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What’s Different about Confucius Institutes?

January 22, 2015

Marshall Sahlins has expanded his attack on Confucius Institutes into a longer (but still pamphlet length) version.

His basic complaint is that the Confucius Institute system is infiltrating Western education systems. This is an organization that is part of the Communist Party directed Chinese state, it teaches simplified Chinese which means that students can only read works published in the PRC since language reform and the agenda of the institutes has to exclude Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen. He provides examples of CI’s attempting to take over all China related teaching in institutions.

I share the pamphlet’s concerns but Sahlins is only focusing on one country and as result there’s a danger of overstating how different the CI system is.

Firstly, locating institutes inside educational institutions is unusual but it isn’t unique.  At least some of the branches of the Spanish Instituto Cervantes are located in Universities.

Secondly, attempting to influence education systems is the bread and butter of cultural diplomacy. As usual exhibit A is France’s defence of, and promotion of, the French language but states have been heavily involved in the promotion of the study of themselves for a long time – Hungary was funding a lectureship in at the LSE in the interwar period, also consider the promotion of American, Canadian or Indian Studies.

Thirdly, while there are probably a few cultural relations organizations that have zero relationship with foreign policy most do.

Fourthly, CI’s check the political reliability of staff. That’s probably not that unusual. Keep in mind that historically much of France’s cultural relations work was done by the Foreign Ministry so even if the director of the Institut had an academic job somewhere they were on secondment to the Quai. In the early years of the Cold War the British Council had defections and you can be sure that after that there was more of a check on who they were sending abroad at least to certain countries.

The specific problem with the CI system is not any of these things in isolation. It’s the combination of these with fact that the PRC is a Communist state which makes many people in the West read anything the CI does (or doesn’t do) through a political lens.

Sahlins documents cases where Universities and education authorities have rejected or refused to renew CI contracts and I would expect that there will inevitably be more of these cases particularly in view of the current ideological tightening in China.

The irony is that by either moving outside education systems or by very ostentatiously abandoning politically contentious elements of the system the CI would work rather better for China. After all the medium is the message. If the CI’s boost ties to China there will be plenty of other opportunities to expose people to approved PRC narratives without generating damaging contestations.

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Counter-Propaganda: The Case of ISIS

January 13, 2015

I’ve spent far too much time over the last few weeks thinking about counter-propaganda without really getting to a satisfactory conclusion so I’m just going to throw out some ideas and move on.   I’ll post on ISIS, then Russia, then draw a few general conclusions/recommendations.

  1. ISIS exists in two spaces. Firstly, on the ground in Iraq and Syria  and secondly, in the transnational space of the ‘global jihad’. These two spaces are connected but they are not identical.  Recent studies on ISIS have placed more weight on the first of these while a lot of Western political discourse either doesn’t discriminate or places more weight on the latter – in particular on the Western citizens becoming radicalized, travelling to the Islamic State and then returning to carry out terrorist actions in the West.   The argument is that it is the excellence of the IS information offensive that is allowing it to recruit foreign fighters and hence become successful on the ground. I think that this is precisely the wrong way round. The global rise of ISIS is not because of its excellent propaganda: it has excellent propaganda because of its military success.    The capture of Mosul and the defeat of the Iraqi Army gave it the basis for the proclamation of the Caliphate and at that point is launched an international strategic communications campaign to market itself. It’s a basic rule of wartime communications (see for instance the memoirs of British propagandists during the Second World War) that it’s much easier to make yourself look good when you are winning. Of course when you inflict a major defeat on the opponent the international news media will multiply the message while you will have plenty of images of captured equipment and personnel for your own productions.   This is not to say that activities aimed at potentially radicalized groups outside the region are completely useless but they are working at a major disadvantage.
  2. The most powerful counter-propaganda strategy in dealing with the IS will be to dislodge it from the territory that it holds. Where the two spaces come together is in the state-like nature of the IS this allows it to transmit the call to Muslims to come and live in the IS. It’s interesting that the message doesn’t seem to be come and fight but come and live. The more that the IS territory resembles a war zone and the more that its messages are focused simply on fighting (in the context of losing battles and news coverage that is about their defeats) the less potent their narrative will be.
  3. Western political leaders are in danger of forgetting that ISIS is not the only Salafi-Jihadi group out there.  ISIS is successful in the jihadist space because there is a demand for what it is providing. The preferred aim must be for the Salafi-Jihadi social movement to run its course, the defeat of ISIS won’t necessarily do this although the baroque cruelty will probably help to discredit the whole movement. The defeat of ISIS in Syria-Iraq may just create more market space for other Salafi-Jihadi movements ie Al-Qaida/Nusra Front which aren’t that much of an improvement.
  4. What’s the plan B?  The difficulty is that the weakness of the Iraqi army, the lack of any solution in Syria, the history of sectarian politics in Iraq, the ambiguous attitude of Turkey makes it difficult to see when a narrative of military reverses is going to become established.  This leads to the question of the extent to which IS can stabilize itself?  Many observers assume that over time it will alienate local tribes and become progressively more fragile.   One reason to attract foreigners to the caliphate is that that immigration produces groups that are not embedded in the local context and presumably more supportive of the overall project. But if ISIS is going to be there for sometime how to deal with it.  Here a strategy of economic warfare might be the solution.
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Why Isn’t Germany More Unpopular? (Is Angela Merkel the Answer?)

