Just a day after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigations into the Trump’s campaign contact with Russia, the Institute for Public Diplomacy & Global Communication partnered with the Walter R. Roberts Endowment to host a lecture and Q & A with former ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul. McFaul’s lecture explored what had ignited the U.S.’ new Cold War with Russia – and what had changed after nearly 30 years of relatively constructive relations. In his lecture, McFaul outlined three possible explanations for the faltering relationship and Russia under Vladimir Putin.
We cannot blame international politics
Firstly, McFaul discussed why the inherent structure of international politics doesn’t account for Putin’s interest in expansion or the strained relationship the U.S. has with Russia now.
“There’s this idea that this is just a natural correction. That Russia is a great power and is acting like a great power,” McFaul said.
But if that were the case, that Putin being more aggressive is just a natural correction, a similar pivot would have happened with Japan and Germany after World War II. At that time, great powers had fallen, but with U.S. aid and investment in each country’s ability to establish a democratic government, each country became a global power without becoming aggressors towards the U.S. If Russia were simply building up to become a major power again after the fall of the Soviet Union, there wouldn’t be a need for a strained relationship between the U.S. and Russia. Instead, perhaps the two countries could have worked together to establish a stronger democracy in Russia. According to McFaul, an error the U.S. made was not investing enough in Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Up until 2013, the world seemed to think that Russia was just becoming a more mature, global power. It wasn’t until Putin’s plans shifted so wholly that the rest of the world started to take notice that Russia was becoming an aggressor, not a peaceful power.
But it wasn’t until 2013 that the rest of the world started seeing a real shift in Putin’s plan. In 2013, Putin was concerned with the Eurasian Economic Union. He wanted the Ukraine to come on board with the EEU, rather than join the West to make the union large enough to be sustainable. Furthermore, up until 2013, Putin seemed to be going in a positive direction on the world stage mostly because of the olympics. The Sochi Olympics was Russia’s time to export a “new Russia” to the rest of the world. Putin’s administration reclaimed authors and artists that were excommunicated during the Soviet Union, and presented Russia as an inclusive country.
“They released Khodorkovsky. [Russia was] essentially saying, ‘We’ve had a rocky space. This is a signal to you, the United States, to have a new relationship with us’,” McFaul said.
Soon after the Olympics’ closing ceremony ended, though, Putin invaded Crimea.
If international politics was the real reason the new Cold War began, it would have started far before Putin decided to invade Crimea because simply the idea of Russia becoming a great power isn’t a threat to the world order or balance of power.
And it’s not U.S. Policy
Another theory McFaul was quick to dismiss is that Russia has to be aggressive towards the United States because U.S. foreign policy pushed it into a corner. But to Putin, the U.S. seemed to be an emerging threat around in the early 2000s and into 2013. NATO’s expansion, the U.S.’ invasion of Iraq, the NATO bombing in Serbia in 2013 and U.S. support for color revolutions all could have been perceived as Western aggression towards Russia. According to this theory, “We are too demanding of Russia, we were lecturing them, we support color revolutions. Putin had enough and his actions are a reaction to what we did”.
However, after these perceived threats the U.S. and Russia began a reset designed to be a win-win relationship between the U.S. and Russia – the idea was that through a strategy of active engagement, the U.S. and Russia would find common interests to strengthen both countries. It is important to note that at the time of the reset, Medvedev was president, and seemed more open to more open relations with the U.S. According to McFaul, this worked for the most part. The new START treaty was put into force in February 2011, and it called for nuclear limits on both countries, eighteen on-site inspections of both countries and no constraints on missile defense or conventional strikes. During the reset, the Iran deal was also signed, which worked in both the U.S. and Russia’s interest to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Furthermore, the reset also included the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which supplied material to forces in Afghanistan in a combined effort on the war in Afghanistan.
“At the height of the reset, sixty percent of Russians had a positive view of Americans, and sixty percent of Americans had a positive view of Russians. That was five years ago,” McFaul said.
