More on French Cultural Relations

I finally got the end of  Francois Chaubet (ed.), La Culture Francaise dans le Monde: Les Defis de la Mondialisation, 1980-2000 (Paris: Harmattan, 2010) If you’re interested in the development of  French cultural relations over the last three decades  I’d certainly  recommend it.

The title is a bit of a misnomer because many of the chapters cover the period up to about 2006, as such it gives quite a good sense of the debates behind the reorganizations and changes that have gone on over the last 3-4 years.

The coverage is quite comprehensive in terms of themes ; The Culture Ministry under Jack Lang, the Alliance Francaise, changing concepts of support for higher education, books, arts, cinema, television, Sciences Po, and the national library.  Full contents are here.

The overall picture is of a system that is having to adapt to a world that is changing and if anything you got the impression that the debates here are converging with those in the UK in becoming a bit more instrumental.

Particularly useful chapters are the one by Guy Lachard on television which helps to clarify the origins of different Francophone international TV projects, Denis Rolland updates his earlier work on the decline of the  French model in Latin America.  Paul Ardenne looks at the evolution of the international art system and the decline of France’s place in it, although as a partial offset, Sophie Claudel the former cultural attache in London  recounts setting up a charity to promote links between the British and French art worlds while disguising the hand of the French embassy. There’s an interesting chapter on the Alliance Francaise in China – which makes the point that they had had to set up in partnership with universities so as such the Confucius Institutes are re-exporting this model.

The Closing Space Problem and Democracy Support

The Carnegie Endowment has put out an interesting report by Thomas Carothers and Saskia Brechenmacher that looks at the phenomenon of the ‘closing space’ for international democracy and human right support.  The core argument is that more and more governments (and not just the usual authoritarian suspects) are enacting legal constraints on the operation of civil society groups and their ability to receive support from abroad in the form of money, training or other support.  They argue that this is not an isolated or temporary phenomenon and stems from recipient governments gaining a better understanding of what democracy support is and what it appears (to them at least) it can do.

The report looks at the impact of this ‘pushback’ and what donor countries have done about this and what they can do about it.  Part of the problem is that democracy support practices have developed piecemeal and that the sector is fragmented across different governments, different agencies within governments and non-governmental organizations and then across countries.  This works against coordinated responses to host governments clamping down and learning across the sector.  The authors make the point that they think that the people doing the learning are authoritarian governments – if one can force donors to back off from pro-democracy activities others will take similar actions.  Also if donors don’t take the same view on what democracy support is for and what is acceptable then there is a lack of mutual support.

One of the strengths of this paper is that it recognizes the tensions between sovereignty and democracy support efforts, it also appreciates that typical liberal strategies of depoliticisation may not always work; for instance offering help with building the capability of political parties may not help if on one side you have a well entrenched incumbent versus poorly resourced challengers.

This is obviously a policy oriented report and it points towards the need to resolve some more fundamental theoretical and conceptual issues.

Firstly, to what extent is it acceptable to restrict foreign support for NGO and similar organizations?  Given that most (all?) countries have limits on foreign political contributions or media ownership because of concerns about the impact on the political process a straight libertarian answer will lack credibility.

Secondly, is it possible for donor countries/agencies to reach a consensus on aims and means in democracy support work that would make it easier for them to work together and develop a coordinated response to the ‘closing space’ problem?

More Western Soft War Aimed at China

At the Jamestown Foundation Nicholas Dynon of the Line 21 Project has a nice short piece on Chinese perceptions of Western ideological ‘soft war’.  In the Chinese perspective the West is engaged is a project that aims at ideological dominance.  This is simply a new case of  the ‘peaceful coexistence’ strategy that dates back to the time of John Foster Dulles.  This requires a dual response: ideological vigilance at home and the effort to ideologically shape the international order.

Dynon points to the work of Zhao Jin of Tsinghua University

in which “morality” and “justification” become the basis for a state’s relative power. In this sense, we see a link between moral authority and soft power: the more widespread the acceptance of a state’s moral authority within the international system, the greater its soft power. The logic of commanding the international moral high ground within a soft war era thus requires that a state achieve moral authority among a more dominant collection of states than do its competitors.

In reading this piece I’m struck by two things:

Firstly, how much this echoes the latter days of the Soviet Union when the KGB devoted huge amounts of effort to hunting down ‘ideological subversion’ , by coincidence last week War on the Rocks posted a link to a transcript of a 1969 meeting between the KGB and the Stasi devoted to just this issue – from their point of view any act of dissidence is evidence of Western interference.

