IKEA Pussies Out in Russia

Calling itself apolitical and nonreligious, Ikea removed this photo from a contest for its next catalog cover.The Moscow Times recently reported that IKEA, the world’s most recognizable home furnishings brand, recently pulled this image (left) from an online competition to produce the cover image for their products 2013 catalog in Russia.

In place of this image, which was produced and submitted by fans (apparently) of both IKEA and the recently prosecuted band Pussy Riot, the company issued this statement:

“Ikea is a commercial organization that operates independently of politics and religion. We cannot allow our advertising project to be used as a means of propaganda.”

(English translation provided by The Times. I don’t know if the original was published in Russian or Swedish.)

At the risk of killing an issue that should be very much alive inside Russia, which has seen even more state-ordered constraints on civil society in the wake of the Pussy Riot sentences, it’s important to parse IKEA’s statement to understand just exactly how cowardly, stupid and hypocritical it is. IKEA has no grounds to pull this image and to replace it with this utterly misleading and disingenuous statement.

This issue returns to what I have consistently written about here on this site: the fundamental definition of the political.  The political can be defined by moral norms that we choose for others.  And in this case, IKEA is unwilling to allow others — that is, Russians — to express those particular norms in their own, free way, using IKEA as a platform.  IKEA doesn’t have to choose this particular image for its catalogue cover, but since the company opened up the site to all comers they are obligated to allow anything that is not obscene or shocking to remain.

IKEA advertisement from Italy, 2011

Moreover, IKEA is acting hypocritically by removing a user image given its own advertising history. In 2011, the company ran an advertisement (right) in Italy featuring a gay couple with the tagline, “We are open to all families”.  Italy is, in part, a deeply Catholic country and culturally deeply conservative.  It is difficult not to see this advertisement — issued from the company itself — as a political statement given the social context, whether or not you support the idea of same-sex couples and families.

I am much less tolerant of IKEA willing to make a political statement — specifically, stating in public that gay couples are or should be the social norm — and then denying its own customers the same ability to use the brand to express support for their political idols.

I should add here that I utterly reject the assertion (barring any error in translation) that the photo’s authors are engaged in propaganda.  Propaganda is one of those terms that has been abused of any intrinsic popular meaning, but I am willing to assert that only states can engage in propaganda.  Besides, the image itself is benign enough to be stripped of the provocation normally associated with propaganda — perhaps a subtle commentary on the “punk prayer” that got Pussy Riot arrested in the first place.  (Decontextualization can be a keen means of understanding art and political commentary.)  And it further demonstrates IKEA’s complete incomprehension of political expression at a time when its compatriots across Scandinavia are supporting democratic movements among their eastern neighbors.

IKEA owes not just the creators of this image but its customers and the Russian people the respect and understanding of political expression.  It should repost the image and apologize.


Islam and the Political Aesthetic

An illuminated page from Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, written entirely in gold. (British Library)

NOTE Sept. 22: With today’s events in Pakistan (and attending, preventable deaths and violence), my predictions about the numbers involved in the protests worldwide appears to have been off, certainly in scale.  Nevertheless I still stand by my argument that those protesting are vastly outnumber by those standing to the side.

There was a brief moment, early in the crisis – immediately after the deaths of four American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya – when there was a strange and welcome alignment that we haven’t seen before.  The murderers aside, those protesting the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) in an anti-Islamic video found themselves in accord with the U.S. government and several other reasonable observers – not to mention the actors fraudulently recruited to the production.  All agreed, in effect, that the video was a tawdry scrap of agitprop.  The producer, an Egyptian Christian, seemed so embarrassed by his feat that he wouldn’t appear in public.  As the journalist Ashraf Khalil observed, the deaths in Benghazi and elsewhere excepted, these videos were best mocked and then ignored.

But the demonstrations, predictably, grew and spread, and the predictably righteous reaction grew and spread in the West, and the ghost of Samuel Huntington rattled his chains.  I personally believe that the demonstrations across the Islamic world are less a spontaneous show of the easily aggressed feelings of Muslims than a deliberate mobilization by conservatives who seized on this video to maneuver against the democracy movements swelled during the Arab Spring and threatening their power.  (But that is for another post.)

