“A Means of State Control” (Part Two)

In the first part of this post I dismantled the consensus definition of propaganda, arguing that in part and in total “propaganda” is indistinguishable from any other form of political expression.  The only obvious distinguishing aspect between the two definitions is the essential subjectivity of favoring political expression I agree with and opposing propaganda I do not agree with.

This being the case, propaganda needs to be redefined.  I propose that propaganda be defined not as the product of a state’s political agenda but the control of the means of that agenda itself.  In effect, propaganda is not what you see, but how you see it.  States engage in propaganda as they seek to control and dominate communications between the government and the people as well as nations abroad as a tool to secure and extend their political power.

Joseph Goebbels, never a man anyone wishes to acknowledge, bluntly stated in a 1928 speech the true purpose of propaganda.  The key phrase is variously translated as “the forerunner,” or “means,” of state control, but it is easy to see how the various uses of propaganda can be caught up in this definition: it helps parties achieve government control, maintains authoritarian political control, and aids those governments’ needs to control both the population and foreign adversaries.  This was written before Hitler came to power but Goebbels’ emphasis on “seizing” and holding government power anticipates the totalitarian control they eventually exerted over all of Germany.

I recognize this is a departure from the conventional and academic definition of propaganda.  That is entirely the point.  In order both to recognize propaganda for what it truly is, and to protect legitimate political expression from repression, I must make the argument here that propaganda and legitimate political expression are opposites.

  1. All Political Speech Is Equal

This is a difficult point to argue primarily because the subjectivity of political expression is so deeply ingrained in most people.  It is impossible to argue that the speech of, say, Donald Trump, and that of Bernie Sanders, are effectively equal.  For all practical matters nobody would agree to this proposition.  So in order to make this argument, I need to break political expression down to its essence, that of thesis and antithesis.

As an example I will use an extraordinary piece of artwork I saw once more than 15 years ago.  During the Cold War a former Western European ambassador to the Soviet Union quietly collected the art made by prisoners of the Gulag.  One older artist had made his living restoring Russian Orthodox Church icons several hundreds of years old.  In his spare time he painted his own icons.  One of those this ambassador purchased:  at the center of a series of portraits of the saints of the orthodox church he painted Ronald Reagan.

The political meaning of this portrait could not be mistaken.  The artist canonized the American president with the holiest figures in the history of the church.  He risked his freedom or life to do so in a state that would treat this expression as a double heresy: an expression of faith in a power other than the Communist Party and the reification of the enemy of the Soviet Union.  The thesis would be “Ronald Reagan is a saint.”  The antithesis would be “Ronald Reagan is not a saint.”  As political propositions both require the other, in which case they are essentially equal.  It is impossible to argue the proposition without stating the fundamental basis of the argument and its opposite.

It can be argued that what separates this individual act of political expression from propaganda is the state in terms of both scale and legitimacy.  Yet if we acknowledge the right or duty of the state to express, exert, or defend its authority or principles – in the event of war, disease, or national emergency – then there is no fundamental difference between the two.  Even if we acknowledge state expression in the absence of a national emergency, we fall back on the thesis/antithesis dichotomy: the argument and its counterargument cannot exist in the public domain without each other.

2. Propaganda Is the Control of the Means of Political Expression

But it is within that dichotomy we find the essence of true propaganda: the elimination of the antithesis, an artificial state of affairs where no contradiction of a state-endorsed political statement may be contradicted.  The only way to accomplish this, in practice, is for the state to control the means of political expression and enforce compliance with that expression.  True propaganda cannot exist without both of these elements.

In this case we have multiple examples.  Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union are defined as totalitarian because they controlled all aspects of individual life.  Both exerted a “party line” that was brutally enforced by the police state.  And yet, as the Holocaust Memorial’s catalogue of Nazi propaganda demonstrates, we are often distracted more by the product of that propaganda outlet than we are by the sheer ubiquity of it.

This control limits, in a concrete way, the public space for debate that Hannah Arendt outlines.  Politics and political freedom are healthy when the town commons is open to all to debate, argue, find consensus, form alliances.  The control of the means of political expression closes the commons, leaving behind only the state’s position with no method of counterargument.  This is why I argue that propaganda and political expression are opposites: a closed commons against an open one, censorship countering creativity, conformism versus diversity.

3)  Propaganda Is Coercive

As I noted in Part One, Nazi Germany’s control of the means of political expression was indeed totalitarianism: all church, universities, schools, radio, press, publishing, cinema, civic organizations, artistic and literary guilds, medicine, and sports were dominated by the government.  The Soviet Union also controlled all these means while destroying the church, suppressing minority languages and religious faiths, limiting travel both domestically and internationally, turning family and community members into informants, exiling or executing dissidents, and blocking foreign communications into the Soviet Union.

This is not mere censorship.  It is the active harnessing of the means of communication to broadcast a single political agenda.  But the pervasiveness of this propaganda is only one part of the apparatus for complete political control.  Both states combined total control with violent enforcement through a mammoth and powerful secret police.  In practice, these states told the people what to think and brutally punished anyone who did not think as they were told.  This is the essence of totalitarianism: they have more in common with the Thought Police than with the Office of Censorship.

The practice of total political control is often and mistakenly considered a fundamentally modern concept.  It is argued that totalitarianism and the mass organization and violence required for it to survive would not be possible without the tools available only in the 20th century.  This is not true: the aspect of totalitarian control of political expression has existed for hundreds of years.  As in many cases, we strangely miss this fact hiding in plain sight.  Most scholars of propaganda date the term to the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, established by the Roman Catholic Church in the late 16th century.  The church established this office primarily to spread the Gospel among the newly discovered territories of the Americas but it was useful in the Counter-Reformation as well to oppose the spread of Lutheranism and other heretical ideas.

But what is regularly omitted from propaganda’s origin story is the Holy Inquisition.  The inquisition was developed in the late medieval period but made notorious during the Spanish and Roman periods of the 16th century.  The Spanish Inquisition imposed conversions on the Muslim and Jewish populations of the territories formerly ruled by the Andalus caliphate.  The Roman Inquisition attacked political heretics like Galileo Galilei.  The inquisition, then, acted as the enforcement mechanism of the church’s propaganda of the faith.  Hitler and Stalin would have immediately recognized the control and enforcement of political expression as the essence of their rule.  That essence is fundamentally coercive.  The Inquisition and the Congregation together are the origin for totalitarian propaganda as we know it.

This is the “means of state control” discussed earlier.  Totalitarian countries control the means of political expression primarily to maintain control the state itself and to achieve its political goals.   The ramifications of this understanding are obvious: it is difficult if impossible to communicate opposition within a regime when all the means to communicate are controlled by the state.  Today, authoritarian regimes use this kind of control, while short of being absolute, to dominate, distort, or close the political commons.  This may feel like a very contemporary tool, but hey are building on a tradition that has dates back hundreds of years to the earliest modern states.

