Tuesday, 17 December 2013

All Fluff and No Substance: Monocle's Soft Power Survey 2013

Monocle magazine has just published its 2013 soft power survey, and having banged my head against a brick wall as I read it (far preferable to the alternative of sticking a fork in my eye), I have come to the conclusion that the term 'soft power' is today more misunderstood than at any time in the past. Perhaps we really do need to reconsider the concept's utility and find a better term to capture its original (political) meaning and consequences. For one thing, the 'power' in soft power has all but disappeared, and this is reflected in Monocle's commentary on its 2013 survey.

The article begins with this statement: 'Footballers playing abroad in the top leagues, major events screened around the globe, the competitors and teams that stand out from the crowd - all of these have an impact on how a country is viewed'. This may be true, but this is not 'power'; it is merely a reflection of what makes something attractive, and that 'something' is not necessarily a country. Chinese teenagers may be obsessed with Manchester United, but do not necessarily equate this football club with either the UK or with British power.

Things get more frustrating as the article moves to a horse-race evaluation of who's up and who's down in 2013. The article makes these observations about Sweden (#6):

It may not lead in the medal tables at the Olympics or make blockbuster films, but it scores highly on the boring stuff: good governance, education, gender equality (emphasis added).
Such assessments do nothing but devalue soft power. This 'boring stuff' is precisely what soft power is all about - national values, principles and the style/outcomes of governance. Everything else - from footballers to movies to pop groups - is the fluff, the superficial 'stuff' that has little political value. (I also find it a little strange that Monocle should ask of Sweden, 'Would it be too much trouble to open more than two Swedish Institutes', yet fails to ask any similar question of the United States (#3) which only has two cultural missions abroad.)

The fluff is also wheeled out to help Australia's position (#7). The assessment begins well:

Where Sweden excels, Australia is less impressive. An island nation where the vast majority of the inhabitants are descended from boat people appears to have a problem with anyone else following in their footsteps. The government has also proved conservative in denying the link between global warning and climate change and coming out against gay marriage.

So much for the 'boring stuff', and Monocle then suggests that Australia's soft power derives from its reputation for happiness, 'instantly recognisable symbols' like the Sydney Opera House,' and concludes that 'It wouldn't hurt to have another Kylie ...' Similarly on Denmark (#11): 'A separate category for sport has hurt Denmark', which only highlights the problems associated with the magazine's decision to tinker with the metrics 'a little'.

On Switzerland, the magazine notes that 'Diplomacy (well, hosting it) is still something the Swiss excel at. In recent months it has been hard to move in Geneva without bumping in to a delegation attending peace talks on Syria or nuclear talks with Iran'. But surely Swiss soft power would be more attractive and recognisable if it actually participated in the talks; if Switzerland was more involved in the diplomacy instead of just hosting it. Again, where's the power? Monocle falls back on stereotypes by mentioning the allure of Swiss chocolate, and resists going for the full version of Harry Lime's famous Third Man monologue by failing to remind us of cuckoo clocks.

And on it goes. Some startling inclusions (Russia on the way up at #27) and some important omissions (again, no country in the Middle East makes it to the top 30; while Ethiopia, Africa's only representative, is presented as a possible 'soft power superstar,' but cautiously advises that 'it has some work to do first'. The same might be said of Russia).

I suppose we are not meant to take this survey too seriously, but instead to consider it merely end-of-year entertainment that provides a different take on the endless 'lists' that are ubiquitous as we head towards Hogmanay.  However, there are three issues that do make its conclusions important: (i) The involvement of the London-based think tank the Institute of Government (this is not 'just' a magazine article); (ii) The fact that reading the survey is like holding up a mirror and letting countries see in its reflection what they want to see - a positive or less than positive assessment of one's own image. Finally (iii) the survey confuses soft power with nation branding, tourism and the export of cultural products. We need to recover the 'power' in soft power, and that may mean a return to its original political roots. We need to banish the 'fluff' and rediscover the 'boring stuff' that is the very essence of soft power.

In short, soft power is now a catch-all label that has lost much of its meaning and relevance.  Monocle may actually be the cause of death for the very concept it surveys and sells to us at the end of each year.


Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Soft power and social entrepreneurship

Today I was introduced to a whole new literature that will provide an interesting framework for my future understanding of soft power and public diplomacy. Dr Albert Chu-Ying Teo of the National University of Singapore Business School delivered a fascinating presentation at Chengchi University, Taipei, on social entrepreneurship and Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), and the value of this approach to soft power is quite striking. I still have to attack the literature to fully appreciate the concept, its nuances and implications, but Albert's synopsis is a useful start. He identified 6 Principles of social entrepreneurship as a tool to aid development:

#1: Understand the aspirations, dreams and motivations of the the community. In communications terms, know your audience and align one's intervention with their aspirations.

#2:  Understand that priorities are not the same as needs. A community may have many needs, but only one priority. The fulfilment of short-term needs may not have lasting impact. Again, understanding the context in which one is operating provides the conditions that may facilitate development.      

#3:  Move beyond a needs-based approach to development which, by channelling external resources to meet the needs of the community, can reinforce identity and self-identity of communities as deficient in knowledge and resources, and incapable of addressing their own problems. In short, the needs-based approach does not encourage self-reliance or empowerment, but rather frames interventions from external sources as the actions of saviours which in turn can lead to a cycle of dependency. Of course addressing needs provides short-term soft power capital; interventions can be framed as helpful and highlight the humanitarian capacity of the state, organisation or individual. However, this is designed for the short-term interests of the source, not the recipient who may have different needs and priorities (recall the arguments against the kind of assistance offered to the victims of the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s). Helping long-term interests can have long-term and more meaningful soft power benefits

In contrast, Asset-Based Community Development identifies, maps and mobilises the assets and strengths of communities and recognises them as opportunities. Assets can be tangible (schools, market places, religious organisations, natural resources) and intangible (family and kinship networks, experience, memory, etc.). For public diplomacy, targeting your message and using the resources that are already available inside the community will help the success of the message. Both tangible and intangible resources can be mobilised for policy promotion.