I was alarmed by how stupidly and easily Western observers fell into their cliched, pat observations about Islam, casting the thousands (perhaps only hundreds) of demonstrators for the plural billion Muslims around the world who no doubt wondered (as I did) what to make of this spectacle.  While several anti-American demonstrations did take place, it is important to note that hundreds of millions of Muslims did not participate.  They were probably angered and riled by this transparently deliberate attempt to insult them – you would be angry, too, if somebody told you to obscenity your mother – but they probably dismissed it out of hand. They have more important things to worry about.

This didn’t keep self-important and in many cases self-appointed Western observers from telling those quiescent masses of Muslims what to think and believe about the insults rained down on them from YouTube and Charlie HebdoThey should get over it, become accustomed to their religious beliefs being mocked and denigrated.  As if you went to see The Last Temptation of Christ to spite your grandmother, or told your LDS co-worker that you found The Book of Mormon a laugh riot, he should really go see it.

But at the heart of these condescending arguments are as much an assertion of the political aesthetic as those demonstrating in the streets: that art should have a political purpose.  So as long as those hurling rocks and those hurling polished epithets agree on that, let’s understand what we’re talking about.

It’s difficult to capture succinctly a thousand years of artistic philosophy, but it is certainly true that the tradition of Islamic art shies from the physical representation of the human form. This is not exclusive, of course, but toward one end of this spectrum, particularly in the Sunni tradition, depictions of the Prophet are virtually unknown. (This should not shock anyone familiar with the iconoclasts or, for that matter, the severe Western anti-clerical movement that simply defaced churches across the West — resulting in such austere secular monuments as the French Pantheon.)  Nonetheless, Shiites are known to depict their saints in icons, particularly during the ashura, that would be familiar to Christians and Buddhists.  But overall the Islamic tradition discourages human or natural forms, leaving the Creation to God.  This seems a constraint, of course, but perhaps no more so than any canvas. Limitations define greatness.

This tradition encourages, at the other end of the spectrum, an extraordinary devotion to geometry in design and architecture.  Seen in illuminated manuscripts of the Qur’an (see above) and the ornamentation from mosques to homes, complex patterns and designs adorn. In their beauty and order they mirror Creation, reminding me of the Qur’anic Surah Al Rahman (“the Gracious,” 55):

The sun and the moon follow courses computed;
And the herbs and the trees both bow in adoration.
And the sky has he raised high, and he has set up the balance,
In order that you may not transgress the balance.

Cairo lattice window,
from an 1882 lithograph

This is perhaps most often seen across the Islamic world in the well-known lattices that serve both as shades in a sun-soaked climate and barriers from the prying eyes of neighbors to protect the modesty of women within.

Alicatado tiles, Spain (Tennessee Tech)

The intricate patterns of the latticework have been replicated in ceramic tile work, particularly in mosques and madrassas. The Blue Mosque in Herat, Afghanistan, stuns the viewer with its lapis tile work, overpowering the mosque that shares its name in Istanbul.  Tilework migrated from the Mahgreb north into Spain after the Moorish conquest, and now is popularly known in the West as Spanish mosaic tiles.

La Mezquita de Cordoba (M.C. Escher)

While living in Europe I was delighted to learn about the influence of Islamic design on Western art.  One of my favorite artists, the Dutch graphic designer M.C. Escher, was most influenced after a visit to la Mezquita at Cordoba in Spain (now a cathedral and World Heritage site).  The fantastic perspective of the mosque’s interior and the intricate, tessellated tile mosaics forever influenced his most famous and familiar works.

Consider these two comparisons as just an example (the links above will provide many more).  The one the left is from la Mezquita. The right, Escher’s inspiration.  (With all due credit to Philosufi and Fatih Gelgi for elaborating on what I learned while visiting the Escher Museum in The Hague!)

Wikipedia article on Alhambra

Tecpatl ceramics, Mexico (Tennessee Tech)

I visited Gibraltar, Seville, Sintra (Portugal), and Toledo where the Islamic influence remains despite the worst efforts of the Inquisition.  Ceramic tiles with their repeating patterns are still made in Seville.  From there, the Spanish colonial influence, affected profoundly by the Islamic conquest, lives on 1,000 years later from my native California to South America.