January 7, 2015

I really will get on with writing about counter-propaganda soon but in the meantime Angela Merkel is visiting London today and this reminds of an issue that has been bugging me for a while: why isn’t Germany more unpopular in Europe?

Hang on you say ‘Germany is up there at the top of the Nation Brand Index what are you on about?’

You don’t need to dig very far into the business pages to encounter two arguments about the Eurozone. Firstly, the chief beneficiary of the Euro is Germany which has been able to boost its exports because the Euro is a weaker currency than the Deutschmark would be.   Secondly, this economic success has made Germany the financial bastion of the Eurozone with the result that it is in imposing its deflationary ordoliberal policies to the rest of the zone. Hence rather than pursuing counter-cyclical Keynesian policies the Eurozone countries are largely pursuing self-defeating policies (see for instance the last five years of Paul Krugman columns in the New York Times)

OK so we have one country imposing self-interested policies that damage the interests of other countries. Wouldn’t we expect those other countries to vigorously resist and given the consequences are unemployment for national leaderships to be pressed to take a hard anti-German line by popular movements and a hostile media? The result might be that an Angela Merkel visit would end up like Richard Nixon in Venezuela in 1958...But with the exception of Greece I don’t see any real animus against Germany or Merkel (for example).

How do we explain this? I assume that part of this is the acceptance among Eurozone Europeans that the benefits of the Euro outweigh the costs. But I also wonder about the extent to which it is Angela Merkel herself that produces the effect. Partly this is about her skills as a political leader but also a matter of style. She’s so benign that she deflects most of the ‘fourth reich’ references and can’t be placed by the media within the traditional frames of German power. Hence the colourlessness of Merkel contributes to the hegemony of Germany within Europe because of the difficulty of mobilizing hostility against someone who seems so personally inoffensive.

This leads to a wider question about the role of national leaders in shaping national images. We all know that the image of the US took a bounce when Barack Obama took over from George W. Bush. We also know that conflict is associated with demonization of enemy leaders but how about an opposite process? Are countries more or less tolerant of other countries where the leader is seen as benign or threatening independently of the ‘objective’ level of conflict between them. There’s a sizeable literature on personalization in domestic politics maybe it’s an issue that deserves more attention in international relations.

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Counter-Propaganda: Do I Detect a Propaganda Panic™?

December 16, 2014

Before thinking about the counter-propaganda question specifically I’ve been struck by the volume of recent writing on the threat posed by Russian and ISIS propaganda. Having spent much time with the history of the informational instrument recently I’m feeling qualified to detect signs of a full on propaganda panic™

Before thinking about the counter-propaganda question specifically I’ve been struck by the volume of recent writing on the threat posed by Russian and Isis propaganda. Having spent much time with the history of the informational instrument recently I’m feeling qualified to detect signs of a full on propaganda panic™. This is not to say that there aren’t things to be concerned about but it also seems to be me that the current excitement is a bit overblown which in turn suggests some observations about how we think about these things.

The propaganda panic can be seen as a variation on the good old media moral panic

The classic propaganda panic starts with an event that comes as a surprise to a group of political leaders (and to the journalists that commentate on them). Such an unexpected event needs an explanation and ‘propaganda’ provides an answer.   The attraction of ‘propaganda’ is that it appears to stand somewhere outside the normal responsibilities of politics or diplomacy and helps to insulate those in charge from an accusation that they weren’t paying attention or that their policies have failed. The explanation can then be offered that it is the inadequacy of our propaganda/public diplomacy/ information efforts. The additional twist is that the people who have been responsible for the ‘inadequate’ response have been saying all along that their work is totally underfunded and so instead of coming out swinging at their critics gratefully pocket the increased appropriations.

This isn’t entirely cynical on the part of the people involved because underpinning the attribution of effect to ‘propaganda’ is the classic misperception of seeing an opponent as more capable, unified and coherent than they actually are, and to see oneself as more benign that you actually appear to other actors (eg Jervis 1976, part III).  Hence once a group of leaders have undergone a surprise and started to pay attention to a situation they attribute the negative aspects of the situation to the carefully laid plans of the opponent that are generating opposition.