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“A Means of State Control”

The Origins of Propaganda (Part One)

 

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum held an exhibition titled “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda” in Washington, D.C., from 2009 and 2011.  This dramatic collection of German National Socialist state artifacts included photos, posters, newspapers, radio broadcasts, film productions, even children’s games and toys.  It was a frightening, lurid, and claustrophobic display of the most puerile, racist, warmongering politics witnessed during the 20th century.

Germany’s propaganda program was deep and vast.  It left virtually no aspect of life uncontrolled by the regime.  Over the course of its 14 years, the National Socialist regime exerted control over not just the entire government but the churches, universities, schools, radio, press, publishing, cinema, civic organizations, artist guilds, medicine, and sports.  No other regime besides the Soviet Union wielded such totality over the daily lives of its citizens.

If there were a single, accepted definition of propaganda, then, it would be found in this definitive collection of propaganda’s greatest horrors.  Helpfully, the Memorial published a guidebook to the exhibition using the same title.  Propaganda, it explains,

as used in this book refers to the dissemination of information, whether truthful, partially truthful, or blatantly false, that aims to shape public opinion and behavior.  Propaganda simplifies complicated issues or ideology for mass consumption, is always biased, and is geared to achieving a particular end.  In contrast to the ideal of an educator, who aims to foster independent judgment and thinking, the practitioner of propaganda does not aim to encourage deliberation by presenting a variety of viewpoints and leaving it up to the audience to determine which perspective is correct.  The propagandist transmits only information geared to strength his or her case and consciously omits contrary information.  Propaganda generally uses symbols, whether in written, musical, cinematic, or other visual forms, and aims to channel complex human emotions toward a desired goal.  It is often employed by government and private organizations to promote their causes and institutions and denigrate their opponents and is linked to both advertising and public relations.  Propaganda functions as just one weapon in the arsenal of mass persuasion.

That is a comprehensive definition of a complex but dangerous phenomenon of contemporary political life and one whose effects we live with every day.  It represents the general consensus of experts in the field.  Its examples are easy to identify in the exhibition and the book.  I do not doubt, in any way, that the examples on display and catalogued in the hardbound guidebook are examples of Nazi propaganda.

Unfortunately the definition falls apart almost immediately on any close or critical inspection.  This definition, in whole and in part, can precisely describe not just propaganda but all political expression—the latter of which I’m sure the authors and experts would agree encompass much more than propaganda itself.  This is dangerous ground.  If we could hypothesize banning propaganda by fiat based on this definition, we would find ourselves banning all political expressing or legitimizing all propaganda.  This definition, then, is a logical cul-de-sac from which political speech—the most important and therefore most protected of type of expression—cannot escape.  If propaganda is political speech, and political speech is propaganda, then everything we say or think has the same taint.  Common sense tells us this cannot be true.  Propaganda and political speech are different things.  If they were the same we would have one word to describe them both.

It is important to start with a definition because, unfortunately, the word propaganda needs one.  In popular use, it has been abused so much that it has lost practically all intrinsic meaning:  A satirical talk-show is propaganda.  News is propaganda.  An advertising campaign is propaganda.  A public health announcement is propaganda.  Scientific studies are propaganda.  A newspaper editorial is propaganda.  A child’s television program is propaganda.  A radio call-in show is propaganda.  A social media meme is propaganda.  The President’s speech is propaganda.  An art exhibition is propaganda.  A music concert is propaganda.

Propaganda, in this context, is not a positive connotation (and certainly begs the question of whether the accusers read and applied the sophisticated definition quoted above).  It concerns leave us to distill this already utterly denatured word into something far simpler and clearer than the official understanding recorded above: propaganda is political speech I do not like.

Let us examine the Memorial definition line by line to demonstrate convincingly that propaganda, as defined here, can easily be applied to virtually any other sort of political expression.

1)   [D]issemination of information, whether truthful, partially truthful, or blatantly false, that aims to shape public opinion and behavior

The sole purpose of political speech is to shape public opinion and behavior.  If I nail a poster to a wall that reads only VOTE FOR SMITH, I am disseminating information about a political candidate.  Let us presume that Smith actually exists, so it is truthful.  I aim to shape public opinion – to support Smith – and behavior: I want people to VOTE FOR SMITH.  Under this definition, then, the most elemental political speech – advocating a candidate for political office – is propaganda.

Let us suppose that instead of a poster reading VOTE FOR SMITH I post a sign that reads VOTE FOR FIDO.  Presuming I am not running a dog for office, this is blatantly false.  And yet it, too, is political speech: it suggests that voting for a dog would be better than voting for somebody else.  I am still disseminating information.  I am still aiming to shape public opinion – questioning their faith in the electoral system or the candidates themselves – and their behavior: who knows whether they will vote at all?

This is not hypothetical at all, as this antique Yippie poster from the Chicago Convention of 1968 demonstrates:

yippie

2)   Propaganda simplifies complicated issues or ideology for mass consumption, is always biased, and is geared to achieving a particular end.

I could write a letter to the editor of my local newspapers arguing that climate change requires immediate policy changes to avoid hurting people.  This would summarize an immensely complex issue in about 200 words.  It is for mass consumption, since I have written the newspaper and not my friend across town.  It is prima facie biased: I am not going to make the argument of my detractors for them.  And it is geared, perhaps naively, to a particular end: the change in policy to avoid the consequences of climate change.  And yet under this definition, the staple of popular political speech – the humble letter to the editor, used by newspapers for a century to reflect and reach their democratic readership – is propaganda.

(3)   In contrast to the ideal of an educator, who aims to foster independent judgment and thinking, the practitioner of propaganda does not aim to encourage deliberation by presenting a variety of viewpoints and leaving it up to the audience to determine which perspective is correct.  The propagandist transmits only information geared to strengthen his or her case and consciously omits contrary information.

These two sentences taken together define the trial lawyer, defending an innocent person against a charge that may end their life.  The trial lawyer does not want to foster independent judgment and thinking: they want an acquittal.  They do not aim to encourage deliberation by presenting a variety of viewpoints and leaving it to the audience to determine which is correct: those are the jury instructions.  The defense attorney ignores or attacks the variety of viewpoints in order to make the most convincing case to the jury.  Under this definition, then, the defense attorney engages in propaganda.

(4)   Propaganda generally uses symbols, whether in written, musical, cinematic, or other visual forms, and aims to channel complex human emotions toward a desired goal.

