“We have met the enemy and he is us”

(Walt Kelly, via Language Log, University of Pennsylvania)

Attending a conference of public diplomacy professionals and academics last week at the U.S. State Department, a particular comment made by a participant during one of the main sessions struck me. He described the positive outcome of a recent YES Program exchange from Indonesia (if memory serves) with the students describing to him their delight in learning that Americans are not as violent, profane and promiscuous as they have been led to believe from U.S. television and movie exports to their country. Given the small scale of the YES Program (hundreds of secondary students each year) competing with the Hollywood juggernaut, he came to the unavoidable, pessimistic conclusion cribbed from Walt Kelly: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

The most depressing aspect of this observation was not that he was necessarily right but that it passed without comment or rebuttal from the audience made up of diplomats, academics, policy-makers and students of public diplomacy. That is, his opinion — that American culture is a political weakness and strategic liability — has become the fixed, conventional wisdom of the governing class.

This is as dangerous and backwards as it is also plainly wrong. The obvious shame and embarrassment many of our diplomats, scholars and others share about our culture — which hundreds of millions of real people consume and enjoy around the world without coercion — demonstrate an elitism that blinds them to what is in fact a strategic asset. And it keeps them from recognizing and harnessing an extraordinary delivery vehicle for American culture, values and democracy, a mechanism feared and repressed by regimes we stand against.

A glance at the Pew Global Attitudes Project demonstrates, at the very least, profound diversity of opinion about the United States, Americans, American culture, and American values. These opinions do not always appear to jibe, but they are not uniformly low. The pleasure that people get from American film and television is remarkably high, and even in those countries that suggest fewer enjoy our movies and shows, they include a solid minority — suggesting a cultural debate is fermenting there.

These numbers are worth examining in detail. Like all public opinion, they are dynamic and subject to the particular socio-political environment in which they are taken. Pakistan, for example, is directly affected by the neighboring war in Afghanistan, U.S. drone strikes, and American rapprochement with India. Opinion towards the United States in Turkey has taken a bad hit since the war with Iraq and is only slowly recovering. Israel feels strong cultural affinity for the United States as an ally. And so on.

But the larger frustration I felt, as I kept my arm aloft trying to rebut during the session last week, was the point that Hollywood is a platform and megaphone, arguably the largest and loudest in the world. Holding it at a contemptuous distance ignores the potential of working with the Dream Factory to tell stories we want to share with the world. As I have written in my book, when Hollywood authentically captures or broadcasts a foreign culture to international audiences, that faithfulness redounds to our benefit. Why shouldn’t we try to influence how that is done? The Pentagon does.

During the conference last week, participants of all stripes lauded the Jazz Ambassadors and jazz broadcasts via Voice of America during the Cold War over and over again. Did they think America jazz represented this promiscuous, profane, and violent culture? Of course not. But the countries to which those broadcasts and programs were aimed certainly did. Which is why they claimed then that jazz was as poisonous as chemical weapons. Or, more recently, that Disneyland was as radioactive as Chernobyl.


Now Available: The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy

SnyderFinalToday my latest book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy, is available from Palgrave Macmillan.  It can be ordered from Amazon.com, the publisher, or from any book store in your neighborhood.

The Challenge of Public Diplomacy is based on my years working in the Public Diplomacy Division on NATO’s International Staff and brings the crucial experience of a public affairs practitioner crossing the last three feet every day to the important discussion of policy — a perspective I feel is all too often missing and is the primary reason why I wrote this book.

I relate my personal experience to illuminate the proposals I make in the book, which include deconflicting military public affairs and information operations, expanding our international arts portfolio, liberating U.S. international broadcasting, reforming language education, expanding our understanding of international public opinion, and taking a more aggressive approach with our political detractors.

As I’ve used this site to write about public diplomacy, I’ll continue to expand (and likely correct) my proposals, so please return often for updates. Feel free, too, to contact me by e-mail (in “About,” above) or through the comment forms, below. I look forward to hearing from you.


