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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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