“It’s not a question of what will happen if we don’t do it; it’s a certainty. Are you going to be comfortable if Assad, as a result of the United States not doing anything, then gasses his people yet again, and the world says, “Why didn’t the United States act?” History is full of opportunity, of moments where someone didn’t stand up and act when it made a difference,” Secretary of State John Kerry famously argued at a 2013 hearing on the conflict in Syria. Secretary Kerry was and remains hardly the only elite to subtly connect the ongoing Syrian Civil War and the US’ history of inaction; Anne-Marie Slaughter penned an op-ed in the Washington Post urging President Obama to remember Rwanda, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote that, “Anne Frank today is a Syrian Girl.” In fact, over the five years of the Syrian Civil War, there is no shortage of Holocaust or genocide allusions.
Unfortunately comparing our inaction in Syria to inaction in similar tragedies means little; the only thing more predictable than the promise of never again is that the world refuses to intervene. That is not to say there is not precedent for states to act. In 1948, the United Nations ratified the Genocide Convention, mandating that all participating nations intervene to use military force to stop genocide as soon as they were aware of its occurrence. In 2005, following the failure of the Genocide Convention to compel states to intervene in Rwanda, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan codified Responsibility to Protect (R2P). R2P is quite simple: states have a responsibility to protect their citizens from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing and, when they fail to do so, it is the responsibility of other states to protect those foreign citizens. In President Bush’s 2003 remarks on the America’s invasion of Iraq, President Bush hinted at R2P by citing Saddam’s “final atrocity against his people” and justifying the invasion as a means to “restore control of that country to its own people.” In 2011, France’s Foreign Minister addressed the United Nations Security Council regarding Libya, arguing that Colonel Al-Qadhafi was engaged in widespread and systemic attacks on his own people and that the UNSC had the responsibility to protect Libyan civilians. Whereas the Genocide Convention was rarely invoked, R2P has been used by countries to justify their actions to foreign and domestic audiences.
But President Obama has steadfastly refused to invoke R2P in Syria. The deaths of over 422,000, the internal displacement of 7,000,000, or the 4,00,000 refugees who have fled the country and destabilized Europe should be enough indication that Syrian President Assad has failed in his responsibility to his own citizens. Yet the closest President Obama ever came to implying that Assad had failed as a sovereign and that the world had a responsibility to the Syrian people was his statement in 2012 that the use of chemical weapons by Assad would “change my equation.” Even at his sternest, President Obama’s statement was less of a compelling argument justifying intervention and more a direct statement of displeasure directly to Assad. Assad could continue to murder his citizens, but needed to not use chemical weapons to do so. In 2013, President Obama would directly address the American public on Assad’s use of chemical weapons, stating “I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike. The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.” The message was clear: President Obama did not feel it was America’s responsibility to protect Syrian citizens by removing Assad from power, but to intervene only to stop Assad from using chemical weapons a year after evidence of the attacks first surfaced. Systemic murder of citizens was fine as long as it was done without gas.
In a much more egregious manner, Russia, a member of the UN Security Council, has also rejected R2P in Syria. Perhaps sensing the US hesitancy on the issue and using the opportunity to delegitimize the idea of the United States as a unilateral power, Russia has backed President Assad’s regime in Syria in direct opposition of the US’ tepid support of the Syrian rebels. Russia has flagrantly characterized the United States’ involvement as “attempts to pursue geopolitical objectives and violations of the sovereignty of states,” sewn doubt about the legitimacy of crimes against humanity, and stated that the US was backing terrorists over legitimate government. Through its consistent and brazen confrontations with the west on Syria, Russia has successfully changed the dialogue from a question of humanitarian intervention to that of American arrogance.
Syria will be the ultimate decider of the future of the R2P narrative. Unless the United States makes a strong case for R2P to domestic and global audiences, Russia’s vehement support of state sovereignty will normalize Assad’s and other dictatorial leaders’ behaviors. Perhaps Syria is not another Holocaust, Rwanda, Darfur, or Srebrenica, but undoubtedly looking back, we will wonder why we were not persuaded to do more.
U.S. public diplomacy campaigns can be even further enriched by integrating advertising audience targeting and engagement tactics into the existing diplomatic digital and social media strategy and execution. Tapping into these tactics will build on the strong foundation that is already set in the social media landscape by the U.S. Department of State in their current digital diplomacy strategy.