In the contemporary case I would add a tendency of the current security community to abstract threats from their specific situations. I’ve been struck by the number of blog posts about how one the ISIS/Putin situations marks the rise of a new unconventional-hybrid-asymmetric-Mad Max – conflict threat or something like that. Essentially this is converting a situation or a pair of situations with quite specific characteristics into a category. Rather than looking for responses that are tailored to these situations and question becomes how to come up with the optimum weapons and organizations to defeat the category of threat.

The crux of responding effectively is to put the problems back in their real political, historical and media context. The problem with the propaganda panic is that encourages thinking in terms of myths.

Next up I’ll take up some of the specific challenges of counter propaganda in the digital space.

Jervis R (1976) Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

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Counter-Propaganda in the Digital Age: Introduction

December 8, 2014

There’s something wonderfully retro about talking about counter-propaganda but with the appearance of ISIS and the Ukrainian Crisis it seems like proclamations that Russia or ISIS are winning the propaganda /information /ideas war are and that something needs to be done are all over the place. Counter-terrorism messaging needs to be handed to be taken from the State Department and given to the CIA or we need to bring back the Information Research Department.

I’ve been meaning to write about these issues for some time but there are so many interesting aspects to this I always get stuck. So by way of clearing some mental space over the next few days I’m going to address three questions.

  1. How seriously should we take the Russian and ISIS information offensives?
  2. What can we learn from old skool counter-propaganda in the light of a changed media and political environment?
  3. To what extent does digital actually offer a ‘self-correcting market place of ideas’ and to what extent do we need states and international organizations to take address counter-propaganda challenges.

I’m going to argue that our tendency to see these threats in terms of a seamless information space tends to exaggerate the threat of ‘foreign’ information activities but at the same time to overstate the possibilities of our own.

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New Paper on Link Between Language Teaching and Foreign Investment.

November 26, 2014

One of the issues that French embassies are supposed to keep on top of is the status of French in the local education system. Of course French opens the way to the French education system but there’s also the saying that if you speak French you buy French.

Given this belief there’s an interesting paper forthcoming in International Studies Quarterly that probes the link between language and Foreign Direct Investment. Previous research has found a relationship between official languages and investment but the new paper by Kim et al looks at data on which languages are actually taught in schools and finds a robust relationship between language teaching and inward investment.   That is if you want to attract investment make sure that your country teaches the language of the country that you want to attract investment from. They recognize that English is a special case but what’s especially striking is the consequences of starting to teach Chinese. A country gets that gets a Confucius Institute can expect a 900% rise in Chinese investment five years later.

I’m less convinced by some of the discussion of the causal mechanisms behind the quantitative relationship but here’s some evidence that diplomats can use to persuade host governments that language teaching has some benefit.

Kim, Moonhawk, Amy H. Liu, Kim-Lee Tuxhorn, David S. Brown, and David Leblang. ‘Lingua Mercatoria: Language and Foreign Direct Investment’. International Studies Quarterly, 1 October 2014, n/a – n/a. doi:10.1111/isqu.12158.
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Soft Power, Attractiveness and Influence

November 25, 2014

“The concept of soft power is soft in conceptualization and weak in empirics. What is the leap of logic that leads from attraction to American culture or its products to support for American foreign policy?”

Reich, Simon, and Richard Ned Lebow. Good-Bye Hegemony!: Power and Influence in the Global System. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 34

That’s a good question but it doesn’t just apply to soft power it also applies to classical French or German theories of foreign cultural policy. Historically there’s always been blurring between a politics of national attractiveness and a policy of diplomatic influence. In France it’s possible to see some tension under the pressure of a tougher global environment: in going through a lot of French parliamentary reports from the last decade it’s interesting to voices arguing not just for a very focused diplomatie d’influence, but also for handing over the whole activity of rayonnement to the culture ministry at the expense of the Quai d’Orsay. Having said this the majority position seems to be for the traditional compromise.

Given that I normally talk about public diplomacies in the plural this isn’t really surprising but it does raise both analytical and policy questions.

In analytical terms what is the connection (if any) between a politics of attractiveness and diplomatic influence?*

In policy terms how do you devise and fund a policy of attractiveness and a policy of influence? The irony is that it’s probably advantageous for everyone involved to keep things fuzzy – MFAs can keep claiming their budgets contribute to national economic success while cultural operators can point to the vague foreign policy benefits of funding foreign activities. The very ambiguity in soft power that frustrates Reich and Lebow is something that makes it attractive in the policy world.

*Actually there’s quite a lot but I’ll come back to that later.

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