Nov 9, 2009

How much spin can one take?

The Hanson chapter and its discussion about the various US public diplomacy efforts got me thinking: how much "spin" can you actually put into convincing a person (or persons) to accept something they just don't agree with? I mean, at some point, regardless of how many ways you try to frame the war on terror or American ideology, however many different media outlets and formats you use, if someone is just fundamentally opposed to the core beliefs or ideology that drive these efforts, they're just not going to accept it, right? And what then?

I suppose the real targets of public diplomacy are not the extremists in the same way that political candidates aren't so much campaigning for their core party voters as the moderates and swing votes. But given what seemed to be some pretty extensive efforts on the US government's part to "get in front of the story" and frame the war on terror and its actions in a pro-American light, the failure of these public diplomacy efforts seems to be indicative of something deeper than simply not having reached out in the right way, or to the right people, or with the right message.

This is not to say that I think the US government has done all it can in the realm of public diplomacy. Indeed, Hanson's chapter suggests that a return to Cold War-era focused public diplomacy, both in terms of range of efforts as well as government spending on such programs, might be more effective. Thursday's conference on cultural diplomacy also highlighted weaknesses and shortcomings in our current public diplomacy strategies that could be improved upon (though it did appear that most participants were former USIA staffers and/or Cold War diplomats who might be nostalgic for the olden days...).

But maybe what we really need is a more structural approach to winning over hearts and minds. Perhaps we should be targeting our public diplomacy efforts less on getting people to like or love America, and more on getting them to tap into the ideas and beliefs already present in their culture that underscore social and institutional structures that are in line with American ideologies. For instance, more conservative cultures often criticize American media as being too violent, too racy, too commercialized. But what really drives these representations is our belief in freedom of expression. Thus a new conception of public diplomacy efforts would focus on mobilizing people's valorisation of personal and cultural expression. Our government already incorporates "democracy building" into our foreign policy, with the belief that democratic countries will by nature be sympathetic to American interests. Maybe it's time for us to expand those efforts into the realm of soft power and latent rather than salient influences. America as an icon comes with so much baggage as it is, we should focus on the promotion of values that support American interests, but detach them from the messy behemoth of America itself. Hanson notes that media framing needs to find culturally resonant messages in order to be effective. What better way to resonate with a culture than to draw from that culture itself?

At the heart of this is the (potentially Pollyana) belief that we are not so different in the end. While our cultures express our ideals in different ways, we're essentially all working towards the same goals, aren't we? Peace, love, and happiness? Sovereignty, a meaningful voice, independence? The basic resources for survival? Understanding the specific cultural context that frames these universal values might be the difficult part, but the rewards would be more lasting than just getting a "most popular" vote in the yearbook of nation-states.

1 comment:

  1. 2 things: I agree that yes, most efforts like "getting ahead of the War on Terrorism" are indeed aimed at moderates, undecideds, and the generally uninformed/indifferent. And I would add that the failure of the U.S. effort might also have been due to the fact that they rested their "case for the Iraq war..on terrorism" on what was essentially thin air. If there had been something to it, some clear end game or proof, the controlled media efforts may have been more well-received. It also coincided with a time when citizen-media and independent international media outlets were on the rise, al-Jazeera was showing them images and stories that did not quite jibe with the American Story and in places like Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, the upper and middle classes were actually watching Don Rumsfeld and other officials get on cnn and lie their heads off, laugh, joke, etc., while people in their country died. When you go back and look at footage of some of those press conferences, or some of Bush's addresses, and imagine what a viewer in the Middle East or anywhere in the world was thinking, you just can't believe someone on the White House staff let these words be uttered. But the war was conceived of and implemented by a lot of old white guys who were neither soldiers, nor exactly in touch with the pulse of our newly 'globalized' world. They also wanted to "bring democracy" to the Middle East, like an Easter basket. Not much more could have been expected, I say...

    I also just wanted to say that I really like your thoughts on "targeting our public diplomacy efforts less on getting people to like or love America, and more on getting them to tap into the ideas and beliefs already present in their culture that underscore social and institutional structures that are in line with American ideologies."