foreign policy

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War Fatigue vs. the President’s Syria Strike

All alone on Syria?

When President Barack Obama delivered his September 10, 2013 speech on Syria, his policy aim was articulated clearly:

after careful deliberation, 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.

This speech had a more immediate target however: the American public’s reluctance to support a limited and narrow strike on Syria.  Polls showed substantial public opposition despite the horrific images of chemical weapon attack victims in Ghouta just weeks before.  Support for a Syria attack was lower than it was with previous, similarly “limited” actions in Grenada (1983), Kosovo (1999), Haiti (1994) and Libya (2011).

Facing the apparent unpopularity of the proposed military action, the President decided to seek Congressional authorization rather than taking unilateral moves against Syrian military capacity.

His speech was meant to turn the tide in support of Congress’s approval.  While there is survey evidence that the speech persuaded some of those who watched it, it still only led to an aggregate split in public opinion.  Striking Syria simply did not resonate with a majority of Americans even though an estimated 32 million viewers tuned in and many more read and heard his arguments.

We know that the President’s power to persuade the public on foreign affairs is strongest when there is an elite consensus back his policies.  While there were voices of dissent in the House, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ultimately endorsed what the President sought: a resolution authorizing military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.  This signified a growing elite consensus.

TV news media were largely supportive of the President. As Robert Entman has proposed in the “cascading activation” model, lower-tier elites, and news media, echo the policy frames of the upper echelons in the executive branch.  After Obama first proposed a strike was necessary in late August, cable news channels were far more likely to feature pro-intervention messages than views opposed, according to a content analysis conducted by Pew Research. This is evidence of news media echoing officialdom.

Yet, House opposition to the President’s proposed course of action was considerable.  Factions in both parties, both liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans, voiced objections to the attack. It was not certain that the resolution would have passed through the House. At the time of the speech, CNN estimated 179 “no” votes to 25 “yes” votes. 223 were yet undecided.  This can’t be chalked up to deeper partisan polarization.  Members of Congress reported hearing universal opposition from their constituents. The public’s complaints overwhelmed the President’s position and undermined the dominant theme of news media coverage.

A Russia-proposed chemical weapons deal ultimately postponed consideration of a Congressional resolution, thereby preventing a test of whether the President was going to win on this.  Still, we witnessed a unique case of public opinion opposition to, and mobilization against, a President’s proposed foreign military action.

Perhaps it can be attributed to something deeper in American political culture. As Charles M. Blow suggested in The New York Times, “America may have lost its stomach for military intervention.”  After war of more than a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans may just be tired of getting into new skirmishes that could easily lead to deeper commitments.  Just five years into the Iraq war, US news media were barely covering it and Americans tired of hearing about it.  There is scant mention and public discussion of the war in Afghanistan today.

The idea of “war fatigue” is not a novel one.  It was widely believed that after the Vietnam War a syndrome set in: Americans were thought to be more likely to oppose to new wars out of a risk aversion resulting from the costly, bloody and protracted conflict in Vietnam.  Marvin Kalb argued the current form of this syndrome was apparent just from President Obama’s nominations of John Kerry and Chuck Hagel as secretaries of state and defense, respectively.

Curious about whether American views on the previous wars impacted their positions on the proposed Syria strike, I ran a study to measure what impacted American opinion. I tried to figure out how important various factors were: demographics, support for the president, prior positions on the Iraq war and how attentive they were to the President’s September 10th speech — to see how the President’s persuasive powers stacked up against war fatigue.

I asked 265 respondents on two separate days, September 9 and September 13, 2013, whether or not they support a US military intervention in Syria.  I asked different samples, one before the speech and one a few days after.  I found the following (shown in an OLS regression model).


Standardized Coefficients























GENDER (Female)








Sharing President Barack Obama’s views in general




Became more or less supportive of the US IRAQ war?




Watched or saw reports of President Obama’s speech on Syria?




(Adjusted R2 = .213)

Of traditional demographics, age and gender were significant predictors.  Older individuals and males were more likely to back a strike.  It is worth noting that party identification was not an important factor — when controlling for these other factors — despite being a usual factor in evaluating presidential policy proposals.  While it could be due to the break down in partisan lines on this issue, at least until the Russia deal, it’s likely not a factor because the most powerful variable — generally agreement with Obama on other issues — captures partisan differences. [Without partisan ID, the findings and model fit don’t change much].

Despite being an “anti-war” candidate when he was first elected, Obama enjoys the unwavering backing of loyal supporters.  Being inclined to generally agree with him on issues was an expected, powerful predictor of being with him on Syria.  It was the strongest factor in the model.

As for non-Obamaniac tendencies, war weariness seems to matter. Becoming less supportive of the war on Iraq over time (my gauge of war fatigue) correlates with being less likely to back the strike.  The result is the same, though a bit weaker, if I replace Iraq with Afghanistan, also.  Rather than seeing Syria as a new and distinct issue, this finding suggests people interpret it within the context of prolonged and increasingly unpopular military commitments in the region.

Prior views on Iraq also matter more than does partisanship.  I ran the model with partisan ID, but dropped the tendency to agree with Obama. Declining support for the Iraq war over time was twice as powerful a predictor than was partisanship.

Back to the model above, we can see that changing support for or against the war on Iraq over time was a more powerful predictor than being attentive to the President’s speech.  His ability to persuade the public through strategic political communication was a less potent a force than the unpopularity of the wars of the past decade.  Even if the proposed strike was being sold as limited and narrow, it did little to relieve the public’s fear of deja vu.


Should We Even Be Studying Public Diplomacy?


by Anna-Lena Tepper

Former NBA player Dennis Rodman’s recent visit to North Korea came to many as a surprise. Along with an entourage of fellow basketball players from the performance group Harlem Globetrotters, Rodman went to visit the most oppressive country in the world, but his intentions weren’t politically motivated. His mission was simply to share the joy of basketball with the North Korean people. In his few days there he did not only initiate several friendly games between American players and North Korean teams, but he also had several friendly encounters with the country’s dictator Kim Jong Un. He left with a great impression of the country and its people and they also seemed to have enjoyed his visit. Upon his return to the States, Rodman’s advice to the President was that he should just call his Communist counterpart to sort things out. This sounds almost too good to be true and very easily done. The question arises, if maybe this approach might yield better results than the ones initiated – or in the case of US-North Korean relationship “non-initiated” – by the international community. After all, Rodman managed to have friendly encounters with one of the US’s biggest enemies.

