Smith-Mundt Retool is Great News for Voice of America

Ronald Reagan spoke often through VOA during his presidency (via Alvin Snyder, no relation)

The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act recently went into effect, which has public diplomacy wonks and civil liberties experts worried about the loosening of the 1948 law that both established the Voice of America (VOA) and limited its ability to “propagandize” American citizens. (They may have forgotten for a moment that just as quietly the Defense Department began making available its own Armed Forces Network broadcasts on the Pentagon Channel, available now to most cable providers.)

But this domestic access is great news for the Voice of America, the embattled foreign broadcast arm of the U.S. government. Because now that American broadcasters, cable networks and satellite dish service providers – and who knows, Hulu? – can have access to VOA shows, the Voice will at last be able to build a domestic audience. And with that, a political constituency, which is critical to how the broadcaster survives and flourishes.

For those not familiar with the Smith-Mundt Act, the law established the Voice of America and several affiliated “grantee” entities – eventually Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio/TV Martí, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network – after World War II under the U.S. Information Service to broadcast news and commentary to parts of the world that either lacked a robust press or whose press was completely controlled by their governments. It is a sad state of affairs that VOA is still needed after the Cold War. But as a result it has a devoted audience of tens of millions around the world. In fact, in reach and languages, VOA and its contact affiliates, VOA rivals the BBC. The Broadcasting Board of Governors puts its audience at 203 million weekly in more than 45 languages.

But for those who know and love the BBC for its programming (I’m thinking of you, Downton Abbey fans), and were delighted to hear the BBC World Service on AM radio while abroad, there the similarities end. The BBC is virtually a media monopoly in Great Britain, and its foreign broadcasting arm takes full advantage of that position. VOA, on the other hand, is not even a foreign extension of PBS or NPR (themselves wholly independent 501(c)(3)s funded indirectly, and in part, by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), and which hardly have the enviable position in the United States that the BBC has in the United Kingdom. But in this context, the VOA’s achievement abroad is all the more extraordinary.

Unfortunately, because it has no domestic presence, the Voice has virtually no public exposure – and as a result, no one willing to fight for it – in the United States. As an example, when I visited VOA headquarters in Washington as a tourist last year, I joined a group that included an American family from New England – NPR affiliate broadcasters, no less – and an Iranian-American couple who brought their in-laws from Tehran to visit. The New Englanders were hazily familiar with the Voice. The Iranian/American family were huge fans, particularly of VOA’s “Daily Show”-like weekly broadcast “Parazit”. This was the young couple’s third visit to the headquarters. If anyone would go to the mat for VOA, it would be the visitors from Iran. But they don’t have a vote in Congress.

State-side broadcasting could build that kind of fan base – a domestic, voting constituency – for the Voice in the United States. With more people watching and invested in VOA’s mission and programming, more resources will be in the offing. And with that, any concern about “propagandizing” will evaporate as well. The Voice has never been a propaganda outlet – it hires the best journalists in the world, and its reportorial mandate is above reproach – and it couldn’t give the BBC such a run for its money if it were. Anyway, an American audience would sniff out propaganda right away. But especially for the growing immigrant communities in the United States, who crave news from the old country, the Voice will provide them information they have a hard time coming by. That investment will help keep the Voice relevant and strong amid the increasing din of rumor and hearsay that constitutes international news coverage.


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.


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 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:

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.”


Coming in October: “The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy”

9780230390706I’m pleased to announce that Palgrave Macmillan USA will publish my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy in October 2013.

Based on my six years’ experience in public diplomacy at NATO and more than 15 years in strategic and political communications, Challenge explores the experience of public diplomacy and makes recommendations for improving American PD policy and practice.

Importantly, the book focuses on practice as the critical ground to cover — the “last three feet” in the words of Edward R. Murrow — in order for our public diplomacy to succeed. I look at not just the traditional modes of public diplomacy such as educational exchange, cultural engagement and international broadcasting but propose launching an arts restoration initiative, reforming military communications, expanding the definition of public opinion, reconsidering the Internet, and partnering with civil society.

I’ll launch the book with Palgrave Macmillan when it’s published but I hope you’ll look for it when it’s on book shelves and online after the summer.


What The Washington Post gets wrong about The Daily Show in China

The April 9 Washington Post ran this blog post by Max Fisher about the unprecedented  number of video viewings in China of a recent Daily Show segment on North Korea. (You can watch the original clip Daily Show clip here. I’m having trouble embedding.)

The Chinese web portal Sina reposted the segment, importantly with subtitles, racking up more than three million views (and counting) – more than any other Daily Show segment short of a 2008 bit about Sarah Palin.

