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Cherry Blossoms and Botanical Diplomacy

Yesterday, I took a walk near the tidal basin to enjoy the sight of the blooming cherry blossoms. The history of the trees reminded me of this week’s readings about Japanese soft power and public diplomacy. Not only does the blossoming represent the start of spring in DC, but also the lasting relationship between Japan and the United States.

Cherry Blossoms in DCThis diplomatic initiative began before the first trees were planted. Through much opposition and several setbacks, the initiative began to bloom. Over 100 years ago, in March 1912, the mayor of Tokyo gifted the United States capitol a thousand Japanese cherry trees, where they remain today. A sign along the tidal basin path describes the goodwill nature of both countries. Forty years after the first trees were planted, the U.S. shipped budwood back to Japan to help restore the original cherry blossom grove. Japan shipped more trees back shortly after to help expand the capital’s current trees.

Every year, the National Cherry Blossom Festival takes place to foster “a growing understanding and appreciation of each nation’s culture.” Japanese and American artists present their work and perform for the festival. Tourists from around the world come to DC to visit these iconic trees and partake in the celebrations. Its success blends Japanese culture with American history and the joint public diplomacy is truly inspiring.

Also, through my research, I came across a neat NPR interview regarding the DC cherry blossoms, if anyone is interested: 

Seeing through the eyes of the audience


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.

Crossing the cultural bridge

Japanese cultural diplomacy, as seen by Kazuo Ogoura in his Global Asia article “From Ikebana to Manga and Beyond”, generally operates as a temporal response to international events and trends, whether to counter post-WW2 international perception of Japan as an overtly-militarized nation bent on conquest in Asia or American fear of a Japanese economic take-over during the 80s and early 90’s. Japan’s current cultural diplomacy strategies thus serve, I believe, to balance against rising anti-Japanese sentiment in a nationalistic China as well as introduce a new generation (Millennials) to the ‘content industry’ created and fostered in Japan. One of these initiatives through which Japan hopes to accomplish these goals is the newly-created Kakehashi Project (Kakehashi is Japanese for ‘bridge’), an exchange program where Japanese Millennials will have the opportunity to explore America for two weeks while their American counterparts will have the chance to visit Tokyo plus one other Japanese city over a ten-day period.

Through my work with Dr. Quansheng Zhao and the Center for Asian Studies at AU, I had the chance to be selected into a group of AU students who will be traveling to Tokyo this summer as part of the Kakehashi Project(we have not confirmed yet what the second city will be). I am very excited about the prospect of participating in this new cultural diplomacy initiative. Although our programming is still in its early stages, we will have the chance to visit government officials and leading academics as well as discuss relevant and current themes with Japanese students. I look forward to the opportunity to observe how Japan is positioning itself in the new world order emerging in East Asia, particularly viz a viz China (and to a lesser, yet no less extremely important extent, Taiwan), through the use of soft/smart power strategies.

Peace Picture Books

Something stood out to me from Kazuo Ogoura’s rich and concise article “From Ikebana to Manga and Beyond: Japan’s Cultural and Public Diplomacy is Evolving” which I did not expect: the idea of the “Kashmir Peace Picture Books”. While this particular project was a peacebuilding effort focused on India and Pakistan, in a broader strategy aimed at diffusing the negative effect on the perception of Japan due to its involvement in Iraq; I wonder if it could be combined with another of the PD motivators described by Ogoura: “the desire to change Japan’s own perception of itself”.

Moreover, could this strategy combination be used by the US to work on peacebuilding/acknowledging and working on issues at home while simultaneously being positive cultural diplomacy? I have in mind the “Books By Teens” project by Reach Incorporated, which addresses racial inequality in the US and specifically the disturbing fact that “Only 3% of children’s books feature characters of color, and only 1.8% of children’s books are written by authors of color” ( What do you think the effect of promoting this abroad and having it feedback to the domestic public would be?

Two things would be interesting to find out: firstly, if the International Center for Literacy and Culture, (which the Japan foundation funded to organize the Kashmir Peace Picture Books project), has any kind of measurement of the impact of this project; and secondly, was the project communicated to the population back in Japan, and if not, why not? This could have contributed to “Internal Internationalization” concept, which, from the list of strategies summarized by Ogoura, is obviously one of the most difficult to evaluate from a foreign perspective; but any effectiveness measurement of which would be most interesting to find out more about.

What is “neutrality”? How does it play in cultural diplomacy context?

Last month, I participated a symposium organized by arts management students’ group, and attended a break-out session “Arts&Diplomacy.” During the session, the panel speakers from Meridian International Center and CompanyE, both non-governmental/non-profit organizations that create cultural exchange/diplomacy programs, emphasized “neutrality” as one of their strengths. I’ve become interested in this word and what it exactly means.

