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Public Diplomacy Today: Lessons from Russia

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It has been just over a decade since “Public Diplomacy 2.0” was proclaimed as the new reality of the increasingly connected global society. However, our ever so globalized world is changing rapidly. In today’s mediatized and disintermediated society, individuals no longer need institutions to engage in the connective action of sharing personalized action frames via social networks, as it has now become a way of life. After a brief introduction of the post-modern context, key concepts and theoretical framework, this paper is going to highlight ideas-based public diplomacy as the most efficient public diplomacy component today by using the case study of the recent FIFA World Cup in Russia to illustrate our point. We shall then move on to the wider context of generating positive attitudes among the global publics and uncover other, more potent variables at play. At the end we are going to mention certain recent developments— the phenomenon of social media becoming agents in their own right—and make some recommendations in the light of the current context.

Introduction

The term “public diplomacy” (PD) has been around for several decades now, but its modern conceptualization can be attributed to the models developed by Nicholas J. Cull and Joseph S. Nye Jr. in the late 2000s. (2008, 2008) Over a decade later these frameworks are still relevant today, but the world has been evolving rapidly and we must therefore recognize a number of new developments. Hence, this paper is going to touch upon the relationship between PD and power, as well as ways of measuring the efficiency of PD. We shall explore the case study of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia through the lens of PD in order to demonstrate the best type of PD today. We are then going to broaden our context by uncovering other, more significant variables affecting global admiration that have rendered PD somewhat incomplete and insufficient. Finally, we shall mention Twitter’s recent transformation from a digital social medium into an agent in its own right by looking at its recent political involvement and make some final recommendations in regard to generating positive attitudes to one’s state in today’s world.

Public Diplomacy and Power

First of all, let us outline our conceptual framework by defining all the key concepts and models we are going to be working with. Seeing as public diplomacy is generally seen in the political science discourse as being connected to the concept of power, it may well be a good idea to begin by defining the latter.

We shall speak of “power” as the “ability to affect the behaviour of others to get what one wants.” (Nye 2009: 160) According to Joseph Nye power implies a causal relationship between the power actor and power target, whereby the former seeks to affect the behaviour of the latter by selecting power resources (e.g., culture, military, technology, etc.) to be mobilised and power behaviour (soft or hard) by which the aforementioned resources must be converted into behavioural outcomes in the power target. (Ibid. 2013: 1-2, 2011: 95)

ACTOR: RESOURCES + BEHAVIOUR > TARGET: BEHAVIOURAL OUTCOME

Speaking of power behaviours, they are essentially action modes that define the nature of power as either “soft” or “hard.” (Ibid. 2013: 6) As per Nye’s framework, attraction, persuasion and agenda-framing generate soft power (SP), while coercion, threats, payments and sanctions generate hard power (HP). Hence, it is the power behaviour that defines the nature of power (Ibid. 2011: 91-93, 2013: 6). Furthermore, power can only be judged ex-post (by the outcomes) rather than ex-ante (by the resources that may produce the outcomes). (Ibid. 2013: 2-3) Hence, power can only be claimed to exist when the desired outcomes are present once the power activity has taken place.

RESOURCES + HP & SP BEHAVIOUR > DESIRED OUTCOMES

Gradually moving from pure theory to applied theory, the power conversion model that we are interested in for the purpose of our research is the indirect “public diplomacy” model. The reason for the name is the slightly more complex (as opposed to the direct “classic diplomacy”) route whereby power resources combined with SP behaviour are mobilised via various PD agents to generate positive attitudes among the public of the power target state towards the power actor state, thereby creating an enabling environment for the target state’s ruling elites to make a decision in favour of the power actor state— i.e. behavioural outcome. (Ibid. 2011: 95, 102-3)

POWER ACTOR STATE’S RULING ELITES: PD ACTIVITY (VIA AGENTS) > POWER TARGET STATE’S PUBLIC: POSITIVE/FAVOURABLE ENVIRONMENT > POWER TARGET STATE’S RULING ELITES: BEHAVIOURAL OUTCOME

Measuring Public Diplomacy

When it comes to measuring the efficiency of PD, however, one must recognize that states tend to employ a combination of SP and HP activities as part of their “smart power” strategy. For this reason, it is difficult to isolate the effects of one from the other. (Ibid. 2009: 160, 2011: 97) With the aforementioned problem of attribution rendering the prospective of proving the effects of various PD activities on the final behavioural outcome difficult, the best we can do to assess the efficiency of a PD activity is to analyze positive attitudes it had generated in the target state’s public through the use of public opinion polls, surveys, etc.

