Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Diplomacy in a fractured world

From The Statesman
ND Batra

Even if it were possible to eliminate Islamic jihadism, some new dangerous ideology would arise to threaten peace and our most cherished ideals of freedom and equality.There would never be a time when we can say that we have won the war of ideas.

It is a perpetual struggle. Ultimately, it is the mind that is the battlefield. You could look at history as progress, like a train going to some destination, leaving the past behind.Or you could imagine history as an uninterrupted landscape, where past, present and future co-exist in dynamic tension. Even if India and Pakistan were to sign a final peace accord over Kashmir, some people would continue blowing up trains.

Some people believe that all that the USA needs is a new image and therefore it must re-brand itself, just as corporations do. That shows poor thinking. To a great extent, a corporation can control its message and its image because it is the sole source of information about itself. But you cannot control the image of an open society because there are so many independent actors, institutions and corporations; for example, Hollywood, Hip-Hop, the US military, corporate America, Anna Nicole Smith, Wal-Mart, Google ~ all of them contribute to the US image abroad.And now add to all this the havoc caused by the horrific images of innocent people being daily blown up in Baghdad; or a Sunni woman going on Al Jazeera television and painfully saying that she was raped by the police, who are mostly Shia.And the US military’s helplessness in doing much about it.

The US image abroad is an “emergence” and its quality depends upon how much of the USA is present in a particular country. A country that is exposed to only Hollywood violent movies and video games is likely to have a distorted image of the USA.But if you add to it the presence of an IBM R&D center, university campus, cultural centre, and Nike factory, you would see how the image of the USA in that country begins to change. Keeping the emergent nature of the image, it should not be difficult to understand why the public image of the USA differs from one country to another.The image depends upon the quality and the extent of its presence and its usefulness to the country.

American corporate presence in India has generated goodwill, which a public opinion poll might miss measuring if it were to pay attention to an occasional demonstration against a global retailer such as Wal-Mart trying to establish a foothold in the marketplace. Even the smartest public diplomacy campaign won’t change perceptions overnight, especially when the USA is engaged in multifarious activities abroad. Events might occur beyond its control, which could further blur the image in some countries. No quick fix crisis communication would help.

The always-on, 24-hour global communication, blogs, instant messaging, chatrooms, and news cycles, make it impossible for practitioners of public diplomacy to devise a central strategy to impose a message discipline, as it can be done in advertising campaigns for a product or a political candidate.Nor is public diplomacy like a political campaign, where negative campaigning could kill an opponent with a devastating effect. In an environment of decentralised communications, you might still control the message, but you cannot control the meaning when instant alternative interpretations, Al Jazeera, for example, are available.

Each nation is different, so what works in Indonesia may not work in Nigeria or Pakistan. The challenge is to find the right vehicle to embody the message for a specific local audience. Al-Qaida uses local clerics to spread its jihadist message. Public diplomacy practitioners must use local leaders to champion and advance their cause and they should do so in such a manner that it makes the local people feel good about their own society, while at the same time generating goodwill towards the USA. There was a time when Hollywood was the best cultural export, but now many people believe that US popular culture, due to proliferation of senseless violence and explicit sex, creates negative impressions in foreign audiences, despite the fact that the world has been spending billions of dollars importing American entertainment, filmed and taped programmes, as well as box-office hits.The global popularity of Oscar remains unparalleled.

The paradox is that in spite of negative feelings about American popular culture that it depicts profanity, nudity, mayhem and crime, its allure remains unabated even in the Muslim world.In any case, public diplomats, who want to win over the hearts and minds of the people, should not count upon Hollywood’s popular culture as the nation’s goodwill ambassador. Nor should India count upon Bollywood.

US corporations, educational institutions, and non-profit organisations represent some of the most precious American values, such as individual initiative, innovativeness, entrepreneurship, freedom of speech, and competition.Wal-Mart, Microsoft, and Silicon Valley, for example, embody more of what America stands for than what Hollywood produces.Public diplomats should show and tell the world ~ especially Muslim countries like Pakistan, a most dangerous breeding ground for terrorism ~ that America is what Americans do in the workplace, its ultimate source of strength, economic prosperity and self-renewal.

