US Soft Power Reassessed

Joseph Nye’s recent piece, American Soft Power in the Age of Trump, picks up on the key themes of his previous foundational work on soft power and acknowledges some of the problems America’s image abroad is facing in the Trump era. Even just a few months into the Trump presidency, Pew global attitudes surveys were showing steep declines in U.S. favorability ratings around the world. When asked to rate their “confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing regarding world affairs”, 31 of the 37 countries surveyed had double-digit declines between Obama and Trump:

From: Richard Wike, Bruce Stokes, Jacob Poushter and Janell Fetterolf, U.S. Image Suffers as Publics Around World Question Trump’s Leadership, Pew Research Center, 26 June 2017, p. 4

It’s interesting, too, to note that Russia reported a huge improvement: Only 11% had confidence in Obama, while 53% have confidence in Trump–a 42 point increase. Fifteen countries had that kind of dramatic reversal in opinion (more than 41 point decreases), but Russia was the only country that had it in that direction.

Without using the phrase itself, Nye picks up on the dangers of Trump’s “America First” policies. Blatantly telling the world that we’re putting our interests above anyone else’s needs, or even above the common good, is clearly detrimental to our image abroad and certainly undermines American soft power.

“Domestic or foreign policies that appear hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to others’ views, or based on a narrow conception of national interest can undermine soft power. For example, there was a steep decline in the attractiveness of the US in opinion polls conducted after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 . In the 1970s, many people around the world objected to the US war in Vietnam, and America’s global standing reflected the unpopularity of that policy.”

From: Joseph S. Nye, Jr., American Soft Power in the Age of Trump, Project Syndicate, 6 May 2019

Nye ends his piece on a somewhat optimistic note–America’s image abroad has recovered before and it will recover again–but personally, I think it’s still very much endangered. If Trump gets re-elected in 2020, the world will think the American people support him (not an unreasonable conclusion), and that America is accurately described by those qualities in Nye’s list–hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to others’ views, and promoting policies that are based on a narrow conception of national interest.

I’ve been following a few of the 2020 candidates on the Democratic side on social media, and the comment sections are very worrying. So much abuse and animosity from Trump supporters, and any Democratic supporter who comments with anything positive faces abuse, as well. Whether they are real people or trolls (or real trolls?), it is concerning. These social media platforms are not a space for discussion of the issues, which is a shame–they should be able to function as a sounding board for candidates to elicit voters’ views on policies and to figure out what issues matter most to voters. Instead, these spaces become littered with insults, abuse, swearing, American flag emojis, and hashtags like #Trump2020.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but the 2020 election is an important factor in our consideration of U.S. soft power, and its future resurrection or continued decline.

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What I’m Reading: Rewire

A colleague who studies social media passed this book onto me–I thought it sounded interesting, but I didn’t realise how surprisingly relevant to exchange diplomacy it would be, too. Zuckerman points to the example of his friend Johan Ugander, who co-authored a paper on international ties on Facebook. As a Swedish-American, he has more international ties than a typical social media user. This has knock-on effects, in terms of exposing those in their social networks to news and other shared content from different places. In exchange diplomacy, this is really part of the ‘multiplier effect’, where exchange participants pass on their knowledge gains post-sojourn to those in their social circles.

“People like Ugander who’ve lived their lives in different corners of the world are likely the key if we want social media to give us a broad view of the world and help us care about people we don’t otherwise know. With a Swedish citizen in my network of friends, I’m likely to be exposed to news and perspective I otherwise would have missed. Whether that exposure turns into interest and attention is a function of my receptivity and Johan’s ability to provide context around the news he’s sharing.”

Ethan Zuckerman, Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013), p. 116

Exchange diplomacy is all about connection and cosmopolitanism. The underlying logic of exchange diplomacy is that connections between people of different nations/groups/ways of thinking will lead to a sense of shared humanity and a cosmopolitan mindset.

Has the ease with which we can connect digitally with others around the world made the face-to-face connections of exchange diplomacy obsolete?