A few years ago University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy and Portland Consultancy developed the “SoftPower30 Index” (SP30). Their methodology section specifies that SP30 “compares the relative strength of countries’ soft power resources” and combines this “objective data” with the “subjective” opinion polls conducted in 25 different countries, covering more or less proportionally every continent on the globe. (SoftPower30 2020) As we have already established, power must be measured ex-post, not ex-ante, and it is the behaviour modes rather than the resources that define the “soft” or “hard” nature of power; hence, their “objective data” on “SP resources” probably measures the SP potential in their own understanding of it. Nevertheless, their public opinion poll data, which fortunately can be viewed separately from the overall ranking, is a very useful tool for our framework as it measures the positive attitudes, which is the best indicator of PD’s efficiency today.

Ideas-Based Public Diplomacy

As far as PD taxonomy is concerned, Nicholas Cull’s comprehensive framework helpfully breaks it down into: listening; advocacy; cultural diplomacy; exchange diplomacy; international broadcasting; and PD-by-deed (e.g., humanitarian relief work). (2008: 32-6) While the aforementioned types tend to be to a greater or lesser extent controlled by the ruling elites, whether explicitly or implicitly, there is also another type of PD, which was first identified by Cull over ten years ago. It is the ideas-based PD, whereby an idea is cut off from its source of origin and “becomes a meme (an idea, behaviour, style or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture).” (2008: 49) These memes essentially form the basis for decentralized connective action as personalized content shared across media networks by individuals. (Bennett & Segerberg 2012: 739) We argue that this ideas-based PD is the best type of PD strategy in today’s context and here is why.

First of all, our society has become “submitted to… [and] dependent on the media and their logic’ with the media becoming the primary medium of social interaction, as per Stig Hjarvard’s mediatization theory. (2008: 113) Second, while media agenda setting may have become “concentrated in a few global transnational media conglomerates” (Castells 2009) and is still dominated by television (Media Landscapes 2020), people have nevertheless increasingly come to produce and consume content directly, outside of institutions, via social media, which is something that came to be known as disintermediation. (Schroeder 2018: 3) As a result, not only did individuals come to have the opportunity to become PD agents in their own right in the wake of PD 2.0, over the past decade the modality of this phenomenon has transformed from ability to obligation, whereby most of the people with internet-enabled devices automatically share any unique experience they may find themselves immersed in, often through their own personalized frames, enabled by social media features, as per modern rules of social interaction.

Case study: FIFA 2018 World Cup in Russia and Ideas-based PD

Having established our conceptual and theoretical frameworks, let us now turn to our real-world case study. According to SP30 polling data, the Russian Federation received its highest score ever in 2018, the same year they were hosting the 21st FIFA World Cup. The other major Russia-related news headlines that year were predominantly negative (e.g., Skripal poisoning, AN-148 plane crash, Zimnyaya Vishnya tragedy, pension reform protests, school shooting in Crimea, and Kerch Strait incident, etc.). The few positive news items (e.g., European Figure Skating Championship, Junior Hockey World Cup, World Rapid Chess Championship, etc.) were not as widely publicized and therefore unlikely to have caused any major positive shifts in global public opinion on Russia. Moreover, there have not been any major leaps in any of Moscow’s traditional PD strategies, with the listening component still by and large absent, advocacy strategies unchanged, cultural diplomacy stuck on “balalaikas,” exchange diplomacy at a low level, RT and Sputnik remaining marginal players in the realm of international broadcasting and most of Russia’s “PD-by-deed” activities unknown to the global audience. (Primakov 2019, Reid 2020a & 2020b, Velikaya & Simons 2020) Hence, one can state with a certain degree of confidence that it was indeed the World Cup that generated the highest ever number of positive attitudes toward Russia that year, through ideas-based PD.

