Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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Parliamentary Committee Report on UK-China Relations

April 12, 2019

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee recently put out a report on the UK’s relations with China.  This was seen by some as indicating a turn to a more cautious or suspicious line towards China.

I tend to read these reports more for what it tells us about how people think about the issues.  As I’ve indicated before I think UK foreign policy thinking tends towards an undifferentiated global liberalism that doesn’t provide a basis for prioritizing one thing over another.

This report has quite a lot of this but also some signs of greater appreciation of real world constraints.

The reading of China seems quite plausible.  China likes order but has some reservations about current one.  A central driver of Chinese external behaviour is the security of the regime, which also translates (as Max Weber would expect) into a concern with questions of prestige.

The report spends quite a lot of time discussing a whole list of contentious issues in relations with China; the South China Sea, the treatment of the Uighurs and the state of democracy in Hong Kong, Huawei, Belt and Road Initiative, influence activities in the UK and gives some consideration to what should be done about them but the report seems to swing between a faith in an abstract legal order and a rather one on one confrontational stance.  One of the strangest things in the report is the demand that the FCO produce a report on situations where it has successfully changed China’s position.  By the time that a country like China has a well-defined position it is going to be extremely difficult to change it and even if it does change its mind it will be very careful to obscure what has happened.   Also a good diplomat will not boast about this.

In relation to British policy the report points to the apparent disconnect between the Ministry of Defence, which seems quite keen to send an aircraft carrier to the South China Sea, and the Treasury  which has its own emissary to China outside the normal diplomatic framework. The Committee wants a statement of strategy towards China that can guide the actions of all government bodies.  That doesn’t seem unreasonable but UK government is quite capable of producing a strategy that is simply a list of departmental preferences and doesn’t set priorities.

Because China is developing a global presence there should be a China strategy but this needs to be developed in the context of an Asian strategy and an overall international strategy.  The report keeps returning to the question of influence and treating China in isolation actually makes this question much more intractable.  Putting China in an Asian context may show ways of working with Asian (and other) countries to push things in a desirable connection.

There is also a need for a greater recognition of the differences in motivations on different issues – it’s probably much easier to influence issues around Huawei or even the Belt and Road than it is on those that are seen in Beijing as to do with national cohesion, which of these issues are going to have be treated things that are protested for forms sake and which are going to be subject of a political strategy that expects to get a result.  The rhetoric of rules based international order tries link everything together and make it all equally important.  Strategy pushes towards choice and discrimination in the real world.

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Ecological Control and Foreign Influence

April 5, 2019

Updated 8 May 2019 to improve clarity.

If you’ve been exposed to any kind of training in ‘strategy’ thinking in political, business or communications contexts it’s easy to get into the habit of thinking in an extremely linear way; what’s my objective, resources, timeframe etc.  There are good reasons for this; the world tends to entropy and the clarity of a plan is a way to generate action in a resistant world.  As the saying goes a ‘a bad plan well executed is better than a good plan badly executed’.

But this isn’t the only way of getting things done. A very common way of acting is what’s called ecological control.  That is an actor influences others not by trying to dictate precisely what they do but by influencing their environment.  In a classic statement of this idea the White House announces all budgets of government agencies will be cut by 5% but leaves it up to the agencies to decide how they will meet the target.  Clearly there is an ‘effect’ but the initiator is not responsible for particular choices.  You can argue that nudging /choice architecture or reflexive control are more directive variants of this given that in that they operate by shaping the environment rather than by dictating an action.

One of the reasons that it is difficult to make sense of questions of foreign influence is that often influence activities are aimed at shaping the ecology rather than achieving a direct objective.  Public diplomacies can be about creating opportunities rather controlling end states.  The issue that tends to face countries with in dealing with a partner is that these indirect, non-political effects can begin to affect the overall political ecology of the country; groups with particular attachments begin to pull overall policy in favoured directions.  In dealing with the foreign influence question such pulls are harder to deal with that out and out ‘collusion’.  It is up to those that are concerned about the consequences of such activities to politicize them but in doing so they find that those involved can (often quite plausibly) deny any political intention let alone ‘collusion’, they have merely acted to improve relations between the two countries or pursue business or study interests.   Although, in the current situation one might read the two countries as Australia (or the EU) and China the logic is the same between any pair of countries and much foreign public engagement activity.

