Archive for March, 2013

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Mapping the World of the Mittlers: Mediating Organizations in Public Diplomacy

March 31, 2013

Last week I reflected on why the field of International Relations has paid little attention to Public Diplomacy and argued that one of the reasons is that the conceptual fragmentation of the field obscures the volume of foreign public engagement.  Thinking about this question a bit more I would also add that the organizational fragmentation of foreign engagement also tends to hide the volume of activity.

Particularly in cultural relations countries have relied on operating agencies outside the foreign ministry to actually conduct their work.  Some of these organizations have quite a high profile and are relatively close to government (The British Council) but many others are much more obscure and much more distant – to the extent that we may be talking about a private organization that is providing services to a government programme or a government programme  funding the activities of a private organization.

It would useful to have a term to cover this universe of organizations.  We could call them operating agencies or for the sake of sounding exotic we can borrow the German term mittlerorganisation. This is normally translated as the British quango – quasi autonomous non-governmental organization – something that looks like an NGO but actually has authority devolved from government.  My German English dictionary tells me that the sense of ‘mittler‘ is actually mediating so I’m going to apply the term mittlerorganization to any of the organizations that stand between policy and the publics even if the they are not technically a quango.*

Let’s look at a few cases to illustrate the variety of mittlers.  Firstly, the UK is unusual among the big PD players because it has so few of them.  The British Council offers a broad range of services that in other countries are done by multiple organizations.   Having said this the scope of the BC’s work isn’t fixed in stone: the FCO’s Chevening Scholarships are now managed by a private company.  If we look at France there’s a movement towards a British model with the French Institute as more of centralized quango but this a recent development.  Historically the picture is much more complicated.  Just to take one example between 1922 and 2006 the Association Francaise d’Action Artistique,  the operating agency for music, theatre and the plastic arts, mounted tens of thousands of activities but was little known even in France.  The author of a history of the organization (Piniau 1998) complains that few records that remain and suggests that it suited both the Quai d’Orsay and the artists concerned to keep their sponsorship discrete. In Germany the Goethe Institute coexists with the DAAD, the Alexander Humboldt Foundation  and the IFA not to mention the network of German schools (Maaβ 2009).

In the US there is a network of organizations that grew up in the area between the private sector and government.  To take two examples the Institute of International Education is a private organization established in 1919 to develop international education relationships but which over periods of a decades was closely connected to the development of American cultural relations work.  Another example is IREX, originally set up in 1968 by American universities to manage exchanges with the Soviet Bloc today it operates all around the world.  (In a later post I’ll look at another set of American ‘mittlers’ that revolve around the National Endowment for Democracy).

The world of the mittlers is does not have neat boundaries some are simply extensions of government, for others government sponsored work may be a minor part of what they do.  Many will provide services to private or non-profit actors not just government.  They will also do work for government agencies that is nothing directly to do with advancing foreign policy.   Also priorities evolve over time as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago external cultural policies (and higher education activities) may have originally been seen as tools of national projection but have become more important in their own right.  A necessary step will be develop a typology of mittlers classifing them in terms of legal status, funding, control, proportion of government work in order to provide a basis for a structured comparison.

Scholars of the cultural cold war (eg Laville and Wilford 2006) have argued for the importance of state-private networks but when you begin probe the world of the mittlers you see that this kind of hybrid activity has been pervasive in lots of places.

States have used mittlers because cultural relations work requires the mobilization of expertise, artists, scholars and hospitality within their own society and that have links with foreign countries and this is seen as easier to do by organizations outside government. Sometimes the organizations have been created at the behest of government other organizations existed anyway and have been brought into partnership.  To some extent this mode of working may have hidden government sponsorship from the foreign publics but it has also had the effect of reducing the visibility of this activity to scholars.

 

*Of course ‘mediating organization’ would do the trick.

 

Laville, H., and H. Wilford (2012) The US government, citizen groups and the Cold War : the state-private network. London: Routledge.