To illustrate our point, a study by Mikhailov & Partners (2018) has revealed that from the beginning of 2018 until the end of the World Cup in mid-July a total of 250,000 non-Russian social media users made 388,988 posts about Russia & Russians, which generated 24 million likes, shares and comments, with 50% of them having been made during the World Cup (14th June – 15th July 2018). Most of these came from social media users from the U.S., UK, India, Canada, Germany, France, Australia and Brazil. According to another study, most of these countries had rather negative views on Russia. (Ipsos 2018) Nevertheless, in spite of the strong anti-Russian media campaign unraveling in the West following the Skripal incident, there was an organic increase of positive reviews of Russia on social media during the course of the World Cup, with the top positive themes revolving around the “hospitality of the Russians,” “good organization” and “dispelling myths” about Russia. Moreover, any negative comments were generally focused around the criticism of domestic use of the event “as a means of propaganda and distraction for the society.” Yet even those negative remarks were still by and large complimentary in regard to the friendliness of the people and featured heavily the words “love,” “rocks,” “amazing,” “admire,” “excited,” and “delight.” (Mikhailov & Partners 2018)

What this means is that, besides the “good organization,” which the state can be credited with, the chief PD agents were the individuals – the Russian people, who were “delivering” their hospitality and friendliness to the visitors via attraction and framing, and the visitors themselves, who, apart from being the consumers, went on to be the producers of ideas by adopting, framing and “delivering” their experiences to the audiences in their home countries via social media, enabled by the state’s organization (e.g. fan ID, free travel, free WiFi, etc.).

The case study demonstrates how ideas-based PD may well be the most efficient PD strategy in today’s world, where the public is often highly suspicious of authorities and credibility often rests with everyday individuals. The best result is achieved when state agencies act as mere facilitators of the conditions for ideas-based PD—first and foremost, easily-personalized action frames—while individuals are given the freedom to engage in connective action, subsequently generating positive attitudes towards the power actor state among their home audiences.

Of course, it is understandable that Russia cannot host events of such magnitude every year, not only due to their high cost but also due to competition from other states. Nevertheless, provided that Moscow has carried out some listening PD activities (e.g., surveys to generate detailed data sets on which experiences had generated the most positive frames among which types of individuals, along with the criteria of nationality, age, sex, etc.), they should be able to instrumentalize this information in their PD activities, both online and offline (post-COVID).

The Wider Context

We have now demonstrated how the ideas-based PD during the aforementioned World Cup has manifested as the Russian Federation’s greatest PD success in recent years. However, if we are being honest, we must acknowledge that the success was rather relative in the grand scheme of things, as Russia remained at the bottom of SP30 (SoftPower30 2020). It may therefore be a good idea to consider which countries scored higher than Russia in 2018.

The same year Russia hosted one of the world’s biggest sporting events, it was, in fact, Italy that the majority of the public polled across the world had the most positive attitudes towards. However, Italy did not host any major sporting events that year and their 2018 was hardly any merrier that of Russia’s, as the biggest news to come out of Bel Paese that year were those of inter-ethnic conflicts between locals and migrants, election victory of the center-right coalition, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s initiatives to close ports to migrant boats and deport illegal Romani people, and 43 people in Genoa being killed by a collapsed Morandi Bridge. Nevertheless, the following year Italy remained the public’s favorite, despite the contentious initiative to open Benito Mussolini’s crypt as a tourist attraction. France moved up to the third spot, even though the clashes between the police and the “yellow vests” intensified and became marred with brutality and violence. Moreover, having arrested the world’s most known freedom of speech activist and journalist, Julian Assange, Britain remained in the top 10, earning almost double the public appreciation points as Russia. (SoftPower30 2020)

Furthermore, if we are to look at the top 15 states for every year when SP30 data was collected, we may notice the same countries shuffling ever so slightly, all of which are, from a liberal perspective, liberal democracies, or, from a realist perspective, the United States, the global hegemon and home to most of the world’s largest media conglomerates, and its allies or client states.

2020 and Beyond

Looking ahead, we must briefly mention one other recent development. With the primary mass agenda-setting medium, television, having long seized to provide diverse coverage of key political issues, its biggest competitor, digital social media, has been the bastion for alternative information sharing and ideas-based PD. However, Twitter’s recent campaign of subjective labeling of “government-affiliated” accounts (e.g., placing the mark on RT but not VoA, etc.) and the US presidential election interference (e.g., hiding tweets of one of the main candidates, among other things) have revealed a new reality, whereby social media are no longer mere communication channels, but rather they are becoming agents in their own right. This is the new reality that has to be recognized and taken on board when devising new PD strategies.

