Competing in the Information War

Posted December 17, 2016 on 10:58 am | In the category International Broadcasting, Public Diplomacy, U.S. Foreign Policy, Uncategorized | by Jeff

“The speed of communications is wondrous to behold. It is also true that speed can multiply the distribution of information that we know to be untrue.”
― Edward R. Murrow

In March of 2014 this blog published a lengthy post about Russia’s growing and America’s shrinking public diplomacy efforts, specifically international broadcasting. So here we are now with a population beginning a flirtation with Russia and its president – a man with an easy solution to his troublesome media – jail them, kill them, or both. Some of this new American infatuation with Russia and Putin is certainly due to the full force gale of Trump and his Breitbart accomplices, but there is considerable evidence that Russia Today TV has made successful inroads throughout the West. It has done this with a well supported, worldwide broadcasting effort with enough real news to gain a degree of credibility while slipping in the news that is not real when it suits them.

On a recent trip to Italy we had access to three government supported English language TV stations: BBC occasionally, Russia Today regularly throughout the day and an English language station operated by China. CNN International – a private organization of mixed quality – was also available. On a trip to Germany a few years ago we had access to CNN which was having a Wolf Blitzer extravaganza about the balloon boy and Al Jazeera English which was by far the better of the two.

International broadcasting, as a part of public diplomacy is cheap, has in the past been effective, and can reach millions of people – as the Russian program does. But in the great competition for American taxpayers’ money, U.S. armament companies win, with the help of job hungry Congresspeople. So we are spending over $500 billion on defense, including billions on costly and frequently failed weapons systems and can barely squeeze out $750M for international broadcasting. To put it in a different perspective, Russia, with a broken economy, currently spends in excess of $1.4B on international broadcasting, the U.S.spends ca. $750M. China spends an estimated $7B.

Looking to the future, the Congress recently provided a clue by passing the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act that includes an amendment that would “permanently establish the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) position as head of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency that oversees all U.S.-funded non-military international broadcasting, while removing the nine-member bipartisan Board that currently heads the agency.” The philosophy behind the historic role of the Board has been that it serve as a firewall between broadcasters charged with providing honest, fact-based reporting and the ideological whims of politicians. It served the interests of the country through the years of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, both George Bushes, and Barack Obama.

Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and the Voice of America made major contributions to ending the Cold War by providing honest journalism to countries behind the iron Curtain, but any lesson from this seems lost. The likely emasculation of the Broadcasting Board of Governors indicates that it will likely not survive the presidency of Donald Trump who may instead finally get his very own TV and Radio Networks to do with as he wishes. Under the new law the CEO who will take over the responsibilities formerly belonging to the bipartisan Board will be appointed by the President. What could possibly go wrong? Well, how about Breitbart News’ Stephen Bannon for CEO?

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Obama’s Stunde Null

Posted July 14, 2014 on 11:32 pm | In the category Canada, Europe, Germany, Public Diplomacy, Uncategorized | by Mackenzie Brothers

Is Obama trying to become the least trusted president of the US in recent memory? If he is, he doing a very good job of it. Just in the last couple of months he has managed to alienate many of his formerly most reliable friends, none worse than Germany, although Canada would also have a good case of feeling most offended. Perhaps the Canadian irritations seem to be small matters, but they have certainly added up, and do nothing to bring about any sense of harmony among the second and third largest countries on earth, not to mention a feeling of solidarity in North America. There is no doubt that Canada is quickly drawing away from its long-standing position of being a close ally of its smaller southern neighbour, whose arrogance in such matters as the naming of ambassadors, the paying of obviously-due bills, the willingness to co-operate on border issues, and the inability of Washington to understand that spying on your friends and neighbours is considered unacceptable by respected governments, and the simple absence of courtesy visits is simply rude by Canadian standards. The two US ambassadors to Canada appointed by Obama have both been non-diplomat bagmen for Democrats with no experience in foreign affairs or for that matter in Canada. The US seems to be unwilling to pay for the building and maintenance of a new border crossing on the desperately needed new bridge to Canada near Detroit, but has plenty of money for drones cruising along the once so-called longest unarmed border in the world. The almost total absence of visits by the Candian Prime Minister to Washington and the US president to ottawa does nothing to dispel the feeling that these two countries are not getting along well.
But the situation with regard to Germany has deteriorated even more rapidly. Any North American liviing in Germany has long had the feeling that the Germans basically ten d to look at eh US through rose-oloured glasses, no doubt because of the US eole in t he Second World War and its aftermateh. (These same German almost never know anything about the role of Canada , whose army played a major part in the D-Day invasion and fought its way on its own through northern France and the Netherlands.) But that good will has almost been destroyed by the revelations about Washington’s tapping of phones of the leaders of government there, including the private cell phone of Prime Minister Merkel, who seemed honestly taken aback by this revelation . As she was brought up in the DDR, she is more or less the last person on earth who has to be reminded of the awful reaction of citizens who hear that their private communications have been listened to by threatening governments, in this case a foreign one. And now the head of the CIA in Berlin has been kicked out of Germany as the proof of illegal spying that came out of his office continues to widen . What birdbrains allowed this to happen? did they really think the Germans, by far the central power of Europe. would take this affront without acting? And there we can see it: Merkel talking with Putin in Rio about the Ukrainian situation, which has left the US once again all at sea, German Foreign Minister Steinmeyer icily confronting an outmatched US Foreign Minister Kerry in Vienna. It’s all unnecessary, if there were only some sense of diplomatic skill coming out of Washington . But there isn’t and we shall see what the consequences are of such amateur behaviour.