Sagrada Familia (The Joy of Shards)

And back again.  You can see this most explicitly in the meticulous exploded-mosaic style of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, which hosts most of his design and architecture.  His masterpiece is the Sagrada Familia, still under construction a century after it began, whose details are covered with fragments of brightly colored Spanish tiles intricately reassembled.  Gaudi was fanatically dedicated to his work but also profoundly religious and dedicated all his talents and devotions to this modernist cathedral.

So let’s make this abundantly clear: the Moorish conquest of the Iberian peninsula in the 8th Century directly influenced the quintessential modernist expression of 21st Century Catholic Europe.  We can’t rewrite history, but it’s hard to imagine this happening in quite the same, sublime way if the Islamic artistic tradition followed Western conventions of human and natural representation.  The Western artistic tradition we know today wouldn’t exist without the deep religious restraints of the Islamic tradition.  And since we are People of the Book, this is something to celebrate.  But Samuel Huntington would have us throwing rocks with those demonstrating in the streets, insisting that the gulf between our cultures is too wide and ne’er the twain shall meet.

What relevance does this have beyond the debased little video and the assaults that killed four Americans and others?  Only that those events sparked an argument about art and politics — although those engaged in the argument are too dimly self-important to realize it — and in that argument nobody so far has talked much about the Islamic artistic tradition, which is profoundly devotional and influential. Those who critique the “Muslim” reaction are very willing to accept the insult without sharing any reverence.  We live in a believing world.  To ignore that demonstrates a profound disrespect and ignorance that is, at the very least, the tinder which the radicals are working desperately hard to spark.

I believe that we could all look at the examples of the art posted above — or by perusing the links — and agree, too, that these objects are very beautiful and that beauty forms the basis of human expression.  (Perhaps we might even confuse some of their provenance?)  That, for others, God is written on the walls, provides a deeper understanding.  But there is nothing political about either of those expressions or experiences.


How To Speak Effectively Through Interpretation

Interpretation students (University of Bath, United Kingdom)

NOTE: This is the third in a series of posts on “the how” of public diplomacy.   This post is about simultaneous interpretation in a formal setting.  Many people working in the field – in combat or development environments – rely on interpreters (sometimes called “terps,” and usually indigenous personnel, although some are not) as well.  You can find advice for operating with interpreters in those environments, which I found both interesting and useful, here.  Those participating in religious missions have posted similar advice. I’ve read all of this and think it’s worth adapting to the formal setting as well.

If you work at the international or multilateral level in business, diplomacy or academia, at some point you are going to have to speak through interpretation. You will never speak every language and not everyone will speak yours.  Most multilateral organizations provide interpretation for their formal meetings: NATO, the OECD and the European Union provide interpretation into French and English, the United Nations into English, French, Arabic, Russian and Mandarin.  Other regional organizations, such as the OAS, the AU, and the OSCE, with their exotic political permutations, provide equally interesting language interpretation.

I love interpreters and found the NATO interpreters among the most interesting, intelligent, personable and witty professionals I met while working in Brussels.  Speaking through these skilled professionals to foreign, skeptical, and occasionally hostile audiences made every difference in being understood.  So getting to know the interpretation staff taught me a few things I would never have otherwise known about this highly selective, brilliantly trained, and absurdly underappreciated art in diplomatic tradecraft. (If that’s not clear enough a dedication, I’ll state it here: this post is for my friends on the NATO interpretation staff and the many interpretation students I worked with while in Brussels!)

First, a few things to clarify. Interpreters work with the spoken word. They are distinguished from translators who work with texts. You will only speak to a translator at a cocktail party. (At NATO, and I presume at the European Union, translators and interpreters worked in the same section.)  Nobody “translates” spoken language, it is “interpreted”.  (I also knew writers and public diplomacy officers at NATO who worked in several languages but were not interpreters or translators, and for them I had an especially unique respect.)

There are, generally, two forms of interpretation. Most commonly seen by the public is consecutive interpretation – that’s the man or woman hovering around the President and Prime Minister, interpreting large blocks of spoken word uttered one at time in sequence between the two principals.  More commonly heard by the public is simultaneous interpretation – what they’re more likely to hear on television or the radio during the live broadcast of a foreign speech, for example.