Conclusion

It can be concluded that in today’s mediatized and increasingly disintermediated world ideas-based PD, channeled via connective action, is, indeed, the most efficient kind of PD, and, provided that the state agrees to play a passive facilitator role leaving the individuals to share their personalized frames via social media, it will add value and generate more positive attitudes among the foreign publics. However, it remains insignificant in the grand scheme of things and for a state to top the list of the most attractive countries, it must also either become one of the global hegemon’s liberal democratic allies/client states or try to rival the hegemon by coming to own a number of major global media conglomerates. Finally, due to the recent development of increasingly influential social media taking on the features of traditional media, such as partiality and subjectivity, and thus transforming from an independent fair play platform into an agent in its own right, any state seeking the admiration of the global public needs to own not only major traditional media conglomerates but also the biggest digital social media companies – “the post, telephone and telegraph” of today.

References

From our partner RIAC

IMESS in Politics & Security, Westminster Russia Forum Ambassador, Alumnus of UCL SSEES, Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, University of Belgrade and London Metropolitan University

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Diplomacy

International Relations Amid the Pandemic

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We could rest assured that COVID-19 will be defeated, sooner rather than later. The excessive angst and fear we currently feel will gradually subside, while our science will find effective antidotes so that people could look back on the pandemic years as a ghastly dream.

At the same time, it is also clear that a post-pandemic world will be quite different to the world we knew before. The argument that the world needs a massive shake-up to move to the next stage of its development has been quite popular ever since the end of the Cold War. Some prophesied that this would come as a result of a profound economic crisis, while others argued that a large-scale war may well be on the cards. As often happens, though, what turned the world on its head came as if out of nowhere. Within a short span of just a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic shed a light on all the many contradictions and setbacks of our age. It went on to outline the trajectory for economic prosperity, scientific breakthroughs and technological advancements going forward, opening up new opportunities for self-realization and fulfilment. The question pertinent today is: Who will be able to best exploit the new reality and take advantage of the opportunities that are opening up? And how?

COVID-19 has also left its mark on the current architecture of international relations.

At the turn of the century, it was mired in crisis. The end of the Cold War towards the late 20th century effectively signaled the beginning of the transition from the bipolar world order established in the wake of the Second World War to a model that had yet to be created. A bitter struggle would unfold as to what the new world order had to be, with the issue still unsettled today. A number of states, as well as non-state actors, willing to take advantage of this uncertainty in global affairs and redistribute the spheres of influence in the world is what it ultimately boils down to. In a sense, such a scenario should have come as no surprise since the contradictions between the profound changes encompassing the public domain and the rigid model of international relations established in the mid-20th century by the powers victorious in the Second World War had continued to grow in recent decades.

The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be a stern and unprecedented test of strength that has revealed the limits of the current architecture of international relations. Previous crises—be they financial turmoil, struggle against terrorism, regional conflicts or something else—were, in fact, temporary and rather limited in their implications, however severe they were. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected each and every country in the world, regardless of their political regimes and social conventions, economic prosperity and military might. The pandemic has exposed the fragility of the modern world as well as the growing risks and challenges; and if ignored, they could plunge the world into a descending spiral of self-destruction.

The pandemic continues, which means we are yet to draw a final conclusion on its consequences for the system of international relations. That being said, a number of tentative conclusions are already taking shape.

Point 1. Globalization, despite its obvious side effects, has already changed the face of our world, irreversibly making it truly interdependent. This has been said before; however, the opponents of globalization have tried—and continue to try—to downplay its consequences for modern society. As it happens, they would like to think of globalization as little more than an episode in international life. Although it has been going on for quite some time now, it is nevertheless incapable of changing the familiar landscape of the world. The pandemic has lifted the curtain on what the modern world truly looks like. Here, state borders are nothing more than an administrative and bureaucratic construct as they are powerless to prevent active communication among people, whether spiritual, scientific, informational or of any other kind. Likewise, official borders are not an obstacle to the modern security threats proliferating among states. The waves of COVID-19 have wreaked havoc on all countries. No nation has been able to escape this fate. The same will also happen time and again with other challenges unless we recognize this obvious reality to start thinking about how states should act amid the new circumstances.