U.S. policy aided Russia during the reset – and it showed in approval ratings. The economies of both countries were steadily rising and there was more support of American-Russian relations than had been in years. If U.S. policy were to blame, how could one explain all of the positive developments in the relations after the perceived threats? According to McFaul, there is only one last narrative that could explain today’s tensions.
Russian Domestic Politics – it starts at home
When power shifted from Medvedev to Putin, the U.S. incorrectly thought that nothing should really change, according to McFaul.
“We all knew that Putin was doing everything behind the scenes anyway. We didn’t think anything would change,” McFaul said.
However, internal pressures created Putin’s aggressive pivot towards the West because he needed someone to blame the conflict on. Putin saw the U.S. supporting the revolutions in Egypt and Libya – and in his view in Russia too. Putin viewed demonstrators as traitors. Once Putin’s ally and Ukrainian leader Yanukovych fell in 2014, Putin pivoted completely against the U.S. as he saw U.S. ideology threatening his reign. The demonstrations in the Middle East and in Russia between 2011 and 2012 forced Putin to try and look stronger in his own country.
“The good news is, I don’t think Putin has a master plan to recreate the Soviet Union,” McFaul said. “There’s no evidence that that’s what he’s doing. The bad news is that Putin’s not changing. He can be in power legally until 2024, and Putin needs an enemy.”
As long as Putin feels threatened by revolutions and demonstrations in his own country and in those immediately surrounding Russia, the U.S. will continue to be his enemy. And, according to McFaul, a Trump presidency that is friendlier towards Russia won’t do much to change that.
Trump’s hothead meets the Cold War
Trump speaks about Russia as if the goal is to be Russia’s friend, McFaul theorized, and that could backfire.
According to McFaul, President Trump was confusing goals with means. “The job of a diplomat is to represent your country’s interest in another country. Not to be that country’s friend,” McFaul said.
Because of the Trump Administration’s recent controversies, like Sessions’ recent recusal and Russia’s interference in the 2016, Trump will have difficulty making any headway in Russia–U.S. relations. As of now, it might be politically impossible for Trump to grant any significant concessions to Russia without the exchange looking like political favors.
Furthermore, according to McFaul, there’s not much Russia can give us in negotiations.
“They could lift the ban on adoptions, but on bigger things I’m less optimistic. Our overlapping interests are much smaller than they used to be,” McFaul said.
Unfortunately, it looks like the new Cold War won’t be ending any time soon. But according to McFaul, it’s important to realize that a powerful Russia shouldn’t be a fear. Rather, the more pressing need is to reduce the idea that the U.S. is Russia’s enemy, and that they are ours.
Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.
The U.S. crafted the existing international system after World War II. This system carries on today through existing norms, treaties, and international bodies. In the unique case of Japan, U.S. influence lives on in its very Constitution. It is no coincidence, then, that with such a high level of influence, U.S.-Japan relations remain strong. However, multiple outside influences threaten the U.S.- led world order and challenge U.S.-Japan relations. Examples include the rise of regional powers and a multi-polar system, security threats in the Asia Pacific, and political shifts in the U.S. that normalize isolationist rhetoric and downplay nuclear proliferation. In the transition to the new world order Japan is redefining its identity and national narrative to cope with these changes, rather than recycling the post-War narrative crafted for and at the hands of the U.S. Maintaining one of our strongest alliances relies more than ever on the idea of the alliance itself. How will the U.S. craft its narrative in the face of a shifting international system? The Okinawa base relocation debate is a microcosm of this narrative contest.
Nowhere is Japan’s struggle to come to terms with the post-War world order more pronounced than in Okinawa. The debate over U.S. plans to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma has lasted over 20 years. U.S. and Japanese governments have been lobbying for the base’s move to Henoko, a more remote part of the island than the central hub of Futenma. However, the larger question is not whether locals support the base move, but whether they support U.S. military presence on the island at all. Okinawa already houses the majority of the American military presence in Japan, which residents feel is an unfair resource burden. Narratives ranging from environmental activism to pacifism have emerged in criticism of U.S. base relocation.
