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FOR THOSE TIMES WHEN "DURKA DURKA MOHAMMAD JIHAD" JUST WON'T CUT IT

 

Entries in US (11)

Saturday
Mar032012

Changing relationships - Government and the people(s)

UK diplomat Tom Burn, an old friend of Londonstani's from the days they both studied Arabic at university, has started blogging on Her Majesty's Service. This, in Londonstani's view, is to be encouraged because 1) Tom is very clever and needs to be listened to, 3) It's not common to hear what clued-up people working in government are thinking about the evolving nature of how governments and people interact, and 3) Tom has good taste in Hip Hop music. (So please, drop him a line and ask him what OutKast and The Pharcyde can teach us about power relationships).

Tom's latest post makes some very interesting points about governance:

"What I think is interesting about the Arab Spring and the broader impact of change driven online across the world, is the potential it has not only for changing the relationship between citizens and government, but also for changing government itself. A government that simply changes how it delivers its messages might be missing the point. Might online society also change government itself?"

And then the killer line at the end;

"We cannot just go on governing in the same way, but communicating digitally. We also have to think about how to govern digitally."

In Londonstani's experience, sensible grown up types sometimes get a little incredulous at the idea that interwebs can change the world, and so dismiss the whole discussion outright. In Londonstani's view, the point here is that the online world, social media and the rest, is just a new tool for disseminating and sharing information. This by itself is not a new phenomenon, but a continuation of a process that started with people drawing on cave walls before progressing to print, radio and television. However, it does change the relationship people have with information; where does it come from, who controls it, how much are you willing to share, how much do you get to know etc. This in turn affects the relationship between people, and between people and power.

Mubarak's end didn't come when Facebook and Twitter arrived in Egypt, but when al Jazeera showed Egyptians that US warships were moving through the Suez Canal on the way to attack Iraq.

Wednesday
Feb222012

Marc Lynch on strategic communications in Syria

Middle East expert Marc Lynch has a policy brief out over at the Center for New American Security (CNAS) arguing for more diplomatic pressure on Syria rather than armed intervention.

Two recommendations that caught Londonstani's eye were what Marc calls "counter regime propaganda" and "support and encourage unity amongst opposition groups".

On the communications approach, Marc suggests that an effort that would publicise the regime's atrocities to effectively disabuse supporters of the convenient falicy that the government is not massacring civilians to cling to power, but rather fighting a militant insurection.

Londonstani hasn't been in Syria since the uprising, but keeping in mind what he remembers of the media environment there, he suspects that Syrians who want to know what's happening are likely to be able to find out. What the regime is relying upon is the desire not to know. This may be because people have a personal link to the establishment, or a personal stake in the status quo (which could, but not necessarily, have an ethnic/sectarian element).

An effective communications campaign against the Syrian regime would start where all effective communications begin; figuring out what the regime is saying and trying to understanding what emotions/fears/hopes it's trying to tap into.

The most obvious regime line of argument - as seen time and again in other Arab states - is the claim of "Western conspiracy"and the appeal to Arab/national pride. Addressing, disproving and defusing this narrative is key. Marc's point about reassuring minorities that the fall of the regime might actually be a good thing for them, makes sense within this approach.

The point about the Syrian opposition could also be linked to diplomacy and communications. Yes, the opposition needs unity. One way to encourage that would be to leverage Syrian civil society groups, diaspora communities and individuals inside the country to press their would-be representatives to shoulder their responsibility more effectively.

Tuesday
Feb072012

Aid and the US-Egyptian psycho drama

Steven A Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations says it's time to cut aid to Egypt.

"I say we oblige [Egyptian Minister] Aboul Naga and wind down the aid program—including military assistance—as soon as practical."

Londonstani finds himself in agreement with Steven, but not exactly for the same reasons - well not this one anyway:

"It’s hard to run against the “foreign hand” if there is no foreign hand."

Whereas Steven might have gone too far in thinking local perceptions of US influence follow a simple linear logic, he doesn't go far enough in his labelling of US-Egyptian relations as a "psycho-drama".

It's way worse than that. It's more of a zombie horror movie - before the days zombies became funny.

At the crux of the aid issue is a dilapidated, clapped out, Egyptian self image manufactured a long time ago by leaders who saw the Soviet Union as an exemplary model of social control. This self image has taken a serious battering in the modern information age. 