Maaß, K.-J., ed. (2009) Kultur und Außenpolitik: Handbuch für Studium und Praxis. Nomos Verlagsges.Mbh + Co.

Piniau, B. (1998) L’Action Artistique de la France dans le Monde. Paris: L’Harmattan.

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Do We Still Need the Concept of “Propaganda”?

March 29, 2013

In the past week or so Joel Harding and Gary Rawnsley have both posted thoughts about propaganda.    I have to say that I’m not a big fan of the term.  I think that it’s a concept that carries too much cultural weight relative to its ability to clarify things.  I think that it’s best treated as a historical term rather than one that is useful for analysing contemporary practices of influence.

I think that the problem is that when people talk about  propaganda they are talking about three things.

Firstly, the rise of organized communications campaigns as a feature of urbanized industrial societies in both peace and war in the early part of the 20th century. Historically,  some of these efforts were labelled by their orchestrators as propaganda. Secondly,  emerging from the appearance of these practices were discussions about propaganda. In the 1920s through to the 1940s there was a tendency for this discussion to treat propaganda as being enormously powerful and to use it as an explanation for various political and social developments (eg the rise of Hitler, the collapse of Germany in 1918, the defeat of France in 1940).  Thirdly,  associated with this discussion was a more philosophical line of argument that sought to define propaganda as an illegitimate mode of communications.

The result of is an image of propaganda as something that is widespread, powerful and illegitimate. I have reservations about all three of these claims.

Clearly, we live in a world with lots of  strategic communication aiming to influence us.  But we now have all kinds of concepts to apply to these efforts; political campaigning, advertising, public diplomacy, marketing, public relations, branding, lobbying, IO,  etc.  What these distinctions do is relate influential communication to their context and to particular types of actors and situations.  Does lumping all this together as a single thing really help us to make sense of it?

Secondly,  many of the claims made in the early 20th century literature about the power of propaganda are based on arguments of the form: there was propaganda, something happened therefore propaganda caused whatever happened therefore propaganda is powerful.*   The most notorious example of this is in Hitler’s Mein Kampf.  Of course mass communications was relatively new, social scientific research was limited and the social theories of the time tended to assume that  urbanized individuals were isolated and easily influenced.  The result was a systematic tendency to abstract strategic communications activities from their social contexts and attribute results to that communication activity when in fact the outcomes had emerged from the combination of multiple factors.

Finally, as Gary Sproule shows the argument about the legitimacy of propaganda as a mode of communication depends on idea of undistorted, objective, impartial communication.  In late 19th century America this concept of communication as transfer of information supplanted ideas of rhetoric.  In a rhetorical understanding of communication self-interested, persuasive communication is normal.  The fate of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis provides a wonderful case study. Created by American liberals in 1937 it sought to reveal the use of propaganda in American society.  By the early 1940s its supporters were abandoning it because they felt that focusing on the persuasive methods of British and German propaganda was missing the fundamental ethical and political issues at stake in confronting fascism.  This showed that for many of the critics what was objectionable was not propaganda as a communications technique but the people who were doing the propaganda and the purposes for which it was being used.

So you won’t be finding me using the term ‘propaganda’ other than in a historical context any time soon.

Sproule, J.M. (1997) Propaganda and Democracy: The American Experience of Media and Mass Persuasion. New York: Cambridge University Press.

*Try replacing propaganda with twitter!

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The Interagency Working Group on Active Measures

March 27, 2013

If you know what the Interagency working Group on Active Measures was you either read The Cold War and the United States Information Agency very carefully or you’re old enough to have been paying attention during the 1980s.  This was a group based in the State Department that worked to unmask Soviet use of forged documents and front organizations  One of topics that they spent a lot of time on was origins and circulation of a rumour that the AIDS virus was an American biological warfare programme.  The high point of their fame came in October 1987 when Mikhail Gorbachev waved a copy of one of their reports at George Shultz and complained that publishing such information undermined relations between their countries.

