public diplomacy

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How RT is Exploiting Grievances in Catalonia and Dividing Europe


Aftermath Of The Catalonian Independence Referendum by Sasha Popovic |

Populism represents the newest challenge facing the European Union. In the past year, a string of elections and referendums in Italy, Spain, Germany, Czech Republic and Austria elevated anti-establishment and nationalist sentiments.

The shift in international order threatens the status quo, and western leaders are suspicious of Russian influence. Last year, United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May accused Russia of meddling in elections and spreading fake news to sow discord in the west. May acted on the allegations this January, announcing the creation of a department to curb fake news and social media influence campaigns.

The tweets from RT, a Russian news outlet, seem to confirm May’s claims that the Kremlin seeks to sow discord around the world. RT’s coverage of Spain’s latest attempt to quell the independence movement in Catalonia, Spain’s wealthiest region, overwhelmingly supported secessionists and highlighted division between European allies.


The Catalan Crisis

Catalan secessionists believed the Spanish government in Madrid taxed the region too much without putting sufficient investment back into Catalonia. Catalans mobilized and voted in an illegal referendum on October 1, 2017, with 90 percent voting in favor of independence. However, less than half of the electorate showed up to the polls.

Catalan lawmaker Alejandro Fernández, who opposed the independence referendum, said, “This movement is textbook populism.”

After the Spanish government invoked a rare measure to assert authority in Catalonia, secessionist leaders, including Catalan president Carles Puigdemont fled to Belgium seeking asylum.

At the end of March, German authorities arrested Puigdemont at the German-Danish border. Spain asked the German government to extradite him on embezzlement and rebellion charges. But on April 6, a German court decided to release Puigdemont on bail. The decision tested EU member state relations and dealt a major blow to Spain as it tries to prosecute others involved in the illegal referendum for Catalan independence held last fall.


Introducing RT en Español

To understand how Russian outlets covered Puigdemont’s arrest, I followed RT en Español for one week leading up to and following the German court’s decision on Puigdemont’s extradition. Pro Puigdemont and divided Europe messages saturated RT tweets, amplifying populist rhetoric and reinforcing discord between European countries.

History shows Russia seizes on opportunities to amplify crises through the spread of false information. Russian disinformation is characterized as high volume as well as rapid, continuous and repetitive. The textbook definitions of Russian disinformation are consistent with my findings. In seven days, the account released 1,900 tweets, tweeting an average of 270 times per day. I identified 60 tweets about Spain, as RT en Español also covers news from Latin America.

Tweet Breakdown

Tweets collected using Social Feed Manager from the GWU Gelman Library

About 80 percent of these tweets either mentioned or referred to the crisis in Catalonia or secessionist leader Puigdemont. The sheer magnitude of tweets on Catalonia in a week is surprising. To be fair, the German court’s decision to not extradite Puigdemont, was a big development in the story. It was covered in other Spanish news outlets and is part of the reason why I started looking at RT tweets around the time of the decision. However, this wasn’t the only big story happening in Spain, yet it is the story RT heavily amplified.

When we look at the composition of the Catalonia tweets, we find them to be overwhelmingly pro Puigdemont.

Catalonia Tweets

Tweets collected using Social Feed Manager from the GWU Gelman Library

RT tweeted several quotes from Puigdemont’s remarks after his release from jail. While there are other voices in this conflict, such as the Spanish government in Madrid, the only voice represented by RT is Puigdemont. It is actually consistent with populism to focus on a charismatic leader. RT’s constant coverage of Puigdemont bolsters this.

The second most popular tweet of the week was a pro Puigdemont announcement of his release from prison, including a particularly happy photo of the former Catalan president.

pro puigdemont tweets

Translation: “The German court charged with the decision about the extradition of Carles Puigdemont to Spain has to decided to release on bail the ex-president of Catalonia.”

The slant is clear, by only highlighting Puigdemont, RT omits a big part of the Catalan crisis from its coverage, the Spanish government.

About a quarter of the Catalonia tweets were about divisions within Europe, and these tweets tended to perform the best, receiving hundreds of likes and retweets.

This tweet, for example, was the most popular of the week – with 852 retweets and 911 likes.

tweet division example

Translation: “The respect for Germany in the Spanish establishment seems to be directly proportional to Puigdemont’s proximity to jail.”

And this one.

popular tweet example

Translation: “Belgium will investigate Spain for installing a geolocator in Puigdemont’s car.”

Showing significantly lower engagement than the previous tweet, this tweet was the third most popular, with 153 retweets and 159 likes. However, it shows the growing rift between Spain and its European allies.

The Catalan crisis tested relations between Spain and the EU, Belgium and now Germany. Coverage of strained relations emphasizes a breakdown in EU member state cooperation, an institution that is supposed to be built on shared interests, sovereignty and tolerance.