The field of public or cultural diplomacy has received major academic attention over the last few years. People are not just studying public diplomacy, they also try to analyze, standardize, optimize, generalize, and define it. In an attempt to engage foreign audiences and develop a deeper relationship with them, based on shared interests and common ideas, governments spend millions of dollars each year to implement programs that can facilitate these engagements. However, despite countless highly sophisticated programs – ranging from student and leadership exchanges to a variety of cultural events – that are tailored to different audiences, too often neither scholars, nor policy makers can determine a cause-effect relationship between the programs they implemented and approval rates abroad.

0228-world-orodman_full_600And then there is Dennis Rodman, who travels to North Korea without a plan and manages to leave the country a few days later and everyone, including the country’s communist leader that hasn’t had any friendly encounters with an American in as long as anyone can remember, is all smiley faces. No science behind it, just what seems like intuition, and it worked – apparently. However, some argue that     Rodman’s visit was actually counterproductive, as his approval of Kim Jong Un directly legitimized his questionable leadership.

Still, the question arises if maybe American scholars are sometimes overanalyzing public diplomacy and therefore, often miss their set goals (or can’t detect it). Many argue that Dennis Rodman’s visit was just staged and now that he has gone nothing has changed. Those people have a point. Kim Jong Un has just threatened the United States with a nuclear war again. Politically, Rodman’s visit hasn’t changed anything. However, he still managed to open North Korea to an American visitor for a friendly encounter with the leader for first time in decades, and that is something neither politicians nor scholars have been able to achieve.

Fact is, public diplomacy needs to be very targeted in order to be successful, but at the same time, PD scholars and practitioners should also keep in mind that sometimes intuition is a good indicator of what is a good approach and what is not. Especially in the case of North Korea, maybe a mix of intuitive steps and targeted PD programs is going to lead to a change in the near, or not so near future.

Anna-Lena Tepper is a graduate student at the George Washington University, and is posting as part of Take Five’s ongoing Student Perspective series.

1 girl 5 gays, MTV Canada, and cultural diplomacy


by Brad Gilligan

Last month, advocates of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights deployed thousands of supporters to the grounds outside the U.S. Supreme Court during oral arguments in two landmark cases. A Pew Research Center poll demonstrates the dominant frame being deployed by media to tell the story. “Growing Support for Gay Marriage: Changed Minds and Changing Demographics,” the headline reads.

While the pro-equality campaign in the U.S. may represent a real sea change in our national public opinion, other countries’ perspectives vary by degrees.  Under Hillary Clinton’s leadership, the State Department annually documented the status of LGBT people around the globe in its report on human rights practices. Memorably, Clinton said in a speech at the United Nations that “gay rights are human rights.” These remarks were coordinated with a memo from President Obama in the same week that detailed the first ever US government strategy to deal with human rights abuses against LGBT citizens abroad.

In parts of the world, perils faced by LGBT citizens are well known: In Uganda, the parliament proposed a bill which would make some homosexual acts a crime punishable by death. While in New York, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad infamously commented “we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.” And in Russia, parliament is considering a nationwide ban on ‘gay propaganda’ to minors—in the same year that international attention was drawn to members of the feminist, pro-LGBT, punk-rock collective Pussy Riot after they were jailed by the Putin government.

U.S. Ambassador Eisen marches in Prague's 2012 Pride Parade

U.S. Ambassador Eisen marches in Prague’s 2012 Pride Parade

When the State Department promotes gay rights abroad, cultural diplomacy acts as one of the primary drivers of that agenda. Cynthia P. Schneider describes the relationship: “Public diplomacy consists of all a nation does to explain itself to the world, and cultural diplomacy—the use of creative expression and exchanges of ideas, information, and people to increase mutual understanding—supplies much of its content.” Through partnerships with regional and local civil society groups, the Department engages communities in dialogue about the value Americans ascribe to all people, no matter who that person is or whom that person loves.

Not to say that the U.S. does not receive its own share of criticism for its domestic LGBT policy: an interactive display from The Guardian documents the variability of gay rights, state by state. Until a 2003 Supreme Court ruling, sodomy laws remained on the books in 14 states. Today, others still prohibit adoptions by gay couples or permit dismissing workers on the basis of gender identification.

To focus on the theme of LGBT rights, and the practice of cultural diplomacy worldwide, I began with a small exercise in role reversal: How does one country (I selected Canada) work inside the U.S. to promote its foreign policy?

In 1995, a review of Canadian foreign policy granted culture new status, erecting it as a third pillar in the country’s diplomatic priorities, beside security and the economy. The report praises its culture as a potent force for the nation’s international reputation. “Our principles and values—our culture—are rooted in a commitment to tolerance; to democracy; to equality and to human rights”. Among the recommendations made in the document, it elevates the potential of mass media (e.g. television, film, and radio) in particular to reach audiences outside of Canada’s borders.

mtv.caLike the BBC, the CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) operates as a public entity. The government approves and funds programming consistent with the mandate to, among other stipulations, focus on Canadian content.  For instance, the broadcasting license for MTV Canada requires that a minimum of 68% of daytime and 71% of prime time programming be of Canadian origin. The network describes itself as offering a “distinctly Canadian interpretation of the MTV brand across multiple platforms,” in 171 territories around the world.

One such program, airing since 2009, is 1 girl 5 gays. The 30-minute talk show sees host Aliya-Jasmine Sovani asking 20 questions about love and sex to a rotating panel of gay men from the greater Toronto area. Toronto holds a reputation as a vibrant center of gay life in Ontario; Church Street, especially, has a rich cultural history and has been depicted before in popular media exported south of the border.

Logo TV, a US gay and lesbian-interest channel, picked up 1 girl 5 gays in 2010. The first season increased ratings in its time slot +55% compared to the network’s Q4 2010 average.

Pew’s poll, referenced earlier, found that roughly a third (32%) said their views changed because they know someone who is homosexual. Mass media may well be another variable at play, subbing for physical one-to-one contact. The show builds relationships on this principle, between the host and panelists (and the audience by proxy).

1Girl5GAYSstudio shotA rudimentary content analysis of episodes from 1 girl 5 gays’ first season begins to generate a map for how dialogue can be used to strategically shift opinion about LGBT rights. In any one episode, an average of five questions conjure pointed images of gay sexual experiences (“Do you have a gag reflex?”) while the remainder are interchangeable to hetero- or homosexual couples (“If your sex life was a colour, what colour would it be?). The majority have nothing to do with sex at all (“Whose autograph have you asked for?”).

