How #loveculture will backfire on Israel’s public diplomacy propaganda

#Loveculture becomes a twitter clash this week.   The Israeli Embassy in London is planning a twitter campaign  to try to offset negative publicity surrounding the Habima Theatre company at the Globe in London. The company is due to perform ” The Merchant of Venice” within the World Shakespeare Festival, part of the Cultural Olympiad.

Leading British actors and directors, including Emma Thompson, Caryl Churchill and Mark Rylance have called for a withdrawal of the invitation.   A campaigning group from Israel commented:

 this play includes the role of “Shylock, the most famous and controversial Jewish character in the theatre canon” – which naturally, presents particularly acute problems and dilemmas to an Israeli theatre. 
As told to the Israeli media, the Habima Theatre did not sidestep the problems inherent to this particular element of the Shakespeare canon, but faced them and dealt with them in a socially engaged and committed manner. According to the designated director Ilan Ronen, Habima’s presentation of “The Merchant of Venice” will emphasize the issue of xenophobia – persecution of the Jew in particular but also of hatred of ethnic and religious minorities in general. As such, it would have of direct relevance to audiences in contemporary Britain, as in all times and places.

The problem rests with Habima’s performances last year in the illegal settlements in occupied West Bank:

In the past year, two large settlements – Ariel in the northern part of the West Bank and Kiryat Arba in its south – set up “Halls of Culture” and asked theatres to come and present their plays there. Last year, a large group of Israeli theatre professionals – actors, stage directors, playwrights – declared they would not take part in such performances; among them were such well-known people as Joshua Sobol, Edna Mazia, Shmuel Hasfari and Anat Gov. For several weeks, this was a major issue on the Israeli public agenda, and the aforementioned Israeli theatre professionals have received much support from colleagues abroad, such as Stephen Sondheim, Mary Rodgers, Tony Kushner, Mandy Patinkin, Theodore Bikel, Mira Nair, Julianne Moore, Vanessa Redgrave, Hal Prince, Roseanne Barr and other Broadway and Hollywood stars.
(… )

The dissident Israeli theatre professionals have argued that the West bank settlements had been created in violation of International Law and with the specific aim of blocking any possibility of achieving peace with the  Palestinians; that the expropriation of land in an occupied territory and the creation and maintenance of armed settlement enclaves are the very opposite of what is commonly termed “Culture”; and that therefore, a settlement maintaining a “Hall of Culture” was a blatant contradiction in terms.
It is especially noteworthy that Ariel and Kiryat Arba, like most settlements, are surrounded by walls and fences, closely guarded by soldiers and their own armed security personnel. A theatrical performance in a settlement is by definition a performance to an exclusively Israeli audience, with Palestinians living even in the nearest village being physically excluded from any chance of attending.

Despite all of the above, however, on this issue the management of Habima has taken a position which is remote from any kind of social engagement. Claiming to be “non-political”, the management has reiterated its decision to perform in West Bank settlements, “like everywhere else”. Moreover, the management specifically promised Limor Livnat, Minister of Culture in the Netanyahu Government, to “deal with any problems hindering such performances”, i.e. to pressure recalcitrant actors into taking part in them, even against the dictates of their conscience.  And it must be pointed out that for several months, Habima has indeed sent out its actors to hold theatrical performances in West Bank settlements, on a regular basis.

There are reports that the Israeli Foreign Ministry is providing £10,000 towards the costs.

The Israeli Embassy emailed on Friday to British groups:

As part of the campaign around Habima’s performance at the Globe this coming week, we are aiming to get something relevant trending on Twitter. After careful consideration, we have decided to use the hashtag #LoveCulture as it is short enough to fit on a substantial tweet and won’t be taken at first glance as a political statement.

The email even includes suggested tweets. (Don’t be fooled when you read;

  • Fantastic seeing the foremost Hebrew speaking theater company perform the Merchant of Venice @the_globe #LoveCulture
  • Was great to hear @edvaizey enjoyed watching @HabimaTheatre…did he understand any of it though? #LoveCulture

Public diplomacy or propaganda?    The only countries which seem to orchestrate explicit social media campaigns seem to be those on the defensive with something to hide; those outside the international norms: China’s famous 50 centers spring to mind.   The #loveculture tweets this week will rebound on Israel.  It will highlight their illegal occupation and settlement of the West Bank. , as will any future social media interventions so obviously supporting the government line.