#4:  Obtain buy-in from the community which in turn encourages local participation. Do not try to impose change and development from above. The two essential components of any public diplomacy activity are listening and discussion, and doing so in way that avoids creating a vertical flow of communication and action.  

#5:  Likewise buy-in from relevant stakeholders can provide a stream for the acquisition of resources.

#6:  Strive to create the conditions for members of a community to empower themselves and to live and work with dignity. Do not try to 'save' a community, but instead understand that ABCD is a facilitator and a catalyst. The belief that a social entrepreneur can empower a community can be regarded as arrogance. As Albert noted in his presentation, 'True empowerment occurs when the social entrepreneur creates the appropriate conditions for the community members to empower themselves.' How much of the literature on soft power and international communications (especially touching upon the the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) addresses the issue of arrogance and how the belief in salvation, liberation and democratisation - and of course regime change - is resented by the very communities affected by such interventions and who otherwise should be considered stakeholders? The paternal attitudes and misplaced "good intentions" of much public diplomacy/humanitarian activity can have long term negative consequences      

Above all, ABCD provides the foundations for community engagement. Albert emphasised that social entrepreneurs tend to be innovative thinkers, while governments and NGOs can be stuck in particular mind-sets and routines that prevent their success. Again, this is applicable to our understanding of communicative engagement which likewise requires innovation, but too often faces bureaucratic inertia.

I look forward to delving deeper into these ideas and the associated literature, and I would like to thank Dr Albert Teo for introducing the concept of social entrepreneurship to me. This is a perfect example of how interdisciplinarity can lead to new and exciting approaches in the way we tackle our own research areas.


Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Westgate attack, the media and terrorism

The brutal attacks by Al-Shabab on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya (21 September 2013) confirmed the media sophistication of terrorist networks.

It is no coincidence that the attacks happened in Nairobi, the media capital of East Africa. Nairobi is an important hub for journalists and broadcasters reporting the region, and most international press and news channels have staff located there. The journalists did not have to hunt down this story; the story came to them. Echoing the way the the 9/11 hijackers delayed their attack on the second tower of the World Trade Centre until they could be sure of maximum live news coverage, Al-Shabab knew that a large scale event in Nairobi would attract immediate attention from the global media (simultaneous bombings in Mogadishu, Somalia, received no coverage due to the absence of reporters).

Moreover, the siege of Westgate lasted for four days which, in an era of 24/7 rolling news assured the terrorists of continuous coverage and therefore publicity. In fact we may argue that by controlling the pace of events and continuously releasing information from inside the mall, Al-Shabab commanded the news agenda. This was facilitated by the terrorist network's appreciation of how the social media work. Al-Shabab's organisation of Twitter accounts and its almost uninterrupted flow of news and information, inevitably picked up and used in the coverage by major international news networks, guaranteed that the terrorists' justification, beliefs and demands were disseminated to global audiences. This has provoked considerable self-reflection among journalists: in the new media environment, have they become the mouthpiece for terrorists? After Westgate, journalists and news organisations have started to think more critically about their work and how they use social media communications in their coverage of terrorist activities.

Terrorists have long understood the importance of information, as they require what British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once called 'the oxygen of publicity'. Media coverage of their activities, and especially the consequences of their actions, is perhaps their greatest weapon, particularly if such coverage succeeds in generating fear and paranoia and results in state-imposed counter-measures which restrict civil liberties. However, the days of 'minimum casualties, maximum publicity' were swept away on 9/11 when terrorists sought maximum casualties for maximum media coverage. And in creating fear, paranoia and the severe curtailment of civil liberties by states across the democratic world, Al-Qaeda's attacks on 9/11 and Al-Shabab's seizure of the Westgate sopping mall were both doubly successful.

Long before the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, we were aware that terrorist networks and insurgents have adapted to this new information environment, and they have often acclimatised to it much quicker than their adversaries. Early in its life, Al-Qaeda embraced information as an asymmetric weapon against powerful nation-states, especially the US, and identified its potential for disseminating propaganda and recruiting new members. In fact, since 9/11 Al-Qaeda has become a formidable, sophisticated and prolific multi-media communications machine, with ready access to the As-Sahab (‘The Cloud’) Institute for Media Productions and its huge media library allowing the creation and dissemination of information and propaganda to a global audience. As-Sahab continues to produce high quality news releases, documentary films and now even iPod files and videos available on mobile telephones. As-Sahab’s production expertise combined with Al-Qaeda’s enthusiastic use of the internet means the terrorists are able to converse persistently, securely and in multiple audiences with members, sympathisers and potential recruits across the world, especially among younger generations who may be most attracted and therefore susceptible to the message. This ability to communicate is essential for Al-Qaeda which is not really a formal organisation, but exists as a loose international network of cells and affiliate groups who can remain in contact with each other via the internet. This is demonstrated most clearly in the creation of the al-Fajr (‘Dawn’) Media Centre, an elaborate network of local terrorist units and dozens of anonymous webmasters around the world (each webmaster is unaware of the others’ true identities), with Al-Qaeda functioning as a an umbrella propaganda organisation that gives guidance to local movements. Computer-literate sympathisers using internet cafes, codes and special software to circumvent detection, help maintain the flow of information through the network. Gone are the days when Al-Qaeda had to depend on dead-letter drops of propaganda video tapes to Al-Jazeera and hope that the station would broadcast them; now the films are uploaded and distributed around the world on the internet, often with subtitles in English, German, Italian, Pashto, French and Turkish. This not only gains them a wider audience and bypasses the media, but should television stations so wish, they can download the films as ready-packaged products, thus enhancing their appeal. The events in Nairobi suggest that terrorist organisations are now capable of using social media networks like Twitter in the knowledge that media organisations will depend on their feeds for a unique perspective on events.