Especially notable, the show frequently inserts a question in the final segment looking inward at the program or at common LGBT experiences: “How do you feel gay men are represented on this show?” “Does the pride parade reinforce stereotypes?” “If there was a pill to make you straight, would you take it?”

Statistical wizard Nate Silver points out how demographics and population density are likely indicators of support for same-sex marriage. It would be overdrawn to say 1 girl 5 gays answers this problem intentionally by increasing the opportunities for exposure to discussion of LGBT experiences; but, as a byproduct of capitalism (i.e. the proliferation of broadcasting in the U.S. via for-profit cable TV), the amplification of Canadian commitment to tolerance aids the cause of LGBT rights in the U.S., and represents one instance of successful cultural diplomacy in action.

Brad Gilligan is a graduate student in the Media and Public Affairs program at the George Washington University.

Harlem Shake: Arab Spring Protest Edition

Activists against Egyptian President Mursi perform the "Harlem Shake" in front of the Muslim Brotherhood's headquarters in Cairo

by Kate Shriver

Gangnam StyleFirst, there was Gangam Style, the epic YouTube video by South Korean pop sensation Psy that swept the world in 2012 and currently has over one billion views, making it the most viewed YouTube video of all time. Anyone who was anyone made a spinoff or parody of their own.

Now, there is the Harlem Shake. Here’s the premise: in an approximately 30 second long video a single person dances for roughly 10-20 seconds on their own (usually in a mask or helmet of some sort) while everyone else around them carries on with their own business, essentially ignoring the lone dancer. When the music “drops,” the video cuts to everyone in the room dancing basically just any way they want, though it typically involves a lot of gyrating, hip thrusting and a variety of masks, costumes and other props. The accompanying music is by US artist Baauer—and  depending on whom you ask—the initial video was posted in early February by a group of young men in Australia, or it was posted by these guys somewhere else.

Harlem ShakeIn reality, the Harlem Shake in its first form was a dance that characterized the New York neighborhood of the same name in the 1980s.  This information aside, the modern day Harlem Shake has taken off at lightning speed with hundreds of new versions posted to YouTube every day. The craze is starting to wind down in the US and the West, though the fad has not come without a few brushes with the authorities: in the US, the FAA is investigating an incident which involves posted Harlem Shake video that appeared to show the crazy dancing taking place on a plane that was in flight. There have been reports of students being suspended for filming their own versions in school. In Australia, a group of miners were fired and reportedly banned from all mine sites after authorities discovered their Harlem Shake video, which they apparently shot while on their work site—in a mine! One of the most popular versions, with over 50 million YouTube views, was created by members of the Norwegian Army who are featured dancing around in the snow after breaking formation.

While the meme may be wearing out its popularity in the West, it is just beginning to get going in the Middle East: Cecily Hilleary of Middle East Voices (A VOA powered initiative) has compiled a list of Middle Eastern countries where the dance craze has gone viral, from Algeria to Yemen. But it is in Tunisia and Egypt—the hotbeds of the Arab Spring—where the Harlem Shake meme is taking on new meaning. The dance seems to have morphed into a form of social protest against the respective governments who have, in response, cracked down hard on some of those who created the videos.

Tunisia screen grabIn Tunisia, where there has been a split between secularists and ultra conservative Salafis since the fall of the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali over 2 years ago, a group of students at a high school in Tunis filmed a version of the Harlem Shake in which some students danced in their underwear, dressed up as Salafis with fake beards, or as Gulf emirs (among other costumes). The provocative nature of the dancing caught the attention of the Salafis, who decried the video as indecent. Minister of Education Abdellatid Abid, angrily denounced the video as indecent also, and ordered an investigation of the school’s principal. Skirmishes have erupted elsewhere in Tunisia as conservative Muslims attempt to stop youth from partaking in other Harlem Shake videos—with one student in coastal Mahdia purportedly receiving 12 stitches on his head after being beaten in one such clash.

A video linked to the original Tunis high school Harlem Shake video is titled “The Harlem Shake: Attacked by Salafis Edition” which appears to show a schoolyard where students are about to do the dance, and are then attacked by Salafis. In some of the skirmishes the Salafists have reportedly shouted at the students “Our brothers in Palestine are being killed by Israelis, and you are dancing.”

Only a few days ago a mass protest/Harlem Shake dance was planned in Tunis in front of the Ministry of Education. Thousands said they would participate, but the rainy weather appeared to have dampened the turnout, with only a few dozen students taking part in the protest with shouts of “freedom, freedom.” In a Washington Post report, students stated their own reasons for participating in the dance: one said the dance represented a way to vent and take a break from the stresses of the past year, and another reported that he wanted to take advantage of the newfound freedoms thanks to the revolution after years of harassment and repression. In additional reporting on the mass protest, a student said he was there to make the minister of education understand that he cannot stop the dancing – “This policy of suppressing rebellious spirit is no longer acceptable.” The initial video and the backlash have only served to produce even more Harlem Shake videos, and the meme and its meaning continue to flourish in Tunisia.

Huffpost screen grab 1In Egypt, where there are strict public indecency laws, four pharmaceutical students were arrested after posting a video of themselves doing the dance semi-naked in a middle-class Cairo neighborhood. Students in Egypt have also posted videos of the Harlem Shake being done in front of the Pyramids (it is unclear whether the Pyramid video is the same one that resulted in the arrests).

Following the arrests of the four students, somewhere between 70 and 400 protesters showed up outside
the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo to stage a Harlem Shake dance/protest. The dance was organized to be a peaceful protest of the ruling party and President Mohammed Morsi, and a lighthearted moment in an Egypt that is still reeling from its transformation. A unique twist in the Egypt story: a member of the Muslim Brotherhood created his own Harlem Shake video in response to the protest, in which he and other people wear masks featuring the faces of opposition party members. The video has apparently since been taken down.