Point 2. The international system withstood the initial onslaught in spite of the incessant fearmongers prophesying its impending collapse. Following a rather brief period of confusion and helplessness, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, G20 and other global and regional organizations got their act together (albeit some better than others), taking urgent action to contain the pandemic. This proves that the system of international relations that was constructed after the Second World War still functions, although it is far from perfect or devoid of shortcomings.

In a similar vein, the fight against the pandemic has demonstrated that many international structures are increasingly out of step with the modern reality, proving incapable of mobilizing quickly enough to make a difference in our ever-changing world. This, once again, pushes to the fore the issue of a reformed United Nations system (and other international institutions), while the issue is progressively getting even more urgent. Moving forward, the international community will likely have to face challenges no less dangerous than the current pandemic. We have to be prepared for this.

Point 3. As the role of international institutions in global affairs weakens, centrifugal tendencies gain momentum, with countries—for the most part, global leaders—starting to put their national interests first. The global information war surrounding various anti-COVID-19 vaccines is a prime example of this. Not only has it seriously upset successes in the fight against the pandemic, but it has also added a new dimension to mutual distrust and rivalry. The world has effectively fallen back to the “rules” of the Cold War era, when countries with different socio-political systems were desperate to prove their superiority, with little regard for common interests such as security and development.

Pursuing such a policy today is fraught with grave consequences for every nation, since new security threats care little for borders. The recent events in Afghanistan should serve as a lesson for us all, showing that any serious regional crisis, even in a most remote corner of the world, will inevitably have global implications. Therefore, we are all facing a stark choice: either unite against these new challenges or become hostage to the various extremists and adventurers.

Point 4. Some political leaders have been quick to use the challenges of the pandemic as a pretext to strengthen the role of the state at the expense of fundamental democratic principles and binding international obligations. This may be justified or even necessitated at a time of the most acute phases of a severe crisis, when all available resources need to be mobilized to repel the threat.

However, one gets the impression that some politicians are increasingly in the groove for these extended powers and would very much like to hold onto them, using the likelihood of new crises as a justification. This line of thinking could prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to a new model of international relations to be established in accordance with the modern reality, where states would be expected to pool their efforts in the interests of global security and development.

Point 5. As always happens in times of profound crises, the international community is looking to major powers and their leadership for guidance. The future course of history in all realms of life, naturally including international relations, will hinge on what these countries choose to do, deciding whether solidarity prevails over national egoism. President Putin’s initiative to hold a meeting of the heads of state of the permanent UN Security Council members could be a good starting point to foster understanding and seek new ways of moving forward. We cannot keep putting off a frank and thorough conversation about the future world order, as the costs of new delays could be too grave for everyone to handle.

From our partner RIAC

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Diplomacy

Relevance of the Soft Power in Modern World

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In modern days, the relevance of Soft Power has increased manifolds. At times, the COIVD-19 has hooked the whole human race; this concept has further come into the limelight. The term, Soft Power was coined by the American Scientist Joseph Nye. Soft Power is the ability of a country to get what it wants through attraction rather than coercion. By tapping the tool of Soft Power, a country can earn respect and elevate its global position. Hard Power cannot be exercised exceeding a territory, and if any country follows this suit, its image is tarnished globally. However, it is Soft Power that can boost the perception and create a niche of a nation. Soft Power is regarded as the essential factor of the overall strength of a country. It can increase the adhesion and the determination of the people in a realm to shape the foreign relations of any nation. Nye held that the Soft Power arsenal would include culture, political values, and foreign policy.