It’s the same there: China and cultural diplomacy

There is an interesting diplomatic spat between USA and China at the moment.  No not the headline human rights case of Chen Guangcheng, now safely at a New York university (but not his family who are held as hostages in effect: a time-honoured tactic) .

The spat is over teachers at Confucius Institutes in the USA.   According to reports:

A policy directive sent by the U.S. Department of State to universities that sponsor Confucius Institutes suggests that the language and cultural centers that are a key piece of the Chinese government’s diplomatic outreach will have to change how they operate or fall afoul of American visa laws.

The memorandum, dated May 17, states that any academics at university-based institutes who are teaching at the elementary- and secondary-school levels are violating the terms of their visas and must leave at the end of this academic year, in June. And it says that, after a “preliminary review,” the State Department has determined that the institutes must obtain American accreditation in order to continue to accept foreign scholars and professors as teachers

State Department has said that it expects the issue to be resolved: it seems to link to a Chinese adminstrative move against foreign teachers in China.

The Chinese press has had a field day.  What struck me was how the comments to news stories are identical to comments about European cultural diplomacy activity and organisations.    Look at the comments in this report: on the 500,000 tweets on China’s own twitter system, Sina.

I oppose these kinds of Confucius studies organized by the government. It’s quite soured. How about our government spend more money on its own people? Confucius Institutes are really funny

I think it is quite normal. Chinese people haven’t made its domestic education good. How can they go to promote “Confucius Institutes”?!

Different values; same debates.


The cultural and creative sectors contribution to the EU is fundamentally important

“We would see funds redistributed from the Common Agricultural Policy towards other programmes such as Creative Europe, which offers growth potential”

The UK Parliament’s committee looking at the European Commission’s proposed budget from 2014-20 has given  resounding support to the Creative Europe proposals. It asks the UK government to reconsider its position.  I’ve written about the committee’s previous meetings here (Ministers view); here (the sectors and EC view) and the preliminary verdict here.

The final report gives a clear overview of the Commissions’  total spending plans, far clearer than anything I can find on the Commissions’ own Europa website: openness, transparency and public accountability are not Commission virtues).

” The cultural and creative sectors contribution to the EU is fundamentally important. We heard compelling evidence that the increased budget proposed by the Commission would stimulate job creation and growth in line with the Europe 2020 strategy. In the context of domestic funding cuts, and the organisations obvious capacity for attracting EU funding, we call for the Government to support a proportionately larger budget allocation to this area, which represents only a very small proportion of the total MFF.

We also call on the Government to reconsider its position regarding the proposed financial facility. Businesses in the cultural and creative sectors often experience greater difficulty in attracting investment than their counterparts in other sectors. The Commission’s proposed financial facility could offer an important bridging mechanism between these sectors and private-sector investment.

We also call on the Government to reconsider its position regarding the proposed financial facility. Businesses in the cultural and creative sectors often experience greater difficulty in attracting investment than their counterparts in other sectors. The Commission’s proposed financial facility could offer an important bridging mechanism between these sectors and private-sector investment.

A welcome call.  It is interesting to see that the support for Creative Europe does not match the views of many of its supporters.  No mention of forging a closer European citizenship and no mention of artistic and creative benefit.  Pragmatic and to the point, perhaps a better reflection of the role of EC funding.

The report also supports increased educational spending and improved EC communications to citizens.

Will the UK government make these arguments at the EU Education and Culture meeting on 10-11 May?

Who knows?



The new soft power player: people

Soft power is associated with nation states or groupings of states.  The “West’s ” soft power played a key role in ending the Cold War according to its proponents.  The more adventurous supporters go further: the “Beatles and demin” were more powerful than economic collapse and missiles.

The USA has soft power; the EU is trying to think of its soft power, China is embarking on a major soft power drive.

Nowadays the term soft power is used indiscriminately. Rather like public diplomacy a few years ago. It has become the fashion in thinking circles.