I would argue that it hasn’t at all, because there is a gap between the potential to connect digitally and the actual ways we use these digital tools. We may be able to access platforms that enable discussion with foreign publics, but we don’t necessarily use them. Our online social networks mirror our offline friendship circles, and we develop filter bubbles just as we spend time with like-minded people in real life.

Furthermore, exchange diplomacy processes might be enhanced with the development of social media, not rendered irrelevant by them. As Zuckerman suggests, world travellers might play an important role in broadening online networks and making them more cosmopolitan–if we have a personal connection, a friend-of-a-friend, then news about a distant country we’ve never visited can feel more relevant and meaningful.

The soft power of children’s literature

I’ve just come back from a long weekend in the Lake District, visiting Beatrix Potter’s beloved home Hill Top Farm and the sights of Hawkshead and Bowness-on-Windermere. It was lovely, but very touristy–apparently we weren’t the only ones with the idea of visiting the Lake District in the springtime.

On her writing desk was a copy of the original Peter Rabbit story–she wrote it in a letter to her former governess’s son, then borrowed back the letter to make a copy. She wasn’t able to find a publisher, so she self-published 250 copies–when they sold out, Frederick Warne & Co. (who had rejected her) reconsidered and offered to publish it, if she would re-illustrate it in colour.
Her doll house, used as the setting for The Tale of Two Bad Mice.

One thing that surprised me was the number of Japanese tourists being dropped off from coaches on the narrow country lanes of Near Sawrey, outside the gates of Hill Top. I found this BBC article from a few years ago about the popularity of Peter Rabbit in Japan. Apparently the book is used by English learners, and loved not just for the characters but also for its depictions of the English countryside. There’s even a Beatrix Potter reference library housed in a replica Hill Top (1.5x size), complete with farm animals at a children’s zoo in Japan.

Dual language signage in Hill Top. The guide in the room said “Mind the step,
Suteppu o ki ni shite kudasai,” and laughed, “It’s the only Japanese I know!”
Early hedgehog sketches–her pet hedgehog was the model for Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle

My friend Amber Pouliot organised a conference on literary tourism a few years ago, Placing the Author. It focused on 19th century authors, including the Brontes (Haworth also has signs in Japanese, by the way), Mary Shelley, William Wordsworth (I didn’t visit Dove Cottage, but I did see his grammar school in Hawkshead), and Jane Austen. I thought of her and the conference when I was planning my Easter teaching break–unintentionally, it was full of literary tourism. In addition to Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top, I also visited the Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden recently and loved it.

The reconstructed writing hut where Roald Dahl worked
They had a brilliant way to experience it–a reconstruction of the original behind glass, and then a touchable replica version for kids (and grown-up kids) to play with

I also went on the Harry Potter Studio Tour over the break, which was amazing and packed with tourists from all over the world. It’s so incredible to think of the size of the HP fandom, and that it all revolves around reading (unusually long) books, and that Rowling was the first person to make $1 billion from writing books. Taking these three visits together, it got me thinking about British children’s literature and how it’s been such a massive source of soft power for the UK. In the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, children’s literature featured prominently. J.K. Rowling read an excerpt from Peter Pan,and the dream sequence included villains from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Harry Potter and 101 Dalmatians, ultimately defeated by Mary Poppins(es). Then there’s Alice in Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh, Wind in the Willows, Robin Hood, Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Paddington–so much of the American/Disney cultural imperialism is rooted in British cultural imperialism. Just about the only British children’s stories that didn’t cross the pond are Watership Down (super weird story with violent rabbits), and Enid Blyton, which is just too twee for America (they did make it to Australia/NZ/Canada, though).

Why does children’s literature have such a significant soft power element? I think it’s the nostalgia we have for the stories we read as children–especially memories of being read to, by parents or teachers or other caregivers. The act of reading together is an act of love, of quality time. When you move onto independent reading, too, there’s the joy of discovery–of escapism, of encountering new ideas and vicarious experiences.

Children’s bookshop owner Kathleen Kelly in Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail


If children’s literature has this power to influence its readers, it can also shape the way they think about its country of origin.

