Public Diplomacy: America’s Lost Battle

Posted March 20, 2014 on 5:22 pm | In the category International Broadcasting, Press, Public Diplomacy, Russia, U.S. Foreign Policy, Ukraine | by Jeff

The role of public opinion in the current Ukraine/Crimea crisis is a good illustration of the short sightedness of America’s reduced commitment to public diplomacy,  as it continues to have a defense budget that more than exceeds the combined defense budgets of the next ten largest countries’.

President Putin has committed considerable resources to Russia’s international TV, “Russia Today” (RT), including an American operation that can be viewed in English or Spanish. In 2011 it was the second most popular international broadcaster after the BBC and claims particularly high viewership in the U.S.’ five largest cities. An international TV network that competes with CNN for its audience, including and especially a Western audience, “Russia Today” is available to some 85 million Americans via cable TV and internationally to over 650 million people via approximately 250 cable and satellite providers. RT also manages a sophisticated website that focuses on U.S. news as well as international news. And while clearly a propaganda tool of Russian foreign policy, it has managed to find Western viewers tired of CNN’s diet of American-centric news augmented with a heavy offering of political and social drivel.

The 2011 budget for RT was ca. $380 million, a large jump from its 2008 $120 million budget probably partially due to a serous image deficit following the Russia – Georgia conflict. In any case from an American perspective RT amounts to Russian operated surrogate broadcasting within the U.S., much like what Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were to the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.

At the same time that Russia has promoted its image outside Russia via RT Putin has succeeded in improving his popularity at home with extensive and harsh control of traditional sources of information, especially TV, radio and the print press. While RT has ready access to American audiences Putin has banned Russian radio stations from affiliating with Radio Svoboda, RFE/RL’s Russian broadcast service, forcing that service to rely heavily on social media, access to its website and its increased popularity on You Tube. Native Russian investigative journalists have had a tendency to “go missing” or worse; anti-government rock groups go to jail and demonstrations merely lead to mass arrests.

During the Cold War U.S. surrogate radio broadcasts into Russia and its Warsaw bloc and Soviet neighbors provided news of their own countries and the world otherwise not available. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakdown of the Soviet Union those efforts were reduced and, in fact almost eliminated. Assuming the Cold War was over, the U.S. Senate, led by a somewhat naïve Russell Feingold, led a move in 1994 to cut RFE/RL’s budget from $210 Million to $75 million. Today, RFE/RL broadcasts to 21 countries (including Afghanistan, Iran, and of course Russia) in 28 languages via the Internet, SMS text messaging, online video, satellite radio, and popular social media networks with a budget of $95 million – less than one quarter of RT’s budget. America no longer seriously competes with Russia in the critical area of public opinion and the results are obvious as we watch the Russian people salute the re-emergence of an at least semi-cold war.

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Fear and Loathing in Istanbul

Posted March 8, 2014 on 9:41 pm | In the category Uncategorized | by Jeff

Ok. So Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is a mite paranoid and more than a mite pissed off. Seems that You Tube and Facebook have been peddling some troubling audio of Erdogan carrying on with his son about his need to hide some money – well, actually quite a lot of money – before those police not yet fired by the Prime Minister come a-calling. Other phone conversations capture Erdogan threatening newspaper publishers for having published articles critical of him and his political party. This is consistent with his habit of jailing journalists and academics who voice criticisms of his government. Indeed, it is possible now to question whether Turkey actually is a functioning democracy.

Erdogan’s solution to the leaked conversations? Ban Facebook and You Tube from all of Turkey! This after announcing laws that allow police to trace website searches on individuals’ computers and to ban any websites that suggest dishonesty or paranoia or sedition or whatever might displease the Prime Minister. Alas Erdogan might be running into a problem with all of this since President Abdullah Gul has already said that banning social media is not acceptable and he will not sign such a law. And if that is so, it is a dead issue and Erdogan might be more concerned about his future than anyone would have expected six months ago. Gul has always been the loose piece in this puzzle – a somewhat less pious Muslim with a mind of his own and no real debt to Erdogan.

In addition, while Erdogan has been busy waging war against free expression and the Internet the Turkish Constitutional Court has found that charges brought against a former army military chief of staff by Erdogan’s government last year was improper and has opened the possibility that all of the charges that broke the military’s secular influence on power in Turkey were improper.

