberation and an Islamist politics, while allying with a secular regime that suppressed Islamist politics – a position it could not hold up against domestic and regional public criticism as well as Arab state pressure.

Hamas Leader Ismail Haniya with Bashar Al Assad

A month after the move, a Hamas official was left in the precarious rhetorical dilemma between trying to maintain a damaged alliance and avoiding a treasonous brand of guilt by association.  He aimed for both loyalty and distance:

we have never attacked the Syrian regime or its president, so we are loyal to those who have stood by us when the whole world abandoned us, and we have said that we support the demands of the Syrian people and nobody can be against the people.

Seeking to escape the second equation, that between allies, of the transitive property, he urged that, “Hamas cannot be an exact copy of its allies.” That daylight is rooted in Hamas’s awkwardly-put position that:

there are some legitimate demands acknowledged by the regime that must be addressed and we must give priority to stopping the bloodshed on both sides in Syria.

Hamas is trying to both patch things up with a burnt ally and remain a credible critic, and the result is a familiar sort of confused, hackneyed official-speak.  Showing this concept through an example with Hamas is important for making the case this is a general problem for diverse actors, and thus also of greater theoretical value.


The utility of this transitive problem concept, as elementary as it may be, is that it gets at the challenges of multiplicity in international relations and how it troubles work in state communications.  The term is a neutral short-hand for the “guilt by association” problem that policymakers and communication specialists know all too well when their country is seen as liable for the acts of allies.  The basic dilemma: how to communicate persuasively values and ideals when a close friend is violating them?   Having a name for this problem, and understanding the cognitive roots described above, may give some conceptual tangibility and a greater analytic handle on the basic problem.

I am sure state communicators and diplomats have varied strategies from suspending activities and waiting out the storm, re-framing the government’s position, stressing other elements of its policy, back-channel communications to mitigate fallout and so on.  The constraint of alliance and the policy need to maintain it – even in the face of reputational costs – makes for a particularly challenging communicative context.

Feedback is welcome below in the comments! Find me on Twitter: @wyoumans.


About William Lafi Youmans

Assistant Professor, School of Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University. Research interests include global news and communication, media law, development and Middle Eastern politics and society.

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