USC’s Public Diplomacy Magazine has a new issue!

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The winter 2014 issue of the USC Public Diplomacy Magazine has come out and the topic is Gastrodiplomacy.

Check it out here: http://publicdiplomacymagazine.com/gastrodiplomacy/

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Call for Papers!

 

“Public Diplomacy of Emerging Nations”
in
The Exchange: Journal of Public Diplomacy

 

Description:
Exchange: The Journal of Public Diplomacy is the graduate student-run publication of the Association of Public Diplomacy Scholars at Syracuse University. It is an annual online and print publication, and the first academic journal dedicated to public diplomacy.

 

The journal’s mission is to provide public diplomacy scholars and practitioners with a forum to share their research and experience to expand the field’s body of knowledge. We encourage articles pertaining to international relations, public relations, media studies, cultural studies, nation branding, and other related areas.

 

Upcoming Issue:
The Fall 2014 issue of The Journal of Public Diplomacy will be tackling the topic “Public Diplomacy of Emerging Nations.”

 

Deadline for paper submissions: May 1, 2014

 

Submissions:
Exchange accepts submissions that address a clearly defined issue, include thoughtful analysis, and relate to current public diplomacy literature. We welcome original works of field research, literature reviews of current or recent scholarship, and discussions of relevant conceptual and theoretical issues.

 

Guidelines:
• Length: Papers should be approximately 4,000 – 6,000 words including abstract and citations.
• Abstract: All submissions must be accompanied by a brief abstract and should include five keywords that summarize primary themes.
• Biography: Submissions should include a biography of the author and contact information.
• Format: Papers should adhere to the AP Style with APA style endnotes and bibliography.

 

For more information, please email exchangesupd@gmail.com, or our editors-in-chief at accyr@syr.edu or russ.walker09@gmail.com.

 

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China’s Strategic Investment in Adorable Exports: Panda Diplomacy

By Maggie Moore, Syracuse University public diplomacy student

Apparently China’s decision to share the adorableness that is the Giant Panda with zoos across the globe is a strategic calculation to garner the world’s goodwill. The Chinese government hopes that the warm fuzzy feelings towards pandas transfers to positive goodwill towards China as well. Well, China, mission accomplished. There’s not a whole lot that the residents of Washington, DC can agree on but Republicans and Democrats alike are panda crazy for the National Zoo’s new panda cub, born in August earlier this year.

Origins of Panda Diplomacy

Panda Diplomacy, as with most practices in China, is nothing new.  The country has used giant pandas as gifts to other countries since Empress Wu Zetian and the Tang Dynasty. In the 1950s, the practice returned and over the next thirty years the People’s Republic of China gifted 23 pandas to nine countries.

The United States received its first two pandas in April 1972 following President Nixon’s historic visit to China. These pandas were gifts, symbolizing a new, positive relationship between the two countries. (In return the United States gave China musk oxen – apparently we’re horrible reciprocating gift givers). The pandas were almost named Ping and Pong as an homage to the two nations’ first public diplomacy engagement, Ping Pong Diplomacy, but ultimately named Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing.

Modern Panda Diplomacy

According to a recent article by Business Insider, the second era of Panda Diplomacy focused less on friendships and more on economics. Following Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in 1978, gifts became financial transactions. In 2000, America negotiated a deal with China to replace their original pandas, which died in the late 1990s. In return for a 10-year loan of two pandas, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, America paid $18 million dollars (though half is required to fund panda conservation efforts).

According to a new study done by Oxford University, in the emerging third era, panda loans are now associated with nations supplying China with valuable resources, as Scotland recently did, or symbolize China’s attempts to diffuse hostile political relations, like it did with Taiwan with mild success.

Tai Shan

In 2005, the first panda cub was born in Washington, DC. The cub was officially named Tai Shan but locals affectionately called the panda Butterstick after a zoo worker described him as being about the size of a stick of butter when he was born. This panda cub caused a pandemonium (pun absolutely intended) with tickets selling out, the zoo panda live video stream crashing and panda products flying off the shelf. But what China gives, it can also take away: China recalled Tai Shan and another U.S.-born panda cub (Mei Lian from the Atlanta zoo) in 2010, two days after President Barack Obama decided to meet the Dalai Lama, against the wishes of the Chinese government.

What’s in a name?

