Monday, 12 December 2016

Twitter Diplomacy: Preliminary thoughts on the Trump-Tsai phone call

First, a confession. I have no intention to engage here with the Tsai-Trump telephone conversation because I genuinely do not know what to make of it ... yet. I have avoided writing something since the news broke because I wanted to avoid joining the cacophony of experts, non-experts, and self-styled experts, all of whom had "something to say". I am struggling to identify the call's impact beyond its success in polarising global opinion and propelling Taiwan to the front pages. I have been advising Taiwan for 20 years how to raise its profile; Trump does it for them literally overnight, though it is a shame that this new and prominent discussion about Taiwan in the media is still framed in terms of cross-Strait relations. I believe there will only be reason to rejoice once Taiwan is reported in the news as a successful democracy and without mention of China. It is possible to argue that at least this attention raises awareness of Taiwan and forces a debate that would otherwise not occur. But how much of the media coverage actually contextualises the 'One China policy' or other intricacies of Taipei's relationship with Washington DC and Beijing? Is uninformed debate better than no debate at all?

Which brings me to Twitter ...  

As soon as the phone conversation between PEOTUS Donald Trump and President Tsai Ing-wen was announced, making the front pages of news media that otherwise ignore Taiwan as a matter of routine, the Twitterverse exploded with "experts" on Taiwan and China crawling out from the woodwork. The great thing about social media is that they give everyone a voice and every opinion counts. The problem with social media is that they give everyone a voice and every opinion counts. Reconciling this is a challenge we have yet to address in a meaningful way. Twitter especially encourages knee-jerk immediate reactions and uninformed debate, and Taiwan's political elite were wise to avoid responding prematurely to the outpouring of public opinion at home and abroad. For many Taiwanese - and some Taiwan watchers - Trump is suddenly a hero, while a more cautious and long-term perspective of the consequences for Taiwan of a Trump presidency is warranted. Taiwan's political elites need to reduce popular expectations at home, for Taiwan is heading at best towards disappointment or, at worst, something far more frightening to contemplate.                

Of course the telephone has long been used as an instrument of high-level diplomacy following the creation of the famous 'hotline' between the White House and Kremlin in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis. Moreover, the media have also been a method of open diplomatic communication, as demonstrated by my research on international radio broadcasting in the Cold War (Radio Diplomacy and Propaganda). The role played by the Voice of America and Radio Moscow in helping resolve the Cuban missile crisis is perhaps the most well-known.  What has changed, of course, is the development of the Internet, social media, and both the speed at which information flows, and the expansion of voices heard in every conversation.

There are other concerns.

It is clear that Donald Trump has yet to make the transition from private citizen to President Elect of the US and potentially the most powerful political actor in the world. He needs to learn, and to learn very quickly, that whatever he now says or does will have repercussions - intended or otherwise. A President Elect cannot and should not make and announce policy via Twitter; and when your discussion with another leader will be judged provocative, there are diplomatic protocols to follow. President Nixon was accused of making foreign policy in the Oval Office, bypassing the State Department. Will Trump be a Twitter President? Such behaviour undermines American public diplomacy activity and challenges US soft power at a time when their protection is more urgent than ever given the global uncertainty of what a Trump presidency actually means. Public diplomats should not have to spend their time explaining to audiences what the President Elect actually meant or intended in a Tweet.        

Monday, 5 September 2016

Understanding China's political signalling

Just in case anyone doubted the Chinese government's understanding of power posturing and diplomatic signalling ...

Since Tsai Ing-wen was elected President by Taiwan's electorate in January, the PRC has been nervous about the possibility of a turn in policy towards independence. Spokesmen in Beijing have reiterated many times that the government of the PRC remains opposed to any moves towards independence. For  Taiwan watchers, this is business as usual, especially with a DPP President in Taipei. We are used to hearing these pronouncements, especially when China's internal political situation is experiencing difficulties. Taiwan is a convenient issue to distract the Chinese from problems at home and mobilise their support for a nationalist agenda.

However, what is most striking is that the new DPP administration in Taipei has not given any reasons to suggest that Taiwan is moving towards independence. Unlike Chen Shui-bian, Tsai has not been particularly vocal on cross-Strait issues, and has focused instead on problems in the South China Sea and challenges at home. Indeed, the government's silence on cross-Strait relations has been deafening (and welcome).