As Londonstani remembers it, before about 2000, the Egyptian state wasn't too keen to talk about the aid it got from the US for two reasons: 1 - It wanted to avoid discussion around it's core reason for moving rfrom the Soviet to the US camp (its economy was a shambles and it needed help). 2 - The aid issue got in the way of the state's defence of its ideological frontiers. 

Londonstani would go as far as to say that existence of the aid was not common knowledge to most Egyptians. The reason why he'd go out on a limb with that last statement, is because US aid to Egypt was one of the first stories he covered as a journalist in Cairo. Thomas Friedman had published a mock letter from Bill Clinton to Mubarak asking, rhetorically, what the US got for its money. That evening, Londonstani did a bit of polling in the local coffeeshops and found that not one person could tell him how much aid Egypt got or when it started flowing. Most were openly surprised.

That changed. Over the next five years, as opposition to Mubarak grew more vocal, US news organisations mentioned the aid more frequently, and US officials became more comfortable with flinging around threats to cut it off. The end result was that many more Egyptians came to hear about the aid.

Mubarak's response was to carry on like before. The sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who was first arrested in 2000 for accepting foreign funds without permission, was dragged through the courts for nearly a decade in a case that drew local and international attention. A number of other democracy activists were prosecuted for similar offences.

The US, which was never popular in the Arab world past about 1967, was on an unpopularity high in the run up to 9/11 due to Israel's reaction to the the Palestinian uprising and continuing sanctions against Iraq. Then of course came the invasion of Iraq. As bad became worse, the Egyptian state capitalised on the US's public image misfortunes by insinuating (or outright stating) that all sorts of domestic irritants (from dodgy businessmen, to partying homosexuals to blaspheming false prophets) were part of a foreign (ie Western) plot to destabilse Egypt.

But the reason why Londonstani doesnt agree with Steven that taking away the foreign hand will end the cries of conspiracy is based on the reason why the Egyptian state thought it was such a great play to begin with; people want to believe it.

The military men who run Egypt realised a long time ago that conspiracy theories made people feel important. It made them feel that they were worth being conspired against. As someone clever once said, "There's nothing worse than being ignored".

Egypt's slow fall from prominence under a regime that came to power on the promise of restoring pride was easier to hide because it was too painful to accept.

Apart from that Londonstani is totally in agreement with Steven.

Thursday
Feb022012

Anne-Marie Slaughter and a new approach to foreign policy

Since 2009, Londonstani has been working on developing and applying communications strategies in the UK and abroad. While most of his time is spent on the nitty gritty of making things happen in places like Pakistan, Londonstani is also very interested in the theory behind the practice.

However, there doesn't seem to be much out there about building, maintaining and leveraging influence in a rapidly changing world. What thinking and discussion does exist on this tends to be American. Which isn't  surprising in light of the events of the past 10 years. But consider the UK for a moment. Britain has the advantage (and liability) of historical connections and associations, the English language - which ties together entertainment and information (BBC, Reuters). Add to this a relatively large global investment footprint as well as a domestic culture that is globally connected. Also, there are a number of UK thinkers and practioners who operate in this area; very competent people like Robin Brown (@rcmb), Aaron Ellis (@thinkstrat) and Emrys Schoemaker (@emrys_s). Last but not least, the UK has been trading on its soft power for several decades, and is quite good at it.

The aim of this blog is to collate and, where possible, add to discussions about developing realistic, successful policies and methods in the new global environment. It's in that vein that Londonstani thought readers, particularly British ones, might be interested in a recent discussion between high-profile US figures on exactly these issues. 

Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the State Department, wrote an article back in July titled The New Foreign Policy Frontier. In it she argued that diplomacy is no longer just government-to-government, but also government-to-society and society-to-society. This new dynamic (or dynamics), she points out, opens up the potential for groups or individuals, not necessarily connected to a government, to undertake actions that affect countries in a way previously only governments could.

Equally clever person Dan Drezner (@dandrezner), professor of international relations at Tufts, took Anne-Marie to task over the point that micro-level, non-governmental initiatives - networked or not - had questionable impact on the general scheme of things. And that what networked interaction there was, had been there for a long time anyway.

Leaving the details of the discussion aside, the central point - are we moving from an era of the big men of state to one where "regular" people impact international relations - is one that Londonstani has had on-and-off with journalist and diplomat friends since 2003.