Newest panda cub at the National Zoo

Newest panda cub at the National Zoo

Even choosing a name for a panda is an act of diplomatic theater. The American public gets to choose the name for the newest member of the National Zoo’s panda family from five options; prestigious representatives submitted the possible names. The U.S. Ambassador to China, the Chinese Ambassador to the United States, National Zoo giant panda keepers in DC, the Wolong Nature Reserve and Breeding Center giant panda keepers in China, and the Friends of the National Zoo submitted one option each.

Robust relationships

The results of panda diplomacy? Pretty impressive. In addition to diplomatic and economic relationships between the two countries, Chinese and American scientists benefit. Scientists collaborate by studying pandas together: their mating behavior, their environment and, ultimately, the survival of an endangered species, all of which forges strong strategic partnerships and contributes to worldwide conservation efforts.

Everybody loves a panda. They’re cute and cuddly, and as a result China’s laughing all the way to the bank and stockpiling hordes of soft power.

Posted in China, Cultural Diplomacy, economics, Foreign Policy, Geopolitics | 1 Comment

Food Insecurity and Public Diplomacy

By Sarah Blanchard, Syracuse University public diplomacy student

China leases land to grow palm oil for biofuel on 2.8 million hectares (7 million acres) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. China wanted to grow biofuels on 2 million hectares in Zambia. Saudi Arabia leases $100 million worth of land in Ethiopia, almost the same amount that the World Food Program spends on food aid for Ethiopia. South Korea rents 690,000 hectares in Sudan for wheat and the United Arab Emirates rents 400,000 hectares there. It isn’t just rich countries exploiting Africa’s largest resource either, as Libya leases 100,000 hectares in Mali for rice. [1]

REUTERS/James Akena

REUTERS/James Akena

Critics claim this “landgrabbing” as it’s known, is neocolonialism. Governments are leasing the land to interested richer governments, often with little say by the people who already use that land. Proponents discuss the improvements to the local farming infrastructure, including new seeds, new irrigation techniques, and general investment in sectors and countries that are chronically under-invested.

This is not just about securing food and water sources for nations that happen to have unlucky geography and a lack of natural resources.  Saudi Arabia created large wheat farms in the middle of the desert, and the country is rich enough to continue to operate them if it decided to. The public diplomacy implications of this emerging practice are very interesting.

The reputation and perceived images of a country are important in the global competition for tourism dollars and investment capital, known as nation branding. (See an earlier post about nation branding here.) States often take matters into their own hands and promote their own distinctive qualities to improve and influence the competition.

The lenders and leasers of African and South Asian farmland are participating in nation branding, even if indirectly. Let’s examine first the countries that are leasing land outside of their own borders, including many of the Gulf States, South Korea and China. Ideally, a Sudanese man working on the farmland leased by South Korea is aware that the government of South Korea will be using the food he is harvesting. The farm worker may or may not have known about South Korea as a country, although South Korea is becoming a bigger player in the world stage. Next time the worker goes to buy something, this may influence his decisions, as he could buy a product from South Korea that he wouldn’t have considered otherwise since his job is now affected by South Korea’s land use. Not only are the local workers exposed to South Korea as a country, but also no doubt the local media are too and maybe even Sudan’s neighbors. Compared to countries that are not leasing land in Sudan, any attention on South Korea’s ability to participate in such a practice heightens global awareness about the country from a region overshadowed by China.

On the other side of the equation, lenders are increasing their status in the world as well. Mali is experiencing problems with terrorists in the region, but its ability to offer land for lease demonstrates its desire to capitalize on the benefits of foreign investment. Sudan has traditionally been known as the “breadbasket of the Arab world,” but South Korean investors, media, and government officials are paying more attention to Sudan, a country that probably was not high on South Korea’s radar before this. Pakistan is trying to find Gulf region investors to farm up to 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres), no doubt in attempts to influence Gulf investors to get involved in Pakistan in other ways.

There are discussions in the scholarship about diplomacy no longer being government-to-government. This is a new form a diplomacy and it remains as government-to-government. Time will tell the outcomes of these agreements, and hopefully it does not end with one party benefiting more than the other.

Posted in Africa, Development, Foreign Policy, Geopolitics, Middle East, Nation/Place Branding, Security | 2 Comments

Uncertainty Remains: How Free is the Shanghai Free Trade Zone?