This opens up a set of questions about the circumstances where particular relations become politicised.  The acme of skill in public diplomacies is to modify ways of doing things in another country without them becoming objects of political controversy.  Any general consideration of the foreign influence questions needs to engage with the ecological dimension not just with direct effects.

 

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Regulating Foreign Influence: Some Starting Points

March 29, 2019

Public diplomacies are things ‘we’ do that affect other people.  Almost all discussions whether in academic or policy contexts are understood in these terms; other people show up in terms of ‘audiences’, ‘publics’ and ‘effects’.  Even the idea that public diplomacies should be understood in terms of ‘relations’ or ‘dialogue’ start from ‘us’ as the actor.  This opens the question of what this looks like from the ‘other’ side.

One manifestation of the flip side is ‘foreign influence’.  Or more precisely illegitimate foreign influence. The interesting thing is that discussions about foreign influence are far more heated that debates about public diplomacy, cultural relations or the state of our soft power.  It’s worth underlining how much political energy gets poured into these issues – think about questions over Russian or Chinese influence, the Turkish diaspora in Germany, the Israeli lobby in the US, or the ongoing Qatar-UAE struggle.  In a world where the range of countries who can set out to build influence is expanding these questions are likely to become more significant.

One of the reasons why these issues become so contentious is that we lack a tradition of really thinking about these questions in an abstract way; we can’t just slot cases into well worked out frameworks.  Western political thought tends to separate the domestic and the international at both analytical and normative levels thinking about these transnational issues is quite fragmentary.  This also means that our discussions tend to mix up different normative frameworks and a starting point is to recognize that there are different set of ideas at work.

I was really stimulated to think about this by a report that came out last week from the ‘Venice Commission’ the European Commission for Democracy through Law of the Council of Europe.  Their report was concerned with the extent to which states can limit the extent to which NGOs can access foreign funding.  The fundamental human rights declarations give states fairly extensive powers to regulate organizations and in the context of restrictions on NGOs in Hungary or Egypt the Venice experts were concerned with how minimize the scope of restrictions.  In reading it though I was thinking what if we were talking about getting funding for diaspora organizations from authoritarian governments would they be quite as keen on restricting state powers?

I would argue that we can see four different ways of thinking about the legitimacy or otherwise of foreign influence

The starting point is a liberal perspective.  People have rights to freedom of speech, thought, association, travel, religion etc.  Therefore any restriction is bad.  Given that these are the sticks that liberal states use to batter other kinds of states with it’s not surprising that any of the other perspectives look suspect.  From a liberal position you can argue the foreign influence question doesn’t exist.  It only exists because people insist on sorting people into foreign and non-foreign.  I suspect very few people actually embrace this position but part of the difficulty is that they don’t really think through how they deviate from it.  I can see three positions.

Polity protection:  The polity is a distinct political community that regulates its own affairs.  Therefore it needs to distinguish between citizens and non-citizens and to ensure that its institutions function in the interests of the community.  In practical terms this means restrictions on the funding of politics and on the ownership and operation of media companies.  This perspective does not require democracy but it seems that democracy requires some degree of protection.

Cultural/Identity: The second position is a set of ideas around identity and culture.  That is foreign actors threaten our culture and must be excluded/regulated.  In the current climate this is likely to be read in terms of Victor Orban or Steve Bannon but it is also has to be recognized that it is the same idea that underpins discourses of cultural imperialism, the UN Convention on Cultural Diversity and decades of European and Canadian cultural and media policy.  Foreign influence is what threatens ‘our’ culture.  Of course this leads to other arguments about what our culture is and who defines its.