While we have no direct way of testing the effects of RT’s pro Puigdemont and divided Europe messages, the content of the messages and the nature by which they were disseminated seem to undermine the status quo in favor of a new world order at best or chaos at worst.

The Catalan crisis is just one opportunistic example where Russia benefits by upending the status quo and dividing allies. A deeper look at other European populist movements could reveal even more efforts to sow discord in the west.

Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.


Trump’s Dangerous Narrative

President Trump

America First really means America Alone. It is a narrative in conflict with the contemporary American identity, harkening back to the isolationists of 1940s.

Before Trump, the predominate American narratives about its place in the world were hegemonic. We, without irony, referred to the president of the United States as the leader of the free world. It comes from the same narrative that explains why we call the MLB champions (featuring only North American teams) the World Series champions. We believe in American exceptionalism and manifest destiny, that America is strongest when we lead. Those ideas are in direct conflict with Trump’s “America First” doctrine.

And because of that, Trump’s narrative threatens the continuance of the liberal international order. Some observers have noted that, in Trump’s America First approach to public diplomacy, “the art of persuasion… is absent.” And others have argued that our continued prestige will rest on “American arts and intellectual life [and] American education,” not on Trump.

When a world power like the United States fades, it’s usually because of overreach (like the Soviet Union after the Cold War) or the emergence of stronger powers (like France after WWI). But Trump’s new America First narrative has pioneered a third way—forfeiture. This isn’t a novel realization, Fareed Zakaria has dubbed it “the rise of the rest” and Richard Hass has called it the “Great Abdication.”

What these previous analyses have missed is how American narratives explain this shift. Previously dominant narratives like internationalism, the Cold War consensus, or the War on Terror had brought order to an otherwise chaotic world. That doesn’t mean they were perfect. Bush’s War on Terror had inarguably negative consequences, but it at least fit with existing narratives about America’s role in the world.

America First is in conflict with our dominant narratives. Trump’s America First rhetoric—inarguably a self-serving and arrogant approach—regarding foreign policy has been cited by experts as a major reason for America’s decline in soft power. This is because America First is in conflict with three particular American narratives that supported America’s image around the world: globalism, multiculturalism, and freedom.

Perhaps most clearly, it’s in conflict with the American globalist narrative. That narrative—dominant in the halls of UN in New York and Facebook in the Silicon Valley—is an elite narrative. It says: “The world is better when it’s open and connected. The future is global, security is shared, and technology has no borders.” It’s perhaps an idealistic one but has become a consensus among the bicoastal elite and Bobos in Paradise of David Brooks’ imagination.

Multiculturalism, too, is in direct conflict with an America First narrative that dictates border walls and tariffs. That narrative—engrained in our Statue of Liberty and the identity politics of Democrats—is dominant. In fact, it reinforces other American narratives like individualism, as one can maintain one’s own culture and still be an American. It says: “America is a nation of immigrants. We are strong because of our diversity; our melting pot is only possible because of it. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” And that brings us to America First’s most detrimental conflict: freedom.

If America has one dominant narrative that transcends time and partisanship, it’s freedom. It’s the idea that led to the American Revolution, to the Civil War, and has driven us to become the world’s police force, fighting for freedom around the world. It drove us to globalism and multiculturalism and defines our being. It is why we call our president the leader of the free world. It’s a narrative—defended by our soldiers and dominant is our rhetoric—that defines the American identity. It says, like Lincoln did, that “those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.”

But America First says “only we deserve freedom.” That is not an American narrative; that is in direct conflict with one. America First is dangerous, but if our history is predictive, it won’t last for long because if you deny freedom, America will come for you.

Reed Elman Waxham studies media & strategic communication in the School of Media & Public Affairs at the George Washington University. Follow him @reed_elman. The views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of TakeFive or the Institute for Public Diplomacy & Global Communication. 

Five Reasons Why China’s Cross-Strait Communication Is Losing Ground

taipei harbor.jpegView of the Taiwan Strait from Taipei Harbor ©Yukai Wang


Since the beginning of 2018, dark clouds have been gathering above the Taiwan Strait. From China opening the controversial M503 flight route (see the route map below) to the U.S. Congress passing Taiwan Travel Act, to the military exercises in the strait, recent developments of the fragile cross-strait relations have stirred up new waves of speculations on a potential military conflict in the region. Beijing’s cross-strait communication is facing the biggest challenge in years.


What is the Mainland’s Taiwan narrative?

Beijing’s Taiwan narrative asserts that: (1) The fellow Chinese living on both sides of the strait share a bond of kinship and the common mission to work for the nation’s greater good. (2) The conflict with Taiwan will be solved in a peaceful process under the recognition of “one China.” (3) China’s sovereignty over Taiwan is indisputable and it will never tolerate any activities promoting “Taiwan independence.” However, for five reasons, Beijing’s narrative is gradually failing to achieve its strategic communication goals.


