Sunday, 23 December 2012

A Christmas Sing with Bing

Christmas has a smell. For some, it may be mince pies or a turkey roasting in the oven; for others, pine or holly. For me, Christmas smells of vinyl.

My parents had a small collection of Bing Crosby Christmas albums from the 1950s and early 1960s. There was a lot of crossover content between them and invariably the holly-trimmed sleeves would feature a picture of Bing himself in a Santa hat. I usually played these 33½ rpm records (mums and dads, please explain the idea of a 'record' and 'record player' to your offspring) early in the run-up to Christmas, driving up my child-like Christmas excitement and driving down my parents' tolerance levels. These records, or at least the vinyl from which they were made, had a smell that I will always associate with Christmas.

Which brings me to the public diplomacy angle of this blog.

One of the records, which I rediscovered today in my mum's wardrobe, was called A Christmas Sing with Bing Around the World. This is a recording of a show ('originally sponsored by The Insurance Company of North America Companies') Bing Crosby broadcast live on Christmas Eve 1955 on CBS Radio and which was transmitted all around the world by the Voice of America. The sleeve notes tell us:

Almost everybody in the world was able to hear that Christmas Eve broadcast, first presented on December 24th at 9.00 pm Eastern Standard Time, with Bing, the Paul Weston Orchestra, the Norman Luboff Choir Group, and many of the famed choirs of the United States and foreign countries.  

What makes this such a special recording is that Bing speaks as well as sings - it is a radio programme, after all - talking about the joys of Christmas and handing over to correspondents in other parts of the world who describe Christmas Eve wherever they are (England, Holland, Canada, France, the Vatican, Salt Lake City and Hollywood). Moreover, there is a letter written and read (in southern drawl) by eleven years old Delores Short of the Dessie Scott Children's Home, Pine Ridge, Kentucky on the theme 'What Christmas Means to Me.'

I am not going to offer any substantive or critical public diplomacy analysis. It's now the holiday season and I want to turn off my computer and turn my attention to Die Hard on TV. But I just wanted to share this (re)discovery with you, and consider how teaming the Voice of America and Bing Crosby must have signalled to audiences around the world a particular (American) style or brand of Christmas. It is also personally interesting because listening to this record every year in the 1970s and early 1980s I had no idea that I would become such an avid listener of the Voice of America, visit its headquarters in Washington DC, and write a PhD and book about this remarkable radio station.

I would be interested to know from my historian readers if they have come across any information about this annual broadcast during their research. In the meantime, I wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a peaceful 2013.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Chinese aid and investment

A report in The Guardian newspaper (Chinese mining in Peru) has highlighted China's investment in copper, silver and molybdenum mining in Peru. Chinalco, a Chinese mining giant, is struggling to relocate the 5,000 people who live next to Toromocho mountain where the minerals are awaiting extraction from the earth. Forced relocation at home is easy for the Chinese and happens on a regular basis; overseas it is more difficult, hence the mining company is trying to trying to bring civil society and local consultancy groups into the process to achieve what American academic Cynthia Sanborn calls 'a planned consensual relocation of a town'. The Guardian reveals that Chinalco bought the land for $860 million and invested $.2.2 billion in the mine.    

This report made me think again about China's investment in, and aid to developing countries which are considered features of China's soft power strategy.

One of the best books on China I have read in 2012 is Deborah Brautigam's The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa (Oxford University Press, 2009; 2011) which connects with my own work on China's public diplomacy and soft power (although it never explicitly discusses either in depth). Brautigam's analysis offers a penetrating critique of popular perceptions of China as a wholly benevolent power offering the not only an alternative "model" of development, but also investment and unconditional aid that is said to be welcome throughout Africa.

Brautigam demonstrates that China's foreign aid 'has become one tool in a range of economic instruments adeptly managed by China's state leaders to boost China's exports and its own development' (p.25). After noting how China's engagement with Africa has contributed to the continent's development, she then asks: 'Should we be critical of China's claim that its aid should foster mutual benefit ...? Shouldn't aid from such a powerhouse be mainly altruistic ...? (ibid.). Brautigam thinks the 'short answer to this is no' (ibid,), and this is where China's public diplomacy creeps into the analysis.

One of the unique characteristics of China's approach to public diplomacy is the concern with reaching both international and domestic audiences: the Chinese themselves are a principal target of the government's public diplomacy programme. This is understandable given the problems associated with the introduction of market capitalist practices (extremes of poverty, unemployment etc.) and, more importantly, the decline of ideology - communism - to legitimise the government's decisions and mobilise the people around a developmental agenda. Now, the authority of the Communist Party depends more than ever on its performance and the delivery of its economic promises. This helps explain the clear shift from complete dependence on old style propaganda campaigns to public diplomacy strategies that might encourage support (of the party and its policies) from the people.

Brautigam's analysis adds a new dimension to this description of China's public diplomacy by discussing 'expectations' (ibid.) of both domestic audiences and the international community (including the recipients of aid). Such 'engagement that is frankly about the benefits for China as well as the recipient ... avoids the paternalism that has come to characterize aid from the West.'

 It also avoids the hypocrisy that inevitably accompanies aid when the aspect of mutual benefit is papered over. For example, the US Agency for International Development routinely justifies its budge requests to Congress by showing the high percentage of aid that comes back as benefits for America. At the same time, it tries to convince NGO critics that aid is really about reducing poverty (ibid.)
Note that I am not making any judgement here about the validity of China's claims: Brautigam evaluates China's aid far better than I ever could. Rather, I wish to draw attention to China's claim itself, for mutual benefit is a powerful theme to communicate to domestic audiences, while the apparent transparency of motivations and the urge to avoid western-style paternalism ('hypocrisy') appeals to recipients. This communication aspect of China's aid programme can help explain its attraction and success. It is captured in the words of an African ambassador in the US who told Brautigam "China gives Africans more respect than they get from the West." His fellow African Ambassadors in the group with Brautigam 'nodded vigorously in agreement' (p.68). As Huang and Ding (2006: 24) have noted, 'A country's economic clout reinforces its soft power if others are attracted to it for reasons beyond trade, market access or job opportunities.' It would appear that the Ambassador's sentiments suggest that this strategy is working.
Brautigam, D. (2009/2011), The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Huang, Y.Z & S. Ding (2006), 'Dragon's Belly: An analysis of China's soft power,' East Asia, Vol.24 (4)

Friday, 7 December 2012

Monocle's soft power survey 2012

I have just bought the December/January issue of Monocle (vol.6, no.59) to read the results of its annual soft power survey. You can listen to a report on the survey here Monocle soft power survey 2012.

While there is much to enjoy in the survey, one can't help but feeling a little dissatisfied. The measures used to determine the top thirty are not explained or assessed; and while students of public diplomacy and soft power do tend to moan about the inadequacy of attempts to measure impact and effectiveness of strategies, it does seem that practitioners are paying far more attention than in the past to finding a solution. The latest offering is by Tara Sonenshine, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, who spoke about Measuring Public Diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC (3 December 2012). You can read her speech here Tara Sonenshine. In addition, scholarship in business and marketing studies can offer some guides to measuring intangibles, the best I have read so far being Robert S. Kaplan & David P. Norton (2004), Strategy Maps published by Harvard Business School. So it is a little frustrating to find surveys still using arbitrary measures of effectiveness and impact.