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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Turkey: The Rise and Fall of Secular Democracy

Posted February 23, 2014 on 2:13 pm | In the category Erdogan, Europe, International Broadcasting, Public Diplomacy, Turkey, Uncategorized | by Jeff

Abdullah Gul, President of Turkey, has signed into law a government proposal designed to give the government extraordinary powers of censorship over the Internet, including blocking of specific sites viewed as a threat to the Turkish government and collecting the histories of web searches of individuals’ computers. This is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest attempt to eliminate free speech in a country that until recent months had served as a model of secular democracy in the Muslim world.

While Turkey’s economy and its people’s overall quality of life had flourished for 11 years under Erdogan, the very personal nature of his leadership had for some time been moving the country toward a less democratic culture in which religious Islam began to play an increasing role, personal and political corruption began to flourish, and freedom of expression began to suffer. The root of the problems is a competition between Erdogan and his brand of Islam and that of Fethullah Gulen the leader of a Sufi-based brand of Islam. Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan operates a large Turkish social, political and educational enterprise from his current home in Pennsylvania. He became disillusioned with Erdogan’s personalized Islam-centric approach to leadership which at best can be characterized as arrogant; at worse as megolamanic.

Political moves by Erdogan during the past year have placed the country’s commitment to secular democracy as well as his power at risk. It began with a public demonstration against Erdogan’s move to replace a public park in Istanbul with a shopping mall but it was clear that much of the demonstrators’ incentive was Erdogan’s increased authoritarianism. The demonstrations grew in size and led to a brutal police crackdown that was abrupt and violent, leading to at least 7 deaths and thousands of injuries. Erdogan’s response included a clumsy attempt to blame the U.S. and Israel for inciting the demonstrations. What followed included street riots, and police arrests of Erdogan allies for crimes of vast public and private corruption. Erdogan responded with take-overs of the police and judiciary, censorship of news, arrests of journalists and academics for speaking out, and the new restrictions on access to Internet content. All of this has contributed to a decline of the Turkish economy, and the erosion of the Turkish model of a secular democracy into a state with two Islamic sects fighting for power while secularists struggle to regain influence.

While most of the damage done to date is to the Turkish people and their democratic state, Turkey’s importance to the West raises the international stakes. Turkey’s geography, its importance for stability in the Middle East, and its unique ability and position to blend secular democracy into a 99% Muslim population with a rich history of power and influence lends it an importance beyond the merely symbolic. It has benefitted from a successful, growing economy, a commitment to education for all (including women), a thriving tourist industry, an agricultural output that is the envy of its region, and the second largest military among NATO members.

While its efforts since the late 1980s to become a full member of the EU have been rebuffed, that became less of an issue as EU countries’ economies have suffered through years of an ill-advised austerity while Turkey’s thrived. There is, in fact, little incentive or interest now in Turkey in becoming an EU member. As a further indication of Erdogan’s movement away from the West, he gave a contract to China to build its missile defense system, provoking alarm among fellow NATO members – especially the U.S. – while signaling his desire to shift turkey’s interest away from the West and towards greater influence in Asia.