By Yao Xiao, Syracuse University public diplomacy student, Exchange articles co-manager

An eleven-mile free trade zone (FTZ) was launched in Shanghai on Sept. 29 with promises of freer capital flow and endpoints of regulations for foreign companies in many industries such as banking, healthcare, entertainment and legal services. According to the South China Morning Post, the Chinese government was to lift the ban on foreign websites that are considered politically sensitive by the government within the FTZ, to make foreign investors working and living there feel at home. This report stirred up a heated conversation about Internet access on Weibo and got quoted by many media outlets, domestic and abroad.
ChinaHowever, the Global Times, a daily Chinese tabloid with a strong pro-government stance, published an editorial trying to steer the media’s attention to other features of the FTZ the following day. Two days later, People’s Daily confirmed that the regulatory conditions regarding Internet remain intact within the zone but dodged a direct question of whether foreigners residing within the FTZ will have special treatment about their Internet access.
Some analysts argue that this establishment is more than a step in economic reform, but a testing ground for political reform. I have my doubts because how free this FTZ actually is remains uncertain. The details about what is permitted is still vague for foreign investors, while the “negative list” about activities relating to technology, media and telecommunications market that are prohibited inside the zone is long. So far 36 companies have been given approval to set up business within the area, but Citibank and DBS are the only foreign banks chosen to operate there. With financial sector being the key of the FTZ, it seems like a low start.

For details about the Shanghai FTZ reform, please visit: http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/814501.shtml#.Ult6042J1qM

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Public Diplomacy and Terrorists: The Tragedy in Nairobi

By Nicole Audette, Syracuse University public diplomacy student, Exchange co-editor

—–
On Saturday September 21, Al-Shabaab militants laid siege on a popular upscale mall in Nairobi, Kenya – A place where only one month ago I could have been found enjoying a coffee and shopping the isles of the Nakumatt. As the militants separated people based on their religion and killed without any thought to the value of human life, I was struck by the power of terrorism. Never before had I felt the panic of trying to find out the safety of all of my friends and family; or picturing myself in all of those familiar places now flashing across my screen covered with blood. I couldn’t help but feel anger toward the hatred in these terrorists’ hearts, and I found myself beginning to question everything I thought I once knew. In those hours I spent pouring over live tweets and news reports, I was helpless to the feeling of terror.

soldierThe more I questioned the senselessness of this attack on innocent people, the more I began to uncover a war for hearts and minds. Coming from a public diplomacy background, I was struck by the similarities between the tactics and strategies I was learning in the classroom and those I was watching these terrorists use.  Public diplomacy is defined as the means used to understand cultures, attitudes and behaviors, build and manage relationships, and influence opinions and actions to advance interests and values. Terrorism is defined by the U.S. FBI as acts, “intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coerce a civilian population, or affect the conduct of a government.”[1] The attacks in Nairobi bore a striking resemblance to public diplomacy, with an evil twist.

Using a “soft target” like Westgate Mall, Al-Shabaab set the stage to try and activate the Kenyan and Western public towards the foreign policy issue of external influence in Somalia. A tweet from the Al-Shabaab’s twitter account (@HSM_Press) during the siege stated, “For long we have waged war against the Kenyans in our land, now it’s time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land #Westgate.”[2] From the very beginning, once the sporadic killing stopped and hostages became the main focus, the terrorists made it perfectly clear that they were not going to negotiate; their goal was to instill fear and influence the Kenyan and Western public that they needed to convince their governments to leave Somalia. Even at the end of the siege on Wednesday September 25, the group’s leader Ahmed Abdi Mohamed Godane instructed the public, “Make your choice today and withdraw all your forces. Otherwise be prepared for an abundance of blood that will be spilt in your country, economic downfall and displacement.”

The Westgate mall billows with smokeThe true strategic potential of this attack however, like any good public diplomacy effort lies below the surface. The problem statement of this campaign may be that there are Kenyan and African Union forces in Somalia, but the objectives go deeper than that. Al-Shabaab has demonstrated a profound knowledge of their target audience and as Ken Menkhaus has pointed out, [3] aim to incite vengeance and hatred in the hearts of Kenyans against the Somalis living in their own backyard. Since the Somali government fell in 1991, Somalis have been moving into Kenya in large numbers, creating bustling neighborhoods like Eastleigh outside Nairobi. These Somalis have become some of the most successful investors and real estate owners in Kenya, which has led to numerous clashes with envious Kenyans. The potential for this attack at Westgate to influence Kenyans to blame all Somalis is very real, as one resident of Eastleigh stated, “We are naturally worried about retaliatory attacks.”[4] The success of this terror campaign lies in the hearts of the Kenyan people. What lies ahead for Kenya is a choice, “If they respond to this terrible tragedy with restraint and respect for due processes and rule of law, they will do more to undermine Al-Shabaab than all of the counter-terrorism operations conducted inside Somalia.”[5]