Westphalian Reciprocity: This is less about any particular content but about the right to regulate through the exercise of sovereignty and treaties.  This starts from the presumption of equality and hence reciprocity.  In theory at least foreign influence activities can be managed by insisting on reciprocity.  This is may look unacceptably restrictive from a liberal perspective but normatively is quite straightforward.

These three positions tend to get mixed up in thinking about modern states but actually rest on different normative foundations and suggest different prescriptions.  Yet there is another complicating factor; in practice debates about ‘foreign influence’ happen when people are unhappy about it, positive influence isn’t framed in these terms, instead we get more “what we can learn from them”.  Any systematic development of a position based on protection of the polity, culture or on Westphalian reciprocity will be rather restrictive from a liberal perspective.  Judgements on ‘foreign influence’ tend to contain evaluations of who is a friend which will often rest on issues of cultural or ideological proximity.

Having said that liberal states have no alternative but to begin to think through these questions.  There are lessons to be learned from the practices of European neutrals in the era of the World Wars but I’ll take this up in a later post.

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The Centrality of the National

March 26, 2019

I think that biggest error in contemporary Anglosphere understandings of world politics is our inability to recognize the implications of the principle of nationality.  I’d emphasize that I’m not talking about nationalism but about the importance of the idea that practically everything on the planet can be assigned a nationality and that the “nation-state” (or more accurately “nationalized state society complex) is the fundamental unit of government.  You may be an internationalist but you still carry a passport and are almost certainly marked by what Gieselinde Kuiper would call, following Norbert Elias, “national habitus”.

The typical Western liberal perspective falls into an opposition between two clusters of ideas

state/ politics / official / government

 vs

society / private / unofficial /people / non-governmental.  Specific social sectors: culture, education, science, sport can also be found here.

What’s missing is that all of the second cluster can also be understood in national terms.  The national provides a set of associations that can bridge the implied gap between the two clusters. It’s a national government and a national sports team. It’s much easier to make sense of discussions about influence, public diplomacy, diasporas, cultural relations, soft power if we recognize the importance of activating or minimizing the national association.

Here’s a couple of nice examples.  The Australian government has a new scheme to make ‘foreign influence’ more transparent and universities who host Confucius Institutes are reluctant to register.  “If Confucius Institutes have not been registered, despite being substantially funded from Beijing, it may be because they are thought to confine their activities to “culture and language”. No politics.” The writer of the article makes the point that Communist China sees culture as political.  This is true but the more fundamental point is that in China (or in any other country with cultural relations programmes) “cultural and language” is certainly part of the national.

There’s also an interesting piece on the Turkish diaspora in the Balkans that has some wonderful quotes.  A lot of it is about the popularity or lack of it Erdogan among the diaspora but I was struck by:

“Take the citizenships of the countries you are living in,” Erdogan said. “Don’t say no. Take it. If they give it, take it.”

He explained: “You are representatives in your countries. You should learn your countries’ language, integrate with your country, enter politics and improve our relations. But never forget Turkish language, culture and your Turkey.”

A the end of the 19th century this was the kind of idea that you found in Italy or Germany or China, each had diasporas that were coming to be seen as part of national influence and an economic resource, even if people had to give up their citizenship if they maintained their culture they were still part of the nation.  This is the reason why all three adopted citizenship laws based on biological descent so that people had the option of returning to the homeland.

The strength of national associations can be rhetorically emphasized or minimized, later in the piece we get this

“Turkish identity is not a national identity,” he said. “It spreads across nations. It weaves itself into other identities. It’s not tied to Turkey. It’s much older, and much vaster.”

Somewhat ironically the speaker has been reported thus

“Ibrahim from the alliance of NGOs that champions the interests of ethnic Turks in North Macedonia credited Erdogan for pioneering an expansive new vision of what it means to be Turkish in the region — underwritten by increased funding in hospitals, schools, agriculture, mosques and banks.”