The power of information in this asymmetrical war has not been overlooked by political elites at the highest levels in Washington: In 2007 US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, noted ‘It is just plain embarrassing that Al-Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America. Speed, agility, and cultural relevance are not terms that come readily to mind when discussing US strategic communications’. Gates recalled how one US diplomat had asked him, ‘How has one man in a cave managed to out-communicate the world’s greatest communication society?’ Four years later, Washington’s political elite were still pondering the US’s incapacity to compete in the communications landscape: In March 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted in testimony to the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee that ‘We are in an information war and we are losing that war.’  It seems that governments are still playing catch-up in an information war the terrorists are winning, sometimes with the unwitting help of journalists and news media organisations.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Taiwan Studies Workshop in Brno, 2013

I spent a week in Brno in the Czech Republic, attending a week-long workshop on Taiwan for students across Europe. The students were brilliant - enthusiastic, engaged, curious, insightful and delightful - and the level of discussion was admirable. They were all ready and eager to start at 9am on Monday morning and they were still there at 5pm on Friday. Such commitment!

I taught two sessions, one on Taiwan's democratic transition and one on Taiwan's soft power. The students delivered very thoughtful presentations on these topics and they had obviously worked very hard. While Ewa Aniskiewicz and Jacek Baniak from Krakow discussed what we might call the outputs-based approach - focusing on the methods Taiwan uses to exercise soft power in the international domain - Amina Abievai located soft power within a broader discussion of international relations theory, including a discussion of Niccolo Machiavelli and his commitment to hard power. While Amina also concentrated on Taiwan's outputs, including the famous Bubble Tea, HTC and the success of film director Ang Lee, her presentation ended on an interesting note: how might Taiwan counter the PRC's soft power? she asked. Her answer threw me: 'Make Taiwan the Hawaii of the Far East.' This is an unusual proposition and it took me some time to analyse and understand what Amina meant; but she makes a very perceptive point, and it is one I would like to consider further in my research.

Ewa Aniskiewicz & Jacek Baniek talking about Taiwan's soft power

Amina Abievai: Taiwan as "The Hawaii of the East"

Amina agreed that democracy is Taiwan's most valuable theme of public diplomacy and represents soft power in practice - as regular readers of this blog know only too well, this is one of my favourite subjects. Amina pushed me to think this through a little more. Making Taiwan the Hawaii of the Far East, although a rather simplistic approach (and I really do not know enough about Hawaii to conclude whether it is a good model or not, though Steve McGarrett and Magnum PI will have their own opinions), in essence means making Taiwan a desirable place to live. I had just finished suggesting to the students that governments should not really be involved in the soft power process; they certainly should not try to strategise its exercise, but rather soft power is a natural by-product of what a government does and how it behaves at home and abroad. In short, I said, the job of governments is to govern, and to do so in an ethical, transparent and accountable way. Governments should let others tell the 'soft power' story if there is one and allow audiences the space to reach their own judgements based on what they see governments actually doing.

As Amina suggested, this means that the government of Taiwan should not try too hard to exercise its soft power. In addition to being a democratic power, the government can govern in such a way that the island continues to develop its potential - in education, healthcare, the environment, housing, the infrastructure and other policy areas - and this effort expended in actually governing Taiwan will reap soft power benefits.

As a postscript I would like to add that last week I read a chapter by a colleague who suggested that the exercise of soft power is all about talking up the good points about one's own country. I disagree and explained to the students that honesty is far more effective. A government accumulates far more credibility if it is open and honest about its mistakes and enters into discussion and dialogue about the less attractive characteristics of the country it represents. Audiences appreciate candour, self-reflection and self-criticism and the capacity to accept criticism from others. This may not lead to trust, but will not doubt contribute to a sense of self-integrity which, in soft power terms, is a good starting point.  

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Taiwan's legislatures need to remember Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Taiwan is in the international news, and again it is for the wrong reasons. Members of Taiwan's Parliament, the Legislative Yuan, have once more been filmed fighting among themselves ahead of an important vote on the future of the island's nuclear industry. Footage from the Washington Post, available at Taiwan's parliament dukes it out, is making the rounds on the social media, much to the amusement of both journalists and audiences. While we are encouraged to laugh at this latest example of literal political combat, there are very clear soft power consequences associated with the actions by Taiwan's Parliamentarians.

Laughing at Taiwan does not encourage a serious discussion about the island's place in the international community, and its democratic system is ridiculed rather than applauded. At a time when Taiwan remains the first Chinese democracy, such behaviour reinforces the unreasonable idea that perhaps the Asian Values thesis is right after all. More importantly for Taiwan, fighting in the Legislative Yuan sends a very clear signal to the People's Republic of China and strengthens its propaganda: This is what happens in a so-called multi-party democratic political system; this is what we are protecting you from.