When we take this into account, we probably think of something like this famous poster produced during World War II to encourage women in the workforce.  It remains fresh and the symbols are not hard to parse: a woman in coveralls rolling up her sleeves to take on what had been exclusively a man’s job in wartime production.  It is designed to focus attention and distract from any complex concerns about a woman’s place in the workplace.  It is easy to see this as propaganda since encouraging weapons production during wartime war is generally seen as an overriding concern of the state.  It is regularly described as such.

rosie

But, importantly, its bold and unmistakable iconography has been recycled many times over during the many iterations of the feminist movement.  It can still speak in new ways, challenging our understanding of propaganda as presented by the Memorial.  The appropriation this American icon to support the work of the Pakistani children’s rights activist Malala Yousafzai, below, demonstrates the enduring power of visual imagery and symbols, no matter the cultural context.  Its goal, as seen in the text written next to the mural, couldn’t be clearer.  And yet under the definition outlined above, this image of a young girl shot in the head for trying to go to school would be defined as propaganda.

malala

As a practical matter, particularly in developing democracies, the use of symbols is important because illiteracy or a lack of a common language makes the printing of ballots particularly fraught.  In this example, Nigerian political parties have been distilled to their logo and party initials.  This is hardly propaganda but it is clear to see how bold, simple symbols and compelling graphics would help a candidate or party.

ballot

(5)   it is often employed by government and private organizations to promote their causes and institutions and denigrate their opponents and is linked to both advertising and public relations.

This is a strange paragraph for its peculiar qualifications, vague definitions, and tenuous connection to related disciplines.  By tying together private institutions and governments it breaks down an important legal divide between people and those they elect to lead them.  If the First Amendment gives the people the right freely to assemble, to petition their government for redress of grievances, to publish and to speak, then this paragraph erases the moral distinction defining a group of people protesting on behalf of themselves.  “Cause” is a mushy synonym for what is properly called a political agenda.

And what do advertising and public relations have to do with this?  The weak language used here to tie them to propaganda suggests the authors recognize they are not the same thing but they are unclear about the nature of the relationship.  They are related because they use the same technical tools: various media (text, radio, television, etc.), language, images, audience surveys, targeted marketing, and so on.  But so, too, do news organizations.  Is propaganda “linked to the news media”?

This definition could have drawn a bright and important line if it had simply asserted that propaganda is the exclusive domain of the state.  But that would have legitimized the vile collection of Nazi paraphernalia collected for the purpose of defining propaganda: the National Socialist party, prior to taking government control, used the same tactics as the National Socialist government.  This Hobson’s Choice demonstrates that without the benefit of hindsight there is simply no bright line to be drawn dividing propaganda from political expression under this definition.

(6)   Propaganda functions as just one weapon in the arsenal of mass persuasion.

What other weapons are there?  The Memorial’s definition does not define the actual means or media – the specific vehicles for delivering the propaganda product. Here we find the Memorial’s definition both overbroad and stunningly limited.  The definition refers to the “dissemination” and “transmit” of “information” and only later broadly identifies “written, musical, cinematic, or other visual forms” to deliver desired emotional responses in an audience.  Presumably these must be delivered in some medium, which is left unidentified.  But there is no “dissemination” without a platform, whether that is a live performance, a publication, radio or television broadcast, web site, e-mail, or even a telephone call.  If we leave aside coercion – the threat of violence and the total control over all aspects of civic life – then there are no other means of mass persuasion.  But this definition does not consider the idea of total control of society.

While the Memorial has condensed the expert consensus defining propaganda, it does not parry other arguments that define propaganda.  One of the major modes of thought emerging in the last 100 years posits that propaganda is a product of both the technological era and the emergence of mass culture in the 20th century.  Mass literacy, improved living standards, and consumerism created a market for popular periodicals, radio, television, and movies that were the result of technological innovation.  World War I not only saw the wireless radio, mass newspaper distribution, basic literacy, and the strong central state converge on information “dissemination,” it also inaugurated mass organization as the belligerents mobilized tens of millions of young men for military service and their home fronts to support them.  Many observers believed that this was the only era in which propaganda could exist in pure form.

This argument is in one sense obvious but in another completely fallacious.  Political communication has always used all means available to it.  Those making political arguments did not simply ignore one medium in favor of another. As the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany emerged, their regimes took advantage of all these methods to reach a wide audience.  Many of them were very new, including motion pictures with soundtracks, and propaganda experts in the West conflated the emergence of these new media and technology with propaganda itself.

As I will argue later, the nature of propaganda is such that the state uses all means available to them.  It is control of the means of production – and not the produced means or messages by themselves – that define propaganda.  Any state that can control communication with the public engages in propaganda.  The means change, evolve, expand or become obsolete, but the aspect of control does not.

I do not mean to attack the Memorial and what remains an important exhibit at a critical moment in our political history.  We both have the same goal, in fact, which is to point out both the fundamental evil of Nazi ideology and the danger of unchecked and weaponized political speech.  My main concern is that the Memorial did not go far enough.  In addition to the racist bile and agitation, race-baiting and war-mongering, hate and lies and distortion, the root of Nazi propaganda was the control of all those things which meant that decent people could not reach the same audience and a subject population had no alternative means to learn the truth.  Additionally, as we’ll see later, Germany’s coercive state apparatus served as the stick to propaganda’s carrot to enforce political conformity and mobilization.

Moreover, propaganda distracts.  Calling something propaganda allows us to dismiss it.  It keeps us from understanding what is really being done.  Calling a Nazi poster propaganda doesn’t help us identify why it bothers us, why it challenges our conscience.  Other words work better because they are clear and precise: incitement, racist, subversive, disloyal, hysterical, divisive, hateful, false, incomplete, distorting, twisted.  That way we can really and honestly attack and respond to political expression that calls out our devils.

We have many ways and means of political expression: polemic, opinion, argument editorial; satire, parody, caricature; exaggeration, hyperbole, overstatement, embellishment; mockery, scorn, disdain, ridicule; judgment, verdict, condemnation; endorsement, praise, celebration.  All of these would be, and have been, swallowed by the single pejorative propaganda.  And if everything is propaganda, then there is no open and legitimate means of political expression.

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The Price of Promotion

The State Department’s employee evaluation process is worse than terrible.  It is no better than a gamble.

Department of state seal

Consider this career choice: you are a second-tour FS-04 consular officer serving your country in an American embassy abroad.  You have tenure, which means that you’re more or less guaranteed employment with the State Department for the next 15 years.  You are now being considered for promotion to FS-03.  In a bid to speed up the process, the Management Bureau Office of Performance Evaluation approaches you with this offer: you may proceed with the promotion board selection process or, more simply, flip a coin.  Heads, you will be promoted.  Tails, you will not.

Even odds are not great but they’re better than the 2018 promotion statistics suggest you have, which is closer to one in three.  Still, you’re told promotion is a merit-based process decided after rational, impartial evaluation of your accomplishments.  You’re a hard worker and have made no mistakes.  Your peers and supervisors like you and your Employee Evaluation Reports (EERs) have all been stellar.  So you decide to go with the promotion panel.

