Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Soft Power Differential

A recent Huffington Post article talked about the importance of soft power and cultural ties in China's and Brazil's bid for investing in Africa.

Although China has far more economic resources than Brazil, the first seems to be presently losing the battle to the second because of bad reputation and, essentially, a lacking soft power. Brazil, on the other hand, is seen as a friendly trust-worthy nation with strong cultural ties to Africa. And, Brazilian companies don't mistreat their African workers like some Chinese have done so.

It's interesting to think that the measure of soft power may be decisive in how much influence each country will be able to yield over time in Africa. China has many problems in that area not only in Africa, but in the U.S. (remember their campaign in Times Square?), and I would dare say nearly all over the West.

African countries are pushing back against a so-called new imperialism that they see with China's presence in the continent, whereas Brazil is seen as engaging with the population and having an interest in cooperation.

Can soft power really decide the outcome of grand strategies like this, going beyond monetary resources? It's an interesting phenomenon to analyze.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Kenya's Re-branding Challenge

Kenya, a country placed in the international spotlight recently due to its elections last month, has a branding problem.  According to an opinion piece in Kenyan newspaper The Star, “for 50 years, Kenya’s branding challenge has remained remarkably the same: how to diminish - to insignificance - the ugly in the beautiful.  Or, to use a more graphic, if somewhat revolting metaphor, how to avoid the ‘fly in the soup’ curse.”

To go along with the metaphor, the “flies” in Kenya’s history include corruption, detentions and torture, and ethnic division.  The “soup” has alternated between a reasonably professional Cabinet and civil service that laid the foundation for a capitalist economy, expanded education, emphasis on infrastructure, and the call for a new constitution.

Still, the image of the fly is more striking than that of the soup, making it so that the tag of Kenya as “a poorly and corruptly-led beautiful country of dynamic and friendly people” sticks.

The article in The Star compares Kenya’s predicament with that of internationally renowned Switzerland, which has “strong public associations with the attributes of stability, efficiency, and quality.”  Such an image dominates, because “Switzerland has successfully diminished to insignificance the brand of a country where illegally acquired wealth (inluding Nazi loot) is secretly kept.”

While I do not believe that international scrutiny of Kenya’s political, economic, and social ills should cease (neither should scrutiny of Switzerland’s holdings of illegal wealth for that matter…), I do believe Kenya is justified in wanting to remove the “fly in the soup” and rebrand the country to promote the positive aspects within it. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Pumping up the (soft) Power

In the article Soft Power in Chinese Discourse: Popularity and Prospect, Li Mingjiang argues that “a grand Chinese soft power strategy is still in its embryonic phase, despite the painstaking efforts of Chinese strategists to devise various proposals” (1).  Soft power is therefore China’s “weak link” in its comprehensive power, preventing the country from converting its hard power into international influence.  As my studies on public diplomacy have shown thus far, international influence is largely dependent on foreign perceptions.  It is for this reason that Mingjiang insists that China’s recent emphasis on soft power is undergirded by an understanding that “first and foremost, soft power is intended to shape a better perception of China by the outside world” (15).      

The unfolding crisis with North Korea and its missile threats presents a perfect opportunity for China to improve its international image.  China has a unique relationship with North Korea as it is Pyongyang’s sole major ally and aid provider; a role China has held since the 1950-53 Korean War.  As such, China seems to be one of the only countries that can penetrate the threats of nuclear war by North Korea’s young and elusive leader, Kim Jong-Un.  

U.S Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing during their diplomatic talks on the North Korean missile crisis. April 13, 2013. The Washington Post.
Although China seems reluctant in using its leverage over North Korea, it has expressed a willingness to work alongside the United States to defuse nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula during Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Beijing.Tackling an international crisis in a diplomatic and transparent way, in accordance to mainstream international opinion, is exactly what China must do to enhance its soft power. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Born the year of the Tiger, a new Tiger? Possible branding opportunity for China?

There's a new golf sensation. At fourteen years old and in his first professional tournament, China's Guan Tianlang is the youngest Master's participant in history.

Couple that with China's ongoing push for public diplomacy, such as this news article from a Chinese paper earlier this week. And China's history of PD involvement, such as the article we read for class this week by Zou Quinan and Mo Jinwei.  They point out how China has been actively engaging in PD since the late 1990s as its image has not grown at a rate consistant with its economy.  As a result many Chinese scholars began strategically studying the role of soft power and public diplomacy.  That being said, the Chinese concept of PD is different than that of the US.  While Americns focus on engagment, inform and influence on behalf of US interests, the Chinese are much more interested in communicating their culture through media and internet.