Simultaneous interpretation is what makes large international and multilateral meetings among people speaking different languages possible. Interpreters, most often listening in on microphones, interpret the words spoken by individuals, as they are speaking, into another language, which the others in the audience listen to on headsets. It is something to watch and even more amazing to listen to if you happen to speak two of the languages being interpreted.

But this is an art.  The interpreters are highly trained and are constantly improving. And they confront in us – the often oblivious speaker – a daunting array of linguistic challenges: a machine-gun or molasses speaking pace, incomprehensible accents and regional dialects, down-home idioms and mixed metaphors. And so on.

I was surprised and thrilled to learn from the NATO interpreters that they did not consider themselves passive observers of events but more like aides to a process (they wouldn’t go so far to say active participants of course).  So to borrow a phrase, I am writing this to help you help them help you.  Here’s what I learned mostly from them but also from extensive practice speaking through interpretation in about a half-dozen languages (including relay interpretation):

Rule #1: Talk to Your Interpreter. Professional interpreters are usually native bilingual, highly trained, with years of experience interpreting on a wide array of subjects.  In many cases, interpreters are also subject-matter experts.  At NATO, the translation and interpretation section had compiled a dictionary-sized French-English lexicon dedicated to NATO-related procedure, jargon and acronyms, which most of my colleagues had committed to memory.  Now imagine that kind of expertise applied to the war crimes tribunals, ASEAN, the World Trade Organization, the IAEA, the OSCE, or the subject matter granddaddy of them all, the United Nations.  Meeting interpreters is kind of like encountering two brains.

Rule #2: TALK TO YOUR INTERPRETER.  Actually, I can’t emphasize this enough.  Those are sound-proof, not bullet-proof, cabins they’re in, and interpreters are not furniture.  They are fonts of knowledge and the critical fulcrum on which pivots your ability to communicate successfully with a foreign and possibly unfriendly audience.  You can and should talk to them in advance. My experience has been that they are usually delighted to meet speakers.  Tell them what you are talking about, how long you plan to speak, and whether you plan to take questions and answers. The more information you can provide them, the better. Ask them what they need to interpret you.  Ask them about the language they are interpreting, if there are any linguistic quirks that they think you should know.  For example, German famously places verbs last in sentences, which usually delays interpretation to and from English.  Georgian, I learned, has an ancient and complex grammatical construction that usually requires “packing” into English and “unpacking” English into Georgian – demanding feats of mental gymnastics from the interpreters.  No wonder there are always two of them on hand!

Rule #3: It’s preferable to speak normally and well-prepared but NOT from a text.  This was a surprise to me.  But when we speak extemporaneously we are repetitive and iterative, using the same phrases and vocabulary again and again.  Interpreters pick up on these patterns very quickly and it helps them anticipate the speaker’s intent.  A text, by contrast, is comparatively rigid and linear in thought, construction and vocabulary and is much more difficult to interpret from speech alone (see Rule #4 below).  As for “normal speech,” I was always told I spoke too fast, and I suppose I still do.  At the same time I was told NOT to speak too slowly, either, because it’s often hard to follow a person’s train of thought when they don’t speak at a normal pace (there’s a spooky element to this art that makes really good interpreters seem almost like mind-readers).

Rule #4: If you have to use a text or PowerPoint presentation, provide it to your interpreter in advance.  This relates to Rule #3.  If you are required to use a text or (God protect us) PowerPoint – especially if you have a hard time speaking publicly or need to be precise in your language – provide all of it to the interpreters and if possible walk them through the text and the presentation and indicate where you might deviate and what you might digress about.

Rule #5: No sports metaphors.  The rest of the world does not play baseball and football, and metaphors like “switch-hitting,” “the whole nine yards,” “batting cleanup,” “fourth and goal” and the rest will likely go uninterpreted or worse, precisely and literally translated into absolute jibberish.  Don’t worry, Americans are not the only ones guilty of this: the British are so notorious for flinging around incomprehensible cricket terms, I’ve been told, that entire classes at interpretation and translation schools are available for students to learn them.