Everybody in the department believes this, or at the very least, cynically behaves as if it were true.  And it may well be true.  But here’s the problem: social scientific research argues strongly that the State Department’s promotion process produces decisions little better than random chance.  The department has the data available to determine whether panel decisions are indeed correlated with future performance rather than blind luck but it has not used that information to improve the process.

This should alarm everyone and not just those being considered for promotion.  If the department cannot accurately select future high-performers, then we are rewarding people who do not deserve it and punishing those who don’t deserve that, either.  And it means, when it comes to the future leadership of the premier executive department, we are doing no better than throwing dice and hoping for the best.

The EER has a long history.  The Rogers Act of 1924 set up the modern Foreign Service, replacing prodigal heirs populating the diplomatic corps with a professional and meritocratic promotion system.  The 1980 Foreign Service Act instituted new reforms, significantly eliminating the evaluation of a diplomat’s spouse, then almost entirely women, as part of the employee’s evaluation.  The Foreign Service now uses a narrative system primarily devised in 2002, amended partially in 2015, resulting in the goals-oriented, short-narrative EER in use today.

Each year the Performance Evaluation office convenes around 20 boards made up of about six panelists, including an outside civilian.  For six to eight weeks each panelist reviews 40 candidate folders per day, which include the past five years’ EERs.  That accounts for some 30,000 EERs reviewed or more than 200,000 pages in total for each board, a daunting task by any measure.

The best thing to be said about this promotion process is that it is worse than a similar system the Israeli army abandoned in 1955.  Daniel Kahneman, then a 22-year-old psychology graduate, was asked to assess how the nascent Israeli army selected its officers.  The army used a process adapted from the British following World War II.  It involved evaluating a group of officer candidates working together to physically bridge an obstacle.  Here, Kahneman writes in his Nobel Prize biography,

[w]e were looking for manifestations of the candidates’ characters, and we saw plenty: true leaders, loyal followers, empty boasters, wimps – there were all kinds. Under the stress of the event, we felt, the soldiers’ true nature would reveal itself, and we would be able to tell who would be a good leader and who would not.

But the trouble was that, in fact, we could not tell. Every month or so we had a “statistics day,” during which we would get feedback from the officer-training school, indicating the accuracy of our ratings of candidates’ potential. The story was always the same: our ability to predict performance at the school was negligible. … I was so impressed by the complete lack of connection between the statistical information and the compelling experience of insight that I coined a term for it: “the illusion of validity.”

Kahneman, along with his partner Amos Tversky, documented another cognitive fallacy in this exercise: the human tendency to make extreme forecasts based on very little data.  Overconfidence in predicting future performance has been documented in fields as diverse as football, economics, the weather, and the stock market.  It should come as no surprise, then, that predicting future performance of diplomats would be shot through with overconfidence as well.

He continues:

Closely related to the illusion of validity was another feature of our discussions about the candidates we observed: our willingness to make extreme predictions about their future performance on the basis of a small sample of behavior. … As I understood clearly only when I taught statistics some years later, the idea that predictions should be less extreme than the information on which they are based is deeply counterintuitive.

Kahneman subsequently drew up a more objective measure of performance using a numerical scale to rank candidates based on certain attributes correlated with future success in officer training.  It was not perfect but it has remained, more or less unaltered, with the Israeli army ever since.

The similarities between the two evaluation systems are striking.  Like the Israeli army of 1955, the State Department panels rank candidates into three tiers.  Like the Israeli army, the Foreign Service Officers serving as judge and jury over lower-ranking strangers are not human resources professionals or executives with hiring and firing experience.  They are beneficiaries of the same system that selected them.  They have no reason to doubt the process that promoted them and in fact have quite a psychological incentive to perpetuate it.  Kahneman and his disciples were skeptical of expert judgment.  Kahneman cites as an influence the work of psychologist Paul Meehl, who famously determined the superiority of actuarial prediction to clinical judgment in medical prognosis.  Kahneman eventually came to understand the value of training and experience to improve professional judgement.  But the one-time panel members only receive minimal training for their task and rarely serve on a panel again.

The only fundamental difference between the two selection processes was the Israeli army actually observed the individuals being ranked.  The department, using a record of paper, is basing its decision on hearsay.  There is no interaction with the candidates themselves.  The selection process is done by consensus, which means the entire panel must agree on every individual file.  Indeed, officers I have talked to say there is rarely any dissent, that they all see the same things the same way, and that what they are seeing is blindingly obvious on its face.  Kahneman saw the same thing, too.  As he told the author Michael Lewis, “[t]he impression we had of each candidate’s character was as direct and compelling as the color of the sky.”  But he could not correlate these judgments to their outcomes.

The Foreign Service promotion system is explicitly designed to predict future performance.  It is projecting: EERs should tell us who will succeed at the next level and who will fail.  The Procedural Precepts for the 2018 Foreign Service Selection Boards specifically state, “[p]romotion is recognition that an employee has demonstrated readiness to successfully perform at the next highest level.”  It continues:

A recommendation for promotion is not a reward for prior service.  Boards should recommend for immediate advancement only those employees whose records indicate superior long-range potential and a present ability to perform at a higher level.

But as Kahneman demonstrated and has been amply documented from economists like Richard Thaler and statisticians like Scott Armstrong, people are very poor predictors of future human behavior.

In addition to overconfidence, Armstrong outlines two ways people often get predictions wrong.  First, he notes that agreement or consensus is not that same thing as accuracy.  The board process requires each member to rank the top promotable candidates but then, strangely, come to a group agreement about the order of those candidates (as well as those mid-ranked and low-ranked).  Second, Armstrong notes that increasing complexity makes prediction correspondingly more difficult.  Variables and uncertainty, which perfectly describes the Foreign Service career assignment system, make predictions of future performance much less tenable.

All this perpetuates a system governed by subjectivity and intuition, both of which Kahneman and his partisans have exposed as no better than chance.  There is very little objective measurement of performance or potential.  Not even the straightforward U.S. military requirement to tick a box recommending promotion or not is available in the EER.  State Department panel members, already unable to read the entirety of each individual EER because of sheer volume, must parse a hundred different ways raters recommend promotion, looking for evidence of faint praise or lack of enthusiasm.

Performance Evaluation considered these issues, including objectivity and bias, in an declassified 2013 cable.   The cable argued that the Defense Department’s system of numerical ranking was more appropriate to the task of evaluating hundreds of thousands of members of the armed forces.  But if it were simply a matter of scale, shouldn’t there be enough military officers reviewing their peers in similar ratios to Foreign Service boards?  More importantly, it is difficult to argue that the Pentagon is concerned more with efficiency than efficacy when lives are literally at risk if the system fails.

