Saturday, August 15, 2009

Two separate surveys reveal public opinion towards US remain negative in Pakistan

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The 2009 "Pew Global Attitudes survey of Pakistan" released on 13th August 2009, outlines fresh challenges for the US Public Diplomacy machinery. The report highlights the fact that growing concerns about Islamic extremism among Pakistanis have not resulted in a positive perception of US. In fact, the report mentions that, "Opinions of America and its people remain extremely negative. Barack Obama's global popularity is not evident in Pakistan, and America's image remains as tarnished in that country as it was in the Bush years. Only 22% of Pakistanis think the U.S. takes their interests into account when making foreign policy decisions, essentially unchanged from 21% since 2007. Fully 64% of the public regards the U.S. as an enemy, while only 9% describe it as a partner." Winning the war of ideas in America's war against terror will be a huge challenge.
The Indian press carried the story widely. The financial daily 'Mint,' quoted the strategic affairs expert C. Uday Bhaskar saying that “One of the abiding features of Pakistan is that in this region the highest incidents of anti-US protests and attacks have been on Pakistan’s streets. The paradox is that the Pakistani establishment is closely aligned with the US, so much so that it has been designated as the only non-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) ally in the war against terror.” For US public diplomacy, the challenge will be to counter the view that the war on terror in Pakistani soil amounts to interfering with Pakistan's internal affairs. The war should go on without the US looking meddlesome.
The Hindustan Times, The Times of India, in the meantime, carried a PTI story -- Most Pakistanis see US as bigger threat than India: survey on 14th August, 2009. This story quoted another survey, commissioned by Al Jazeera News Channel and conducted by Gallup Pakistan (and not the one conducted by Pew). This survey "revealed that 59 per cent of respondents believed the greatest threat to Pakistan right now is the US. Eighteen per cent said that the greatest threat came from neighbouring India." So, these are two separate surveys with almost similar findings when it comes to attitudes about US. But, on the threat perception from India this is what the Pew Survey had to say, "And growing worries about extremism notwithstanding, more Pakistanis judge India as a very serious threat to the nation (69%) than regard the Taliban (57%) or al Qaeda (41%) as very serious threats."
The Pew survey reveals that "by a margin of 54% to 4% the U.S. is seen as favoring India over Pakistan." Conspiracy theorists in Pakistan have recently talked about a Indo-US-Israel nexus to dismember the country. For US public diplomacy the second challenge, may be, is to debunk such conspiracy theories. These have the potential to become an ideological rallying point against US, around the banner of Islam, possibly destabilizing the entire region from South Asia, Middle East and Central Asia.
Suggestions/Critiques welcome.

G-2 embassies in New Delhi

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The Chinese Embassy at Chanakyapuri, in New Delhi, is now surrounded by a barbed wire fence. It starts next to the pavement and is a good 6-7 feet away from the walls of the compound. It is an eyesore! It looks more like a compound housing a security agency/military outpost than an embassy at New Delhi’s beautiful diplomatic enclave.

Embassies in New Delhi, or for that matter anywhere in the world, take great care to project an authentic (or desired) perception of the country. When I first visited New Delhi as a 13 year old, I remember my parents taking me around the Diplomatic Enclave. That was quite some time ago and I was amazed by the wide boulevards, the neatly manicured lawns, “foreign cars” (India only had the Maruti to boast of then) which was so unlike the rest of Delhi. I remember loving the ‘cottage like’ Belgian Embassy and the Pakistan Embassy for its unique Islamic architecture with domes and all. But yes, every embassy I visited embedded in my mind an image of the country.Years later, when I happened to visit the US embassy, I could sense "power" - in its sprawling campus, high walls, layers of security surrounding the embassy, cumbersome and tiring security checks conducted by paranoid and angry staff. There are barricades, check posts in the lanes and roads leading to the embassy, there is a ring of security by the paramilitary forces (most likely the CRPF) and an outer layer of security of Delhi Police both outside the embassy and then there are layers inside. You realize, this is a country that takes itself really seriously. It was inaccessible and unfriendly. There was nothing “diplomatic” about it and you could sense the “empire.” In a way, the preeminent position of US in the world was being reinforced by its heightened threat perception.

The Chinese seems to be doing something similar. Is it reflective of its growing power in the world now? I don’t know exactly when this fence and layers of security came up around the Chinese embassy. Possibly, after the Urumqi riots with threats of attacks by Islamic terrorists the Chinese are being extra careful. However, contrast this with the Algerian Embassy, a country which has been a victim of Islamic terror for quite some time now. The Algerians don’t look so paranoid. The rest of the P5 - Russian, French and English - seem comparatively relaxed too. The Chinese are beginning to take themselves seriously or maybe I am taking the Chinese seriously! But as my colleagues and me drove by the Chinese embassy we could sense "power."
The G2 has arrived in New Delhi. Contrast this to a visit to the New Zealand High Commisssion or the embassy of Nepal for that matter. You will know what I am talking about!
Suggestions/Critiques welcome.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Diaspora in Public Diplomacy - Indian & Chinese

