The Marine Corps and the Public Diplomacy of Deeds

U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Mark Leuis teaches earthquake victims how to use a hand-cranked radio at the Landing Zone 6 distribution center in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 21, 2010. U.S. and international military units and civilian aid agencies are conducting humanitarian and disaster relief operations after an earthquake devastated the nation. Leuis is assigned to the 3rd Marine Special Operations Command. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Prentice Colter

U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Mark Leuis teaches earthquake victims how to use a hand-cranked radio  in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 21, 2010.  U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Prentice Colter

 You may have come across a new recruiting video online for the U.S. Marine Corps, “Toward Chaos,” which is part of an ambitious integrated recruitment and promotional campaign you can see at The Marine Corps have always had exceptional recruiting and marketing (“a few good men” has been a Marine trademark since 1779), and this campaign is no different.

But watching these two videos (below), based on recent operations, reminded me of a little-cited quote by the former Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy during the Bush Administration, Karen Hughes. She often talked about the “diplomacy of deeds,” which was a subtle way of saying that our actions speak louder than our words – that policy is more important than posturing.

Working in public diplomacy, I can attest to the importance of getting the words right.  Getting words wrong can get you a whole lot of trouble.  As my former colleague at NATO Jamie Shea once said, “A media campaign will not win you a war. But a bad media campaign can and will lose you a war.” Having been the inestimable voice of the Alliance during the Kosovo conflict, he knew what he was talking about.

Nonetheless, these Marine Corps videos, though they are intended as recruitment tools, talk about getting the actions right, too. They visually capture two compelling recent humanitarian missions that had real effects for real people in dire circumstances: the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit deployment to Haiti in January 2010 with Operation United Response following the earthquake that devastated Port au Prince, and the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit deployment to Japan in March 2011 with Operation Tomadachi following the earthquake and tsunami that devastated that country.

I’ve written previously about combat camera crews and here you can see the importance of deploying them to document the important and vital work the Marine Corps and Navy (and other branches) do under incredibly difficult circumstances. The resulting videos are workmanlike – no fancy camera shots or complex narrative arcs – but they get the job done. They introduce an awesome crisis, show the Marines gearing up and going into the teeth of an awful mess, and helping people in need.

That’s why I think the videos could – and should – be used as public diplomacy videos, promoted abroad, through the State Department, embassies and other means, adapted perhaps and translated into other languages for foreign audiences.

While working at NATO and talking to occasionally skeptical and pacifist audiences, I often pointed to the military as an example of what do-gooders (like my skeptics) would want to have on hand to do good in the world.  When calamity strikes, when people need help right now, the armed forces have the means to move lots of people, equipment and supplies where they are needed most quickly.  (And frankly, the military doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should for do-gooding of this sort.)

These recruitment videos give an idea of what could have been done with Operation Unified Assistance, the U.S. Navy’s comprehensive response to the 2004 tsunami disaster in Indonesia. The United States led the world in dollar and physical assistance, donating nearly $1 billion and deploying more than 12,500 military personnel and the full resources of a carrier strike group led by the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and an expeditionary strike group led by the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard, together deploying nearly 50 helicopters – the only means, in many cases, to reach remote and cut-off regions of the country after the disaster.  (By contrast, the Indonesian government had only two helicopters on hand to fly missions for all of Sumatra.)

As it was, following the calamity and the unprecedented American humanitarian response, public opinion in predominantly Muslim Indonesia improved dramatically – from 15 percent in 2003 to 38 percent in 2005 — and the United States began to expand its relationship with the Indonesian government as always. That gives you a very good idea of what Undersecretary Hughes was talking about when she coined the expression “the diplomacy of deeds”: good actions improve our international esteem (I would argue similar actions contribute, at least in part, to our consistently high levels of public approval in Africa). We’ve always had strong relations with Haiti and Japan, but these videos give you an idea of just how important our actions can be.

Nonetheless, there is always a need to communicate those actions.  Many may have heard about the Indonesian effort because of its sheer scale. But perhaps lost in the chaos and horror of the Fukashima disaster was the Marines’ deployment. Those actions count, too, and are worth talking about. The public diplomacy of deeds, sometimes, still requires public diplomacy.