Now, as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasizes normalization and revisions to Article 9 of the Constitution, protests have reached a clarion call. Abe is continuing his campaign to realign Japan with the ever-shifting construct of “the West,” while many in the Japanese general public and the majority of the public in Okinawa prescribe to a divergent vision. Okinawa can be viewed as a microcosm of the narrative contest between traditionally defined notions of the “West” and rising counter-narratives about the West itself, as well as its importance in the multipolar order. Below, we map both pro- and anti-base narratives to depict counter-points and potential areas of collaboration. The outcome of this narrative contestation provides a window into future trends in U.S. – Japan relations.
This post uses the phrases “Base Relocation within Japan” and “Base Removal from Japan” as labels to analyze the broader contesting narratives. However, note that these are simplifications of local narratives with complexities beyond the scope of this post. Sourcing for narrative examples without links can be found in the footnotes.
If Japan’s national government is to achieve public support for the base relocation issue, the U.S. needs to rebrand its military as a force for peace in the region and win the narrative contest. There are some overlapping points between the two narrative camps, notably the consensus on rising regional security threats. However, for those in the “anti- base relocation” camp, the negative portrayal of U.S. soldiers and the linkage of the modern-day U.S. military with collective memory of violence on Okinawa trumps abstract regional threats. In short, the “anti-base relocation” camp does a better job making concerns relevant to Okinawans’ everyday lives. The U.S. needs to do the same, while addressing local needs and concerns.
This can be accomplished through:
The failure to address the Okinawa base relocation issue leaves space for competing narratives to gain traction. The above actions will contribute to an overall battle to “win the narrative”, not just in Okinawa, but within the U.S. – Japan security relationship as a whole.
The views presented in this post are the author’s own.
Derision is a complicated thing. At its most sophomoric, derision is little more than blowing raspberries on the playground – good for a laugh at someone’s expense but without much of a point. When given proper thought and execution, though, derision can deliver persuasive satire or charming self-deprecation, both of which bond audience and humorist closer together.
While diplomats use humor regularly to engage foreign audiences, often with successful results, there is little study of its use as a public diplomacy tool. Unfortunately, there is no formal understanding of the strategic use of humor when engaging foreign audiences. As a result, we see some nightmares when humor is poorly applied. When a diplomat’s joke bombs, the risk of real bombs is greater than when a new stand-up chokes at Comedy Works. It’s like Bono pleading with the UN to send a CVE-comedy task-force to Syria – we seem to know that there’s something there, but we just can’t quite grasp how to harness it.
Let’s talk about the failures of derision in public diplomacy. The most glaring example is “Think Again, Turn Away,” a counter-terrorism effort so poorly conceived that even our own comedians mocked it. In 2013, the Global Engagement Center from the U.S. Department of State launched the video “Think Again, Turn Away” on YouTube, intending to reach the same young audience that ISIS targeted online for recruitment. It wasn’t long before people realized that the snark-filled, sardonic PSA was utterly tone-deaf.
The team that produced “Think Again, Turn Away” undoubtedly understands the situation in ISIS-occupied territories better than most. They just don’t know comedy.
For every joke, there is an in-group and an out-group. These groups may be defined as those who get the joke and those who don’t, or along the classic laughing with/laughing at split. Derision especially lends itself to this split, more so than other comedic styles. Creating distinct in-groups and out-groups can reinforce or undermine existing narratives, depending on how those groups are framed.
Think of it this way: Everyone has a story in their head that tells them who they are. That’s our identity narrative. We have stories about our place in that world. We call those system narratives. In every narrative, there is a protagonist (the in-group) and an antagonist (the out-group). Generally, people like to be the protagonists of their own stories. We make this happen by aligning our identity narratives and system narratives in such a way that we belong to the in-group throughout. So, if we hear a different narrative, perhaps in the form of a joke, that recasts us as members of the out-group, we will reject that narrative. Not only that, we’ll likely cast whoever shared that narrative as a member of the out-group in our own narratives.