The term itself embodies two very opposite characteristics. Soft.. nice the cuddly.  The arts, schools, universities, academics talking to each other, consumer goodies.  It is extended into the universal values arena:  political groupings which accept defeat and opposition; democracy, religious freedom etc.

Power is overlooked.  Power is hard by definition.  This is not the area of mutual understanding and awareness to use another universal phrase.

Power means convincing others to do what you want them to do.. and which they are not doing now.

“Soft power is no power” is a common riposte from the hard powerists (trade, military, the world of sanctions, boycotts, leading up to invasions and conflict).  There is very little serious evaluation of whether soft power really works.  Lots of theory; lots of anecdotes, lots of belief and an increasing number of indices (see my earlier articles and here).  But where’s the evidence?  I’ll explore this in the next article in this series.

But there is a new soft power on the block:  people,  individual people.  It is likely that the online digital activism of and others will block the relatively secretly organised international agreement on internet control:  ACTA.

Nellie Kroes, the European Commissioner says:

“We have recently seen how many thousands of people are willing to protest against rules which they see as constraining the openness and innovation of the internet. This is a strong new political voice,” Kroes said in a speech at the Re:publica conference in Berlin. “And as a force for openness, I welcome it, even if I do not always agree with everything it says on every subject.”

“We are now likely to be in a world without [the stalled US act] SOPA and without ACTA. Now we need to find solutions to make the internet a place of freedom, openness, and innovation fit for all citizens, not just for the techno avant-garde,” Kroes continued.

It was not many thousands. It was millions.  from many countries.   Several governments are going to be seriously angry at the ending of ACTA.   Soft power in the hands of people.  Do I hear democracy by citizens rather than democracy by vested interests?


Hollande’s cultural challenge

If Francois Hollande wins the French presidency then a major cultural challenge has been set for him.  With nearly one in five French voters expressing a preference for a racist party, and the (hopefully) outgoing president making statements which are not out of place at a le Pen rally,  France really has to get to grips with its attitude to racism.

Something is clearly wrong.  It will mean changes to current practices, in employment, in all sectors.  Current policies have clearly failed.      A President Hollande will need to mobilise a changed cultural sector to help in the anti-racism programme.  Changed?  Yes.    How open is the cultural sector, from museums, theatres, orchestras, to independent arts organisations and groups to a multi-cultural programme.   Audience extension and development.  An interesting take on the Musee de Quai Branly for example is here.  Personally I loved the architecture but really disliked the approach taken in the exhibits, as did the author.

The report in Germany on the future of museums makes an interesting point.  Ignore the headline grabbing comment about closing half the museums and focus on the comment about the need to engage closer with the tax paying public.

In addition, he argues, cultural institutions should be organised differently and [be given] more detailed targets, not only in regard to visitor numbers, but also guidelines about where visitors should come from and what age groups in particular should be attracted to the museums.

This is not only a domestic issue.  France’s soft power and cultural attraction is weakened with such a growing vote for the extreme right.   And if the right win in the second round?



Soft Power: can it be measured? Part two

This is the second in a series of articles exploring various Indexes measuring the influence one country may have or may seek over another.  The first article is here.

Commentators on international relations over the last 60 years have identified a number of high level areas where one country can exert, or seek to exert, influence over another.  They tend to illustrate their ideas with diagrams:  a continuum, a spectrum, others use various degrees of concentric circles.  The common theme is that the degree and depth of international engagement increases the chances of success in changing views.  It is a power game.  The ending of the Cold War unleashed more varieties: after all wasn’t the Cold War won without the inconvenience of actually going to War in the old-fashioned military sense?  Of course the multitude of wars since 1989 has demonstrated that good old military might has not gone away.  Indeed the current war mongering by nuclear armed Israel shows that old habits die hard. As do civilians and military personnel in a war.

The prime categorisation of power is hard and soft; based on Joseph Nye’s work from the early 1990s when he was at the Pentagon.  Hard power: the power to coerce from invasion, military strikes, economic and trade tactics is clear.  Soft power: the power of attraction of ideas has its supporters. It also has its denigrators.   Nye has more recently tried to merge the hard/soft dichotomy and handle the critics with a third way: smart power.

