Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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Public Diplomacies and the Pathologies of Liberal Statecraft

March 29, 2017

Judy Dempsey at Carnegie Europe has offered some suggestions about what the EU can do in response to the cycles of protest and repression in Belarus and Russia, she calls for a public diplomacy response: broadcasting, internet freedom, student exchanges and preparing for the day after Putin and Lukashenko by supporting opposition movements.

Seems reasonable but it also seems to reflect the basic patterns of Western statecraft over the past 25 years: make some tactical responses and wait for history to do its job.  The problem is that is precisely what has produced situations like Syria or Libya.  It’s like the plan of the underpants gnomes: phase 1: steal underpants  phase 3: huge profits while  phase 2 is a blank.

It also reflects an older realist critique of liberal statecraft and its displacement of politics. Reinhart Koselleck makes the point that enlightenment political thought shifted the moral and political burden of revolution onto History ie revolutionaries don’t kill people, History does.  Max Weber’s demand for an ‘ethic of responsibility’ is for politicians to deal with the consequences of their choices and not to retreat behind empty formulae or abstract categories.

In confronting the situations in Russian and Belarus the position is effectively we support regime change and we’ll take some steps that possibly push things in a regime change direction but we don’t want to take responsibility for this. What we don’t want to do is to think through possible consequences, for instance Russia deciding to ‘help’ in Belarus, or to recognize that not all values are consistent with each other and that choices need to be made about which should be prioritized.  It is this refusal to recognize, let alone fill, the space between the present and History that creates the impasse of Western statecraft.

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Analyzing Public Diplomacies: Four Dimensions

January 26, 2017

In thinking about how countries engage foreign publics I normally talk about public diplomacies in the plural.  I do this to signal that American public diplomacy is not the only way that countries conceptualize and carry out this work and that very often countries have engage multiple foreign publics for different purposes using different networks.

However in doing comparative historical work it has also become clear that discussion of public diplomacies often get stuck at the level of ideas and definitions.  This really isn’t enough to properly make sense of public diplomacies you need to understand what gets done and with what effect and that concepts don’t get you very far.

This means that I would argue for separating out four analytical dimensions:

  1. ideas and concepts
  2. activities and programmes
  3. organization and organizational fields,
  4. networks

Let’s briefly look at this in turn.

Concepts: There are lots of different aspects to this but I’m particularly interested in how do countries answer the why question? Why are we running these activities?  This can be broken down into two sub issues: a big question which often touches on questions of identity (to make our country known to the world, to spread the revolution) and a more precise question about how public diplomacies fit into statecraft more generally.   While some countries have quite clearly defined answers to these questions other don’t.  For instance in looking at the UK you can (literally) go through nearly 30 years from the late 1960s with minimal discussion of what the whole overseas information activity was for.  On the other hand if you look at contemporary Germany there are all kinds of policy documents as well as strong tradition of public discussion.

Activities: What do countries do?  Can you track activities over time, where they happen, where the resources go?  If you can do this there’s a good chance that discrepancies between concepts and practice will emerge.  Germany is a good example again because much of the conceptual activity is around areas like peace building  but the money goes into schools.  Also discussion at the level of ideas tends to mask the geopolitics behind lots of this activity.

Organizations: A lot of discussion tends to focus on organizations because they are visible (and they produce archives) but you can have activities without having a distinct organization and changes in organization may not change the activity very much.  Mapping the organizational universe that an organization that you are interested in inhabits is important because it helps you to recognize cross national differences.  This is directly relevant to the issue of whether to the US needs a new USIA

Networks: This dimension asks about how activities are supposed to have an effect.  Who do they act with or on.  How do activities, organizations and concepts align?  The networks you have aren’t necessarily the ones that you need but changing them is slow and painful.

I’ve found it useful to separate out these dimensions because they are often quite weakly connected. Changes in concepts or organizations may have quite limited effects on programmes and networks.  This is important because often research starts from theory or from top level policy documents.

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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.

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The Nicolson Gap

October 25, 2016

Until a couple of months ago I’d never read Harold Nicolson’s Diplomacy.  I’ve had a copy on my shelf for years but it just didn’t seem like a priority. Having read it I’ve started to notice how much Nicolson is cited in discussions of diplomacy  but I’ve also noticed a phenomenon that I’ve come to think of as the Nicolson Gap.

The gap works like this.  An author wants to make a point about contemporary diplomacy and how much it has changed  in recent years or across the author’s experience, alternatively it can be a point about the need to change.   This is underlined by a reference to Nicolson which implies that Diplomacy is a description of relatively recent diplomatic practice.