Rule #6:  Avoid colorful metaphors and idiomatic expressions to speak as clearly and literally as possible.  Interpreters are exceptional professionals who are constantly trolling their languages for exotic idioms, but there will always be a few that catch them by surprise – which means you may not be able to transmit a point across the language frontier.  I happily and deliberately stumped an entire group of interpreter applicants at NATO sitting for a board exam with the phrase “political pinball.”  A famous, if apocryphal, story has Billy Joel concluding one of his first concerts in the former Soviet Union just after the collapse of Communism by exhorting the crowd, “Don’t take shit from anyone!” This was interpreted to the perplexed audience as “If someone offers you excrement, refuse!”

Rule #7: Avoid acronyms and jargon.  Depending on your audience and the situation, try to purge your language of acronyms and jargon.  Not everyone will know what you’re talking about when you say SACEUR and SECDEF flew MILAIR to KAIA, rode MRAPs to ISAFHQ where they met COMISAF, UNAMA reps and NGOs.  If you have to use this kind of shorthand – in some circumstances you simply can’t avoid it – brief the interpreters in advance.  I usually try to apply the Associated Press rule: it your acronyms are not commonly understood (e.g., UN, NATO), spell them out on first reference (World Trade Organization, United States Trade Representative), label them (WTO, USTR), and then use the acronym after that.  Be very much aware of jargon that may be common to you but not understood by the general public, or may be translated unclearly to your audience.  All the more reason to talk to your interpreter in advance (see Rule #1 and Rule #2).

Rule #8:  At the end, thank your interpreters on the hot mike for everyone to hear in both languages. They know more than you do.  In fact, if they’re not completely exhausted, chat them up afterwards and ask them for tips on how you can improve for the next time.

During the session, you can speak to your interpreter over the mike, for example by asking them to clarify a statement or asking for the previous speaker to repeat what they said.  (Don’t ask for an “explanation” or linguistic disquisition!)  Help your interpreter out by being aware of both what is said and what is not said and by keeping an eye on the glass – interpreters will cue you if the microphone is not hot by knocking on the window, for example.

Particularly for English speakers, it is easy to swim in a wide language sea at a suitable temperature. But there are still nearly 7,000 distinct spoken languages in the world.  Even possibly the most linguistically gifted man in the world speaks only 11 of them.  Others have claimed to know five times as many, but that’s still a fraction of the whole earth. If you want to speak to rest of the world, you’re going to have to lean on somebody.


Confining and Defining Terrorism in Syria

Syrian refugees in Turkey (Muftah.org)

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently declared Syria a “terrorist state” while the country has hosted a crush of refugees fleeing regime persecution across the two countries’ shared 556-mile border.

Turkey is a powerful and influential country in a volatile region, and this sounds like tough rhetoric regarding an intransigent and repressive neighbor. For many observers, this was precisely the kind of language needed to pressure the regime of Bashar al-Assad to change course or relinquish control to the opposition and end the most violent uprising of the Arab Spring.

Indeed, there is a stream of thought that firmly believes that “terrorism is terrorism” whether committed by state or non-state actors. The notion of equivalence focuses on the victims — usually civilians — and the particular horror inflicted by armed violence.  The United States (and its allies) are regularly if frivilously accused of “terrorism” by those on the left. More sophisticated commentators, such as my fellow observer at Foreign Policy Remi Brulin, apply a post-modern argument to the application of “terrorism”. In essence, he argues that “terrorism” has been entirely stripped of any real or intrinsic meaning and therefore serves almost entirely as a political weapon: label your enemy as a “terrorist,” and you win.  (This is most easily seen by Assad’s regime, who regularly blames state massacres on “terrorists”.)

I am entirely unsympathetic to this argument because it does not reflect the real world, nor is this the world we want to live in. We want to live in a world where violence does not solve our political conflicts. Even when force is required or necessary, we want force to be controlled by the rule of law of states.  To throw up our hands under the belief that anyone or any thing can be a terrorist ignores reality, international law, and state law.

Terrorism, as defined by U.S. law, confines the crime to an individual committing acts of violence in order to change policy. It is important to note, of course, that terrorism is limited to the individual and its political component: terrorism is a political crime. But that is why terrorism is and should be seriously condemned. Particularly in a democracy, the means for political change are readily available to the individual. Violence for the purpose of political change is not acceptable.  (I admit I was annoyed that the “War on Terror” never was articulated in clear moral terms, as antithetical to democracy and the international state system.)