Last summer the National Defense University put out a monograph by Fletcher Schoen and Christopher J. Lamb on the working group which I would highly recommend.  It’s an extremely detailed study  that asks how did they manage to do so much with such limited resources when most similar groups achieve nothing?  Part of the answer is high level political support but they also point to the motivations of the group members and skilful leadership that managed the personalities and interests at work.  Setting limited and manageable objectives was also important; the group limited itself to a particular subset of Soviet activities – those involving deception – not their communication effort as a whole.  The study is based on interviews with members of the group and demonstrates an impressive sensitivity to the organizational dynamics at work.

A second strand of the discussion is about what the value of the group’s work.  Many people in the State Department were unhappy with the whole enterprise.  Their unmasking of what the Soviets termed ‘active measures’ had the potential to further strain relations with the USSR and to embarrass allies  who appeared to be the target of these actions. Although Shultz conceded nothing to Gorbachev after their meeting there were stories that he returned to Washington and ordered that future reports from the group should be published by the USIA and not State.  Schoen and Lamb point out that this reflected a deeper debate about the significance of the Soviet covert techniques.  The view held by the supporters of the working group was that at the margin the constant repetition of Soviet falsehoods damaged the reputation of the US and had to be countered.  The other side saw these activities as fundamentally unimportant so that unmasking them did nothing but increase international tensions.   Interestingly a few days after his meeting with Shultz Gorbachev told Charles Wick of the USIA that disinformation activities had to stop.

If you’re interested in how organizational imperatives shape public diplomacy  or the interaction between public diplomacy and diplomacy this study is well worth a read.

Schoen, F., Lamb, C.J., (2012) Deception, Disinformation, and Strategic Communications: How One Interagency Group Made a Major Difference,  National Defense University Press, Washington DC.

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Diplomacy in a Time of Scarcity

March 25, 2013

Last October (yes, I’ve only just got around to reading it) the American Academy of Diplomacy, The Cox Foundation and Stimson put out a paper looking at the challenges faced the State Department in an era of declining budgets.  The key reference point is a report that they put out in 2008 on A Foreign Affairs Budget for the Future.  The earlier report  called for large increases in staffing at State and USAID.  The new report recognizes that there have been staffing increases but notes that changing in staffing levels don’t map on to empty posts.  In particular there are big gaps in the mid career posts with the Public Diplomacy specialization the worse affected being unable to fill 220 posts, 22.5% of the total.  Their argument is that because diplomatic jobs require experience it’s difficult to make up for staffing losses in the past.  Their solution is to ease restrictions on retired FSOs being brought back on a temporary basis.  Their earlier report also called for a 64.8% increase in PD spending (including the creation of a network of cultural centres, more academic and professional exchanges) but the actual increase in funding has been only 28.8%

In an effort to avoid similar staffing problems in the future the report argues that any cuts should be focused on programmes rather than personnel  The rationale for this is that programme spending can be easily reconstituted while trained staff can’t be. They also suggest that if it’s faced with big cuts in personnel State should look to cut its network of embassies and consulates in order to demonstrate to Congress that cuts have real costs. ‘There could be no more visible metaphor for  “America in Decline” than the closing of some of our embassies.’ –

One thing that struck me is this list of what America’s diplomats are supposed to do

Today’s and tomorrow’s diverse diplomatic challenges all require frontline activity by skilled diplomatic professionals. They must:

›     Highlight and demonstrate American values;

›     Strengthen the growth of civil institutions and the rule of law;

›     Promote democracy;

›     Serve and protect the millions of Americans who live and travel abroad;

›     Promote trade and investment;

›     Fight illicit drugs;

›     Stop the trafficking of persons;

›     Support sustainable development to combat poverty;

›     Prevent genocide;

› Strengthen foreign cooperation and capacity to address global security challenges such as terrorism, weapons proliferation, international crime, disease, and humanitarian disasters.

