Pretty Gr8, Embassy London

I was recently forwarded this video, produced by the U.S. Embassy in London to promote to and educate the public about the G8 Summit hosted this week by Great Britain in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland. I don’t have an inside track about who produced it or how, but it surely deserves more views on its YouTube Channel. It demonstrates what a creative approach can do not just for public diplomacy, but for public education on major international issues.

Embassy London produced this short video to explain, literally, the who, what, where and why of the G8. Under normal circumstances, this would be a gold-clad snoozer, a bore-fest guaranteed to fetch a dozen or so views before expiring in Google’s cloud farm gulag.  But something great happened. This video is funny, relevant and informative. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. And the usual Embassy seal capstones aside, it doesn’t look or sound like any State Department official product you’ve ever seen. No wonder Macon Phillips, Director of White House Office of Digital Strategy, cited it as an example of department “best practice”.

It’s worth a few lines to take it apart and understand why this video works so well as an example of virtual public diplomacy.

Why It Works

It’s easy to miss because  the format is so simple. A man reads a text (in English) and a woman illustrates the lecture with a felt pen on a white board. That’s it. For all the high-tech whiz-bang of YouTube, desktop video and social media, you could probably do this at home with your kids and a chalk board.  And the producers have embraced and put those low-tech features to work to their advantage.

The text is fortunately pretty straight-forward and well-read (more on that in a moment). But it’s the felt-pen illustration that really makes this work, for two main reasons. First, obviously, it places pictures to capture the narration neatly and smartly in sharper focus. Just like a good political cartoon. This is NOT EASY – so more commendation to the artist and creative team, whoever you are! It’s obvious that a lot of creative thinking and planning went in to executing this. Coming up with snappy images to contextualize a complex international meeting is much harder than it sounds, and they do that with vim here. State’s got its own little Conrad and Walt Kelly working over there in London.

Second – and this is something else you may not notice on first watching – replaying the act of the illustration introduces a kind of comedic tension to the video.  You sit there, watching and wondering what the artist is drawing, where she is going with that line, and then, bingo, there it is! (You can see another, more graphically sophisticated example of this here.) It’s like watching a comedian set up a joke, and you lean in, waiting for the punch line, and then, WHAMMO!  It’s a clever use of the constraints of the medium.

Still…

It runs a little long. Explaining why the G8 is really the G7+2, or G9-1 (or whatever; it’s still a little confusing) could probably have been done with two or three sentences – organizational history is not really that interesting to the lay audience. Listing every country and international organization participating was no doubt the politic thing to do, but I bet 30 seconds could be saved by listing the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization by its universally recognizable acronym, UNESCO, and the same could probably go for the rest of that virtually interminable (and perfectly pronounced) list. But the accompanying graphic is really impressive, with anonymous faces crushing in around a too-small table labeled “G8” – it demonstrates that “G8” is really a misnomer and that the table is in fact a grand forum for far more countries and international organizations to come together and discuss major issues of common concern. (Just like NATO.)

Finally, since this is an American product, I would expect the Embassy to articulate the U.S. position on issues relating to the G8. Maybe they decided that’s not exactly what they wanted to do with this, that they didn’t want to use an educational product to make a hard sell. But even articulating what’s on the table would not only demonstrate why the G8 is so vital, but what’s really at stake when all these countries and organizations sit down to talk to one another. That, when you think about it, is the real purpose of public diplomacy.

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NATO Wins, Again

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (right) during the transition cermony, June 18 2013. (NATO)

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (right) during the transition cermony, June 18 2013. (NATO)

Today NATO handed off operational security responsibility for all of Afghanistan to the Afghan government, a dramatic turning point in the war that began in the days following September 11, 2001. But as a former member of the NATO International Staff and informal scholar of the organization, I can predict what will happen next: a series of box-kit essays by academics on the make about how NATO has outlived its original purpose and, of course, an entirely contradictory set of kippered set pieces about how NATO has utterly failed to bring about a stable, secure and prosperous Afghanistan. More Ph.D.’s have been converted to fellowships and tenure-track positions on NATO’s back than I have patience to count.

It’s considered gauche to issue bald declamations like the one I’m about to state, but I’m going to do it anyway in order to illuminate my point: NATO wins again. There will be the usual NATO naysaying nabobs out there who insist on believing that 28 Western democracies can’t find consensus to order lunch, much less how to rout a remorseless 14th-century insurgency. And lest some believe the war is lost – the transfer ceremony itself was marred by a bomb attack – remind yourself who’s running the government, security services, borders, businesses, NGOs, mosques, universities, schools, hospitals and clinics. And then remind yourself who, exactly, requested peace and reconciliation talks with the Americans from their office in Qatar.

The Cold War, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, Afghanistan. Never in history has one organization, over so long a period, prevailed over such a diverse array of adversaries. No one should doubt the ability, creativity, and tenacity of a group of like-minded democracies bound by an oath of common defense. That such defense could extend as far as the Hindu Kush is testament to all the NATO Member countries – and nearly two dozen partner countries – committed to supporting Afghanistan in the years ahead.

Because NATO is an alliance of values, rather than of interest or convenience, the organization has endured longer than the leagues and ententes of generations past. And because its founders recognized NATO’s political significance foremost, its strength has always been political first and last. These are the two most important attributes the organization’s detractors consistently miss. Yet they are what set NATO apart and guarantee its success – and our security – for the future.

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Clearing the Air in Turkey (latest update July 14)

Taksim Square, Istanbul (Wikimedia Commons)

For anyone caught unawares by the political protests now roiling Turkey, you’re not alone. But for those looking for simple analogies between the demonstrations sparked by plans to bulldoze an Istanbul park and the regime-splitting Arab uprisings, you’re probably seeking a revolution too far.