Here is a narrative map for a typical ISIS recruit, based on research on ISIS target messaging:
|Identity Narrative||System Narrative|
|ISIS Recruit||Young, over-educated & underemployed, an outsider (perceived or actual) of mainstream society, destined to and/or worthy of greatness||Living in a society that is hostile towards identity, unjust, limited opportunities to advance; the West is keeping true believers down, only the caliphate is righteous|
“Think Again, Turn Away” tries to undermine the “righteous caliphate” narrative by using sarcasm to cast ISIS in the out-group. However, the video fails to draw the potential recruits into its in-group. Therefore, it’s mockery only reinforces the theme of separation between recruits and the West present in both narrative levels.
So, if we hear a different narrative, perhaps in the form of a joke, that recasts us as members of the out-group, we will reject that narrative. Not only that, we’ll likely cast whoever shared that narrative as a member of the out-group in our own narratives.
Understanding the dynamics of in-groups and out-groups isn’t just good comedy – it’s good communication. Philip Seib says that successful communication is always audience based and ties into the narratives of that audience’s socio-political context. Obviously, “Think Again, Turn Away” is not audience based. Rather than embrace its target audience, clearly marking themselves as being “on the same team,” or both part of the in-group, the narrator mocks the ideological society that said audience expressed interest in joining. That is why the video targets its specified audience, after all. By mocking the group with which the audience has already identified, even superficially, it casts both in the out-group, cementing the audience’s allegiance to the butt of the joke.
One might have done less damage trying to sincerely persuade potential recruits to join ISIS. John Oliver points out that the State Department is “banking a lot on any potential militants understanding that [“Think Again, Turn Away”] is sarcasm,” the implication being that the intended audience won’t get the joke. Alternatively, the audience might understand the joke, but doesn’t find it the least bit funny. Either way, the video reinforces extremist messaging by squarely casting the audience in the out-group.
Whether or not potential recruits have the capacity or inclination to “appreciate” the video’s try at sarcasm, humans respond to humor cognitively and emotionally. No one likes being mocked; it makes us feel bad. You learned this blowing raspberries on the playground. When the audience you are trying to reach is also the butt of your joke, you have missed the point.
The views expressed here are the author’s only and do no necessarily represent those of George Washington University.
In a conversation moderated by IPDGC’s program director Janet Steele, National Security Council Press Spokesperson Emily Horne answered questions about her role in the NSC, its media strategy, and elaborated to students about her career path. Students, faculty, and industry professionals attended this event and were invited to join in for the second half of the conversation.
Emily Horne is currently an Assistant Press Secretary and Director for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council, where she serves as spokesperson for a range of foreign policy issues and advises White House and other senior U.S. government officials on media and strategic communications. Before joining the National Security Council she was the director of communications for General John Allen, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, where she built the communications strategy for the Obama Administration’s counter-ISIL efforts and traveled to over 30 countries supporting international efforts to degrade and defeat ISIL. She has also served as Spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, including temporary tours as spokesperson for the U.S. Embassies in Sri Lanka and Nepal. She began her career in government as an unpaid intern in the State Department’s Office of the Historian.
In an insightful and entertaining session on March 24th, U.S. Ambassador to the UK Matthew Barzun discussed the importance of engagement and networks in public diplomacy. Ambassador Barzun described how since almost all phones sold nowadays are mobile phones, the term itself has become an oxymoron. Barzun believed that the term public diplomacy was following the same trend line as the importance of public engagement increases.
To illustrate his point, Barzun asked the audience to describe which 130-year old company produced the first digital encyclopedia. The answer was Encarta, which was backed by the world’s most powerful and rich software company Microsoft. Yet this multi-billion dollar company was driven out of business by a ‘kid from Alabama,’ Jimmy Wales, who developed a bottom up model called Wikipedia, ‘the largest knowledge transfer engine in history.’
Barzun then asked the audience to imagine four squares along the following lines:
According to Ambassador Barzun, the magic was not going digital but going network and digital. But one could have very effective combinations of analogue and network such as conference calls. The key Barzun emphasized is to engage. Inside an organization one can be surprised what one can accomplish if rather than task people, one asks people for help. In public events the key is to listen, seeking not so much to be understood as to understand. “Outreach” or “reaching out” is not nearly as effective as engagement, which involves understanding and listening.
“If you listen, people will hear you differently,” he said. “If you repeat the pattern, good stuff happens.”