Western democracies have held up turkey as a model of what can be accomplished in a Muslim country committed to secularism and democracy. As Erdogan continues on his current path that model may cease to exist. While the future of turkey lies in the hands of its people the West needs to do whatever is possible to short circuit Erdogan’s autocratic limits on free expression. The U.S. has begun to play a small role in that effort by supporting various “pirate” radio stations run by Turkish expats dedicated to providing a free flow of information currently being kept out of Turkey’s tradional press and media. While clearly premature for the U.S. to add Turkey to its official international surrogate broadcasting efforts the time for a Radio or TV Free Turkey may well be approaching. The European Union also needs to take a hard look at Turkey’s limited membership role in the Union and begin to apply pressure for the return of basic human rights, including a free press and unfettered access to social media and the Internet in general.


Who has charisma? I’ll tell you who: Angela Merkel

Posted December 5, 2012 on 2:03 pm | In the category Germany, Politics, Public Diplomacy, Uncategorized | by Mackenzie Brothers

In “Schubertiana” one of his greatest poems – and he has written more of them than anyone else alive – the matchless Tomas Tranströmer – incredibly he is  a Nobel prize winner who actually deserved it – presents the  composer  Franz Schubert like this: “And the man who catches  the signals from a whole life in a few ordinary chords from five strings who makes a river flow through the eye of a needle is a stout young gentlemen from Vienna, called “the mushroom” by his friends, who slept with his glasses on and stood  at his writing lectern punctually in the morning.  And then the wonderful centipedes of his manuscript were set in  motion.”  (Trans. Robin Fulton).  What Tranströmer is driving at here, among other things, is that the superficial outer shell of  beauty that  plagues so many contemporary politicians;  think in terms of Obama’s wife and kiddies, Romney’s religious zeal, Sarkozy’s phoney aristocratic bearing, Berlusconi’s bizarre displays of burlesque pleasure, the no-name British prime minister’s ridiculous portrayal of a person of power, etc.  In all of Europe there is now only one politician who has real power and she has  gained it by not playing a role that  is based on poor theatre, but on hard work and policies that have brought results.  This is Angela Merkel, the 57 year old former East German physicist, who displays none of the silliness of her colleagues in supposed power, who dresses without flair (we have to mention the one extraordinary exception to this that proved the rule when she wore a dress to the opening of the new Oslo Opera House that was so low-cut that the puritanical Norwegians missed watching the opera), and whose husband, an eminent physicist, is never seen at political events.

Against all odds she has now been in power as  the first female chancellor of  Germany  for 7 years,  and today she was reconfirmed as leader of her party, the conservative CDU, by the largest majority she has ever received:  80% of the party delegates voted for her.  Even the most conservative wing of the conservative party for whom she is too liberal, admitted that they would be “blöd” (nuts) to not give her their full support in the upcoming election, which they will certainly win, (but by how much is unclear).  In a stunning display of solidarity, the leader of the even more conservative Bavarian sister party (CSU), which has usually been  at odds with anyone governing in Berlin (no wonder when you experience  the splendid condition of the Bavarian capital München compared to rundown bankrupt Berlin) admitted that his party will be a “purring cat” during  the pre-election months, content to snuggle up to the warmth provided by Mama Angela.  Now that is charisma.

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Speedo’s the name, Mr. Speedo

Posted July 9, 2009 on 5:16 pm | In the category Free Speech, Public Diplomacy | by Mackenzie Brothers

Okay, hands up – How many of you were mortified by the first appearance of Sean Connery as James Bond, when, dressed in natty boxer bathing trunks, he saved the even nattier (un)dressed Ursula Andress from the clutches of Dr. No. No hands? I thought so. But how many of you caught the unwholesome sight of James’ unhappy successor, Sir John Sawers, Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, as he exited the sea on his wife’s Facebook page in his tiny Mr. Speedo bathing suit, a fashion item that has broken up many a transatlantic romance. Of course, James Bond didn’t have to contend with dangerous females who would expose him to such ridicule, only those who would cut him in two with golden laser beams.