 

The gap is period between Nicolson and the present.  It  can be calculated in different ways

 

1968 Nicolson dies: Gap is 48 years

 

1963 Publishes 3rd edition of Diplomacy .  Same as second edition but includes an article published in 1961 as postscript: Gap is 53 years

 

1950 Publishes 2nd edition of Diplomacy. Slightly updates first edition to take account of new recruitment practices at the Foreign Office:  Gap is 66 years.

 

1939 Publishes 1st edition of Diplomacy: Gap is 77 years

 

1929 Nicolson leaves the Foreign Office: Gap is 87 years.

 

The problem is that by using Diplomacy as a marker of recency the author has created a space of multiple decades within which nothing of any note has happened to change diplomacy.  The implication is that diplomacy is the way that it is today because it’s always been this way not because of,  for example, 27 years of post-Cold War, extended periods of new public management derived change, or 15 years of the War on Terror.   The gap comes from the unexamined effects of everything that has happened since Nicolson.

 

The irony is that in reading Diplomacy I was struck by how much of it is not about the unchanging essence of diplomacy but about how much diplomacy had changed in the decades either side of the First World War.

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NATO Strategic Communications in Afghanistan

October 24, 2016

At the beginning of this year the NATO Centre of Excellence for Strategic Communication published a 400 page report   “We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us”: An Analysis of Nato Strategic Communications – The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, 2003-2014, written by Brett Boudreau, a former Canadian military public affairs officer, it’s a very useful resource that takes a hard look at the ISAF experience.   I’ve finally got around to having a look through it and I thought that I’d share a few thoughts.

The largest chunk of the report is a description of the evolution of the communication function of the ISAF across the intervention. This covers the overall approach, main challenges and responses at each stage.  In addition the report covers the evolution of doctrine and organization in NATO, gives an assessment of performance, and a look to the future.   It’s quite possible to dip into the report, all the arguments and conclusions are signposted at every stage.

If you’ve followed any of the discussions of the problems of strategy and organization in Afghanistan from the coexistence of ISAF with Operation Enduring Freedom, different national approaches and capabilities, frequent rotations of commanders, personnel and HQs Boudreau gives us all of this with added spice of the standard Stratcom arguments – what’s the relationship between the different communication functions?  These weren’t just conceptual arguments but reflected real  conflicts between different groups (the report helpfully provides a matrix with what different groups thought of each other)

Conceptually Boudreau takes the view that the communications field consists of three capabilities: Public Diplomacy, Public Affairs and Psyops and two integrating functions IO and Stratcom.  The rise of Stratcom and the eclipse of IO is, in part at least, a function of the difficult relationship between IO and PA.  In doctrinal terms IO includes deception and more generally influence and too close a relationship with PA can (in the theology of the field) compromise the credibility of the PA function.  One of the recurring issues in the history here is how the mandated policy separation between PA and other information activities could be preserved while ensuring that PA and everything else point in the same direction.

One of the components that I found most interesting was the discussion of Stratcom in NATO as distinct from the US (or UK) debate.  As the argument played out in the US the core of the Stratcom argument is that everything we do or say is communication.  The next step is what do we do about it?  This is both a conceptual/theoretical argument and an organizational one.    Do we need to build new capabilities?  Do we need a system of coordination? Or is it basically a matter of incorporating the understanding that everything is communication into what we do it?  The US position eventually came round to the latter partly through the fear that an organization that could coordinate strategic comms would never do anything.

In contrast Boudreau argues that although this may work for the Americans it can’t work for NATO.  The difference is that the US has plenty of capabilities but non-US NATO doesn’t.   Hence Stratcom as overarching approach will have nothing to coordinate.  NATO has to get nation states to build capabilities.    Boudreau argues that to push this forward NATO needs to define Stratcom doctrine thus create a demand for capability that can cascade down.

Boudreau points to the importance of the Ukraine/Crimea situation in lighting a fire under NATO to make some progress on Stratcom questions.  While NATO certainly needs to develop its communication capabilities there’s a limit to the extent to which the experience in Afghanistan can really be a model. There’s a danger of preparing to fight the last war.  Stratcom was a wartime improvisation, the Russia problem is much more like a ‘classic’, Cold War, NATO scenario, where there are a) persistent attempts to undermine alliance solidarity on a long term basis and b) risk of escalating ambiguous crises that may or may not carry a risk of armed conflict.   In the second case NATO (and NATO member states) will need readily accessible communications capabilities which can be used to manage a crisis that may involve large scale use of IO type actions as a coercive threat or as part of an offensive action.  This type of situation is will require a much closer integration of communication, kinetic capabilities, intelligence, cyber, electronic warfare than were achieved in Afghanistan.  It’s a also a situation where offensive Stratcoms and cyber operations might play a useful deterrent role and help to deescalate an  ambiguous situation.  This is quite likely to be problematic in a NATO context and this may be an area where national strategic capabilities in the intelligence/information/cyber space have an important role to play

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The Russian Firehose of Falsehood

September 1, 2016

I haven’t been able to keep up with the torrent of publications on Russian propaganda/soft power/deception etc but I’d recommend the newish RAND paper by Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews on The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model.