In another unclassified cable in 2015 accompanying the modestly reformed EER, the department attempted to address rank-and-file requests for a more objective performance evaluation system.  The department responded by saying it had conducted external consultations and concluded metric evaluation fed bias and grade inflation.  But these are precisely the problems with the current system as evidenced by the department’s concern with unconscious bias on the one hand and inflation of performance evaluation on the other hand.  A 2017 unclassified cable noted specifically how difficult board members found it to rank candidates who were all, to borrow a phrase, above average.  There is no question about the problem of bias and grade inflation.  The question to ask is which system – narrative/subjective or quantitative/objective – best reduces these biases and has the highest correlation with future performance of employees.

The consequence is a collective, department-wide effort to game the promotion system.  Conventional wisdom among the department rank and file accepts that there is a proper way to write or couch the EER, that deviating from this unwritten rule spells career doom, and that there is absolutely no quarter to be allowed to document poor performance, individual struggle, or personal failing.  The logical outcome of this conventional wisdom should be no surprise.  It produces highly inflated and hyperbolic EERs crammed with superlative performance and exceptional personal achievement, not any rational or reasonable measure of performance or readiness for promotion.  It is absurd, especially at the lower ranks, to expect that all officers will be equally excellent at all things, which is the picture the EERs in the aggregate indicate and about which promotion panels perennially complain.

Given this, the lack of quantitative measurement of performance is especially glaring.  This may not seem important given the depth and rigor of a professional, narrative evaluation.  But quantitative data is the standard measure of performance we get in high school, university, and graduate and professional schools.  High school grades are more strongly correlated than the Scholastic Aptitude Test to university success.  Performance in individual subjects can be aggregated in a grade point average, and that grade point average along with standardized test scores can be correlated with future performance as measured in future grades and earnings.

The 2013 cable notes eight systemic biases without addressing explicitly how the EER and promotion board system are designed to minimize bias.  It is worth quoting in full:

Boards can help to cut through overt or subtle biases at the line manager level.  In addition to invidious general biases (age, gender, race, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, religion), more nuanced types of bias are also workplace hazards.  The [Foreign Service] Board system, by having an impartial objective group, mitigate possible bias.  The Foreign Service grievance system adds additional safeguards.  Bias is simply a personality-based tendency, either toward or against something.

In other words, the boards are impartial and objective because the bureau says they are impartial and objective.

The department has recently required unconscious bias training for selection panel members and has long screened EER drafts for inadmissible information.  This is an important start.  But the panels themselves are structured in a way to protect, not remove, bias.  Panel members are not required to recuse themselves unless they are reviewing a family member.  The panel decision itself cannot be appealed; employees can only grieve language they have already consented to send to the boards.

While the department expresses concern about bias and forbids most explicit (race, sexual orientation, age) and implicit (“staffing” to replace “manpower,” for example) bias, importantly quite a lot of information is still not scrubbed from standard EERs.  Importantly, gender – a legally suspect class specifically mentioned in Equal Employment Opportunity laws and regulations – is permitted.  Additionally, names are also allowed which, in a diverse country like the United States, one can use to make reasonable guesses about a candidate’s religion, national origin, ethnic group, mother tongue, and race.

The department explicitly dismissed calls for a more quantitative or objective evaluation system.  The 2015 cable dismissing a proposal for quantitative performance evaluation specifically endorses a narrative approach and the 2017 cable reinforces it.   Unfortunately, social science research has repeatedly identified the “narrative fallacy” as a flawed heuristic people apply to interpret the past and anticipate the future.  The panels agree, in other words, to build a third cognitive fallacy right into the structure of the evaluation.

The lack of objective measurement lends itself to all sorts of abuses, including watered-down and “coded” language that experienced raters and reviewers use to communicate sub rosa to the panel, while lying to the candidate, that they are not promotable.  I am stunned that the use of coded language in EERs is not only an acknowledged practice but in fact accepted as the price of promotion in the department.  We would not tolerate secret communications from our children’s teachers or guidance counselors in letters of recommendation for jobs or university admission.  If such a practice were discovered, it would garner the same kind of legal and press attention the university admission-bribing scandal recently did.  Raters and reviewers who communicate in coded language are committing fraud.  This subterfuge would not survive an Inspector General investigation, Congressional scrutiny, or class-action lawsuit.

The EER, as a narrative instrument, lacks objective utility at a minimum and otherwise eschews any quantitative measurement of performance.  But this data is not entirely missing. The process has the statistical tools to correlate prior evaluations with future performance and promotion rates but has not used these tools. Promotion panels routinely rank EERs into three tiers and then rank order every EER in the top tier.  This could very easily be correlated with prior and future evaluations and promotion rates, but these ranks are not permanently assigned to individual officers or their EER files.  This is a mistake, the equivalent of grading classwork without issuing a transcript at the end of high school.

The panel’s purview is guided by two massive documents: the “Procedural Precepts” for Foreign Service Selection Boards (31 pages) and the “Decision Criteria for Tenure and Promotion in the Foreign Service,” confusingly also known as the Core Precepts (15 pages).  The Procedural Precepts outline the duties and procedures the panel must follow while the Core Precepts outline the skills and objectives an officer must demonstrate.  The Core Precepts refer to these as “guidelines by which Tenure and Selection Boards determine the tenure and promotability” of officers.  But nowhere in either document are instructions that explain how the board should apply the Core Precepts.  That’s the equivalent of applying the A-F grading system without explaining what distinguishes an A from an F.

There are six Core Precepts containing 31 subsections.  This is simply too much for any one narrative evaluation – the line count is just above 100 – to consider in any depth.  Even if several narratives over the last five years are evaluated, that leaves little more than 500 lines total.  So employees, raters and reviewers must select their most important accomplishments and skimp on covering all facets of the Core Precepts.

Panelists are left to parsing nuance of language, which is simply more noise above the randomness of assignment, location, experience, work product, and outcome, not to mention unconscious bias and writing ability.  How can a panel rationally evaluate a 25-year-old consular officer with no prior job experience working in a nonimmigrant visa mill in Mexico against a 50-year-old second career officer handling American Citizen Services cases following an earthquake in Japan?  How can panels distinguish between competent performance and sheer circumstance?

Fortunately, the Core Precepts actually provide the solution to this otherwise subjective mind game.  Instead of the laborious negotiation over the narrative evaluation, the employee, rater, reviewer, and a peer or local staff member would grade the employee against their peers in a given post on each of the Core Precepts subsections.  The employee would have no control over the grading but would be allowed to see it.  The individual grades and aggregate would be assigned to the employee’s file for future panels to view.

A numerical evaluation has more utility than its narrative counterpart.  It is more objective because in this case the reviewer is rating the employee directly against their immediate peers whereas under the current system the panel measures performance against an unseen global population.  The global view introduces much more noise, subjectivity, and randomness to the process.  A graded system can be averaged over a year, a grade, or a precept; it can be correlated to future performance; it can track improvement; it eliminates sub rosa sabotage (using regression analysis, we could determine whether a particular low rank was within the standard deviation of the other reviewers or prior evaluations).