Reason one: Taiwan’s changing identity

One of the assumptions of mainland China’s narrative about identity is that the mainlanders and Taiwanese people belong to the same identity group. By reminding the Taiwanese of historical facts, the Mainland hopes to shape their behaviors and make them aspire to unification, without considering the memory gap between the two sides due to the civil war ended in 1949, the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, and a different democratization process on the island. In the time of isolation, the old Taiwanese identity, which Beijing kept recalling, was reconstructed to a new one. As a result, a decreasing number of Taiwanese compatriots identify themselves as Chinese or Chinese/Taiwanese at the same time. While Beijing designs the narrative based on the experience of its own identity group, Taiwan has activated its own reasoning process that people from other groups will not necessarily understand. Therefore, Beijing’s narrative is not culturally congruent to Taiwanese people and is speaking a language that does not fit into the changing Taiwanese identity. Thus, a large part of Taiwan does not share the vision of unification with the Mainland.


Reason two: the dilemma of the One-China policy

Narratives have to be sufficiently flexible to allow description so that when events threaten to contradict the narrative, it can be seen to be unaffected. But for China, such flexibility is off the table. On the one hand, territorial sovereignty is a non-negotiable issue for Beijing, who repeatedly emphasizes its hard position on “there is only one China”, which is the essence of the One-China policy and a precondition for any official dialogues. On the other hand, several Taiwan Democratic Progress Party leaders have publicly refused to accept the one-China claim, resulting in the shut-down of official communication channels. If the two parties do not talk to each other, establishing a mutual understanding can be extremely difficult.


Reason three: the narrative contestation

The reception of Beijing’s narrative is subject to contestation because actors with different agendas compete to win over the Taiwanese audience, taking advantage of the ideological disjuncture. For example, in January 2018, China opened the M503 civil flight route to ease the air traffic congestion near its southern coast. The action was framed by the ruling party in Taiwan as a “military provocation.” The politicians injected their counter-narrative to harness support for upcoming elections and to save the plummeting approval rating.

M503 route map.png

Reason four: the different information infrastructures

Political actors must take into consideration the information infrastructure and information consumption behavior of the audience. The two sides of the strait have different TV networks, different printed media, and different social media. More importantly, the news outlets are controlled by entities with different agendas. The evolving communications technology should facilitate connectivity between leaders and the public. However, China’s semi-open Internet environment is far from promoting the effective dissemination of its narrative in Taiwan because people from the two sides are still confined in separate echo chambers and are receiving different messages. The Mainland needs to break those walls to insert its narrative into Taiwanese people’s lives.


Reason five: the U.S. factor

To Taiwan, the U.S. is a strategic partner that supports its secessionist activities by selling arms and offering military protection (but only enough to maintain the status quo). To China, the U.S. is a competitor who attempts to contain Chinese nation’s rising power. The Taiwan issue has been the largest stumbling block in the U.S.-China relations. Despite the potential trade war, China is more concerned about America’s recent moves regarding Taiwan, including the passing of Taiwan Travel Act, which enables high-level official visits from both parties. In response to the increasing American support for Taiwan, the Mainland announced it will hold live-fire military exercises in the Taiwan Strait.


Is assertiveness plus military might the right formula for peaceful unification? Looking back into history, national assimilations always happen when economic integration and cultural amalgamation are combined. To achieve that, China needs to foster a more complex understanding of strategic narrative, which should be audience-based and culturally congruent. A successful narrative must inspire the Taiwanese people to a future where their identity remains intact, where they enjoy prosperity, where they share the same vision with brothers and sisters in mainland China.


Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.

Why U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry could only reinforce its dictatorship

Venezuela is going through the worst period in its history. With hyperinflation and a humanitarian crisis ramping up, people are leaving the country by the thousands. However, all these problems and issues are constantly framed by the Government in ways that shape perceptions to support their narrative. The government identifies causes, conveys moral judgments, and endorse remedies using words and images embedded in its culture. Therefore, many people understand those events as foreign sabotage or attacks, blaming other countries for problems that are basically the government’s own mismanagement and corruption. The “Chavismo” -a movement that Hugo Chavez started, and Nicolas Maduro now leads- has built a narrative around historic feelings of inferiority that Latin America has with the United States, which works as a metanarrative that is the glue holding the movement together. Therefore, any foreign initiative or international action must go through a strong filter that the government controls and has used effectively for years.


Nicolas Maduro


In this scenario, economic sanctions have been considered more and more in the last year. U.S. representatives, including President Trump, have said that all options are on the table and sanctions on Venezuela´s oil industry are being considered. These sanctions would come as a response to Venezuela´s government undemocratic behavior and the documented violation of human rights. In fact, the U.S. government has already put sanctions on individual representatives from the Venezuelan government since 2015. However, considering that oil represents 95% of the local income, sanctions on the oil industry would potentially affect the whole population.