Certain online audience targeting tactics come to mind when reviewing current Embassy social media content. Digital diplomacy messages shared by the numerous U.S. Embassy accounts can be boosted with compelling visuals. Several posts contain visuals automatically selected by the Facebook algorithm from the website the U.S. Embassy is sharing in the post. These click through links all direct the audience to a Department of State website, and thus the visuals belong to the Department as well. The U.S. Embassy should consider uploading the visuals as part of the post directly, as the Facebook algorithm frequently does not select the best visual from the click through link for the purpose of the post. Selecting the visual and uploading it directly will give the U.S. Embassy the greatest amount of control with respect to what information the team is emphasizing to the audience. Posts with such visuals, whether photos, infographics or graphs, are proven to perform at higher engagement rates, no matter the industry, and the Embassies should share content with such compelling visuals in order to work on securing higher levels of engagement.
Next, a call to action (i.e. Learn More, Discover the United States, See Additional Photos, etc.) will naturally entice the audience to click through to the links provided and engage further with the content from the U.S. Government. The links should direct the audiences to more detailed information of the official position on the topics at hand. This is an opportunity to expand upon the content shared in a limited 140-character tweet or short Facebook post, and every effort must be made to motivate the audience to click on the link to continue the engagement past the initial post.
Finally, using varied language, or copy, with wording closely aligned to the Embassy’s goals and target audiences will speak volumes. While I am not in a position to know the exact target audiences of the Embassies, I take issue with the catchall approach the social content currently seems to employ. A foreign population is a challenging audience, and it would serve my presumed goal for the Embassy of increased engagement with social media content to segment and more specifically target the desired audiences. Several desired audiences that the Embassies might want to target in their communications include the educators, students, law makers/politicians, elites or societal influencers, and the general population of the country where the Embassy is hosted. Engagement happens when a member of the target audience is inspired by the message to respond. Doors open when strategies and tactics are used to speak directly to that target audience as opposed to an entire population.
Our U.S. Embassies around the world shared relevant and detailed information leading up to the historic U.S. Election in 2016 across their social media channels. Take the U.S. Embassy in South Africa as an example – several Facebook posts were publicly shared to explain more about the Electoral College, election vernacular, and voter fraud potential. These topics are all of interest to South Africans, particularly with the recent South African Municipal Election still fresh in their minds. Yet, this outsider believes the messages could be even further refined and targeted to different but equally important audiences for the U.S. Embassy, such as the lawmakers or the educators in country. Reworking the content in these posts is a relatively straightforward process, and one that can be easily incorporated into the ever-expanding analytics and graphics group at the Department of State.
The Embassy’s post about the Electoral College aims to share important information about the essential process by which the U.S. President is chosen. Unfortunately, the Facebook post has little energy and direction for the audience to grasp, particularly with the use of quote marks, which invite speculation into the interpretation of the statement.
The leading question used in this post can be built upon by using more specific and varied language to align the post with the intention of reaching a certain target audience. Audiences need to be spoken to directly with appropriate vernacular and thought-provoking issues to entice engagement and understanding. The Embassy could rework the post to say, “Why does California have more Electoral College votes than Alaska? The Electoral College is at the heart of our democratic voting process, yet most Americans still need a refresher on the puts and takes of the system. Take a look at this post to gain deeper insight into the inner workings of American voting this election season: [link]” in order to accommodate this recommendation when looking to engage with a general population of local South Africans.
Secondly, this post’s image was selected by the Facebook algorithm from the link shared. It is a superb photo to use in the post – the iconic New York Rockefeller Center ice skating rink with the red Republican and blue Democrat map of the United States is a captivating visual for those interesting in learning more about the United States. However, this photo can be further emphasized by use of the direct image upload feature on Facebook to show the full visual and share an intentional emphasis of the photo.
A second post by the U.S. Embassy in South Africa focused on the use of election vernacular and how foreign audiences should interpret the meanings of those terms within the context of the U.S. General Election.
Again, the “coattails” visual contained in this post is dynamic and illustrative of the topic at hand, but the viewer is unable to enjoy the full effect as only two-thirds of the image is shown. By uploading the image directly into the post, the audience sees the entire image, including the full politicians with the election confetti and balloons, and knows that the visual directly corresponds to the post content.
Additionally, the topic of United States election vernacular could be an enjoyable educational experience, particularly for the audience of South African government workers and educators alike, yet the copy used in the second part of the post is devoid of excitement. The language is stiff in the opening sentence “You’ll hear American commentators use some strange words to talk about the ins and outs of the U.S. election,” as if it is being held back behind a wall that only cautious, appropriate copy is allowed to pass through. Injecting additional punctuation, adjectives and calls to action will jazz up the language and entice more readers to stop and read the post, and then perhaps even engage with the post to learn more. Careful selection of this language is of course required, but even a simple “Take a glance at this quick guide to the three most common phrases used by Americans around Election Day: [link]” would help to encourage additional engagement with the Embassy post, particularly with an elite or political audience short on time and needing a quick update on the latest U.S. Election slang.