Unfortunately Fisher draws exactly the wrong conclusion about Chinese public opinion and viewing habits based on this single data point. He suggests that the surge in popularity indicates the average Chinese citizen’s frustration with the country’s belligerent ally, and insinuates a popular divergence from official foreign policy supporting North Korea and its young leader, Kim Jong-Un.

This is far too much to draw from this incident. Fisher is first of all comparing China’s viewership to the Daily Show’s normal audience, which is mostly American and at 300 million its fullest potential is almost a quarter the size of China’s population. Also, a cursory glance at the Sina site shows that the most popular segment on the site has views of nearly twice The Daily Show’s segment at around six million views. (I would nonetheless discount some comments in Fisher’s thread that three million views is a tiny slice of China’s population because that is not a statistically relevant or sound measure of the Chinese population in any event. It can only be measured against other views.)

But most important, Fisher provides no context or public opinion data for his assertion that this viewership represents a particular rancor about a specific policy. In a country where corruption, pollution, economic inequality, poverty, censorship, arbitrary seizures and state surveillance are pervasive, China’s policy toward its small, pugilistic neighbor cannot rank very high in public concern.  It is not even clear from the Sina site that the Chinese people are even particularly well-informed on this issue. (If China’s English propaganda mouthpiece, China Daily, is any measure, the government has not spoken often or very directly about the mounting crisis in North Korea recently.)

So why is The Daily Show segment suddenly so popular? The important context to understand this phenomenon is the Sina site itself, China’s great Firewall, and the government’s total control of all media, including the Internet, inside the country. This segment was not posted freely – that is, it was posted for a reason – but that doesn’t make its existence in China any less interesting or exciting. Another cursory glance at the Sina site makes The Daily Show stand out even more: this is satire – cutting, anti-authoritarian satire – in a country that brooks no political dissent.

Given that context, Jon Stewart practically explodes off the Chinese web. Against the drab greys of state propaganda, The Daily Show contrasts in psychedelic Technicolor. This is the Web-TV equivalent of stumbling across jazz in 1960s Moscow or rock’n’roll in 1970s Prague. The Daily Show perfectly captures what’s missing in a society where the government dominates all creative and political expression.

That is why this segment is so popular: it is so unusual in a country that normally does not tolerate questioning of authority, much less mocking it. Fisher gets this very wrong, and it is important that we don’t draw the wrong conclusions about what the Chinese people think and know and feel.


They Like Us, They REALLY Like Us

(Map based on Gallup data,

A recent report by Gallup based on a two-year rolling survey in 154 countries places the United States as the number one immigrant destination in the world.

Based on Gallup’s data, 138 million people worldwide would voluntarily leave their country to immigrate to the United States. If that happened, it would increase the American population by 46 percent. The number of people expressing a desire to immigrate to the United States is triple the number desiring to immigrate to the next most-desired immigrant destination, Great Britain. This is a stunning rebuttal of anti-Americanism, cultural and political, as seen in other surveys.

Unfortunately the data set released by Gallup is only a small piece of what the company holds relating to global opinion relating to the intent to immigrate. This is an important piece of opinion because it closes the ground between global public opinion about the United States and actual public practice.  An example of what I’m talking about — which will be more fully examined in my forthcoming book — is demonstrated in the partial data set Gallup released. Gallup lists, among others, the “likeliest” US-bound immigrants to originate from China, India and Brazil, in that order (among others) — that is, three of the self-styled most dynamic economies in the world. Based on Gallup’s data, 1.5 percent of the Chinese population would leave China for the United States, not including other destinations. To fill out the BRICs, I would like to see the numbers on Russia — which has faced a duel problem of population decline and emigration increase — where much official and semi-official anti-American sentiment has originated.

As a friend (I met the report’s author, Jon Clifton, as part of my work for NATO) I would question the data on China and Iran. The Gallup reports low desire among Iranians to immigrate to the United States. This may be artificially low in part because most of those who wanted to immigrate and could have already left (an estimated 1.2 million Iranians live in the United States alone, representing about 1.6 percent of Iran’s population) and because of the fraught political state of the country. It may simply not be safe for Iranians to offer anything other than officially approved anti-American opinions to anyone. While China is probably less strictly policed politically, I would suggest the same conditions apply there. It’s probably higher than it already is.

The most politically interesting and contentious data sets, therefore, are those not released publicly by Gallup so far — e.g., Cuba, Venezuela, Belarus, and Russia (see map, above). I recognize the desire for Gallup to monetize its surveys. But in the interest of American public diplomacy, I would ask Gallup to release the entire data set relating to international immigration. We can only learn more from it.