Satiric Revolutionary Struggle FB page

What is particularly interesting about the way the Harlem Shake is being used in Egypt, is that the protest outside the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters was organized by a newly formed group called “The Satiric Revolutionary Struggle” which has
its own Facebook page with over 1,000 likes. The Verge reports that the group was started by 17 year old Mahmoud Tabei and three of his friends so that they could work on making political statements through humorous demonstrations. Tabei said that he had seven friends who died in the Arab Spring violence in Egypt and that another of the aims of the newly formed group is to raise morale and “refresh minds.” The next event the group is working on is a marathon that will start at the headquarters of the National Democratic Party (the party of deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak), and end at the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters. The Verge writes that “it’s a path meant to symbolize Egypt’s political trajectory from Mubarak to Morsi. Its message, according to Tabei, should be clear: ‘They are the same. Nothing has changed.’”

So what does all of this mean for cultural public diplomacy? It appears that the Harlem Shake meme was an inadvertent export of Western culture (particularly U.S. culture) that hit the Middle East and transformed from something that was initially fun and lighthearted, into something more meaningful and useful to politically active youth, especially in Egypt and Tunisia.

Can the US government or an NGO or another some other PD actor harness the power and popularity of the meme in any way? Perhaps a rapid response digital media team at the State Department could message words of support for the dancers citing freedom of expression? It certainly doesn’t look good for the either the Tunisian government or the Egyptian government to crack down violently on the dancers, so that is something that the State department could monitor and then respond to if necessary.

It could also be true that this type of super fast social media movement is impossible to control or use in any way for cultural diplomacy. It seems that in the ever important short/mid/long term goals of public diplomacy, and particularly cultural diplomacy, that this sort of meme presents an “instant” goal of some sort—something that can be recognized and addressed.

huffpost screen grab 2Where a real opportunity lies is with the newly formed Satiric Revolutionary Struggle group founded by an Egyptian teenager and his friends. This is a group with robust backing on Facebook, and something that could be assisted with support from the USG directly, perhaps through a program that brings comedy troupes or political satirists from the US to Cairo to teach the group some of the “tricks of the trade.” Or an NGO or other organization could reach out to the group and show them similar skills they could use, as well as other popular media they could use in order to satirize the government. It is obviously still quite risky to criticize the government in Egypt, so the newly formed group should also receive training on how to avoid conflict, etc.

Perhaps the most important point to consider in this case is the US and its foreign policy remain largely unpopular in much of the Middle East—so any overt help given by the USG could be outright rejected, or worse: it could be seen as foreign meddling likely to result in a total shut down of whatever initiative it was trying to assist with in the first place. Thus the name of the game is “indirectness” – assistance in the form of things the group may actually want or need (e.g. a good piece of technological equipment to assist with video production or editing).

Sure, the Harlem Shake is probably not a highlight of US culture that the government would choose to export: it is not a gem like jazz or classical dance or paintings. But it is something that has a wide appeal to a huge youth population in the still evolving Middle East, and it is something the USG could potentially use to provide “helping” public diplomacy.

Kate Shriver is a graduate student in the International Affairs program at the George Washington University with a focus on the Middle East.

The above post is from Take Five’s new Student Perspective series. Graduate students studying Cultural Diplomacy as Communication at the George Washington University are encouraged to think about themes such as youth, gender, health, climate, free press, and democracy, and write on how these themes relate to cultural diplomacy and to communication.  The posts involve thoughtful commentary on the writer’s chosen theme, linking to class readings and discussions. 

How Does Cultural Diplomacy Communicate? Let Me Count the Ways

U.S. senior diplomat Robert Jackson and Casablanca high school research team at Rabat Environment Eair, 2010

Opportunities to Engage: U.S. senior diplomat Robert Jackson with Casablanca high school research team members (Morocco’s Earth Day Network Fair, 2010)

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine, who delivered the annual Walter Roberts Lecture at George Washington University last Thursday, comes from a serious press and media background.  She is the recipient of 10 News Emmy Awards and other awards in journalism for broadcast programs on domestic and international issues.  She has also worked as strategic communications adviser to Internews and the International Women’s Media Foundation, among a number of other international organizations.

TS pink suitSo it was all the more striking how prominently cultural diplomacy featured in her comments last Thursday, just as it does in many of her other communications — including the U.S. public diplomacy highlights she publishes every few weeks.

This is a reminder that the Under Secretary recognizes and embraces the fact that cultural programming IS communication.  It is an essential diplomatic tool that enables the U.S. to persuade influential people to listen to us with an open mind; allows us to share knowledge and skills with potential international partners and allies; and helps us attract positive attention via mass media and digital media.

As Harvard scholar Joeph Nye has noted, the scarcest information resource in the 21st Century is likely to be the audience’s attention span.  Here in the U.S., despite the plethora of contemporary media distractions, most citizens still pay some attention to what our own government says, because we know it might affect us directly, and also because we conceive of every citizen having a watchdog role.   Certainly U.S. journalists see scrutiny of government as an obligation.

cross cultural iceberg

THE ICEBERG MODEL This graphic shows why direct messaging – via print or audio-visual media – can so easily fail to reach its target.

But it would be a mistake to think that official U.S. statements and policy explanations get even the modest automatic hearing abroad that they do at home.   People are certainly interested in what the U.S. is up to, but they have a host of non-U.S. sources for that information that are more familiar to them, more trusted, and frequently more accommodating to their preconceptions.

Overseas, it takes creativity and insight to increase the chances that people will listen to U.S. officials with an open mind, and be prepared to respond accordingly.

This is why public diplomacy practitioners know that cultural programming is increasingly vital to the achievement of foreign policy goals.  Some cultural programs serve as the proverbial “picture worth a thousand words,” projecting the essence of American policies, principles, and values via local mass media and fast-growing new digital media.  Some cultural programming works as a powerful teaching tool to help influential people abroad understand (if not necessarily accept) both U.S. foreign affairs priorities and fundamental American principles.

More fundamentally, cultural programming fosters relationships and understanding between foreign officials and U.S. diplomats who will be called on, sooner or later, to work on contentious issues across the table from one other.  It helps sustain generalized affinities even as individuals come and go in the diplomatic service.  And it helps connect the real global communicators of the 21st century:  journalists, activists, scholars, researchers, teachers, writers, artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs, as well as young people just joining the conversation.

The following recent U.S. public diplomacy highlights show the variety of ways in which cultural programming communicates.  These highlights, published in January by the Office of the Under Secretary, are here sorted into three categories:  Talking, Teaching, and Spreading the Word.

1)  Talking — recognizing the people who are (or are likely to become) influential, and bringing them together across borders for focused and purposeful exchange of ideas.