Considering this context, U.S. Sanctions would perfectly fit Chavismo’s narrative. Although these sanctions are thought from the U.S. perspective as actions that will cause economic restrictions and provoke a political change, it could actually entrench the government. For instance, when Barack Obama first signed the Executive Order with the first list of sanctions in 2015, even though these were targeted to individual officials, Maduro´s regime framed it as an attack and part of the economic sabotage they have been warning about. In fact, Maduro’s popularity went up, and most of the region rejected the sanctions and called to negotiate.

Although the U.S. government tried to frame it as actions speaking on behalf of the people who want a real democracy, they ignored the logic of narratives and master narratives: it is not the actions but how people perceive those actions what shapes PD results.  Before taking this sensitive action, the U.S. must carefully think how the story will go down. Therefore, understanding the media ecology that audiences in Venezuela and the region experience it is a critical step to control the outcome.

Regional perspective

Governments in countries such as Colombia, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and others are very cautious when it comes to sanctions with this impact, and they rarely fully support them. On the other hand, Venezuela’s regime can connect with foreign audiences framing these sanctions through comparisons with past U.S. interventions in countries such as Chile or Cuba, which left a powerful anti-American image in the region.

Economic interests

Another storyline that is entrenched in Venezuela`s political debate is that the U.S. government wants to control the local oil industry. Venezuela, with the biggest proven oil natural reserves in the world, has built its economy around the profits of selling oil throughout the years, and now more than ever. Therefore, this industry is an integral part of any political discourse.

Then, all economic measures that the U.S. takes against Venezuela will bring back this narrative about their plan to control Venezuela’s oil industry. And when U.S. sanctions escalate to affect the oil industry itself, the government is going to exploit this cultural background for political support.

China and Russia

Moreover, the U.S. could not only be entrenching a dictator and nurturing an underlying anti-U.S. sentiment with these sanctions but also could be pushing Venezuela into the hands of Russia and China. Although Venezuela should be a strategic geopolitical ally of the U.S., economic restrictions on an already decaying economy only make them look for agreements in the East. Both countries have important economic agreements with Venezuela, and their influence is getting more powerful as Venezuela becomes more isolated with time. In fact, Rosneft already has an influence on Venezuela´s most important international asset, American refiner CITGO which has its headquarters in Houston.



Nicolas Maduro (Left), President Vladimir Putin (Right)



A strategic approach

Although banning Venezuela´s oil would certainly exert an economic shock that could potentially lead to a political change, the risks of producing the contrary effect fueling the regime´s narrative and nurturing an anti-American sentiment seem very high. After all, Venezuela´s economy is already imploding without these sanctions; thus, maybe the U.S. would be only giving them their excuse.

A more effective approach would be working with other Latin American countries to progressively constrain Maduro´s regime financial options, offer guarantees to key actors inside the government in exchange of quitting power, and prepare humanitarian assistance for when the transition starts.

The U.S. government needs to execute these actions together with countries such as Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, and even the European Union. These actions in a bloc -including socialist countries- would legitimate any decision in the eyes of Venezuelans who still believe in their government’s narrative. This way, the U.S. would avoid their ideological trap proposing a regional approach because it would not be the U.S. against Latin America anymore, it would be the continent against Venezuela’s regime.



President Juan Manuel Santos, Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.

How ISIS seduces European Muslim women–and what Europe can do about it

Why are so many Muslim women in Europe susceptible to ISIS propaganda? Many of them join ISIS to commit jihad, or violence in the name of the “sustained struggle” to advance Islamic extremism. In 2014, about 18 percent of all European ISIS members were female. As of August 2017, experts believe the total number of women is more than 550. But are women brainwashed by the Islamic State or choosing jihad of their own free will?

Many Muslim women in Europe are enticed by ISIS’s recruitment videos and social media presence. ISIS portrays the Caliphate as a utopian land where ISIS’s very narrow view of Islam is strictly enforced. ISIS uses Hollywood-level video production and a social media strategy which rivals any Silicon Valley startup. On social media, women members of ISIS promise their women viewers a fulfilling life married to a devout Muslim man in the Caliphate. These women leave discrimination and alienation in Europe to support jihadis in Syria—or to take jihad into their own hands.

But why are ISIS recruitment efforts so effective? Answering this question requires an overview of how Muslim women are excluded from European society. For example, many French people do not consider a Muslim immigrant living in France to be “French, ” regardless of citizenship. A “French” identity includes Western clothing, language fluency, and a desire to assimilate. The French government and mainstream media view national identity narrowly—“traditional” so as not to make white French citizens uncomfortable.

Immigrant Muslim women are marginalized and their religion, way of dressing, and race are always at the forefront of their minds. They are forced to define their “Muslim” identity as incompatible with their “French” identity. Many choose to perceive themselves as “Muslim” rather than “French” in a nation that shows them time and time again that they do not belong. Taub calls this phenomenon “identity choice.”