They characterise this by four features

1. High volume across multiple channels

2 Fast, continuous and repetitive

3. It doesn’t seem to be concerned with ‘truth’ and

4. Neither is it interested in consistency.

They also connect each of these four elements with discussions in the psychological literature  It’s the third and fourth of these that draw particular attention since they go against what might be thought of as the conventional wisdom on propaganda contests (and in political communications) that consistency and credibility are important.

Their conclusions and recommendations are also important – particularly in the context of discussions of ‘post-truth politics’.  They are sceptical that efforts at rebuttal can work against the volume and speed of the Russian attack as they put it “don’t expect to counter the firehose of falsehood with the squirt gun of truth” – emphasis in original.  While some degree of rebuttal is required they place more weight on forewarning people about the existence of the Russian information effort.  Here what I called the propaganda panic probably serves a role in flagging the presence of the effort.  They also emphasize the importance of focusing on blocking the achievement of the objectives of Russian activities, for instance if the Russian objective is to undermine NATO solidarity focus on supporting the factors that consolidate this rather than on rebutting falsehoods.  There are other types of asymmetric responses that can be used such as full enforcement of broadcasting rules.

Although Paul and Mathews look for explanations of the lack of concern over truth and consistency in the psychological literature an alternative explanation might come from the changing media environment.  In the era of the Second World War or The Cold War information is in relatively speaking in short supply so a piece of news gets raked over and its credibility assessed, the result is the kind of personalized propaganda duel discussed here where recognized individuals get drawn into personalized tests of credibility ‘X said that y would happen.  It didn’t. Why should you believe anything else they say?’  Where there’s a continuous stream of information individual statements don’t get subject to the same average level of attention – for most people they just get replaced by another tweet – after all as McLuhan argued media is an environment.

It’s also worth noting that in a Second World War style duel(you also probably find this in exchanges between Arab radio stations in the 1950s and 1960s)  the protagonists confronted each other directly with the intention of damaging each other.  This is something that under normal circumstances diplomats are reluctant to do or that modern international broadcasters do.

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The CNN Effect circa 1910

July 14, 2016

Having dug pretty deeply in the literature on the impact of the media on policy making I recently discovered that I’d missed Oron Hale’s Publicity and Diplomacy.  Published in 1940 it examines the role of the press in creating the hostility between Britain and Germany in the quarter century before the First World War.

It’s valuable for two reasons

Firstly,  the research design is rather more sophisticated that a lot of the more recent writings on the topic as Hole recognizes that he needs to look at firstly, the effect of the press on policy makers, secondly, the effect of the policy makers on the press in both countries and thirdly, at the interaction across national boundaries.  Of course this is something that it’s much easier to do in a historical study where documents and memoirs are available that it is in a more recent period.  The mass circulation press (along with the expansion of the franchise) was still something of a new media at this point and policy makers gave it a great deal of attention because of their perception of its mediating role between public and policy makers, policy makers and public and across borders.  Policy makers studied the press to track public and party opinion. They were also aware that they could address audiences at home and abroad through the press but balancing the two was not easy. Press coverage could be partially managed by policy makers but was partially autonomous and this generated plenty of scope for misunderstanding.  The overall thrust of the analysis is that from the Boer War there was growing mutual antipathy between the press of the two countries.  As with other studies that look at media coverage over time (eg Bahador 2007) he sees a ratchet effect where repeated escalations in tension do not fully recede, at the core of these escalations was the naval arms race.  This is important because the reduction in tensions between the two governments from 1912 was not reflected in the press and he sees the sustained period of tensions as producing the alliance system and perspectives on Germany that led Britain to enter the war in 1914.  If this study was published today you’d probably see constructivist and structurationist themes at work.

Secondly, it also suggests that it’s very easy to overstate the differences between the diplomacy and media of today and those of a century ago.  Contrary to our image of ‘secret’ diplomacy Hale finds that there were few developments that did not find their way into the press.   Hale provides plenty of examples of journalists willfully placing the most negative interpretations on events.  The German representative at the Algeciras Conference in 1906 complained that he’d been the subject of  three fabricated interviews in one week.  During the Boer War a news agency operating from London did good business selling fake news calculated to appeal to the anti-British German press.

 

Hale, Oron J. 1940. Publicity and Diplomacy: With Special Reference to England and Germany, 1890-1914. New York: Appleton Century.

Bahador, Babak. 2007. The CNN Effect in Action: How the News Media Pushed the West Toward War in Kosovo. New York: Palgrave.