Taiwan's legislators need to understand that how they behave is a reflection of how Taiwan's political system is perceived. At a time when Taiwan is struggling to exercise soft power - to project its democratic virtues and ideals, and build upon one of its principal advantages, namely that Taiwan is not the PRC - such ridicule comes at a high price; and it is possibly too high a price for a state with few formal diplomatic relations and no voice in the international media. Taiwan's foremost resource is its credibility as a democracy, but this is a resource quickly squandered by the irresponsible conduct of its politicians. They should do all they can to make sure the world is talking about Taiwan, not laughing at it.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

King Canute versus the tide

Twenty years ago, when I was a na├»ve but ambitious 23 year old second-year student in the final stages of my PhD, I embarked on the hunt for my first academic position. Since being a teenager besotted by the world of shortwave radio international broadcasting my work has always been located at the intersection of international politics and communications. I was convinced then, and remain so today that it is impossible to discuss politics and international politics in any meaningful way without also understanding the role of communications, information and the media. Despite the war against Iraq in 1991 (Gulf War I or II? Surely the Iran-Iraq conflict was the first Gulf War?) and the advent of 24/7 live broadcasting from the front which had a profound impact on how the war played out - and introduced the CNN Effect which suggests foreign policy can be driven by media coverage and popular opinion - I still met a shocking amount of resistance in reputable politics departments where earnest academics dismissed such work as Mickey Mouse studies. Such ignorance.
            Fast forward twenty years and, despite the Internet and social media having transformed political processes and empowered millions of people across the world; despite the acceptance by all governments that public diplomacy and the exercise of soft power are essential tools of statecraft; despite militaries begging us to teach them how to adapt to, and survive in the information age; despite governments trying to find innovative ways to manage the public and private conversations their people are having, while some are resorting to good-old fashioned techniques of censorship to control access to information; and despite communications panels almost taking over the major academic conferences in politics and international relations, we are still facing denigration by academics who refuse to see the essential and fundamental impact that communications have upon political events, institutions, agents and processes. Satellite broadcasting, the rise of pan-regional media organisations like Al-Jazeera, citizen journalism, tweets, blogs, Facebook and social networking have all transformed the way governments and militaries speak to journalists and audiences, and how publics speak to each other.

It is sad that the ignorance I encountered twenty years ago persists. As recently as last year I was again told that my work is not considered 'mainstream', whatever that means anymore. I also remember my intervention at a conference last year when I realised how my work on communication can undermine the more militaristic approach to international relations that prefers to kill and maim human beings rather than persuade them that there might be alternatives to hard power (A note so subtle reminder ...). As Joseph Nye wrote, militaries (and too many academics working in IR and security studies) prefer 'something that could be dropped on your foot or on your cities, rather than something that might change your mind about wanting to drop anything in the first place' (Nye, 2011: 82).

Consider the events of 11th September 2001 when audiences were led to believe they watched the horror of 9/11 unfold live on their television screens. However, it is only by sheer luck that we have any footage of the first hijacked plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Centre WTC) at 8:46 am local time. In the neighbourhood were filmmakers James Hanlon and the Naudet brothers making a documentary about a probationary New York fireman. When American Airlines Flight 11 flew by, Jules Naudet turned his camera to follow the plan and taped only one of three know recordings of the first plane hitting the WTC (the others being a video postcard by Pavel Hlava filming a visit to New York to send home to family in the Czech Republic, and a sequence of still frame CCTV photographs by artist Wolfgang Staehle). In this way, the biggest and most momentous news event of recent decades was captured and recorded by 'accidental journalists' who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
          Seventeen minutes later at 9:03 am, a second plane hit the WTC's South Tower. This time the collision was broadcast live on television, captured by professional camera crews circulating the burning North Tower in helicopters. The level of media literacy within Al-Qaeda had been demonstrated very clearly: the organisers of the hijacking knew that the first collision would not be reported live, do delayed the second attack to generate media interest and coverage. In this way, the events of 9/11 confirmed that the media, communications and information landscapes had changed beyond recognition, and they continue to change.

The power of information since 9/11 and during the inappropriately named War on Terror has not been overlooked. In 2007, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted, 'It is just plain embarrassing that Al-Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America. Speed, agility, and cultural relevance are not terms that come readily to mind when discussing US strategic communications.' Gates recalled how one US diplomat had asked him, 'How has one man in a cave managed to out-communicate the world's greatest communication society?' Four years later, Washington's political elite were still pondering the US's incapacity to compete in the communication landscape: In March 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted in testimony to the Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee that 'We are in an information war and we are losing that war.' It seems that policy-makers, unlike many academics, recognise the urgent need to understand how communications, the media, politics and strategy are now permanently entwined.
I was reminded of these issues last night when I watched at the local cinema a wonderful documentary called We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2013, dir. Alex Gibney).  Anyone who is still blinkered to the effect of communications on political processes and institutions should see this film. At its core is the belief that information is power, and that withholding the publication of information is a political act designed to serve a specific political agenda. Anyone with any understanding of basic politics will uncover in this film issues about authority, transparency, legitimacy, accountability, political ethics, the appropriate level of force in war, national security and fundamental questions about democracy; and all these issues are framed against the transformation of private and public space by the media and new communications technologies. The film, and the whole Wikileaks saga in general - just like the recent revelations about GCHQ's use of the PRISM surveillance data - provides a valuable case-study for students trying to unravel the theoretical and empirical complexity of modern politics. It compels us to confront difficult philosophical questions, and come to terms with the somewhat uncomfortable realisation that there is no right or wrong; no black and white, just gradations of murky grey. Adrian Lamo, the hacker who turned-in Bradley Manning to the authorities at the height of the Wikileaks story, even justified his actions in classic utilitarian terms: the good of the many outweighed the good of the few, or in this case, the one. (Discuss.). What an exciting way to stimulate students' interest in normative ethics. Moreover, we are compelled to think about and test the boundaries of what is and is not permissible in the new communications ecology: What do we mean by freedom of speech? Who has responsibility for what is posted on the internet and the consequences for doing so? Who decides what is and is not acceptable, why and by what criteria? I short, the modern communications landscape calls for a (re)consideration of the most basic of political questions: What is power, and how is power distributed and exercised? 

Academics who continue to deny that communications and the media are at the heart of modern 'mainstream' debates about politics are like King Canute trying to hold back the tide. Real-world politics have moved on; it is a shame that there are still academics who refuse to accept it.

