The London Olympics and public diplomacy?

There could not be a clearer example of the difference between public diplomacy and cultural relations than that shown in the USC’s latest PDiN Monitor which focusses on British public diplomacy and the London Olympic Games.

The first three articles fall into those who understand public diplomacy as PR and propaganda.  The UK’s Consul General in Los Angeles shows a diplomat’s role: delivering messages linked to the GREAT Britain marketing campaign. (I’ve heard of other countries where this cringe-worthy tagline was not used or downplayed).  That tourism was markedly down during the Games fortnight was noticeable as Londoners became used to an Oxford Street bereft of shoppers, being able to move around the city even more easily than a normal August.  It was a great time to be in London!

“If the University of Southern California were its own country, its alumni alone would have ranked sixth among countries in gold medals (ahead of Germany, France, and Italy) and 11th in overall medal count”, writes Barry Sanders, Chairman of the Southern California Olympic Committee.  He goes on to demonstrate the considerable impact California has on the US and other teams.

The most incredible article comes from Saudi Arabia featuring its women competitors.  Noting the gradual approach to change in Saudi Arabia we learn:

“A key element has been that the whole process of ensuring the valuable, and essential, participation of women has been managed carefully within the framework of long-standing cultural traditions. The inclusion of our two women athletes in the Olympic Games – and the development of associated infrastructure for women athletes – follows exactly this same well-tried process.”

I’ll return for the fourth article later but first, what do these three contributions tell us?  That PR is alive and well and does not need expensive spin doctors to provide it.  Rather than a survey of the international impact of the London Olympics the three articles are an official line dream come true.  “Give us your press release and we’ll print it”.  So the California Olympic Committee responds saying California invented the Olympics (almost).

As an aside, I hope that they used every single one of their tickets (if they had any as part of the USA’s National Olympic Committee allocation) and were not part of the “empty official seats” fiasco of the first week. National Olympic Committees lost respect once it was discovered their officials were not taking up their entitlements notwithstanding the massive demand for tickets.  Even the IOC recognised this must change for Rio2016.   California undoubtedly had a good Games, far better than Atlanta96. Interviews throughout the whole Games were marked with comments, from IOC boss Rogge downwards, with “we must not return to Atlanta”. 1996 was not deemed an Olympic success but that was not in California.

The Saudi contribution is a masterpiece in avoidance.  No mention that Saudi Arabia was threatened with exclusion for not including women in its team – required under the IOC Charter – as international and IOC pressure built up.  Sarah Attar, the 800m athlete is a dual US-Saudi national: born, high-schooled and now at university… in California.  Her university advertises itself as a Christian University (Pepperdine).  Hardly a tribute to Saudi’s domestic support for women athletes.  Ms Attar won the hearts of spectators as she was clearly not up to current Olympic standard but finished her heat.  Saudi lost any hope of a progressive, however gradual, message when its two women team members walked behind the men at the opening ceremony – uniquely amongst Muslim majority countries.  There was a powerful BBC TV interview with two Kuwaiti women Olympians criticising the Saudi policy and holding little hope for domestic development without external pressure.

There did not seem to be any women in the Saudi team at the Paralympics opening ceremony.

The fourth article captured the cultural relations, the person to person, impact of the Games.   Many countries opened National Houses in London.  Many were closed to the public and used by the team, officials, “Very Important Persons” and trade promotions.  Some were public and the two writers capture the PR variations between Russia, France, Brazil, the shared Africa House and the Netherlands: from outright (Russia) to laid back (Netherlands).  What they missed is that many of the Houses from EU countries used their Houses to sell surplus official tickets.  This certainly improved the image of those countries.

It seems to me that when looking at the impact of major sporting events like the Olympics, the Paralympics or the World Cup we need to go further than the straightforward official public relations. What do people remember from them? Do their behaviour or views change?   I’ll return to this topic in a later posting once the Paralympics end.

In the meantime one of the mosst positive images from London2012.






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.

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?


Canada’s changing image

Canada is frequently held up as a model country.  It sits near the top in many global league tables.  But are times changing?  Daryl Copeland (of Guerilla Diplomacy fame) reports that public diplomacy is on the decline in Canada.  Far from maintaining its pioneer role the government is almost ending its PD programmes.

Copeland points out Canada’s leading role in the landmines campaign, in climate and environmental issues.  All now seemingly consigned to history.

Mark Leonard once argued that a country’s reputation internationally was 15 years out of date.  Is Canada now along the way?  Is it any longer demonstrating its progressive agenda as a global leader or reverting to narrow nationalistic interests?

On the environment, and indeed climate change, it has regressed.  Withdrawing from Kyoto (straight after Durban and increasing its oil sands extraction  (a method, according to Wikipedia: If combustion of the final products is included, the so-called “Well to Wheels” approach, oil sands extraction, upgrade and use emits 10 to 45% more greenhouse gases than conventional crude).  As the Arctic warms up it opens up vast swathes of accessible land for Canada to exploit.

Canada has been a leading participant in international military adventures.  One key priority of its remaining public diplomacy programme is to promote its role in Afghanistan.

Changing political priorities are nothing new. When they change so does the politically orientated public diplomacy, public relations programmes and messages.  What needs to change is the impact on reputation.  That takes longer  for Canada to lose its position as a progressive member of the international community.



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.