The article below tells the story of a perplexing ad posted to the New York Times, which seems to promote nothing more than the consumption of bulgogi (Korean barbeque) at your local Korean restaurant:
What is going on here? The NPR write who sees this ad digs a little deeper and finds that the ad—along with several equally strange ones—are linked to a website supported by a Korean fast food chain. At face value, the campaign seems to be related to food, but the website contains information about all kinds of Korean foreign policy matters, including the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands.
Firstly, I must first admit that this is technically not a public diplomacy effort- it is being pursued by a company rather than the government of Korea. However, there appears to be at least a gentle degree of support from the Korean government- state-operated TV channel Arirang ran a reportage on the ‘PD’ campaign in a very positive light.
However, I think this misguided application of PD techniques teaches an important knowledge: Think about how it will look to your audience. While the idea of food diplomacy and putting a soft touch to Korean PD sounds like a good idea, its execution left Americans more confused than persuaded. Another example of a PD ‘own goal’ is the naming of China’s English language network: CCTV, an acronym shared with closed-circuit television (aka video surveillance) in many English-speaking countries.
In his 2008 article Music for a jilted generation, Ali Fisher talks about the transformation of the public diplomacy sphere into a bazaar, or marketplace of ideas, as opposed to a cathedral. Some of the U.S. State Departments communications regarding the Ukraine crisis seem to reinforce this notion.
Earlier this month, the department’s press office made a release called President Putin’s Fiction: 10 False Claims About Ukraine. While the release was clearly biased towards the U.S. point of view, the ‘fact sheet’ format is reflective of the kind of attitude needed to influence publics in the bazaar environment.
Taking the fact-checker approach to press releases recognizes that public diplomacy is no longer a direct line from governments to individuals. This information gets shared on social media, seized upon by blogs (sympathetic and antipathetic) and used by journalists as references. In the current informational war, publics are more likely to respond to resources they can use to make up their own minds as opposed to the more rhetorical approach Russia is taking. That being said, the United States and Russia may be playing different games in that the latter has little regard to what western audiences think.
From here, I think more can be done to allow state public diplomacy efforts become more influential and widely received. The fact-check style is effective, but there are other formats that could be used at the state level. Infographics and maps are highly consumable and have potential for re-sharing on social media. Mainstream news outlets like the Washington Post are taking advantage of this trend, and I see no reason why governments shouldn’t follow suit.
Yesterday, Secretary of State Kerry held a town hall-style meeting in Foggy Bottom with a group of university students. Transcript and video are available here: http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2014/03/223660.htm
I found it interesting that the State Department has very deliberately held an event with the U.S. domestic population as its audience. This appears to take into account the perspectives of PD writers like Ellen Huijh, who has advocated including domestic engagement as part of foreign policy.
One observation I made watching this online is that Secretary Kerry was late. This was for good reason- he hinted that his tardiness was due to a very important phone call on the day Crimea was annexed- but it is problematic that events like this must come second to the ‘real’ business of diplomacy (again, for good reason).
It is not fair to expect that someone like Secretary Kerry can properly engage with domestic audience while dealing with international crises. If there was a figure in the State Department with similar gravitas to Kerry but who was directly tasked with engaging the U.S. audience, this might mitigate the problem. I’m not sure what such a position would be called or would look like.
Also, the fact that the audience comprised of students from the Washington area shows that the department could do more work to engage with more different demographics. An introductory point made before the town hall was that most U.S. citizens believe the government spends many times more on foreign aid than it really does. The people the State Department needs to educate about this reality probably weren’t the kind of people in that lecture hall. Diplomacy may no longer be a “secret garden”, but the garden still appears to have a dress code.
My first major interaction with another country’s public diplomacy program occurred when I was 16, studying German in high school. I was selected to take part in a program run by the Pädagogischer Austauschdienst, which is a bit of a mouthful and therefore normally referred to as the PAD. The program basically entailed an all-expenses-paid trip to Germany, spending two weeks with a host family and another two weeks in a group travelling around the country. At the time, I thought it was just a nice thing that the German government did, but I can now look at the program with fresh eyes in the context of public diplomacy.
I turns out that the PAD is a collaborative effort between the 16 state governments of Germany to promote international exchange and cooperation in the education sector. What also didn’t occur to me is the double-edged benefit that the program achieves—it not only improves education outcomes in other countries, but it also enhances the education systems of the respective states.
While I was already studying German in high school, the PAD trip cemented my affinity for Germany and its language. German became not just something I did at school, but rather what I used to converse with friends that I’m in contact with some eight years later (many members of the student group spoke only German and their mother tongue, so English was not the lingua franca).
I think PAD’s program is is a good example of the kind of knock-on effect of collaboration guest lecturer Aimee Fullman was talking about. I learned more about Germany, but also about Kazakhstan, Finland and many different places. It also gave German students we interacted with the chance to take their English out of the classroom and become young ambassadors for Germany.