  • Alumnus Hassen Ould Ahmed was recently appointed Deputy Director of Mauritania’s Cabinet.  Ahmed was a 2008-2009 Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow at Penn State University.  Meanwhile, Armenian political magazine De Facto named Edmon Marukyan, an alumnus of the Hubert H. Humphrey Program 2010 and previously the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), “Member of Parliament of the Year.” Marukyan was elected to parliament in spring 2012.  
  • Public Affairs Section Jerusalem hosted Oberlin College Professor of History Dr. Gary Kornblith, who spoke on American democracy at An-Najah University, Birzeit University, and Al Quds Open University.  Dr. Kornblith also discussed the possibility of establishing an American Studies Program at the universities, meeting with university staff and academics at an Embassy reception designed to nurture cultural dialogue and advance the pursuit of American Studies.
  • At Rich Mix, East London (U.K.), playwright Wajahat Ali participated in an evening monologue and discussion with members of the Muslim arts community. The event attracted artists, writers, students and community leaders, including many women.  An accomplished Muslim-American writer and an engaging speaker, Mr. Ali is comfortable with both his American and his Muslim identities, and there was much discussion about the contrast between American and British Muslims on that topic.
  • xborders gamesOn January 5-6, while India and Pakistan faced each other on the cricket pitch, teams of exchange program alumni from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh engaged in the xBorder Games.  Using social media tools like Google+, Storify, and Twitter, two teams comprised of alumni from each country competed in a digital scavenger hunt.  The xBorder Games connected 45 alumni separated by geographic, cultural, and linguistic lines, created new friendships, and increased cross-cultural understanding.  U.S. Embassies Islamabad, New Delhi and Dhaka organized the event.
  • Paralympian and Fulbright Scholar Yevgeniy Tetyukhin spoke about disability policy to an audience of special education teachers and administrators at the University of Guam.  A professor, two-time Paralympian, and lifelong disability advocate, Tetyukhin is spending a year at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Center on Disability Studies, researching disability policy in the context of globalization and multicultural diversity.
  • Unconventional artists and activists narrate their own stories on a new VOA program that seeks to connect underground communities in Iran and the rest of the world.  The twice-monthly TV and web program called ZirZameen is produced by Voice of America’s Persian Service and is available in both English and Farsi editions.  The show, hosted by Mehrnoush Karimian, premiered in December and is available on social media sites, the VOA Persian satellite stream and on Livestation, a 24/7 Internet streaming platform.
  • The U.S. Ambassador to Korea hosted a New Year’s party for the Embassy’s online friends.  Out of 35,000 people who follow the post’s various social media accounts, a diverse group of 20 were invited based on their online activity. The Ambassador blogged about the party, and the Embassy will post an “Ask the Ambassador” YouTube video highlighting the event.  The Ambassador will continue this type of online-offline engagement with innovative netizens in the future.

2)  Teaching — transferring knowledge and skills that are essential in civic life, political life, and international relations.  Cultural programming promotes retention and “useability” of new knowledge through dialogue, debate, and learning-by-doing.  Two-way knowledge transfer and “paying know-how  forward” are frequent outcomes of cultural programming.

  • Pilarani Phiri from Zodiak Broadcasting radio station in Malawi – a participant in the State Department Foreign Press Center’s (FPC) 2012 Elections program for visiting journalists – reported that he Malawi journo interviews presidentsecured the first live phone interview with a Malawian president as a result of his U.S. program experience.  In his words: “one thing I learned while covering the elections is that the American President is always scrutinized by the public.  Immediately I arrived home I got in touch with our ‘White House’ to have the President answer questions from the public.  I am proud to announce that on December 31, I was the first Malawian journalist to have a live phone interview with the President where people posed questions to [him], a thing that has never happened before in my country.”
  • For four months, hundreds of Indonesian English teachers gathered every Saturday morning to take part in the series “Shaping the Way We Teach English,” taught by the [U.S. Embassy] Regional English Language Officer and English Language Fellows.  The teachers came to @america [the high-tech American Center] in Jakarta or participated via digital link from the Consulate in Medan and the American Corner in Yogyakarta.
  • U.S. Embassy Kampala’s Information Officer gave a presentation at the “Writing Our World” (WOW) workshop at Makerere University, coaching participants on using social media to broadcast their voices and market their writing.  Facebook, Twitter, and blogging were introduced as tools to expand the young writers’ network and increase attention to their work.  The Embassy has also given grants to facilitate the activities of Writing Our World through readers and writers clubs in 10 schools.  WOW’s leader is a member of the Embassy’s Youth Council.
  • AC SalfeetJerusalem: The board game Monopoly has proven a potent tool in fostering the entrepreneurial spirit among Palestinian youth, while simultaneously introducing a mainstay of American culture.  American Corner Salfeet hosted 20 undergraduate students from Al Quds Open University for a discussion about business plans, barriers to entry, and board games with a visiting U.S. diplomat.
  • Seven officials from Zambia’s Ministry of Tourism traveled to the U.S. in January on an IVLP program to enhance their planning of the 20th session of the United Nations World Tourism Organization General Assembly, which will take place in Zambia in August 2013. During the program the officials examined how to plan a world conference, including best practices, leveraging partnerships, and capitalizing on them for longer-term benefit beyond the conference.

3) Spreading the word – via local media coverage or on digital media.  While the previous two genres of cultural programming are designed to make a significant impact on the immediate participants, the purpose of this third type is to spark positive interest among the many.

