Nov 17, 2009

Creating Credibility

"Plenty of information leads to scarcity of attention... Editors and cue-givers become more in demand, and this is a source of power for those who can tell us where to focus our attention." - Glassman

This is the paradoxical nature of personalizing news flow. People search on the Internet, flip through a plethora of TV channels, self-selecting where, when and how they receive news. Yet exactly because there are so many sources, there is an even greater need for trusted mediators to make sense of the chaos. (Which raises the interesting question of whether the journalism profession will change to fill this void as news and information becomes ever more easy to obtain.)

But how do people know what to trust? The wars of perception are based on opposing forces of credibility - if no one trusts a dissenting voice, it has little power. Therefore media politics, the idea of selling character rather than substance (or the fact these two are inextricably linked), creating and destroying credibility, becomes a key part of general political behavior.

Nye builds on this by pointing out that the forms of public diplomacy cannot produce soft power if the message behind it is not appealing. He also adds the fact cultural attractiveness must be matched by admirable, proveable political values as well as legitimate foreign policies.

But this really hints at a deeper issue. One of the objectives of public diplomacy is to convince others that all of our interests coincide. Or: "This soft power —getting others to want the outcomes that you want— co-opts people rather than coerces them."

The real problem is that these outcomes are varied and sometime can contradict. For instance, Al Jazeera promoted internal critical review of Middle Eastern regimes and cultural practices, a laudable Western value, but in turning this view on the West, it became a threat to the U.S.'s (in particular) foreign policy objectives. We want to encourage our values abroad, but we want to own the enaction of them.

Glassman acknowledges that governments are rigid in this way, but simply states that it is impossible to do so in today's day and age. To maintain such rigidity, runs the risk of being ignored and losing credibility as a relevant voice.

He instead envisages an engagement of foreign publics that would operate by conversation versus dictation, supporting consideration of our values and culture while facilitating interaction.

But then what about Al Jazeera? It has taken certain cultural values or forms from us and used them to their own ends. How engaged should/can we get involved with them without compromising our foreign policy objectives? Will we go as far as to allow foreign publics to shape our foreign policy?

Nye writes that the impact of soft power lies in co-opting people. But that is still a framework of using people, drawing them into your understanding. Glassman's pointing to a negotiated framework - where people are not so much co-opted as cooperating in construction of understanding.

But does this change the foundation of soft power?

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