Hot on the heels of the academics and commentators are the measurers.  Create an Index based on criteria to demonstrate who is powerful, whose power, hard or soft or smart, is better/stronger than someone else.

Real Instituto Elcano based in Madrid produce a Global Presence Index.  This reviews 54 countries in 5 categories: economy, defence, migration and tourism, culture and science and development assistance.  Unlike most other Indexes it relies on the international element of each indicator and on objective data: no room for perceptions or value judgements.  So Nobel Prize winners do not get a look in as this is based on a subjective assessment of the awarding jury.  There are no subjective views of participants in international arts or youth activities or of views of other countries’ governance or human rights. Just plain hard quantifiable facts.

The Introduction to the Index is a valuable analysis of the methodology. It offers short sharp reviews of 14 other Indexes including those from the World Economic Forum, KOF Index of Globalisation, and even the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom.

The Elcano approach is in my view the most rigorous of all the Indexes.  It seeks to avoid the “multiple indicators of same subject” which comes with those with a longer criteria list.  The rejection of all perception based indicators is novel and marks it out.   The eventual country ranking (USA, Germany, France, UK, China, Japan, Russia, Italy, Spain and Canada are its top 10) is slightly less western orientated than most Indexes.

The inclusion side by side of both the elements of hard power (military and trade) with the soft power categories (cultural, educational, scientific, development assistance) is a useful antidote to one sided supporters of one or the other.

But I’m not so convinced of its core premise:  “Global presence is a prerequisite for the exercise of influence through diplomacy”.  This presupposes that global influence is the aim, or at least feasible.  Most countries do not have a global foreign policy.  They may have a wide Embassy network and most countries have at least some trade with 100+ other countries.  But influence and importance?   Very few aspire to global pretensions.  It is easy to list them so I won’t!  The majority of countries have a triple international policy:  their neighbourhood (which may mean for example for a EU member, the other 26 members), the major countries (roughly the real G20 attendees.. around 25 countries) and very importantly the countries of their diaspora.  A good example came this week with the three Baltic countries clearly saying that their foreign policy was geared to “Russia, Russia, Russia” and their EU partners.

So a Global Presence Index has a use but it is not comparing like with like.   Space for another Index perhaps?

Soft power and ideas in action in Egypt

Egypt’s troubled path to from dictatorship to democracy is proving a fertile ground for soft power.  The military-run government was widely criticised for its crackdown on NGOs.  It used a Mubarak era law designed to control foreign funding of NGOs.  Reports indicated that the government wanted to create a wave of anti-American feeling to help it ride out the demonstrations in favour of the Revolution (Known in the west as the Arab Spring).

The irony of the military.. heavily financed by the USA.. seeking to gain political capital out of foreign financing of NGO escaped the government.  However the military took note of the USA’s concerns and agreed to rescind the crackdown.

A few days later the Egyptian government did release details of foreign funding of NGOs. And it makes fascinating reading.  The April 6 movement, a prime player  in the Revolution, received no foreign funding.  Now that must have dented many assumptions.

On the other hand a single Salafi based organisation received a staggering $50m. The money came from Qatar and Kuwait rather than Saudi Arabia, the usual source of Salafi financing.  The Ansar El-Sonna association denied the funding was for political purposes but was for mosques and orphanages. (Update:  the Kuwaiti Ambassador to Egypt explains that the funds went to “charitable societies that care for orphans and the poor”)

The Salafi political party, Al-Noor, of course did exceptionally well in the recent Parliamentary elections with over 20% of the votes so far. It is a serious rival to the more  established Muslim Brotherhood, let alone the centre, secular and liberal parties who collectively did not do well.

USAID was discovered to be providing around $11m to various democracy movements.  The funding from other western organisations was not recorded.

Soft power is the art of influencing others to do what you would want them to do.    The Egypt case demonstrates that direct funding of democracy movements, important though it is, can be dwarfed by a more subtle level of support.  The Gulf based funding coupled with the increasing dominance of the Saudi and Wahhabi based satellite TV channels ensures the ideas and values of the Salafis are being reflected in the votes of Egyptians.