One of the concerning tendencies of international coverage of U.S. politics that I have observed is disproportionate coverage of dysfunction or agendas considered unpalatable by most audiences abroad. Examples of this include debt ceilings, government shutdowns, birtherism and most recently, discrimination laws in states like Arizona. I don’t think this is the result of a deliberate media bias, but rather the natural incentive to present the audience with sensational stories.
I think the consequences of media depiction of an hyper-adversarial U.S. political system are mixed. On one side, it tends to give disproportionate attention to the more extreme elements of the domestic political environment at the expense of the far larger moderate demographics (although this criticism is perhaps also applicable to domestic U.S. media). This kind of portrayal gives more oxygen to the “stupid American” stereotype held by many abroad.
On the other side, showing the political divisions of the United States does contradict the erroneous perception of the U.S. government as a monolithic entity. It’s hard to paint pictures of grand U.S. conspiracies when it is evident that both the government and public are themselves divided on matters of foreign policy, such as Syria.
I fear this might be one of a dozen Sochi posts this week but I just wanted to try and look at the current media attention surrounding the event in the context of this week’s soft power (henceforth SP) readings.
A lot of the time, when we look at a country’s image abroad, we focus on things such as that country’s foreign policy and stance on human rights. However, I would like to bounce off Nye’s text and say that a state’s competence is equally valuable.
What I mean by this is that morality aside, people are drawn towards states that can provide for their citizens and somehow excel on the world stage. In the case of the United States, it has the world’s largest military, a high GDP/capita and the epicenter of the English-language entertainment industry, among other things.
While I’m still a big proponent of geopolitics and the ‘hard’ elements of power, I would argue that public perceptions of state competence has a great potential to shape interstate relations. Rumblings of a ‘Beijing consensus’ came about to a large part due to the near-collapse of the U.S. financial system.
So back to Sochi. Putin could have chosen one of so many other ski-friendly places to hold the Olympics but chose a place a stone’s throw from where it went to war with Georgia during the 2008 Olympics. Was this an attempt to show how far the country has come since its embarrassing struggle to put down Islamist militants in the 90s? And what does it mean if the (so far) violence-free games are overshadowed by shortcomings in basics like accommodation and infrastructure?
In short: The tiny Arab monarchy of Qatar is investing big in the United States, building a massive residential business complex a couple of blocks north of Chinatown and launching the U.S. edition of Al-Jazeera from new studios in Manhattan. Part of the new development in D.C. will be an office for the Qatar Foundation International, which will teach about Arabic language and culture.
The big question that I think many will ask is: why bother? Why would a nation of 250,000 people (two million if you count non-citizens) put so much money into public diplomacy?
One crude but valid answer is that Qatar has money to burn. Thanks to its location above the world’s largest gas deposit, Qatar has the world’s highest GDP per capita, sitting just above the $100,000 mark. With that kind of money, dropping $650 million on D.C. real estate is not much of a big deal (and perhaps a good investment).
However, I think a second element needs to be considered here. We focus a lot on how public diplomacy can be used to help achieve foreign policy objectives, but is it possible that a country’s image abroad could be not just a means, but an end unto itself? In the Middle East, different nations pride themselves on different things. Saudi Arabia is the custodian of the two holy mosques, Iran pushes to become the second Middle Eastern nation to have nuclear weapons.
Without the population, land or overall size of economy, Qatar can never compete in areas like military might. So what can be known for instead? I think investments like Al Jazeera’s U.S. launch and the development downtown hint at the kind of nation that Qatar’s leadership wants to present to the world.
Now naturally, Taiwan is pretty unique in that it has international recognition of its existence as a state as a key foreign policy objective. Nonetheless, I think it’s useful to explore how Taiwan uses PD to work towards that goal and exactly how far it can go.
Perhaps the baseline goal of PD is to at least have other publics around the world know who you are and how you are different from the nearly 200 other countries. A friend of mine visited a congressional testimony on the internal conflict in South Sudan, where a congressman had no clue what the country’s predominant religion/s were, what language is spoken there and what the fighting was about. For the busy foreign policy community, it seems that the agendas of many countries are ignored simply because people know little about them.
Back to Taiwan. The ROC government is smart in investing into tourism, media and cultural exchange as a way of promoting national identity. While there is next to no chance of major powers like the United States changing their official stance on China/Taiwan, improved rapport with global publics—especially in the Asia-Pacific region—is likely to increase support for its existence as an independent de-facto state. Especially so if Taiwan can clearly communicate how it is different from China, other than the fact that it is capitalist and democratic.
Creating Mandarin education centers around the world serves as a good competitor to mainland China’s Confucius Institutes, which give out fairly generous scholarships for people to learn the language and/or live in China. The fact that Taiwan is an open, democratic country gives it an advantage; some scholars may be put off by restrictions on what they can and can’t write while studying in China.
Summing up, I think that good PD can create favorable attitudes both among the public in other countries and within the policy community. This alone can at least put certain issues on the agenda.
See you all Wednesday, if the polar vortex doesn’t get us first.
Global and Comparative Perspectives on Public Diplomacy