  • U.S. Embassy Caracas held its annual “Baseball Visa Day” during which Venezuelan players in the U.S. major leagues and their family members obtain visas for the upcoming season.  This year some 40 major leaguers and their families visited the Consular Section for their visas, and afterwards participated in a brief ceremony and reception with coverage by multiple print and television media outlets.  Chargé d’Affaires (CDA) James Derham reminded those present that baseball is just one of many historic and cultural ties uniting Venezuela and the United States, and congratulated the players for an unprecedented season in which one Venezuelan won the batting Triple Crown, one pitched a no-hitter, another pitched a perfect game, and nine played in the World Series.   During this event, Embassy Caracas took the opportunity to promote its youth outreach program “Béisbol y Amistad” (Baseball and Friendship), now in its seventh season.
  • OBama in hong kongIn the lead-up to the U.S. Presidential Inauguration, Consulate Hong Kong began a social media project that included photos, videos and travelling cardboard cutouts of President Obama and the First Lady.  Consulate Hong Kong Facebook posts of “President Obama” riding the Mid-Levels Escalator and standing in a Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station generated 42 comments, and 213 likes.  Public Affairs Section Hong Kong will complete the project on January 21, 2013 with a video montage of the cutout President’s “tour” of Hong Kong.
  • The Innovation Generation Facebook page of State Department’s IIP Bureau hosted Monica Dodi, co-founder of MTV Europe and The Women’s Venture Capital Fund, on its “Ask the Entrepreneur” series, which features accomplished American entrepreneurs.  The discussion sparked questions from around the globe including from India, Indonesia, Mauritania, Mexico, and Pakistan.
  • MeetUS program in GermanyThe U.S. Consul General in Munich spoke to students and faculty of “Berufsschule 4,” an off-the-beaten-track school in Nuremberg.  He addressed U.S.-German relations, the U.S. presence in Bavaria, and economic and commercial ties, and tackled tough questions about car emissions, Guantanamo, gun control, and social media topics.  The MeetUS speaker program is a core part of Mission Germany’s youth outreach, and the discussion was live Tweeted to highlight the event to a broader audience.
  • Bosnian Brooklyn Nets Player Interview Makes Front Page:  The State Department’s New York Foreign Press Center assisted the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo in securing an interview with Brooklyn Nets player Mirza Teletovic – a Bosnian basketball star who has recently joined the NBA – in Dnevni Avaz (Daily Voice), the leading Bosnian newspaper and news website.
  • In January, [State Department] hosted 20 Youth Ambassadors from Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Panama for a reception and meeting with the Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA), which promoted the event on social media along with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the relevant U.S. Embassies; Embassy San José alone received nearly 6,000 Facebook page views and 300 likes.

All the above constitute just a few of the highlights shared by the Under Secretary’s office for January alone.  January’s highlights in turn constitute a tiny sliver of the cultural programming that takes place week in, week out at every U.S. Embassy and Consulate around the world.  Most of it is targeted to advance specific foreign policy goals, and just about all of it is conceptualized strategically.

Each example is also a reminder that cultural diplomacy IS communication.  The U.S. can only benefit from greater use of cultural programming  to advance U.S. foreign affairs priorities.

A Wry Look at Why Foreign Policy Can’t Compete with the Golden Globes

Golden Globes

Tucker Carlson explains why it’s hard to put catchy titles on foreign affairs events:

“There are legitimate, even powerful arguments, to be made against … [an] administration’s foreign policy. But those arguments are complicated, hard to explain, and, in the end, not all that sensational.”

–  Tucker Carlson

Or maybe the problem goes even deeper:

“Bringing democratic control to the conduct of foreign policy requires a struggle merely to force the issue onto the public agenda.”

–   Eric Alterman

What too many people think:

“Whatever it is that the government does, sensible Americans would prefer that the government does it to somebody else. This is the idea behind foreign policy.”

–   P. J. O’Rourke

What Public Diplomacy folks like to think:

“The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls.”

–  Elizabeth Cady Stanton

The neoconservative view (and Kennedy definitely was one):

“Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.”

–   John F. Kennedy

And, would that Henry Kissinger had paid more attention to his own words:

“No foreign policy – no matter how ingenious – has any chance of success if it is born in the minds of a few and carried in the hearts of none.”

–  Henry A. Kissinger

Expert Views on Public Diplomacy: The Next Four Years

On November 13,  IPDGC had the privilege of sponsoring Public Diplomacy: the Next Four Years, a terrific “insiders” discussion featuring two former Under Secretaries of State for Public Diplomacy (James Glassman and Judith McHale), a key Senate senior committee staffer (Paul Foldi), and a former State Department Assistant Secretary / spokesperson (Philip “PJ” Crowley).   These are all people who not only have a vision of what America’s public diplomacy can and should do, they also know a lot about what it actually does.

Panel members enthusiastically debated the role and strengths of contemporary U.S. public diplomacy.  One area of complete agreement:  two-way engagement is a big priority over one-way messaging.  Another consensus: information technology is a game-changer in diplomacy and foreign affairs.

Key Takeaway:  Signficant discussion revolved around how diplomacy itself – not just public diplomacy – is changing.   The implication was clear that  diplomacy must change even more in this modern world of globally shared challenges and exponentially more information networks.

Here is one blogger’s observations on key points and highlights from this IPDGC-sponsored panel:

1) Consensus:  Engagement and relationships trump one-way messaging:  

McHale:  The world has changed [and] we will not be able to move our foreign policy goals and objectives forward without having a better relationship, better understanding and engagement with people all over the world.  We simply can’t do it.

Crowley:  [re: tweeting with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez] By doing that, the folks in [the Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau] will go, why are you doing that? I’d say, it is generating a debate within Venezuela.  And one of my colleagues said, when you wrestle with a pig you get dirty.  I go yes, but this is a debate that we will ultimately win.  [We] have to be willing to let our diplomats engage in this debate and quite honestly that’s a phenomenon that will happen.

Foldi:  Sometimes I think the department falls into this trap of, “well we put all things out on a web and then we let people comment on them.” Well that’s not what they really want, they want to engage in a conversation

Glassman:  You look for those avenues where you can pursue those conversations, where you can build relationships even in very difficult and challenging parts of the world for us.

But at least one voice made the case for “messaging” — when it is done in new, relational contexts:

Glassman: I realized that simply standing up and preaching at people… is not a very effective way to communicate. [Foreign audiences] don’t want to listen to you, to Americans preaching at them. But rather a better way to communicate is to use American authority, such as it is, to convene a large, broad and deep conversation in which American messages are … injected [or] distributed among other messages

So the emphasis is on relationships and engagement.  And whether focused on advancing foreign policy goals or debating policies and ideologies at the head of state level, the panelists are not just talking about public diplomacy, they’re talking about all of diplomacy.

2)  Another area of agreement:  Information technology as a game-changer: 

McHale: The world has changed so dramatically and so fundamentally with … technology and with information and power now being widely dispersed.  We have got to find better ways of influencing foreign populations or we simply can’t go forward.  [For example], right now in this room there is nobody here who can raise their hand and say ‘I can identify who was the leader of the Egyptian revolution.’ Because there wasn’t one; it was coalitions, ever changing coalitions of interests.

Glassman: And second, it’s just amazing, we … have lucked into this world — and we haven’t “lucked” into it, but the tools are there, tools that did not exist ten years ago. The tools for communicating in a public diplomacy 2.0 way.