Any kind of human evaluation system is prone to bias, error, and luck.  The best we can do is find the tools that limit our bias, reduce error, and account for luck.  The current State Department promotion system makes no systematic attempt to do that.  The result is the opposite of meritocratic: it is pure fortune.

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The opinions and characterizations in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. government.

 

Belief from the inside out

Carla Power’s Pulitizer Prize-shortlisted If the Oceans Were Ink, an outsider’s meditation on The Holy Qur’an with the help of a learned Islamic scholar, signals a subtle but seismic shift in our intellectual world.  It joins other unmistakable indications that mostly secular Western thinkers now realize they have allowed the belief of a billion people to be defined by a clique and that the popular understanding of Islam has been warped and obverted to the point that the exception has replaced the rule.

I imagine especially for Muslims it is as if everyone thought they were doctors because a friend had a rash, or physicists because they’d seen a car accident.  While they understand something from the inside out, everyone else seems to be just peering in from the outside.

I was reminded of this when listening to an interview on San Francisco public radio recently. The host of The Forum on KQED, Michael Krasny, was interviewing Qamar Adamjee, curator of a new exhibition of Islamic Art at the Asian Art Museum.  (The relevant portion begins at about the 13:00 minute mark.)  Krasny does not so much ask a question as state the cultural and human destruction wrought by the Taliban and the Islamic State.  As she struggles to express herself, Adamjee’s response is telling.  Those who attack art are doing so for political, not religious, reasons, she says. “It’s easy to pick on religion, it’s easy to pick on the other,” which of course cuts in two directions. She changes the subject: “[The exhibit] allows us to see Islamic culture as a much broader thing than the undifferentiated monolithic mass that comes across to us today.”  What she is trying to say is: I want to talk about art and Islamic culture.  This art has nothing to do with violence.

The larger point, perhaps missed in a discussion of art, is that the art and culture and belief of Muslims are what is really important.  That is a difficult thing to say while a coalition of nations is trying to destroy the Islamic State.  But as this recent NPR story by Tom Gjelten also argues, understanding that larger point is also essential to defeat our enemies and to make friends as well.

Carla Power’s honor may be a landmark of that dawning realization but it is not the only example.  Another can be found in Garry Wills’ recent essay, “My Koran Problem” in The New York Review of Books in which he admits that only very recently had he read The Holy Qur’an.  This is an extraordinary confession.  How could a public intellectual and powerful liberal polemic of such range, virtuosity and experience go so long without understanding one of human civilization’s great texts?  “It was ridiculous that I would remain completely ignorant of what a quarter of the world’s people not only believe in but live by (in different ways),” he writes. Beginning sometime after 2003, he continues to struggle with this text “unaided”.  Surely Wills could find somebody willing to help him?

On a smaller scale but in more sympathetic vein, Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy recently wrote about a visit to the Masjid Muhammad, “The Nation’s Mosque” located in northeast Washington, D.C.  “If you see nothing suspicious, maybe that’s normal,” his article was headlined.  At the mosque he met the imam, a retired U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant.  A member of the mosque is a retired U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major.  “We should be America’s allies in the fight against extremism,” another member of the mosque told Milloy.  Muslims are by far the greatest victims of terrorism around the world.  “Instead, we’re on the defensive, always being asked to respond to somebody’s claim that Islam promotes violence.”  Again, in Milloy we hear somebody trying to change the subject, to focus on what’s important, which is what is normal.

How did so many overlook this pacific ordinariness, this everydayness, this normality that we all can recognize?  Wills writes that he has spent most of his career studying Christian and Jewish theology.  Herein is the heart of the problem.  I discovered myself how self-limiting one’s own provincial interests can be.  Even well-intentioned attempts to learn more lead to a contained circle of works, all cross-referencing each other, each self-delimiting any knowledge beyond the circle.  It takes an extraordinary mind or experience to force oneself out and beyond.  I am the grateful beneficiary of such an extraordinary experience and extraordinary minds when it comes to Islam. 

Wills struggles from this insulating defect, unfortunately comparing the Qur’an to The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf, as if the holy text were an operational manual for our enemies.  This is exactly wrong.  Studying and understanding The Holy Qur’an and Islamic thought is how we understand and know our friends.  Western secularists don’t understand what Muslims really believe and how their belief animates their lives.  What is normal is important because it is what we have in common to defend against intolerance and barbarism.

But like Wills, we have to start at the beginning.  At the beginning is the realization Wills alludes to: that understanding Islam on its own terms is more important than its present political context.  When a billion people believe some thing, we have a duty to understand that from the inside out.

If Carla Power’s book suffers a flaw, like any other similar book written by a secular Westerner, it is that she addresses the belief from the outside.  But she is studying the Qur’an, which as any Muslim understands is the place to start to understand Islam.   There are several excellent guides (in English) to the Qur’an, including Introduction to the Qur’an by M.A. Draz and The Story of the Qur’an by Ingrid Mattson.  These both benefit from the authors being Muslim.  Additionally, several translations of The Holy Qur’an (also in English) can be found online.  I am less familiar with the Sunnah and the Hadith, the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and a major source of Islamic theology and moral philosophy, but translations are also available online.

Like Wills, I admit that these ancient texts are indeed challenging to read unaided and barring a community college or divinity school course most of us must avail ourselves to what we can find in the public domain.  To understand what Muslims really believe we have to break out of the confining circle of Western scholarship and read what Muslims write about themselves.  Fortunately several books do this and don’t require the assistance of a scholar.  The journey is rewarding from the first step.

the_road_to_mecca_book_coverThe gift of a friend, Muhammad Asad’s The Road to Mecca (1947) is a good place to start.  The book is at once a philosophic meditation, spiritual quest, and ripping adventure yarn in the old Islamic tradition.  Asad was an Austrian convert from Judaism who began his career as a journalist in the Near East.  His adventures, which included advising King Saud and the nascent government of Pakistan, rival or exceed those of T.H. Lawrence, Robert Burton and Gertrude Bell.  Asad very nearly died of thirst while lost in the desert and was interned as an enemy alien by British authorities even though his entire family perished in the Holocaust.  His greatest contribution was a defining contemporary translation, The Message of the Qur’an (1980), into English.

The story of Asad’s conversion is moving.  He has returned to interwar Berlin from his latest journalistic exploits in the Near East and he is riding the Berlin U-Bahn with his wife.  They note the devastated expressions of their fellow citizens, the deep unhappiness of their lives etched on their faces.  There they decide to convert to a system of belief that appeared so much more humane and logical than what they had been raised in.

