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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

On war of ideas Part 1

In an email exchange with Col. Gordon Cucullu I said (to his hearty agreement), "Though I firmly believe that military strength is essential to our survival, in the long run victory will depend on how well we explain ourselves."

So... I'm going to do something I don't usually do - well, actually never. I'm going to post an academic paper I did about two years ago. Among other reasons, I made a few points that I want to bring up for discussion (at the end of part 2, you'll have to wait.)

This proves that 1) I can so write in a pompous stuffy style, and 2) I read a book or two every now and again. So in two parts here is:

International Politics as Theater: Soft Power, Propaganda and Public Diplomacy
Stephen W. Browne


With the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 20th century, the United States was recognized as the sole “hyperpower”. Paradoxically, with this came an increased, often painful awareness that military and economic power has limits. American military power was not able to achieve a victory in Vietnam when there was a rival superpower, nor has it so far achieved a victory in Iraq, in spite of the immense disparity in power. In both of these cases far less powerful actors were able to craft appeals both to the international community and parts of the American public that could be persuaded to sympathize with their cause, or at least to disapprove of American actions.

Nor should it come as a surprise that American power is regarded with suspicion and hostility, even among American allies. American power is awesomely dangerous and has no serious rival at present. And no matter how much the US protests its benign intentions, even allied countries have reason to worry that they have no counterbalancing power of their own or one that they can appeal to for support. And even granted good intentions, American administrations change regularly and often display a worrisome inconstancy of foreign policy. As one practitioner of public diplomacy put it “- the United States, as the world’s dominant power, will inevitably be accused of heavy-handedness and arrogance” (Ross:2002: 82).

Since the 1960s, the phrase “soft power” has been used to describe the power of mass persuasion and cultural influence as an alternative to force. It was defined by Joseph S. Nye in his book “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics” (2004) as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion". And when force is resorted to, it is more and more recognized that the “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” referred to in the Declaration of Independence, demands that the US make a good-faith attempt to explain its actions to the court of public opinion, both ours, our allies and even our enemies.

US citizens are asked to support with their lives and treasure the US’ projection of power and assume the risks of retaliation from abroad and the long-term effects of a huge debt burden. US allies are well aware that they are also subject to retaliation if they support US actions and are less able to respond to it. Their currencies are often tied to ours, they may be holders of US government debt and American involvement elsewhere means fewer resources are available to devote to concerns more important to their security. Our enemies must be made to understand exactly what it is that they do, that will or will not invite consequences, of what kind and to what extent, if there are ever to be grounds for future negotiations – even negotiations for their surrender, and so that American use of force not be seen as capricious and unpredictable to our allies and potential allies.

In the Second World War, this was unabashedly called propaganda. Perhaps in no time since then have the issues at stake been so clearly explained both to the populations of the allies, their enemies and the powers that were persuaded to remain neutral. Reasons and justifications for all subsequent wars and minor conflicts waged by the US have been in comparison, poorly articulated for audiences both at home and abroad. President George W. Bush admitted as much when he stated, “We have to do a better job of telling our story” (Wolf and Rosen: 2005).

Definitions: propaganda and public diplomacy

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (online edition) defines propaganda as:

“Noun: 1. The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause. 2. Material disseminated by the advocates or opponents of a doctrine or cause: wartime propaganda. 3. Propaganda Roman Catholic Church A division of the Roman Curia that has authority in the matter of preaching the gospel, of establishing the Church in non-Christian countries, and of administering Church missions in territories where there is no properly organized hierarchy.

Etymology: Short for New Latin Sacra Congregregatio de Propaganda Fide, Sacred Congregation for Propagating the Faith (established 1622), from ablative feminine gerundive of Latin propagare, to propagate.”

This definition is morally neutral and seems not very different from the noun persuasion and the verb persuade, applied to a mass audience. Persuade is defined as:

“Verb: To induce to undertake a course of action or embrace a point of view by means of argument, reasoning, or entreaty: “to make children fit to live in a society by persuading them to learn and accept its codes” (Alan W. Watts). See Usage Note at convince.”

If there is a difference, it lies in the strict definition of “persuade” as using “argument, reason and entreaty”. Propaganda is more broadly understood to include the use of music, visual art, theater (live and film, both fiction and non-fiction), to appeal to emotions as well as reason - and critically, not to categorically exclude the use of lies and half-truths.

However, “propaganda” during the Cold War came to mean in popular usage, something like “political lies”. In the 1960s the term “public diplomacy” was promoted as an alternative. It was first used in the modern context in 1965 by Edmund Gullion, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Gullion later founded the Murrow Center of Public Diplomacy. A Murrow Center brochure gives a definition of the term as understood by Gullion and his successors:

“Public diplomacy… deals with the influence of public attitudes on the formation and execution of foreign policies. It encompasses dimensions of international relations beyond traditional diplomacy; the cultivation by governments of public opinion in other countries; the interaction of private groups and interests in one country with another; the reporting of foreign affairs and its impact on policy; communication between those whose job is communication, as diplomats and foreign correspondents; and the process of intercultural communications.” (Quoted in Cull.)