As an antidote to this confusion, I’m pleased to recommend a thoughtful, nuanced and extensive discussion between blogger Mark Maynard and my friend Ebru Uras. I met Ebru while while we both served on the NATO International Staff in Brussels and before she joined the U.S Foreign Service. As she explains in this wide-ranging interview, she is a first-generation Turkish-American with an understandably close interest in affairs in the “old country” – and the language ability, cultural background, and family contacts to understand it better than many reporters on the scene.

You can read the interview at Maynard’s web site here. Ebru has also made her Facebook page publicly available with the intent that more people learn about what is happening in Turkey.

It goes without saying that Turkey is an important country – populous and economically dynamic, with deep cultural and religious roots and the potential to redefine the contemporary Islamic community. At the same time, vestiges of authoritarianism latent both from the early days of the post-Ottoman republic and more recent military rule remain in this evolving democratic and secular country with European aspirations. These contradictions seem to be precipitating in these demonstrations and clashes with security forces.

To draw this into my larger understanding of politics, the protests over Taksim Square in Istanbul are part of an important, inherently political dynamic –intrinsically separate from formal institutional, governmental and democratic processes – that will help define Turkey and its political and social culture for the future.

My thanks again to Ebru for sharing her interview, and her knowledge, with the wider community.

UPDATE July 14: More information from Ebru:

“For those of you on Facebook – you can follow the updates at http://lnkd.in/GrxD85 I try my hardest to only repost what is noninflammatory and verified.”

UPDATE JUNE 11: From Ebru…

Dear friend/arkadaslar,
For those of you not on Facebook or who don’t check it that often – I wanted to forward some of the links that I found the most powerful as an FYI. The last few days have been extraordinary in terms of what has happened in Turkey. I never expected to feel the range of emotions that I experienced, and it has been moving to see some in the Turkish-American community coalesce around a nonpartisan vision, wanting the best for Turkey without a political or nationalist agenda. Fingers crossed that the movement continues with minimal violence and bloodshed. Also for you Ann Arbor area folks, I’m organizing a fundraiser on Sunday the 23rd for the Turkish Human Rights Watch. Look for the invite to come.
Picture galleries, video and perspective articles:
 
 
song by New York Turks – very, very moving but only in Turkish (every Turk/Turkish-American I know has cried when watching this, myself included, from the lyrics)
 Women and the protests – Article by Time Magazine
Very, very very witty protest in front of THY by air hostesses –
 
And finally here is a great overview article from the Huffington Post on how the protests movement have been truly creative under dark circumstances –
 
Of course there are many, many more articles and editorials out there. I wanted to share some that were just a bit more off the beaten path.

UPDATE JUNE 8: Ebru’s Facebook site for OccupyGeziMichigan: https://www.facebook.com/OccupygeziMichigan

She adds:

“Here is the second part of what I am struggling to express: I truly hope that the grassroots and inclusive nature of these protests and this movement will help Turkey embrace the diversity within its borders and view that as a source of strength and pride. Occupy Gezi is inspiring because it is of and from ‘the people,’ including gays and lesbians, greens, Kurds, religious minorities and more. This presents such a unique opportunity for Turkey to move beyond a retrograde definition of self and embrace a more inclusive vision.”

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Egypt’s Attack on Civil Society — and Politics

(via DeutscheWelle)

Today’s prison sentences by an Egyptian court in the case of several democratic activists in the country has rightly drawn attention to the 43 defendants – including 16 Americans, two Germans, and more than dozen Egyptians – who face jail terms for engaging in civil action in the country in the days before the country’s revolution. Egypt’s road to democracy in the aftermath of Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow has not been straight or level, and this sentencing both harkens back to the old regime and reinforces the emerging authoritarian tendencies of his elected replacement, Mohammed Morsi, by intimidating and weakening the civil society opposition all healthy democratic societies need to flourish. It is, effectively, an attack on democratic politics itself.

That point has been lost in the important focus on the individuals threatened by arrest and prison terms. Handed down with the sentences were the forced closure and asset forfeiture of five foreign civil society non-governmental organizations: Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the International Center for Journalists, and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. All of them are American, except for the well-respected Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is German.

“The foreign NGOs were always the backbone of Egypt’s civil society,” Noha El Sebaie told Germany’s DeutscheWelle. Countries like Egypt, with infant democratic governing structures and even more fragile civil society, need international NGOs like Konrad Adenauer and NDI or Freedom House and others to build capacity and confidence in the next generation of leadership. I saw the result of this myself in Central and Eastern Europe after established Western European and American NGOs built policy beachheads in the early 1990s to support the equivalents of intellectual start-ups. The young, enthusiastic leadership of those new organizations gained the experience, knowledge  and contacts to build democratic governments and write good policy as a result.

That should happen all over the Near East now. But the revolution is not complete in those countries and antipolitical interests, whether revanchist or out of reflex, are attacking these Tocquevillian cornerstones of newly democratic societies.  We’ve already seen this in Russia as the Kremlin harasses and attacks NGOs and the media, closing the political space block by block. The same goes for countries like Belarus and Venezuela, who see open political debate not as an opportunity but a threat to control.

It’s important to remember that behind each one of the extraordinary, dynamic individuals sentenced in Egypt is a democratic institution they helped build and sustain. The Egyptian trial court, and likely also the regime, knows that with both of them gone, central political control got a little easier.

But there is a chance to make this right. The Egyptian court of appeal could vacate the ruling and the sentence. That would be a triumph for the law, for these activists, and for politics in an increasingly free and democratic Egypt.

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