Humanizing UK-EU relations in the face of Brexit

Yesterday the UK government announced plans to prorogue (suspend) Parliament in the run up to the 31 October Brexit leaving date. The Prime Minister claims the timing decision was about making progress in other policy areas (fighting crime, funding the NHS & education, etc.) but that doesn’t fit with what he’s said in the past. During the recent leadership contest, he considered using it as a means to get Brexit through:

At Conservative hustings in Bournemouth on 27 June

Overnight, there’s been a huge backlash from politicians of all parties and members of the public. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow said, “However it is dressed up, it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty in shaping a course for the country.” A petition started just yesterday evening has already gathered 1.3 million signatures, and counting–far surpassing the 100,000 signature threshold needed to get the petition debated in Parliament.

Brexit has been 3 years of crazy so far, and I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I know one thing–on a human level, the people of the UK and the people of the rest of the EU are fine with each other. Even the most ardent Brexiteers actually love Europe. They drink champagne and vacation in Italy and Spain, they love the German Christmas markets and shop at Ikea. They drive Audis, BMWs, Volvos, Fiats, Renaults, Citroens, Peugeots, Dacias, Skodas, etc. They eat huge amounts of food imported from the continent–the UK imports nearly 40% of its food, and 79% of that comes from the EU. At grammar school, they learn European languages like French, Spanish, Italian, German–they’re not learning Chinese or Arabic (although Brits are well-below the EU average when it comes to languages: only 38% of Brits speak at least one foreign language, versus an EU average of 56%).

At the end of the day, Britain and the EU are neighbours and friends, colleagues and family members. They were before Britain joined the EU, and they will still be if/when Britain leaves the EU.

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From whispers to bricks…

In 2008, when I came to Leeds for my Masters, I loved my department. I loved public diplomacy and political communication and the specific ways my department interpreted them, and I admired and respected the vast majority of the staff members. I found friends and mentors, met and fell in love with my now-husband, and I put together a PhD proposal with an amazing supervisor. Everything seemed to be happening for a reason and it all felt right.

After my supervisor’s death, and my other supervisors’ departure from academia, and other staff leaving the department, things changed. I started to sense some whispers, some clues that I no longer belonged in the department. Our international communication experts were replaced with people who interpreted it very differently, and the department abruptly shifted away from public diplomacy. I kept smiling through it all and felt confident that I would be fine. I wasn’t the only one–there were a few of us who were left behind, studying public diplomacy and propaganda in a department that no longer had expertise in those areas. We joked that we were “propaganda pandas”–an endangered species.

I ignored the whispers. I applied to jobs and didn’t get any after the PhD, and I took up short-term, part-time contracts in my department. I told myself it was worth it, to “keep my foot in the door” of academia, to be able to access the library, to have networking opportunities, etc. Apart from a couple of conferences, I have little to show for these 3 years and 10 months of short-term contracts.

Today I got a brick. Nobody in my department has told me directly that I’m definitely not getting my contact renewed–two weeks ago, I was told that they were still allocating teaching and would be in touch. Today, I saw my name in a departmental staff newsletter under the “goodbyes”, listed as one of the people who is leaving.

I’m pretty sure that’s a brick, from the department that’s changed so much over the past decade. I’m going to listen this time, and say goodbye back.

The Short-Sightedness of “Unshackling” British Diplomacy from Brussels

Once again I’m finding news to be very distracting–between Trump and Brexit, it’s hard to focus (I feel like I’ve been saying that since 2016, though…). But I noticed something in the news today that actually is relevant to public diplomacy scholars–British diplomats are leaving Brussels now, before Brexit even happens.

British diplomats will pull out from the EU’s institutional structures of power in Brussels within days, under plans being drawn up by Downing Street.

In an attempt to reinforce the message that the UK is leaving the EU by 31 October, “do or die”, the UK will stop attending the day-to-day meetings that inform the bloc’s decision-making.

The move under discussion is said by UK officials to be in line with Boris Johnson’s first statement in the House of Commons, in which he said he would “unshackle” British diplomacy from EU affairs.