In the Monocle Top 30 soft powers , the UK is number 1. This is not surprising given that we are now ending a year of celebration which included the Olympics and Paralympics, the Queen's Jubilee and the recent announcement that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are expecting their first child. However, I do question whether the events of 2012 do measure the UK's soft power or the attraction of London? During the Olympic Games, the expected surge in trade and tourism for the rest of the country did not materialise. In other words, 2012 was good for London, but not necessarily for the UK.
I agree with Monocle's assessment: 'Yet just because Britain has soft power does not mean it necessarily knows how to use it. Cuts to both the Foreign Office and the BBC World Service will continue to chip away at the UK's overseas clout.' Regular readers of this blog will know my passion for the BBC World Service and my contempt for those who fail to recognise its strategic value (see BBC World Service).
The survey is also correct to question Britain's 'unappealing "Little Englander" attitude', but does so only in terms of the UK's relations with its European neighbours. More worrying are the policies enacted by the present Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government to make it far more difficult for overseas students wishing to come to the UK to obtain visas and limiting the time they can stay in the UK after graduating; and most shameful of all was the way the UK Border Agency revoked London Metropolitan University's status and paid no attention to the problems of the current students there (for a reminder of this story see London Metropolitan student visa rights revoked). Deliberately or not - in an otherwise landmark year for the UK's pulling-power - the British government sent a signal around the world that foreigners are not welcome. These measures come at a time when the economy is still in a mess (thanks to Con-Dem policies) and the spending power of overseas students would be most welcome.

The US is, of course, number 2 in Monocle's survey - no surprises there. But I did not know that the US has only 2 'cultural missions', compared to the UK's 184 and Germany's 142. In fact the US has the same number as Sweden ('The Swedes do soft power effortlessly', says the survey). There is no explanation of what the term 'cultural mission' means, and it could refer to a range of activities that are not necessarily carried out in the equivalent of the British Council or the Goethe Institute. Nevertheless, it does seem odd that such a huge and powerful country as the US does not consider culture as part of its formal soft power strategy. Perhaps the Americans think that exporting Hollywood movies, The Big Bang Theory and American Idol is sufficient?    

I found India's omission from the list rather peculiar, and Monocle does not explain why India has been left out. The Indian diaspora is a major audience for soft power, and given its size and influence, especially in the UK, one might expect this would work in India's favour when it comes to ranking. Moreover, the survey states that it has considered cuisine: It is difficult to avoid Indian food in the UK where curry is now the official national dish. 

Also missing from the survey are any Arab countries; in fact there are no Middle Eastern countries included at all except Israel whose soft power has taken a beating in the last few weeks following its attacks on Palestinians in Gaza. It would be very interesting to know whether the Arab Spring did help to bring any soft power cachet for Egypt and Tunisia (though the former is suffering now due to President Morsi's apparent grab for absolute power); and how does Al-Jazeera affect Qatar's soft power? Few people know about Qatar's repressive political system (and there have been worrying reports in the last few weeks about suppression of press freedom), yet knowledge of Al-Jazeera is universal. Has Al-Jazeera's growing credibility rubbed-off on Qatar at all? 

It has also been a good year for Bhutan, and although Monocle does consider 'Bhutan's plan to become the first country to go completely organic is its trump card', it does not make the final 30. Yet Gross National Happiness, championed by Bhutan for forty years, finally made in-roads at the United Nations this year. As I discussed in my blog posting in April (The soft power of happiness) this may have generated very positive soft power results for Bhutan, and for this reason alone I think it should have been ranked by Monocle.

OK, so perhaps I am being too harsh. Like an X Factor judge it is easy to criticise and there will always be someone else out there who could have made the cut if only they had not sung a medley from Annie; and I am sure you will have your own ideas about the survey and which countries should or should not have been included. Please do listen to Monocle's podcast and leave your comments here. I look forward to reading your opinions.     

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Jeh Johnson and the Fight against Al-Qaeda

Jeh Johnson, General Counsel for the US Department of Defense, has announced that the end of the armed conflict against al-Qaeda is fast approaching. He foresees how responsibility for engaging with terrorism will pass to 'the police and other law enforcement agencies.' Johnson has said: "... we must be able to say to ourselves that our efforts should no longer be considered an armed conflict against al-Qaida and its associated forces, rather a counter-terrorism effort against individuals who are the scattered remains of al-Qaida … for which the law enforcement and intelligence resources of our government are principally responsible." (See The Guardian's report  US heading for point when 'military pursuit of al-Qaida should end')

There are several points to challenge in Jeh Johnson's assessment. The first is his optimism about the trajectory of the conflict with al-Qaeda, and draws attention yet again to the inadvisability of using the term 'War on Terror' to describe the response to 9/11. On this point, Johnson says:

"I do believe that on the present course there will come a tipping point, a tipping point at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al-Qaida and its affiliates have been killed or captured, and the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States, such that al-Qaida as we know it, the organisation that our Congress authorised the military to pursue in 2001, has been effectively destroyed."

I do not need to repeat here the criticisms of claiming to launch a war on anything so ephemeral as a kind of terrorism whose perpetrators live and operate within decentralised networks. The organisation that carried out the atrocities on 9/11 may no longer be as much of a threat as it was in 2001, but this does not mean that the kind of terrorist activity undertaken by al-Qaeda and affiliated or sympathetic organisations/individuals do not remain a distinct possibility. You can't win a war on terror by simply killing terrorists, especially when you also kill civilians while hunting your quarry. Destroying homes, schools and devastating the land in executing 'war' is not only morally reprehensible, but also counter-productive: What feeds terrorist organisations and mobilises sympathy and recruitment more than the actions of their enemies against civilians? The actions taken in the name of the 'War on Terror' have merely reinforced al-Qaeda discourses that emphasise the crusader objectives of the US and its allies.  These issues have been discussed fully in the literature, and particularly useful is Steven R. Corman, Angela Trethewey and H.L Goodall (eds.), Weapons of Mass Persuasion: Strategic Communications to Combat Violent Extremism (Peter Lang: 2008).

The concern about the discourses and the very labels used to explain and justify the use of military action leads to the next problem in Jeh's assessment, namely the absence of any mention of public diplomacy. The so-called war against terror is really an information war or competition of narratives. Joseph Nye (The Future of Power, 2011: 19) makes this point very clearly:

'In an information age ... outcomes are shaped not merely by whose army wins but also by whose story wins. In the fight against terrorism, for example, it is essential to have a narrative that appeals to the mainstream and prevents its recruitment by radicals.'

Passing responsibility to law enforcement agencies and intelligence organisations is an insufficient strategy in this environment. If the US is serious about defeating terrorism, Mr Jeh should be making room for the role of information, communications and public diplomacy. There should be an explicit recognition that dialogue is essential with communities in the affected areas, but also in the principal recruiting grounds of the terrorist networks - and especially the US and UK. There needs to be greater attention to addressing the issues that push young Muslims into believing that there is no solution to their problems other than violence, and this means coming to terms with the poverty, unemployment, alienation and general dissatisfaction that many feel with their lives. Bringing the Muslim youth into a conversation about problems and solutions would be a step forwards. I wrote about some of these issues in my 23 March 2011 blog post, A Marked Man in America. It is disappointing that, eighteen months on and at a time when senior members of the US administration are seriously discussing the end of the military phase of the battle with al-Qaeda, apparently there is still no room for understanding the role that public diplomacy and genuine dialogue and discussion can play.           