(ND Batra is the author of a forthcoming book, Digital Freedom: How Much Can You Handle? to be published by Rowman & Littlefield in August)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


USA’s white elephant

From The Statesman

In 2002, the US Congress authorised President George W Bush to go to war in Iraq based on Intelligence about weapons of mass destruction that later turned out to be inaccurate. It was expected that with the removal of the tyrannical rule of Saddam Hussein, a genuine regime change would occur with new hopes for democracy in the region. Instead of regime change, there was an implosion and the society collapsed.
The USA is no longer waging war in Iraq; it is now trying to stamp out sectarian civil war with the help of a sectarian government, though there seems to be no easy way out. Americans were not ready for a future of this kind, a bloody mess that has killed 3,100 US troops; you might say, not a large number as wars go but if you consider hundreds of thousands of the Iraqi dead and the ceaseless daily carnage of civilians being blown off in streets and the marketplace, you wonder why no one ever imagined the probability of this kind of scenario of hell. Or why would anyone in his right mind think of imposing a regime change on any other country?

Having been complicit in the war, with the news media, the US Congress cannot end the raging sectarian violence, insurgency or civil war, by whatever name you call it, and bring peace to the region if it forces the President to bring troops back home. Comparisons with Vietnam are misplaced and silly. In 1975, when South Vietnam fell to the North, the war ended. Vietnam was united under the Communist government of the North and the country began to settle down and rebuild itself. Nothing of the kind would happen in Iraq if US troops were to withdraw today. If Congress were to cut funding for the Iraq war, consequently forcing the troops back home, Iraq ~ unlike Vietnam ~ would never return to itself. Last week’s non-binding resolution in the House opposing the administration plan for deployment of 21,500 more troops in Iraq was not such a thundering bipartisan move as it was supposed to be.

The resolution dutifully supporting the US combat forces in Iraq, while opposing the additional deployment was representative of the raging but impotent rhetoric in the country.The Senate in spite of Democratic majority, on the other hand, could not muster enough votes to debate a similar non-binding resolution rebuking the President.The non-binding resolution is more like a strongly written opinion piece, which the President does not have to veto but at the same time he cannot ignore.

Congress like most Americans want troops back home but it does not want to abandon Iraq, leaving people to chaos or the mercy of their neighbour Iran or other surrounding Sunni Arab countries. Hence the political schizophrenia and confusion worse confounding. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman ever to become leader of the House, said the non-binding resolution “will signal a change in direction in Iraq that will end the fighting and bring our troops home safely soon.” Her words drew thundering cheers but did not carry any conviction. She did not explain how this sudden change from the present sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis, with the continuous insurgency, would end if the administration were stopped from carrying out the surge in deployment or even if there were effective reduction in the existing troop strength. In any case, even before Congress began to debate the issue of the surge in deployment of extra troops, the President had made up his mind to send 21,500 extra troops to Baghdad. And they are already on their way.

In the case of Vietnam, there was an alternative, a well-organised North ready to take over the whole country. That choice does not exist in Iraq because the country is splintered on ethnic lines and there is no well-organised force to transcend sectarianism and impose order on the country.Yet there has to be an alternative and Iraq must be put together again. The next few weeks would show which way the wind blows when President Bush asks Congress for $93 billion for the military for Iraq and Afghanistan. Democrats would launch another attack on the President’s failure to end the conflict in Iraq; and Congress would dilly-dally but would be unwilling to block the spending request to the President.

The Americans, though overwhelmingly opposed to the President’s Iraq policy, do not want troops to be denied of necessary funds. Increasing confrontation with Democratic-controlled Congress might, however, compel the President to explore some other ways of mitigating the situation; for example, recognising Iran and Syria as parties to the conflict and bringing them to the negotiating table. A diplomatic breakthrough the kind recently achieved with North Korea, based on negotiations with regional powers, might be a way out. But the search for diplomatic solution would require that the Bush administration must abandon any plan to invade Iran to forestall its nuclear weapon plans.

Democratic-controlled Congress can be effective in using its power of the purse by suggesting diplomatic means of negotiating peace in Iraq. It must urge the Bush administration to shed its inhibition in talking with Iranian authorities and develop common grounds with Iran in ending ethnic conflict in Iraq.