[Mr Justice Openshaw, a Crown Court judge in Woolwich, UK, presiding over the trial in May 2007 of three young Muslims accused of distributing propaganda over the internet in support of Al-Qaeda, confessed during the proceedings: 'The trouble is I don't understand the language. I don't really understand what a website is.' The judge then 'paid close attention as Professor Tony Sams, a computer expert, explained in detail how the internet works'.
         'What's a website, asks judge at internet trial,' The Telegraph, 18 May 2007]

Joseph Nye (2011), The Future of Power (New York: PublicAffairs).

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

British Taskforce to 'Confront' Extremism

The British press are now following the creation by the government of a taskforce 'aimed at confronting Islamic extremism and controlling preachers of hate' (The Times, 3 June 2013, p.4). All the reports on this story and the speeches by the senior members of the government responsible for its creation reflect a decidedly belligerent position; the very label 'taskforce' resonates with military symbolism (and reminds me of the use of 'crusade' after 9/11), while the involvement of the security and intelligence forces demonstrates clearly the thinking behind its design. The framing echoes both the disastrously-named War on Terror and Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations.

In all the talk of this taskforce and its aims, priorities and methods, one word has been noticeable by its absence: engagement; and I do wonder which members of the taskforce have the required expertise to advise on communications strategies that go beyond knee-jerk reactions such as closing down websites, monitoring social media, and trying to curb 'hate speech'. Who is suggesting methods of engaging with Muslim communities and their young members before they can be radicalised? Who is talking with young Muslims about the problems they face and the reasons why fundamentalism might be attractive to them? Is the taskforce prepared to spend as much time listening as confronting? Of course we need to deal with the violence and terror (and I hope that the taskforce may also extend its remit to challenging the rise of the racist Far Right which is equally extremist, dangerous and frightening), and it is important to acknowledge that with free speech comes responsibility (neither incitement nor hate-speech should be considered rights). However, it is also necessary to understand that the militarism of the taskforce may itself be a symptom of the problem, not a cure.

I refer readers back to one of the first blogs I posted in 2011, A Marked Man in America, about the work of a Muslim cleric, Yasir Qadhi, among young members of the Islamic community. I concluded that posting with these words: 'If the US [public diplomacy] and anti-terrorism communities wish to make inroads, they must embrace Qadhi and others like him who can challenge the militant narratives and prevent the radicalisation of the disaffected youth'. I sincerely hope that a British Qadhi has been appointed to the taskforce and can persuade its members to drop their current militaristic and reactive position and consider engagement as a more effective long-term strategy.

One definition of soft power:
'a slower, surer, more civilized way of exercising influence than crude force'
('Playing Soft or Hard Cop,' Economist, 19 January 2006).

Monday, 6 May 2013

Silence is not always golden: The communication of Taiwan's democracy

As the keynote speaker at the 2013 annual conference of the European Association of Taiwan Studies (EATS), Professor T.J. Cheng of  William and Mary College delivered a characteristically interesting paper on Offshore Democracies: An Ideational Challenge to China. His intention is to understand how Taiwan is perceived in mainland China through examining the official and non-official discourses there about the island's democratic institutions and procedures. Two sections of his talk provoked a response from a soft power and public diplomacy perspective.

First, T.J. outlined the sibau minzhu, the 'quartet of evils' that define the official view about Taiwan's democracy. Discourses about the 'evils' are framed by key-words that focus on the more disturbing side of Taiwan's political evolution - black-gold, party-splitting etc.

From a PD perspective, such official discourses constitute part of the environment in which Taiwan must operate. It is unfortunate that China chooses to view Taiwan in such an out-dated way - the problems of corruption are now far worse in the mainland than they are in Taiwan where there is much less electoral corruption than previously - but the question that Taiwan must confront is how to respond and work within the constraints? Taiwan is not in a position to change the Chinese conversation, so must pay far more attention to its soft power capital and the quality of its public diplomacy strategy than previously. The external environment frames the architectures, methods, success and failures of Taiwan's international communications and determines their impact on elite audiences and mass opinion. I have talked about this many times in published papers and in blogs, and this argument forms the core of the book I am now writing which examines the interaction of structure and agency to understand Taiwan's soft power.

I felt that T.J. had inadvertently stumbled on a set of contradictions when he claimed that 'Taiwan's democracy is like a silent movie, more palatable than soundbites', and he applauded Taiwan's government for not hectoring the PRC about human rights abuses. T.J. is right to isolate the practice of democracy as a particularly useful communications strategy - in Public Diplomacy, actions really do speak louder than words - and by providing a model Chinese democracy, Taiwan is demonstrating the fallacy of so-called Asian values: There really is a political alternative for China. However, silence is not an option for Taiwan, and measured, strategic soundbites do have their value. Why be silent when the world is not listening to you anyway? For a state facing Taiwan's predicament, silence means an absence of attention, and so the government does not/cannot challenge the dominant narratives conducted in Beijing. Silence will not undermine a depiction of Taiwan which centres on 'the quartet of evils', circulating within a tightly controlled media and education system.  

T.J. is correct to commend the absence of hectoring and pontificating in Taiwan's interactions with the PRC, but such methods of communication are neither strategic nor desirable as they can backfire on the source of the message. Rather, Taiwan must strike a balance between silence - letting the story of Taiwan's democracy speak for itself - and making sure that story is heard by audiences conditioned to have a very different perception of reality. 