Friday, 23 November 2012

Beethoven and International Broadcasting

One of the highlights of this year's Ilkley Literature Festival was John Suchet discussing his new biography of Beethoven ( John Suchet is a journalist, news-reader, a presenter on Classic FM and acclaimed Beethoven scholar, having written six books about his favourite composer.

During his talk in Ilkley, John briefly discussed the ways that Beethoven had not only touched, but had saved people's lives. I am sure he is aware that the opening four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony match the morse code for the letter 'V'. So it is understandable that, in the final days of World War Two, British radio broadcasts used these musical notes to reassure those in Europe living under Nazi occupation that victory was at hand, and members of the resistance movement began to paint the letter 'V' on walls throughout France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Beethoven was a major contributor in the psychological war.

In August 1991, the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, was the victim of a brief and unsuccessful coup d'etat (the August Putsch or August Coup). The leaders of this putsch were hardline members of the Communist Party who opposed Gorbachev's programme of reform and liberalisation (Perestroika and Glasnost, two buzzwords that became familiar in the late 1980s). The coup collapsed after only two days and Gorbachev returned to the government.

As a shortwave radio fanatic and student of politics I monitored Radio Moscow World Service (RMWS) throughout the coup. In those days the station was not difficult to find: RMWS broadcast on all shortwave bandwidths and the number of frequencies it used outnumbered any other radio station. The station's identification which sounded before the news at the top of the hour was very familiar: the chimes of the Kremlin, followed by Midnight in Moscow and an announcer with a pseudo-American announcer reminding us that we were listening to Radio Moscow World Service.

(This is a RMWS programme schedule. I actually received on of these in return for sending them a reception report)

On 19 August 1991, the tone and content of programming changed, and broadcasts contained far less news and more silences and music. One piece of music that the station repeated over and over convinced me that RMWS was broadcasting a signal to its listeners - the coup would not succeed. That piece of music was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with, in its opening bars, the distinctive morse code 'V' for victory. This was not the only signal. Those of us who obsessed about international radio broadcasting knew intimately the idiosyncrasies of each station. One unique characteristic of RMWS was that it only played music written by Russian composers, yet here it was at this dramatic and historic time playing the most famous work written by a German.

Of course it may all have been coincidental, the imaginings of a young mind convinced that shortwave radio broadcasts could and did play an important role in politics and international affairs (I was just starting my PhD research on this very topic). Yet I like to think that Radio Moscow World Service had made a conscious and strategic decision on that day - to use its power as a broadcaster to bypass the coup leaders and send a message to its listeners around the world: the coup will not succeed; everything is ok, and in the end it was - the putsch was defeated by popular resistance led by future Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, and by the disarray among the conspirators themselves. I also like to think that Beethoven played a small and significant role in the end of the coup and in the the dissolution of the Soviet Union as 1991 came to an end.     

Thursday, 22 November 2012

On Censorship

"All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship."  - George Bernard Shaw, Mrs Warren's Profession
"Withholding information is the essence of tyranny. Control of the flow of information is the tool of the dictatorship." - Bruce Coville

Censorship is the flipside to propaganda; it is incredibly difficult to succeed in the latter activity without paying due care and consideration to the former. After all, the selective use and dissemination of facts, information, news and opinion - all characteristics of propaganda - requires familiarity with censorship. I am surprised, however, that while the study of propaganda continues to attract academic attention, censorship has fared comparatively less well. Histories of propaganda, especially of the Nazi and Communist eras, and broader studies of warfare from World War One to the 2003 Iraq War, have naturally analysed the use of censorship. It is a recognised technique of persuasion used by governments and militaries, though like propaganda it is now used only as a pejorative label to signify the suppression of truth and accuracy.

However, as far as I know there is not a comprehensive study of the theory and practice of censorship, though I do hope that readers of this post will provide references to the literature I may have missed.

I am inspired to write about censorship after reading in the Observer newspaper (18 November 2012) a short article entitled 'How to turn damning press reviews into PR gold'. This refers to those moments in literature, theatre or film when 'Ambiguously phrased criticism is seized upon and passed off as possible praise'. The Observer article calls this 'Contextonomy'. So, one example:

Philip French, the Observer's film critic, on Anthony Page's 1979 remake of The Lady Vanishes:

Actual Quote: An amiable entertainment and about as necessary as a polystyrene version of the Taj Mahal. Hitchcock's 1938 comedy/thriller is a near-perfect artefact ... attaining a precise balance between suspense and laughter.

Quote Used by the film's marketing team: "Near-perfect ... a precise balance between suspense and laughter."

I use similar examples to teach my students about censorship. A bill-board outside a theatre may say 'Must see ...' when the critic actually wrote 'Must see to understand how incredibly bad this show really is.' There are no lies involved here, just the careful selection of facts; and by omitting information and context, these are good examples of censorship at work.

In studying, writing and talking about Chinese media and propaganda I am often faced with explaining how censorship works, even to the Chinese. The guide on my personal tour of CCTV in 2007 was anxious to show me the foreigners tapping away to produce copy. 'Look,' she exclaimed, 'no-one is standing over them looking over their shoulder.' Recently at a seminar in London, an employee at CCTV (not present at the seminar) had explained to a Professor of marketing that there is no censorship in CCTV; no-one tells the journalists what they can and cannot write, and no-one diligently checks their copy. I pointed out that censorship does not work like that - or at least, should not work like that - but then I was accused of perpetuating the stereotypes about Chinese communications and propaganda.

To be effective censorship must be subtle; it must go unnoticed. If the censorship is too obvious, then it loses its power. We are naturally curious creatures, and as the history of propaganda reveals to us time and time again, when audiences know that some information or news is being kept deliberately from them, they grow all the more determined to find out about it. When I am in China and BBC World's transmission on my hotel television suddenly disappears for thirty seconds, I know that the broadcast is being censored. Inevitably the question becomes: What is so interesting/dangerous/subversive that the Chinese censors feel the need to prevent me from seeing this item of news?

"To forbid us anything is to make us have a mind for it." - Michel de Montaigne.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Chinese government’s blatant media censorship only whets the popular appetite for forbidden information. When Zhao Ziyang, to many a hero of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, died after fifteen years of house arrest in January 2005, the Chinese government controlled coverage of his passing and his funeral. Information was scarce: ‘I live in Guangzhou, and that night I wasn’t able to access two Hong Kong TV stations, so I realised immediately that something major had happened. …’; ‘ … today … my grandmother said, “Zhao Ziyang died, why isn’t the news or the papers reporting it?” I was curious, so I went searching on the Internet, but I found I couldn’t open many Web sites, which made me think something was strange. …’; ‘This morning, I couldn’t connect to any overseas web sites, and I realised that something had happened …’; ‘Putting aside Zhao’s merits and faults for the time being, we have already completely lost the right to speak, and to hear about him! What kind of world is this?’ (Emily Parker, “Cracks in the Chinese Wall,” The Asian Wall Street Journal, 26 January 2005).

David King's wonderful collection of censored photographs from the Stalin era, The Commissar Vanishes (, provides a whole book-full of examples of not-so-subtle censorship techniques.

As King's book shows, simply blacking out faces with ink or paint was a common method of censorship during Stalin's era in power.

Another example, this time from China. This photo was taken at the funeral of Mao Zedong in 1976 and shows the country's leadership lining up to pay their respects.     

Spot the difference with the published version?