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The Global Times carried the following editorial today "Overseas Chinese: time to boost image" The edit piece said - "China’s sons and daughters living abroad can promote the country’s international image as a powerful, responsible and respected nation ... This group has a lot to offer in terms of boosting China’s economic growth and overall development; that contribution will be more sustainable if these overseas Chinese enjoy a good image." In keeping with its ambition to a larger role in the world, China has drawn up extensive plans to harness what the diaspora has to offer.
India & China are two most populous nations in the world. Both these countries are home to half of the world's population and a huge number of Indians & Chinese live overseas. The diaspora of these two countries can play a huge role in boosting respective country's images. Number of Indians living overseas are estimated anywhere between 26-30 million across all continents. It will be interesting to watch how these two nations, potential rivals, attempt to leverage this advantage. From lobbying to cultural influence, the diaspora is crucial.
Significantly, Indians have different images in different countries. While in North America they might be seen as a "model minority" but in countries such as Nepal in its neighborhood, Indians are not a very welcome lot... even though their numbers are substantial. These subtle differences need to be taken into account in seeking to engage the diaspora in different countries. The Chinese seem to be more aggressive when it comes to reaching out to diaspora for virtually every socio-political development, and, do not mind making demands such as asking the diaspora " ... to unite around the Communist Party on the basis of "blood lineage" and to spread the "truth" about separatism in Xinjiang " (The Sydney Morning Herald). In the recent racist violence against Indian students in Australia, the Indian government made little efforts to involve the diaspora but kept it at government to government level. In fact, few Indian-Australians I know, refused to be dragged into this controversy as they did not want to be seen as "Anti-Australian," being Australian citizens now. How about getting the Australian diaspora to help Indian students, immigrants, settle down better in an alien land? Another interesting fact about the Indian diaspora is that most of the remittances come from the Gulf countries where Indians primarily work as service personnel, menial labourers, construction workers etc. and not from prosperous Indians in Western Europe or North America. So, can the diaspora be a all weather friend?
I also feel the digital is a good medium to engage the diaspora. The diaspora is quite possibly very active in the social media sphere networking, getting back in touch or simply checking for news from India. The medium has potential to connect, discuss, engage and influence the "digital diaspora." This is one area where Public Diplomacy 2.0 can potentially play an important role.
Suggestions/Critiques welcome.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Web 2.0 in Public Diplomacy - Strategic mismatch

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There's much talk about using Web 2.0 for Public Diplomacy nowadays. As I have written in this blog before, I am a bit cynical about its potential right now. It might be a strategic tool for some nations but may not be of use for some at all. There is indeed a digital divide in international relations with possibly interesting consequences.
Let's take the example of India. Internet penetration is low but the number of Internet users are very high. As of September, 2008, India had 45.3 million active internet users. This is according to the I-Cube [Internet in India] Study conducted annually by IMRB International and Internet and Mobile Association of India [IAMAI]. These figures were released in January 2009. The study also found that the number of “claimed” internet users in September 2008 was 57 million - "Claimed Users" being those who have used the internet "sometime" but not in the last one month. This is however, just 1/6th of just the Indian middle class. From the "Web 2.0 public diplomacy" perspective there may not be a mass potential here. I propose this argument keeping in mind one of the core objectives of Public Diplomacy - to influence foreign public opinion to bring about policy, behavourial, attitudinal changes in the 'targeted' nation state. Out of 1.2 billion Indians merely 45 million are active internet users! My guess is that these 45 million are not very active voters as well to be able to enforce policy changes. Voter apathy of Indian middle class is well known. To bring about changes in India, a communications campaign has to look at the vast underclasses, nearly 800-900 million of them, who also 'vote' and thus matter to the political elite.
But if we look at developed economies like US or Europe, internet penetration and usage are high. So, for lesser countries with the capability and knowhow ( I mean India, China & Brazil) it will be a lot easier to influence Europeans or Americans in a focused way with mass out reach. In a way, the strategic advantage actually lie with these countries rather than the developed West when it come to Web 2.0 Public Diplomacy. Being on the wrong side of the digital divide may be beneficial for these states. To illustrate further, we all know about Iran "twittering away" few months ago... but these twitterers are very minuscule and do not form the huge popular support base for conservative Ahmedinejad. (Read my blog post "Public Diplomacy & Social Media" in June, 2009.) For Iran, it is easier to reach and attempt to influence an American audience rather than for US to reach Iranians via Web 2.0. Naturally, the tactics have to be different and a realistic assessment of Web 2.0 potential has to be made for each country.
Web 2.0, nonetheless, can be used by US and the West to influence policy makers, lobbyists, academics & analysts in countries with low internet usage and this is where it can be most useful. I am not discounting the potential of Web 2.0 Public Diplomacy -- This is just an attempt to look critically at it's possible use in the world as it exists now.
Suggestions/Critiques welcome.
-- Madhur
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