We may have an honest difference of opinion and ideals when it comes to the appropriate and legitimate use of force for political change at the state level.  But this is where I believe the equivalence of state and individual terrorism is both false and unhelpful.  Because both state and international law provide a cause of action for the inappropriate and illegitimate use of force.  War crimes, aggression, crimes against humanity, rape and genocide are each a cause of action in international law.  For the individual — mostly murder, assault, rape and other similar crimes — are all punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the criminal and military codes of states.  It is entirely appropriate to label these crimes as such when they arise: labeling a state a terrorist or an individual unaffiliated with a state a war criminal is not just confusing, it is simply bad law.

It is true that terrorism has not been specifically defined under international law (certain arguments notwithstanding) and that does have much to do with the political wranglings that Brulin discusses (the canard that one country’s “terrorist” is another man’s “freedom fighter,” etc.). But this illuminates the fuzziness of Erdogan’s statement about Syria.  A “terrorist state,” under current law — state and international — is no terrorist at all. Erdogan’s characterization, while sharp, invokes no cause of action under international or Turkish law and demands nothing of Erdogan, his neighbors or his allies. It changes nothing.

This is important for reasons I have outlined before: international law is entirely dependent on the political will of the international community for enforcement actions.  Had Erdogan accused the Assad regime of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, he would have invoked the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.  This would have put the UN Security Council on the hook to enforce the ICC founding statute. Turkey’s political capital is substantial, but not substantial enough under these circumstances in effect to bring the UN to the brink of war in Syria. (And Assad is not so stupid as to attack outright Turkey, a NATO ally that can invoke the collective defensive provisions that would bring down the might of the Western democracies that deposed Muammar Gaddafi.)

In short, this argument demonstrates the importance of a precise and legal definition of terrorism — and a precise and legal discussion of terrorism.  We could all agree and nod sagely and cynically with Remi Brulin and his postmodern compatriots that Erdogan called a spade a Kalashnikov, but it does absolutely nothing to change the situation for tens of thousands of refugees, the Free Syrian Army, or the millions of average Syrians caught between a brutal and repressive state and the opposition trying desperately to change the country.  Only the actions of states and individuals — by law, ideals or interest — will bring that about.


The How and the What of Public Diplomacy

Not your usual European ministerial (Radio Praha)

My not-last post about the U.S. State Department’s public diplomacy snowballed some additional thinking about the tradecraft.  There really is no better way to illustrate good public diplomacy than through comparison and case studies; that is, examining what other people and countries are doing to reach the public.  I don’t think we do enough of that.

My concern since leaving NATO has been the gulf between the how and what of public diplomacy.  The what is strategic communications – the big think determinations about audiences and resources and message — 50,000-foot decisions that of course have to be made, but I’ve long been concerned that much can be lost between the high-altitude determinations and the ground-level PD where real people actually live.

The how is actually talking to the rest of the world, the last three feet, public diplomacy’s most strategic real estate.  It’s the how that we should be focusing on, and I’m concerned that both the academy and the State Department do very little toward teaching the mechanics of the how, which is where public diplomacy is made or broken every single day.  We make strong strategic judgments – in fact, strategic communications and public diplomacy policy are the rare arenas of conciliation and agreement in Washington – but those decisions are often fumbled in the execution.

I have always been a practitioner, so I like to look at the examples of others’ practice. Here, I’d like to look at the 2009 Czech Presidency of the European Union.  Every Presidency – held by a nation in the European Council for six months, a blink of the eye in American political life – is a unique opportunity for each country holding the office to promote itself and the European Union.  It is, then, a moment for the country to put its stamp not only on the Union but on Europe itself, to sell the idea of Europe to Europeans, and Europe to the world.

I lived in Luxembourg during that country’s presidency in 2005, which was marked (in my memory) by the epic exhaustion of what seemed to be the entire government of that very small country.  Nonetheless, as this welcoming site makes clear, the country’s motto is not “Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sinn” (“We want to remain what we are”) for nothing.  European presidencies tend to be fairly bland affairs.