The so-called Gang of Four, including Mao's widow, all of whom were jailed (and some were executed) for their part in the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, were airbrushed from the official photo.
The Chinese - journalists and citizens writing on the internet - do find ways of circumscribing the official censorship architecture. A trawl through weibo, the Chinese twitter, reveals the code-words that users use to refer to otherwise sensitive topics, people and events. Journalists adopt strategies of self-censorship, and it is this that is a more worrying practice than overt forms of censorship. The laws on what can and cannot be said are so vague (I was told that there is no rule against talking about the Tiananmen Incident of 1989, but people just know you should not do it) that the perpetual climate of uncertainty prevents risk-taking.
However, it is clear that in an age of global media with information immediately available to everyone with access to a computer – and despite the Chinese government’s best attempts it is possible to circumvent the Great Firewall - it is becoming less and less easy for governments to manage information and the new public spaces that are materialising in cyberspace. Michel Hockx is correct when he says that internet censorship ‘does not necessarily confront Chinese writers and readers with an unfamiliar situation. Censorship is the norm, rather than the exception.’[i] But this should not and does not preclude value judgement of censorship or the possibility of change. Censorship may be ‘a fact of life’ and as observers we may be guilty of ‘foregrounding censorship’ which means ‘highlighting what does not appear on the Chinese internet’ and drawing attention away ‘from what does appear’.[ii] But the mechanisms of censorship reveal much about the architecture of government, elite opinion, and the perception of the power of communications. In accepting censorship as the norm we are in danger of overlooking one important detail: What is good for governance in China – the free flow of information and ideas – is ultimately bad for the Chinese government.
While the old fashioned censorship of Stalin and post-Mao era China may have disappeared (though who needs ink and paint when you have photoshop?), censorship continues to be the tool of choice for some governments who wish to manage the flow of communication and information. Surely it is time for a new comprehensive study of its theory and practice?

[i] Michel Hockx, ‘Virtual Chinese Literature: A Comparative Case Study of Online Poetry Communities’, in Culture in Contemporary China, eds. Michel Hockx and Julia Strauss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005): 151.
[ii] Ibid, 149.


Sunday, 30 September 2012

John F. Kennedy's "soft power"

Last night the Ilkley Literature Festival hosted a talk by Sir Roger Carrick about his recently published memoirs, Diplomatic Anecdotage: Around the World in 40 Years (Elliott & Thompson, 2012). Sir Roger's first diplomatic posting was in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1962. He then spent time in Washington DC, Chicago, Paris, Singapore and Jakarta, before retiring as Her Majesty's High Commissioner to Australia.

Sir Roger talks in his fascinating book about the reaction in Bulgaria to President Kennedy's assassination in November 1963:

'The queue to sign the American legation's book of condolences was huge, perhaps a kilometre long and three or four deep. ... the terrible tragedy had so gripped the Bulgarians as they had heard the news on the radio, that they had flocked to express real grief and sympathy ... Now, the Bulgarians, of all repressed and depressed people, spontaneously, and in impressively large numbers, had made a singular and singularly important gesture and demonstration of genuine feeling' (p.15).

Nick Cull's masterful and definitive study of The Cold War and the United States Information Agency (CUP, 2008) also references global reaction to the news of Kennedy's death: 'USIA surverys of editorial opinion around the world revealed a surge of sympathy for the United States at the time of Kennedy's death' (p.229).

Listening to Sir Roger read from his book made me question the significance of President Kennedy as a symbol of America's values, principles and hopes at the start of the 1960s - what we may today call 'soft power'. Sir Roger provides a hint of an explanation in his book: 'We were of the generation,' he says, 'that, despite incipient, even growing cynicism, saw Jack Kennedy as a hope for the succeeding generations, the young people of the world, and not just the then Free World.'

I can't explain it, and I invite comments from readers who might have more insight into the reason for this swell of grief behind the Iron Curtain. We are all familiar with the Kennedy myth - youth, charm, Camelot, a sense of renewal and optimism, the New Frontier - but is this a narrative constructed with the benefit of hindsight and because of the way Kennedy was killed at such a young age? How widespread was this narrative accepted in those parts of the world that were ideologically opposed to the US and everything it stood for? My library on Cold War history is surprisingly quiet on this subject, though I did find the following passage in Michael R. Beschloss's Kennedy v. Khrushchev (Faber & Faber 1991): 'Peking schoolchildren applauded when told of the assassination. A Chinese editorial cartoon showed the President lying on his face, his necktie stamped with dollar signs: KENNEDY BITING THE DUST' (p.676). Beschloss tells us that it was a 'personal tragedy' for Khrushchev; Moscovites praised Kennedy and grieved that such a good man had been murdered; Russian poets penned their own eulogies; and Tatyana and Yegenya Scherbakov of Bryansk wrote, 'Let the thought that the grief is shared by one hundred million Russian women help Mrs Kennedy to survive her grief' (Beschloss, p.677-680).

Both Beschloss and Cull describe the aftermath of the assassination: The former recounts the need for the Johnson administration not only to continue Kennedy's style of managing US-Soviet relations, but also to capitalise in a strategic way on the shared grief in Moscow; Cull reveals how the United States Information Agency managed American public diplomacy to help create the Kennedy legend and present the Johnson administration as a credible successor.

So it seems that a considerable amount of American soft power was invested in Kennedy, and a huge quantity of resources was devoted to American public diplomacy in the immediate aftermath of his death. But what made this soft power so successful? His relations with the Soviet Union were stormy to say the least; he was responsible for the Bay of Pigs fiasco; and he was the reason the United States became involved in Vietnam. So is the explanation simply that he was Jack Kennedy - that it is all about the man and the fact the he generated a wave of hope and optimism among supporters and critics alike? Is it, as I have long suspected, because this youngest ever President was only 46 when he was murdered during his first term in office? I look forward to reading your views.

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend
(The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962)          

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Digital Diplomacy

The Economist this week  (22-28 September) includes a brief discussion of what it calls 'virtual relations' and 'digital diplomacy'. The article reviews how 'Foreign ministries are getting the hang of social media.' We are told that the US State Department has 'spawned 194 Twitter accounts and 200 Facebook pages':

About 20 British ambassadors are now on Twitter. Russia's foreign ministry is said to have more that 40 Twitter accounts. Israel has announced it will make more use of e-diplomacy. Even China, which heavily censors social media at home, is interested in using them as a diplomatic tool abroad.
       [Barack Obama's Twitter audience] of nearly 20m followers dwarfs the one of Venezuela's autocratic Hugo Chavez (3.4m) and Russia's prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev (1.5m).

I remain an e-agnostic. For one thing, these statistics tell us nothing about content: in public diplomacy does size really matter? I understand the motivation for wishing to participate in an already overcrowded information landscape, and I do not agree with critics who claim social media are another 'Trojan horse' for cultural or political imperialism. This is a naive argument that gives the social media too much power. Besides, audiences will always interpret messages in ways that may surprise the source and contradict the original motivation for the communication. In soft power, the power is rarely in the hands of the source and almost always resides with the audience.

When it comes to diplomatic activity and communications, I believe that we must be cautious in advocating the use of social media. Mere presence in the virtual sphere is meaningless without substantive content. Just as public diplomacy is not a panacea for bad policies, e-diplomacy is not a solution for poor presentation and communication. Governments looking to participate in the world of the social media must identify first the reasons for doing so, and second the expected outcomes.  Mere presence in an overcrowded information environment is an insufficient reason. As Joseph Nye wrote in The Future of Power (2011: 103): 'Plentiful information leads to scarcity of attention. When people are overwhelmed with the volume of information confronting them, they have difficulty knowing what to focus on. Attention, rather than information, becomes the scarce resource, and those who can distinguish valuable information from background clutter gain power.'

