Archive for June, 2011

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Digging into British Public Diplomacy History: The Drogheda Report

June 28, 2011

I don’t seem to have much time to blog at the moment but one of things that I’m doing is reading up on UK ‘public diplomacy’ in the post 1945 decades.  It’s an interesting exercise which I’ll write more about later – one striking thought is that the high point for official interest in external communications at least measured in the volume of official reports about it is actually the 1950s rather than the 2000s.

Anyway from the Summary of the Report of the Independent Committee of Enquiry in the Overseas Information Services of April 1954 (better known as the Drogheda Committee).  This was an effort to take a comprehensive look at the state of affairs and indicated a growing willingness to spend more on these activities.

Here’s a couple of quotes

We suggest that the following propositions hold true, generally speaking, for the Information Services as whole:-

First. – The Information Services must to-day be regarded as part of the normal apparatus of diplomacy of a Great Power. They extend the range of the Mission so as to include a cross section of all the more important people in the community who are, or in the future will be, in a position to mould public opinion and influence policy…

There’s an interesting comment on the way that radio tends to distort perceptions of what information work is about

The great reputation which the British Broadcasting Corporation earned during the war, and the intense struggle for wavelengths between nations great and small during the post-war years have together tended to give undue predominance in the public mind to the place of broadcasting in overseas propaganda.  We have even found that this has led to the assumption that anything else which the Departments or agencies have done in this field is of secondary importance, which is far from being the case.

Interestingly the reports of the 1950s and 1960s tend to swing between talking about ‘information’,’ publicity’ and ‘propaganda’  so even in the post 1945 period British officials were quite happy to describe the work that they were doing as ‘propaganda’.

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Osama bin Laden and the power of ‘going negative’

June 27, 2011

The story that appeared last week that Osama bin Laden was considering changing the name of Al-Qaeda attracted considerable attention including a lively debate about what the new name should be.   The other thing that attracted my attention in the story was the importance that Bin Laden attached to the effect of civilian casualties caused by Al-Qaeda operations particularly in Iraq.  It’s interesting because part of James Glassman’s analysis of US communications during his tenure at State was that the US should focus on Al-Qaeda and seek to discredit it rather than trying to persuade people to like the US  (or dislike it less).  Of course the underpinning reality here is Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi’s embrace of indiscriminate violence in Iraq but  if we can rely on a single story instigated by unidentified sources this suggests that Glassman’s emphasis was correct.

Given that the conventional wisdom among political campaigners is that negative campaigning works this apparent impact of bad news for Al-Qaeda shouldn’t be a surprise.

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21st Century Statecraft and Information Imperialism

June 24, 2011

I teach international communications and one concept that tends to loom large in the minds of students is cultural imperialism.  From a teacher’s point of view this is both an opportunity and a challenge.  It’s an opportunity because it gives a big body of literature that students are interested in that demonstrates the problems caused by imprecise concept formation and questionable evidence.  It’s a challenge for the same reason; cultural imperialism and its variants mean different things to different people  as well as being a term of political abuse.   If you can get through the topic so that students grasp the debates they will have learned quite a lot about the importance of precision and clarity in academic writing.

It’s always struck me that much of the writing about cultural imperialism is profoundly state centric. It is about the defence of the nation-state against foreign influences.  The problem is that it ignores the fact that the national project is usually one big exercise in imposing a particular culture on everyone within a territory.

This is a long introduction to this link.  At Meta-Activism Mary Joyce has a very interesting post discussing criticisms of US net freedom and democracy support programmes as from a cultural imperialism perspective.  This isn’t a viewpoint that has been widely taken and it provides a valuable perspective.

I think that this reminds us of two very important points.  Firstly, from the perspective of the twitterverse US information policies are unquestionably benign other people may not see things in the same way.  Secondly, sovereignty is an important part of the contemporary international system and the rise of the BRICS is only going to reinforce Westphalian norms.  This means that political and ethical questions raised by information intervention and public diplomacy are going to intensify not disappear.  The politics of these issues are more complex than they might appear from the Googleplex.

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Evidence on Perceptions and Foreign Investment

June 20, 2011

Does nation branding have economic significance? Via Nation Branding we learn of a German study that claims that a one point rise in your score on the Anholt Nation Brands index leads to a 27% increase in foreign direct investment. This sounded a bit too good to be true so I’ve tracked down the published version of the research.