British diplomats to pull out from EU decision-making meetings within days, The Guardian, 12 August 2019

Admittedly, I didn’t watch Boris Johnson’s statement, but it’s not surprising and it sounds just like him. It’s a symbolic move, as the article says, and would just end up hurting UK interests in the end because we’re removing ourselves from discussions that impact us. “Do or die” is the most undiplomatic language to describe foreign affairs–but Boris is a very undiplomatic figure, too.

In dealing with this hot mess of foreign policy, one expert was quoted as saying that the UK would need to invest heavily in public diplomacy, including involvement from the private sector:

Paul Adamson, a visiting professor at the Policy Institute, King’s College London, said the UK government would need to build up its embassy in Brussels after Brexit.

He said: “One of the many ironies of Brexit is that the UK government will have to significantly increase its diplomatic presence in Brussels – as well as in key EU capitals – both to find out what is going on in meetings from which it will be excluded but also to try to influence the direction of EU policy making. Brussels decisions will continue to impact the UK.

“[The government] and its agencies will have to invest heavily in public diplomacy to repair alliances and to forge new ones. The private sector, whether its business, civil society, the think-tank world and the like, will very much need to be part of this exercise”.

British diplomats to pull out from EU decision-making meetings within days, The Guardian, 12 August 2019

Although it definitely makes some good points, this statement reminded me of a key takeaway from Phil Taylor’s Masters class in public diplomacy:

No amount of public diplomacy can make up for bad policy.

It is not a solution for the inevitable problems that will arise if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal on 31 October. It’s not an alternative form of international relations, or a consolation prize. Public diplomacy works best as an adjunct, supporting traditional diplomatic relations between states by offering additional (not alternative) forms of engagement. It also includes listening, something that the current UK government doesn’t seem interested in, given this premature disengagement in Brussels.

To illustrate the concept of PD not being a cure-all, Phil Taylor used to use the example of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Charlotte Beers’ failed efforts in the Middle East during the Iraq War. The “Shared Values” campaign was a particularly memorable disaster–a commercial-length TV program showing Muslim Americans talking about their life in America.

“Actors in the program talked of tolerance and religious freedom in lines including, ‘In my neighborhood all the non-Muslims, I see that they care a lot about family values just as much as I do. I didn’t quite see any prejudice anywhere in my neighborhood after September 11.’ Several countries in the Middle East refused to air the programs entirely.”

Anna Tiedeman, p. 22

Phil used to point out a major flaw in the “Shared Values” strategy: Middle East audiences didn’t want to hear “how good life was for Muslim Americans” while at the same time their country was being invaded by US and coalition troops, homes were being bombed, and innocent civilians were dying. “Good for them,” he’d shrug, “but what about us?”

These international broadcasting and information campaigns weren’t the only efforts–the US also re-established the Iraq Fulbright Program in 2003, and included other exchange initiatives in its public diplomacy efforts. Teresa Brawner Bevis’s book on post-9/11 US-Middle East educational exchange noted a dramatic rise in Americans studying Arabic and Middle East area studies, as well as studying abroad in the region–but this may have been too little, too late:

“The increase in numbers of Americans studying abroad was good news for policy makers, who for decades had lamented how few people in the United States studied the Middle East, a situation that created shortages of expertise in the military, intelligence services, and diplomatic corps.”

Bevis, 2016, Higher Education Exchange between America and the Middle East in the Twenty-First Century, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 87

The long-standing, systemic problems in US-Middle East relations, combined with the context of the Iraq War, meant that public diplomacy efforts could never repair Middle Eastern audiences’ negative perception of America. US foreign policy would always nullify any amount of public diplomacy.

Boris Johnson doesn’t care about that, of course, but it’s something the British people and officials should take notice of–crashing out of the EU with a “do or die” attitude will be remembered, and it will matter far more to global perceptions of the UK than any version of a British ‘Shared Values’ campaign.

What I’m Reading: Disarmed

Kristin A. Goss, Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006

When I was in high school, my friend Rachael took me along to see Bowling for Columbine (2002) at a little independent movie theater in Mount Vernon, Washington. I wasn’t particularly aware of the gun control vs. gun rights debate before watching that movie, but that movie made me realize that America’s gun culture wasn’t normal. Like Michael Moore’s 2007 film Sicko about the healthcare debate, this movie used a comparative approach to show that ‘the way things are’ in America isn’t the way they are in other countries.