Finally, the third post I’ve selected from the U.S. Embassy in South Africa’s Facebook page centered on the potential for voter fraud.
This post is perhaps the most in line with the recommendations I suggest for further enhancing the effectiveness of the posts. The language is more intriguing to the South African audience, given the direct connection to the current discussion revolving around fraud in South African government, and includes a direct call to action to read the article by clicking on the link to learn more.
All of these U.S. Embassy South Africa posts use click-throughs to the Share.America.gov, a website populated with State Department content which is “the U.S. Department of State’s platform for sharing compelling stories and images that spark discussion and debate on important topics like democracy, freedom of expression, innovation, entrepreneurship, education, and the role of civil society.” This platform is an excellent representation of a dynamic, mobile-optimized website where the audience can expand their knowledge about official policy positions and current actions taken by the U.S. Government on the topics of the posts.
These three tactical approaches to refining social media content directly correlate to the strategy of furthering engagement with local populations and improving retention of U.S. policy positions. Each tactic can be further supplemented with the use of paid promoted posts in the social media platforms. A relatively small amount of dollars can go a long way to specify the audiences targeted by each message execution (certainly when compared to the cost of an exchange program or speaking tour, for example). The greatest measurements that would clearly portray an improvement in Embassy posts are engagement rates, impression numbers, click through measurements and the like, all of which are only available to the individual account managers and not this outsider. I urge the Department of State to consider these ideas in order to implement upgrades that further enhance audience targeting, segmentation, and resulting engagement throughout their online diplomatic strategy, including both paid and non-paid options.
The views expressed within are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of George Washington University.
The U.S. crafted the existing international system after World War 2. 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.
America and the rest of the world are still struggling to understand what led to the outcome of the U.S. presidential election of 2016. It is almost dangerous, at least surprising, that the influence of Russian cyberattacks and disinformation are not a major subject within current discussions. In terms of the U.S. election, Trump was certainly the pro-Kremlin candidate. At least the short-term reason for the Russian efforts can be explained through the possible advantages a president Trump means for Russian strategies.
After all, the email hack of the Democratic National Convention, the cyberattacks on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and reports of hacks at The New York Times and other media organizations, should be enough of evidence for a sophisticated Russian strategy to interfere with the U.S. election – successfully.
This development was reason enough for the German chancellor Angela Merkel to announce concern and worries. Germany is already being the target of Russian hacker attacks and disinformation.
With a view to the upcoming elections in September 2017, Merkel warned of a possible increase of Russian interference, especially during the election campaigns.
Russian Propaganda is more and more focused on Germany and German society. Its main goal: triggering and establishing a feeling of insecurity within the German population and weakening Germany’s position on Russia.
The reason for the recent interest in Germany is most likely linked to the politics of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Following the annexation of Crimea by Russia, Merkel successfully pushed through sanctions against Russia by mutual European agreement.
Presumably Russia wants to weaken Merkel’s standing, thereby Germany’s role in the European Union, i.e., hoping the European front for sanctions will crumble and back down. In times of domestic political challenges in Germany and a fundamental crisis of the EU, Russia aims at using this momentum to successfully implement its disinformation.
Why is Russian disinformation frequently successful in targeting Germany?
Influencing the German public opinion, Russia has strategically chosen to exert its influence by addressing German vulnerabilities. That is to say Russia has studied the German society, its sentiments and fragmentations as well as the fears and worries concerning (parts of) the society.
The following are eight reasons Germany is particularly susceptible to Russian disinformation.
Russian disinformation tries to promote anti-capitalism, nationalism and anti-Western resentments. Experts conclude Putin’s worldview of the Decadent West is broadly shared within parts of the German society. Russian propaganda concentrates on the right and left margins of society, knowing the breeding ground for their messages is especially promising.
There are several million Russian-Germans within Germany. A proportion of them has been partly socialized in the former Soviet Union, making them more vulnerable and open to Russian propaganda. The results of a survey one were particularly striking: 19 percent indicated they trust German media, whereas 30 percent trust the Russian media. Conditions like these invite to particularly tailor information for these groups. The right-wing populist party AfD used flyers in Russian during their campaign, targeting those minorities successfully.
One historical connection is the historical sense of guilt following the criminally aggressive war against the Soviet Union. Another is gratitude for German reunification as a gift from the former Soviet President Michail Gorbatschow and the narrative of politics towards the East since the seventies, stating one has to keep the dialogue and the door open. This pattern has anchored itself in many peoples’ mind, establishing some kind of moral obligation to ensure peaceful relations with the Russian neighbor. It might be one reason why elderly statesman, like Gerhard Schröder, are so-called Putin-sympathisers.