Kalamova and Konrad are interested in the impact of investor perceptions on FDI decisions relative to economic fundamentals. They look at FDI flows and statistically test the extent to which these patterns can be explained by standard economic models and by the impact of perceptions. They find that a one point rise in your NBI score is associated with a 27% greater FDI flow above what would be predicted by the standard economic model. I think that this is an important qualification – the article is not saying that a 1 point increase in perceptions will make your flow 27% regardless of everything else. This relationship is statistically significant at the 1% level which implies a very strong association.

I’m convinced that perceptions do matter but I’m a bit sceptical about the size of the effect. FDI flows tend to be quite volatile and for smaller countries single investment decisions can have a big impact on the overall figures. For this reason it would be really helpful to have the study extended to cover more than two years. It’s also worth emphasizing Anholt’s point that the NBI is measuring a whole set of factors including things like governance and economic conditions so an improvement in NBI is assumed to be based on more than nation-branding as advertising.

Kalamova, M.M., and K.A. Konrad (2010) ‘Nation Brands and Foreign Direct Investment’, Kyklos, 63: 400-31.

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Air Travel and the National Brand: The Soviet Tyler Brule

June 14, 2011

Tyler Brule the editor of Monocle magazine and FT columnist travels around the world and then writes columns arguing that your airport is your opportunity to communicate your national brand to visitors as soon as they arrive. Of course what a lot of airports communicate is ‘we’re rubbish and we don’t care about you’

Here’s an example

You might think I’ve rocked up in some shambolic banana republic or poorly managed police state, but I’m actually at Washington DC’s Dulles Airport late on a Sunday afternoon. As I’m about to walk up to the booth for inspection, a voice booms over the public address system with an urgent bulletin – “Attention all officers, attention all officers, anyone who has not signed up for overtime today, I repeat, anyone who did not sign up for overtime can now leave their post”. In a flash a series of officers pack up their stamps and take their super-size slurpy cups and waddle off duty. The 1,000-plus people in line just stare in amazement.

As I approach the desk, I feel like giving the young gentleman a lecture about how bad this whole performance is for Brand USA – particularly on top of a whole week of television reports about the new fee that visitors will have to pay to get a visa and how these funds will be used to create a campaign to encourage more tourism to the US. I want to ask him if he (and his bosses not far away in the District of Columbia) think a 90-minute wait in a dumpy airport is any way to welcome the world and if his department is really that interested in having people visit the US.

In reading Rosa Magnusdottir’s chapter on Soviet cultural diplomacy towards the US I came across this discussion of the role of the state airline Aeroflot as a gateway to the USSR. Boris Polevoi was a Soviet journalist who led a delegation to the USA in 1955.

Polevoi described the flight delays as outrageous and the crew of flight attendants as completely incompetent: ‘They do not know languages, do not offer passengers newspapers or magazines, and do not pay any attention to the passengers…breakfast was served without napkins, straight from a box. The food was cold, two days old, had been prepared and brought in from Moscow and was dried up.’ It got worse; passengers who wanted an extra cup of tea were told by the ‘misses’ that they would have to pay for he extra sugar tea themselves because only ‘two pieces of sugar were allocated per passenger’ (emphasis in original) were allocated by headquarters.. This is odd but it is a fact’….Noting the increasing numbers of tourists visiting the Soviet Union, Polevoi warned that the lack of service had the potential to cause the Soviet image ‘serious even political damage’.

Of course Aeroflot didn’t get any better but it’s interesting to see the link between air travel and national brand being made in the Soviet Union.

Magnusdottir, R. (2010) ‘Mission Impossible?: Selling Soviet Socialism to Americans, 1955-1958’, pp. 50-72 in J. Gienow-Hecht and M.C. Donfried (eds) Searching for a Cultural Diplomacy, New York: Berghahn.
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The USSR and the Limits of Relational Public Diplomacy

June 13, 2011

I’m reading Gienow-Hecht and Donfried’s very interesting edited collection Searching for a Cultural Diplomacy. I was struck by an interesting juxtaposition of two chapters; the first by Jean-Francois Fayet on VOKS:  the Soviet All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries that operated from the early 1920s to the late 1950s,  the second by Rosa Magnusdottir  on the Soviet embrace of cultural relations in dealings with the US at  the end of the 1950s.