America’s diplomats will still seek to influence foreign governments—bilaterally and multilaterally. But in a pluralistic world changed by information technology, they will increasingly work directly with other nations’ emerging interest groups and future leaders—businesses and academia, urban centers and remote villages, and religious institutions—who shape their nations’ values over the long term.

The traditional business of diplomacy, managing relations between states, is almost reduced to a footnote.

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Why Doesn’t International Relations Pay More Attention to Public Diplomacy?

March 21, 2013

As some of you know I’m working on a book at the moment.  The strapline might be something like  ‘what would a theory of public diplomacy look like if we started with the history of the practice?’

This sounds pretty neat but almost immediately you run into to the problem of what you mean by public diplomacy given that a) the term didn’t appear until the 1960s, b) outside the US countries have different terms and concepts for what looks like PD and c) there are lots of arguments over what the term means.  My strategy is to start with  the minimalist definition of ‘engagement with foreign publics for foreign policy purposes’.   From this point of view building a national pavilion at a late 19th century exhibition,  French cultural projection in the 1920s, Japan offering scholarships to Chinese students in the 1930s, Soviet Active measures in the 1980s or 21st century statecraft, whatever the differences in approaches, objective, methods and outcomes, are all part of the same field of activities.

What has struck me in doing this work is how much ‘public diplomacy’ has been going on world politics over a period dating back to the latter part of the 19th century.  I would argue that it has been one most common forms of foreign policy action over the past century for small countries as well as the big players.  Given this it’s surprising how little attention it has received in the literature of International Relations.

How do we explain this? I could probably come up with more ideas but here’s four.

I think part of the problem is extraordinary fragmentation of the ‘PD’ literature and the absence of attempts at synthesis. Almost all of the studies that I’ve used in working on the historical part of my book deal with one country, in one period and probably one aspect of external engagement – for instance they look at radio or cultural relations or diaspora relations.  It’s rare for an author to refer to the experience of other countries and when they do it’s often obvious that it rests on a pretty limited knowledge base (references to the British Council often trap the unwary).  There’s a vicious circle here if we had a better frameworks for comparison it would be easier to put different cases into perspective but because of the fragmentation of the literature (and the fact that just because there’s no literature about a country it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t do foreign engagement) it’s difficult to build up the knowledge to develop a useful framework.

Secondly,  this difficulty of building up a picture of what’s been going on is coupled to a loss of historical perspective.  Partly this is because scholars like to focus on what’s new (this isn’t just true of IR – I’ve often heard communications scholars make the same point) but it’s also to do with the way that theoretical shorthand cuts debates off from the real world.  A couple of weeks ago I was a bit sarcastic about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s comment that when she was growing up the US didn’t worry about what happened inside other states.  What was unfortunate about this was  that she was growing up during the Cold War and the US did seem extremely interested in what happened inside other countries.  Where her comment cames from is the common shorthand that Realists see states as solid objects that bump into each other ie as billiard balls.  When this metaphor came into widespread use (in the 1970s?) it was in opposition to pluralist school that who embraced ‘the cobweb’ that is world politics should be theorized as networks of transactions.  What frequently happens today is that billiard ball metaphor becomes historicised.  States used to be billiard balls but they aren’t now.  There are two problems here.  Firstly, a lack of precision over when those billiard ball states actually existed (which is how Slaughter got caught out) and secondly,  they never really existed,  This may not matter if you know that you are dealing with a theoretical simplification but it does if you get the simplification mixed up with history.   If you think that PD is a new phenomenon then you’ve got no need to consider whether it mattered in the past or not.

Thirdly, public diplomacy cuts across some of the typical theoretical positions in IR.  It’s state sponsored transnational action.  Typically IR scholarship tends to oppose the transnational to the state.  There tends to be an assumption that transnational actors (civil society, advocacy networks etc) weaken, undermine, penetrate the state, rather than sometimes at least being enablers of state action. States are also assumed to deal in material power (guns and money) not ideas and communications.  The Gramscians have made the connection between material and ideational sources of power but because they focus on hegemony that they’ve focus too much on the US and not on the fact that everyone else has been doing this too.