In poor Lord Sawer’s case, however, the threat came from within as Lady Sawer, perhaps on the advice of her half-brother Lord Hugo Haig-Thomas, felt compelled to present her husband to the Facebook world in his Mr Speedo suit, in honour of the supposedly secret naming of him to be Head of the British spy agency that was run by men called m or zed in Bond’s day. We know that Sawer’s new name will be “C” because Lady Sawer’s wall also included messages like: “Congrats on the new job, already dubbed Sir Uncle “C” by nephews in the know.” It also included names and addresses of all family members and their favourite vacation spots, in case potential kidnappers had trouble finding them at home.

The British Foreign Secretary, ever alert, explained to the BBC that “It’s not a state secret that he wears Speedo swimming trunks, for goodness sake”, and promised to close the Lady’s facebook site as soon as his vast technical staff could figure out how to do it. Unfortunately those chaps did finally succeed in shutting down his wife, and you will have to click on You Tube to see the current Mr. Bond in his (almost) full splendour. Where oh where are Lords Gilbert, Sullivan and Python when you really need them?


The Trivialization of Public Diplomacy

Posted January 7, 2009 on 1:27 pm | In the category International Broadcasting, Public Diplomacy, U.S. Foreign Policy | by Jeff

When Edmund Gullion, Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, coined the term “public diplomacy” in the mid sixties it’s unlikely he thought the best way to carry out such a program would be to send American sports figures around the world. But that is how it has seemed to have evolved during the Bush presidency.

The United States’ practice of public diplomacy preceded the coining of the phrase with serious and effective cultural and educational programs including Voice of America, and the many cultural and arts programs of the United States Information Agency (USIA). While on one level America’s public diplomacy has traditionally been a governmental effort to promote American interests by informing foreign audiences, on another level it has included efforts by private individuals and groups to develop and maintain civil, educational dialogues among people throughout the world. These non-governmental efforts took on increased importance while the government’s efforts have veeered toward the trivial over the past eight years. In addition, surrogate broadcasting efforts like Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty provided domestic news to countries with state monopolized media.

In the age that gave us rendition, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the Iraq War a strong public diplomacy program was an oxymoron, but as we come out of the Dark Ages the government can do better.

While there is nothing wrong with sending athletes like Cal Ripkin, Jr and Nancy Kwan out into the world, it is not enough to rely on sports figures and/or minor league actresses to be “public diplomacy envoys”. Furthermore, the recent use of Twitter as a public diplomacy tool is simply a victory of style over substance. Surely we are at a point where we can begin to rebuild the cultural, educational and artistic exchanges and programs that over the years have slipped into disuse.

Hopefully the Obama transition team is considering the range of possibilities that together form our “soft power” and will make the kind of long-term investment that can pay off over time. The current state of our image in the Arab world reminds us of the need both to match policy with our traditional values and to make the investment to clarify those values to the outside world.

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When America Stood Tall: The Berlin Airlift of 1948

Posted June 26, 2008 on 1:45 pm | In the category Germany, Public Diplomacy, U.S. Foreign Policy | by Jeff

Sixty years ago, on June 24, 1948 Josef Stalin blocked all routes through East Germany into the divided city of Berlin in an attempt to force the Western powers (Britain, France and the U.S.) to give up their sectors of the city and turn all of Berlin over to East Germany. The alternative seemed to be the slow starvation of the more than two million people of Berlin.

But two days later American and British pilots began flying in the food and other essentials needed to keep the city alive. Over the next 11 months nearly 300,000 flights provided one of the greatest humanitarian lifelines in history. The effort was not without its dangers with flights landing every two minutes regardless of weather conditions and potential Soviet attacks. That the airlift could be operational within days of Stalin’s actions was a tribute to American and British political will (the French initially declined to participate, joining the effort months later). At its peak the airlift consisted of 1500 flights daily, each one carrying tons of food and supplies. Berlin citizens, working around the clock, organized the unloading of planes. 39 British and 31 American pilots died in accidents during the airlift; a memorial to them stands at Berlin’s Templehof airport.

In some ways this was the opening shot of a 40-year Cold War. The fact that it stayed a ”cold” war was due in part to President Truman’s reluctance to confront the Soviets with a direct military action, which would have risked a new “hot” war in a war-tired Europe. The airlift became a powerful symbol of American and British resolve and commitment in the face of a new and dangerous threat and and represented the first serious resistance offered by the West to the expanding hegemony of the Soviet Union.