Answering a question about socio-media analytics, Ambassador Barzun noted that “things can be very precise without being accurate.” Judge the effectiveness of what is happening in the digital world by comparing the same to the analogue or real world. Computer or digital tools can be misused or overused. Twitter can allow an overuse of a broadcasting approach or power point can be overused to bombard audiences with information: “If power corrupts, Power Points corrupt absolutely.”
Ambassador Barzun stated that public diplomacy can build a reservoir of good will. You can fill the reservoir ‘a cup at a time’ or sometimes with a ‘hose’ and refill it when it gets punctured and fill it again. A positive example was President Obama’s dancing the tango in Argentina, which he said demonstrated humility and an interest in the local culture.
Ambassador Barzun closed by describing the image of the hierarchy, which could be described as triangles, with, for example, a Minister of Foreign Affairs at the top of the pyramid, and the circle of influences such as journalists to the wider public, which could be imagined as a cloud encircling the other two. We are living more and more or our lives online but engagement remains paramount. If one approaches challenges in a hierarchy mindset, one will fail just like Encarta.
Note: This entry was originally posted on ipdgc.gwu.edu as an event recap.
David Ensor, director of the Voice of America, believes America’s voice is a “far more” effective weapon in foreign policy than most hard power tools, and that most Americans don’t realize the value it has in furthering US policy abroad.
He said this and more at Tuesday’s event, “America’s Voice: U.S. International Media in the Age of Putin, ISIS, and Ebola“, held at the School of Media and Public Affairs. In front of an audience of nearly 100 students, faculty, and professionals, Ensor shared his trajectory in becoming the director of VOA after 30 years as a journalist covering national security and a variety of other topics. He made the case for why VOA matters in today’s “crowded” global media market, despite having its roots in the U.S. government as a tool of public diplomacy.
“What VOA does is honest reporting and we do that because it’s the law of the land,” Ensor said. “There is room on the VOA platform for objective journalism and editorials supporting U.S. policy.”
After sharing two videos that demonstrated the VOA’s breadth of international news coverage in multiple languages, Ensor sat with Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, and discussed in an interview format the challenges VOA has faced in recent times, such as budget changes, the Russian crackdown on international media outlets, and the value of studying journalism despite declining job opportunities for recent graduates.
“If given a bigger budget right now, I would spend that on improving our news services in Russian, then Kurdish and Turkish, and then Mandarin,” Ensor said. In regards to Russia’s ban on VOA in the country, Ensor said he would reach out to private companies and set up alternate news outlets in the former Soviet space to help bring alternative voices to the country.
“There’s a reason some governments around the world try so hard to block alternative voices. It’s a powerful tool than most realize,” Ensor said.
Following the interview, Ensor took questions from the audience, which varied from the protection of journalists in dangerous countries and efforts by the U.S. in competing with terrorist communication networks.
“Yes, there a lot more voices out there,” Ensor said in his closing remarks. “But we offer a certain kind of credibility that cuts through the cacophony.”
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) met again last week in its ongoing efforts to manage and improve our international broadcast operations. As both a public diplomacy practitioner and as a U.S. taxpayer, I have a keen interest in seeing that our limited resources for international broadcasting are spent as effectively as possible. As such, I have followed the long and ongoing debate over where and how we should broadcast, as well as how to measure the impact and effectiveness of our efforts with considerable interest. And although I have no deep expertise, nor can I offer any magic solutions, I do nevertheless think that we might usefully focus the debate by simply reframing the broadcasting challenge.
I fear that many of us (myself included) have misunderstood and over-simplified the challenges of international broadcasting. We tend to think of the BBG and the services that it oversees as roughly equivalent to conventional, commercial television or radio broadcasters like CNN, Fox, or even Al-Jazeera or CCTV. The danger in succumbing to that simple fallacy is that we then compare overall budgets and audience reach as if we are comparing apples to apples when, in actuality, BBG offers more of an assortment of apples, oranges, bananas, and other fruit.