Al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks are often cited as the ultimate example of a game-changer enacted by a small group of people without government ties. But the reason Londonstani started thinking about this in 2003 is because that was when he, as a young reporter, noticed that the dynamics of how people in the Middle East see themselves and the world had fundamentally changed. 

As the US geared up for war against Saddam many US-allied Arab nations had tacitly fallen in behind the US, but continued to express public opposition to the impeding war. Egypt under Mubarak was a tightly controlled information environment. State media organisations reinforced for Egyptians a worldview of their leader as an Arab champion and their country as a bulwark against US designs in the region. These were messages that had first been inculcated at school by the government education system.

Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab news channel made plain that the collective deception would not hold. In early 2003, US warships started passing through the Suez Canal, and al Jazeera set a camera up on the banks of the international waterway. As state television showed Mubarak fulminating about Arab solidarity, the highly popular news channel showed US warships passing through Egyptian territory on the way to invade Iraq. At about the same time, Egypt was showing triumphant military marches on state television during its annual war commemoration. Predictably, the contrast between bluster and compliance brought out demonstrators on to the streets asking, "Where is the Egyptian army".

This isn't to say that new media technology changed the way the world works. It's just a new way of disseminating information. And information has been the key to social and political change for a long time. In fact, Egypt has seen it all before. During British rule in Egypt the likes of Ahmed Lutfi el Sayed were distributing leaflets calling for revolution. In the 1970s, Ayatollah Khomeni was using taped speeches to build support and turn people away from the shah. As today, technology was making it possible for people to connect with each other and unite around a common cause. 

It seems to Londonstani that this discussion should be less about the world changing and more about changing the methods of those who try and deal with it. Anne-Marie seems, in essence, to be arguing that it's no longer possible (for whatever reason) to do deals with important men in foreign places and expect them to enforce your agreement on their own people. Londonstani would argue that approach never actually worked. If you take the long view of history, Western powers' dealings with Iranian shahs in the era of capitulations had an influence on the evolution that led to relationship the West and Iran have today. In more recent times, Israel and the West's dealing with the autocratic and corrupt PLO leadership has been a factor in the support Hamas can command.

What has changed is powerful peoples' ability to manipulate emotions in order to maintain their privileged positions. The tools they used grew accustomed to using don't work anymore.

So, the question is if you do decide that government-to-society or society-to-society connections provide the more stable relationships, what tools can you use, and how do you use them?

 

UPDATE: Anne-Marie responded to this post via twitter:

To , the question u pose at the end of your piece is EXACTLY my research agenda. Look forward to more convo"

Definitely...

 

Thursday
Feb022012

Random readings - business and influence

Good NYT article by Roger Cohen making the point that firms moving operations abroad isn't necessarily a bad thing.

“A General Electric or a Goldman or a Twitter tries to work in each country in culturally appropriate ways, but at their base these companies hold an American set of values. And that is what influence is,” Xenia Dormandy, a senior fellow at Chatham House, told me. “Power viewed in state terms alone, or even primarily, is a false premise these days.”

In Londonstani's experience, that last sentence is key, and has been true for British influence abroad for quite a few years already. Wherever Londonstani has worked in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, job seekers want to work for foreign (ie Western) companies not solely because of the money on offer, but because they think their employers will operate a fairer set of standards. British organisations, in particular, retain a powerful association with values such as meritocracy, fairness, honesty. Londonstani isn't saying these are true (sadly in his experience, they often aren't) but the connotation is a powerful asset.

Speaking in a US-specific context, Cohen goes on:

"The conspicuous failure of American hard power — in Iraq and Afghanistan — has tended to obscure the way American soft power has flourished over the past decade. For a while soft power was undercut because the U.S. reputation was tarnished, but the Arab awakening has demonstrated how powerful American-driven social media are in opening up closed societies. Facebook and Twitter have been conspicuous. But when I.B.M. invests massively in Africa — which it has identified as the next major emerging growth market — it is also investing in an openness that advances U.S. interests."

Trade and communicate - It's the way forward

UPDATE: There's saying drummed into you if you do journalism training that seems to apply equally well to public diplomacy and strategic communications; "Show don't tell". This seems to be the crux of Cohen's point here.