Another speaker on the Senkaku/Diayutai dispute prefaced her paper with a reference to 'manipulation' by the international media on this subject, evidence for which is provided by the fact that the media concentrate overwhelmingly on Japan and China and ignore Taiwan's claims on the islands. This sounds very similar to claims by Beijing that the international (read western) media deliberately demonise China, and that this accounts for the continuing popularity of the theory of cultural imperialism in China. As a communications scholar, I would reply that the international media know and understand China and Japan; their frames are familiar. Taiwan, however, is largely unfamiliar to international media consumers who have no real understanding of Taiwan or why Taiwan matters. The media will choose to sideline Taiwan because of the competition of voices, interests, stories and news-space, but also because journalists are denied the kind of structured and continuous interaction with diplomats and press officers that may yield coverage. My research reveals that Taiwan is passive in its acceptance of this situation - that its public diplomats and press officers sit back, see a crowded market place and believe that change is impossible. Being voiceless therefore becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

These comments connect with my discussion of T.J.'s paper and the consequences of accepting a 'silent movie' approach. Again, the international media are not necessarily ignoring Taiwan; Taiwan is not getting the message out and its voice heard because of the inadequacies of the public diplomacy structure.     

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Obedience to Authority

I recently bought a collection of essays by Walter Lippmann that includes 'Liberty and the News' and 'A Test of the News'. The collection also includes a preface by the great American scholar of modern journalism, Robert McChesney. I read again 'Liberty and the News' immediately after the British Parliament accepted new press regulations, and the essay reads as relevant today as it did in 1920 when it was first published. It is essential for anyone wishing to know about the dilemmas of modern journalism and who seeks to understand debates about the freedom of the press.

My friend, colleague and mentor Philip Taylor used to say that no student should graduate with a degree in Communications Studies without having read Walter Lippmann and Harold Lasswell. When together we re-designed the First Year undergraduate module, History of Communications, we made sure that both Lasswell and Lippmann featured prominently on the reading list. Certainly for the few brief years we were responsible for this module, all the First Year students in the Institute of Communications Studies were required to read these giants of their field.

Students often ask me my recommendation for the most useful or influential books to read. On propaganda, there is a huge bibliography, and Jacques Ellul's Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes (first published in 1962), a sophisticated theoretical discussion that is rooted in the author's sociological approach, must be close to the top. Let no-one say there is no theory of propaganda: Ellul is evidence of the contrary. It is not an easy read, and certainly I had to take my time with it when I first tackled it during my PhD - but the reader's patience and hard work will be rewarded.

However, there is another book that I recommend to students of communications and politics. I first read it in my First Year of  Political Studies - two years before commencing my own PhD on propaganda - where it was on the bibliography for the course called Explanations in Political Science. We also read Karl Marx, Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke among others, but no other book spoke to me as this one. I re-read it as part of my own research and still believe that, despite being a treatise on psychology rather than communications, it is an indispensable and convincing discussion of how propaganda and persuasion work. It provides an essential backdrop for understanding why men continue to commit the most atrocious acts in the name of a higher cause.

The book to which I refer is Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority, published in 1974, though the results of his experiments were first published in the early 1960s. The experiments he conducted are well-known and controversial and raised many ethical questions at the time: they involve persuading members of the public to administer electric shocks to other participants (actors in on the experiment) if they answer a question incorrectly. The subject is instructed to increase the power of the shocks (of course, this is all fake) and the actor screams in agony. The premise of the experiment is to determine how far someone will go in obeying authority, even when he protests about the harm he thinks he is causing a fellow human being. The participant is persuaded to do so through the manufacture of legitimacy: this is a scientific experiment, and is being conducted by men in white coats carrying clip boards within a laboratory setting. The scientist is the authority figure. As Schiller (2005: 158) notes, people 'have learned that when experts tell them something is all right, it probably is, even if it does not seem so.'

I suggest Obedience to Authority is one of the greatest studies of propaganda which turns on familiar and accepted symbolism - how many television advertisements for washing powder or toothpaste feature men in white lab coats holding clip boards - and therefore the creation of trust and legitimacy. To be effective propaganda must be rooted in a particular social setting; we may not feel comfortable doing the things we are asked to do, but if we can be persuaded that it is for a greater - and legitimate - cause (national security, the advance of science) we are more likely to participate.
As a psychologist Milgram helps us to understand why we are so vulnerable to persuasion. Perhaps we are uncomfortable with the experiments because they reveal something about human nature, our psychological vulnerability and our willingness to engage in disturbing acts even when we know it is wrong to do so.

Participation in the experiment even changed the way the subjects acted and thought about themselves. During the Vietnam War, Milgram received a letter from a subject who had taken part in the experiment:

While I was a subject in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority… To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority's demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself… I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience… (Milgram, 1974: 200).
'I was only following orders' is a useful get-out for individuals who have committed some of the world's worst atrocities. But it is wrong to to think that this is what Milgram teaches us. Rather Obedience to Authority reveals the complexity of the human mind that is capable of processing much more than 'instructions'; within particular social settings and contexts we are persuaded rather than instructed, and such persuasion may be as much non-verbal as it is verbal (why else do we think that a picture paints a thousand words?). Symbols and stereotypes provide easy cues about how to think or behave towards certain people or in specific situations. 

However, there is reason for optimism. The overt and covert resistance demonstrated by some of the subjects in Milgram's experiment confirms that men are still capable of acting as agents of their own behaviour and can, like the conscientious objector quoted above, exercise choice; and this is comforting. in the information age with our addiction to mobile phones, the internet and virtual interaction, it is more important than ever before to teach media literacy so that we may preserve ability to choose and not have our choices decided for us.

As Albert Einstein said, 'The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything'. Above all, Milgam's experiments are a warning to those who watch and do nothing.


Lippmann, Walter (2010). Liberty and the News. New York: Dover.

Milgram, Stanley (1974). Obedience to Authority. New York: Harpercollins.

Shiller, Robert (2005). Irrational Exuberance (2nd ed.). Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.  

Monday, 11 February 2013

Japan declares propaganda war

On 8 February 2013, Pravda.ru published a report with an intriguing title: 'Japan declares propaganda war on China, Korea and Russia' (Japan declares propaganda war). The report is mainly concerned with competing claims over the Kuril and Senkaku islands.