ISIS uses these cleavages created by the French government to target French Muslim women who want to wear religious coverings and marry a devout Muslim man without being cast as a social pariah. Recruiters appeal to women fascinated by extremism and enamored with escaping France to join the Caliphate. By creating media channels apart from the French mainstream, ISIS can control the slant and message of their posted content to target and lure.

The divergence of media outlets can explain why recruitment videos spread like wildfire.

Model for Blog Post

The fork in the road: ISIS creates a sophisticated rival of mainstream media, which garners attention from the women who embrace this romanticized extremism


However, ISIS’s savvy productions only explain part of the phenomenon.

ISIS’s chosen messenger? Other women.

British women recruiters are master strategists at romanticizing life under ISIS: they catch more flies with honey than they do with vinegar. ISIS women reach out to other women by creating News Frames of the propaganda. Through a process called framing, they shape and interpret the content of ISIS videos and social media posts to win the upper hand in reaching French Muslim women—their target audience.

The most powerful way to frame ISIS propaganda is to create a utopian image of the Caliphate that is consistent with what many Muslim women have already determined to be their ideal society.

Women recruiters can frame ISIS propaganda to convince a woman that joining is in her own best interest. Here’s three ways how:


  1. They display their elite status in the Caliphate as wives and mothers and invite other women to emulate them.


  1. They provide detailed instructions on how to use weapons, travel to Syria, and even commit jihad.


  1. They distort the concept of women’s “empowerment” to mean challenging western gender norms and joining all-women brigades.


By glorifying this active role for women, recruits develop an affinity for a Caliphate ready to welcome them with open arms.

Despite its recent territory losses, ISIS still manages to release a few recruitment videos. Nations committed to countering violent extremism cannot fight fire with fire: instead of sensationalizing the videos and perpetrators to the public, European officials and mainstream media outlets must disseminate content that exposes these recruitment tactics that put women at risk.

In addition, French society must broaden their definition of “European” to include Muslim immigrants. In order for this shift in public opinion to occur, European mainstream media needs a new approach: discussing Muslim women as French citizens or residents, not permanent outsiders. Media accomplish this goal by at the News Frames stage of the model above.

Elected officials in Europe must rise to their higher calling as public servants and unite citizens of all religions and national origins under a new “European” identity. Factionalism may be good for getting votes, but this tactic has succeeded at the expense of Muslim women’s livelihoods. This is the most difficult and far-reaching change to implement, as the model suggests.

If France better integrates its immigrant communities, French Muslim women can emerge from the margins of society. ISIS’s power to prey upon these women diminishes when women can practice their religion, wear garments of their choosing, and access education and employment opportunities.

ISIS’s glossy social media images will lose their luster for the many women they once seduced. The news frames won’t be as effective for Muslim women immigrants once Europe stops treating them as “the other.”

Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.

The Many Narrative Failings of Trump’s Jerusalem Decision


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump meet at the United Nations General Assembly.

By Joshua Axelrod

Jerusalem is a city with a long, complicated history that means something different yet equally profound to many groups.

With that in mind, it is no wonder that President Donald Trump’s choice to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the United States’ embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was met with almost unanimous global condemnation, with everyone from Palestinian leadership to Pope Francis blasting the move.

To fully grasp the international community’s overwhelmingly negative reaction to Trump’s decision, one must be reminded why three presidential administrations continually chose to forgo moving the U.S. embassy in Israel, and what Trump upending five decades of U.S. foreign policy symbolizes to the rest of the world.

Jerusalem Embassy Act

After the 1967 Six Day War, Israel emerged with full control of Jerusalem. Most of the world chose not to recognize Israel’s claim on East Jerusalem, including the U.S. The lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the controversy surrounding Jerusalem’s jurisdiction led the U.S. to keep its embassy in Tel Aviv.

In 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which set a deadline for the U.S. to move its embassy to Jerusalem. There was a baked-in loophole, however, that allowed a six-month delay on the relocation if the president “determines … that such suspension is necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States.”

Then-President Bill Clinton was the first to sign the waiver delaying the embassy move. His administration argued at the time that “a premature focus on Jerusalem” could “undermine negotiations and complicate the chances for peace.”

His administration’s official stance was that moving the embassy to Jerusalem would imply that the U.S. recognizes Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem. They believed that whether such a move coincided with an official change in U.S. policy regarding Jerusalem or not, it would still cause global confusion on where the U.S. stood and potentially incite violence throughout the Middle East.

That notion never changed during the Clinton administration, and with peace talks remaining largely unsuccessful for the next two decades, then-Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama continually chose to sign the waiver and maintain the status quo. Even Trump continued the tradition at first, signing the waiver in June 2017.