Sifting the 'background clutter' is not easy when we are faced with both information overload and time scarcity. Gone are the days when we could casually 'surf' the internet in response to Microsoft's question, 'Where do you want to go today?' Authority, trust and credibility of information is far more important than ever before and training users of the internet - especially diplomats - to think critically about the authenticity of both the source and the message is more urgent than at any time in the past. Most of us access very few websites every day and tend to rely on established print and television media - even if we no longer buy a newspaper from a vendor but instead access it online - for our news and information. We will still depend on 'old' media to guide us: Wikileaks was most valuable when its cables were republished in the Guardian, the New York Times, El Pais, Le Monde and Der Spiegel. The second tranche of cables which were not published in the press met a more muted response: the newspapers were able to contextualise the information for its readers, analyse it and explain its importance. We had time and space to digest what we read. Without this process of mediation, the relevance of such information is lost.

Hence, it pays to be cautious and not be too optimistic about the contribution of the social media to the gathering of intelligence, especially about public opinion. Reading China's Weibo may offer a far more raw, accurate and thorough insight into how its users think and feel about certain topics than any of the official mainstream media. The Economist article calls this 'diplomatic preparedness.' While it will remain difficult to predict events, despite what the article thinks, monitoring seriously the social media does provide the extra information that can supplement the intelligence diplomats should be gathering from elsewhere. However, there is still a need to contextualise the information and understand its source: how representative is Weibo if the majority of its users are young, University educated Chinese living on the eastern seaboard? Diplomats will never find a perfect substitute for leg-work, for getting out into the streets and talking to people face to face. It sounds simple and easy: I wonder how many diplomats actually still do it?

A thorough discussion of how American diplomats use the social media as a source of information, and to facilitate public diplomacy activities, is provided in William Kiehl's edited volume, The Last Three Feet. See my blog

Saturday, 15 September 2012

A not so subtle reminder ...

My friend and mentor, Phil Taylor, often explained to me why, despite being criticised for being 'inside' the system, of being too close and involved with his research subjects, he developed a close working relationship with the British and US militaries. For him, communications were a way of saving lives. It is always better to persuade and inform than to coerce and kill. Whenever a member of the British or US psyops teams was killed in action in Afghanistan or Iraq, Phil became depressed and withdrawn; he took each death personally.

Phil had been inspired when, during his PhD research, he found a record of an encounter at the end of the First World War between Lord Northcliffe, Director of Enemy Propaganda at Crewe House, and a General who asked Northcliffe what he had done during the war. Northcliffe replied, 'propaganda, that sort of thing.' The General growled, 'Filthy business,' to which Northcliffe replied, 'While you were piling up the casualty lists we were trying to cut them down. If I can persuade one German to throw down his rifle, I have deprived Germany of a soldier, without also having to kill the man.'

This had a profound impact on Phil and became the philosophical framework for his intellectual pursuits. All members of the military who paid tribute to him after he passed away remarked on his commitment to 'propaganda for peace.' His good friend, Professor Stephen Badsey, recalled how, on a visit to the Tyne Cot World War One Cemetery, Phil was angered by the sight of rows of white headstones: 'This just shows how important psyops are for us now,' he said.

I was reminded of Phil last week as I attended a wonderful conference organised by my colleagues in Taiwan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) London on the theme Globalisation and Security Across the Taiwan Strait. One panel was devoted to military matters and, following a theoretical paper about the possibility of conflict and an interesting discussion by American colleagues on cyberwarfare, an academic working in an American military academy took to the podium. His paper was little more than a salute to military hardware, and his powerpoint presentation showed a succession of photographs of the planes, trucks and missiles that Taiwan's military might use to defend itself in the event of an attack from the PRC. I became increasingly disturbed and ran through a gamut of emotions - distressed, nauseous, angry, repulsed - as we were told 'some arms races are affordable' and 'mines are beautiful.' Some of my fellow participants looked decidely uncomfortable. I decided to challenge the paper presenter about his comments.

I thanked the panel for reminding me how important it is to continue working on communications, soft power and public diplomacy so we can try to avoid having to use such hardware. I told the presenter that military hardware is not 'beautiful'; the pictures he had shown were of ugly, brutal machines designed to destroy, maim and kill humans. Children in parts of Africa, Central America and South East Asia who stand on landmines left over from conflicts in the last three decades see no beauty in the devices that wound or kill them. His failure to mention casualties at all in his presentation was a serious omission. Moreover, no arms race is affordable; every $1 million spent on such military hardware is $1 million that could have been spent on a hospital, a school, or improving the lives of the most vulnerable in our society. Which is more effective, someone asked, an F15 or an F16? Which should Taiwan prioritise? When you are the target of its missiles, is there really any difference?

This conference was a stark reminder to me that despite the often abstract and critical discussions we have about soft power, public diplomacy, and international communications in general, they can and do have an impact: such proccesses can play a central role to play in policy-making; in persuading governments that there really is an alternative to hard power; and that the academic labels we attach to such communicative activities is less important than their application and the recognition that it is always preferable to persuade than to coerce. I left the conference realising that it is more important than ever that we continue Phil's work and for the same reasons. Not such a 'Filthy business' after all ...



Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Comments on Weibo

At the weekend I was asked by contacts at China's English language newspaper, The Global Times, to comment on the way The People's Daily and Xinhua now use Weibo (China's major social networking site). The final report can be found here:

However, my more provocative and critical comments were exorcised and so I publish my brief reply to the journalist here.

The fact that official newspapers like the People's Daily and government institutions like Xinhua have opened Weibo accounts is very interesting, exciting and reveals a lot about what is happening in Chinese attitudes towards the information space. We have a saying in English: 'If you can't beat them, jon them,' and governments all over the world - including authoritarian governments like China - are quickly learning that it is preferable to engage with the information space rather than remain outside or try to control it. They are also learning that today politics is about the competition of narratives, and so by launching Weibo accounts the Chinese government understands that it must try to spin the narrative. While controls still exist - the Great Firewall is still an important method for the Chinese state to manage the internet and its use (and remember that the media in China have been subject to far greater and tighter controls under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao) - thinking about, shaping and managing the story and its interpretation is far more effective. Weibo and other social media allow for genuine dialogue, and it will be interesting to see whether the People's Daily and Xinhua (ie the Chinese state) uses Weibo as a genuine platform for more discussion with Chinese civil society, or whether Weibo becomes simply another vehicle of Communist propaganda. Weibo is a wonderful site for creative subversion by the Chinese people and is fast becoming a space where criticism of the government is voiced and civil society is mobilised. What will happen if this voice becomes too loud or the users are mobilised in a political way that reminds us of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011? At that time we saw that the government will still use old-fashioned methods of coercion and control to close Weibo and manage discussion on it. There is no reason why the state would not use its authority in the same way in the future.