Secondly, Zhao Jin makes a good point but what is the claim to moral leadership that China can make?  Essentially it’s a defence of a Westphalian state centred order, reinforced with a Herderian claim that we ought to have lots of different nations to bring out the diversity of the human spirit.  I think state-based orders are good but all state based orders have also had some kind of ideological or cultural content that doesn’t remain with state boundaries or within state approved cultural relations channels; that true whether that’s black market Levi’s during the Cold War or jihadi videos today.  Certainly I think that there are lots of people who will support the state sovereignty argument against western ideological exports but the problem is that the Herderian argument for diversity may work in theory but in practice nationalism isn’t that cuddly.  It can work to bind people and state but at the cost of alienating the neighbours.  We’re also more relaxed about small state nationalism than big state nationalism.

China is much more dynamic than the Soviet Union was but if it’s going to compete ideologically it needs something that is more universal that nationalism.

Is the BBC World Service Being Held Hostage by the BBC?

The USC Center on Public Diplomacy has just put out a publication on Britain’s International Broadcasting that  brings together a discussion of the current state of the BBC World Service by Rajesh Mirchandani and a report of some research on the BBC Hausa service by Abdullah Tasiu Abubakar.  The first of these is a quite well known BBC journalist and the latter has also worked for the Corporation. The BBC’s  Charter is up for renewal in 2016 so we can expect negotiations between the BBC and the government over the next 12 months and I can’t help reading this publication in the light of BBC strategy….

Mirchandani’s argument is that the switch from FCO funding of the BBC World Service to license fee funding will increase the credibility of the World Service and as such lead to an increase in the UK’s soft power.  In making this argument he’s recycling a key piece of international broadcasting theology: autonomy=credibility.  What’s ironic about this is that both Mirchandani and Abubakar present evidence in their contributions that show that audiences in Pakistan and northern Nigeria evaluate the credibility of the BBC in terms of their broader perception of the UK.  The finer points of institutional control aren’t that important to the viewer and listener.

Mirchandani doesn’t engage with the view expressed on this blog and by the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee that we are likely to see the subordination of the World Service to the imperatives of the BBC domestic services because of the switch to licence fee funding.  What he does do is argue that BBC Worldwide, its international commercial service (eg BBC America, BBC World), can help to sustain UK soft power.  This is true but given the non-fungibility of soft power not necessarily very helpful. What isn’t true is that Worldwide can act as a substitute for the non-commercial operations because Worldwide follows the money.  Certainly on recent foreign trips I’ve been surprised by the extent to which BBC World follows a much more US focused news agenda than BBC domestic services or the World Service.  The same pressures to succeed in the US that have turned Al-Jazeera English into Al-Jazeera America apply there.

At several points the paper points to the funding difficulties faced by the BBC World Service and in the context of the forthcoming negotiations with the government it’s tempting to see the World Service as a bargaining chip.

China and Western Higher Education Institutions

In a recent blog post Thomas Cushman of Wellesley College recounts his the experience of inviting the Chinese dissident Xia Jeliang to Wellesley.  After Wellesley concluded an exchange agreement with Peking University Cushman and a number of colleagues invited Xia to the US.  After his visit Xia was fired by Peking on grounds of ‘poor teaching’.  What is exercising Cushman is the number of colleagues who either accepted the ”poor teaching’ story which he regards as completely incredible or rejected support for Xia on the grounds that it was ‘orientalist’ or evidence of ‘cultural imperialism’

His conclusion:

What is hard to bear, and what we all must come to expect when we consider any partnership between Western and Chinese institutions of higher education, is that there are those who are willing to work actively against the liberal forces of civil society, and to serve as mouthpieces for a regime that is the enemy of the basic values and freedoms of liberal democracy. Whether they do so wittingly or unwittingly, and for whatever reason, the effect is a devastating blow to freedom and civil society and a victory for repression in China.

Academic institutions that have relationships with China are easily corrupted by such relationships, either through the development of the generalised cowardice of self-censorship or the with active complicity of various interests in a regime that is at war with the mind.

The post raises some  interesting questions about how HE institutions should think about partnerships with China.  As the LSE saw with the funding from Libya relationships with rich authoritarian countries can create all kinds of pressures.  Certainly institutions need to think through the downsides of such partnerships when they negotiate them.  It raises issues of national policy.  I think that there’s an implicit confidence that we got rid of the USSR so why worry about China?  The point to keep in mind is that it’s much bigger, richer and western HE is much more dependent on the PRC than it ever was on the USSR.  If we conceptualize soft power in terms of relationships those relationships pull in both directions.

The other side is that this shows why Chinese public diplomacy struggles in the west.  It’s the familiar collision between liberalism  and totalitarianism.  Totalitarianism was never very helpful as an empirical account of how Fascist or Communist countries work but there’s a useful idea there: everything is, in principle, political and hence subject to party control.   The result for liberals is an inherent scepticism of whatever the authorities do in China.  On the other side of course liberalism likes to circumscribe the realm of politics and replace it with law,  civil society, rights.  The irony is that Cushman’s post is entirely (and justifiably) political without him once recognizing the fact.