The Nobel Prize for Politics

Alfred Nobel (Wikimedia Commons)

The controversy and dismissive snark over the awarding of the European Union the Nobel Prize for Peace has sparked some discussion about the nature of the award.  I have long considered the Nobel Prize for Peace a kind of ultimate award for politics, bestowed for entering the arena and advocating and affecting extraordinary change on the international level.

We certainly cannot blame the committee for occasionally getting it wrong or engaging in aspirational choices. No one’s (or one body’s) judgment is perfect. The committee’s choices are more often than not quite extraordinary people and institutions who deserve more attention and notice than they have received so far, and live up to their reputation as our world’s finest representatives. Even President Obama was probably misinterpreted as an aspirational choice.  His award was more likely a political punctuation mark to an historical campaign that opened a new volume in our long, dramatic and often tortuous racial history.  It was the committee’s homage to Martin Luther King, a grand epigraph for an extraordinary new era dawning. Working overseas and watching the world’s reaction to his election, the Prize suited the international community’s understanding of his — and our — achievement, an American Velvet Revolution.

I could argue with the current award because it goes, amorphously, to the European Union – a large, multinational, multilateral, and multi-agency organization that has a difficult enough time defining itself as the awards committee might define it.  Moreover, Alfred Nobel specifically designated the peace prize in his will to a person working towards concord, disarmament, or peace conferences.  This places, I believe, a specific onus of specific moral agency on the individual, and the committee has forgotten the primacy of people’s action in achieving real, lasting political change by awarding the European Union this prize.

It is true that the Nobel committee has awarded many (nearly a quarter) of the peace prizes to institutions or “peace congresses,” (a favorite of Nobel) and in many respects this is worthwhile and appropriate because individuals can only do so much before they must use civil society, organizations and assemblies to achieve meaningful political ends.  One man shouting in a forest is alone and unheard and ineffective unless the trees follow him.  

But somewhere along the way the size and scale of the organization becomes either governmental or quasi-governmental, bureaucratic and automated.  That is what the European Union and the United Nations are today, for example. They are by design and in fact very different from the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (the U.S. chapter of which I worked for) and Mèdecins Sans Frontiers, which are private groups created by individuals to come together around a common cause to achieve some moral end.  I think this is the root of the confusion over the awarding of the prize to the EU.  You would no more award the EU the prize as you would the Internal Revenue Service.  There is no connection between the moral and political agency of a public organization and the organization’s duties itself, which are defined by somebody else — their leaders, the voters, the citizens. There is a much closer connection to an individual’s moral agency, or a smaller, private organization’s activities, and the prize.

I admit there is little discussing what the EU has achieved, as it has progressed and consolidated an awesome counter-historical experiment in peace and reconciliation in Europe after hundreds of years of war, conflict, and race hatred. Peace and democracy have spread west, then east, and now poise on the brink of the Balkans; former warring parties there are reconciling in order to join. It is an exceptional model other organizations (the African Union is only the most specific) have followed. This is all to the good.

But who did this and by what political agency? Politics is an intimately human endeavor and it must be articulated, led, and followed.  Adenauer, Schuman, Spaak – these men sketched the architecture of the Union. King  Juan Carlos eased Spain towards democracy and reintegration with Europe.  Stepjan Mesic negotiated Croatia out of its nationalist past toward a future with NATO and the European Union, transforming the Balkans in the process.  Political change does not occur by happenstance, bureaucratic inertia, or the pure “administration of things”.

The EU operates by consensus.  This means that all at once the EU is at the same time the most political and least political major multilateral institutional in the world.  What I mean by most political is that every significant decision the EU takes must be argued and debated out and then agreed to by each and every member state.  So when a decision is made, the EU can act powerfully and effectively, but under no individual country’s leadership.

But like the United States under the Articles of Confederation, it is incapable of acting without consensus, which limits its range of action.  It also has no mechanism to act politically – under this definition I mean contentiously – forcing not simply compromise but a majority solution that requires less than the whole in order to act as a whole. (The bargain being the losers will be winners under a different arrangement later.  Under the current system, there are no winners and no losers, simply all or nothing.)