Along the 30th Parallel: What NPR Gets Wrong about Public Opinion and Foreign Aid

NPR’s new headquarters (NPR)

A recent blog post by Greg Myre on NPR’s web site (“Which Nations Hate the U.S.? Often Those Receiving the Most Aid,” July 23) is a typical example of reporting on international public opinion. Myre attempts to correlate a Pew Research Center report on foreign opinion of the United States and a U.S. government site listing our foreign assistance contributions. It’s amisleading piece of work, although not immediately clear on its face, inclined to do more harm than good, more obscuring than illuminating. Myre is an established reporter with Middle East bona fides and should know better.

To give an example of why Myre’s argument is so farcical, I’ll demonstrate how an analogous argument has a higher rate of correlation yet proves exactly nothing – which is only slightly better than I can say for Myre. Myre correlates the “high” U.S. foreign assistance rates for a series of countries, in particular Egypt and Pakistan, with our abysmal public approval ratings in those countries (in the case of the Pew report contrasting to China). So far, so good – we gave Egypt about $1.5 billion mostly in military aid and have a 15 percent approval rating to show for it. Similarly, our public approval ratings in contrast to China don’t show so well for foreign assistance above $1 billion in countries like Pakistan. The only country that has a high approval rating of the United States, and received $3 billion, is Israel.

But my equally arbitrary measure has a higher rate of correlation: every country that receives more than $1 billion in U.S. assistance – and includes Myre’s Jordan and Palestine, which receive around a half-billion dollars – falls along the 30thparallel, including Israel. Clearly, the United States has some sort of vital interest along this region of the world and is willing to spend whatever it takes to secure it. In the politics of international aid, the 30th parallel could be called the One Billion Dollar Parallel.

My correlation is absurd, of course. But so is Myre’s. Because correlating real dollars against public opinion percentages is ridiculous when we are measuring 1) vastly different economies and populations as well as 2) greatly different political contexts. For example, Israel and the United States are close allies. Public opinion of the United States is strong in Israel. In the case of Pakistan and the United States, China is considered by Pakistan as a bulwark against the latter’s primary enemy, India. Myre cited aid to and abysmal approval ratings in Egypt, the Palestinian territories and Jordan, all of which have very specific histories with our ally Israel which must surely outweigh a few billion dollars – never mind the fact that when the Egyptian army arrested President Muhammad Morsi, American-built M-1 tanks and M-113 APCs rolled through city streets to assert control. Egyptians know very well what $1.5 billion in U.S. aid buys them.

And these numbers look very different in Africa, where the United States is popular. Former President George W. Bush poured billions of dollars into AIDS/HIV relief on the continent, and the public opinion in those countries reflect that. Look at South Africa, Ghana and Uganda in the Pew poll. Both Uganda and South Africa received more than $400 million from the United States, but they don’t quite fit Myre’s thesis.

At the same time, Myre doesn’t even try to examine what China gives to any of these countries – probably because China gives hardly anything. China is exploiting many of the countries in Africa for raw materials, and delivering shoddy infrastructure in return.

It is beyond my mathematics ability, as well as my patience, to put together a complete matrix that would more accurately capture what you could expect to get in public opinion for every American aid dollar. That is clearly the implication of Myre’s article. You would have to zero out each economy and population, as well as aid and public approval rating, and compare those numbers as a common denominator or baseline measure.

Let’s try this admittedly crude measure…

(Real dollar aid / GDP ) x (population x public approval rating %) = baseline

…and compare Egypt and Israel for the sake of illustration. Just inputting the numbers into my equation demonstrates the absurdity of correlating aid spending to public opinion:

Egypt: ($1,559,300,000 / $548,800,000,000) x (85,294,388 x 16 %) = 27,294

Israel: ($3,100,000,000 / $252,800,000,000) x (7,707,042 x 83 %) = 76,762

(Population and GDP figures are taken from the CIA World Factbook. Aid figures and public opinion drawn from the sites listed above.)