Who Speaks for Islam (2008) is a misleading title since this book, produced by Gallup and written by Dahlia Mogahed and John L. Esposito, is a very literal survey of what Muslims around the world think about belief, politics, and culture.  It is a study of a complex and plural community, but many clear common threads show through: the central importance of family, the rejection of political violence, the concerns about the erosion of traditional cultural norms, the necessity of belief guiding political choices and personal behavior.  These findings are not particularly dramatic and indeed could be mistaken for similar surveys in Europe and the United States.  But they are critical to understanding the community on its own terms rather than those forced on it by barbarians and xenophobes.

Memories of Muhammad (2008) by Omid Safi, is a kaleidoscopic examination of the legacy of the founder of Islam.  Safi argues it is impossible to understand the belief without understanding the man who promulgated it – much as Protestant Christians closely examine the life of Jesus Christ, he notes – in addition to how Muslims remember and honor the Prophet around the world.  In the clearest way I have read, Safi illuminates the history of Islam, the Sunni-Shia schism, Sufi mysticism, and even contemporary politics.  Born to Iranian parents in Florida, he displays in his home a devotional portrait of the prophet popular in Persian-speaking countries but considered taboo elsewhere – demonstrating the plural and dynamic nature of the community.

Safi by necessity acknowledges contemporary challenges – here he writes against the conventional orthodoxies of the “clash of civilizations” as well as Muslim Occidentalism – but significantly argues that the best way to combat religious strife is to argue for the alternative.  Like Adamjee, he wants to change the subject to what’s really important:  what real people believe and what belief means to them.  And by doing so, he is convinced that it is necessary to talk about and gain a better understanding of Islam and what Muslims believe, which is what the rest of us are just now coming around to.

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New Book Review: “Through a Screen Darkly”

I’m happy to post my review of Martha Bayles’ recent book on public diplomacy, Through a Screen Darklypublished this month in The Hague Journal of Diplomacy by Clingendael in The Netherlands.  The article is behind a pay wall but should be available in most libraries.

I take issue with Bayles’ central argument about the liability of American culture abroad. But I found much of her reportage and proposals to share commonality with arguments and observations I made in my own book. Moreover, Bayles’ book is an exhaustive overview of public diplomacy in the second decade after September 11, 2001.

I send my thanks to The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, Clingendael and especially editor Jan Melissen for agreeing to publish my review.

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To Slip the Surly Bonds of Earth

Not far outside Paris stands one of the many monuments to the almost innumerable dead of World War I. This one is not unusual marking the graves of the many Americans who fought and died on European soil during that conflict. But it is unique for the remarkable attributes of those who remain there: they are Americans who died serving France, not the United States. This is the monument to the Escadrille Lafayette, U.S. aviators who flew the skies over the Western front defending France against German imperial fighters before the United States entered the war in 1917.

The monument to the Escadrille Lafayette near Versailles.

In the post-WWII era of American preeminence we in the United States are accustomed to being “first to fight”. Although this feeling has changed after 13 years of war, it is still interesting, indeed jarring, to remember a time long ago when Americans were far more reluctant to entangle themselves abroad. The United States was dragged quite in spite of itself into both World Wars. So Americans who wanted to fight first — for personal, moral or ideological reasons — had to find other ways to get into combat.

Most famous among these, of course, were the irregular Lincoln Brigades in Spain prior to the outbreak of World War II. Famously socialist but cynically manipulated by Moscow, they were heroic but largely ineffective against Franco’s fascism. During the expanded war in Europe Americans more often than not joined the Canadian forces because it was easy to cross the border and volunteer. Americans especially joined the Royal Canadian Air Forces (RCAF). In fact, probably the most famous poem about flying ever written, “High Flight,” was composed by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., an American aviator with the RCAF.

More than 9,000 Americans joined the RCAF before the United States entered the war. Canada, as a dominion of the United Kingdom, fought on the side of the Allies following the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the United States did not join them until Pearl Harbor more than two years later. More than 840 Americans died in Canadian service.

Canada wasn’t the only country Americans served with. They also served with the British forces, particularly the Royal Air Force. Americans have joined the famous French Foreign Legion. (Americans of German descent also volunteered for the Wehrmacht, a fact dramatized by the excellent miniseries Band of Brothers — not mentioned in the book — and about which the less said the better.)

In this way, these Americans have much in common with the tens of thousands of colonial forces who volunteered or were press-ganged into service for the crown or Champs Elysees.  In both World Wars, all the imperial countries — France, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Germany — drew on colonial possessions in North and West Africa, Central Africa, South Asia, and East Africa respectively.

And these Americans, like many of the colonial forces, have been not recognized here at home as having lost their lives in the service of the United States. Presumably their families never received benefits from the United States government for their death, either. But as you can read in this Toronto Star article, their service is beginning to be recognized here at home.

It’s important to remember that many of these Americans saw what Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt did: the inevitability of war with Hitler and the unity of interest particularly with Great Britain and the Allies. As on American who served with the RCAF noted in a letter home during the war, he felt that his service with the Canadian forces was in the direct interest of the United States: “[T]here is no question of serving Canada to the neglect of my mother country. He who serves Great Britain or any of its Dominions also serves the U.S. and vice-versa. Our differences are in arbitrary boundary lines only.”

John Gillespie Magee (via Bomber Command Museum Canada)

Nevertheless the tragedy of war and lost youth that is an inevitable collateral of Memorial Day is all the more poignant when considering these young Americans who served, and died, in a noble cause so far from home and wearing the flag of a foreign nation. Magee is a special case in point. Happily, he is known by every pilot in the English-speaking world for one poem he wrote. But it is worth imagining what verse he might have contributed had he survived the war.  As it is he is buried in aptly named Lincolnshire, England. He died in a training accident having never seen combat. But he “touched the face of God” before he was even 20 years old.

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Russia and the Information Purification Directives

What we are witnessing in Russia and parts of Ukraine has been unprecedented since the consolidation of control after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 , (I hesitate with this historical analogy) the collapse of the Weimar Republic, and the occupation of Eastern Europe after World War II: the systematic centralization of the means of communication and the destruction of independent news media and civil society.

This has been long in coming as the Kremlin and its allies have steadily co-opted the press, attacked independent journalists, consolidated control of the Internetunified all organized “political” parties, brought petty prosecution against non-governmental organizations, harassed independent political actors, and persecuted those few remaining who dare raise their voice against the now-raging retrograde, unilithic nationalism sweeping over the country.

Taking all these actions together is a kind of inverted information warfare — a war on information, a purging of all wrongthink, of anything that doesn’t resolutely advance the official ideology of the Center. It’s important to remember the point to this war on information, which is to reinforce political control in the Kremlin. While the state has the means to do this, it is not an expression or exercise of genuine political power — it is a substitute, in the form of brute control, for it.