In some limited markets, VOA or its sister services might have the means and licenses to broadcast directly and compete head-to-head with local broadcasters. Let’s call those “apples.” In most cases, however, the U.S. broadcasters partner with local affiliates who agree to carry U.S. programming on their own airwaves, sometimes on a contract-basis and in most cases, at no charge whatsoever. In those cases, the audience share is heavily dependent on the local affiliate, as well as the particular format, program, and time slot we agree upon. Let’s call these “oranges.”
But not all markets are created equal. In many countries, local affiliates are not permitted to partner with us at all and our own signals are blocked or jammed. Here the BBG and its services have had to explore creative means by which to deliver our programs, often over the internet or through other means depending on the local circumstances. We might call these “bananas,” “kiwis,” and “mangos.”
The precise mix of programming that we offer in each of these markets, moreover, differs depending on local demand and competition. In some markets we might choose a combination heavy on popular entertainment and lighter on news in order to attract a larger and younger audience. In other markets we might rely heavily on news and high-brow entertainment to reach a more elite and, perhaps, politically-influential audience. Both of these activities also fit within the VOA Charter, for example, which speaks of the requirement to “win the attention and respect of listeners.” Now instead of individual fruits, we have a range of different fruit salads.
Finally, even as the BBG and its services pursue all of these different broadcasting models, they are also faced with a media landscape that is being transformed by digital technology before our very eyes. Mobile and even smart phones will soon be ubiquitous around the world and internet and social media access will follow shortly after. The BBG – along with every other media player out there – is trying to maintain an appropriate balance of investments in old and new media formats while studying and adjusting to the evolution of media consumption habits in different markets.
The BBG reported recently that its services now reach a global audience of over 200 million people each week, but what does that mean given the diversity of markets described above? If we persist in thinking of the BBG and its services as a single, conventional, commercial broadcaster and use such aggregate numbers, we should simply be chasing audiences in large markets like India (where we actually cut most broadcasting services a few years ago). When we know that our target markets include smaller but critical countries like Afghanistan and Iran, why do we obsess over global market shares and total audience figures? Similarly, we spill a lot of ink in arguments and discussions comparing the BBG budget of $750 million to much larger amounts that China and Russia spend on CCTV and RT. Are the numbers at all comparable given our wildly disparate missions?
Having complicated the issue sufficiently, I will offer a few suggestions for areas that we should focus our attention on instead. First, where should we be? I think we all accept the fact that our resources are limited and that, as a result, we need to focus our efforts on the countries and markets that are most significant from a foreign policy perspective. This will also take into account the BBG standards and principles, of course, but those include first and foremost to “be consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States.”
Second, we should discuss what model or fruit or fruit salad is most appropriate or even possible for given markets. We are not trying to be CNN, but shouldn’t we discuss whether we are trying to be NPR, Sean Hannity, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, reality TV, or some combination of them all? That in turn, will give us a better indication as to appropriate measures of success and effectiveness. In other words, we may not be chasing the largest audience numbers, just particular audience segments. Measurements should be adjusted accordingly. If the requirement is to reach younger audiences, we should not measure our efforts against audiences ranging from age 15 to death.
Third, I was delighted to learn that we have begun to explore deeper cooperation with other like-minded international broadcasters, sharing, for example, the costs and results of our research efforts. Might we not explore even closer partnerships on particular programs in specific markets where our interests coincide? How about jointly producing individual programs? Additionally, are there opportunities for the BBG to purchase and adapt U.S. commercial products or even partner with U.S. news organizations in our overseas broadcasting efforts?
The BBG and its services are not – and should not be – driven by a commercial desire for profit. Nevertheless, by framing them – either consciously or unconsciously – in the model of a conventional commercial broadcaster we run the risk of adopting global audience and budget-to-audience ratios as proxy commercial measurements of effectiveness. Instead, we should uncouple BBG performance from such measurements and use that freedom as a comparative advantage as we pursue our true objectives of advancing U.S. foreign policy and promoting access to objective news and information. In the end, we may find that the most effective ways of doing that involve targeting smaller audiences in particular markets or adopting all-digital internet platforms in others.
