Archive for July, 2011


The Middle East is the Graveyard of Public Diplomacy…and Always has Been

July 29, 2011

In the past week there’s been a certain amount of commentary that the attitudes to the US in the Middle East have got worse despite President Obama’s efforts (examples here and here).  Predictably this has led to criticisms of Obama’s actions and policies or the lack thereof.

But because I’ve been reading history let me ask a different question.  The Middle East has always been a problem in Western (UK, France, US)  public diplomacy. Why?

In the 1930s and the 1940s the British were worried about Italian and German influence.  Rising nationalism was directed against the British and French presence.

In the 1940s and after the struggle with nationalism is reinforced by the creation of Israel and the Cold War.

In the 1950s We have the Algerian War and the Suez Crisis.

From the late 1960s we see the rise of armed Palestinian groups

After 1979 we get the Iranian revolution and the emergence of other militant Islamic groups.

Is there another area of the world that has been the object of such persistent PD efforts over such a long time with so little apparent effect?

How can we explain this?  Note that the perceived challenges predate the rise of radical Islam and that different issues that have produced similar types of conflicts. This suggests structural factors that persist regardless of changing policies and changing political movements in the region.

It might be argued that the way that Western powers have dealt with the region have been driven by geopolitical factors such as:

  1. Proximity to the Soviet Union: this worked both ways  the Middle East was vulnerable to Soviet influence but in the 1940s and 1950s offered a base for striking the USSR in case of war
  2. Proximity to Europe
  3. The Suez Canal – particularly in the period between the 1930s-1960s
  4. Oil

These mean that Western powers have tended to deal with local and regional developments through the lens of their own interests at the cost of damaged relations with local actors.  This is hardly surprising but it means that public diplomacy difficulties are not about PD actions, or even policy decisions but in deeper structural factors.


Government and Strategy: What do they mean

July 27, 2011

In the literature of strategy you tend to find two ways of defining strategy as a type of activity.  Firstly, strategy is primarily about the relationship between ends and means.  Secondly, there is the definition that you find in game theory where strategy refers to situations of interdependent decisions making where your best move depends on the opponent’s best move.  You can summarize these as internal and external versions of strategy.    In the history of strategic thought Clausewitz reflects the first position while Sun Tzu (or Thomas Schelling) stands for the second.  An ideal strategy will combine both of these dimensions.  It will be focussed on the need to influence the outside world and the effective coordination and alignment of the organization executing it.

Since the 1980s ideas of strategy and strategic management have been imported into British government as part of efforts at modernization. The importation of strategy talk into UK government is a response to the fear that bureaucracies tend to inertia.  Strategy is about forcing them to define goals and align resources and organization to meet these goals.  The problem is in governmental organizations strategy becomes too much concerned with the internal dimensions of strategy and insufficiently concerned with what is going on outside.

Last week the government published its Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS).  In reading the strategy I really began to wonder if strategy in UK government has jumped the shark.   On one hand this is a model of ‘joined up government’ on the other it seems deeply problematic.    The key argument is that all kinds of bad consequences follow from failed states and violent conflict: death, violence, human rights violations,  refugees, ungoverned areas that are attractive to criminals and terrorists therefore British foreign policy should seek to prevent violent conflict and state failure because this is a better solution than dealing with the fallout.   So far so good.  How can state failure be prevented?  It requires good governance, inclusive politics,  a functioning economy, security and justice, public confidence in the system of government. This all makes sense.

The strategy then goes on to outline how the FCO, MoD and DFID will work together to improve mechanisms for early warning of state fragility, for rapid response to crises and to develop ‘upstream prevention’ of fragility and conflict. All the tools of foreign policy will be used, diplomatic engagement, soft power, defence engagement, development etc.

Fantastic. The strategy makes perfect sense it allows the three ministries to demonstrate a ‘strategic’ approach to the problem.  The question that isn’t addressed is do we have any evidence that this can work?  a) either  at all with essentially unlimited funding or b) with the level of resources that the UK can devote to the problem?  While the document keeps referring to examples of activities that have been undertaken these examples are about outputs not outcomes.  While I suspect that they would claim intervention in Sierra Leone as a success the references to Afghanistan don’t fill you with hope.