Friday, 31 August 2012

The Last Three Feet (ed. William Kiehl)

The Last Three Feet (Public Diplomacy Council, 2012), edited by William Kiehl, is a significant contribution to the ever expanding literature on public diplomacy. The book uses the case-sudy approach to understand how American 'public diplomacy actually works on the ground, the challenges public diplomacy officers and specialists face in conducting ther duties, and the tools they employ to achieve their goals'. This is achieved by allowing the public diplomacy field officers to speak for themselves and describe their work in a range of environments, including China, Bahrain, Brazil, Pakistan, Turkey and Iraq. The dominant theme of the book is engagement: each of the officers provides a candid assessment of their work and how well they were able to bridge Ed Murrow's famous 'Last Three Feet' using traditional and modern methods of communication. Hence most of the chapters describe how the officers have embraced the social media to create new dialogues with the people they are trying to reach, bringing them into the conversations that may be started at the embassy, and using these tools to reinforce the more traditional methods of engagement: In Brazil Facebook works alongside the Youth Ambassador Programme and the creation of new-style "American Centres" (@America) in Indonesia. In Bahrain, the social media have become a major source of intelligence for American diplomats, which means interpretation and verification of open-source information becomes a responsibility of the diplomat that is more important than ever before. In June 2011, Under Secretary McHale asked, 'How do we stand out and respond in ... a crowded and complex environment? Our answer is simple: By taking our public diplomacy into the market place of ideas.' As this book highlights, this answer is far from simple despite what McHale thinks, and engaging in the new, crowded 'market place of ideas' is fraught with potential problems.

Most valuable are the discussions of 'lessons learned' by each of the contributing authors; but equally these are the most disturbing parts of the book. Time and again I read of an "innovation" in pd practice and found myself howling aloud: 'Don't they already do that?' Maintaining websites and a presence in the social media has little strategic value useless unless you are able to first determine how they will further your ambitions and help you achieve your objectives; while understanding how these platforms work and how the audience uses them is absolutely crucial. Having a mere presence in the virtual public sphere is no longer sufficient; the dialogue and discussion will continue without you. Hence in Turkey, the US Embassy 'learned to approach the design of our programs with the audience's needs in mind - rather than merely our own.'

The public diplomacy officers at the American embassy in Pakistan discovered something that had apparently eluded their predecessors: 'an English-language newspaper with a circulation of a few thousand readers was not a significant part of the Pakistani media, and only when a story appeared in the Urdu media would it be noteworthy.' Thus more effort was devoted to monitoring, analysing and reporting on the Urdu-language media, with round-the-clock TV watching as an important supplementary activity (Pakistan has a high illiteracy rate so TV plays a big part in the lives of most Pakistanis). The Public Affairs Section in the Embassy writes a Pakistan Media Analysis which is despatched to Washington DC:

                    'At first, we were surprised by its popularity. Officers from the Pakistan desk in the State Department started to mention it. Then we heard that the Pakistan team at the National Security Staff in the White House read it every morning. Congressional staffers began to hear about it, and we put them on the distribution list. New officers arriving at the post mentioned its popularity in official Washington.'  
Wait a moment ... does this mean that DC did not receive any brief from its embassy in Pakistan   about the content of local media before? Had no-one dealing with Pakistan in the State Department or White House even asked for such an assessment? DON'T THEY DO THIS ALREADY? Surely monitoring the local media is not just Public Diplomacy 101, but has always been a crucial component of diplomatic activity? Didn't I "discover" this twenty years ago in my PhD research on American and British public diplomacy in the 1950s and early 1960s?
More frustrating revelations follow: 'The next generation of successful PDOs will make PD programs such a natural and integral part of an embassy's exercise of smart power that we will stop thinking about public diplomacy as a separate diplomatic function.' These debates are still going on in the Foreign Service?
'American and locally employed staff members at US embassies and consulates live and work in the local environment and should know best what the host nation is thinking. Why not let the field post drive the process rather than leave it to the massive bureacuracy in Washington that may have the financial resources but not the knowledge of how best to apply them. ... The cookie-cutter, one size fits all prescriptions from headquarters rarely hit the mark.'  This is good advice, and would certainly help to overcome the identified problem in Pakistan where 'the least amount of attention' was given to understanding 'what people are saying and thinking'.
The Last Three Feet is an important description and analysis of American public diplomacy by field officers, but I do feel a sense of disappointment and even anger that, in 2012 members of the American Foreign service are writing about having such 'Road to Damascus' moments. Half a century on from Ed Murrow's tenure as Director of the USIA, conquering the Last Three Feet may remain the most important, but perhaps most challenging work of the public diplomacy officer; but it seems that convincing your colleagues of the value of your work is still a priority.       

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

An Alternative Exploration of China

In my last posting I discussed how the BBC is inadvertently helping China accumulate and exercise soft power. Its television programme, Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure finished its run on Sunday 26 August with visits to Guangzhou and Taiwan. I noted the programme's apolitical content and the way the crew had apparently been able to film without any official hindrance.

Last night I watched Never Say Sorry, a stunning documentary film about the Chinese artist Ai Wewei. The contrast with Exploring China could not be more obvious, and anyone seeking a more rounded perspective of life in new China should see this film. Ai Weiwei's bravery is inspiring, and the brutality of the Chinese system is quite frightening. Two issues concerning communications emerge from this film:

First, the documentary undermines the soft power advantage that China may have accumulated in other areas. It documents the lack of transparency, especially around the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, and the Big Brother tactics that the police use in following, monitoring and beating Ai and his friends (the most vivid scenes in the film are those of the cameraman filming the policeman filming the cameraman). There is nothing unexpected here, and all of us who follow Chinese politics are fully aware of the problems of living under an authoritarian state. Hence there is a startling inconsistency between how China wishes to project itself and the reality of life there. This credibility gap is a serious problem for the Chinese authorities, and no amount of public diplomacy activities, international broadcasting or Confucius Institutes is going to change that. If China wonders why the international community is so critical of it, the Chinese authorities need to look at their behavour towards their own people first. This film will damage the credibility of China's official soft power work.

However, the most compelling theme to emerge from this film is the strength of an autonomous sphere within artistic circles and even within civil society. Contrary to popular portraits of the Chinese people as passive recipients of centrally directed information and instructions, Never Say Sorry is a remarkable testimony to the growing soft power of a civil society that is challenging the state in more open and innovative ways than at any time in the past. In 2005, Michel Hockx and Julia Strauss edited a volume of essays called Culture in the Contemporary PRC (Cambridge University Press). These brilliant essays made uncomfortable reading as they discussed the lack of creativity in many areas of China's cultural landscape. I am delighted that the perspective offered in this book are now out of date, and Never Say Sorry demonstrates not just the level of artistic creativity thriving in modern China, but also the inventive methods used to challenge the Chinese state. Ai Weiwei is an obsessive tweeter, photographing everyone and everything around him as a permanent record of his experiences. His role in mobilising civil society to support the causes he cares about is not only dramatic proof of the power of modern social media in China, but also the determination of Chinese people - his followers - to stand up and be counted, often at great personal risk. This is Chinese soft power, but it is the soft power of civil society, not the state or the nation, and the film addresses issues that will resonate with and appeal to audiences.

I always impress upon my students, especially those who are not Chinese and therefore may not be aware of the intensity of public debate in social media such as Weibo, that they should analyse the creativity of young Chinese in highlighting and commenting on political issues. Here I include some examples that take as their starting point an obviously photo-shopped picture of three local officials inspecting a road.

In the meantime, if you have enjoyed Exploring China as much as I have, try to watch Never Say Sorry and explore an alternative view of the modern PRC. It might make for more uncomfortable viewing than the Culinary Adventure, but it may be equally inspiring. 