With this attack, Al-Shabaab has arguably taken the steps to reframe the conflict in Somalia. The rise of social media has given terrorist organizations a seat at the agenda-setting table; they now have the ability to directly feed messages to the national and international media and publics. They can control what the world hears through platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Skype. This new access has significant relevance to the potential success of this terrorist campaign in Kenya. As Menkhaus points out, “If the deadly attack succeeds in prompting vigilante violence by Kenyan citizens or heavy-handed government reactions against Somali residents, Shabaab stands a chance of recasting itself as the vanguard militia protecting Somalis against external enemies. It desperately needs to reframe the conflict in Somalia as Somalis versus the foreigners, not as Somalis who seek peace and a return to normalcy versus a toxic jihadi movement.”[6] The overall evaluation of success for these Al-Shabaab terrorists lies not in the number of victims but the attitudinal changes brought among the publics affected by this attacks; changes that are meant to garner supporters, recruit followers, and sensitize sympathizers.

The increasing interconnected nature of the world has also given rise to the reality thatKENYA-UNREST-ATTACK the well-being and security of one country is linked to the lives of people thousands of miles away, as demonstrated by the array of nationalities on the list of victims at Westgate mall. Al-Shaabab leaders have said the attack was not only directed at Kenya, but was also “retribution against the Western states that supported the Kenyan invasion and are spilling the blood of innocent Muslims in order to pave the way for their mineral companies.”[7] There are also numerous reports that some of the terrorists in this attack may have been recruited and supported from the West. This attack was not just against the Kenyans, but against all those fighting for peace in Somalia.

As the days unfold and I continue to reflect on the power of terrorism, I find myself trying to answer the question of “how do we win a war against terrorists?” They don’t have a state for the world to attack, they don’t have an economy to sanction, they don’t have a peace to negotiate. We are truly in a battle for hearts and minds, where the power to win this battle lies in the features that sets public diplomacy apart from terrorism: the fostering of a culture of mutual understanding, the opening of two-way symmetrical dialogue with those audiences vulnerable to these terror tactics, and the establishing of relationships. We can be ambassadors of a message of understanding and respect. We can continue to let solidarity and unity rise out of the ashes of the rubble at Westgate by recognizing the Somali Muslims who risked their lives to save their fellow Kenyans. We can engage in a conversation about alleviating trepidation in the hearts of our expatriates living in Africa. We can encourage our governments to continue to support and develop the East African region. We can be the advocates of acceptance and compassion. Because in the battle against terrorism, #WeAreOne.

Posted in Africa, Al-Shabaab, Kenya, news, Protest, Terrorism | 2 Comments

The Arts Mean Business

By Alexandra Siclait, Syracuse University public diplomacy student

About nine months ago, I read a particularly pleasing white paper, “Creative Placemaking,” which reminded me that cultural diplomacy is well and alive in cities across the United States.

In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired. (Markusen & Nicodemus, 2010, p. 3)

This stands as a reminder that cultural diplomacy does not have to be exported to an international audience for culture to be appreciated. The mere manifestation of individuals and communities embracing their own culture and expressing benign nationalism can also draw in an international audience. “One must first start at home, finding compelling art, people and ideas that will make others want to pay attention and take notice. There is no bigger endorsement than the spirit of benign nationalism” (Anholt, 2007, p. 26).

This year, Syracuse’s CRAVE Arts Immersion Festival that premiered this past weekend, aimed to do just that. “It was an innovative arts festival designed to immerse Syracuse in a wide variety of visual and performing arts Sept. 20-21,” (www.cravefest.org). CRAVE creator, CNY Jazz Executive Director Larry Luttinger, wanted this festival to serve as a platform for how the arts and cultural activity can stimulate Syracuse’s local economy and sustain its neighborhoods.  More importantly, he wanted to tap into Syracuse’s creative energy to connect people, business and educational as well cultural institutions to stimulate new economic activity.