After the Cold War, many nations pumped billions of dollars into Soft Power initiatives, and the US mastered this concept. The US has sailed on the waters of Soft Power by harnessing the tool of media, politics, and economic aid. The US boasts globally recognized brands and companies, Hollywood, and its quest for democratic evangelization. Through movies, the US has disseminated its culture worldwide. American movies are viewed by a massive audience worldwide. The promotion of the US culture through films is a phenomenon (culture imperialism) where the US subtly wants to dominate the world by spreading its culture. Through Hollywood films, the US has an aspiration to influence the world by using Soft Power tools. Hollywood is considered as the pioneer of fashion, and people across the globe imitate and adopt things from Hollywood to their daily life. Such cultural export lure foreign nations to fantasize about the US as a pillar of Soft Power. Educational exchange programs, earthquake relief in Japan and Haiti, famine relief in Africa stand as the best example of the US initiatives of Soft Power. Now, the American political and cultural appeal is so extensive that the majority of international institutions reflect US interests. The US, however, witnessed a drop from 1st place to 6th on the Global Soft Power Index. This wane can be attributed to the attack on the US Capitol Hill sparked by former US President Donald Trump. In addition, his dubious decisions also hold responsibilities that curtailed the US soft power image, that is, particularly the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Beijing is leaving no stone unturned to ace this area. China, rich in culture and traditional philosophy, boasts abundant sources of Soft Power. China is contemplating and exploring an innovative strategy in its rise in international politics. There have been notable elements in the Chinese diplomatic practice, including softer rhetoric, promotion of its culture abroad, economic diplomacy, and image building. Beijing, amid an ongoing pandemic, has extended vaccine help to 80 countries. Such initiative taken by China has elevated its worth globally during difficult times of the pandemic. According to the Global Soft Power index 2021, China stands in the 8th slot. China is an old civilization with a rich culture. China has stressed culture as a crucial source of Soft Power. In a bid to enhance its cultural dominance, Beijing has built many Confucius Institutes overseas. However, this has not been whole-heartedly embraced by the Chinese neighbors due to territorial disputes on the South China Sea. Moreover, International Order, dominated by the West, is wary of Beijing. China’s authoritarian political system is not welcomed in Western democracies. Therefore, China finds it hard to generate Soft Power in democracies. In recent times, Beijing has witnessed tremendous extension in its economy; thus, it focuses on harnessing economic tools to advance its Soft Power. Consequently, Beijing has driven its focus on geoeconomics to accelerate its Soft Power.

Unfortunately, Pakistan, in this sphere, finds itself in a very infirm position -securing 63rd position in the Global Soft Power Index. In comparison with Pakistan, India boasts a lot of Soft Power by achieving the 36th position in the Global Soft Power Index. Its movies, yoga, and classical and popular dance and music have uplifted the Indian soft image. In the promotion of the Indian Soft Power Image, Bollywood plays a leading role and it stretches beyond India. Bollywood has been projected as a great Soft Power tool for India. Bollywood stars are admired globally. For instance, Shahrukh Khan, known as Baadshah of Bollywood, has a fan following across the world. Through its Cinema, India has attracted the attention of the world. Indian movies have recognition in the world and helped India earn billions of dollars. However, the Modi government has curtailed the freedom of Bollywood. Filmmakers claim that their movies are victim of censorship. Moreover, the anti-Muslim narrative has triggered in India, which has tarnished the Indian image of secular country and eventually splashing the Indian Soft image. Protests of farmers, revocation of article 370 in Kashmir, and the controversial Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) have degraded the Indian Soft Power.

Pakistan is not in the tier of the countries acing the Soft Power notion. In Pakistan, expressions of Soft Power, like spiritualism, tourism, cinema, literature, cricket, and handicrafts, are untapped. Pakistan is on the list of those countries having immense tourism potential and its culture is its strength. Unfortunately, no concrete steps are taken to promote the Pakistani culture and tourism. The Pakistani movies are stuck in advancing Pakistan’s narrative worldwide due to lack of the interest of successive governments in this sphere. In addition, these movies lack suitable content, that’s why people prefer watching Bollywood or Hollywood movies. It is the job of the government to harness the expressions of Soft Power. Through movies and soap operas, we can disseminate our culture, push our narrative, and promote our tourism. Government-sponsored campaigns on electronic media can help greatly in this sphere. Apart from the role of government, this necessitates the involvement of all stakeholders, including artists, entrepreneurs, academics, policymakers, and civil society.

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Diplomacy

Planetary Drought of Leadership

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The Tokyo Olympic Games, just concluded, were a spectacular success and grateful thanks are owed to our Japanese hosts to make this event so, at a time when we were in the middle of a global pandemic. There were many doubts expressed beforehand by many people over the Games going ahead during the pandemic, but the precautionary measures put in place were well handled and not obtrusive. 