Sunday, 12 August 2012

China's Gastrodiplomacy on BBC2

I am enjoying a new series on BBC 2 called Exploring China:A Culinary Adventure, presented by Ken Hom (from Hong Kong living in the US) and Ching-He Huang (from Taiwan living in the UK). Ken and Ching-He are travelling through China to experience the regional cuisines and to find out whether the economic transformation of the country has changed the dietry habits of the Chinese and their style of cooking. On the way, they discuss their own backgrounds and talk about rediscovering their Chinese roots.

Gastrodiplomacy is becoming a defined field of international communications and engagement in its own right, and my friend Paul Rockower has written a lot about this on his own blog (the links are on the left hand side of this page). Exploring China is not only a contribution to China's gastrodiplomacy, but also demonstrates Chinese soft power in action.

First, both presenters never tire of explaining how China has changed since they last visited (Ken Hom in the politically-turbulent year of 1989, but so far he has not mentioned that this was the year when the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred) and pointing out the new additions to the landscape as evidence of China's transformation. In each episode they also venture outside the cities to provide a nice juxtaposition of modern and traditional: Clearly the message is 'The more things change, the more they stay the same ... ' They have so far encountered no obstacles in their journey, no-one trying to prevent their filming or denying them access to anywhere, and their own cooking has been greeted with a unanimous 'hao che' - delicious.

So the programme is apolitical, which is not unexpected in a programme about food. The presenters' enthusiasm and excitement is infectious, while tempting viewers to not only eat Chinese cuisine, but to try cooking it at home (the BBC website where the recipies are published is advertised regularly during the programme). This is an aromatic, tasty, spicy, and above all good-natured portrait of China. The culinary diversity is a gateway into understanding the cultural and social diversity of modern China, which is welcome in an information and news environment which tends to over-concentrate on Beijing (for political news) and Shanghai (for economic stories). The Chinese government could not have asked for a better introduction to its country, especially when its own soft power strategy was designed as a reaction to the alleged demonization of China by the western media. Here the BBC, one of the most internationally powerful, influential and trusted media organisations, is helping China realise its own ambitions; and that is not meant as a criticism. It is a side-product, an unintended consequence of an excellent television programme. 
Moreover, the fact that both presenters are culturally Chinese, but that neither is from the PRC, adds an interesting dimension. We are not exactly seeing China through the eyes of outsiders, but both Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang are nevertheless sufficiently removed from China to see the country in a refreshing light that does challenge the stereotypes and misconceptions that so aggravate the Chinese . In other words, through Exploring China the country is accumulating an incredible amount of soft power capital without having to do anything except allow two chefs and their film crews wander around markets and into kitchens to cook. It is an authentic non-Chinese (and therefore a most credible) induction into China that is likely to match, if not surpass the efforts of the Confucius Institutes, CCTV 9 and CNC.  

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Preaching to the converted, or a small step in the right direction?

The following report was published in the Taipei Times on 12 July: '"Study camp" introduces nation to allied countries' (

Twenty-eight representatives from Taiwan's diplomatic allies in the Pacific - Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu (what do you mean you have never heard of them?) - are visiting the island as part of its 'cultural diplomacy' strategy. The visitors will attend seminars on a range of subjects including relations with China, the economy and, most importantly, democracy. Among the particpants are politicians, the media and representatives from  business.

It would be easy to be both cynical and sceptical about the Study Camp programme which started in 2010: the Taipei Times is stretching the definition of Cultural Diplomacy; and isn't this preaching to the converted? Surely Taiwan does not need to convince its allies that Taiwan is a vibrant, democratic society? Shouldn't more effort be devoted to such activities in those countries which do not recognise the international status of Taiwan?

However, every journey begins with one step, and this is a small step in the right direction. First, it is extremely important that Taiwan maintain the few diplomatic allies it has left (and not through the old methods of cheque-book diplomacy that occurred in Central America and which my PhD student, Colin Alexander, writes about). The cup is either half empty or half full: Taiwan has only 23 formal allies? Or Taiwan has 23 formal allies, despite decades of pressure from the PRC to switch allegiance. As students of Taiwan we too often focus on the former, more depressing picture, and lose sight of the more positive perspective. After all, the symbolic significance of losing even the smallest ally would be devastating for Taiwan; when you have only 23 formal diplomatic allies, one is a lot to lose (and there is the possibility of a domino effect to factor in to this scenario).

Second, the Study Camp is targeting the right demographics -  the movers and shakers who may also be opinion leaders. Public diplomacy often works best through local authoritative figures, and provided the politicians and media are trusted in these societies (and I am ashamed to say I know little about the political situation in Tuvalu or Nauru) then they are in a strong position to mediate information and opinion on behalf of Taiwan.

Third, these opinion leaders are visiting Taiwan to expand their knowledge of that society; this is not remote work being undertaken in their home countries, but is rather an attempt to showcase Taiwan first hand. There is no substitute for such endeavours. If you want people to know Taiwan and to love Taiwan, they must be given the opportunity to see, touch, smell and taste Taiwan ('Taiwan will touch your heart,' said the old logo - which is far better than the current pedestrian and meaningless 'Taiwan, the heart of Asia').

Finally, learning about democracy is on the agenda. The report does not say anything about how this is communicated to the vistors (further research by yours truly is required), but at least the diplomats are paying attention to its value as a strategic narrative. All in all, a small step in the right direction.            

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Flying the Flag: Branding UK Aid and Public Diplomacy

On 25 June 2012 the UK's Department for International Development (DfID) unveiled plans to re-brand British overseas aid. "From today," declared the department's website (, "the new UK aid logo will be applied to items like emergency grain packets, schools and water pumps."  From now on, all recipients of aid will see the Union Flag and a statement that the aid comes "From the British people." 
My first thoughts on seeing this news were decidedly negative: surely such branding detracts from the act of giving? Don't we keep telling our students that in public diplomacy actions speak louder than words? 
Moreover, there is something faintly imperialist not only in using the Union Flag in this way, but also in reminding the recipents of the aid to be grateful to the British people - that they owe their clean water, health care, schools, etc. to the generosity of the developed world. 
A thoughtful commentary by Rob Crilly, the Daily Telegraph's Pakistan correspondent, questioned the value of branding British aid and considered that it might actually do more harm than good; that it may in fact undermine the credibility of the programme and that the "unbranded brand" has been sufficiently powerful and successful. He advocates, and I initially agreed, that we should let the aid speak for itself (    

However, having thought through the possible consequences of this decision for British public diplomacy, I had a change of heart and concluded that perhaps this rebranding exercise may just have a positive payoff after all. When the media correctly focuses on the problems caused by the invasions of, and continued wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention having to deal with the legacy of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib - public diplomacy disasters in their own right - the British and American governments have let slip through their fingers countless public diplomacy opportunities to remind audiences about their assistance to Muslim communities across the world (for example, NATO's intervention in Bosnia; the response to the 2004 tsunami in the Indian ocean). This is needed to help counter the prevailing narratives that the UK and the US have co-operated in a war against Muslims and Islam.  So it is possible that the the new logo will go help to demonstrate to the international community that international assistance does not come from a faceless bureaucratic machinery or from governments, but from the people who have too many times been the victims of terrorist atrocities. It may have come too late - I am writing this blog on the seventh anniversary of Al-Qadea's terrorist attack in London - but it is a small step in rebalancing public diplomacy efforts towards a people-to-people strategy. Perhaps better late than never.

