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.