The missing mechanism of contentious political action has been noted before, of course, and it is a signature aspect of European political culture.  Europeans are unwilling to cede sovereignty to a federal structure, a decision that is important to respect.  But it is also important to understand how that limits the European Union to take decisions on truly contentious issues such as war and peace.  And in that case, it places into question whether it can achieve Nobel’s vision of peace, disarmament, and international concord.  Only under the robust action of then-French President Nicholas Sarkozy did the EU, for example, lead on ending the war between Russia and Georgia, but it’s not clear whether the agreement brokered will be both just and lasting.

Politics is hard.  The individuals and groups who have won the prize worked hard, sacrificed much, and fought hard, and often for very little. There is perhaps no better contrast than that of Aung San Suu Kyi, who visited the United States recently. Awarded the Peace Prize more than 20 years ago, she endured two decades of house arrest, during which her husband died abroad and she was denied access to her family. Her father, who negotiated her country’s independence, was assassinated and expunged from his nation’s historical record. She was maligned by the ruling junta for years. Her initial election to the Burmese assembly was annulled, and she was only recently (re)elected as a single representative to the parliament after years of single-minded effort.

It is hard to imagine a single member of the European Parliament from Western Europe tolerating so much for so little.


Islam and the West, a Positive Approach

Today I published an article on the protests seen in  the Muslim world over the controversial anti-Islamic video that went live in August. My article follows a previous post but expands on my work in public diplomacy and public opinion to provide a much more complex, nuanced and optimistic (!) examination of the state of affairs that we in the West face with the Islamic world. I wrote it to challenge the self-limiting conventional wisdom that has hardened not just around this particular incident but regarding the West’s relationship to the vast, plural Islamic world as well.

My thanks go to the editors at Small Wars Journal for publishing my article.


The Incompleat Public Diplomacy Reader

When it comes to public diplomacy I am aware of no condensed reading list outside those assigned to the few academic programs in this country that teach the discipline formally, and even then I don’t have access to those syllabi.  In any event, I find most strictly academic reading lists to be limiting, not liberating, and when I was working in public diplomacy I found books and essays on advertising, photography, filmmaking and narrative journalism – not to say excellent specific representations of those things themselves – particularly important to illuminating and inspiring the work that I did.

That said, I’ll list here a thematic series of books that have helped me think through the problems of public diplomacy.  I do not claim that this list is definitive or exhaustive and I certainly encourage others to mount their own lists.  I always felt I never found what I wanted to read relating to visual media, for example, so I’m still looking and may add to this list at a further date.

Thinking Culturally

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West – A book so massive in its cultural ambition and scope that it is bound to have more detractors than defenders.  But to take the book for what it is, an heroic attempt to understand an entire country in its socio-historical situation, is to comprehend West’s project and to recognize that you probably will never know another country, including your own, as well as she did Yugoslavia. To try, then, as she did, is an effort we can admire and model.  I never traveled in the former Yugoslavia without my copy of this book, and I never found that it didn’t have something remarkably relevant to say to me.

White Teeth, Zadie Smith – I have cited Zadie Smith’s excellent essay on language before which could be a coda to her exuberant first novel, and this book could easily be a backstop to Richard Rodriguez’s series of essays cited below. But it’s just foreign enough to the American immigrant narrative to provide an all-important subjective insight into other cultures that requires thought about how others view themselves in the world. It is deeply sympathetic and humane, sad but also very funny, which allows the bitter lessons to go down a little more easily.

Thinking in Four Dimensions

The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig – When I write about thinking in four dimensions, I mean looking at physical places and understanding their evolution through time and history.  This provides both a deep and profoundly satisfying sense of place but also a humble sense of transience, recognizing that what is here or has come before us may not forever stand.  Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, published in 1943 by an unknown translator, is one of the most wonderful evocations of interwar Europe, its personalities and locations, that I have ever read.  It’s all the more redolent for knowing where Europe had been and where it (and Zweig) was going, but it’s no less beautiful for it. Zweig’s cultured ability to see deeply around him lends the book its magic.