It is clear, therefore, that China's anti-independence rhetoric is aimed not so much at Taiwan as at Hong Kong,  On Saturday 3 September, before polls opened in Hong Kong for its Legco elections in which pro-independence candidates were competing, China's Xinhua reported that Xi Jinping had told Barack Obama: "China will resolutely safeguard sovereignty and territorial integrity, and curb 'Taiwan independence' activities in all forms."

For Taiwan, read Hong Kong. It is a classic technique of Chinese propaganda and political communication to refer to one individual/country/issue when targeting another. This allowed Xi Jinping to send a clear message to Hong Kong without being seen as interfering in Hong Kong's internal affairs.

On Sunday 4th September, the Twittersphere became animated by the apparent 'snub' of President Barack Obama when he arrived in China for the G20 summit. While other world leaders received the red carpet treatment, Obama was not provided with a staircase to leave his plane, disembarking from Air Force One via a little-used exit in the plane's underbelly. Was this a deliberate insult? The Chinese are adamant that it was not, but the symbolic consequences have not gone unnoticed. Jorge Guajardo, Mexico's former Ambassador to China was in no doubt of the meaning: "These things do not happen by mistake," he said.

It's a snub. It's a way of saying: 'You're not that special to us.' ... It's part of stirring up nationalism. It's part of saying: 'China stands up to the superpower.' It works very well with the local audience.  
We may not know what really happened and why; and to his credit, Obama played down the story, choosing to focus instead on the agreement reached with China on climate change. Yet this episode does remind us of two important facts: First, diplomacy is as much about symbolism, signalling, and protocol as it is about negotiation. How governments and their emissaries behave is just as important as what they say, and choosing to reject the routines of diplomatic protocol can send a powerful message, This is particularly the case in the era of social media when stories are picked up, distributed worldwide, and consumed in the blink of an eye. Diplomats cannot afford protocol to be a casualty of this new information age, otherwise we focus more on the possible meaning and weight of what may be innocent oversights. International relations turns on such small issues.  

Second, China's propaganda and public diplomacy activity is designed for domestic as much as for international audiences (1). Anne-Marie Brady famously described the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a campaign of mass distraction (2). When China engages in international posturing, we should see what is going on inside the country for a possible explanation.

(1) See Kingley Edney's The Globalization of Chinese Propaganda: International Power and Domestic Cohesion (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

(2)  Anne-Marie Brady, 'The Beijing Olympics as a Campaign of Mass Distraction', The China Quarterly, Vol.197 (March 2009).

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Preliminary Thoughts on Post-Brexit Public Diplomacy

The gaze of the international community is now fixed firmly on the UK. The ramifications of the referendum on EU membership have gripped the world's media, with international broadcasters from China's CCTV to Al-Jazeera and RT providing thorough coverage of events. For the first time in decades the UK is the centre of global media discourses, with people across the world interested in British politics.

However, with uncertainty there is danger, and this is because much of the world's media have reported the alarming increase in racist abuse that accompanied the Leave campaign's victory on 24 June. If Britain does have any so-called 'soft power', then it is undermined by this image of a racist and divided society. In the days since the result was announced I have been contacted by many people from across the world who tell me they, their families and friends are now extremely worried about coming to the UK, for either study or tourism. At best, they fear they are unwelcome; and at worst, they are scared of being victims of racial abuse. Britain's international profile is taking a hammering, while the consequences for tourism and education are potentially very serious.  

What can be done to to overcome these problems in the short-term? While the government and police need to get to grips with the increase in hate-crime - after all, communication is not a solution to the real problems now facing British society - we also need a clear public diplomacy strategy with a positive narrative for global audiences. 

First, the architecture: Public diplomacy must be included in all discussions of post-Brexit strategies. This means that, in any committees established throughout the government to formulate a plan for the UK's exit from the EU, experts and practitioners of public diplomacy - including the BBC World Service and British Council - must be invited to participate as full members. They will be able to advise on how any political strategy will be seen across the world, and also help plan a clear communication policy. They will recommend which themes will resonate with particular audiences, as well as who should do the communicating and through which platforms. 

Two further structural suggestions: First, all the UK's embassies need to begin their own public diplomacy campaign, a charm offensive, with Ambassadors and Press Officers taking every opportunity to address a range of audiences in person and on the media to explain the referendum. The full mobilisation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and NGOs who work with the FCO is essential to help recover the UK's declining 'soft power'.    