Finally, Iver Neumann recently made an interesting comment that one of the problems with IR is that it’s too focussed on outcomes and not enough on how the world is constituted.  Building on this I suspect that for most IR scholars it’s not obvious how PD affects outcomes and as such it’s not interesting.   I think that this is a mistaken view but I’ll take this up in a later post.

 

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The Challenge of Civil Society and Democracy Assistance

March 18, 2013

Democracy assistance programmes are often run by aid agencies and hence tend to get ignored  in discussions of public diplomacy but if you follow Nick Cull in embracing a minimal definition of public diplomacy as engagement with foreign publics in pursuit of foreign policy objectives  it certainly ticks the box (Cull 2008: xv).   Democracy assistance in sometimes thought of as having top down and bottom up elements; the former focuses on working with state institutions the latter  with civil society actors.   The latter activity raises a set interesting issues given  that public diplomacy theory and practice has embraced working with civil society actors (for instance in the Danish programme discussed in my last post.

There are a couple of interesting recent papers looking at the record of democracy assistance in the Eastern European space that raise some difficult issues.  Firstly, there’s a Chatham House briefing paper on Civil Society and Democracy in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine by Orysia Lutsevych and secondly, a paper on lessons of the assistance programmes to Slovakia and the Czech Republic for the Arab countries by Lucia Najšlová.

The Lutsevych paper argues that western support has created an ‘NGOcracy’ of elite organizations that have little connection to citizens or to the broader society; they conduct little media outreach, they don’t have members and don’t generate income from business actors but do know how to get grants from foreign donors.  While the author sees some hope for an oppositional civil society, from evidence of citizen activism and the impact of social media, her policy prescriptions seem inadequate given the scale of the problem – for instance donors should seek to support a broader range of actors and should include public outreach as performance target.  In reading this dissection the problems seem quite familiar – at the end of the ‘90s Thomas Carothers (1999) was pointing to similar issues with civil society programmes.

The occasion for Najšlová’s paper is the possible lessons from the Czech and Slovak experience for Arab countries but the situation in MENA is hardly mentioned; what we do get is a useful list of lessons for donors:

  1. It’s important to communicate the goals of programmes to host country governments and publics not just those directly involved in order to minimize nationalist backlashes.
  2. Donor support needs to be long term.
  3. Donors need to be willing to provide core funding for key organizations not just project funding.
  4. Donor should have a look at what has already been done and what organizations are already doing instead of insisting on new initiatives.
  5. Reform of public education systems should be a priority from the beginning.  In the long term this will reach a lot more people than any number of NGO training sessions.
  6. The biggest single factor in the transitions was the opportunities offered by membership of the EU.
  7. Assistance programmes need to be aligned with overall foreign donor foreign policy.

It’s the last two of these that leap out.  Despite Slovakia’s flirtation with authoritarian nationalism the opportunities offered by EU membership and the relative clarity of western policies overcame any resistance to the reforms demanded.  In Lutsevych’s cases (and even more in the MENA) this policy clarity is lacking.   Not only is EU membership not on the table but for significant forces in these countries Russian and Islamic models are countervailing draws.  The point is that political context matters.

The Danish-Arab Partnership Programme Strategic Framework Document for 2013-16 has a cover note with items for discussion by the Council for Development Policy

Item 1 is

To date, the large majority of Arab DAPP partners have come from liberal, secular, urban middle class backgrounds. Yet, looking across the region, faith-based organizations and political actors have significant popular support and could hold important reform potentials. It is therefore a challenge for the DAPP to increase outreach to, and potentially also partnerships with faith-based actors who acknowledge fundamental democratic principles. Many Danish DAPP partners express a wish to further address this challenge, yet find it hard to build relations beyond ‘the usual suspects’ in practice. How does the DAPP address this challenge by ensuring a broad and inclusive outreach in the MENA region?