Sketches from a Life, George F. Kennan – Diplomats of course read Kennan’s memoirs (and now his definitive biography), but this small collection of Kennan’s diaries collected over 70 years and nearly every continent is often overlooked.  Kennan was an obsessive diarist, but it is in these volumes that his ability to observe and recall detail is best displayed.  From his first attempts to describe post-war Hamburg as a junior officer to the desultory effects of a layover in Baghdad, he consistently demonstrates the importance of close and historical observation.  (I carried both of these books with me during a college hike through Europe.  They both survived and remain on my bookshelf.)

Thinking about America

America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction, John Steinbeck – Steinbeck’s essay America and Americans is justly famous and peculiarly rare in our attempts to understand who we are. Politicians like to do this often but do it well infrequently, and writers of Steinbeck’s stature (Orwell was another but did it for the British) usually don’t like to do it all for fear of being labeled a propagandist.  Nonetheless, Steinbeck’s usual humanity comes through and he captures an essential heroic American decency in this and other essays in this collection. To read his eulogy of Ed Ricketts, the model of Doc in Cannery Row, is to recognize the particular love for that special person known only in your community. To read his account of Ernie Pyle’s march to his death in the Pacific is to understand that to be a hero some men must do deadly, heroic things. And that in America we have these people, too.

Days of Obligation, Richard Rodriguez – I could easily recommend any other of Rodriguez’s books, but I include this specifically for capturing the complex, painful and sometimes comic reality of the modern American immigrant that I was familiar with growing up in California.  Our immigrant heritage is a common rhetorical trope understood around the world, but its stupendous diversity, dynamism and hard truths are often lost and even more importantly very difficult to communicate.  Rodriguez is one of the few essayists today identifying an emerging America that in its multifarious identity simply baffles most of the world.

Thinking about the Job

Russian Journal, John Steinbeck and Robert Capa – Steinbeck and Capa visited the Soviet Union soon after the end of World War II, with avowedly idealistic goals: both had covered the war (Capa had famously shot anti-fascist brigades in Spain and went ashore with the first wave on D-Day) and want to know more about our Allies.  It’s clear from their reporting that their Soviet minders did not see them the same way, viewing them variously as potential propagandists and threats as independent journalists.  There are lessons herein for the public diplomacy officer in how to treat professionals and also what that kind of professionalism reads and looks like (Capa’s wonderful photographs pervade throughout, providing some lessons in how to think visually).

Slightly Out of Focus, Robert Capa – This is Capa’s memoir primarily of World War II.  It is jaunty and slightly flippant given the subject matter, which may have been pro forma for the age (although his account of D-Day is terrifying, and it is a wonder he survived).  It provides little understanding of his approach to the visual medium.  But it does provide a whole lot of insight into working with handlers and minders and public affairs officers, what we might today call the embedding process. Capa had been exiled by the fascist government of Hungary prior to the war, but since he had not naturalized by the outbreak of hostilities he was treated as an enemy alien by most countries he traveled with and through as a combat correspondent. A lesson in how to treat the media. Capa, as an American citizen, was killed covering French forces in Indochina.

Thinking Visually

The Photographs, National Geographic – Public diplomacy isn’t nearly as visual as it could be, since usually that involves money (for advertising or other printed media), equipment (which you must know how to use) or PowerPoint (a horror), but in any case effective visual communication can make the media worth the effort and cost. National Geographic should be a mandatory subscription for every public diplomat, since the magazine has mastered the visual and narrative nexus of communicating complex socio-political and scientific issues. This book is a concise collection of the magazine’s photographs since virtually the technology was invented and is an astonishing inspiration for what can be conveyed with a camera.

The Definitive Collection, Robert Capa – Capa again. Others of course have their favorite portraitists – Annie Liebowitz, Richard Avedon, Gordon Parks come to mind – but I return to Capa for two reasons.  First, his humanity and compassion for his subjects, whom he invariably places with dignity in his frame. He once said “[i]f your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” and I’ve come to understand that not just in terms of physical proximity but by emotional proximity. Second, he was a political photographer. He may not have admitted it, or even acknowledged it, but many of his images had a political intent and political effect.  It is important not only to be able to recognize that but to understand, acknowledge it, and recognize that it has its place.

Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People – Rockwell was a serious scholar of art and was without peer as a narrative artist.  A close examination of his best work demonstrates just how much story you can pack between two vertical and two horizontal lines. This will give you some ambition (and humility) when documenting and recounting events.  Like Capa he was a political artist — and straight propagandist during the war — but in both cases he brought an extraordinary realism that is difficult to imagine and render. He’s also deeply respectful of his subjects, which makes him, I think, uniquely American in addition to strictly a popular artist.  Others again may have their favorites (Jacob Lawrence is another of mine), but he is an inimitable place to begin.

Thinking About Narrative

Advertisements have virtually replaced the short story or magazine serial as examples of popular narrative, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from them.  I have personally always loved the HSBC bank advertisements, produced by JWT, which often have an international cross-cultural focus that diplomats would find sympathetic. They can be quite funny or moving at times.

This one in particular, though, I’d like to highlight because it captures an entire Hero’s Journey — from leaving home, struggle, and failure to redemption, discovery and worldly success — in just a minute, entirely without language.  It could work probably in any linguistic or cultural context:

Similarly, anybody who has seen Pixar’s “WALL-E” knows what can be done entirely without words. The animated short “Lifted,” a similarly wordless narrative, demonstrates that an entire story can be told completely visually.  If you think I’m kidding, just mute this video:

The point of placing these two videos here — about as far removed as you might imagine from a list of books ostensibly about public diplomacy — is to demonstrate how to communicate effectively with visual and narrative elements. Think about your next PowerPoint presentation entirely visually, for example — PowerPoint is, at its base, simply a visual projection device — or your next memorandum purely as a story. These videos show you how compressed, complex, and compelling they can be.

Thinking About Language

Politics and the English Language, George Orwell – Routinely assigned to hapless undergraduates, this essay by Orwell is underestimated as an earnest, straightforward guide to good English prose. But more profoundly, it is part of Orwell’s larger critique of and reaction to political language following his experience during World War II that led, with a series of other essays, directly to Animal Farm and 1984. But it is the fundamental examination of political language that should concern us here, because that is what we are engaged in primarily with public diplomacy. His lessons are just as relevant to us now as they were to Britain then.

In Our Own Words, Sen. Robert Torricelli with Andrew Carroll – Nobody much remembers Robert Torricelli, who served a single term in the U.S. Senate from New Jersey, but he edited (with historian Andrew Carroll) probably the best single volume of American 20th century political rhetoric. From William Jennings Bryan’s well-known  “Cross of Gold” speech to the unheard words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, prepared to take responsibility for failure at D-Day it is an astonishing and well-annotated collection of the American public word — a great and growing nation articulating itself to the world.

Thinking about Propaganda

The Commissar Vanishes, David King – This book appears only mildly and subtly disturbing at first, revealing itself mostly as a collection of original and doctored photographs documenting the years of Josef Stalin’s rule over the Soviet Union.  But King’s extraordinary personal collection mounts to a massive indictment of historical obliteration executed by the paranoid megalomaniac who tried to erase all evidence of his rivals, temporal and metaphysical. King has heroically resurrected the ashheap of the memory hole: the eerily airbrushed or crudely blotted photographs, the rank propaganda, the “vaporized” leaders and bureaucrats who once enjoyed Stalin’s favor but crossed him and were erased from the historical record just as they were from life.  (The “commissar” of the title refers to the most famous non-person of all, Leon Trotsky.)  I list this extraordinary book, now out of print (you can see some of the King collection online here), to warn of how others may interpret what you produce and also to cast a skeptical eye on the work of other governments. (Today, they have Photoshop.)

State of Deception: the Power of Nazi Propaganda, Holocaust Memorial Museum – I saw this exhibit at the Memorial and found its blanket definition of propaganda too broad, but as an historical record it has few rivals. Again it is important to understand how regimes such as  Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea, Russia, China and Iran issue propaganda so that we do not recycle their tropes or techniques. This may not seem to be a danger, but we often do not recognize what others see until we see what they have seen. (The memorial exhibit closed in December 2011, but you can view the online exhibit here.)