The recent El Paso and Dayton mass shootings drove that point home again, powerfully–this doesn’t happen in other countries. It’s not normal. “American exceptionalism” is evidenced in the government’s impotent attitude toward gun violence.

Growing up in the States, I knew people who owned guns–deer hunters, people (white men, to be specific) who wanted them for “self-protection” (which I’ve never understood–protection from what? Why do I feel safe without a gun, even in sketchy areas, but a tall, athletic guy I knew needed a gun to feel as safe as I do?). When I lived in the States, I didn’t think to question the Second Amendment and I took gun rights for granted.

Now, after a decade living in the UK, a country that banned handguns after the Dunblane, Scotland school shooting in 1986, my views on gun control no longer have a place in American politics. Even the most progressive Democrats believe in upholding the Second Amendment. Their current proposals are “the boldest language used in 20-25 years”, but they’re still not banning assault weapons, much less handguns.

Much of the academic literature on America’s gun debate centres on explaining why the NRA/gun lobby is so powerful and well-organised. Goss turns that question around to ask why the gun control advocates are so weak and ineffective. Where is the “missing movement for gun control”, as she calls it? Part of the answer lies in the American policy-making system, which makes national change difficult without large-scale mobilisation–and the necessary degree of mobilisation just hasn’t been seen on the gun control side, to overpower (or even compete against) the gun rights side.

Her book is part of my literature review for the study I’m doing on gun debate discourse post-Parkland, so I’m interested in this idea of mobilisation. The March for Our Lives on 24 March 2018 was, arguably, the kind of grassroots mobilisation that gun control advocates needed in order to get gun policy reform passed. But did it? What has changed since Parkland, in terms of actual policy?

As part of my study, I’ve been coding Congressional Twitter over the month after the Parkland shooting, so I’m familiar with all of the policy proposals that were circulating in those early days and weeks. They were, unsurprisingly, polarized. On the right, it was mostly arming teachers and increasing school security, while on the left it was a range of proposals–Fix NICS (improving the background check system), universal background checks, banning assault weapons, gun violence restraining orders, etc. The STOP School Violence Act passed with bipartisan support, but its proposals were a first step rather than comprehensive reform, and it had nothing to do with gun control. For several Republican members of Congress, their only mentions of Parkland or the gun debate were a “thoughts & prayers” tweet on 14 February, then a tweet about their support of the STOP act when it passed on 14 March. After seeing that pattern, over and over (and some “NRA A-grade” congresspeople didn’t mention it at all), I’m a bit cynical about policy change, and about the state of the gun debate in general.

Goss, however, is impressed by the March for our Lives movement and the current state of mobilization on the gun control side.

“The movement is much broader and better resourced and more pragmatic and strategic than it has been in the 20 years I’ve been studying it,” Goss said.

” One year later, experts say Parkland was ‘turning point’ in gun debate”, 14 February 2019

The same article pointed out a range of new laws and regulations at the state level, in 26 states and D.C.:

  • Seven states enacted extensions or improvements of background checks
  • Nine states and D.C. enacted laws banning the use of bump stocks and trigger activators
  • Five states tightened concealed carry laws
  • Eleven states passed laws to help keep firearms away from domestic abusers
  • Eight states and D.C. passed extreme risk protection order statutes
  • Four states passed new restrictions on firearm purchases by those under 21
  • Nine states passed laws to fund urban gun violence reduction programs

The list gave me some hope. 26 states is a majority, even though it’s a very slim one. I suspect those lefty, urbanised states include quite a lot more than 50% of the US population (I think a lot of people forget how massive California’s population is–one in eight Americans lives in California!). I think Goss’s observation about sustained mobilisation still rings true today, though–gun control advocates need to be as organised, high-profile and noisy as the gun rights side are with the NRA. They have a lot more money and influence of course, but as Goss points out, large-scale grassroots movements have changed things before–the Civil Rights movement, women’s rights, etc. The challenge is going to be translating popular support into mass mobilization. In a poll from last week, 90% of Americans support universal background checks for all gun purchases and nearly 70% support an assault-style weapons ban. It’s amazing to hear about that kind of consensus in our divided “red vs. blue” politics. The American people actually agree on some of the major proposals. Now they just need to care about advocating for them as much as the NRA cares about expanding gun rights…

Happy 73rd Anniversary to the Fulbright Program!