Not so for the Czechs, who branded their presidency “Europa to osladime,” which observers were slow to note was a wry double-entendre.  It means, literally, “We will sweeten Europe,” but loosely translated it means “We will stir things up.”

The Czechs applied this double-entendre masterfully in this video produced to introduce the presidency.  It is perhaps the most playful political production I’ve ever seen, and it moves so fast and is over so quickly you might miss all the jokes.  (You can watch an annotated version here.)  All of the characters are well-known Czech personalities, arrayed around a table as if bored government functionaries at one of the thousands of interminable European ministers meetings (a subtle comment, no doubt from the euroskeptic Czech president Vaclav Klaus).  There’s a famous hockey player, a goalkeeper, an obsessive architect, a chemist, a ballerina, a fashion model, and an orchestra conductor.  And they’re all playing around with sugar cubes.

Why all these sugar cubes?  You need to be Czech to get the joke, and here the double-entendre slides into triple-entendre: the sugar cube was invented in Dacice in Czechoslovakia in 1843.  Did you get all that? It only took 30 seconds.  Short and (dare I write it) sweet.

“We Will Sweeten Europe” (Czech Tourism)

The Czech presidency used the cubes as a branding theme for the entire Presidency, although it didn’t go much beyond the videos and these posters. (I loved the Central European design and I still have some of their swag.)

That’s what the Czechs got right.  It’s almost incredible to me that a government approved something so clever, playful and even a little snarky.  (This site claims the initiative was dreamt up by the Czechs’ European affairs ministry, though I’m sure the story is much more complicated than that.)  But a government did, so something had to go wrong (Vaclav Klaus would no doubt agree with me). So what did they get wrong? Enough.

The Czech government commissioned David Cerny to complete a major art installation for the Presidency.  European public art projects are fairly common and usually forgotten (sometimes, in the case of the Euro, even torn out), but not this one.  Cerny built an enormous series of allegorical sculptures of the European countries.  Some were clever – Sweden bundled flat in an IKEA box.  Some were incomprehensible – Luxembourg obscured by a “For Sale” sign.  And some were simply and horribly offensive: Bulgaria, which was depicted as a squat toilet (in the waning days of communist rule, Bulgaria forcibly expelled more than 100,000 Turks).

“Entropa” (David Cerny)

Gone mostly unremarked was Cerny’s cleverest touch: all the countries were laid out in a huge plastic model mold, as if Europe just needed some glue to assemble yourself.  Of course the installation caused an outcry.  It turned out, too, that Cerny had committed outright fraud: to win the commission he had claimed that artists from the entire Union had participated in creating it (as part of the competition’s rules), when just he and three assistants built it.

I found the whole episode entirely bizarre but mostly because I, along with most of Europe, couldn’t even see the “Entropa” in person.  It was hung in the European Council Justus Lipsius building at Place Schuman in Brussels.  This building is normally closed to the public.  You would think that something paid for with public funds could be viewed by the people who paid for it. The furor over the installation, then, ironically brought the artwork more visibility than it would have ever otherwise had.

This matter of visibility is a common error, I should remark, of many institutions that commission public works like this.  I remember at NATO when we had about a dozen large multimedia boxes, very clever units, built for the Bucharest Summit in 2008.  They went on display first at the locked-down Summit location in Bucharest and then were left at our Headquarters behind two or three layers of security.  At both locations, after enormous expense building them, they had very little foot traffic.  I suggested at the time that we buy some space at Brussels Zaventem airport, but nothing came of it.  I don’t know what happened to the boxes.

The larger point to be made here is that you must shoulder both the risk and reward in public diplomacy, but by concentrating on the how you do these things you’re more likely to get the reward when you take the risk.  The Czechs were clearly very capable of getting the how very right but they also got it very wrong.  (That, appropriately to my mind, demonstrated everything that is both right and wrong with the European experiment: spirited and smart and clever but also deeply cynical and occasionally deaf to the public if not outright corrupt.)

The presidency, by the way, was a political fiasco.  The Czechs were true to their motto: they really stirred things up, but it was pretty sweet, too.  Looking back, I can’t help thinking, isn’t that what public diplomacy is all about?