Fortunately, many of these conversations are already taking place. Let’s just not get distracted by the global aggregate budget and audience numbers, avoid conflating fruit salads with apples, and stay focused instead on what really matters here.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the U.S. government. The author is a State Department officer specializing in public diplomacy, currently detailed to the IPDGC to teach and work on various Institute projects.
Of course, one cannot compare the typhoon that has left 4,000 dead and 12,000 injured in the Philippines with the tornadoes in the U.S. which resulted in less death and damage this weekend. But the common ingredient is the critical importance of timely information before, during and after a crisis. Natural disasters come quickly. How prepared people are for the onslaught of deadly winds and bad weather is often directly related to how much accurate and timely information they received beforehand.
If ever we doubt the role of governments in providing information, think about what happens if local, provincial, state, federal, national or international information is lacking. An individual with an iPhone is important, but the view is limited. We need the local weatherman and local radio supported by the national weather service. Individuals can assist, but also important is an organized large-scale governmental response, rescue and assistance coordinated by local, state and federal officials with—when necessary—militaries capable of doing the heavy lifting, literally and figuratively.
We need good public diplomacy and public affairs to reach people with good information. That takes resources, training, and professionalism. We need to keep investing in that architecture and personnel today and tomorrow.
In late May, protestors descended on Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park. At first, there was a small sit-in over re-development plans that would have it, one of the few parks in European Istanbul. After months of unsuccessful petitioning to save the park, activists took to camping out there to prevent the demolition. Police removed them by force, setting their encampment on fire in the process.
The state’s aggressive response was met with outrage as images of the police action spread. This brought far more protestors to the park. They expressed a general dissatisfaction with the government’s increasingly restrictive policies and actions. Some were displeased with new limitations on alcohol sales during certain hours, increasing censorship and bans on public displays of affection. The government deployed punitive measures against dissidents and those insulting religion.
Turkey’s contemporary politics is defined by a delicate, but tilting balance between the religiously-inclined socio-politics of the dominant AK party and the deep strain of Kemalist secularism. The latter is reflected constitutionally, going back to the founder of modern, post-Ottoman Turkey. It’s a set of nationalist values entrenched institutionally in the military, which plays a vital role in shaping Turkey’s polity, as well as among a good portion of the Turkish population. The AK party, however, was re-elected several times by a majority of the country, and therefore enjoys something of a popular mandate to legislate socially conservative policies. The modernist, westernizing vision of Turkey is at odds with the outcomes of democratic process.
This turn in political culture matches Turkey’s pivot in foreign affairs, from its abandoned westward aims of joining the European Union to playing a more active role in Middle Eastern international relations.
Protests that began over a very specific qualm — the razing of the park — quickly grew to larger movements of general dissent in others parts of the country. Labor strikes, mass protests and organized action by professionals and academics confronted the government. Riot police frequently used force and instruments such as tear gas, clubs and other weapons to disperse crowds.
Turkish President Abdullah Gül recently praised the original sit-in for the values it espoused, though he differentiated them from the later agitators who he saw as perpetrating violence. In response to the accusation that the state’s response was overwrought, he said its tactics were quite consistent with the types of response in other countries. Rather than seeing these as amounting to a crisis of legitimacy, he sought to normalize the protest and the state’s response: “These kinds of problems are mainly democratic and developed countries’ problems. Turkey’s problems have come to a point resembling these.” In other words, these are #firstworldproblems.
President Gül’s claims are hard to square with the extent of violence that ensued. Freelance journalist Ahmet Sik said: “I have worked in war zones but Taksim was terrible. The security forces were hunting people down. Media personnel are targeted twice over. By demonstrators who think they are siding with the government and not covering events properly. And by the security forces, who deliberately fire at us.”
I am sure reasonable people can disagree to whether this is hyperbole or not, but one less ambitious question could be: How capable was foreign and Turkish media in reporting the story?
At a recent one-day symposium at Dublin City University, Esra Doğramaci spoke on this exact topic. She highlighted numerous, systematic errors in traditional news coverage, and showed how social media helped correct misreporting.