Ingeniously, Luttinger’s idea not only drew the attention of Syracuse city leaders, but also art leaders. What started out as one singular idea, from one individual, developed into a public-private partnership among the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), Central New York Jazz Arts Foundation (CNY Jazz), the Connective Corridor, a program of Syracuse University’s Office of Community Engagement and Economic Development, SU’s Arts Engage, the Syracuse Convention & Visitors Bureau and IDEAS (Collaborative of the Gifford Foundation, Allyn Foundation, Central New York Community Foundation, Dorothy and Marshall M. Reisman Foundation, John Ben Snow Foundation and the Trust for Cultural Resources).

What does this all mean, though? The arts mean business. According to the Arts & Economic Prosperity IV Summary Report (2010), cultural organizations are entrepreneurial businesses that employ people locally, market and promote regions and more importantly secure jobs that cannot be shipped overseas. What CRAVE and countless other creative placemaking initiatives may be starting to prove is that there doesn’t need to be a choice between arts funding and economic prosperity. Both can coexist.  According to the report, “attendance at arts events generates income for local businesses – restaurants, parking garages, hotels and retail stores,” (p.3). Even more interesting, on a national level, the data collected for the report shows that nonlocal attendees spend twice as much as local attendees at art events ($39.96 vs. $17.42). This means that creative placemaking not only has the potential to attract cultural tourists but also produce economic rewards.

So how exactly is a dollar represented in a community shaped around arts and cultural activities?

A theater company purchases a gallon of paint from the local hardware store for $20, generating the direct economic impact of the expenditure. The hardware store then uses a portion of the aforementioned $20 to pay the sales clerk’s salary; the sales clerk re-spends some of the money for groceries; the grocery store uses some of the money to pay its cashier; the cashier then spends some for the utility bill; and so on. The subsequent rounds of spending are the indirect economic impacts. (Arts & Economic Prosperity IV Summary Report, 2010, p. 7).

When the impact of art is presented in this way, it’s no wonder why the Aspen Institute, hosted an Aspen Creative Placemaking Roundtable two weeks ago and why six Minneapolis mayoral candidates debated about creative placemaking and the arts last week. City leaders are beginning to see that arts are a central part of community life, quite literally. As the example illustrates above, it’s more than an attendance at the museum, symphony or a play. There are direct economic impacts of expenditure that create value in the community.

When our goal in cultural diplomacy is to do business with people who believe why we do what we do, we have to remember that in the end, how we see the world defines how we define our options.

Posted in Cultural Diplomacy, Nation/Place Branding, New York | 1 Comment

Grand Slam Globetrotters – The World’s Embrace of Tennis and its Stars

By Andrea Baldwin, Public Diplomacy student, Syracuse University

Is the “GOAT” (greatest of all time) Swiss? Or Spanish? Or Serbian? While New York may be home to one of the annual Grand Slam tennis tournaments, it is no longer home to all of the top talent (though American Serena Williams is arguably the best female tennis player).

4752392138_20603e3604_bUnlike most highly watched sports today, tennis is not a team sport (except for doubles, which is gaining popularity but not nearly at the level of singles). The individuality—and popularity—of this sport has led many players from smaller or less developed countries who rise to the top to become a sort of ambassador for the country. I would guess that anyone who is at all a tennis fan, could tell you that Roger Federer is Swiss, Novak Djokovic is Serbian, Rafael Nadal is Spanish, Caroline Wozniaki is Danish, and Li Na is Chinese. Many people probably associate these names with their countries more quickly than they would some of nations’ political leaders.

As a 2011 Bleacher Report article elaborates, tennis is truly becoming a global sport. Increasing numbers of countries are investing in their tennis programs and infrastructure. Where the U.S. once dominated the “Top Ten” player list for both men and women, in the past few years this list has begun to reflect the global reach of the sport, with only one or two Americans making the top ten lists.

6789323003_8f8398c54e_bUnlike the World Cup or the Olympics, tennis has four Grand Slams each year—Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open—in addition to dozens of tournaments around the world where many of these players frequently face off—and get to know each other. And the fans get to know them, too. While I often feel the urge to be very patriotic during the Olympics, I do not feel the need to cheer for the American in every tennis match I watch. As I learn more about these amazing players, their backgrounds, and their fans, I find myself cheering for players from everywhere—even, sometimes, when their opponents are American.