VOKS operated by building relationships with the intelligentsia in non-communist countries in the hope that these networks offered to develop a more positive portrayal of the Soviet Union.  In retrospect this can be seen as an application of what we would now call relational public diplomacy.  The emphasis on combining communication and organization strikes me as a signature of 20th century communism but it’s interesting to note that this was an insight that wasn’t confined to the communists,  in International Political Communication W. Phillips Davison (1965) argues that the most important impact of public diplomacy communication is in supporting friendly organizational efforts a thought that hasn’t had much prominence in recent thinking.

In a sense Magnusdottir is pointing to the limits of the VOKS model, She argues that in 1950s America the only people who were listening to the USSR were the members of the CPUSA and its associated front organizations. In network terms the pro-Soviet organizations were suffering from closure (eg Burt 2005) they were unable to effectively form new relationships to expand their reach. Part of this was due to the comprehensive ideological opposition in 1950s America but also reflected the type of stereotypical propaganda material that circulated within the network. The lesson that the more thoughtful Soviet observers drew was the need to use alternative networks with different content in order to have a real impact in the US, for instance publishing magazines with interesting content and decent translations.

The broader lesson is that network building is a powerful tool but one of its characteristic pathologies is closure. The network turns in on itself and doesn’t allow engagement beyond. This can happen for reasons of protection as in the case of the Soviets sympathisers  in 1950s  America but can also happen because people gain status as insiders and have an incentive to keep others out.

Burt, R.S. (2005) Brokerage and Closure: An Introduction to Social Capital. Oxford: OUP Oxford.

Davison, W.P. (1965) International Political Communication. New York: Praeger.

Fayet, J.-F. (2010) ‘VOKS: The Third Dimension of Soviet Foreign Policy’, pp. 33-49 in J. Gienow-Hecht and M.C. Donfried (eds) Searching for a Cultural Diplomacy, New York: Berghahn.

Magnusdottir, R. (2010) ‘Mission Impossible?: Selling Soviet Socialism to Americans, 1955-1958’, pp. 50-72 in J. Gienow-Hecht and M.C. Donfried (eds) Searching for a Cultural Diplomacy, New York: Berghahn.

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Black Metal and the Norwegian Brand

June 11, 2011

Via William Gibson’s twitter feed to Wired Magazine to Views and News From Norway we learn that Norwegian diplomats are going to be trained in ‘true Norwegian black metal’ a particularly virulent misanthropic, anti-christian genre of heavy metal that has been associated with church burnings and murder because they keep getting asked about it. ..

Aspiring foreign policy professionals themselves are reportedly keen on the move. Silje Bryne, who will work in the Norwegian mission in Paris next year, told Dagens Næringsliv that she feels she “will have a very big use for this” in the future. “I see the value in not just talking about Ibsen and fjords when one talks about Norway, but also about the export product that is black metal.” Bryne added that having “such a strong brand that means that we stand out among the Nordic countries is worth its weight in gold, it’s black gold.”

Possibly related: Norway went up nine places in the Country Brands Index last year

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Public Diplomacy and the Evolution of the UK Government on the Web

June 10, 2011

The British government is currently experimenting with a single government website Alpha.gov. Part of the team developing Alpha.gov is Jimmy Leach head of digital diplomacy at the FCO and yesterday he posted some ideas about how Alpha.gov should work for users outside the UK. It’s worth looking at this because its quite a different idea of what the official web presence is about. In the PD community we think about ICTS as means of communication and engagement while in e-government the concern is with service delivery.

The new website is intended to organize all government services in a single space so the user can find them easily. Rather finding things on FCO.gov.uk you would go to gov.uk/fco. It is also organized around the top 100 things that people search for on government web sites which covers 90% of what people look for – so you can easily find out how to pay your car tax or dispose of a dead animal. In the original concept there’s an explicit emphasis on making government web presence work more like that of a commercial service provider including syndicating content and using APIs ‘to go where the users are’. The bulk of UK government activity is actually service delivery but does this work externally? Organizations that do the bulk of their business in their domestic market tend to try to apply the same model to foreign markets and fail to recognize the differences that exist. To put it more bluntly is there a danger of imposing a model derived from the UK domestic situation where it doesn’t fit?

