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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.

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