Some smaller countries that are home to big stars have seen the benefits of this exposure. Many tennis stars have worked with UNICEF as Goodwill Ambassadors and, as in Novak Djokovic’s case, National Ambassador to his home country, Serbia.  They are “celebrity diplomats” for their countries and their sport, and social media has seemed to help them reach out to fans across the globe, with, for example, Rafael Nadal’s tweets reaching more than five million followers (myself included!).

Posted in Celebrity Diplomacy, Cultural Diplomacy, Digital Diplomacy, Media/Technologies, Nation/Place Branding, Sports Diplomacy | 1 Comment

Syria: Damned if we do, damned if we don’t

By Philip Bristol, Syracuse public diplomacy and law student

—-

I spent the last few days scouring the news for something other than Syria to write about. Unfortunately the overwhelming story in the news is Syria. Now to be clear, I am not suggesting that the current uncivil war in Syria is irrelevant, nor am I trying to make light of the millions of internally displaced people, which is distinguishable from the now several million refugees scattered in camps all over the region. What I am saying is that so much is being talked about the Syrian war and yet so little is being done. This is because political leaders all over the world know that with Syria they are damned if they act and they are damned if they do not.

A normal, rational member of the public could look at the new stories over the last two years coming from Syria and ask, “isn’t there an international body that is supposed to make sure things like using poisonous gas as a military weapon doesn’t happen?” Or, “if it looks like the conflict may result in war crimes or genocide that someone will step in and put an end to this mess?”

The short answer is yes. That being said, it requires an act of the Security Council of the United Nations, which happens to be more dysfunctional than the U.S. Congress. So although the U.N. has been active both in documenting the conflict and in addressing the needs of the non-combatants who have been forced from their homes, it is very unlikely that soldiers with the blue helmets and U.N. badges will arrive in Syria anytime soon.

That leaves three options on the table: the first is no action, the second is individualized action, the third is collaborative action. The first option is politically unpalatable because no politician wants his or her legacy to include the phrase “he had the opportunity and capacity to prevent ______ (usually major war crimes / genocide is inserted here) but he failed to act, leaving them as morally guilty of the crime as those who actually committed it.” The U.S. has the additional problem of being both uniquely capable of action and seeking to be identified with the moral high ground of individual rights and liberties. This is why I say, and I am sure many politicians are thinking, “we are damned if we don’t.”

At the same time, most of these leaders are responsible to their constituents who have seen too much of their children’s blood spilt in a foreign land. The result of this war-weariness, is action, either in the form of individual or collaborative intervention, is a very unpopular option. Additionally, the international treaties and norms that are being violated in Syria (both sides have engaged in questionable action) also prohibit the type of intervention the U.S. is discussing for any reason other than self-defense. The long and sort of this all is our political leaders are also faced with the conclusion “we are damned if we do.”

The silver bullet that it seems that these politicians are looking for is some variation of collective action that arguably satisfies international norms and law regarding the proactive use of military force. Unfortunately that requires someone somewhere to make a decision and chose the lesser of two evils.

 

Please click here for a clip of Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, speaking to the U.N. Security Council regarding action concerning Syria on September 5, 2013.

Posted in Foreign Policy, Geopolitics, Middle East | Leave a comment

The Middle East diplomacy delusion

By Kevin McElligott, Syracuse University Public Diplomacy student

Public diplomacy under the Obama administration has evolved from a rarely understood bit of statecraft to a priority in foreign policy. Particularly since the Arab Spring began in 2010, Obama has been known as the “soft power president,” largely deferring to diplomatic overtures that seek to avoid protracted military engagement in any form. But as the ongoing Syrian and Egyptian crises illustrate, unconventional conflicts featuring intransigent leaders are where American diplomacy, still weak in the Middle East, is least effective. Consequently, the U.S. is poised to rely almost solely on its less nimble military to intervene, and we must question whether we are adequately prepared to face such conflict…and whether we want to.

Source: Hossam el-Hamalawy (elhamalawy), Flickr Creative Commons.

Source: Source: Hossam el-Hamalawy (elhamalawy), Flickr Creative Commons.

Today’s unconventional conflicts (revolutions, nationalistic, ethnic, and religious) have come to dominate our strategic reality. They are asymmetrical (the resources of the parties differ significantly, and each attempts to exploit the weaknesses of the other), rooted in the information age, and, coupled with noncombat missions, represent the majority of conflict the U.S. expects to police in the future. Public diplomacy would seem perfectly suited for such an occasion, particularly given the military’s middling effectiveness in conflict of this type.