In fact, the website of Meridian uses this word several times:

Meridian stands at a neutral intersection of the public, private and diplomatic sectors, giving our public programs and events a depth and scope that is unique.

Provide a neutral forum for international collaboration across sectors

…by creating neutral environments where people can appreciate each other at all levels of society.

I found this study by Zatepilina, which also talks about NGOs’ “neutrality” in PD but questions it:

 A few participants questioned NGOs ’neutrality or perceived neutrality. Regardless of whether or not an NGO receives government funding, once in a host country it cannot completely separate itself from its government, argued some interviewees. […] As a result, NGOs are not always seen as ‘good guys’ – that is, as independent and impartial – rather they are seen as actors in the power struggle.

That is, even if NGOs think themselves as “neutral”, that does not mean their foreign counterparts perceive in the same way, or in a favorable meaning. Rather, “neutrality” might be seen negatively, or convey the fuzziness of their position.

This reminds me of Pamment’s words: “these audiences are now considered active, and greater emphasis is placed on how they make meaning.”

“Neutrality” is much more complex than I’d thought. Since Zatepilina  does not include any arts organization in his study, I wonder how “neutrality” plays differently/similarly, in cultural diplomacy context especially where they engage people through arts?


‘Doctor Zhivago’: A double-edged sword in Cultural-Literary Diplomacy


As we navigate Japan’s cultural diplomacy this week, the “cultural” aspect of diplomacy is underscored once more. We think about how we perceive initiatives meant to captivate audience’s attention towards a certain nation and their policies, convictions, and norms. Usually, we focus on what a specific government or organization within a country is trying to transmit. But we rarely look at how other powerful institutions in competing nations frame other’s diplomatic assets. Indeed, that is the subject of an article in the Washington Post published on April 5, During Cold War, CIA used ‘Doctor Zhivago’ as a tool to undermine Soviet Union”.

As the novel, written by a Russian poet, was banned in the Soviet Union, the UK and the US seized the opportunity to use it as a soft power weapon to portray the USSR as the freedom-enemy it was, and to provide legitimacy and garner support for the war. In words of a CIA memo, “This book has great propaganda value, not only for its intrinsic message and thought-provoking nature, but also for the circumstances of its publication: we have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government, when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country in his own language for his own people to read.” The CIA’s active involvement in helping distribute the novel clandestinely throughout Eastern-bloc circles echoed its efforts to use literature as double-edged swords for propaganda against communism and in favor of the Western position. Thanks to this, the novel won a Nobel Peace Prize- with all of the implications this had for the diplomatic wars of the time. Along with “1984”, “Animal Farm”, and “Dr Zhivago” the article states, “over the course of the Cold War, as many as 10 million copies of books and magazines were secretly distributed by the agency behind the Iron Curtain as part of a political warfare campaign.” In a concerted move by Western allies, the book was distributed widely to Russian citizens and caught global attention, as the US intended- even from the Vatican, which also helped disseminate it. It was a savvy move in the “Communism vs Freedom” Western diplomacy.

Public Diplomacy and Nation Branding in Japan

I found an interesting article in the Japan Times’ Opinion Section entitled “Japan’s ‘brand’ as good as the people behind it.” In this article, Nancy Snow explains the importance of Japanese public diplomacy and nation branding, particularly in light of the 2020 Olympics which will be held in Tokyo. She talks about the establishment of the Japan Brand Fund, which was created with the goal of enhancing and promoting Japan’s unique cultural specificities by funding Japanese business opportunities overseas. Snow stresses the importance of PD efforts at the individual, people-to-people level, in both the formal and informal spectra. Specifically, Snow argues that in this day and age, it is crucial to include and take into account the prevalence of social media as tools for diplomacy.

According to the Ogawa article, the notion of public diplomacy in Japan has in recent years developed and expanded significantly, and has been utilized “as a tool for strategies of diplomacy, cultural promotion, trade, tourism and urban planning” (p. 270). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and the Japan Foundation are tasked with furthering Japan’s diplomacy programs and endeavors; specifically, promoting Japanese culture and values abroad, as well as the Japanese language and studies, people-to-people exchanges, and the strengthening of foreign relations (p. 270-271). Ogawa states that MOFA had historically separated the realms of culture and PR; however, with the various reforms that were put in place in 2004, they are now treated concurrently, and culture has become a more intrinsic part of Japan’s diplomacy programs.

This highlights an important point in the Ogoura article, which is that Japanese society has undergone multiple and continuing transformations in recent decades and this has undeniably affected its role on the global scale.  Therefore, Ogoura maintains that Japan’s PD efforts are closely related to its cultural diplomacy since its image abroad is often linked to “Japan’s own culture or national identity.”