Germany is in the crucial and important role of being a communicator between the East and West.
As powerful this role is, it can put the country in the horns of a dilemma, making it vulnerable for external forces trying to influence the fragmented public opinion.
Germany has taken in most of refugees in Europe. The welcome-culture at the beginning of the crisis has faded slowly away, followed by a change in public opinion. The terror attacks in Europe, including those in Germany, made extreme parties and organizations stronger. Russia not only supports these groups financially, but its media (Sputnik and RT are both active in Germany) produce stories putting refugees in a bad light, triggering further rejection of them and thereby in the end a rejection of Merkel and her politics.
As many other democracies, Germany is struggling with a part of its society feeling lost and disconnected. Some Germans are tired of traditional politics based on compromise; the politicians and the media are not trustworthy anymore – a perception that is enormously used by the Russians. Their disinformation strategy does not only provide wrong or misleading information, but in the end aims at causing a general mistrust in media.
Russia has succeeded in recruiting German politicians for important economic projects, like the Nord Stream pipeline. Former chancellor Gerhard Schröder is probably the best known example, being the board chairman of the Russian-German pipeline. He might be the most prominent case, but by far not the only one. Next to these individual cases, Russia has built up a broad influential network through civil society connections, including experts, journalists and lobby institutions.
Germany is still in the process of changing its narrative concerning foreign policy and defense leadership. Not only needs the narrative to transform into real policies, but also it needs to gain sufficient public support. In this contested period of change, Germany is especially vulnerable to foreign interference and disinformation campaigns.
Russia will play a prominent role in the campaign for the upcoming federal elections in Germany. This should be a chance, or even an obligation, to address the issues lined out in this post.
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.
Perhaps one of the defining characteristics of religion is that it provides a structure for adherents to process the world around them. For the world’s Muslims, who have been rocked by isolated waves of violent extremism in recent decades, their religion provides a rich cultural history that is interwoven with grand narratives of holy wars, martyrs, and heroes. Scholars and public diplomacy officials are quick to point to these more violent narratives as the root cause of Islamic extremism—but these assertions do not explain why Islam, of all the world’s religions, has been most affected. These explanations, whether intentionally or not, ignore or minimize the effects of eroding political and religious control centers and rising global secularism that have acutely affected Muslim population centers.
The Rationale for Muslim Extremism
It is hard to fault scholars for trying to simplify the origins of this outbreak to a narrative susceptibility of the Muslim faith. In public diplomacy, where words are actions, exploring the cultural schema of a foreign community is an important exercise that can ensure that no communication further emboldens the very extremists that a communicator is trying to undermine. Of course, religions of all types include stories of war, conflict, and worldly struggles that have cosmic ramifications. And the overwhelming majority of religious scholars acknowledge that some of these cultural master narratives – especially the Abrahamic faiths of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism – provide a framework for individuals to process events that can run counter to western secular values. One needs only to look to the overt religious themes of Islamic State beheading videos or the hate mongering screed that fills Aryan Nations message boards to see what a religious narrative used to mobilize extremism looks like.
However, the Muslim world has been suffering from the acute effects of power vacuums of religion and state that have left room for extremist groups to grow accompanied by a rising global secularism that has increasingly alienated devout Muslims. In the midst of this societal turmoil, isolated pockets of fundamentalist believers and psychologically disturbed malcontents are prone to radicalization and acts of violence.
Power Vacuums of Religion and State
While Western governments are not entirely immune to the effects of eroding public trust, Islamic nations — particularly those states where groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda have staked out a presence — have been racked by wars, coups and general unrest that involve complex structural problems in governance, demographics, and economics. Against this general backdrop of instability is an increasingly violent schism between various sects of Islam (namely fundamentalist Sunni and Shia groups) that can now reach a global audience with their specific brands of Islam.
At one time, the splintering effects of sectarianism were mitigated by the Muslim caliphs. As secular and spiritual leaders, they defined the faith for their followers and fulfilled a spiritual need for an Allah-sanctioned ruler on earth who could separate “right” interpretations from apostasy. Nominally secular governments took the caliphs place in the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, some even providing religious leadership in the form of state sanctioned imams who work closely with political leaders to align state policy with the Koran. Even today, the close relationship between government and religion is supported by a plurality among Muslims in these nations who want to see religious leaders take on more political control.
However, when these secular governments fail to keep the peace in the Middle East, the power vacuums are often filled with religious extremists– especially in nations where government’s implicit support for harsh treatment of religious minorities, “heretics” and “apostates” is present. Weak or oppressive governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan and in Syria and Iraq have been blamed for the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIL.