For anyone who had the opportunity to watch the Games via TV they must have been struck by the wonderful sportsmanship and friendship shown by the competitors of all nations taking part, whatever race and ethnicity. It prompted me to think and ask why the countries of the world cannot exercise some of the same degree of friendship when dealing with one another rather than push forward with agendas that are antagonistic. The world holds a number of dysfunctional states as well as oppressive dictatorships where the resident population is subjected to mental as well as physical torture. Belarus is a typical example, where the leader of the country stole the election to give himself yet another term, and quashes any dissent, with some paying the ultimate price. He has the arrogance to divert a commercial flight so that he can arrest someone who opposes him and then beats him up, before parading him in front of the cameras to say an apology, which everyone can see was forced out of him. 

The Middle East is a complex problem and has been for centuries, the home of some of the oldest civilisations and the divergent monotheistic religions, which add a complicating factor. It surprisingly has been relatively quiet for the last period. Until the next flare up.

Myanmar has also been quiet, or so it seems. The military patrols across the country, particularly in states that offer some resistance and tough guerrilla opposition. The military behave badly, continuing the practice of killing, rape and pillage if not total destruction of small communities which cannot offer any resistance. Corruption is thriving. The military government have ‘promised’ fresh elections next February, 6 months hence, but it is most unlikely that these will be ‘fair and free’. The troubled conditions will continue. It will be an issue of continuing concern for ASEAN and more widely. A recent visit for a documentary had to be carried out illegally in case the military had discovered that the local people had been welcoming and helpful. The repercussions would have been appalling.

The latest situation that has arisen is the Afghanistan blitz takeover by the Taliban, a medieval group promoting the fundamental sharia doctrine, which is out of date and treats women as ‘non-persons’. They have also harboured terrorists, one group pulling off the infamous 2001, 9/11 strike on the NY Twin Towers, which awakened the US to take strong retaliatory action in Afghanistan, and forcing the Taliban out for 20 years. Their 5-year, 1996-2001, rule of Afghanistan was brought to a close after the NY happening, when the US with Allied forces took charge and ousted them. 

But now the Taliban are back following a direct meeting with the then president Trump in 2017, no Afghan government present, and they saw him coming! Shades of North Korea. He said he would withdraw completely without proper assurances, leaving the country’s development less than half finished. President Joseph Biden completed the task of withdrawal, somewhat hasty, upsetting nearly all Americans in the process. The British were caught flat-footed and there is considerable anger expressed by MPs, not least because they realise that they no longer have the ability to resolve such issues themselves. They feel embarrassed and rightly so.

As one of the Afghan luminaries and most quoted intellectuals, prof. Djawed Sangdel, reminds us: “Afghanistan is a graveyard of empires. Even Alexander the Macedonian realised – 2,300 years ago – ‘it is easy to enter the country, but lethal when exiting it’. This especially if you do not respect domestic realities.” Indeed, the situation on the ground is chaotic.

The leader, Ashraf Ghani, of the weak ‘legal’ government has fled, not without rumours about bags full of cash, and that is one reason that the country has not progressed as well as it should, endemic corruption. Women, quite rightly, are fearful, as to what lies in store, as the Taliban’s record on treatment of them is brutal. They have promised to give emancipation within sharia law – which in their case was the combination of twisted and oversimplified Islamic teachings with the tribal nomadic pre-Islamic culture of the central Asian hights.

Looking at the country as a whole, one worries about its future; the Taliban have no track record of governing a country, particularly not one as complex as Afghanistan. They would have to greatly modify their approach to life, separate religion from state (affairs). However, there are credible doubts; once more the Northern Alliance will get together and the country will lapse into civil war. Will the Chinese see an opportunity and risk what others have failed to do? My heart goes out to the people of Afghanistan.

In reviewing the past few decades, it would seem that western led democracies, when they have engaged with a country, which is in trouble, have only entered it without full humanitarian understanding of the problems and not sought a proper sustainable solution. Inevitably it takes longer than one thinks, and there are not strong enough safeguards put in to avoid financial losses to development projects, sometimes major.

The UN has a major part to play, but one must ask if today’s remit is fit for purpose, or should they be reviewed, and the countries that make up the UN should look at and ask themselves if they are fair in what they give and expect, not just monetarily.

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Democracy has a robust relationship with economic growth.  Barrington Moore can be seen as one of the leading scholars focusing...

Africa Today13 hours ago

South Sudan ‘determined to never go back to war’

South Sudan is “ready to turn a new page” towards greater peace, development and prosperity, Vice-President Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior said in her speech in the UN General Assembly...

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