On this day in 1946, President Truman signed the Fulbright Act into law. As I did in last year’s post, the program’s anniversary is always an occasion to reflect on the program and what it’s achieved over the years.

Thinking back over its 73 year history, one of the things that stands out most to me is the program’s consistency and stability. The Fulbright Program has shown an amazing ability to survive. It’s outlasted political chaos and economic fluctuations, wars and diplomatic crises, and supportive and critical occupants of the White House.

Recently, I was looking through my old archive photos from University of Arkansas trip, and I came across this gem. The clipping was enclosed in a letter to J.W. Fulbright from Arkansas Gazette editor James O. Powell (Fulbright’s reply letter was dated 9 January 1978). At the time, the Fulbright Program was being shifted from the US State Department to the new, reorganised version of the US Information Agency (USIA), the US International Communication Agency (USICA). This Carter-era bureaucratic shift wasn’t an attempt to turn exchanges into propaganda, as the cartoon suggests. The Carter administration was supportive of exchanges, and it was really more of an effort to shift USIA towards two-way, mutual understanding promotion, instead of its original overseas ‘information’ (propaganda) remit. Despite the fact I disagree with this characterisation of the Carter administration’s USICA, I still like the cartoon, because it perfectly captures the tension between the two conceptualisations of exchange diplomacy–is it about education and culture, or is it about persuasion and national images? Are they mutually exclusive concepts, or is there room for both aspects in exchanges?

University of Arkansas Library Special Collections, Fulbright Post-Senatorial Papers, Series 4, Box 22, Folder 2.

Note the “America First” slogan on the eagle, too–Trump didn’t invent the phrase. This attitude is nothing new, and it’s part of a bigger concept of what the US is/does/stands for. I love that it’s opposed to education and culture. That’s appropriate for the current wave of populist politics–cutting public education funding, cutting the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, rejecting climate science and vaccine research, generally anti-expertise attitudes.

Yet, despite all of that, the Fulbright Program carries on, as it has for the past 73 years, quietly bringing students and scholars, professors and researchers into contact with their international colleagues, facilitating the exchange of ideas and promoting mutual understanding. When America’s President is viewed unfavourably around the world, the American people are still regarded in a positive light–and I think it’s thanks, in part, to interpersonal contact.

Pew Research Center, 2018

When you can relate the abstract idea of America to an actual person you know, not just Hollywood, or Coca-Cola, or blue jeans, or Disney, you can get past its leader. This gives some hope for other countries, too–if you know a British person, you’ll know they’re not all like Boris Johnson. My Chinese students are not Xi Jinping, my Brazilian friends are not Bolsonaro, etc. (That said, when you have a leader that’s viewed favourably, it helps!)

May the Fulbright Program continue bringing people together, showing Americans and international participants the realities of life in other countries and cultures, and promoting genuine mutual understanding of international affairs that goes beyond the headlines.

Out now! The Legacy of J. William Fulbright: Policy, Power and Ideology

The edited volume with my book chapter is now officially published! It’s listed on amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, Google Books, Jstor, and sometimes I’m even listed as a contributing author! I’m so excited to see it in print! I love the cover, too–it has a definite 1960s, retro feel to it, and the ’60’s were the Senator’s prime years.

This book came out of a fantastic conference I took part in at the University of Arkansas, 1-2 September 2015.

I’m hiding away behind Nancy Snow–it was such a great experience to finally meet her, talk about our mutual interests in exchange diplomacy, and share memories of Phil Taylor!

My chapter is much improved after being rewritten a couple of times since then, and it’s not the only thing that’s changed:

9 week old George in our conference hotel room…
Our walking, talking 4 year old George today!

