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.