Rising Secularism and Group Identification Pressures
At the same time, devout Muslims are facing a world that is increasingly ignorant of and outright hostile towards religion. Western nations with high percentages of Christian residents like the U.S., U.K., and Germany embrace religious freedom and tolerate religious practice. There are correspondingly low rates of radicalization in these countries. However, nations like France, which enshrines secularism and the exclusion of ecclesiastical control and influence in its constitution, are moving towards a new paradigm where liberalism and secularization means rejection of the “close-mindedness” and “backwards” thinking that accompanies religious practice. Muslims, who are cast as demeaning women and are a rapidly growing demographic in Europe, have been a visible target of reforms that ban full body Islamic religious dress like the niqab or the “burkini.” Other Abrahamic religions have largely discarded these practices, or their religious dress has been normalized over centuries of exposure. These same conservative Muslims are being asked to condemn fundamentalist extremists’ faith and “moderate” their behavior. This in-group, out-group mentality, and the disdain for religious peoples that accompanies it, alienate Muslims who themselves are fundamentalists, but have come to different conclusions about what their faith requires. Charismatic extremist groups like ISIL use this forced black/white, secular/religious paradigm to recruit fundamentalists and other disaffected Westerners who are drawn to the meaning and sense of purpose that a religious group can offer in an increasingly relativistic world.
A Rational Conclusion to Fundamentalist Oppression
After making the leap to extremism, fundamentalist adherents can easily rationalize acts of war and terrorism to further their geo-political goals as God’s will for their movement. For the Islamic State, this means conquering territory and drawing the west into a war that their members believe will trigger the apocalypse. For Al-Qaeda before them, it meant using terrorism to draw concessions from Western military forces abroad. Misguided attempts by the west to fight this extremism have only further inflamed tensions that excite members to join and fight.
Western nations must be vigilant in their efforts to minimize further impact of these global trends that have bolstered the rise of Islamic extremism and must be wary of ignoring these problems at home. Banning religious dress, forcing secularism, and otherwise alienating religious groups will only lead to more extremism, as France has seen after multiple local ordinances banning conservative Muslim dress became international news.
The rise of Islamic extremism is a lesson for the world’s leaders: Wherever people feel oppressed, ignored, and alienated in their own country; or where government leaves a vacuum of power, control, or support; there is ample opportunity for charismatic groups to provide the solution.
The views expressed in this blog are the author’s only and do not necessarily reflect those of George Washington University.
You wouldn’t know it from President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, but Latin America is an immensely important economic and security partner for the United States. Increasingly open and engaged, the region has seen a dramatic shift in the last twenty years away from insecurity and protectionism and toward international cooperation, with deep impacts for the United States. Opening doors for U.S. investments in Argentina, President Mauricio Macri has enacted outward-looking economic and trade policies following decades of protectionist economics. Bringing revenue to U.S. farmers, the North American Free Trade Agreement has more than doubled United States agricultural exports to Mexico, making the country the United States’ third largest agricultural market. Securing peace in the Western Hemisphere after 52 years of conflict, the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia have taken steps to reconcile polarization and to reach a renewed peace agreement following the national plebiscite. Far beyond the picture of illegal immigration Donald Trump paints, Latin America has benefited the United States and will continue to do so. The region has cleaned up its act. If the next U.S. administration wants to continue its strategic and beneficial partnership with its neighbors to the South, it may want to clean up its rhetoric. Public diplomacy can help.
In the weeks following the election of a presidential candidate that espoused a vision of isolationism and “America first,” engagement with Latin America has come under fire. In fact, if President-elect Trump sticks by his promises, U.S. bilateral and free trade agreements with countries in Latin America may be rolled back, cultural engagement may wane and investments may suffer. With countries like China and Russia increasingly present in Latin America, gaps may widen that allow for these nations to predominantly influence the political, cultural and economic conversation and realities in the region with potentially far-reaching consequences for the United States.
Whether or not a Trump-led pivot inward becomes a reality, at a time of deep misunderstanding and polarization, U.S. public diplomacy is imperative. Having long sustained relationships, public diplomacy has the potential to not only highlight the plethora of benefits engagement has brought to the United States and to countries in the region, but also assure the United States is seen as more than Donald Trump makes it out to be. Public diplomacy’s ongoing and long-term nature can thus help counter negative perceptions to facilitate the continuation of U.S. ties with the region. If nothing else, public diplomacy must go on.
During the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States, Latin American governments and publics bristled at the anti-Hispanic, anti-immigrant and anti-trade narrative the Republican candidate adopted. As a result, weeks after the election, it has been suggested America’s soft power may be a casualty of that toxic narrative. Shashi Tharoor, former Under Secretary General of the United Nations, suggests that while America’s domestic narrative has in the past made up for its foreign policy mishaps, Trump’s narrative of Mexico as a hub of illegal immigration, his suggestion that a Muslim registry be enacted and his overall comments against NAFTA and trade may now lead countries to associate America with “xenophobia,” “misogyny,” “pessimism,” and “selfishness.”