The Great Disruptor

Trump either did not know or chose to ignore how his proclamation would play abroad, nor did he seem cognizant of the reasons why Clinton, Bush and Obama continually chose to delay the embassy move.

Unfortunately, he had no reason to honor his predecessors’ policies or incentive to pacify the international community, as the only folks he has ever shown an interest in pandering to are his ever-faithful and deeply-populist political base.

Populists, by definition, don’t care about foreign policy; to them, the only affairs that matter are domestic. The only members of Trump’s base who may be concerned with Jerusalem are the many evangelicals he mobilized, who probably would prefer that Israel control the Holy City.

Pleasing those folks is enough to assure him that he is doing a good job. If Trump continues to push his “America First” agenda and placate his evangelical supporters, he will stay in their good graces, consequences be damned.

Potential Fallout

The only party this move placated was Israel, which believes it has had legal dominion over Jerusalem since the Six Day War. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been open about his desire to make Jerusalem Israel’s “eternal capital,” so of course he hailed Trump’s decision as a “great service for peace.”

The Palestinian community unsurprisingly balked at Trump’s announcement. Demographically, East Jerusalem is predominantly Arab, with many Palestinian residents who feel they have been treated poorly since Israel stripped them of their international recognition as a country. That has fostered a belief that East Jerusalem, at the very least, rightfully should be under Palestinian control.

Most terrorist groups are, naturally, more sympathetic to the Palestinians’ claim on Jerusalem than Israel’s.

After Trump’s proclamation, ISIS smugly reminded the world that “60 years and Jerusalem has been in the hands of the Jews, and it is only now that people cry when the Crusaders announced today as their capital.”

Trump played right into ISIS’ hands, and chances are good his decision will factor into its recruitment tactics going forward. He is providing terrorist groups with all the motivation they need to continue their violent campaigns.

Exhibit A: The Israeli Shin Bet security service released statistics that showed the number of terrorist attacks in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza tripled from November to December 2017 — right after Trump made his Jerusalem decision public.

That information is only correlative, but the fact it could be plausibly construed as a result of Trump’s precedent-destroying negligence is a troubling sign for how this saga will play out going forward.


Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.

A Lost Opportunity for Diplomacy?

Mark L. Asquino, U.S. Ambassador (ret). Senior Public Diplomacy Fellow, SMPA (2010-11)

The photo from the 2018 Winter Olympics speaks volumes. It shows Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, with glum expressions, sitting in the VIP section in front of Kim Yo-jong, the influential sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. In other photos, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Yo-jong stand as the joint Korean athletes’ delegation marches in the opening ceremony, while the Pences remain seated.

So, what’s wrong with these pictures? On one level, I would say nothing. For starters, the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the pariah state in Pyongyang. Accordingly, one would hardly expect Vice President Pence to warmly greet Kim Jong-un’s official representative in the VIP box, whether they were in close proximity or not. Similarly, Mr. Pence may have felt that standing for the entry of a delegation of athletes that included those from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, a.k.a. North Korea) would have been a form of recognizing that odious regime. However, in deference to his South Korean hosts and their athletes, Pence’s refusal to stand, one could argue, was less than gracious or diplomatic.

More importantly, though, by not using the opportunity of the Olympics to engage, even on an informal level, with the DPRK, the U.S. missed a rare opportunity for direct, diplomatic dialogue with an adversary. In contrast, by inviting North Korea to participate in the Olympics, President Moon Jae-in clearly seized upon this opportunity. He then engaged in discussions on improving relations with Ms. Kim during her visit to Pyeongchang. This led to the North’s inviting Mr. Moon to Pyongyang for a meeting with Kim Jong-un.

Of course, it remains to be seen if this brief, Olympics thaw in relations between North and South Korea will lead to anything substantive. But what it shows to me is the power of public diplomacy, in this case through sports, to facilitate communications.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the U.S. also believed in such diplomacy. Following World War II and the triumph of the Mao Zedong’s forces, our country and the People’s Republic of China (PRC),” had no diplomatic relations for decades. The two governments viewed each other with deep suspicion and became dangerous, nuclear foes. But in 1971, the Nixon administration saw the value of using sports to open up an informal dialogue with the PRC. A U.S. table tennis team visited Beijing that year for a friendly competition. It was the first such U.S. delegation to visit mainland China’s capital since 1949. And what became known as “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” proved instrumental in opening the way for President Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China and to the eventual, normalization of diplomatic relations between our two countries.

I am in no way suggesting an equivalence between China in 1971 and North Korea now. And table tennis is certainly not on the same athletic level as downhill skiing! But I do think that the 2018 Winter Olympics offered the U.S. and North Korea a unique opportunity to engage in quiet diplomacy on the sidelines of this major sports event.

This need not have been done through a face-to-face meeting between Vice President Pence and Kim Yo-jong. Rather, lower level discussions between members of their delegations might have been held. However, after suggesting that the U.S. was open to such contact before the games, the White House backed off from any such dialogue. Instead, Vice President Pence announced before leaving for Pyeongchang that the U.S. would strengthen sanctions against North Korea.