Yet flaws remain, and the most serious problem is that the British government has not explained the rebranding as a way of boosting the UK's public diplomacy. Rather, it seems designed to make the British people feel better about themselves. Unveiling the new logo, the International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said:"For too long, Britain has not received the credit it deserves for the amazing results we achieve in tackling global poverty.... It is right that people in villages, towns and cities around the world can see by whom aid is provided ... And I am determined that, from now on, Britain will not shy away from celebrating and taking credit for them." In other words, it is all about the British receiving the gratitude of the people they are helping. 

So, the right action for the wrong reasons. Such explanations do fuel suspicion about British arrogance and ambition. Public diplomacy is not about taking credit; it is about building relationships. If the Secretary had noted that branding British aid helps to make connections between the source and the recipient, then the decision may have been received with more warmth.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Set-backs in Taiwan's soft power

My core belief about Taiwan's soft power strategy is that it emphasises the wrong story: the narratives of Taiwan's successful democratisation and its current position as the first Chinese democracy are routinely ignored in favour of attempts to label Taiwan as the preserver of traditional Chinese culture. However, there is a significant flaw in my argument to which I need to draw attention, and that flaw is the continued use of the death penalty.

A recent report by the BBC  ( highlights how Taiwan's judiciary often base their sentencing on unreliable evidence (or most disturbing of all, sometimes no evidence whatsoever). While this is hardly unique to Taiwan - all countries which mainain the death penalty risk making mistakes in sentencing the innocent to such a fate - this practice does constrain Taiwan's image as a maturing democracy and as a contrast to the PRC. Criticism by important organisations such as the European Union, and Amnesty International, more used to pointing the finger at the PRC than at Taiwan, has damaged its soft power.

However, I would suggest that what is more worrying than the fact that Taiwan maintains this barbaric practice, is that the political elites fear the wrath of public opinion should they decide to abolish the death penalty. Just because 'surveys show that more than 70% of the population favours it' does not make it right; sometimes leaders have to lead against public opinion - that is as much a characteristic of democracy as following it. The current President of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, a keen advocate of 'Soft power', ended a short three year moratorium (2006-9) and appointed Justice Tseng Yung-fu who ordered four people executed in 2010 and a further five in 2011. 15 convicts were sentenced to death at the Supreme Court last year.

There are now 57 inmates serving time on death row. If Taiwan really wants to project itself as a benevolent democracy - and to provide an alternative to authoritarian rule in the PRC - then the abolition of the death penalty despite public opinion may just help elevate its international image and thus gather for Taiwan a little more support, respect and sympathy.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Sesame Street in Pakistan

Regular readers of this blog will know of my love for the American children's TV programme, Sesame Street, and my conviction of its role in international outreach. Its role in developing educational programmes around the world has been one of the greatest public diplomacy (or education diplomacy) success stories, mainly for two reasons: (i) it demonstrates the importance of acting positively and creating new opportunities and relationships with audiences (the importance of actually doing something, rather than just talking about it); and (ii) by encouraging local media organisations to create their own versions of Sesame Street that are embedded within local cultural contexts, the producers demonstrate a sensitivity to their audiences: "The US government thought it was on to a winner when it gave $20m (£13m) to fund a Pakistani version of the show, hoping it would raise the country's woeful literacy rates and help turn a young generation away from the siren call of religious extremism."

A report in yesterday's Guardian newspaper is therefore quite disturbing ( It seems that the US Agency for International Development is withdrawing funding for the Pakistani version of Sesame Street, Sim Sim Hamara, because of 'financial irregularities', mismanagment and even corruption. Obviously the local prodcers, Rafi Peer, have denied the allegations.

Whatever the reason this is a very regrettable episode, and over above the soft power interests of developing a local version of Sesame Street, the only losers are Pakistan's children trapped in illiteracy.  

Monday, 4 June 2012

North Korea threatens to attack South Korean media

"There are but two powers in the world - the sword and the mind. In the long run, the sword is always beaten by the mind" - Napoleon Bonaparte. 

This quotation was used as the opening line of my PhD thesis almost twenty years ago, and came to mind again when I read an interesting story published by Channel News Asia ( which describes how the regime in North Korea has threatened to attack a number of South Korean media. Pyongyang has accused  major newspapers, Chosun Ilbo and JoongAng Ilbo, and three TV channels (KBS, MNBC, and SBS) of engaging in propaganda in their coverage of the 66th anniversary of the Korean Children's Union.

Seoul is right to take such threats seriously, and this episode suggests that the new leadership in Pyongyang is still consolidating its power. Identifying external enemies is, of course, always an easy way of mobilising support and boosting popular legitimacy. The media is the easiest target of all in the short run, but states who make enemies of the media would do well to remember Napoleon's remarks.

This story also demonstrates that the media are increasingly regarded as 'legitimate' targets by regimes around the world - whether it is Pyongyang, or the deliberate bombing of Al-Jazeera in Afghanistan and Iraq by US forces. This is a very worrying development in international communications and journalism and we need to do all we can to make sure that states are never again allowed to shoot the messenger.



Tuesday, 29 May 2012

An interesting few days in Chinese soft power

Phil Seib of the USC Centre on Public Diplomacy has published an interesting blog on Chinese soft power ( I share Phil's assessment of China's exercise of soft power and its public diplomacy strategy.

Phil's posting comes at the end of a very interesting week which I think clearly reveals a degree of confusion in Beijing about what soft power is, how it works and what the government would like to achieve by exercising it.

We witnessed a minor victory for China in persuading the US State Department to reverse a ruling on accreditation that would have had serious consequences for the work of the Confucius Institutes. Needless to say the major Chinese newspapers were extremely vocal in protest (though the escape of Chen Guangcheng's brother, Chen Guangfu, received no coverage). It is interesting to consider whether this reversal (as it was described by the Chinese media) by the State Department represents the impact of hard power on soft power in that traditional diplomatic institutions are engaged in dispute about the architecture of their soft power strategies(?) There is clearly an interaction taking place here that deserves further consideration. I have not found much coverage of this event in the American media and would welcome from my State-side friends any comments on whether and how this has been reported.     

At the same time, China was extremely critical of the publication in the US of the State Department's annual report on human rights which singled out human rights abuses in the PRC. China's State Council Information Office almost immediately hit back by publishing its own Human Rights Record of the United States in 2011. More information is available here While of course China is both entitled and correct to point out the double standards in US discourse, to do so in response to the publication of the US's report reveals the PRC's insecurity and lack of confisence in its growing stature; the reactive and defensive nature of China's ppublic diplomacy; and perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates that China has still not learned that being able to tolerate (even if you cannot accept) international criticism is a major asset in soft power terms.

The final interesting development over the last week was the visit by 51 ambassadors and ministers from 49 countries to the Publicity Department. Not surprisingly the official Chinese media reported how the visitors had enjoyed their visit, had asked many interesting questions and learned a lot (see Of course diplomats would not say anything else in fear of insulting their hosts. What is important here is that the visit took place at all: the Publicity Department is the English name for the Propaganda Bureau of the Communist Party which is located in an unmarked building next to the seat of power in Beijing, Zhongnanhai. This seems to be another step in China's determination to convert (at least for foreign audiences) propaganda into public diplomacy.

By far the best description of the structure and inner working of the Propaganda Bureau/Publicity Department is Anne-Marie Brady's Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China (2009).