In lieu of the future President’s campaign promises, United States diplomats will have the tough job of shaping a narrative in a world replete with uncertainties. Because candidates tend to act on the promises they make on the campaign trail, the United States is likely to turn inward and to prioritize little about foreign policy with Latin America other than immigration and border security. Consequently, at the end of four years, the United States may no longer be seen as the country of the American dream. From a security standpoint, it may no longer have the influence it wishes to have.
Realistically, it is too soon to say just how United States foreign policy and alliances will change when President-elect Trump comes into office.
But, in Latin America, U.S. public diplomats can capitalize on shared interests and general positive public opinion of the United States to enhance a public diplomacy strategy that emphasizes the political processes, the strength of civil societies and businesses, and the freedom of speech and press — pillars of North American and Latin American democracies. United States personnel on the ground will surely encounter challenges in creating mutual understanding with Latin America because a say-do gap will inevitably exist. That said, vast sectors of the United States already actively engage with the region: businesses are investing, universities and research institutions have ongoing student, scientific and professional exchange programs, and NGOs already have a robust presence on the ground. In other words, public diplomacy is being conducted by other parties, whether or not we want to call it by that name. The foundation for collaboration is in place. Realistically, that foundation and those shared interests will not disappear overnight.
All of this is to say that as the new President prepares to enter the White House, U.S. public diplomacy should be more committed than ever to mitigating alienation of foreign audiences and sustaining open-minded two-way conversations. Latin America is moving away from populism at a time when the rest of the world moves toward it. U.S. public diplomacy is ripe to simultaneously reconcile a United States history of interventionism and foster long-term relationships by emphasizing shared interests, by sticking to active sectors of public diplomacy, and by sharing with the world the diversity of viewpoints that exist in the United States. This country has an interest in fostering mutual understanding, maintaining engagement, and sustaining its long-standing partnerships in the region. Beyond the narrative that comprises “America first,” “bad hombres,” and “nasty women,” U.S. public diplomacy remains alive and has the potential to mitigate negative perceptions over the long haul. At a moment of worldwide uncertainty—wars in the Middle East, a debilitating refugee crisis, increasing Russian and Chinese influence, and Britain’s exit from the European Union—Latin America is not only a region at peace but one that is quickly growing. It falls on U.S. public diplomats to bridge divisive narratives fueled by Donald Trump to assure engagement efforts are sustained. This will help guarantee the United States continues to reap the mutually prosperous benefits of collaboration with Latin America.
The views expressed in this posting are the author’s only and do not necessarily reflect those of George Washington University.
Peer-to-Peer: Challenging Extremism (P2P) is an innovative program that removes a hierarchical government approach to digital youth outreach. It does so by providing the resources for university students to creatively implement localized solutions that reach the target demographic: their own age group using their own preferred online platforms. On the International Day of Peace, September 21, regional winners from the U.S., Finland, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Netherlands, presented their creative digital outreach campaigns in New York City to encourage moderation and integration in communities plagued by online extremism, prejudice, and hate.
Keynote speakers from co-hosts Facebook, U.S. Department of State, and EdVenture Partners highlighted the rapid growth of the international P2P competition and ingenuity of the students. The program’s 250 universities across 60 countries have students work with $400 in Facebook Ad Credits and $2,000 budget for academic credit to research a target audience and then create a digital media initiative, tool, or product to counter online extremism. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Richard Stengel, described the program as the “model for public-private partnerships at State. We love this program because we get out of the way.” Head of Product Policy at Facebook, Monika Bickert, said the local and global campaigns are so inspiring because the students are responding to their environment, and they can thus develop effective solutions. Under Secretary Stengel reinforced this critical need to act upon understanding by elaborating on his media experience, “as a journalist, when I asked the wrong question, I got the wrong answer.” The following are brief summaries of how each winning team answered the “right” answer with their innovative solutions, with further details on their campaign sites.