In other words, using these baselines, for slightly less than double the real dollar investment in aid to Egypt, we get nearly triple the “return” per dollar in aid to Israel. But putting this into such a stark numeric contrast further heightens the outlandishness of trying to make these kinds of comparisons and correlations. We don’t really expect a “return” on aid. Assistance for disease eradication doesn’t get a “return” – it cures people. Economic aid to an emerging former communist country is entirely different from aid given to a country recovering from a natural disaster, or aid to a war-ravaged Central Asian nation. And so on.

Moreover, even with a baseline, it is ridiculous to compare these countries. Egypt is not Israel. Nigeria is not Pakistan. South Africa is not Afghanistan. We give more or less aid to some countries because the challenges or politics they present are unique or particular to them. Aid is political – what we think we should be doing – and doesn’t necessarily follow the laws of economy or business. That’s why it’s aid.

In short, we give aid to achieve specific political objectives in a specific political context. And more often than people might think, we give aid simply to do the right thing. If a billion and a half dollars buys us influence with the Egyptian army, and with that we can constrain their action and keep the country from becoming Syria, who is to say that isn’t worth the cost?


12 Articles on Public Diplomacy Practice

In the spirit of T.E. Lawrence I published a feature article on public diplomacy practice in the summer 2013 issue of USC’s Public Diplomacy Magazine. You can read the article online here or download the pdf version.

A previous interview with PD Magazine in the Summer 2009 edition is available here.

I extend my sincere thanks to the editors at Public Diplomacy Magazine for accepting and publishing my article.


An Assault on Joseph Nye, Part Three: Keeping It Real

U.S. Air Force C-130 drops relief supplies over Kenya, June 2010 (U.S. Department of Defense)

In my previous two posts, I’ve argued how the hard power/soft power Hobson’s Dichotomy of Joseph Nye fails at the level of language and on the level of theory. Here I will contend that Nye’s very popular international relations theory also fails as a predictive, policy or practical theoretical standard. In short, it simply cannot anticipate, nor accurately reflect, actions taken by states in the real world. This is the quintessential yardstick of international relations theory, and it fails by any reasonable standard.

Nye works especially well in the academic world, where his bifurcated nomenclature provides two big classification buckets to throw theory into. So we see dozens of papers and conference presentations that categorize what does or does not constitute hard or soft power solutions to all the world’s problems. But those who actually work to solve those problems never use these terms. “Soft power”per se doesn’t help the U.N. in Congo, or get power to Kabul, or end the war in Syria, or set up a government in South Sudan, or reduce CO2 emissions, or end AIDS, or eliminate piracy.

But Brazilian peacekeepers can, and so can plugging into the Uzbekistan power grid, or threatening a no-fly zone, or issuing USAID good governance contracts, or implementing Europe-wide carbon-trading, or spending on a massive scale to bring down drug prices, and deploying naval vessels to escort commercial vessels. In other words, States use modalities – means, tools, usually people and things – to exercise power over other states and non-state actors.  And good theory will more accurately predict which of these modalities will be employed to solve these various problems. Nye’s theory, while primarily prescriptive, simply can’t do this job.

Nye places enormous and undue faith in “soft” implements that cajole and convince adversaries and reluctant allies alike. But he conflates the individual elements of national power – aid, diplomacy, national forces or strategic communications – while fetishizing the rather mundane modalities of international politics with a kind of sorcerer’s magic.

In a normal diplomatic parley, for example, all of these tools would be either arranged or arrayed for maximum advantage over the interlocutor. The most powerful negotiator is the one with the most tools in play, the one who can give the most away for the maximum national interest in exchange. An excellent example of this was the perpetual sticking point over the reduction or elimination of strategic nuclear forces between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States kept missile defense off the table and the Soviets, who were convinced this would lead to a consumptive new  arms race, refused to enter into an agreement. In other words, the U.S. had something the Soviet Union wanted, so the long-term advantage went to the United States which, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, kept missile defense and negotiated START with Russia and the post-Soviet successor states anyway.