The core point is that opposition between politics and culture misses the importance of the national as a set of associations.  The national is not necessarily political but it is vector through which the political can travel.  Cultural relations strategies have always turned on this gap between the national as cultural and the national as political.

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The Everyday IRD: British Covert Information in the Early 1960s

March 21, 2019

The Information Research Department (IRD), the Foreign Office’s Cold War covert information agency, has been back in news this week as the latest release of material from the Public Records Office confirms the involvement of the IRD in the production and use of forgeries aimed at Soviet aligned fronts organizations.  This report provides some detail on an operation against the World Federation of Democratic Youth in 1963.

By coincidence I’ve been looking at a couple of pieces on the IRD in this era which really focus on the day to day to activities of the organization.  These are a top secret review of the IRD conducted by the former Permanent Under Secretary of the FO Lord Strang in 1963  that was been dug out of the archives and transcribed by pyswar.org.  The second is a PhD Thesis by Simon Collins on the IRD in the Middle East and Africa between 1956 and 1963.  Strang’s report is redacted and is very much a Whitehall focused document while Collin’s thesis actually gives a pretty strong sense of what IRD was doing.

The Strang report seems to have been motivated by concerns over whether an expansion of IRD was providing value for money. The agency had been authorized to appoint up to 24 field officers who  could be sent overseas.  Part of the background here is that the IRD was largely funded by the ‘secret vote’ that financed the intelligence services and wasn’t subject to the same level of financial stringency that affected the overt overseas information services of the FO, the British Council and the BBC.  Neither was it subject to the same staffing policies as the FO.*  There’s a similarity with situation in the US during the early Cold War where the Marshall Plan information activities and those of the CIA had more money and more freedom than those of the State Department.  Although Strang accepts the argument that the IRD should be maintained as a covert organization I also get a sense in that part of the importance of the IRD  in this era is because of the additional resource it brings to the overall information effort.

At this point the IRD is the largest department in the FO and is several times the size of the overt information departments.   Strang gives a figure of 288 whereas the total staff of the Information Policy Department, Information Executive Department and the Cultural Relations Department is 83.  The key to the difference is that IRD is producing its own content and has its own people in the field.  I would assume that information officers at overseas posts did not count as part of the IPD establishment somewhat reducing the discrepancy.

I think Collins gives a good sense of what is happening with the IRD at this point.  From 1955 the IRD is  tasked against Nasserite Arab Nationalism as well as Communism.  This continues to be a priority well after the Suez Crisis.  Egypt’s external communications are attacking the British position in Africa not just  conservative Arab regimes.  In the late 1950s Britain wants to rebuild diplomatic relations with Egypt while containing the Nasserite influence.  The result is Transmission X; a sort of asymmetrical rebuttal service to Egypt’s radio broadcasting.  Instead of a classic mid-20th century radio war with competing radio stations directly attacking each other – which might have undermined the goal of repairing diplomatic relations – Transmission X used near real-time reports on Cairo’s broadcasts from BBC Monitoring Service as a basis to produce materials: opinion pieces, scripts that could be rapidly circulated to posts and to their contacts in government and media in the Middle East and North Africa.  The initial concept was to undermine the credibility of the Egyptian broadcasts by pointing out flaws and inconsistencies. Collins sees some success with this activity.  But from an organizational point of view  the consequences are bigger.  IRD is no longer just producing background materials but is now also operating as a full time information service.  The content and scope of Transmission X expanded beyond the narrow agenda of countering Egyptian broadcasts to take in anti-Communist material and even non-political ‘projection of Britain’ fare.   Certainly one gets the impression from the two studies here that one of the consequences of the expanding IRD field presence was for it to be used to fill gaps in the official information services.

The idea that 1955-65 represents a ‘golden age’ for Western public diplomacies crops up  in discussions of the  France and the US as well as the UK.  In this era public diplomacies are expanding as colonial countries gain their independence, public diplomacies are also pressed into service to fill gaps in national media systems and commercial international news services.  From the mid-60s the costs of this start to become apparent, the Soviet and Chinese threats in Africa seem less immediate and gaps in media systems are being filled in so that the scope of these information activities can be scaled back.