All teams presented their strategic off and online, peer-driven campaigns that detailed design, implementation, and results. New York University’s conflict studies Masters students focused on diversity and integration processes based on teammates’ experiences feeling vulnerable as outsiders. They described how their campaigns evolved from the #7TrainStop on immigrants in Queens, into the Voices of New York Resolve on countering hate in Brooklyn, which will now focus on radicalization in Bronx prisons. The team has collaborated with local and international organizations to mutually support countering extremism goals, such as garnering 43, 831 Facebook views and 384,340 Youtube views on BuzzFeed-released, “When Hate Speech Comes to Campus.” [#7TrainStop]
The Turku School of Economics [Finland] and Utrecht University [Netherlands] concentrated on refugee integration. The Finnish team created a mobile application that addressed the ~1,000% increase in asylum-seekers entering Finland from 2014 to 2015. They identified four major problems refugees face: Lack of information on the city and country; Lack of contact with locals; Lack of activities in the reception center; and negative attitudes among the local population. Interestingly, these challenges are similar to those new students may encounter when moving to Turku. The team designed multimedia events to increase locals’ awareness, interest, and opinion of newcomers. “United by Food” was a day-long pop-up for refugees to sell food from their home country. “About Turku” made city information accessible by transforming pre-existing records into a free mobile download in Arabic and English. The Dutch team tackled the heated European political climate in “#DareToBeGrey: An Alternative to the Black & White Fallacy.” They created a humorous online series to raise awareness that it is possible to have a moderate stance on refugee intake. The online efforts combined with their recent five-city Dutch tour have reached over eight million people. Both campaigns give agency to Europeans and refugees through multimedia. [Choose Your Future] [#DareToBeGrey]
The Pakistani and Afghan teams focused on dispelling misuses of politicized Islam. The Afghan team from Laal-u-Anar Foundation identified TV and Facebook as the most wide-reaching outlets to defend their religion in #IslamSaysNoToExtremism while sharing Quranic verses that reinforced peacemaking messages. The Lahore University of Management Sciences project, “Fate: From Apathy to Empathy,” highlighted comprehensive programs to re-incentivize Pakistanis who felt they were “just a number” in the destruction and deaths from violent extremism. They countered the apathy by organizing concerts, tours, video games, activism workshops, and education programs to empower and humanize citizens. Both teams cite youth activation through media campaigns to promote moderate Islam to various demographics, as well as calling attention to a narrowing window of opportunity for effective counter-extremism. [International Strategic Studies] [Fate]
Event host, Dean Obeidallah, concluded by reinforcing the magnitude of violent extremism in Asia, explaining that “over 90% of victims of ISIL and al-Qaeda are Muslims, but the U.S. media doesn’t cover it so Americans don’t know.” Mr. Obeidallah paraphrased Robert F. Kennedy to encourage youth to recognize their potential and collaborate because “few of us alone can change and bend history, but together, collectively, we can write a narrative of our generation.” Indeed, a compelling, accessible narrative needs to be solidified to effectively counter various forms of extremism around the world, and the P2P program is leading the way.
While studying abroad with the GW School of Business in Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics over the past three weeks, I had the extraordinary opportunity to attend a site visit to visit an NGO which combines sport with education and empowerment for the betterment of society.
Fight for Peace (FFP), known as Luta Pela Paz in Portuguese, is a boxing and martial arts gym in Complexo da Maré that was founded in 2000 by Luke Dowdney, a social anthropologist from England. Dowdney moved to Rio in the late 1990s to complete research on his masters thesis on street children and the drug trade, and has since built FFP into a world renowned sport for peace NGO that has been recognized by the International Olympic Committee and countless governments and foreign ministries for its life-changing work. In 2015 alone, 1,913 young people attended Fight for Peace, and 34% were girls. Last year, the organization expanded to London, and is operating a similar socially-conscious sport NGO model there as well.
Life in Complexo da Maré, a favela in Rio, is far from predictable. Violence from within the community, as well as increased raids by police and other law enforcement have fostered a cyclical environment of danger in a very densely populated community. After speaking with a panel of young people at FFP, what I thought was most striking was that while all of them are fearful for their safety and the safety of their families, they are not resolved to doing nothing with their lives, and are vocal about their aspirations. While I didn’t meet them prior to entering the program at FFP, I can imagine that the values the organization teaches using their custom “theory of change” methodology have empowered these young people to become the leaders that they are today.
The young women of the group were particularly inspiring to me. Their very presence in the room was a testament to the importance of a program like FFP in a community where their voices may be marginalized. Some were young mothers, others were finishing high school and didn’t have a concrete plan for the future prior to joining FFP. All of them talked about the importance of FFP in empowering them to become leaders in their community, and leaders at FFP. The mothers are now teaching their children the values instilled in them through the methodology learned at FFP.
In the lead up to the Olympics, the media portrayal of Rio, and in particular of the favelas, really dehumanized the people living there and reduced their stories to tragedy porn. While life is by no means easy for the participants of FFP’s Rio gym, spending time laughing, joking, and sharing our cultures was an important part of my Rio experience. It allowed me the opportunity to see their community with my own eyes, and be able to take away a more complex understanding of their lives and the impact that FFP has had upon them, and empathize with their feelings of fear of uncertainty.