For me this was, indeed, a lost opportunity for diplomacy at a time when it is needed more than ever. And yes, I long for the days of “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.”

Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communications or The George Washington University.



Two Tragedies: Benghazi and Niger

By Mark L. Asquino, U.S. Ambassador (ret.)

On September 11, 2012, Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, a former colleague of mine, and three other official Americans were killed by terrorists in an attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. Their untimely loss in the service of our country led to immediate calls for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the attack. As required by law, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convened an Accountability Review Board (ARB) of outside experts chaired by Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Admiral Michael Mullin to determine what had happened and to make recommendations. But even before this investigation took place, the director of the Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Eric Boswell, a man of great integrity, took responsibility for what had happened in Benghazi and voluntarily resigned. Others in his chain of command and elsewhere at State were forced from their positions in the wake of the tragedy.

Congress was rightly concerned over the deaths of these four brave Americans. There were seven congressional investigations, five of them led by Republicans. Controversy occurred over whether the attack had been in response to an anti-Islamic film, as originally thought, or was a planned terrorist action, later viewed as far more likely. But what should have been an objective inquiry into these tragic deaths turned into ugly, partisan finger pointing by Republicans, who claimed Secretary Clinton was directly to blame for this tragedy and should be held politically accountable.
On October 29, 2015, Clinton spent 11 hours testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a hearing chaired by Republican Senator Trey Gowdy. The marathon session proved an embarrassment for Republicans because Secretary Clinton’s detailed testimony demonstrated what the ARB had already concluded in 2013. While there had been systemic management and leadership failures at the Department of State as well as inadequate security at the Benghazi facilities, the ARB report said Secretary Clinton bore no direct responsibility for what had happened, nor was she criticized for her response to the tragedy. In the years that followed the attack, U.S. law enforcement agencies worked tirelessly to bring to justice a Libyan terrorist. But despite this, the so-called “Benghazi Scandal” became a Republican campaign rallying cry, used time and again without any fair or reasonable basis, against presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016.

On October 4, 2017, another tragedy occurred in Africa. This time four American soldiers were killed in a terrorist ambush outside a remote village in the Central African country of Niger. However, the response to the deaths of these brave soldiers in the service of their country could not have been more different from Benghazi. Understandably, immediately after the attack there was confusion over what had happened. Few details were released as the U.S. military searched for Sgt. La David Johnson, whose body was eventually found 24 hours later. But what followed only added the confusion.
There was a delayed reaction to the tragedy by the White House. The president addressed the issue only after media asked why there had been no official statement on the attack. They also asked President Trump why he had not reached out to the families of those who lost their lives. The president subsequently called the families, but he was criticized by Representative Frederica Wilson (D-Florida), who knew Sgt. La David Johnson’s family. She spoke out about what she regarded as the president’s callous tone in speaking with Sgt. Johnson’s widow, Myeshia. Sadly, for a time, the aftermath of this tragedy was focused more on the dispute between the president and Congresswoman Wilson than on learning more about the fatal attack.

Nearly three months after this tragedy, the Pentagon is still investigating what happened. Unfortunately, there are more questions than answers regarding the circumstances that led to the death of the four soldiers. This is especially true of Sgt. Johnson, who became separated from his comrades. Initial reports said he had been captured by Islamic militants, bound and then executed at close range. But more recently, another report claims he was fatally shot from a distance while firing his weapon and defending himself against his attackers. Despite repeated questions from media and Congress, it is still unclear what the mission of the patrol was when it was ambushed. In fact, Congress seemed surprised that the Africa Command had so many troops in Niger and elsewhere on the African continent. It remains unclear who exactly was commanding the soldiers on the ground. Nor do we know if anyone in an official position has been held accountable for what went wrong.

As Representative Wilson wrote in a November Op Ed in The Washington Post, why was there no quick deployment force to assist the soldiers when they were attacked? And what is the Africa Command doing in following the tragedy to better protect its forces?
Unlike Benghazi, there have been no congressional hearings into the deaths of the four Americans in Niger. Further, there is no ongoing investigation by a panel of outside experts, as happened after Benghazi. Secretary Clinton was first called in 2013 to testify before Congress on Benghazi, but in the case of Niger, there appear to be no plans for Secretary of Defense James Mattis to offer similar testimony. And to date, no one has suggested that Secretary Mattis should be held personally responsible for the tragic deaths of four American soldiers in a remote part of Africa. Finally, no one at either Africa Command or the U.S. Department of Defense has voluntarily resigned in the wake of the tragedy.