This definition is wordy and a bit euphemistic. Wolf and Rosen go directly to the point, “…to the extent that the behavior and policies of foreign governments are affected by the behavior and attitudes of their citizens, public diplomacy may affect governments by influencing their citizens” (2005).

Public diplomacy is contrasted with traditional diplomacy in that:
The practitioners of traditional diplomacy engage the representatives of foreign governments in order to advance the national interest articulated in their own government’s strategic goals in international affairs. Public diplomacy, by contrast, engages carefully targeted sectors of foreign publics in order to develop support for those same strategic goals (Ross: 2002: 75).

‘Public diplomacy’ also broadens the definition of propaganda to include information and cultural exchange programs such as the Fulbright Scholarship programs designed to “understand and influence foreign publics by familiarizing them with America and its policies, institutions, and people” (Roberts: 2005: 131) and the export of mass media entertainment.

Wolf and Rosen’s definition included non-governmental organizations and actors as well as governments. This became important with the rise of modern revolutionary organizations seeking to found new states and terrorist groups not openly affiliated with any state. For example, Yassir Arafat practiced public diplomacy so successfully that he was invited to address the United Nations with the honors of a head of state and became the single most frequent official visitor to the White House during the Clinton administration.

Ancient Origins

That a great deal of governance and diplomacy takes place in public rather than within the institutions of the state is not a new phenomenon particular to democracies. From the earliest civilizations, rulers have used public pageant and ritual to legitimize their power to their own people and overawe visiting foreigners.

In the 6th century BCE, the Athenian city-state invented theater, about the same time as they invented democracy. Solon, who instituted jury trial and broadened public participation in government, and Thespis the first actor, were contemporaries and undoubtedly acquainted.

Public performances originally consisted of a performer reciting long epic poems and stories for an audience limited to the number of people who could crowd around and hear him. Performances capable of reaching larger audiences were created by using a mass chorus in an amphitheater with favorable acoustics. This can be fairly called the origin of mass media. The innovation of Thespis was to create the role of the actor, a performer who spoke the words as if he were the person who was supposed to have said them (Brockett and Hildy: 1999: 13-33).

From the beginning, theater was a public venue where issues important to the life of the state were presented. “The stage drama, when it is meant to do more than entertain – though entertainment is always one of its vital aims – is a metacommentary, explicit or implicit, witting or unwitting, on the major social dramas of its social context (wars, revolutions, scandals, institutional changes).” (Rosenbloom: 2002: 283).

In 415 BCE during the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian army massacred every male of military age on the island of Melos and sold the women and children into slavery. Within a year Euripides, who had participated as a soldier in the destruction of Melos, staged his play ‘The Trojan Women’, a sympathetic portrayal of the anguish of the enslaved survivors of a city’s destruction by Greeks. Throughout Athens’ existence as a free state, the theater dealt with controversial issues and public figures, public scandals, class conflicts, and jury trials (Rosenbloom: 2002).

What is not clear is the extent to which the theater affected and informed visiting foreigners, but it may be plausibly presumed to have had some effect. Many of the plays of Athenian writers have survived and been widely imitated and translated to new media, arguing that they speak to issues of lasting importance and universal significance. The Trojan Women for example, was made into a film in 1971 and at the time widely seen as a commentary on the Vietnam War.

Modern History

The earliest use of the term ‘public diplomacy’ found so far, was in the London Times issue of January, 1856 in a criticism of US President Franklin Pierce. “The statesmen of America must recollect that, if they have to make, as they conceive, a certain impression upon us, they have also to set an example for their own people, and there are few examples so catching as those of public diplomacy.” The term here appears to be used in the meaning of ‘civility and calm’, and their effect on the publics of both parties to a conflict or negotiation.

Abraham Lincoln used public diplomacy in the modern sense during the Civil War, when the English upper classes were still hostile to the very existence of the United States and felt a kinship of blood and aristocratic ideals with the Confederate elites. At one point there was a very real danger of British intervention on the side of the South. Lincoln appealed directly to the workingmen of Manchester in letters published in 1863, and sent speakers to tour England making the case for the North. George Train, correspondent for the New York Herald, made numerous speeches on behalf of the Union – something that would be considered questionable by today’s understanding of journalistic ethics (Knightley:2004:34-35).