Second, the Prime Minister needs to issue a strong positive statement about the referendum and the UK to the world via the BBC World Service. Only he has the perceived credibility and name recognition to do this. This statement should be crafted especially for international audiences and follow my suggestions below. This needs to be done sooner rather than later. The Prime Minister also needs to reassure the world that foreign visitors are still very welcome in the UK, and that the government and the majority of people will not tolerate racial abuse or attacks. Safety is in everyone's interest and remains a priority for both the government and the police.   

In terms of the narratives that should be communicated, public diplomacy needs to focus less on the details and focus on the bigger picture. The public diplomacy needs to be as simple as possible to capture and retain the attention of audiences, and this means paring down very complex, controversial, and divisive issues into the fundamental issues. 
Thus there is little point in recounting the technical details of the vote and the implications of the result. The economics need to be set to one side. Rather, the narrative that embassies and the government at home should privilege is the democratic value of the referendum. This, after all, is where soft power lies - in the core values and principles that guide the British political culture. Hence audiences should be told that the government has listened to the people's voice, and although many people do not like the result, the government respects the opinions it sought. What the referendum reflects is democracy in action: encouraging popular participation in debating and deciding the future of the country. The public diplomacy needs to remind audiences that the UK promotes this political culture around the world - often facing severe criticism and rebuke for doing so - but is prepared to lead by example.     

Second, audiences around the world are now familiar with the political fallout from the referendum - the Prime Minister's resignation, the impending leadership election in the Conservative Party, the disintegration of the Labour Party, renewed discussions about the Union with Scotland. The public diplomacy theme is: Democracy is sometimes messy; it can be chaotic; and this reflects the diversity of voices and opinions energised by, and tolerated in, the political culture in the UK. Not everyone is happy with the result, but the UK encourages critical debate and discussion.   

Above all, the international reaction to Brexit, the fear and worry it has generated, and the decline of British soft power requires the government to renew its commitment to public and cultural diplomacy, and the financial investment they require. It is no good claiming that Brexit allows us to begin a fresh relationship with the world outside Europe while subjecting the BBC World Service and other instruments of British public and cultural diplomacy to financial constraints, cuts, and generating a climate of suspicion that such important strategic assets are not valued.    


Tuesday, 3 May 2016

UK, Ricu, and counter-propaganda against extremism

'We are in an information war and we are losing that war' (US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 2011).

A few initial thoughts on stories published today about the UK's covert counter-propaganda strategy. This is a story that is sure to continue grabbing headlines. I am sure this will not be my only post on this subject. 

Are we meant to be surprised by revelations published today that the UK government is involved in propaganda as part of its counter-radicalisation programme (see UK covert propaganda against lure of IS)? Given that violent extremism is promoted in the media environment, and that we face an urgent need to combat – at home and abroad - such groups as Islamic State in the information sphere, it would be more shocking if such a propaganda unit as the Research, Information and Communications Unit (Ricu) did not exist. Counter-narratives to both the repellent forms of extremist propaganda and the more utopian themes projected by IS about life in the so-called Caliphate must be co-ordinated, consistent and use every platform available. 

Three issues present themselves: 

First, the distinction between propaganda and strategic communication is blurred and almost non-existent. We should acknowledge openly that we are in a propaganda war with IS and that counter-propaganda is necessary. In such a situation, labels are less important than the message and the objective. 

Second, Ricu’s case is not helped by flippant comments such as ‘All we’re trying to do is stop people becoming suicide bombers’. This alienates further the audience for such propaganda by conflating Islam and terrorism, and is therefore a potential own goal. If the objective of propaganda is to build communities to expose and manage extremism among themselves, such comments will not help. There is far more to counter-radicalisation than stopping people become suicide bombers, such as engaging with Muslim communities and making sure that they do not feel threatened, estranged or disaffected. The best propaganda works when audiences can see a government is committed to helping them overcome very real social and economic problems. 

This leads to the third issue, one that is highlighted in the Guardian’s reports on Ricu. The propagandist must weigh very carefully the advantages and disadvantages of acting covertly, especially the consequences for trusting the source if the audience feels deceived in any way. More openness and honesty about the necessity of propaganda would be welcome and would strengthen, rather than undermine, the information war against extremism.