3)  Defining the core goal of public diplomacy: is it “Benefit of the Doubt?” 

Paul Foldi and PJ Crowley both focus on the perceived gap between words and deeds as a major challenge for public diplomacy.  Foldi describes how a country that builds up its soft power can get over specific policy hurdles:

Foldi:  It can take years to get what I call ‘benefit of the doubt,’ which I believe is the goal of public diplomacy. So that when your country does something or has a policy that seems counterintuitive to the rest of the world, they’ll go “oh, but they are the United States — so maybe they’re doing this [thing we don’t like], but for the most part we agree with them.” And to me … it’s a question of can we get back into the ‘benefit of the doubt’ category for many of these countries?

(Note: Foldi’s view – creating the benefit of the doubt – strikes me as something a lot of public diplomacy practitioners would agree with.   I think many of us would see this is as an achievable goal in many overseas contexts, and we would consider the public diplomacy ‘toolkit’ useful in pursuing this goal.)

By contrast, PJ Crowley focuses not on helping contextualize policies that are unappreciated abroad as being inconsistent with shared values, but rather on trying to eliminate them:

Crowley: Ultimately the best public diplomacy is … policies that reflect your interests and your values and [when] the gap between what we say and what we do is as narrow as it can be. … [One] of the great challenges for public diplomacy is to bridge the gap between words and deeds, to narrow that to the extent possible.  … [Polling trends] should inform what our short term and mid term actions are.

Meanwhile, Glassman and McHale reject a polling-driven “popularity contest” approach, maintaining that targeted PD efforts can and should be used to further specific U.S. foreign policy goals.

Glassman:  I don’t think that favorability ratings in the Pew survey are evidence of whether we are doing something wrong or right.  [I tried] to disabuse people of that notion and rather to focus attention on what public diplomacy can do to achieve specific ends that are part of [our] goals in foreign policy and national security policy; that’s what public diplomacy is supposed to do.

McHale: I’m certainly in agreement with Jim on this issue, it’s not a popularity contest … that is absolutely the wrong focus.

As the panelists fleshed out their ideas, however, I heard each one suggest support for Foldi’s “benefit of the doubt” role for public diplomacy:

Crowley: we will always be challenged …for example Indians have expectations in terms of the US policy towards Pakistan or Pakistan has expectations towards the US policy towards India, and those two… do not easily coexist. And when… you sit in between those two long time antagonists, you are going to end up disappointing both of them to some degree or another.

McHale: There were many areas where … we do find areas of common interest, science, technology, education, all of those areas. … [N]aturally you are going to encounter a lot of resistance and what have you but that’s no reason to give up. And you look for those avenues where you can pursue those conversations, where you can build relationships even in very difficult and challenging parts of the world for us.

Glassman: [A]s Senator Fulbright said, the Fulbright programs teach empathy, standing in somebody else’s shoes. I’m a huge believer in that and I think that is valuable.  (But should two thirds of the money be spent on that?)

Glassman (again): [A]s president Obama said right in the beginning … we need to focus on mutual interest and mutual respect and there are many things that we can get done in that fashion.

All of these comments reflect the idea that some U.S. policies will inevitably be viewed by some other countries as inimical, unfair, and/or a betrayal of U.S. stated values — so concentrating on other interests and values that we do share, as well as working to promote mutual empathy and understanding, is essential.

4) This is really about “all of diplomacy”:

It is worth repeating Judith McHale’s observation about the Egyptian revolution: “right now in this room there is nobody here who can raise their hand and say ‘I can identify who was the leader of the Egyptian revolution.’ Because there wasn’t one, it was coalitions, ever changing collations of interests.”

Pair this with Crowley’s discussion of high-level public communications, for example those tweets with Hugo Chavez.   He makes clear that informal and globally available public communication by heads of state and top diplomats (not to mention powerful business leaders and highly influential NGO advocates) is here to stay.

These panelists emphasized, in other words, that understanding and responding to events such as the Egyptian revolution or debating Hugo Chavez in his domestic political arena is not only the work of public diplomacy, it’s at the center of diplomacy and foreign policy.   And engaging in this public sphere has to be a focus of the whole State Department, not just its public diplomacy bureaus.

Glassman makes the case that, in this new environment, using the tools of public diplomacy is a notably low cost / high impact strategy and should be expanded:  “There are ways to move money within the State Department budget that would make the Department as a whole more effective by putting more emphasis on public diplomacy. … One of the reasons that I strongly believe that we need more public diplomacy … is because at a time of tight budgets, it’s the most cost effective way to achieve those national interest goals that I talked about.”

He takes that idea further to suggest that Embassies themselves may be obsolete.

Glassman: And the other thing that I would just throw out to you is whether in an era of social media and very, very fast communications, whether we should be spending as much money as we are in general at the State Department on things called embassies. Okay it made a lot of sense 100 years ago, but does it make sense today to have this edifice and this very complicated kind of arrangement where people go for a few years and live there, as though they couldn’t possibly influence people in those countries if they didn’t live there?

No doubt many would find controversial the idea that one can influence people whom one has never met face to face, much less grown to know better over time.   But on closer examination, is Glassman really saying that diplomats don’t need to go abroad and meet people?  Is it possible to envision an engaged diplomacy involving both face to face and online interactions that does not involve the traditional Embassy model?

I’m not sure.  (What do TakeFive blog readers think?)

Advocates of ‘new approaches to public diplomacy’ often end up by proposing new approaches to diplomacy itself.   As these excerpts from last week’s expert panel discussion show, our panelists at the IPDGC event were no exception.  (And there was much more rich discussion that can be found on the event video or in the transcript.)

Yes, they were unanimous on the importance of existing public diplomacy efforts, and there was little disagreement on the impact of valued public diplomacy tools (exchanges, social media).

At the same time, these experienced public diplomacy experts expressed a range of ideas – some quite provocative – about how approaches rooted in public diplomacy are particularly appropriate for the 21st century challenges of U.S. diplomacy overall.

It will be great for IPDGC and other groups interested in the theory and practice of public diplomacy to get more such debates launched in the wider arena of foreign affairs / diplomacy.  

A New Take on International Broadcasting

This post was co-authored with Shawn Powers

International broadcasting, as state media aimed at foreign publics, plays an important role in public diplomacy efforts.  Our latest paper examines the challenges before IB entities in a new media environment.  It proposes a framework for analyzing IB systematically, and predicting its success.