In the end I’m left with the feeling that this is a strategy that makes perfect sense ‘internally’ : it identifies a problem, analyses it, suggests responses, coordinates across government  but is largely irrelevant ‘externally’: the proposed solutions won’t actually produce results that will effectively deal with the problem.

Just because something has the label strategy on it it doesn’t mean that it’s strategically sensible.








Who Do the British Like?

July 22, 2011

Earlier this week Chatham House put out the results of a survey looking at UK public attitudes to the coalition government’s foreign policy priorities.  It’s a serious job – a public sample of over 2000 plus a sample of 843 opinion formers – that deserves some serious commentary and  I’ll get round to it.

For the moment though who do we like – who needs to work on their image and who doesn’t because we like them so much?

The survey asks respondents which countries they feel particularly favourable or unfavourable towards.  Adding positive and negative responses we get the following:

Inside Europe

Top Bottom
Netherlands +23 Greece -24
Sweden +22 Russia -22
Norway +20 Turkey – 14
Switzerland + 17 Ireland -7
Italy +10 Poland -7

Outside Europe

Top Bottom
Australia +47 Iran -44
New Zealand +47 Pakistan -41
Canada +44 North Korea -41
US +22 Saudi Arabia – 24
Japan +13 Israel -22

More people expressed views about countries which are further away and which presumably they have less direct experience of which suggests that media coverage is a powerful factor in shaping perceptions.  Of course some of these responses are driven by events during the period of the survey, for instance the Euro debt crisis:  lots of British people go to Greece on holiday so you wouldn’t think that they were that negative about it.


Marketing Marianne: French Propaganda in America, 1900-1940

July 21, 2011

Robert Young’s Marketing Marianne is a history of French ‘propaganda’ activities in the US in the first half of the 20th century.  Propaganda is in the subtitle of the book but I place the word in quotation marks since what he describes would fall squarely within current concepts of public diplomacy.   This was not a subject that I knew anything about and the scale and sophistication of the French effort came as a surprise.

My thoughts on the case fall under  two major headings.  Firstly, the importance of context for public diplomacy activity.  Secondly, what was missing from the French efforts in the interwar period that we might add today?

Context Matters

The impact of public diplomacy activities are crucially shaped by their context.  What might be a good initiative in one situation will be totally ineffective in another.  In the case of France’s work in the US context comes to the fore in at least three ways.

Firstly, there is the American context.  France could draw on a considerable number of American Francophiles.  Particularly among the east coast elite French culture was widely appreciated.  On the other hand after the First World War there was a high level of American suspicion of anything that smacked of ‘propaganda’ constraining France’s work.

Secondly, there was the context of the broader US-France relationship.  Political developments affected the operation of public diplomacy work.  Disagreements over war loans and reparations, naval disarmament, trade and security made the projection of France harder.

Thirdly, the relations between France, the US and  Germany were absolutely central to the changing fortunes of French PD.  In the interwar period powerful currents in US opinion moved away from solely attributing the outbreak of the First World War to Germany and its allies and portrayed the French hard line on reparations as greedy.  The rise of Hitler made Americans much more receptive to France’s position.  This did not mean that publics were automatically persuaded but it effectively took a major competitor out of the game.  The Nazis may have talked about propaganda and devoted resources to it but were actually pretty clueless.

What Would We Do Differently?

France had a definite approach to its work in the US: operate through a network of Francophiles and Franco-American societies (it occurred to me that if we were talking about the USSR we’d probably call these front organizations), keep an emphasis on culture and education and avoid being seen as actively trying to exert influence.   Essentially there was a concern with the projection of France as a uniquely cultured society.  This is precisely the generalized projection that the British documents that I’ve been reading recently are so sceptical about.

Although France had a definite approach to its public diplomacy from the perspective of  the 21st century there was lots missing.

Firstly, the whole effort was hopelessly fragmented across different ministries and agencies.  For most of the period there was no organization in a position to coordinate and prioritize.  There was constant complaints about lack of money but you wonder whether the problem was less the volume of spending that its diffuse application.   From the mid 1930s there was growing interest in France in creating a better organizational structure although the impact on the ground was limited.

Secondly, although there was an approach I think that it would be fair to say that there wasn’t a strategy in the sense of goals, targets and priorities.