From a strictly theoretical standpoint, it’s not even entirely clear whether this would be an execution of hard or soft power. Missile defense as articulated in the 1980s was merely an idea. But it was an idea that cut to the heart of the problem in the Soviet Union, which was an economy that spent an estimated 25 percent of its GDP (perhaps higher) on defense; in effect the Soviet economy was building tanks to feed itself. Gorbachev knew he could never drive perestroika toward a consumer economy unless he could reduce defense spending and the military’s control over resources. Missile defense guaranteed an indefinite arms race and virtually unlimited control over the Soviet economy by the military. There was nothing soft about the American threat at all, or its effect on 200 million Soviet subjects, for as abstract as missile defense seemed at the time.

Most middle-power states – which defines virtually all of America’s allies along with the BRICs – view diplomacy not as a “soft” means to influence other countries but as a deadly serious business, a zero-sum gambit where the national interest reigns paramount. There is nothing to give away; no effort is sacrificed to advance or protect sovereign needs or rights. This is effectively war by other means because, with the national interest so thinly protected, there is very little else worth fighting for. It is a very hard business with high risks and very little margin for error.

Under these circumstances, only a very rich and powerful country like the United States can afford to be “soft” – that is, giving, charitable and big. Our allies enjoy American generosity and, quite contrary to their public portrayal, work hard to match it in their own ways.  But our adversaries, at least at the government level, are not influenced by our generosity or charity. They do not understand it because they simply cannot, under any circumstances, afford to give something away without an equally valuable quid pro quo.  At worst, they see our generosity as a weakness or a threat; more usually it is viewed with incomprehension or just drunk up like free booze at the company Christmas party: the only  people dumber than those giving it away are those not drinking. In any event, this “soft” aspect of our national power is not nearly as influential with governments – and may in fact be far more detrimental – than Nye maintains.

I’ll admit that this discussion does not address the real locus of power, which is public opinion, and I am strongly inclined to believe that the moral aspects of generosity, charity, bigness and support do go far to help sway the public.  (Indeed, one of the most frustrating points I had to argue when I worked overseas was that contrary to public misperception, Americans are the most generous people in the world in real and per capita terms.  That people think the opposite is the result of perhaps the most successful whisper campaign ever mounted.) That will always help us in the long run, particularly in repressive states like Russia, China and Iran that lie to its people about us to maintain control. But Nye’s theory functions in the existing state system, more or less, and that is where we must leave it. That is also where it fails.


An Assault on Joseph Nye, Part Two: “Power and Violence are Opposites”

“Down with Milosevic!”, Belgrade, 1999 (via BBC)

In a previous discussion, I attacked Joseph Nye’s “soft power/hard power” theory at the level of language, effectively calling his terms unclear and mealy-mouthed substitutes for clearer, more precise terms we can use like force and coercion, sanctions or diplomacy. Nye has made international relations theory less clear and transparent for the application of his two terms and I tried to reverse that trend with my own replacements.

At the same time, Nye’s ideas don’t work as theory, either. Nye has offered a Hobson’s Dichotomy, a false choice that doesn’t exist in the real world. A Hobson’s Dichotomy poses us with two falsely opposed choices that may not offer a solution to the problem set. That is what soft and hard power effectively presents us. It is a trick of language that also gives us an untrue sense of mastering reality. The reality of international politics is far too complex for that. To put this simply: as a Hobson’s Dichotomy, Nye’s idea is a narrows that squeezes out rather than includes alternative or opposing means to achieve political change.

In political reality, decision-makers don’t choose from one quiver labeled “soft power” and another labeled “hard power” when taking action. If their judgment is keen, they look for the best tools available to them to achieve the most desirable outcome. If they are lucky, and their country is truly powerful (like ours), they will have a wide variety of means available to apply to what will be a unique, complicated, and dynamically evolving situation and environment.

Nye’s theoretical failure goes beyond the toolkit available to decision-makers. “Soft power” fails to take into account civil society, international movements, and faith groups. For Nye, there is nothing like the Roman Catholic Church, Islam, or Buddhism.  For Nye, there is nothing like the Freeze, or the Civil Rights Movement, or the Color Revolutions, or the Arab Spring.  Each of these has had profound international political effects – in other words, by his own definition they are powerful — but they simply can’t be accounted for by Nye’s political theory.