Bosnian Culture is World Culture: March 4 is Global Museum Solidarity Day

Outside the Kunsthaus in Graz, Austria. (CULTURESHUTDOWN)

Today more than 200 museums, galleries and libraries in nearly 40  countries on five continents symbolically closed exhibits in solidarity with seven closed and threatened cultural institutions in Bosnia-Herzegovina. More than 20 galleries and universities in North America, 50 in Croatia alone, two score across Western Europe, and more across the Middle East, Russia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and beyond are demonstrating their support this month for their brother and sister institutions that survived the war of the 1990s only to confront ruin by political neglect in the Bosnian federal parliament.

Museum of Contemporary Art, The Rocks, Australia - remembering Babylon #5

Museum of Contemporary Art, The Rocks, Australia (CULTURESHUTDOWN)

You can hear my friend Jasmin Mujanovic speaking to the CBC’s As It Happens about the crisis in Bosnia threatening the cultural institutions (in English). You can watch my friend Prof. Azra Aksamija speaking to Al Jazeera here (in Bosnian).

Pour nos amis francophones, voici un blog Le Monde. C’est un peu court, mais je travail dur pour le changer. Ecrivez Le Monde, France24 ou les autres medias pour nous aider!

Of course, please visit our CULTURESHUTDOWN site to join the conversation about how we can change the circumstances in Sarajevo.


The Subjective Political

Republican supporters console one another on election night in Las Vegas. (David Becker/Getty Images via The Guardian)

While virtually everything to be said about the recent presidential election has been said, it may help rein in the unseemly round of Democratic schadenfreude to suggest it wasn’t too long ago they were in the same position as the Republicans: specifically, that they went into the election convinced they would win and were genuinely shocked when they lost.

It’s not popular, and hardly analogous, to compare George W. Bush to Barack Obama, but the hostile partisan reactions to the incumbent were essentially the same. The policies of their first terms were considered so unpopular by the opposition party that they just had to lose, and all right-thinking, reasonable Americans would recognize this and limit him to one term. It was this sense of despair that the majority of Americans didn’t think the same way that really was palpable among Democrats in 2004 and Republicans this year — not just of real hopes dashed but that either they themselves or the American people had been somehow misled.

In the case of George W. Bush, it was about the war in Iraq. For Barack Obama, take your pick: the economy, the debt, immigration, etc. For those partisans opposing the incumbent, they felt that the question was so obvious — the weakness so clear — that any voter would have to side with them and vote him out of office.  But they didn’t.  Why?

Part of that may have something to do with swiftboating and the Rovian notion that most voters are already aware of the weaknesses of the candidates and vote based on some other interest. Certainly much of it has to do with how the campaigns are run, and how much money is involved. A firm Electoral College strategy helps narrow these issues down as well, too.  Iraq had a lot less of an impact in traditionally “red” states, particularly those with large military bases in 2004, for example, and Gov. Mitt Romney’s early dismissal of the GM rescue was death in Ohio this year.

But it also depends on how much Americans really care about these issues.  This leads me to a new exploration of what I haven’t discussed before about what we mean by “political“. When we use the term political, we’re often talking about the subjective, an ineffable balance of value we place on concerns of moral import. Not everything can be as important to us as others, without dismissing everything else.  This is the reason why we give to the charities we choose, volunteer for the organizations we do, and — ultimately — vote for the candidates we vote for. Not every candidate perfectly meets our checklist of priorities, but he or she is more likely to meet most of them, or get close to most of them, and more likely conforms to our values for the rest. Our political judgment thus rests on a subjectivity of value that is more subtle than simply ticking a box (although that’s what voting demands of us).

In this last election, which saw the quantitative methods in evaluating and assessing voter behavior elevated to a very high profile, it’s important to recognize that even these subjective (one is tempted to say analog) values can be captured with increasing digital detail and granularity. Much of this data is in the public domain, but far more — exponentially more — is captured by private firms and the major campaigns. This information is used to gauge and drive voter behavior. I’m not inclined to find that particularly sinister since marketeers derive billions in sales with essentially the same information, and consumers willingly part with this kind of information online through Facebook and with every Amazon purchase.

And it’s important to know that that subjective information is dynamic, fluid, and constantly changing. No better evidence of that is the fact that the top issue of the 2004 campaign was Iraq, while in 2012 it was the economy.  But, importantly, that’s not to say it necessarily effected the election outcome.

This is a very long and complicated way of saying that that people think differently about different things and hold different values about different things, and feel more strongly about those things than other people do. That’s obvious. But it’s worth repeating.  Because if we didn’t, we’d all be the same, and being different is what makes us human. Specifically to this discussion, we wouldn’t have politics without that difference, and politics is how we mediate those differences. We’ve learned from terrible experience that countries insisting that everyone is or should be the same become apolitical killing fields.


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.