Her most stinging critique was that foreign media reported these protests within an “Arab spring” frame. This suggests a revolutionary purpose aimed at regime change, rather than towards specific policy reforms. Referencing the protests as “Turkish Tahrir” was emblematic of “sensationalism and misinformation.” The numbers, the eventual unanimity, and the scale of government repression did not match, making the Arab spring frame fall flat. As one analyst suggested the underlying issue is identity, and that Kemalism was a “spent force” while long-suppressed religious politics are emergent.
Not only did news media fail to explore this more relevant historic context, but they offered reductionist and ahistorical parallels instead. She points out The Economist cover that superimposed Prime Minister Erdogan’s face on an Ottoman Sultan’s body.
Doğramaci pointed to blatant acts of misreporting, from identifying a mass audience for the Prime Minister as an anti-government protest, to outdated photos of an injured child, to articles gauging national opinion based on interviews with ten Turks. One rumor that the government shuttered cell phone service was reported, but shown by a social media user to be false. She attributed these, in part, to the problem of producing “news requiring least effort.” Social media users, could correct the record and push journalism to be better.
There are, however, other systematic issues. The Turkish spring frame, could reflect a lack of familiarity with the idiosyncrasies of Turkey, such as the deeper tension in its changing political culture. Editors or journalists may just collapse it in with the set of Arab countries that saw uprisings starting in late 2010 — Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Or, it could be a frame intended to grab more page views: a “hook.” That certainly seems to be the purpose of magazine covers, after all.
Covering it poorly is probably better than not covering it all. CNN Turk, Doğramaci mentioned, famously ignored the story all together, showing a documentary about penguins instead of the first protests. CNN International was more on the ball, refusing to get scooped. The CNN Turk documentary led to a fun protest meme. The penguin became the protestors’ new logo for neglectful media non-coverage.
One wonders, however, whether we can just fully blame faulty media coverage. The Turkish government’s high rate of convicting and imprisoning journalists won it the nickname “world’s largest prison for journalists.” When Reporters With Borders deems a country that, one wonders how state policy and pressures interfere with journalists’ access and ability to report competently on important stories, such as these protests. Documented reports of intimidation and censorship of journalists suggest government policy can also create reporting skews. One impact is it discourages reporters from covering it. This could be the reason CNN Turk was slow to the subject.
Turkish repression of media is so extensive that it immediately calls into question President Gül’s assessment of the protests and the state response.
Despite the potential for social media users to circumvent traditional state instruments, such as its criminal law, the thick censorial regime would be very likely to impact how key moments in Turkey’s struggle for a new direction are presented, making the veracity of information more difficult to decipher. Far from excusing sloppy journalism, unimaginative metaphors and skin-deep analysis in news media, pointing to the lack of press freedom in Turkey is an essential first step towards helping outsiders better understand what is happening within.
Competitions to host the Olympic games inevitably generate considerable controversy and criticism about the merits (or lack thereof) of hosting the games. Most of the debate focuses on the economic costs and benefits involved.
Little attention is paid, however, to listing the intangible benefits of hosting such a major event. Public diplomacy should be high on any such list. Hosting the Olympics is a unique opportunity to attract international attention – not only hundreds of thousands of tourists, but also many millions of television viewers – and to shape a powerful and positive narrative of the host country, city, and its people. Recent hosts, most notably China, worked hard to capitalize on this very opportunity.
There are obvious risks for the host, of course, including the possibility of a man-made or natural disaster, as well as the potential for groups to use the event to highlight particular political agendas. Russia, for example, currently faces precisely such a challenge with regard to its record on LGBT issues and the upcoming Winter Games in Sochi. That said, perhaps no other event has quite the same potential for national rebranding and polishing of a country’s image than the feel-good vibes of the peaceful competition, international camaraderie, and mutual understanding epitomized by the Olympic Games.
While the nay-sayers will have their say, I have no doubt that leaders in Japan, Turkey, and Spain all had this in mind as they lobbied for the 2020 games. Congratulations to Japan (and good luck to Turkey and Spain in their future bids) for securing this incredible public diplomacy opportunity!
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the U.S. government. The author is a State Department officer specializing in public diplomacy, currently detailed to the IPDGC to teach and work on various Institute projects.