What makes these movements all the more interesting – and possible – is the flow of information, inspiration and support across borders. There would have been no revolution against Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia without Solidarity, and there would have been no uprising in Tunisia without Serbia, and no Cairo without Tunisia. To Nye, this does not account for soft power, or any kind of power for that matter, because it is not enabled by a state — even though these movements peacefully changed the means of government and the norms for governing in more than a dozen countries.

Boston, April 15 (via The Telegraph)

Nye’s theory also fails to account for terrorism. He dispenses with terrorism as “depending on soft power” (my emphasis) without defining terrorism per se as either hard (force) or soft (as I have defined it before, power qua power). Reading between the lines, then, Nye’s theory cannot really accommodate terrorism: it simply does not belong in Nye’s universe.

If we take most observers’ understanding that terrorism is a tool of the weak – a meansof  the un-powerful – even if they are state-sponsored — then terrorism falls away from this discussion entirely. Nye may get partial credit for recognizing terrorism requires other tools to succeed, but it is not a tool of power or the powerful in and of itself. Nye’s theory of two “buckets” does not have enough room for either political movements or terrorism — which pretty much defines the political dynamism of the previous decade.

An effective theory of power will take into account terrorism and the power wielded by ordinary people through collective action, whether in faith groups, civil society, or international movements. Power, in the end, is mass, and mass can really be found in the minds of millions or billions of individual human beings. Only military theorists really understand the importance of this collective mind in political affairs, and even then the American military tradition has been slow or loath to understand the relationship of the public to the political.

Clausewitz for example wrote about the “moral forces” in war affecting public opinion as “among the most important”. T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) wrote about “the crowd in action,” dating the phenomenon back to ancient Greek warfare. David Galula, writing about insurgency, noted that the guerrilla could “still win” with “no positive policy” but “good propaganda” — that is, directly influencing the population. David Petraeus, drawing off all these shrewd observations, argued that military communications could be the “decisive logical line of operation” by communicating directly with the public in counterinsurgency operations.

We still struggle to understand the motivations and goals of terrorism. The attack on the Boston Marathon is the most recent expression of this ambivalence, but almost daily bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan should remind us of the continuing struggle as well. Theoretically we wrestle to understand whether terrorism is an effective political weapon.

Nonetheless as a theoretical matter it should be clear terrorism is violence, not force, and  as a practical measure it should be clear that terrorism is a tool of the weak, that it leverages political entities that are not as powerful when measured against the mass movements outlined above. Hannah Arendt has written precisely that “power and violence are opposites”. This is probably the most mordant indictment of Nye’s theory, since it quite simply excludes terrorism from any consideration by Nye. It fully supports my contention that Nye’s theory constitutes not an expansive analysis of power but an exclusive narrows.

The real pain extracted from bombings or mass attacks can mitigate that inherent weakness. Violence can, on a macabre balance sheet, equate to political power but only if state authorities or the public mind are willing to allow it. Still, as violence, terrorism is only relegated to simply another tool – like economic sanctions, or diplomacy – which states or non-state actors use to affect international affairs.  This by no means justifies terrorism, but it does account for the practice. So far, that is more than what Joseph Nye can do.


An Intellectual Assault on Joseph Nye: Part One

Joseph Nye’s theory and advocacy of “soft power,” articulated in the early 1990s and developed during the last 15 years, have been a touchstone for virtually anyone studying or writing about international relations. It’s been impossible, particularly, to write about public diplomacy without having to throw it obligatorily into the custom-made “soft power” box that Nye built. In summary, Nye believes the fundamental aspects of effective power are changing; that this has become more “soft” in recent decades; and for the United States to remain dominant in global affairs it must adapt to wielding this “soft power” more effectively.

I’ve long found Nye’s theory troublesome but it took me some time to understand why. I don’t think he understands power, force and coercion and the nuance of their employment in foreign affairs. The strange dichotomy of “soft power” versus “hard power” long bothered me because it seemed to try to articulate something very complex by using mutually complementary contrasts, like trying to describe a Picasso using only “light blue” and “dark blue”.