In my view, it is time for the U.S. government to provide a more detailed explanation on the nature of the terrorist attack that look the lives Sgt. Johnson and his comrades as well as to make clear why they undertook this fatal mission. Similarly, the families of the soldiers need to know what is being done by U.S. law enforcement to bring to justice those who committed this cowardly attack.
As Representative Frederica Wilson so eloquently concluded her Op Ed: “When such devastating losses occur, we owe it to the brave men and women who put their lives on the life to keep us safe to do all we can to learn what happened in the hope that it won’t happen again.”



Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communications or The George Washington University.


Ambassador Mark L. Asquino (ret.)  Senior Public Diplomacy Fellow, SMPA (2010-11)

The Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan is in the news, but unfortunately, not in a positive way. Media coverage of the horrific, vehicular attack in New York City, which took the lives of eight people, six of whom were foreign tourists, highlights the fact that the alleged killer legally emigrated from Uzbekistan in 2010 on a diversity lottery visa. The latter allows citizens from countries with low emigration rates to the U.S. to enter a lottery for an immigrant visa.  All those selected in the lottery must go through vigorous background checks and other vetting.

I was in Uzbekistan’s capital of Tashkent on 9/11.  I will never forget the outpouring of grief and sympathy Uzbeks showed toward our country. Within hours of the attacks, there were piles of flowers and condolence notes in front of the U.S. embassy. Uzbeks often came up to my wife and me, put their right hand over their heart, and said how sorry they were for what had happened. An Uzbek was among those who died in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.

The Uzbekistan I fondly remember, from my three years there as Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. embassy, is filled with remarkable and wonderful people. The diversity visa lottery has allowed a number of them to come here where they are hard-working, patriotic and greatly add to the cultural mosaic that enriches our society. We are fortunate to have them as our friends and neighbors.

Conflating the act of one, deranged individual with the nation from which he emigrated is wrong.  All indications are that the alleged killer was radicalized in the U.S. after he came here from Uzbekistan.  And, in my view, politicizing this terrible tragedy to attack the diversity visa lottery program is disgraceful.

Caveat:  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author.  They do not necessarily reflect the views either of the Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communications or The George Washington University

“The Eve of Destruction”


Ambassador Mark L. Asquino (ret.), Senior Public Diplomacy Fellow (2010-11), SMPA


In his September 19 address to the United Nations General Assembly, President Trump chillingly threatened to “totally destroy North Korea,” a country of twenty-five million people. Ironically, that same evening, Barry McGuire’s 1965 ballad, “The Eve of Destruction,” was featured on the third episode of Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s haunting series “The Vietnam War.” I first heard “The Eve of Destruction” as a 16-year-old high-school sophomore. It had a strong impact on me. Although Vietnam was not mentioned specifically, the song was clearly intended as a protest against that war. Its iconic, opening lyrics make this perfectly clear:

“The eastern world, it is explodin’
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’
You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’?”

As the documentary shows, 1965 was a pivotal year in the Vietnamese war. The Johnson administration rushed increasing numbers of U.S. combat troops into Southeast Asia, with casualties mounting as a result.

It was a confusing time to be a young person. Although I was moved by McGuire’s anti-war lyrics, I also believed my government was telling the truth in justifying the war as defending democracy in the struggle against world-wide communism. It was only later that it became overwhelmingly clear to me just how false this was.

In my senior year of high-school, the national debate topic was on the pros and cons of the war in Vietnam. As a debating team member, I delved deeply into both sides of the topic, preparing myself to argue either for or against the war. But even when arguing as a debater against the war, I still wanted to believe that the U.S. was in Viet Nam to fight for a just cause.

I focused in college on my studies and steered clear of politics and the burgeoning anti-war movement. But after the Nixon administration’s April 1970 invasion of Cambodia, I finally joined in the marches and other protests against the war. However, the war never personally affected me. I received student deferments throughout college, and my high draft lottery number exempted me from being drafted into the military afterwards.

Decades have passed. For many in my generation “The Vietnam War” brings back memories of a time when we were coming of age. It leads us to revisit the personal choices we made during the 1960’s and 1970’s. It causes us to reflect on the lies and deceptions of our government during those years and how they have had an impact on everything that has followed. And finally, the series forces us to recognize the devastating human costs of that war, especially for those who fought in it and for their families.

This documentary could not be more timely. The military once again dominates our government with generals in key foreign policy positions. Diplomacy is taking a back seat as the Trump administration increases troop levels in Afghanistan and proposes massive cuts to the Department of State’s and USAID’s budgets. And it is apparent from his United Nations speech and other statements that the president is confronting a dangerous situation with North Korea by prioritizing military options, including nuclear ones, over diplomatic approaches. Truthfulness in government seems scarcer now than at any other time in my life.

And the lyrics of the second stanza of “The Eve of Destruction,” which I first heard so long ago, are as relevant to these times as they were back then:

“Don’t you understand, what I’m trying to say?
And can’t you feel the fears I’m feeling today?
If the button is pushed, there’s no running away.
There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave.”

Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.

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