(ND Batra, the author of a forthcoming book Digital Freedom, being published by Rowman & Littlefield, teaches communications and diplomacy at Norwich University)

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Married families dwindle in USA

From The Statesman
ND Batra

Married people in the USA are in a minority now.
In 2005, according to the latest report released by Census Bureau, only about 49.8 per cent of households were families with traditional (heterosexual) married couples with or without children.

Six years ago, 52 per cent of the households had the sanctity of marriage, according to the report. Others just lived together or alone and their number has been increasing. Much has been vanishing from the good old America. The American family may be one of the disappearing institutions, if present trends become irreversible.

Work as a primary source of self-identity, legal complications of marriage and divorce, the responsibility of raising children in a two-parent working family, and the acceptance of alternative living styles normalised by television shows are some of the reasons for diminishing the family.
Where would the American family values come from, if the trend continues? More than a generation ago, when television programme rating companies wanted to measure audiences, they replaced family as a unit with household, a term that includes nuclear families, single-parent families, unmarried couples with or without children, and live-together groups, including same sex people or those who share facilities for economic reasons or claim some other bonds. The media rating companies’ attempt to count households was not meant to be a social commentary upon changing American values but a practical approach to develop a unit of measurement so that they could set rates for television commercials.

The bigger the audience for a television programme, the higher the cost for a thirty-second commercial, regardless of how the viewers in a group were related to one another.But as television producers looked for programmes that would attract maximum audiences, they discovered that the marketplace was asserting its primacy in American society.

Work began to compete with the family. Women had a sense of liberation; they could control pregnancy, work and have fun without having a family. The media companies’ programming choices reflected the changing mode of consciousness, network of assumptions and values of the American people.

Love and sex without marriage and having children without marriage became socially acceptable.

For more than four decades, or you might say, since the availability of the birth control pill, social norms have been incrementally changing and Americans have begun to accept diversity of interpersonal relations, such as some of TV’s hilarious work and living groups, Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex and the City, for example, show.

Traditional family households like that of the 1970s’ television sit-com’s Archie Bunker, his stay-at-home wife and their live-in daughter and unemployed son-in-law; and the 1980s Dr Huxtable, his attorney wife and with their several growing up children continue even today in real life. But according to the US Census Bureau, their number, the number of “married with children”, has declined substantially, from 45 per cent in 1960 to less than a quarter of the total households. Single mothers with children head seven per cent of American households and they tend to be poorer.

The number of unmarried couples has been soaring during the last decade or so and today you might say that almost one out of 10 coupling Americans never rang their wedding bells; or they have been living in sin, if you are a conservative and believe in the sanctity of marriage.Many of them would have children. American society accepts out of wedlock children without any stigma of shame. One-third American households consist of people who live alone, or are groupies who just live together.

Why is the traditional American family vanishing?

A few years ago, some sociologists attributed the decline to the socalled marriage penalty income tax that two-earner married couples have to pay when their combined incomes push them into a higher tax bracket than they would be paying if they were to file as singles.Republicans used the marriage penalty tax argument to cut taxes and Democrats were not unsympathetic to the idea. But tax incentives and church-related faith-based initiatives did not encourage more people to get married or stay on married.

The family was not built by the government and cannot be saved by the government.
High divorce rate and acceptance of children born outside marriage have taken their toll on the family.

Against the backdrop of the dwindling married families, consider the bizarre challenge of some fundamentalists, a Mormon splinter group, from Utah who live with multiple wives and some of them have more than 24 children.The wives seem to be happy and so are the children, well, if television does not lie. A few years ago, a 52-year old fundamentalist was prosecuted and convicted for bigamy and child abuse because one of his wives was only 13 when she became pregnant with his child.He argued that he was exercising his religious freedom. Originally, the Mormon Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, founded by Joseph Smith in 1830, allowed and encouraged its followers to marry and multiply. Polygamy was banned in Utah in 1896 as a condition for statehood in the Union, but even today there are 30,000 polygamous marriages in the state.