Finally, Ogawa’s article reveals an interesting dynamic of Japanese public diplomacy: its strategies for engagement and the furthering of relations with the Middle East. Ogawa explains that the main goal of Japan’s PD efforts in the region is to differentiate itself from Western diplomacy efforts there, and to encourage “intellectual exchange; support for cultural promotion in the Middle East; and promotion of better understanding of the Middle East among the Japanese” (p 280).

Buying Hearts and Minds?

This week I came across an interesting article by Professor Philip Selb for the Huffington Post. The article discusses the power of economy in public diplomacy and specifically various economic initiatives conducted by the US in the Middle East and their public diplomacy value.

Selb’s argument states that there is no better way for winning hearts and minds than “buying hearts and minds”. Selb is convinced that successful public diplomacy is based on fulfilling the needs of various foreign audiences and therefore developing a positive attitude towards the donating country. Specifically in the Middle East, various initiatives that provide jobs have proved to be extremely successful in creating stability and establishing partnerships with foreign publics.

This is an interesting perspective on how to craft public diplomacy. Creative initiatives could be born by mapping the needs of various societies and looking at the competitive advantage of a specific country with regards to those needs. Relevant organizations or governmental agencies within the ‘giving’ country can then address these needs through initiatives that provide jobs, healthcare, agricultural assistance, etc. The ‘giving countries’ can benefit not only from positive PD outcomes such as good image, stability and favorable public opinion among foreign audiences, but also from clear economic benefits of new partnerships and networks.

I might be wrong but I sense that today we have a certain ‘pool’ of public diplomacy activities such as academic exchanges, informational tours, exhibitions, etc. and the new initiatives are created within that pool.  As discussed in class, China’s investment in Africa is somewhat different and serves as a good example of Selb’s suggestion. The “needs paradigm” could be an interesting shift in the way foreign ministries and organizations begin their thinking about public diplomacy.





Empowering Women through Sports Diplomacy

When I was little, I used to watch the winter Olympics and dance around the house, pretending to be an ice skater. Although I was never as graceful, I grew to love the sport and had many idols like Tara Lipinski, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Sarah Hughes. So one can imagine my delight when I came across an article discussing Olympic ice skater, Michelle Kwan, and her current diplomatic efforts.

In the next week, Kwan will be speaking at the University of Tennessee to promote a program focused on sports diplomacy. The Michelle KwanEmpowering Women and Girls Through Sports Initiative is run through the U.S. Department of State, where Kwan is a senior adviser. The initiative brings together 24 women from 6 different countries from around the world to promote cultural diplomacy through sports.

“When women and girls can walk on the playing field, they are more likely to step into the classroom, the boardroom, and step out as leaders in society.” This quote stuck out at me from the U.S. State Department’s website. Not only is this initiative a great instance of cultural diplomacy, but it is also giving opportunity to women who are less privileged. By helping these women and girls succeed in sports, they will be more inclined to succeed in other aspects of their lives and other’s. Seeing Michelle Kwan use her Olympic status to promote awareness to help other women is not only a great example of cultural diplomacy, but celebrity diplomacy as well.

Achieving China’s Goals of a Peaceful Rise Through PD

After weeks spent defining, discussing, and debating concepts and notions of public diplomacy, we come to one of the most pressing issues facing the international order today – how China utilizes PD strategies to couch its emergence as a global stakeholder in ways amenable to the interests of the international order (through its so-called ‘charm offensive), at least to the point where China is not viewed as a rising aggressor (particularly viz a viz its relationship to the United States) but as a peaceful power. And although Russia is dominating current headlines as fears are stoked of a new cold war, the success of China’s charm offensive will significantly affect the terrain of the international system.

In Ingrid d’Hooghe’s article assigned for reading this week (of which I will present in class today), d’Hooghe stresses that China is fully embracing public diplomacy and soft power to advance its interests and promote its image as a peaceful emerging power. The strength of d’Hooghe’s article lies in the culminating section of her article, where she highlights (through the words of Cai Mingzhao, the Director of the SCIO) the idea of sub-national public diplomacy carried out by provincial and city governments and its counterparts in the rest of the world as a way to make foreign audiences “more open-minded towards China’s ideas and messages.”

I wholeheartedly endorse this strategy by China to accomplish its state goals, for the increasingly burgeoning presence of non-state actors like the Tai Initiative and recognition of the power of non-state diplomacy will allow China to actually realize a return on the immense amount of resources it is pouring into PD strategies. Accounts vary, but it is generally recognized that other countries’ perceptions of China has trended negatively in the past decade or so, suggesting that the charm offensive has failed (at least in the short-term). What’s more, the most visible product of its PD strategy, the Confucius Institutes, has been fraught with controversy. By encouraging more interaction and integration between NSAs like provincial/city governments and NGOs, China can find a way to alter other countries’ perception of its peaceful rise.