Given that Russia and Japan are in conflict over the Kuril islands it is no surprise that Pravda uses a very confrontational discourse in reporting this news, as revealed in its free (and interchangeable) application of the terms 'propaganda' and 'information war.' There is little in the report to support the casual use of these labels: We are told that the Japanese government has established a 'special unit' - we learn nothing more except the unit is composed of 'officials and independent experts' - to 'study and thoroughly analyse the positions of other countries on the territorial dispute.' Shouldn't such research be a priority for any government involved in difficult diplomatic negotiations with another power? It is a huge leap from engaing in such research to the launch of an 'information war'. Moreover, the report then refers to Japan's urgent need to 'communicate its position to the international community'. This is public diplomacy, hardly the basis for an information war or propaganda campaign.

Beyond the rhetoric, the Pravda report does identify some interesting challenges for Japanese public diplomacy. In particular, it reinforces the existing evidence that the Japanese believe there is a strong correlation between the dissemination of its culture and the capacity to shape the international conversation in its favour, or modify attitudes and behaviour towards Japan (although of course the Japanese are not alone in placing their faith in the power of culture to meet international aspirations).

Research on Japan's JET programme of cultural and educational exchange demonstrates that there is no guaranteed correlation between participation in such a programme and sympathy/empathy for Japan. Participation may increase knowledge about Japan and help one's familiarity with the language, but such outreach can encounter cognitive dissonance among audiences socialised into perceiving a Japanese threat (either historical or contemporary). China is understandably very suspicious of Japan because of their traumatic shared history, yet the Chinese remain major consumers of Japanese pop culture products (Yoshiko, 2008). Writing on the JET programme of cultural and educational exchange, McConnell (2008: 24-7) reveals that, when interviewed, '[M]any alumni were at great pains to separate their love of Japanese culture and people from their views about the Japanese state, and, in their minds, deeply critical views of Japan often co-existed with positive elements.' McConnell also references the 'last three feet' of public diplomacy when he describes the 'face-to-face' interpersonal 'dimension of human exchange'; and he concludes that the JET programme 'is not teaching people to like Japan, so much as teaching them to communicate with Japanese' (McConnell, 2008: 30). This is an important distinction, though it is often overlooked.

The Pravda report reveals that the Japanese 'information war' is likely to mobilise manga, anime and other cultural products that appeal especially to the youth of East Asia and in Russia (which is 'currently going through the Japanese boom'). This conforms to a new strategy in Japanese public and cultural diplomacy which was designed by the government's Public Diplomacy Department in 2004 to project 'Cool Japan'. This strategy made four mistakes:

1.  It assumed that simply disseminating culture was the route to success and failed to reference the audience in a way that would identify whether and how these products were consumed. Does Japanese pop culture reach beyond East Asia? It may have some effect in helping the government realise its ambitions in its neighbourhood, but more research is needed to understand the global audience for such cultural products. There is possibly an issue of cultural dissonance here: manga and anime are extremely popular in East Asia, and it is usual to see adults in cafes, bookshops and on buses and trains reading such books. In the west, however, there is still some suspicion of manga and anime as 'cartoons' (despite their critical success and their often dark, adult and disturbing content - just watch Miyazaki's 2001 Oscar-winning Spirited Away) which means they are seen primarily as entertainment for children (you are more likely to see an adult on the London tube unashamedly reading Fifty Shades of Grey than an animated book).  

2.  The strategy confused public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, soft power and even nation-branding. Again, Japan is not alone in this. The absence of precision in terminology merely confuses strategy and the capacity and instruments required to implement the strategy. It also means that Japan had no starting point: what was the strategy designed to achieve?

3.  By using culture as an entry point Japan overlooked the research that demonstrates there is a negligible correlation between interest and consumption of Japanese culture in East Asia and sympathy/empathy towards the Japanese nation and government.

4.  Japan also failed to notice that the British Labour government's attempt to brand the UK 'Cool Britannia' in the late 1990s failed (and was something of an embarrassment). This strategy was artificial and contrived. Tourists still flock to the UK to breathe its history and tour Britain's castles, stately homes, the Tower of London and to watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace . It is possible to argue that interest in Japan is similarly based on its history and cultural memory. Why change what works? Is this an example of Japan throwing the baby out with the bathwater?


Yoshiko, N. (2008), 'Shared memories: Japanese pop culture in China'


McConnell, D.L.M. (2008), 'Japan's image problem and the soft power solution'

are published in Y. Watanabe & D.L. McConnell (eds.), Soft Power Superpowers: Cultural and National Assets of Japan and the United States (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe).

Monday, 4 February 2013

Islamism and Propaganda

In the middle of the last decade I heard the term 'Islamism' for the first time, and this sparked an abiding interest in the discourses that have helped define the so-called War on Terror. There is a huge literature on this subject, and almost all observe how language has justified both the terrorist attacks themselves and the response to them. Most famous is President George W. Bush's reference to a 'Crusade' in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 which not only brought to the surface particular belligerent and anti-Muslim images of the US's response to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, but also played into Al-Qaeda's hands by using the very narratives which the terrorist organisation exploits throughout its propaganda.

One of the issues I have been thinking about for a long time - and I post my thoughts and questions here in the wake of the intensive coverage of current events in Mali in the hope of getting feedback and clarification - is the insistence by western media and politicians to use the term 'Islamist' instead of 'Islamic' or 'Muslim' to refer to specific groups of Muslims seeking a non-peaceful way of imposing their beliefs. As a student of propaganda I am aware of the emotional and intellectual reaction to 'isms', and one cannot help but wonder whether the ubiquitous and rather arbitrary use of the label 'Islamist' after 9/11 is justified. One did not hear this term used so widely before 2001.