But consider that Egypt is no longer particularly reliant on U.S. aid, given pledges by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to extend loans to the country to head off Iran. Also take note that Syria, while nominally aided by Russia, is unlikely to yield in the face of ambiguous U.S. red lines and our borderline nonexistent public messaging. Worse, any strike on Syria, no matter how timid, could coalesce the non-violent periphery around President Assad and complicate his inevitable deposition, as has already occurred in the Syrian blogosphere. The narrative of Syria “fighting for its life against its Western oppressors” has already been disseminated outside the reach of U.S. diplomatic arms. In fact, when diplomacy has been presented as a viable option, it was publicly deemed weak and the least salable step available.

Public diplomacy and military action, soft and hard power, are ideally meant to complement each other. But when the former is abandoned because we have not constructed a coherent messaging blueprint, and the latter is stunted by the “strategic vs. tactical strike” argument in Syria, neither avenue by itself is palatable regardless of how desperately we wish to avoid further Middle Eastern conflict and a potential foretelling of a war with Iran. The U.S. is hamstrung by its inability to take action relative to its displeasure without abandoning what little foothold it has left in the region, and the perils of that globalization stand to make us even less proactive rhetorically and militarily in decades to come.

Put simply: we don’t know whether a military strike on Syria would be a one-off meant to deter future use of chemical weapons or whether we’re interested in turning the tide of the civil war, we don’t know what to make of Egypt’s newly deposed Muslim Brotherhood or its minister of defense General Sisi, and none of this matters unless we recognize the new, complicated relationships that have arisen out of this next phase of the Arab Spring. In Syria, we must focus on weakening the regime’s air defenses through a combination of missile strikes and no-fly zones, in concert with a coalition to enhance the weapons and intelligence capability of the Free Syrian Army and restore the voices of moderate rebel leaders that have been silenced in recent months. In Egypt, we should recognize that while suspending aid to the country seems moral and sensible, letting the country continue on its self-destructive path might be the only viable option so as to avoid a Russia or China taking over as its lead weapons supplier, or worse. Public diplomacy has long been harder to implement in Egypt than elsewhere, and even our stepped-up characterization of the country’s “second chance” at democracy has not been enough to quell the unrest. An integrated approach, comprising short-term mediated (government-to-citizen engagement overseen by a third party) and longer-term nation branding and relational public diplomacy, could be warranted.

Public diplomacy has never been expected to cure the all world’s ills, just as military involvement alone is not a worthy substitute for a sound strategy. As Egypt buckles under the weight of its second tenuous administration in as many years, and as the U.S. prepares to strike Syria as early as Thursday, we must enter these latest conflicts with even greater resolve than that which kept us largely out of harm’s way in Libya. Ceasing Egyptian aid, a largely symbolic gesture by this point, will not help us export our public diplomacy back to a wavering ally, nor can we hope that it will instantaneously give us leverage in this national security problem, an expectation that is all too frequent. Likewise, striking Syria with abandon and little future strategy will only placate a vocal domestic minority and have essentially no effect on the Assad regime at large. Finding out exactly where our moral objections lie in these cases is a start, but articulating a sound communications plan and our expected returns through intervention has not yet occurred, a shocking reality at least in Syria’s case given the conflict’s steady escalation.

The way forward in these unconventional conflicts is murky. What is clear is that our brand of diplomacy so haphazardly nurtured over the past decade must undergo another renovation to avoid subsequent periods of irrelevance, just as our military should be retooled to fight smaller-scale incidents. Expecting the world of the military, including a sound proportionate response, in these modern incursions for which it is not built is not wise. Expecting the world of our diplomats in the interconnected morass that is Middle Eastern diplomacy without relationship equity or inherent leverage, and shoving them aside when results do not instantly appear, is worse. We, sadly, have begun doing both even in the face of public opposition to engagement.

The first two big tests of the Obama administration are here, and a limited strike on Syria has become a moral imperative. But in this prolonged period of self-imposed uncertainty, we must be prepared for varying degrees of success, and accept that neither diplomacy nor the military should be used without deeper commitments in mind. At the least, our delusions of grandeur in these conflicts should be permanently dispelled.

Posted in Foreign Policy, Middle East | Leave a comment