So, during the Masters this year, Guan is all over the media and internet.  He's the subject of multiple sports columns and articles such as this one, in which the reporter writes, "I thought of the warm, engaging boy with the majestic swing who routinely occupied the driving range stall next to my own." "Golf had been banned in China until 1984, but now is growing amongst China's middle class, and Guan is the face of that.  I'm looking forward to seeing how China capitalizes on him to help brand itself internationally.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Becoming part of the conversation... literally.

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Tara Sonenshine's latest speech on Public Diplomacy and Counterterrorism mentioned projects in which the U.S. government are activelly engaging in discussions on Al-Qaeda online forums. This is an attempt to get the "other side of the message" out. According to Sonenshine, the logic behind this approach is this:

"By targeting the hardliners, we are really trying to reach the middle grounders, the fence sitters, the sympathizers and passive supporters."

That seems plausible if it weren't for this - if someone has gone through the trouble of finding said forums and engaging there, they are probably past the point of being "fence sitters", and it would be, arguably, far more unlikely that adding a different perspective would change their hearts and minds.

What is the actual success rate of approaching this kind of group, or rather, how can one measure whether opinions have changed? The U.S. government should focus on ordinary citizens - those, it seems to me, are actually far more likely to change their minds about terrorism and the way they perceive the United States. 

These online forums can be useful for intelligence gathering and pin-pointing actual members of terrorist organizations, but they just don't seem like the best place for conducting public diplomacy.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Zimbabwe Poets for Human Rights

Our class discussion on cultural diplomacy reminds me of conference I attended last month where I was introduced to Zimbabwean slam poetry artist, Michael Mabwe.

One of the State Department’s cultural diplomacy initiatives is the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP), a program that facilitates professional exchanges between the U.S. and other countries. Through my internship, I had the pleasure of attending a conference in February honoring the work of past IVLP participants where I met Michael Mabwe. Having participated in the IVLP in 2008, he took the “best practices” he learned during the exchange to advance his cause back home in Zimbabwe in his organization, Zimbabwe Poets for Human Rights. As a human rights activist, Mabwe organizes community arts forums to promote tolerance and encourages discussion of controversial topics such as corruption, media freedom, democracy, and good governance. Among other things, Mabwe volunteers his time as the Director of the Zimbabwe-United States Alumni Association, where he works to dispel myths about the U.S. prevalent in Zimbabwe. The State Department invited him to return to the U.S. in February where he performed and spoke of his work at home.

Michael Mabwe presents and exceptional case where exchanges can advance bilateral goals of mutual understanding. The first minute of the video clip captures a beautifully crafted poem from his organization. Certainly, I encourage you to watch it in its entirety, but if you can only watch a little bit, watch the first few minutes to get a taste of the emotional appeal of cultural diplomacy.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Emphasizing the “Public” in Public Diplomacy

Yesterday, President Obama gave a speech in Jerusalem to a mostly college-age audience.  The speech is noteworthy primarily because it is an example of the American President bypassing direct communication with Israeli heads of government in order to directly speak to the Israeli public.  President Obama’s terse relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely publicized.   Despite efforts to portray a seamless alliance between their respective nations, Obama and Netanyahu continue to clash on issues pertaining to nuclear capabilities, Iran, Syria, and of course Palestine. 

Thus far, heads of state have not been able to remedy Israel’s most salient problems, which are obviously of great consequence to the U.S. as well.  So, who might be best equipped to address these problems?  Obama’s direct appeal to Israel’s youth seems undergirded by a recognition that the best means for change and influence is through foreign publics; specifically young foreign publics.  Such an appeal represents the crux of Public Diplomacy efforts today.   

Whereas personal strife may hinder direct communication between Netanyahu and Obama, the Israeli public is always accessible to the President via satellite television, social media, and other technological advances.  Such easy access has created the condition that publics now expect to be acknowledged and directly addressed. 

Speaking specifically on the need for a more flexible approach to negotiating with Palestinians, Obama said that Israeli and Palestinian leaders “will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.”    

In addition to exercising the full meaning of Public Diplomacy with foreign publics, President Obama has also extended his PD outreach to domestic publics. He has made extensive use of Twitter and other social media outlets to get the voices of the American people heard. 
As stated by Ellen Huijgh in her article Changing Tunes for Public Diplomacy: Exploring the Domestic Dimension, “for better or worse, [Ministries of Foreign Affairs] have learned through experiences that domestic public support for a government’s international policy choices and positions is crucial to the MFA’s legitimacy at home and abroad” (64).  Domestic PD efforts do not yet seem to be as institutionalized as foreign PD, but it may prove to be a pertinent strategy in the years to come.