Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Battle Over Afghanistan

There’s a newish report from the Peace Research Institute Oslo on the implications for Afghanistan of the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia.  This is not particularly about public diplomacy but it’s well worth a read. Understanding what’s going on Aghanistan is important in its own right own right but because it provides nice contrast to the typical Anglo-Saxon idea of PD as something that happens far away,  for Iran and Saudi Arabia this is engagement of foreign publics as an instrument of geopolitical competition.  Given that Iran has long land border with Afghanistan it has a direct interest in what happens there.

The report argues that Saudi-Iranian competition is driven by four factors; the struggle for the leadership of the Islamic Community; regional security dominance in the Gulf; political influence in the broader Middle East; and over oil markets.  The overall competition between the two countries drives them towards involvement with Afghanistan.

These elements of competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia are expressed in Afghanistan via five means of influence:

  1. Through the provision of aid – the authors estimate that Iran has been more effective particularly through its regional focus on Western Afghanistan and Herat
  2. Influence on the political process – Iran less than keen on the Taliban but seek to pursue a ‘multi-player’ policy and build contacts with all the groups that are likely to have a role in post-ISAF Afghanistan.  Saudi Arabia has tended to stick with its traditional friends.
  3. Support for ethnic groups.  Iran has played two cards here.  Firstly, support for communities who share its commitment to Shi’ism and secondly, for groups who share linguistic affinities.  The authors note that Saudi Arabia has treated even Sunni Farsi speaking groups with suspicion sticking to their Sunni Pashto friends. Iran’s objective seems to be to maintain a degree of pluralism in a post ISA Afghanistan.
  4. Religious competition – this is given bricks and mortar expression through the construction of mosques and religious centres.
  5. Geographical contiguity:  Iran is interested in securing its borders but the large numbers of Afghan refugees and workers in the country gives it a degree of leverage in Kabul.

The overall impression is that the stakes for Iran are higher and it is using all the assets that it has while Saudi Arabia is playing a more rigid ideologically defined strategy.  As ISAF presence winds down regional factors are going to play a more important role in Afghanistan and there’s more going on than Pakistan vs India.

More broadly Iranian and Saudi Arabian public engagement strategies are neglected topics in the academic literature.  I suspect that there are multiple reasons for this language will be one and, particularly for Saudi Arabia the approach is unfamiliar.

In Globalized Islam Olivier Roy makes the point that in most countries with Islam as the main religion also have a national identity that affects how the religious dimension is expressed.  The exceptions to this are Saudi Arabia and Pakistan where there has been an attempt to construct a national project based on a transnational Islamic identity.   Hence if you want to understand Saudi engagement of foreign publics you need to look at it the operation of embassy departments of religious affairs and at the work of organizations like the Muslim World League.

Iran on the other hand has a better defined national identity and sees itself as the inheritor of an ancient civilization as well as being the original Islamic revolutionaries.   Iran has a Public Diplomacy Centre in the Foreign Ministry, an Islamic Culture and Relations Organization – seems to be as much concerned with conventional  ‘cultural programming’ as religion and a fairly extensive programme of external broadcasting – in Europe the latter is being hampered by sanctions but a lot of what is done is actually aimed at Iran’s neighbourhood.

UK Public Diplomacy in the Middle East 2003

Going through some material on British public diplomacy I came across a paper put out by the Foreign Policy Centre in February 2003 with recommendations for British PD strategy in the Middle East.

It takes you back to a  different era.  Post 9/11 sympathy for the US has rapidly waned and the US  and the UK are poised to invade Iraq although awkwardly for the authors this wasn’t a done deal.

What are their recommendations?

  1. In the short term policy communication needs to reposition the UK away from the US and make the UK look more European.

COMMENT: Given that the UK is about to invade and occupy Iraq this isn’t going to get very much traction.  I don’t think that alternative strategies would help too much but if you’re invading another country at least come out and explain why you’re doing it.

If you read Vaughan’s book on the 1945-57 period you see that the US and the UK had a long tradition of working together in the Middle East while stabbing each other in the back via their PD – so nothing new here then.

2. A strategic communication to campaign to underline that this is not a ‘clash of civilizations’

COMMENT: What’s ironic here is that despite this theme the whole study is shot through with references to ‘Islam’ and ‘Islamic’ as was most of the policy discourse at the time.  Given that the Al-Qaeda narrative was about the ummah under attack I wonder whether alternative framings would have been better.

3. A strategy of relationship building to foster opportunity in the region

COMMENT: This is inspired by the then newly published Arab Human Development Report and locates the problems in the region in the need to modernize governance, economy, education system.  In the light of the Arab Spring this is undoubtedly true but in the context of 2003 there are uncomfortable echoes of the neocons.

There’s a suggestion that the British Council should work with the Goethe Institut and the French on this.  If they’d read recommendation 1. I’m sure that they would have been running as fast as they could to get away from the British.

There are some good points here, for instance in the interaction between UK domestic media coverage and that in the region but the suggestion that this can be handled by some townhall meetings in the UK covered by Arab journalists smacks of the New Labour belief in the power of spin.

A depressing read but an interesting one to see how our concepts of public diplomacy and the Middle East have changed over the past decade.

Leonard, M., and C. Smewing (2003) Public Diplomacy and the Middle East. London: Foreign Policy Centre.

Vaughan, J. (2005) The Failure of American and British Propaganda in the Arab Middle East, 1945-57 : Unconquerable Minds. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

The National Endowment for Democracy and US Public Diplomacy: Part 2

Last week I posted on the tribal nature of American Cold War PD and John Brown commented that one of the reasons for the institutional instability in US PD was the desire of everyone involved to get as far away as they could from ‘propaganda’.  I’m tempted to go further and suggest that you can see the attempt to get away from propaganda as part of the American discomfort with politics.  Carl Schmitt complained that liberalism attempts to reduce politics to ethics and economics.  These days we’re almost all liberals whether of a more left wing or right wing type. It’s pretty hard to find a proper Burkean conservative even in the UK.

I would argue that the swing towards a non-propagandist public diplomacy reaches a pinnacle during the 1970s.  The anti-communist Cold war consensus had badly eroded under the shock of Vietnam,  Watergate and revelations about the CIA, I get the impression that even the ‘informationalists’ of the late 1970s were presenting themselves more as librarians than propagandists.  In doing this they were helped by the relative lack of interest in PD under Nixon and Ford and the softer side of the Carter Administration.  It might be argued that the formation of the US International Communication Agency in April 1978 marked the high point of this trend. But however much Jimmy Carter supported two way communication as part of the US public diplomacy strategy he also embraced human rights and had Zbigniew Brzezinski as his National Security Adviser who was no fan of communism or the USSR.   Human rights fitted very well with America’s liberal tradition, it was non-political since rights are about ethics or law, and non-partisan since both the right and the left agreed that rights were good even if they worried about different countries.

The foundation of the NED in 1983 made this non-partisan dynamic even more explicit in that it had centres representing  Republican and Democratic parties and Labour and Capital.    If anti-communism had been the ideological glue of US public diplomacy in the 1950s support for democracy was an even better fit as 99.99% of Americans agree democracy is a good thing.  The result is an organization that does something eminently political (exporting a system of government) and whose projects have created numerous controversies in foreign countries, but since the 1990s has been largely non-controversial in the US.    In a way the NED is the perfect solution for the US.  In terms of funding the NED is not a big  player in the democracy business compared with AID but it’s an interesting example of the way that countries structure their external engagement.

One additional point if you don’t read it check out Democracy Digest the NED’s blog. It may just be me but in terms of the countries that it pays attention to, the signals about threats, friends, enemies I get the impression that this is how Washington really thinks about world politics – it’s a much more ideological view of the world that you’ll get from the State Department.

The National Endowment for Democracy and US Public Diplomacy: Part 1

Before I went to ISA I promised that I would write about the National Endowment for Democracy as a mittler – that is an organization that mediates between a government and foreign publics.  As I argued in the original post mittlers blur the boundaries between state and non-state.  In this sense there’s nothing that unusual about that in the domestic sphere states often work through a variety of intermediate bodies.  These organizations create a problem for scholars of PD because it’s often difficult to figure out what they are and what they do without a great deal of investigation.

Let’s look at the NED.  In the second part of this post I want to raise the question of how the politics of the NED fit into the history of American public diplomacy but let’s start with a general overview.

According to its website it’s a “private, non-profit foundation dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world”

The NED is a grant giving organization rather than an operator but as well as responding to applications for grants It funds four core partners (more mediating organizations):  the International Republican Institute  and the National Democratic Institute – organizations associated with the American political parties and inspired by a German model, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, and the Center for International Private Enterprise.

In addition in lists three ‘initiatives’ on its website, the International Forum for Democratic Studies, the World Movement for Democracy: ‘a global network of democrats including activists, practitioners, academics, policy makers, and funders, who have come together to cooperate in the promotion of democracy’, the Journal of Democracy and the Center for International Media Assistance.

I suspect that unless you are specifically paying attention to NED and democracy support work you’ve either never heard of some these organizations or have no idea that they are connected to the NED and its congressional funding.   (I didn’t)

Each of these activities has its own partners so that mapping the network of the NED will take you into some interesting places.

Is this a public diplomacy organization?  It would say that it isn’t but;

1. It’s created by legislation that requires it to promote democracy in a manner “consistent… with the broad concerns of United States national interests.”

2. It’s funded with US tax payer money appropriated by congress.  To ensure funding it has to be able to demonstrate that it’s pointing in the same direction as US foreign policy.

3. Its board is composed of paid up members of the US foreign policy and political establishment:  In any country you can take people out of the MFA or the local equivalent of the White House and put them on the board of an independent organization like this and they will still check that the grants that they are making are consistent with 1.

In thinking about mittlers we need to consider where the money comes from, where the formal locus of control is but also what the real dynamics of these networks are – both historical studies of state-private networks and recent work suggest that the you can’t just follow the money you need to look at the motivations and practices of the people involved.


Can Non State Actors Do Public Diplomacy?

Is public diplomacy something that is only done by states? Can non-state actors do public diplomacy?   This is a discussion that parallels a debate that has been going on in the Diplomatic Studies community for several years.

The canon of diplomatic theory for instance represented by Nicolson (1963), treats diplomacy as about the relations between states.  The visibility of non-governmental organizations, substate governments, multinational corporations with the space of international policy making has led some scholars to argue that these are also diplomatic actors.  In 2005 Jönsson and Hall published Essence of Diplomacy, this argued that diplomacy was marked by three essential features, communication, representation and the reproduction of the international order. In Contemporary Diplomacy (2010) Geoff Pigman cuts this list down to communication and representation with the consequence that his concern is with the ‘representation and communication between global actors, including (but not limited to) governments, multilateral institutions, civil society organizations and large firms.’ (p. 11).  Some have (eg L’Etang 2009) argued for the overlap between PR and diplomacy.   Indeed former state diplomats port their diplomatic skills into the corporate realm.

If you follow this line of argument that it would make sense to argue that the same applies to public diplomacy and that ‘engaging with foreign publics’ by non-state actors can also be counted as ‘public diplomacy’.  The problem is with that is then any international engagement activity gets moved into the diplomacy column and that almost all international communication becomes public diplomacy. Is it useful to treat the promotional campaign for the new Star Trek movie as public diplomacy?  I would argue that it’s better thought of as marketing.

The Jönsson/Hall/Pigman argument focuses on the processes of diplomacy but I would respond with an analogy from domestic politics.  This is a like saying that because political parties and interest groups both campaign they are engaged in the same activity.  There is certainly an overlap in the activities of parties and interest groups but the objectives, structures, constraints and opportunities of the two types of actor are different.  States and other actors are different types of actors and each has different resources and constraints. PD (or foreign public engagement or whatever you call it) is the way that it is because it is done by states; the response to it is due to the fact that it’s done by France or Israel or the US.  PD is much harder than marketing a movie because states are much more complicated entities.  Some of the processes are the same but the nature of the entities and relationships involved are different and this makes me reluctant to see non-state entities as doing PD unless they are acting on behalf of states.


Jönsson, C., and M. Hall (2005) Essence of diplomacy. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nicolson, H. (1963) Diplomacy. 3rd Edition. London: Oxford University Press .

L’Etang, J. (2009) ‘Public Relations and Diplomacy in a Globalized World: An Issue of Public Communication’, American Behavioral Scientist, 53: 607–626.

Pigman, G. (2010) Contemporary Diplomacy: Representation and Communication in a Globalized World. Cambridge: Polity Press.

The Warring Tribes of US Cold War Public Diplomacy

In working on the book I’ve been trying very hard not to allow the formulation of the problem to be too influenced by the American experience as a result I’ve been putting off reading a stack of books on American Cold War PD.

Anyway I’m now coming to the end of them…and what can I say: American Cold War Public Diplomacy = warring tribes

This isn’t exactly a surprise but it does reinforce the four paradigms argument.  You’ve got the culturalists (represented by Coombs (1964) and Frankel (1965) and the informationalists (represented particularly by Sorensen (1968 – who is really advocating a proto-strategic communications line) – I was interested to see that he was explicitly dismissive of Coombs and Frankel and their pursuit of an autonomous cultural relations programme – of course Sorensen is one of the main villains in Arndt’s  First Resort of Kings (2005).

Then you’ve got the broadcasters but they are really three different tribal federations; however much they tone it down RFE/RL are cold warriors but the Eastern Europeans aren’t too keen on the Soviets but then within the two stations the different language services don’t necessarily get along too well.  VoA is  fighting a much deadlier set of foes than the communists: The State Department and The USIA.  It took me a while to realize that the struggle that  Alan Heil (2003) keeps talking about isn’t against communism or for democracy but for the independence of the VoA. (Even in 1988 Gifford Malone referred to this as the ‘eternal struggle’)

Then of course up to the late 1960s there’s the ‘hidden’ clan with its subsidies to anyone who might look useful the:  CIA (Laville and Wilford 2006, Wilford 2008, Saunders 1999)

Then there are dark overlords who threaten this little ecology of struggling tribes  First, there’s State (who when they notice them) would like to use the tools of PD to directly support their activities.  Particularly in discussion of the radios (eg Puddington 2000) there are many examples of embassies who really wish that they could dial the volume of PD up and down at will in order to influence US relations.  Second, particularly in the 1950s and the 1980s there are the political warriors (many from the White House) who want to coordinate and subordinate the whole machinery against the Communist foe.

And of course there are the gods of Congress who must be appeased.  It’s pretty clear that Congress is like Olympus where the deities are conspiring against each other and somewhat randomly intervening in human affairs.

Is this degree of tribalism normal?  I think a degree of conflict is normal.  Strategy is an art so some conflict will emerge from routine disagreements. In a national public diplomacy system where you have a foreign ministry, a cultural relations organization, an international broadcaster, trade, investment and tourism organizations conflict will be rooted in the need to engage different publics in different ways.  However, the American case does seem particularly prone to argument.  One aspect of this that recurs in the literature is that different bits of the system (culture, information, broadcasting), particularly at the beginning, were staffed by people from different professional backgrounds. I would also point to an argument from social movement theory, that is people mobilize when they see an opportunity, what’s called political opportunity structure.  The involvement of Congress plus changes in Administration offered opportunities to reengineer the institutional structure which in turn encourage the expression of identities and interests.  If you look at other countries you do find strong expressions of differing perspectives during periods of organizational change.  Almost continuously across the Cold War period there was some project for the reorganization of US PD floating around Congress.  In comparison with UK, France, Germany the US carried out more reorganizations of its PD.  The USSR can probably be placed between the Europeans and the US but I’ll save that for another post.



Arndt, R.T. (2005) The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century. Washington  D.C.: Potomac Books.

Coombs, P. (1964) The Fourth Dimension of Foreign Policy: Educational and Cultural Affairs. Published for the Council on Foreign Relations by Harper & Row.

Frankel, C. (1965) The Neglected Aspect of Foreign Affairs: American Educational and Cultural Policy Abroad. Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution.

Heil, A.L. (2003) Voice of America: a history. New York: Columbia University Press.

Laville, H., and H. Wilford (2006) The US government, citizen groups and the Cold War : the state-private network. London: Routledge.

Malone, G. (1988) Political advocacy and cultural communication : organizing the nation’s public diplomacy. Lanham: University Press of America.

Puddington, A. (2000) Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. University Press of Kentucky.

Saunders, F.S. (1999) Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War. London: Granta.

Sorensen, T.C. (1968) The Word War: The Story of American Propaganda. New York: Harper & Row.

Wilford, H. (2008) The Mighty Wurlitzer : how the CIA played America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Foreign Policy Implications of Scottish Independence

In advance of next year’s referendum on Scottish independence the (UK) Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee have just put out a report on the foreign policy implications of Scottish independence.    The Parliamentarians conclude that the new UK will be slightly smaller in terms of population (c. 8%) and GNP, will have pretty much the same diplomatic and military capabilities and will simply succeed to  the rights and obligations of the old UK.  In contrast Scotland will be a new state and will have to apply for memberships, develop its own diplomatic, military and intelligence capabilities and will find its chosen foreign policy niches occupied by other small states.   Having said this the Committee does point out that having a portion of your population walk out is unlikely to be good for your soft power and this will play into a perception of British decline.

The biggest concern of the committee is that the SNP have said that an independent Scotland would be nuclear free and this would create major difficulties for the UK since the Trident submarines are based in Scotland.  They cheerfully point out that if the UK was forced to relocate this base an independent Scotland might find that its new neighbour might not be as cooperative on a variety of issues as the SNP assumes.