Thirdly, I don’t think that the French had a good sense of the dynamics of American opinion and you get the impression that at times there was a randomness to their responses to events.  Of course social research was in its infancy and there seems to have been no effort to systematically monitor opinion.  This means that the embassy could receive contradictory reports on the state of opinion on the east or west coasts or on German activities and lack any basis for evaluating their significance

Fourthly, from Young’s book there doesn’t seem to have been any effort to connect policy decisions to its  effects on US public opinion.  Of course the US wasn’t the central concern of French foreign policy during this period so even if the Quai D’Orsay had a more sophisticated grasp of policy/opinion dynamics US reaction still might not have been given any weight.

Organizational fragmentation, absence of strategy, poor understanding of the local environment, failure to connect policy and public diplomacy.  Of course 21st century public diplomacy is never like that.

Young, R.J. (2004) Marketing Marianne: French Propaganda in America, 1900-1940. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.


Internet Freedom is Not About Regime Change

July 19, 2011

Via the USC twitter feed this link to a video interview with Alec J. Ross of the  State Department which contains this exchange

RFE/RL: Iran accuses the U.S. of providing soft help to activists to bring down the Iranian regime. Is regime change in repressive countries such as Iran, which are considered hostile to the U.S., one of the unstated goals of the U.S.’s Internet-freedom push?

Ross: Absolutely not. Internet freedom is about helping people exercise their universal rights: the freedom of expression, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of the press. It is not a regime-change agenda.

If you look at the video he seems to having difficulty restraining himself from bursting out laughing.  Also you can’t see his hands so I bet his fingers are crossed.

Of course there is a slight possibility he really believes what he says.  That would be really worrying.


British Council’s New Strategy Coming – Climate Change is Out

July 16, 2011

Over the past few years The British Council has listed work on climate change as one of its strategic priorities.  The Guardian reported yesterday that the BC is reducing its work in this area and carried a letter from assorted writers condenming the move. Today there was response from the Martin Davidson the Chief Executive of the BC asserting that the BC would contine to work in the area but emphasizing the focus of the organization on the arts, English language work and ‘education and society’.

The BC’s existing strategic plan covered the period to 2011 so a new plan was due this year anyway, the cuts in government expenditure will be reflected in the new plan. The new plan hasn’t been published yet and presumably what is happening is that somebody unhappy with the reduction in climate change activity is mobilizing criticism.  The thing that caught my eye in The Guardian report is that Jeremy Browne the Foreign Office minister with responsbility for Public Diplomacy had written to the BC to complain – so it looks like their decision doesn’t reflect a change in FCO priorities – but it does raise the question about the relationship between the FCO and the BC.  Davidson’s letter points out  that the government grant is only 25% of BC income so there may be an assertion of independence going on.


Nationalism and Cultural Diplomacy

July 14, 2011

Apart from working through the history of British ‘public diplomacy’ I’ve been reading some interesting articles about the cultural diplomacy of European countries up to the Second World War – references below. I’ll write about Marketing Marianne in a separate post.

The thought that occurred to me while reading the Santoro and Sretenovic pieces was that cultural relations work really looks different if you make the connection with the role of nationalism in European politics in the period after 1850.  The theory and practice of nationalism places language and culture at the heart of what makes the nation.  It was the rise of nationalism that corroded multinational empires and consolidated national states in Europe.  In a world of disintegrating empires and newly independent states each with linguistic  minorities  cultural relations work becomes a deadly serious business.   The professor of foreign literature is potentially a saboteur of a fragile national unity.

The US and the UK certainly have national identities and display nationalistic behaviour but  Anglo-Saxon versions of ‘the  nation’ don’t make the same language-culture-nation connection.   This line of thinking explains why  ‘culture’ hasn’t had the same prominence in the history of British and American external projection as it has had in France, Germany or Italy.

Gienow-Hecht, J. (2003) ‘Trumpeting Down the Walls of Jericho: The Politics of Art, Music and Emotion in German-American Relations, 1870-1920’, Journal of Social History, 36: 585-613.

Santoro, S. (2001) ‘The cultural penetration of Fascist Italy abroad and in eastern Europe’, Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 8: 36-66.

Sretenovic, S. (2009) ‘French cultural diplomacy in the kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians in the 1920s’, European Review of History: Revue europeenne d’histoire, 16: 33-47.

Young, R.J. (2004) Marketing Marianne: French Propaganda in America, 1900-1940. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.