What follows is the first in a series of assaults on Nye’s theory. By assault I mean I intend to take territory and to replace what I hope to destroy in the process.

I’ll start from a position of strength: Nye’s theory fails at the level of language. Briefly put, the “soft power/hard power” paradigm clutters more than it clarifies. In an attempt to provide a simple differentiating factor between aspects of national power, Nye has only blurred important distinctions beyond measure.

The absurdity of Nye’s apparent dichotomy is inherent in the words he applies, which pairs opposing modifiers to the same underlying object; specifically, he discusses power which may be “hard” or “soft”. To give a sense of what I mean, we may as well be using “More Power” and “Not-Power” or “Less Power” for all the additional clarity his distinction brings. There is a whiff of Orwellian Newspeak to this. Orwell’s 1984 philologist Syme would have liked “soft power”: Why try to articulate or describe this in more precise language when “power” and a modifier (“smart” comes to mind) serve the purpose just as well? The result, as Orwell has argued elsewhere, defeats complex thought.

This is no post-modern critique. It demonstrates at a practical level the problem of the language involved. What should bring more clarity makes this subject more obscure because it begs the question of what, exactly, power is (a specific point I hope to bring up in a later post). And in this case – which damns Nye the most in my eyes – he is willing to acknowledge that “hard power” is the equivalent of force but then won’t simply use the term, which is much more precise and accurate. But also inconvenient. When is hard power not force? When it’s paired with soft power. Which in turn is what, exactly?

In short, Nye’s language obfuscates. It refuses to name what we are really talking about, which is power and force. When we use language like this, it is far more clear what we are discussing. True power is not attractive, as Nye posits, it is conductive, and can for example include a wide array of (painful) economic and diplomatic tools. The full array of national power includes the organized, destructive and denying tools of military and paramilitary violence. Force can be coercive, punitive and destructive – aspects Nye strangely ignores in his description of power.

And that explains the false comfort we find in “soft power,” which as we will see here is not very soft at all. Nye makes quite a case for attracting and convincing countries, but that is simply another way of talking about diplomacy. Nations talking to one another can come to agreements based on mutual interests or previously unknown commonalities. In addition to forgetting this plain fact of international political history, Nye ignores the nuanced realities of foreign relations, which can also resemble parliamentary “horse-trading” — the barter in trade of deals that have been the staple of international diplomacy for centuries. (Most countries today see America’s ability to give away something for nothing as idiocy, not benevolence. The rest of the world simply can’t afford that kind of charity without an explicit quid pro quo.)

But beyond that we are talking about coercive if nominally peaceful means, non-violent tools that are powerful nonetheless. Coercion short of force can be almost as destructive as warfare and certainly as disruptive. We need look no further than the collapsing economies of the European Union and the power of the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund (for some) and the stronger economies (Germany foremost) have to wield over them to reform. This is simple power and there is nothing soft about it for the people living under it.

Nye has carved out an advantage for himself, of course, by wrapping up virtually every non-military aspect of national power in the non-threatening mien of “soft power”. But enlarging the basket and giving it an anodyne label should make us all the more suspicious. Because it is the difference among the tools in the various baskets, and the consequences of using them – or not using them – that has real effects for real people. And perhaps Nye, as well as his defenders and detractors, have forgotten that those real people are the ultimate source of power in political life.

I would replace Nye’s soft power language with this: there is only power – the full combined measure of a nation to act on the world — and force is a subset of national power; we have alternative tools of national power that are no less coercive but less destructive such as trade barriers, economic countermeasures, and sanctions. These are rightly labeled power because some countries have greater power (and more tools) than others. We have means to induce, cajole and convince without coercion and these are called diplomacy, public diplomacy, communications and (sometimes) propaganda.

There is nothing to be gainsaid from simplifying to the point of simple-mindedness. That is what, in part, Nye has done. We can use language to describe, accurately and with precision, exactly what power and force are and can do among nations.