Soft Power? Can it be measured? Part One

This is part one of a series of articles on the topic of whether soft power, or cultural diplomacy, can be measured. The series will look at several attempts to produce an Index and then draw conclusions.   This post looks at cultural factors.

Part two , which looks at a wider soft power approach is here


The old cliché rings true “if it can be measured it can and will be managed”.  Since Joseph Nye coined the phrase “soft power” in 1990 there have been few attempts to measure a country’s soft power.  Nye, merged the  background of the Cold War with the USA’s assumption of being the leader in everything to formulate his core idea:   “the ability to affect others to obtain preferred outcomes by the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuasion and positive attraction”.    Soft power became one of the new touchstones of international relations.  Since 1990 it has been joined by nation brands (and branding) and public diplomacy to add to the long-standing cultural diplomacy and cultural cooperation themes.

The West’s Soft Power was presumed to have helped win the Cold War.   But there have been few attempts to measure soft power and this is the age of measurement.  Now we have a very thought-provoking attempt from the Institute of Government (a private NGO) and Monocle magazine.  The full report (download as pdf here) gives a sound review of soft power theory and the Index used to rank countries. Using 50 indicators covering politics, culture, business,  higher education and diplomacy the Index almost predictably places the USA, UK, France, Germany in the top four places.

It is commendable effort and should prompt a serious review in Foreign Ministries, Cultural institutes and others interested in the practice of those elements which can come under the umbrella of soft power.   Naturally every reader will both agree and disagree with the Index and its components.  To start the ball rolling here are a few of my thoughts.

* Is this an Index of international engagement rather than of soft power?  The 50 items, from number of embassies and cultural institutes to UNESCO World Heritage sites, to international students at universities and tourists certainly reflect the scope and depth of a countries’ engagement.   But do these translate into a soft power paradigm according to Nye’s definition?   It has been long recognised that people can make the clear distinction between a country’s culture and lifestyle and its current political leadership and positioning.   Green card applicants to the USA from Arab countries are not affected significantly by its stance over Israel.  The report does indeed raise this problem towards the end:  China is indeed increasingly its international engagement but given its human rights record, lack of freedom (western definition)  etc does it have the power of attraction?

* The current leader in the international comparison stakes is the Anholt-GfK Roper Brands Index.  Interestingly the top ten countries in this index are almost matched with the IfG/Monocle Index:  Italy and Netherlands swapping places.   The new index looks down on perceptions in favour of objective indicators.  Result seems the same.   This reinforces my view that this new Index is still  more an engagement identifier.

* The report admits it does not fully cover transnational networks.  In my view this is a serious weakness.  In many ways the most important of these networks if we return to Nye’s definition of attracting people to your way of thinking are now religious based.  Turkey’s growing influence is indeed partly based on its expanding international foreign policy. It is based more on its actions at home: a booming mixed economy with an Islamic flavour and the enormous outreach of the Gulen Foundation.  Saudi Arabia’s influence is driven not just by its oil but by the Wahhabi foundations and organisations funding mosques,  books, pamphlets, satellite TV etc.  The immediate evidence is the surprising vote for the Salafi Al-Noor Party in Egypt.  Brazilian politics are increasingly influenced by Christian evangelical organisations who are increasing their international engagement.  The USA’s evangelical movements are in the same direction, especially in Africa.  Western originated transnationals such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace are still influential but no longer have the field to their own in setting  the “values” agenda.  It remains to be seen how effective the loose network of Occupy succeeds in influencing the world away from disastrous neo-liberal economic thinking.  The more official transnational networks.. for example the European Union need bringing into the equation.

Overall much food for thought. As the report points out soft power is exercised over the long-term.  It is not that susceptible to short-term fixes or changes and at its heart it is not based on international engagement but on a countries’ domestic policies and how they are perceived.  The trends in international cultural diplomacy have moved on from the showcasing and overt marketing of a country’s cultural, educational and language assets. There is a far higher mutual engagement with people, co-operation rather than presentation with key topics being addressed, whether conflict resolution, moving to an ecological future, social cohesion.  Relevance to the audience’s needs brings change.   I discussed these developments in a paper to be published shortly by Real Instituto Elcano in Spain.  A version is on my previous website.