Observing these actions and watching their culmination, it was impossible, strangely, not to remember the brilliant advertisement for Macintosh broadcast in 1984 (see above). It’s worth quoting the ad’s copy in full (which can be found here, penned by Steve Hayden) which is chilling both in its pitch-perfect mimicry of totalitarian language and for its weird anticipation of the course of current events. We can almost imagine some crude translation of a transcript from a bug on Kremlin walls recording a recent conversation taking place therein:

“My friends, each of you is a single cell in the great body of the State. And today, that great body has purged itself of parasites. We have triumphed over the unprincipled dissemination of facts. The thugs and wreckers have been cast out. And the poisonous weeds of disinformation have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Let each and every cell rejoice! For today we celebrate the first, glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directive! We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology, where each worker may bloom secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths. Our Unification of Thought is a more powerful weapon than any fleet or army on Earth! We are one people. With one will. One resolve. One cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death. And we will bury them with their own confusion! We shall prevail!”

Of course, for the advertisement this was meant as an allegorical assault on the great IBM/Microsoft monopoly, but the “Information Purification Directive” could easily be a real mandate from the Duma — the assault on any source of information that does not conform to the Center’s dictation of Truth. “Our enemies shall talk themselves to death. And we will bury them with their own confusion.” This sounds like the pablum that authoritarian and totalitarian governments feed their people: don’t think, we’ll do that for you; the people of so-called free countries are enslaved and overwhelmed by the chaos and disorder of “freedom”. Forfeit the freedom of thought and moral action to us, the state, and in exchange we will take care of you.

While no doubt not all Russians are falling for this line again — let us remember, as even those who live and work in these countries have forgotten, that part of information monopoly is the absence of opposition and alternative narratives — it is amazing (though according to Czeslaw Milosz it should hardly be surprising) how many are signing up for it. See this video posted by Radio Free Europe where a Russian “journalist” — in fact, a paid stooge of the Kremlin, given that virtually all communications in the country are now controlled by state — equates all journalism to propaganda. It is an appalling prostitution of the human mind.

Many observers continue to insist that Vladmir Putin is concerned with international opinion, the position of Russia as a global actor, and the greater glory of his country. This is exactly inverted. His only concern is with Russian domestic opinion, which is the tiger he must ride lest it devour him. Consequently, the only way to change the course of events in Russia and Ukraine is to alter domestic Russian public opinion. (It is no coincidence that the Ukrainian separatists attacked TV stations to broadcast Russian state channels.) This is the challenge facing both the local opposition and anyone trying to help them — the ability to develop alternative narratives, communicate and organize — because all the available means to do so have been coopted and corrupted.

I’m not so naive to suggest this quarter-century-old advertisement provides a realistic model for political development in repressive states. But in its own strange way it goes some of the way to understand the challenge.

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“What Forever Stirs in the Human Heart”

I have been critical of President Barack Obama’s rhetoric on matters of war and peace, here and in my recent book. I respect and admire his ease, eloquence, and ability to communicate on virtually all other issues (“Between Two Ferns” was risky and unintuitive, but it is now clearly a contemporary masterstroke of political communications), but when it comes to matters of warfare, force and power he clearly struggles to articulate himself.

Not so in Belgium. Speaking first in Flanders, he captured the tragedy of the First World War while affirming European unity and transatlantic fidelity. Then, in this speech in Brussels, he rallied our allies again in the “battle of ideas” against the aggression of Russia in Crimea by taking on directly the sophistic arguments Moscow has made during recent weeks: that Crimea is no different from Iraq, or Kosovo, or Libya. No, he said, they are different, and here’s why: We actually stand for something. Russia is acting out of naked political interest. It was important not just for somebody to say that out loud, but for the President of the United States to say it. We used to say with more conviction that the office was the leader of the free world. It means something again given the sharp cynical shift in the Kremlin.

It is easy to overlook the symbolic importance of the speech’s location. Belgium is a small, bilingual country historically coveted and overrun by its neighbors. Its own domestic situation has been scrambled by the inability of the language communities (three if you count the German minority in the south) to get along. And yet Brussels hosts both NATO and the European Union, two of the most successful experiments in international comity ever attempted. The President’s themes, heightened in this capital, are subtly broadcast to Europe’s most recent bilingual hot-spot, now pawed by a covetous larger neighbor that once possessed it.

Given this context, we cannot deny the political nature of this speech. It was not simply a statement of abstract principles. It was designed to rally NATO Allies and partner countries to the United States in order to isolate and weaken the current leadership in Russia. In that, the speech uses the power of dozens of states in lieu of force as a bulwark against the violence, real or implied, threatened and applied, by Russia. Given the situation Russia is in — no longer the Soviet Union or leader of the Warsaw Pact, and surrounded by the cowed and abject neighbors of its near abroad — the country faces perhaps its most serious political and economic situation since the end of the Cold War.

It has been argued better by others that NATO’s military position remains strong against Russia. The flip side of the other coin of that argument is that NATO’s expansion has provoked Russia’s reaction. But that ignores how the West has included Russia in the G8, NATO, the OSCE, the WTO and other international organizations, accorded Russia the respect as an equal, all the while preserving peace, security and prosperity among a growing community of democratic nations.

Moreover, we must understand the choice that Russia — or any other country inside or outside the membership of NATO and the European Union — must make about war and peace.  The United States has fought many of its former Allies, with Russia, and yet the idea of fighting our friends today and war in Europe is considered an absurdity. The expansion of NATO and the European Union is an unmitigated good. It constantly pushes out the boundary of peace, security and prosperity. That community is for Russia’s taking if only its leadership made the choice to accept it.

Matters of war and peace are inherently political decisions like these. As the president made plain, they are not inevitable, driven by historical exigency, immutable racial hatred, or power dynamics.  As I have argued before, political decisions are moral choices, which means we are in control, always.

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Religion, politics, and public diplomacy

Today my interview with the Public Diplomacy Council — the association of retired US Information Agency and Foreign Service Officers involved in public diplomacy activities — was published online. I talked to Donald Bishop about my recent book and some other subjects of recent import in the arena of public diplomacy. I was especially pleased to be able to talk about religion and faith.

Once again I am happy to extend my sincere and great thanks to Don Bishop and the Public Diplomacy Council for publishing this interview.

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Some Dreamers of the Impossible Dream

The Church of St. John, Ohrid, Macedonia (via The Guardian)

With nods to George KennanJoan Didion, and Cervantes, enjoy this excerpt from my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy about an extraordinary visit I made to Macedonia in 2006 published in The Foreign Service Journal.

Although I wrote this many months (even years) ago, the article is particularly apropos given very recent events in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It documents the activities many young people in the region are making to turn toward each other and articulate a new future for themselves and their countries.

Once again I send my sincere thanks to the editors of The Foreign Service Journal for agreeing to publish this article.

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