In the early 1990s my wife traveled to Berlin to visit the father of a German friend. After WWII he had become a policeman in Berlin and when introduced to this young American woman literally broke down in tears of thanks for the airlift’s contribution to the freedom of his city some 45 years earlier. This year Germans will once again commemorate this singular American/British act of humanitarian relief and in May 2009, Berlin will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the lifting of the Berlin blockade.

During the current period when there is much discussion of the need for a strong American public diplomacy program, the Berlin Airlift reminds us that strong public diplomacy begins with a sensible foreign policy and that for now we need to wait for a new group of national leaders to move America back to its core values.

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U.S. Public Diplomacy: An Impossible Dream?

Posted November 29, 2007 on 6:26 pm | In the category Public Diplomacy, U.S. Foreign Policy | by Jeff

There has been a surge of interest in public diplomacy in the aftermath of Karen Hughes’ resigning her position as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. While she received some positive attention for having received increased funding for her program, the overwhelming consensus is that she had failed to make even a small dent in the United States’ negative image around the world. While this is seen as especially the case in the Moslem world, it is clear that the problem also exists among our former friends in W. Europe. Why and how this has happened turns out to be a fairly simple question – we achieved our current reputation the old-fashioned way; we earned it.

Hughes made the fundamental mistake of believing that she could sell America on the basis of empty slogans that flew in the face of the reality of the unnecessary, disastrous Iraq War, the ongoing use of torture, the public display of despicable behavior at Abu Ghraib, the ignoring of the Geneva conventions, holding hundreds of uncharged prisoners for years at Guantanamo, kidnapping suspects to countries like Syria where they could be tortured for months before determining whether they are guilty – or even whether they were who the U.S. thought they were; hiring mercenaries to shoot innocent civilians in Iraq with complete immunity; our blind support of Israel’s disastrous attack on Lebanon; and ad infinitum. The U.S. has not been an easy sell since 2003 and the international support and goodwill that flowed to the U.S. after 9/11 has been totally lost.

While it is clear that the U.S. deserves credit for much of its foreign aid programs it is equally clear that the country will not get that credit as long as it sullies itself by wallowing in the muck of the current administration’s fear-driven foreign policy. Responsible Republicans like Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel understand this – very few other Republican politicians do, including the current group campaigning for president (other than splinter candidate Ron Paul). The current weakness of the United States allows Bush soul mate Vladimir Putin to run roughshod over civil liberties and human rights with no credible response available to the U.S. It allows terrorist organizations to promote support by pointing at the behavior of the U.S. It allows Hamas to win democratic elections by providing social, educational and health support to Palestinians while the U.S. continues to arm Israel.

The “moral edge” that the U.S. historically deserved is gone; for any public diplomacy program to succeed the country needs to regain that edge and that does not seem to be possible in the immediate or foreseeable future.

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Public Diplomacy: Sow’s Ear to Silk Purse??

Posted August 16, 2007 on 12:09 pm | In the category Public Diplomacy, U.S. Foreign Policy | by Jeff

The United States’ public diplomacy program is a shadow of its former self. The days of American libraries abroad, widespread student exchange programs, strong surrogate broadcasting programs, and support of cultural exchanges are long over and we are now reduced to sending athletes abroad and beaming trashy American rock into countries that are desperate for objective reporting and analysis.

Ice skater Michelle Kwan was the first of Secretary Rice’s athlete-ambassadors for public diplomacy and has now been followed by baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr.  Radio Farda continues its tragically misguided pop music broadcasts into Iran eschewing the hard news and analysis formerly broadcast by its predecessor, Radio Azadi.   The assumption seems to be that the attention span and interests of the reform-minded elites in countries like Iran and China are similar to the interests and tastes of the urban American teenager.

Selling America to the world is a near impossible task in the current environment. The Iraq invasion is a huge part of the problem, but torture as an intelligence tool, the Abu Ghraib scandal,  support of Israel during its disastrous bombing of Lebanon, ignoring the threat of global warming, walking away from multilateral treaties, trashing the UN, snatching people off the streets of some of our European allies for CIA-supported torture in foreign countries – the list is seemingly endless.

Making a silk purse of mutual international understanding and support out of the sow’s ear of the Bush foreign policy is a task way beyond world champion figure skaters and iron man baseball players.

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