The idea is that an user outside the UK would be automatically be located by their IP address and presented with a page optimized for their country. This page would be semi-automatically generated using tagged content from across government in accordance with the editorial priorities based on objectives for that country. The post suggests that editorial control should be exercised by the Department with the major responsibility for that country possibly UKTI or DFID rather than the FCO (I wonder what @williamjhague thinks about that?)

The FCO has been quite successful in meeting its service delivery targets (eg consular activities) but much less so in meeting its foreign policy goals. The Alpha.Gov model will probably improve external service delivery which will improve perceptions of the UK. The issue would be whether this reworking of the digital presence impacts on core policy activities and  associated engagement activities.

The issue I see in Jimmy’s post is the question of editorial control in the context of the overall management of 1) the overall communications activit aimed at the country  and 2) the relationship with that country.  The fact that Alpha.gov is a cross government resource seems to create plenty of opportunity for different departments to deliver cross cutting messages. Alpha.gov may enable cross government content management but I can see plenty of opportunity to work at cross purposes. Because the technology enables coordination this doesn’t mean that it will happen.

At a more academic level the Alpha.gov evolution marks another aspect of the long running process by which MFAs are having to compete with other departments.

Most of the readers of this blog are outside the UK? Any thoughts?

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Countering Public Diplomacy

June 9, 2011

One issue that I’ve never seen discussed as a general theme in the public diplomacy literature is how countries deal with what they regard as hostile or undesirable PD efforts directed against them.  There is quite a lot discussion of this from the sending countries point of view in terms of difficulties for PD, for instance through radio jamming (or in the current version internet blocking), harassment of PD activities, refusal of visas to PD visitors and so on but how does this look from the other side?

But  what would a more systematic treatment look like?

One question would be when and why do countries seek to counter PD activities

The overall state of diplomatic relations plays a role.  Tense political relations will make the receiving country more suspicious of incoming PD activities.

Regime type makes a difference.  Democratic states are probably less sensitive to most foreign PD than authoritarian ones.  Differences in the regime type between the two countries make a difference.  Because most of the literature on PD is about western countries conducting PD in authoritarian regimes we know quite a lot about what authoritarian regimes do.  On the other hand democratic countries may be more suspicious of PD by non-democratic countries.*  For instance look at US reactions to the expansion of Chinese PD activities.

A second question is how is PD countered.

There’s a continuum between physical interference and rhetorical strategies – arguing with the PD themes or attempting to delegitimate the activity and participation in it.

*This raises the unexplored  question of authoritarian to authoritarian public diplomacy.  Authoritarian regimes still need exports, investments, tourism and influence.

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Update for UK Prevention of Terrorism Strategy

June 8, 2011

The UK’s counter terrorism strategy CONTEST has four components Pursue, Prevent, Protect, Prepare.  The government has just published an update of Prevent, this is the component that deal with counter-radicalization.  This is primarily a UK activity but the FCO is involved and contributes about 25% of the budget.  This money goes on efforts to counter radicalization outside the UK and domestic engagement activities.

The new report begins by emphasizing that this strategy is not just about jihadi groups and involves all kinds of radical views mentioning the extreme right.  It then goes on to ignore anything other than violent Islamist groups for the rest of the report.

The revised strategy has three objectives;  challenging extremist ideology, supporting vulnerable people and supporting sectors where there are risks of radicalization.

There seems to have been an evolution in the first of these objectives. Earlier versions of the strategy consistently referred to violent extremism.  The implication was that ideological extremism itself wasn’t the problem.  There have been media stories that Prevent funding has gone to extremist groups on the grounds that these people have the credibility to turn people away from violence.  The new strategy does away with this distinction and defines extremism as rejection of core British values.

Supporting vulnerable people involves spotting individuals who are at risk of radicalization and intervening to head them off.

Supporting sectors means working with prisons, religious groups and educational institutions to obstruct the work of radical groups and spotting people at risk.

There’s reaction from The Guardian here, The Daily Mail  here and The Telegraph here.