The main point is that while the involvement of the IRD in black activities will always be of interest the bulk of what they were doing was much more mundane.  In making sense of British Cold War information activities the covert and the overt need to put into context.

*I’m wondering if the exemption from the normal staff regulations meant that there were more women in IRD. The field staff were carefully selected and included at least three women, at least two of whom had intelligence connections going back the Second World War.

References

Collins, Simon MW (2013). “Countering Communist and Nasserite Propaganda: The Foreign Office Information Research Department in the Middle East and Africa, 1954-1963.” PhD, University of Hertfordshire. https://uhra.herts.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/2299/14327/04085529%20Collier%20Simon-%20Final%20PhD%20submission.pdf?sequence=1

Strang, Lord (1963). The Unavowable Information Services of Her Majesty’s Government Overseas. CAB 301/399. https://www.psywar.org/content/strangIRDreport.

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Egypt’s Strategy of Teacher Secondment as International Influence under Nasser

March 18, 2019

I recently came across a couple of very interesting papers by Gerasimos Tsourapas (2016, 2018) of the University of Birmingham on Egypt’s use of seconded officials, particularly teachers, as an instrument of statecraft during the regime of  Colonel Nasser.

Before discussing the case there is a broader point about the nature of historical research on public diplomacies. The problem is that our understanding of the historical record is inevitably shaped by ‘big battalions’ of organizations like the Comintern, the USIA, the British Council, the Goethe Institute – relatively enduring specialist organizations with extensive programmes of activities which leave sizeable archival records.  At the same time it is clear that these organizations don’t capture the full extent of public diplomacies, there are many other activities that have been much less enduring, more narrowly focused and on a smaller scale and don’t leave well defined archival trails.  These activities are only likely to become visible as the offshoot of other research, take for instance Kristine Kjærsgaard’s (2015) contribution on the Danish diplomat Bodil Begtrup who launched a whole series of one woman projects across different countries in the course of her career.    Tsourapas’ research has been driven by an interest in migration questions.  His research shows doing the state of the archives doesn’t make things easy, despite using different archives in Egypt he’s had to use the British archives and contemporary media reports to reconstruct the programme.   From the point of view of understanding public diplomacies as a whole  absence of knowledge is not the same as absence of activities or absence of effect only absence of research.

Eight summary points

  1. During the period under study Egypt dispatched thousands of teachers across the Middle East.  These teachers were vectors of the Egyptian version of Arab Nationalism, and they tended to indoctrinate their students into the greatness of Egypt and the importance of Colonel Nasser as the leader of the Arab World, including organizing protests and boycotts.
  2. The root cause of this was the effort under Mohammed Ali (ruled 1805-49) to reform the Egyptian state, which included the creation of formal systems of education and teacher training, publication of school books etc.  As the rest of the Arab world achieved independence after the Second World War the relative development of the Egyptian education system created an opportunity by which other states welcomed the supply of trained, Arabic speaking teachers.
  3. In this context, Egypt made a strategic choice to promote this system of secondment.  Some of the teachers were paid for by the Egyptian government while others were selected by Cairo and paid for the host government.  This process of secondment continued despite the fact that there were teacher shortages in Egypt.  This was part of the ‘Cold War’ (Kerr 1967) between the Arab Nationalists and the conservative Arab States.
  4. Money Talks: This strategy was greeted with alarm by the British, not just because of the anti-imperial views propagated by the teachers, but because they supplanted British teachers who were much more expensive to employ.   The cost issue cushioned the whole programme against the opposition of host governments who tended to be unenthusiastic about the political views of the teachers.  Although there were numerous expulsions the fact of Egyptian subsidies to meant that the expelled teachers tended to be replaced by new  Egyptians.
  5. The fact that the teachers were Egyptian and the books that they used were also Egyptian tended to raise the prestige of the country.  In addition they emphasized the role of Nasser in resisting the imperialists and the Israelis further underlining the country’s importance.  Cultural promotion and political campaigning were two sides of the same coin.
  6. Context Matters:  The reception of the secondment policy varied depending on the supply of qualified personnel.   Tsourapas notes that the break-up of the United Arab Republic was partly driven by the feeling among Syrian officials that the Egyptians were taking their jobs.
  7. Although the role of Egyptian radio broadcasting in Nasser’s foreign policy is relatively well known this other strand of foreign public engagement hasn’t attracted attention arguably would have had longer lasting effects.
  8. At a theoretical level it’s more evidence for my usual argument that separating ‘attraction’ from material resources and from contexts as many formulations of ‘soft power’ really doesn’t fit with the historical record.