Labels are the easiest form of propaganda: they provide a shorthand, the basis for a simple and emotional reaction to often complex ideas, and therefore help reinforce stereotypes. By describing fundamentalist Muslim groups as Islamist, are audiences persuaded by the very label in a headline to view them in a particular way even before they have heard or read the rest of the story? The natural equation of Islamism with Communism and Fascism provokes the perception of an ideology determined to refashion on totalitarian grounds not only the state and political institutions, but culture, society and man. 

As far as I understand the difference, Islam refers to a faith whereas Islamism refers to a specific political ideology which advocates the sovereignty of divine law and the creation of an Islamic state. It privileges Islamic law within national boundaries, and does not confine law to the personal realm or as a matter of faith and personal responsibility. This means the extension of Islamic law to all people living within a particular national territory, regardless of whether they are Muslim, Christian or Jewish. It offers no policy-making agenda as Islamism is not future-oriented; rather, it is embedded in the past glories of Islam and the historical mistreatment of Muslims. The past justifies the present.

Islamism is in essence the politicisation of Islam, and the word is often used in conjunction with 'militant' or 'fundamentalist' to emphasise its distance from law abiding paths to power. However, such terms also help reinforce the beliefs of  those who, like Samuel Huntington, foresee an inevitable 'Clash of Civilizations'. They help to make Muslims the 'other'  and suggest that 'we' respect legal and democratic paths to government, unlike 'them' who use 'militant' or 'fundemantalist' ways of achieving and exercising power; and when successful they govern in a way that is completely incompatible with western secular understandings of, and approaches to, politics. Islamists become dangerous entities, exercising power in 'rogue states', responsible for human rights abuses and ultimately for the global terrorist threat. So in Mali 'we' support Muslims; 'we'
fight against Islamists. The power of the Egyptian Brotherhood in Egypt has raised concerns about Islamism there and has forced 'the West' to question, as does Foreign Policy magazine, whether 'we' made a mistake in letting the Brotherhood win (in democratic elections that were demanded by the international community. You can't advocate the sovereignty of the people and then criticise the very same people if they elect someone to power you don't like). 

Casual use of the term 'Islamism' or 'Islamist' is a useful propaganda device, and like all propaganda devices, the more we hear it, see it and use it in a cavalier fashion, the more value it acquires as propaganda. The complexity and the precision of the meaning is lost. It also serves as a way of reducing the divisions within Islam to easily-packaged and digestible soundbites. Islam becomes an homogeneous unit, and the very real theological and geographical differences between Muslims or Islamists are conveniently overlooked. You are either a 'good' Muslim or a 'bad' Muslim.

My intention here is not to judge the accuracy or otherwise of the perceptions of Islamists; nor do I wish to defend Muslims or Islamic states which engage in human rights abuses or are compliant with terrorists, just in the same way I do not wish to defend any government, religion or secular movement which threatens, cajoles or is intolerant of any other people or creed. Rather, I wish to bring to the table my own thoughts on the use of the term Islamism and the way its imprecise application by the media can be a valuable tool of propaganda and helps demonise groups and individuals. I know very little about Islamism, and so I hope that some of the readers for this blog will respond and help me understand better this interesting and important issue. I look forward to your comments.                                

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Qatar's soft power

Here is a link to an excellent article in The Observer newspaper (3 February 2013) by Chatham House's Jane Kinninmont (From football to military might).

Jane discusses why Qatar now enjoys such a strong international presence, and links this with issues of 'soft power' and especially the prominence of Al-Jazeera. I wish to link to the article here because in December 2012 I did question Qatar's omission from Monocle's 2012 Soft Power Survey (Monocle's Soft Power Survey).

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Acoustic Artillery: Songs of War

Regular readers of this blog will know of my sincere admiration of, and love for, the work of The Children's Television Workshop. Sesame Street  and its local variants provide education through fun, visual entertainment and song for millions of children throughout the world; and it also teaches them about difficult social issues that may be specific to their locale, the need for tolerance, love and friendship, and these programmes can help to break down cultural and social barriers between people from different societies and backgrounds (Sesame Street in Pakistan; More on Sesame Street;US to Fund Sesame Street Remake for Pakistan).

In May 2012, Al-Jazeera broadcast a programme called Songs of War which discusses how music has been used as an instrument of psychological warfare, torture and as the soundtrack for Americans engaging in combat in Iraq (Songs of War). The programme follows Sesame Street's resident composer, Christopher Cerf, as he discovers that his own music for the programme has been used as part of the interrogation of captives held at Guantanamo Bay. Victims are held in claustrophobic conditions, hooded and shackled and forced to listen to music turned up to full volume. The same songs are repeated over and over again. Cerf talks to the interrogators, the victims, American marines, psychologists and the musicians themselves to understand the development of "noise" as a weapon of war - Acoustic Artillery.

The dominant theme of the programme is how noise, including music, is a method of controlling the environment in which the detainees find themselves. It is part of an intensive programme of sensory dissonance which is designed to isolate and weaken the captive, deprive him of his sensory capacity, interfere with his cognitive processes, and ultimately increase his vulnerability and dependence on his interrogators. The idea is not to torture through noise, but to push the captive to a point where he demands relief from it and thus becomes a willing participant in the interrogation process. The western music played at Guantanamo, a mixture of heavy rock and the otherwise good-humoured songs of Sesame Street - with both being played at the same time to amplify the unpleasant nature of discordant noise - also strengthens the cultural dissonance the victims experience.

Cerf discovers that music and warfare have a long history, and the marines in Iraq are consuming music for the same reason warriors have listened in centuries past: as a bonding exercise before battle, or to feel the adrenaline pump through their bodies as they go into combat.

This is a very disturbing programme that contributes to our understanding of modern psychological warfare. Congratulations to Al-Jazeera for making and broadcasting it.