Americans accept unmarried couples, unwed mothers, bachelor fathers, same sex civil unions, multiple sex partners and all other kinds of human groupings but feel morally outraged when some one claims the right to be polygamous.

ND Batra is the author of a new book, Digital Freedom: How Much Can You Handle?
(Rowman & Littlefield)

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Digital Freedom

Digital freedom structured

From The Statesman
ND Batra

While most digital media companies think inside the box and try to protect their works with copyrights, patents, trademarks and contractual laws, apart from using technological means such as trusted systems and digital rights management, Open Source movement has been offering an alternative way of doing work in cyberspace.

Open Source guys believe that if the underlying source code of computer software were made freely accessible, it would be easy to improve upon its vulnerabilities for the benefit of all. The marketplace works on the assumption that its open competitive system, too, would bring about similar efficiencies, which explains to some extent why Open Source free software has not been able to do any damage to proprietary systems provided by Microsoft, Apple and others.Vista, iPod are forever. So is the Open Source, coexisting in a competitive environment of the marketplace.

The marketplace needs competitive diversity. In any case, when people talk of free software, what they mean is freedom to creatively mess up with the underlying code and change it according to their needs.If you get Microsoft’s Vista, all you can do is to use the system as it comes, even if the company gives you a free copy. Not only is the underlying code inaccessible, the licence would also prevent you from any attempt to hack it open to correct its flaws, if any.Fixing bugs is Microsoft’s responsibility, and the company must do if it wants its product to survive.

An Open Source operating system such as Linux, however, gives you the freedom to build upon its underlying code and develop newer software programmes, though you might have to pay for a CD of Linux. In this sense, Linux is free and open, though you pay for it. Microsoft Vista is proprietary, though the company might give it free to schools, for whatever reasons.Sometime ago, Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation was quoted in the Associated Press as saying, “Proprietary software companies hand out free copies for the same reason that cigarette companies give sample packs to college kids ~ to encourage addiction.” That’s a terrible analogy to explain the behaviour of proprietary systems, but you get the drift.

Paul Wallich of the free software movement argued sometime ago in Scientific American that Internet culture thrives on freedom: “In some ways, it only makes sense that the Internet should run on free software: almost all its basic protocols were developed with US government funding by universities or contractors.“The Web is the brainchild of CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics near Geneva. But even after most of the Net’s infrastructure has been privatised development...of free open software continues.... The logic of the intellectual marketplace ensures that only the best code and overall structure ~ as judged by a programmer’s peers ~ will survive.”

The freedom he talked about is different from the freedom of the marketplace, which puts value on everything that passes through its portals.In its benign form, the marketplace is a platform for negotiations. But openness is no guarantee of survival of a product as the fate of the Netscape Web browser has shown. It must be understood that Open Source free software does not mean that it is in the public domain.You don’t need a licence to use a public domain software programme and you can do whatever you want with it. Nor can you take any legal action against the programme’s creator if there are problems.

On the other hand, Open Source software programmes are copyrighted and can be used only under a licence, just like proprietary software; but they come without any warrantee, to protect their creators from any liability.The difference between proprietary software and Open Source software is the degree of freedom that the latter gives under its licence.The greater the freedom, the greater is the responsibility of the user for fixing the problems that arise while using an Open Source programme. But by defining Open Source software and the conditions for licensing it in exclusive terms, some of its proponents seem uncompromising in their attitude. Some fear that the whole idea of openness might be stymied if proprietary companies were to release software that has some free features but is not really free enough to be deemed free under the strict definition of Open Source. And that could happen if proprietary software companies feel that they have to survive the challenge of Open Source.

But so far, the Open Source movement has not driven Microsoft or any other big company out of business. The challenge to Open Source is that it must be good enough to survive in the marketplace as an alternative to proprietary systems, keeping in mind that some proprietary programmes may assimilate its laudable features. That’s how the marketplace dialectics work. One of the claims made for Open Source software is that since the source code is open to modification, freelance programmers can fix bugs and eliminate any problem, which however has not always been the case.Besides, digital security is an industrywide global issue; it is not dependent upon the nature of the licence, open or proprietary.

Hackers love Open Source as much as they love Cisco, Sun Microsystems or Microsoft.