Erdogan’s power in Turkey has been partly theocratic but more importantly economic. The economy has flourished, quality of life has improved and a lot of people have benefitted financially. But the current crises have had serious negative effects on the economy and people are getting restless. Turkey faces a major choice in important local elections this month: it can stay with Erdogan and sacrifice free expression and free access to information with the hope for renewed economic development or opt for moving toward a more secular government with the hope for a commitment to free speech, and the rule of (secular) law. These elections will be an early indication of whether Erdogan has gone too far in his efforts to stifle political debate and manipulate public opinion.

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Ukraine and the war that threatens to end peace (again)

Posted March 4, 2014 on 6:15 pm | In the category Europe, Germany, Russia | by Mackenzie Brothers

And so the Crimean crisis seems to have settled down a bit. The Russian military has taken control of the Crimea, encircled Ukrainian army bases on the peninsula, and warned the two Ukrainian war ships out on the Black Sea to not even think about confronting overwhelming Russian power at its naval base in Sevastopol. Russian solders show no sign of leaving an area the size of Sicily in which 70% of the population speaks Russian and welcomes their presence. There is no doubt that if a plebiscite were held, which the Russians are demanding , the people of the Crimea would vote to join Russia. Needless to say, this is a complicated situation, demanding patience and knowledge.
Meanwhile Putin says he has called back the dogs of war out on the Russian-Ukrainian, where 150,000 Russian troops happened to be holding training exercises near Russian-speaking cities in eastern Ukraine, which might well also vote to join Russia. These areas pose a much greater threat to stability in Europe if Russian troops move in “to protect a Russian minority in a former USSR republic” stranded there by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ukraine has no treaty connection with western Europe and has no chance of joining the EU or Nato in the near future as some really ignorant commentators in the west seem to think. But Estonia and Latvia do an d include with large Russian populations still unhappily stranded after twenty years of living in independent Baltic states. They are both in the EU and Nato and any Russian movement to recover them would automatically bring all EU nations into a military confrontation with Russia. For many this will recall the way that Europe stumbled unknowingly into a carnage that killed 60 million people exactly a century ago in “The War that Ended Peace (the title of Margaret Macmillan’s fine new book on the topic) would make a lot of experts who know the complicated history of Eastern Europe very nervous indeed. If Russia should cross the Russian-Ukrainin=an border near Donetsk or Kharkov, it is unclear what might happen, and nobody is taking bets on the future of the Crimea, but Estonia is another matter. That would bring war.. And so the poobahs are assembling again, this time in Kiew, which has proven to be a very unwelcome place for good government, no matter who won the democratic elections, in the twenty years since Ukraine became free. Western commentators have found it easy to forget (or not know) that the recently deposed Prime Minister of Ukraine, who even the Russians don’t like, won an election that was deemed to be fair and square by the UN observers. He may have acted like a corrupt despot when in power, but he did win an election in which the current temporary Prime Minster, got 7% of the vote and seems to be unimpressing almost everyone.

But here they come to lay flowers , deliver some platitudes and hopefully solidify votes at home. The Canadian foreign minister John Baird does his job well, knowing there are i,3 million ethnic Ukrainians in Canada and that Ukrainian affairs play an very significant role in the settlement of the Canadian prairies,,an d the determination of elections. But before he leaves, he does mention that Canada is not considering any kind of military response. (The US might consider recalling their ambassador to Canada to give them insights into the history of Ukraine but they can’t do that since they haven’t had an ambassador in Canada for many months). John Kerry, the US Secretary of State follows Baird by several days but takes the same trail and states that Russia will have a price to pay if it doesn’t stop its aggression. Unfortunately a tired and confused-looking Kerry cannot answer any questions about what that price would be. Lat time Obama used football talk to warn about crossing a line drawn in the sand in Syria the result was no response from the US when someone did precisely that and a very clever chess move from a surprisingly wily Putin. The US certainly cannot be contemplating a military response, but it doesn’t exactly want to admit it. Putin knows it and looks like a cat who swallowed a canary in his press conference. H e also know that while the US can’t do much but bluster, he can cut off the fuel lines which heat most of Ukraine and a great deal of western Europe. How do you like dem chops? Let’s hope Putin is also a pragmatic figure and knows that he too certainly does not want a war, and that he steps back and considers what to do on the Crimea.. And th at will take serious negotiations by a number of parties. One figure who seems to be placing himself and his country in a position of mediation is German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Whether he likes it or not, he may have to step in and play a big role as this (very fine) German Foreign Minister has a unique insight into the dangers that come up like ghosts from the past when countries get carried away thumping nationalistic big sticks out on the borderlands of Eurasia.

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