Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The paradox of freedom

The never-ending battle of ideas

From The Statesman

On his recent visit to the United States, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: “We must undercut the terrorists’ so-called ‘single narrative’ and defeat their ideas. At home and abroad we must back mainstream and moderate voices and reformers, emphasizing the shared values that exist across faiths and communities.”

No one can ever say that the battle of ideas has been finally won. When the Soviet Union, for example, collapsed in 1989 and the Cold War was over, it was not the end of the battle of ideas but the beginning of a new one.

Many people see history as a linear progression, something rising from the bottom and going to the top. But one can also imagine history as an uninterrupted landscape, where past, present and future co-exist in a dynamic tension, where the battle of ideas continues. Even if militant Islamic jihadism is beaten, some new dangerous ideology will arise that threatening peace and our most cherished ideals of freedom.

China is presenting its own model of development - development without democracy - and its explosive energy born of nationalistic mercantilism is becoming an attractive ideology.

China has a powerful narrative: Harmony and peaceful rise, without the noise and chaos of democracy. The whole world is watching with fascination.

Some people, especially those trained in advertising and public relations, believe that all that the United States needs is a new image and therefore it must re-brand itself, just as corporations do. That shows poverty of thinking.

To a great extent a corporate nations like China 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, US military, corporate America; Guantanamo Bay, Wal-Mart, Microsoft; all contributing to the US image abroad. And now add to all this hotchpotch of impressions the daily carnage from Iraq, the horrific images of people being blown up daily. The US image abroad is an “emergence” and its quality depends upon how much of the United States is present in a country. A country that is exposed to only Hollywood violent movies and video games is likely to have a distorted image of the United States. But add to it a GE, university campus, cultural centre, and apparel factory; you see the image of the United States 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 United States differs from one country to another. The image depends upon the quality and the extent of its presence and its usefulness to the country. Even the smartest public diplomacy campaign won’t change perceptions overnight, especially when the United States is deeply engaged in multifarious actions abroad. Events might occur beyond its control, which could further blur the image in some countries. No quick-fix crisis communication would help.

China’s presence in the United States is huge but the recent recall of millions of China-made toys following the scandals of tainted pet foods and defective tyres has tattered its image of a reliable manufacturer. No amount of corporate public diplomacy will help China unless it realises that good products are manufactured by countries where free Press rules, where there is political and corporate transparency.

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 uncontrolled 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 Turkey may not work in Indonesia or Uzbekistan. The challenge is to find the right vehicle to embody the message for a specific local audience.

Al-Qaida has used local clerics to champion and spread its Jihadist message. Public diplomacy practitioners must use local leaders to champion and advance their cause and they should do in such a manner that it makes the local people feel good about themselves, while at the same time generating goodwill toward the country that is using information culture to foster goodwill. There was a time when Hollywood was the best cultural export, but now many people believe that the US popular culture, due to proliferation of senseless violence and explicit sex, creates negative impressions in foreign audiences, in spite of the fact the world has been spending billions of dollars importing American entertainment, filmed and taped programmes, as well as box-office hits.

The paradox is that in spite of negative feelings about American popular culture that it depicts profanity, nudity, mayhem and crime, piracy of popular cultural programmes, even in the Arab and Muslim world, remains unabated. In any case, practitioners of public diplomacy, who want to win over the hearts and minds of the people in the Arab world, should not count upon Hollywood’s popular culture as the nation’s goodwill ambassador. US corporations, educational institutions, and non-profit organisations represent most precious American values such as individual initiative, innovativeness, entrepreneurship, freedom of speech, and competition. Wal-Mart, Microsoft and Warren Buffet embody as much of what America stands for, as does Hollywood. America is what Americans do at the workplace, its ultimate source of strength.

Will China with its model of nationalistic mercantilism without freedom and democracy ever match the soft power of the United States, Europe and India?

(ND Batra, professor of communications and diplomacy at Norwich University, is the author of Digital Freedom, published by Rowman & Littlefield)

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