Archive for the ‘Intellectual Archaeology’ Category


First World War Propaganda: Thoughts and Lessons

January 8, 2017

In writing about the emergence of public diplomacies as part of the practice of statecraft I’ve recently run up against the First World War and the importance that was given to propaganda. My main concern has been with the way that First World War affected the development of public diplomacies after the conflict but in doing this work I’ve been forced to think about two other issues;  how was the term ‘propaganda’ used in the period used and how should we analyse the effects of ‘propaganda’ during the First World War?  This is important as not only is ‘propaganda’ part of 21st century political discourse but also of academic discourse.  I’ve commented before that I’m not a big fan of the idea as an analytical term.  So three sets of thoughts on the meaning, effects, and relevance of First World War propaganda.

The concept: In looking at the First World War one struck by 1) the frequency with which the term ‘propaganda’ is used and 2) compared with later periods, certainly by the 1940s, the lack of nuance.  Essentially ‘propaganda’ is ‘the internet’ of the era: something new is happening but the conceptual frameworks for thinking about it are not well developed.  This is consistent with a general pattern I see in the history of public diplomacies that practices are improvised first and rationalized afterwards. Obviously the people who are doing ‘it’ have some idea what they are doing but the differentiations of the 1940s – publicity, political warfare, propaganda, information; white/grey/black; source, message, channel receiver aren’t there so ‘propaganda’ gets thrown over everything.  This doesn’t immediately change after 1918   many people (Hitler, Ludendorff, Northcliffe) believe  it to have produced such big effects (collapse of Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany)  it is also approached as this huge thing that can has to be explained in sweeping concepts ie Lasswell’s ‘control of public opinion through the manipulation of symbols’.

Why was ‘propaganda’ given such importance?  It was a way of talking about the importance of public support (and lack of support) for the war.  Where support was lacking authorities were quick to attribute it to enemy propaganda.  The comparison with the Second World War is also helpful here.  First World War states had to improvise organizations to mobilize people and resources to fight the war, often relying on civil society organizations, ‘propaganda’ was used to cover this process.  This also means that there was a close relationship between propaganda and organization.  Propaganda was a tool to build organization but organization created the capability to mobilize the population.  As we move to the present there has been an increasing tendency to treat ‘propaganda’ as communication and to lose sight of this organizational dimensions.  In the later war, drawing on the experience of 1914-18, states construct bureaucracies to carry out these mobilizational tasks.  Further, states have much systematic programmes for monitoring morale and repressing dissent.  There is still lots of ‘propaganda’ but it is broken down into specific tasks and harnessed to state organizations so for instance that ‘publicity’ to encourage growing vegetables by the Ministry of Food is differentiated from political warfare carried out by the Political Warfare Executive.  In the First World War this organizational and conceptual differentiation it much more embryonic.

The Issue of Effect:  Recent historical writing (for instance Mark Cornwell’s The Undermining of Austria-Hungary) has made the point that in the post 1918 period there were lots of people on both sides who had an interest in emphasizing the role of ‘propaganda’ in causing the collapse of the Central Powers rather than really analysing what happened.  On one side were the Allied propagandists who could write about what they did (activity and outputs) and could see the collapse of Germany and Austria-Hungary (outcome).  On the other side were those who could see the outcome plus some of the outputs and were quick to connect the two.  Neither group were keen to think about the question of context (activity+implementation+context =outcome).  The impact of propaganda activity cannot be separated from the context in which it occurs.  Effects have multiple dimension.  Some people may be directly affected by an activity but if you cannot produce strategically significant effects leaders are not going to be proclaiming the value of the effort.  Leaving aside the case of the United States, First World War combatants had never waged conflicts with such a level of protracted mobilization and where all, to greater or lesser degrees had significant unresolved social tensions that were exacerbated by the war.  Any discussion of the effects of propaganda needs to locate the activity in the context.

Some pointers to current issues and questions for future research, that I’ve taken away from this work on the First World War.

