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)

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