On the basis of the two papers here this is going to be a tough problem to solve

Lutsevych, O. (2013) How to Finish a Revolution: Civil Society and Democracy in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. London: Chatham House.

Najslova, L. (2013) Foreign Democracy Assistance in the Czech and Slovak Transitions: What Lessons for the Arab World. Giza, Madrid, Den Haag: AFA, FRIDE, HIVOS.

Carothers, T. (1999) Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Cull, N. (2008) The Cold War and the United States Information Agency : American propaganda and public diplomacy, 1945-1989. Cambridge ;;New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Danish Dialogues: The Danish-Arab Partnership Programme after Ten Years.

March 15, 2013

Over the past decade we’ve heard a lot about the virtues of dialogue in public diplomacy.   Dialogue is considered to be both pragmatically and ethically superior to one way models of communication.  In consequence I was interested to read Karina Pultz’s paper in the Hague Journal of Diplomacy on a Danish dialogue initiative in the middle east.  This looks at the results of a project where a Danish NGO worked with Egyptian and Jordanian partners to appoint 38 ‘dialogue ambassadors’.  Working in groups they conducted 71 dialogue sessions with young people in the three countries.  These activities involved over 1400 people.  The format of the sessions involved an introductory activities to get the group to interact followed by discussions around the issue of the Danish cartoons.

Pultz interviewed some of the participants before and after the sessions and found that they were effective in improving creating more nuanced understanding of the other side in the dialogue and also in causing participants to reflect on their own beliefs.  A valuable insight came from one session where the participants did not have sufficient time for the preliminary interaction activities, here responses to the dialogue and to the partners were decidedly negative.  In the absence of prior interaction the participants were less willing to listen to the other side’s point of view.

My concern with this paper was that Pultz doesn’t say much about the context of this individual project which led me to wonder what policy impact it could actually have?  Hence I went digging for a bit more background.

This project was part of the Danish-Arab Partnership Programme.  Dating from 2003 this was an attempt to counter the ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative.  The two strategic objectives were to promote reform and democratization in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and to promote ‘dialogue, understanding and cooperation’ between MENA and Denmark.  The method for doing this was to develop partnership based projects between Danish NGOs and partners from the region.  The initial themes for projects were taken from the Arab Human Development report of 2002: human rights and good governance; women’s empowerment and gender equality and knowledge based societies.  Initially the programme focused on Jordan, Morocco and Yemen but has expanded to include other countries in the region.   In the wake of the Arab Spring new themes have been added to include explicit democracy support activities and a focus on economic development and job creation.   Initially funding was running at about £10m annually but in the next funding period it’s going to be more than £30m – so it’s a considerable amount of money.

If you’re interested here’s an extract from a review of the programme by the Danish Public Accounts Committee from  2010 (unfortunately the full evaluations of the programme are in Danish only),  that report noted a certain lack of clarity about the way that programme was being monitored which probably accounts for this document setting out objectives and guidelines.  Here’s the latest  strategic framework for the programme covering the period 2013-16.  Finally there’s a paper by Wegter and Pultz looking at how professionals involved in the programme have been affected by it.  One valuable aspect of this study is that they actually ask the question about whether there is any impact beyond those directly involved in the programme via the social network and the extent to which permanent relationships are formed after the end of the formal project period.

The DAPP is an interesting case study in that it works through NGOs, the budget is managed by the development agency of the foreign ministry, and there’s an explicit emphasis on dialogue.  Over the years that it’s been running it has involved hundreds of organizations both in Denmark and the Middle East so it makes use of several of the strategies that have been advocated in the PD literature.  In my next post I’m going to write about a couple of recent reports which raise questions about this kind of project based, NGO strategy for democracy support work and reading between the lines the DAPP may show some of the same symptoms.