  1. Influence activities work best on divided targets. For instance, in attacking the Central Powers the Allies could work with nationalist and socialist networks. Divisions allow the attackers to play on existing lines of cleavage but they also inhibit repression and control.  The authorities in Berlin and Vienna were playing a difficult balancing act and were not in a position to clamp down on their opponents,  these divisions also inhibited their own counter propaganda.
  2. This leads to a corollary to arguments about indexing (elite consensus limits the sphere of permissible dissent in the media) and CNN effect (lack of policy certainly leads to media influence on policy).   Elite consensus/policy certainty also enables repression of dissent further reinforcing elite + media consensus (and spiral of silence?).
  3. What’s the relative importance of counter-narrative versus repression or counter-organizational work in dealing with foreign influence operations?  During the 1920s the country that was most sensitive about propaganda was the UK, not least because the Comintern was constantly using agent networks to mobilize against imperial rule.  However, as far as I can see the British response was not counter-narrative but surveillance, arrests and deportations.   In discussions of foreign influence operations and how to counter them breaking up organizations where feasible is an important part of a response.
  4. This leads to a question about changing media environments.  The academic literature on propaganda tends to treat it as a media/communications phenomenon while political writings (eg Communists, Nazis, US/UK political warfare) always connect it to organization.  How does social media effect this communication/organization balance?  Can you get the effect of organization without the costs/risks of building one.

That’s question for another day.


Beirut, France and the History of Cultural Relations

September 11, 2013

Working through the backlog of International Herald Tribunes left by my recent trips  I came across this article by Jay Cheshes on the continuing cultural presence of France in Beirut

“A Frenchman can easily live in Beirut without feeling displaced,” said Mr. Gougeon, who moved to the Lebanese capital from Paris in 1999, as he sipped local wine in Villa Clara’s leafy backyard after cooking a dinner of crispy-skinned duck confit and old-fashioned île flottante.

For more than a century, through all manner of turmoil, including a 15-year civil war and, more recently, ongoing conflict in neighboring Syria, a distinctly French character has pervaded the city. Much of it is the legacy of the French colonial period — the mandate that lasted from 1920 to 1943 — but a cultural kinship goes back much further than that.

But how did this cultural kinship come into being?  Well it was deliberately created.  Lebanon, and the Levant more broadly, is the founding site of modern cultural relations work.  From the middle of the 19th century France supported the work of the Lazarist order in developing a network of schools in the region – for the Lazarists education was their secret weapon to defeat the advance of protestant (mainly American) missionaries.  The schools taught French and drew on a mixture of private and state funding from France.  The result was that French came to displace Greek and Italian as the lingua franca of the region. Unable to match the military or economic strength of Britain France chose culture as its instrument.

In turn the Lazarist schools inspired the Alliance Israelite Universelle develop its own network work of schools in the region which in turn provided an inspiration for the Alliance Francaise.  Over the course of the 19th century the ad hoc system of support and encouragement in one region of the world provided the inspiration for France’s global cultural network.

If you are looking for evidence that cultural strategies work France’s position in the Eastern Mediterranean through the century after 1850 provides a pretty good case to look at.  The irony is that a really successful strategy becomes invisible because its results seem so natural.


The Warring Tribes of US Cold War Public Diplomacy

May 8, 2013

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.


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.


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!


Thought for the Day: The Quest for Coordination

March 30, 2012

Public diplomacy is done by government agencies or organizations working on behalf of government so it’s important to pay attention to what this means.  This organizational dimension has to be seen as feature rather than a bug.  As a result I’ve been working my way through James Q. Wilson’s, excellent Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It (New York: Basic, 1989).  This morning I came across this

Harold Seidman described the quest for coordination as the “twentieth century equivalent of the medieval search for the philosopher’s stone.” In words heavy with irony, he explained: “If only we can find the right formula for coordination, we can reconcile the irreconcilable, harmonize competing and wholly divergent interests, overcome irrationalities in our government structures, and make hard policy choices to which no one will dissent.”

Hmm, I can think of few PD coordinating committees that this might apply to.


The Peaceful History of Chinese Expansion

March 11, 2012

Earlier this week Stephen Walt had a guest post from Yuan-kang Wang on his blog taking issue with the ‘official version’ of historical China’s peaceful nature that feeds into the narrative of ‘peaceful rise’

As you might expect on a realist’s blog the message is not the uniqueness of Chinese history but how much it shares with the history of other states.  Wang takes issue with three claims.

Myth 1: China did not expand when it was strong.

Myth 2: The Seven Voyages of Zheng He demonstrates the peaceful nature of Chinese power.

Myth 3: The Great Wall of China symbolizes a nation preoccupied with defense.

In each case he argues that the ‘official version’ leaves out the violent bits of the history.   Well worth a read.