I’m so proud of the editors and contributors for all of their hard work, and so grateful that I had the opportunity to take part in this project. It covers a great mix of biography, history, sociology and public diplomacy. All academic books try to emphasise their originality, but it really does add some new perspectives and insights on the Senator and on his namesake exchange program. My chapter and Alice Garner & Diane Kirkby’s chapter bring a discussion of gender to the collection that, until now, has been ignored in studies of the Fulbright Program. Well done everybody!

Diplomacy and Twitter Rants

A Chinese diplomat in Pakistan, Lijian Zhao, recently took to Twitter to criticise US race relations, in response to US criticism of China’s mass detentions of the Muslim Uighur population. After receiving a degree of backlash, including being called racist by former US national security adviser Susan Rice, Zhao then added further critiques of American culture, including gun violence, migrant family separation, and sexual assault.

Zhao deleted his original tweet but doubled down on his previous point, going on to describe the “living conditions of African Americans” as “worrisome”, and highlighting the country’s “endless” school shootings, and women “living in fear” of sexual assault. “Truth hurts. I am simply telling the truth,” he wrote.

Lily Kuo, China’s Envoys try out Trump-Style Twitter diplomacy, The Guardian, 17 July 2019

So, this is where we are now…global politics playing out in Twitter rants. As a political communication researcher who’s been looking at politicians’ Twitter accounts for the past several months, I feel like I should have something substantial to say here, but when I saw the phrase “Trump-style Twitter diplomacy,” I was a bit lost for words. It’s bad enough he does it–now others are copying him? Sigh.

The argument “Well, you do it, too!” is a weak one. It only underscores the notion that the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighur population is indefensible. It’s not the first time they’ve tried to use this argument, either–since 1998, the Chinese government has been publishing an annual report, The Human Rights Record of the United States, as a rebuttal against U.S. criticism of China’s human rights record.

It’s also not the first time America’s history of racial discrimination and segregation has been used by critics on the international stage. During the Cold War, race relations in the U.S. were a common theme of Soviet propaganda. According to this piece from NYU’s Brennan Center, Soviet officials identified African Americans as having “revolutionary potential” as early as 1928. During the years of anti-Jim Crow activism, the Soviet strategy primarily consisted of simply reprinting factual news that was damaging to the U.S. image abroad.

Efforts to counter the USSR’s narrative about American racism were undercut by the fact that Soviet propaganda typically involved the reprinting and distribution of unaltered U.S. news sources about racial issues. For instance, the Soviets showcased American news outlets’ photographs of black protesters being hit with fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham in 1963.

Patel and Koreh, 2018, New Method, Same Strategy: Russia Has Long Exploited US Racial Divisions. Brennan Center for Justice,

Although they misappropriated the civil rights movements’ images for their own purposes, they were right to criticise US race relations. It was true–America did (and does) have problems and picking up on hypocrisy is something that adversaries do best, while allies might turn a blind eye. Zhao is right to say that the US still has problems with race relations, with school shootings, with sexual assault–but America failing in these areas doesn’t justify China’s treatment of the Uighur minority, or any of its other human rights abuses.

And this is the problem with Twitter rant diplomacy. The platform is simplistic, with character limits and re-tweet features that don’t lend themselves well to reasoned deliberation and fact-checking. That’s why Trump and his supporters like it, and that’s why it has such enormous potential for populist leaders who don’t perform as well in more controlled, nuanced media environments. If you don’t like someone, you can block them–and Trump does, frequently, as one of my favorite bloggers found out before he was President.

The whole thing is doubly interesting when you consider the audience for Zhao’s tweets. They’re clearly not for Chinese audiences. Since 2009, Twitter has been blocked in China, because Twitter wouldn’t adhere to the Chinese government’s requirements for censorship and surveillance (their own microblogging platform, Sina Weibo, does have censorship–and self-censorship). Zhao’s tweets were also written in English, which suggests that anglophone global audiences were the target, if not exclusively American audiences. It’s not directed at Pakistan, despite the fact he is based in Islamabad. It’s for the Tweeter-in-Chief and the US administration and its observers to hear.