Generally, state-sponsored international broadcasting bodies operate with the aim of changing public opinion elsewhere, whether to spread goodwill, better views of the sponsor country, spread dissent against other governments or open up audiences to new ideas and policy proposals.

Governments spend billions on IB without central strategy or a conception of what IB should be today.  Academics and practitioners alike have failed to agree on models or theories that explain the success and failure of international broadcasting at different times.  Equally debated is what it should be. Propaganda? Or dialogue? Should it be a more networked form of diplomacy?

Part of the problem is that the media environment in general is in a high state of flux, and state broadcasters are struggling to keep up, adjust and move past previous missions while facing budget challenges and internal political crises.

To further thinking of audience engagement in new media environments, scholars have been proposing “dialogue,” “networked” and “relational” approaches.  While these conceptions are useful for moving IB in new directions, these are too often limited given the real political constraints on IB outlets. They neglect the complicated multi-stakeholder politics of communication between governments and other publics.

We take on the ambitious goal of developing an approach and analogy for IB that captures these challenges and the often contentious politics of state broadcasting.  Published in the International Journal of Communication, our paper “Remote Negotiations: International Broadcasting as Bargaining in the Information Age” adapts the two-level game metaphor of international bargaining developed by Robert Putnam (1988) to analyze state informational activities in the current media age.

Broadcasting these days, we argue, is better analogized as complicated multi-level bargaining between the IB entities and key stakeholders, including: domestic policy makers, mobilized issue publics, foreign governments, and target opinion leaders and groups in receiving states.

By bargaining, we do not refer to the deliberative, incremental process of negotiating a political treaty, but a looser, more rapid, exchange in which nearly instantaneous audience and governmental feedback can be taken into consideration in reporting and programming. What is being bargained over is that ever-scarce resource, audience attention.

The approach generates several propositions. For example, “the more sponsoring governments control broadcasters, the more vulnerable they are to domestic political exigencies and the less responsive they are to the preferences of the receiving publics.” Heavy-handed government control hurts a broadcaster’s likelihood of success.

Central Chinese Television (CCTV) headquarters in Beijing.

IB must be iterative — as bargaining is — and take into account audience preferences, while serving the advancing government’s interests.  Simply pandering to foreign audiences, eager to criticize their government, is unlikely to be effective promotion of the government. Neither is simply toeing the government line.   Bargaining is apt because it denotes adjustability, as well as state sponsor flexibility.

As normatively appealing as “dialogue” is for a framework for IB and public diplomacy, it is dangerously over promising. States do not set foreign policy according to the public opinion of other countries – outside of a few exceptions (such as much stronger allies or patron-states).  Real dialogue is unlikely.

The paper articulates the emerging structural dynamics of international broadcasting. Our hope is to move discussion of IB past the propaganda-dialogue dichotomy while accounting for real politics and the pragmatic imperatives of complex mediaspheres we see globally.  Our approach explains why IB is more difficult than ever to pull off successfully, offers insights into improving IB and can be deployed and tested by other researchers in case studies as a useful analytical framework.  We hope it benefits both policymakers and scholars alike.

Tourism and Public Diplomacy

Who more powerfully shapes foreign public opinion of a country: a public diplomacy staff member in government or a tourist from that country?

It’s probably impossible to say, but a case can be made for the latter if one thinks of the massive difference in scale between tourism and public diplomacy.  International tourism is a trillion dollar industry.  In 2011,  there were an estimated 982 million international tourist arrivals. Public diplomacy activities can only pale in comparison.

There may also be a qualitative difference in terms of influencing views.  After all, the government and its representatives are inherently assumed to be strategic communicators, trying to show the country’s best face. Doesn’t that diminish the power of the message — or make interactions seem instrumental and contrived?  Tourists, on the other hand, are non-strategic, at least to the extent of acting in the nation’s interests, and would seem — in terms of perceptions — to offer the more authentic representation of the country and its people.

If a country’s tourists are engaged in bad behavior frequently — for example, tourism for the purpose of criminal behavior or even widely disdained, yet legal activities, e.g. the sex industry — it could easily result in a widespread belief that the country itself, and its people, are generally immoral or dangerous.  I cannot imagine a country’s public diplomacy efforts surmounting that sort of common sentiment easily — even if its foreign policy is received positively.

Robin Brown wrote a short blog post saying:

we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of tourism within the public diplomacy field.

He argued it matters for three reasons. The first is essentially the point above, that tourism shapes perceptions of “others.”  Second, states’ perception management activities are often aimed at boosting tourism. And the tourism industry of each state tries to impact public diplomacy and nation branding efforts to attract foreign visitors.

It seems that tourism, though richly studied as a sub-field on its own (see academic journals), presents a challenge for public diplomacy scholarship. Thinking of PD in institutional terms, centering on the coordinated activities of governments and officials addressing foreign publics, has its advantages.  It gives the primary actors a mailing address — a “who” — and presumes some level of control over messaging and actions.  This means we can speak of “programs” such as “exchanges,” and other formalized activities intended to convey ideas, further relations, change perceptions and so on.  This focus constitutes, and therefore constrains, much of the research.

There are methodological challenges, as well. Tourism, in terms of interpersonal communication, is at the ethnographic level, making it much more difficult to research.  Its messiness calls on deeper research to really understand.  Interviews with officials in countries capitals simply won’t provide the insight needed.  For PD scholars, it is tempting to toss tourism into the category of “noise” that makes delivering the signal of government communications so difficult.

A case could be made that tourism is the real public diplomacy and government programs are marginal.

Given that international tourism is growing, especially with emerging powers, e.g. the BRICs, and also in places not known as tourist attractions, it makes sense to heed Brown’s call.

I wonder to what extent states’ foreign ministries might start to consider tourists as ambassadors, and whether programs educating or even training them might be carried out — whether in the form of leaflets for departing citizens, airport signage, domestic media campaigns or through embassies.  Should governments spread the notion of tourists as bearing an obligation to represent positively their country overseas?

The Transitive Problem

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

The Transitive Property Reviewed

The transitive property in formal logic is essentially:

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

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

Rooted in Cognitive Processing or How People Perceive Political Problems

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

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

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

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

Applied to US-Bahrain Relations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Example: Hamas and Syria 

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

Hamas Leader Ismail Haniya with Bashar Al Assad

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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