Thinking about Organization

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, John A. Nagl – This book may appear at first glance to be about counterinsurgency in Vietnam and Malaya, but it is in reality about organizational culture: specifically, how large organizations (such as the Army or State Department) learn, hence the title borrowed from T.E. Lawrence’s famous Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  For those unacquainted with bureaucratic theory or military structures, Nagl’s book is a good introduction to both and a welcome eye-opener for those working inside a large organization. (The short lesson: learn how to learn, or be prepared to lose again.)

Bill Mauldin, Up Front

Up Front, Bill Mauldin – If Nagl’s book is a thesis, this is the Dilbert equivalent.  But don’t let the visual medium fool you.  Mauldin was a profoundly intelligent, humane, and darkly funny artist, and his cartoons and commentary dating from World War II stand time’s test. Underneath these smart illustrations of the fighting man’s common lot runs an anarchist streak recognizable in any organization: commentary on hierarchy, abuse of power, powerlessness, absurdity, ignorance, fear and anxiety.  You’ll understand a lot more about military culture but also much more about organizational culture, too, from this book.

Thinking Historically

How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, Slavenka Draculic – This may be the only book that describes how the systematic deprivation enabled by communist central planning fundamentally degraded the status of women during the 20th century.  An enduring example of the “banality of evil,” Draculic documents the punishing effects of how communism’s inhumanity deprived millions their essential dignity in ways we in the West could not possibly imagine. This book helps us comprehend both that particular historical experience but also the importance of subjective understanding in approaching others who live in places you have never known.

The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz – If Draculic places you in the bread line or at the kitchen table during a particular historical moment, the Nobel laureate Milosz places you inside its head.  This is a hard book, but it goes far in trying to explain why thinking people, when faced with the monstrousness of the state, behave the way they do. Again it is important to understand not just as an historical document but as a matter of conscience.


A Good Story

“Telling Their Story,” from Discover the Journey

A friend in New York forwarded me this MediaStorm Blog post about ethical guidelines for reporting on children in crisis.  It’s a valuable resource and worth reading for anyone who has read my Foreign Policy article “Children of War,” which was a critique of how public affairs professionals use imagery involving children to promote and illustrate the causes we are involved in.

There is clearly overlap between these two disciplines, particularly as it relates to ethics, but there are important distinctions as well.  My approach related primarily to public affairs and how these images are used in political communications.  This is distinct from journalism.  My secondary concern was how combat camera crews — military photographers, who are not journalists per se but function very similarly to them in a military environment — fit into this.

MediaStorm cites the “Telling Their Story” manifesto (pictured above) produced by Discover the Journey, a group of journalists dedicated (in their words) to “speak up for children in crisis” and “insure justice for children in crisis by advocating for intervention across cultures in Love”.

The manifesto is important and valuable, citing UNICEF’s guidelines for reporting on children.  I don’t like to quibble with those who are clearly doing difficult and important work in challenging places, but I take issue with the fact that the clear priority in the manifesto is the “story,” placed first before all other considerations for the child’s welfare. Since Discover the Journey as an organization obviously blurs the distinction between objective journalism and advocacy, the importance of the story — in practical effect, the “sell” — is a concerning aspect of the manifesto. It suggests that the totality of the child’s life narrative — “the story of one to represent the stories of many,” in the words of the manifesto — and over which he has no control, possesses the greater weight than the dictates of his individual dignity and privacy.  Good journalists always want the perfect story, and moralizing it as a “good” as the manifesto does only makes it more likely that it will be told at the expense of other considerations.

The journalist Katherine Boo, who has written seriously about poverty, specifically dismisses the manifesto’s notion of an individual standing in for the whole.  “[N]obody is representative. That’s just narrative nonsense,” she recently told Guernica magazine. “People may be part of a larger story or structure or institution, but they’re still people.” It’s something to think about, especially when we’re talking about children.