Perhaps the greatest coup of public diplomacy in Lincoln’s administration though, was the Emancipation Proclamation. Critics have pointed out with the benefit of hindsight, that it had almost no effect on the lives of slaves at the time of its issue, since it specifically declared free only those slaves in territory under Confederate control and not in non-secessionist slave states on the border. However it’s effect on international relations was to proclaim to the peoples of England and Europe that the aim of the war was universal emancipation, thus putting any government tempted to offer aid to the South in the position of effectively endorsing slavery.

In a congressional debate in 1871, Representative Samuel Cox (D, NY) declared that he believed in “open, public diplomacy” while objecting to secret intrigues to annex the Republic of Dominica. The term became widely used during the First World War, as did the term ‘propaganda’. But while ‘propaganda’ was used in the sense of ‘mass persuasion’, ‘public diplomacy’ was still used to mean diplomacy conducted between states, but without secrecy. For example, Woodrow Wilson, in the opening of the ‘fourteen points’ speech of January 8. 1918, spoke of “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at” (Cull).

By the First World War, America occupied the position of the ‘swing vote’ in any worldwide conflict - that of a force that determined the outcome of the war when the great powers were stalemated. By the Second World War the US was the essential power, without whose military and industrial capability the victory of the allies was by no means certain. In each case, the opposing powers used propaganda and public diplomacy to try and sway the people of America to demand that the government stay out of or enter the war.

Before America’s entry into the war, the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs was established to counter Nazi propaganda in Latin America. Roosevelt also established the office of Coordinator of Information (COI) in 1940, which was primarily concerned with intelligence operations, but also included a Foreign Information Service (FIS) which significantly, was headed by a playwright, Robert Sherwood. After America entered the war the FIS started the Voice of America (VOA), which broadcast in German, French, English and Italian. Soon, the functions of the FIS were split off from the COI and it became the Office of War Information (OWI).
After the end of the Second World War, the OWI was abolished and certain functions, such as the VOA were transferred to the State Department. However the US quickly became involved in a nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union, while both powers claimed spheres of influence and vied to bring non-aligned parts of the world into their orbits. Nuclear war being unthinkable, efforts to influence the publics of various countries became of primary importance. In 1946 Congress authorized the Fulbright programs, in 1948 the Smith-Mundt Act created a new set of information and cultural programs and in 1953 the United States Information Agency (USIA) was created (Roberts:2005:132).

The USIA operated throughout the period of the Cold War, employing the VOA, various specialty publications, libraries, films and speakers. At the end of the Cold War, the function was perceived to be obsolete and funds started to dry up. In the decade after 1989 USIA funding was cut by 10% and had only 6,715 employees, as opposed to 12,000 in the 1960s (Nye:2004:17).

What passed almost unnoticed was that public diplomacy efforts to the Arab countries, once part of an effort to keep them out of the Soviet orbit, were also cut. By 2001 only 2% of Arabs listened to VOA and foreign exchanges dropped from 45,000 in 1995 to 29,000 in 2001 (Nye:2004:18). (Not “exchanges” they were mostly one-way actually, American students were rarely sent to study in Arab countries, with the exception of Lebanon during times of stability.)

In late 1998 the USIA was abolished and the VOA transferred to the State Department (Roberts: 2005: 134).

Next: Part 2, 9/11 as theater


  • At 7:20 AM, Blogger Joseph Sixpack said…

    While Joseph Nye's case is a nice thought, I think it is a bit heavy in idealism. Public diplomacy can be helpful, as your examples of Lincoln and VOA show, but the real decisive issue is national interest, calculated with adequate knowledge by national leaders. Public diplomacy can sometimes help to provide an electoral stick in addition to the carrot of national interests, but you can lack public approval altogether and still get your wishes, which is exactly what we see in Europe. Our actions in Iraq are extremely unpopular in Europe but our allies are still there. And perhaps that is where my view fundamentally differs from Nye's. He sees public diplomacy as the carrot. I see it as a stick. It is a check against the power of the foreign leaders, not an incentive.

    Whether we view our position as one of leadership or as an equal partner in an alliance, I think it holds true that other countries are not going to change their level of cooperation with us based upon whether their populace likes our tactics (Within the realm of tactics that we would realistically employ - obviously if we resorted to genocide then there might be an issue). See the article in the current issue of The American Interest. This is exactly the notion that was discussed in a passage from Washington's Farewell address, quoted in the article: "There can be no greater error than to expect, or calculate upon real favors from Nation to Nation. 'Tis an illusion that experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard." (page 131 in the hard copy). Other countries will cooperate when it serves their interests, whether they like us or not.

    I think that folks like Nye have an unreasonable fetish for being liked and underestimate the importance of perceived national interests. To me, it seems similar to black kids' aversion to being seen as "acting white." It is self-destructive and based more in emotion than in rational calculation of national interest. It's wonderful to be liked. But if you're liked because you're a weakling who is too scared to lead, then what is the point?


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