References

Kerr M (1967) The Arab Cold War, 1958-67: A Study of Ideology in Politics. Second Edition. London: Oxford University Press.

Kjærsgaard K (2015) A Public Diplomacy Entrepreneur: Danish Ambassador Bodil Begtrup in Iceland, Switzerland and Portugal, 1949–1973, in Jordan P, Glover N and Clerc L (eds) Histories of Public Diplomacy and Nation Branding in the Nordic and Baltic Countries, Leiden: Brill, pp. 102–122.

Tsourapas G (2016) Nasser’s Educators and Agitators across al-Watan al-‘Arabi: Tracing the Foreign Policy Importance of Egyptian Regional Migration, 1952-1967, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 43: 324–41. Ungated version.

Tsourapas G (2018) Authoritarian emigration states: Soft power and cross-border mobility in the Middle East, International Political Science Review, 39: 400–416. Ungated version

 

 

 

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Fuzzy Sets and Public Diplomacies

March 15, 2019

One way that sciences create difficulties for themselves is when their conceptual frameworks diverge too much from the reality of what they are studying.  Concepts are always abstractions but there is a trade-off; more abstraction means greater universality but also less discrimination.  Abstract thinking is much more prone to  distinctions that are much sharper than are found ‘out there’.*

I’ve always thought that one of the problems with research on public diplomacies is a tendency to emphasize categorical; what is or is not public diplomacy, diplomacy, cultural relations or horror of horror ‘propaganda’.  Have worked through so much of the history I think happens here is that we as scholars import arguments from what we are studying.  Countries have generally want to differentiate what they do from the other side’s ‘lies’ and ‘propaganda’.  At the same time at home organizations have protected their turf by constructing conceptual distinctions between what they do (cultural relations, international broadcasting) and what other organizations do (diplomacy, propaganda, development).  When you focus on organizations, practices and programmes ie what actually gets done such neat conceptual distinctions really lose a lot of their importance.

One idea that I’ve found useful is the opposition between ‘crisp’ and ‘fuzzy’ sets (Ragin 2008).  A crisp set is one with a dichotomous membership, ie state versus non-state a potential member is either out or in.  Fuzzy sets have degrees of membership so rather than starting with a cut-off point you start with criteria that would define 100% membership,  potential members can then be scored.  The essential point is that you define the core of the set rather than its limits.   Hence to go back to the state/non-state example you would define criteria for something to count as 100% state (eg finance, legal status, responsive to guidance) and score from there.

This is similar to network analysis where you can assess degrees of membership of cohesive subgroups even within a network where everything is connected.

The focus of my history project is overt civilian, peacetime public diplomacies but in coming up against the historical record, for some countries at least, the overt, civilian and peacetime stuff doesn’t make much sense if your rigidly exclude activities that don’t quite fit.

* This is a rather old problem, I can’t remember who said it  (probably Nietzsche) but the quip that ‘the Greeks invented the concept and thought they had discovered reality’ is a useful one to keep in mind.

Ragin CC (2008) Redesigning Social Inquiry: Fuzzy Sets and Beyond. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.