Sports diplomacy can be tricky–many public diplomacy scholars are skeptical of the results or impact that it can have long term. However, by visiting an organization like FFP, I realized that the true takeaway from public diplomacy or track II diplomacy with a sport component is the learning of best practices that can be applied in other communities around the world to better society. FFP has already partnered with the Jamaican government to implement their theory of change in sports programs within the country. Furthering local level initiatives is likely the best way to see positive impacts of sports diplomacy.
Being in Rio for the Olympics was in and of itself an extraordinary experience. However, being there is kind of like being at Disney World; you’re in a bubble of Olympic proportions. You eat, sleep (or not), and breathe Olympics. Everything from logistics to sport to “news” updates which generally consist of scores and which celebrities visited France House the night before. It can be incredibly difficult to contextualize the Olympics within the confines of the actual city that is playing host. Even more difficult is imagining the impact that they have on the average Carioca (the term citizens of Rio call themselves). Having the opportunity to visit Fight for Peace was by far the most important factor in shaping my opinion of the impact of the Games on the people of Rio both during the two weeks of the event, and after the torch is extinguished. Will there be further investment in peace through sport efforts? Infrastructure developments that will further connect people to major economic and social hubs throughout the city? One of the members of the youth council at FFP was very skeptical of the sustained efforts to improve the daily life of Cariocas post-Olympics. Only time will tell as far as further government involvement. However, it is all but certain that FFP will continue its efforts both in Rio and abroad to foster communities of strong young people eager to make a positive impact on the world.
I propose a stronger media campaign in the Arab world that works to counteract the Trump effect by providing viewers with context and content. This media campaign may prevent future radicalization against America by showing that Trump doesn’t represent the entire country or the government. We need to reach American Muslims and the Arab world to block ISIL recruits. ISIL has a great strategic media plan making them appear sympathetic in comparison to Trump, so we need one too.
First, the program should explain the context of Trump’s primary election campaign. In American politics, candidates play to the base to distinguish themselves during primaries. We should explain this to the foreign audience and help them understand why Trump is taking such radical positions. Votesmart has an educational fact sheet about American primaries that is easy to understand. We could provide an info-graphic with all this information. I believe an info-graphic is the best form because they get the most likes, shares, and clicks on social media. An info-graphic can be easily tweeted out or shared with other followers.
But we should follow up with a brief history of American primaries, providing specific examples. The 2012 Republican primary was at times a contest of which candidate could be the most conservative. Or in 2008, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama battled for who was the most liberal. This shows that 2016 isn’t the first election where rhetoric was more extreme in the primary than in the general election. We could even create a short documentary about it, with guest appearances from people they like in the region. We could also have a media cite, like a blog page or social media account, where we frequently put out entertaining content that sneaks in the political themes. For example, people love memes and gifs. We could post them with a political slant, that way we get more views while still sneaking in the political message.
Second, we provide polling data to prove that most Americans don’t support Donald Trump or his policies. Currently, 70% of Americans find Trump unfavorable when asked in the context of the Presidential election. When asked about Trump, the businessman from New York, still 68% of Americans find him unfavorable. When broken down by party, 62% of Republicans favor him while 31% don’t. 13% of Democrats find him favorable, while 84% unfavorable. And for Independents, 34% find him favorable and 59% unfavorable. This means the majority of Americans do not support Donald Trump. 61% of Americans say he is hurting the Republican Party.
Most Americans also do not support Trump’s policies. When asked about the complete ban on Muslims, 63% of Americans said this was the wrong thing to do. They felt it was morally wrong and against the American values of inclusion and diversity. 62% of Americans also oppose building a wall on the border of Mexico. Finally, 54% of Americans say the Republican Party is too extreme and 65% say they are intolerant. These statistics prove that most Americans are not intolerant or anti-Arab. We could provide these statistics in the form of info-graphics on social media. This way they will get the most views and people can share them with their followers.
Finally, we should attempt to show America in the best light, without lying or tarnishing our credibility. This includes citing our history of inclusion, diversity and equality. We could show movies and other American media that depict this history, providing the necessary content in an entertaining way. For example, movies like Selma and Freeheld that recently came out would be perfect. Also, interracial relationships show that America is not racist or intolerant. Interracial relationships have spiked in recent years and are only increasing. Statistics and shows that include these relationships like Modern Family, Blackish, and Scandal can show viewers that America is inclusive of all colors. Exposing them to our positive media, while creating more targeted audience specific content, is an excellent strategy.
This is how we combat ISIL, not only through military conflict and drones, but also through soft power and influence. Right now Trump is negatively influencing the region through his offensive outbursts in the media, so America needs to strategically counteract the Trump effect to prevent future radicalization.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication.