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UK Public Diplomacy in the Middle East 2003

May 20, 2013

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.

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