What I’m Reading: Outsmarting Apartheid

Before reading this, I already suspected that South Africa would be an interesting case study in the Fulbright Program–their history, politics and culture make their international relationships both challenging and vital, especially during the four decades covered by this book. I also already knew the story of Amy Biehl, an American Fulbrighter who was tragically killed in South Africa, and I included her in my book chapter on Fulbright women. I could see why South Africa merited its own volume of Fulbright stories, and now that I’ve read it, I suspect there are even more out there just as fascinating.

My favorite interview was with Klaas Skosana, a Cultural Assistant at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria during the late 1990’s. He has a great perspective and picked up on so many themes that other interviewees (and other studies of exchange diplomacy) touch on, too. In addition to his work at the Embassy, he also went on a short-term exchange to the U.S., a month-long ‘study tour’. I’ve always been a little skeptical about these brief visits, and wondered how much participants can really get out of them. His reflections on that short visit, though, are not in isolation–they are a part of a larger body of experiences and knowledge about international relations and intercultural communication. That brief trip may not mean a great deal in and of itself, but it needs to be understood in that bigger context.

“Personally, I benefited from the study tour, and it was only thirty-one days. But it is like I spent years in the U.S., because I was exposed to various parts of the U.S. I knew that when I was walking down the street of Washington, DC, the chances of meeting somebody who had a PhD were great…I saw a list of people that I sent to the United States and what positions they are occupying today, and I think they all have positive things to say about what they have seen in the U.S. You take what you can from a country. You cannot focus on everything about a country, but fix your brain on a few aspects, and you will remember them forever…I think that the U.S. intervention was commendable, and it did, in many ways, ‘outsmart’ aparthaied because it exposed people to various perspectives.”

Whitman D (ed) (2014) Outsmarting Apartheid, Albany: SUNY Press, p. 296

This book was a long-neglected read–according to my Amazon account history, I bought it in February 2015! It’s been sitting in my bookshelf’s section for “This will be useful for revising and publishing my dissertation” books, and I hadn’t read it because I’ve made little progress on that project over the past four years. But it’s never too late–as my finally reading this book shows, as long as you’re still breathing, there’s always hope for neglected projects.

Unpaid work, part 4: Academia

I’m not sure whether people outside of academia are aware of how much unpaid work goes into academic research, teaching and publishing…

Academic publishing is built on a system of unpaid work. You write a journal article for free and submit it to a journal. They send it off to reviewers, who are asked to comment on your work and determine whether it’s publishable–and they aren’t paid, either. The article is then published in a journal that higher education institutions pay expensive subscription fees for–or if it’s an open access journal, then the author has paid a large publication fee (while also not getting paid to write it).

Source: https://guides.lib.fsu.edu/academicpublishing/economics

Then there’s the unpaid work involved in teaching–the breakdown of contracted hours is often opaque and greatly underestimates the time spent on marking, prep, e-mails, and pastoral care. Hourly contracted staff are given 30 minutes per essay when it comes to marking, for example–that’s 30 min to read it, evaluate how it measures up to the marking criteria, and write up useful feedback with specific examples and advice. Even after 8 years of teaching experience and developing templates, I would still struggle to give decent feedback in under 30 minutes.

Other unpaid things you must do to establish an academic career:

  • Look for your next contract while you’re on a temporary contract
  • Apply for grants and fellowships
  • Write book proposals
  • Look for Calls For Papers (for publications or conferences)
  • Apply for conferences, which often require original work that hasn’t previously been published elsewhere (and they charge conference registration fees that University employers usually cover, so it doesn’t seem like a big deal unless you’re out of work or on a low paid part-time contract)
  • Networking–it’s work that doesn’t seem like work, but can actually be essential for finding the next contract or project…and women are often excluded from it.

On the last point, here’s a little illustration from my own experience:

When my son was 9 weeks old, I presented my work at a conference that was a *dream* topic for me. It was so closely linked to my recently completed PhD topic, and I had cited many of the other speakers’ work in my thesis. I was thrilled to be there and so grateful for the opportunity! They even funded my travel expenses, which was essential, as I was unemployed at the time (not on maternity leave, but actually unemployed). The conference was a wonderful experience and I got a lot out of it, including the chance to contribute to an edited volume that’s coming out in August 2019.

It was, however, the first time I really experienced the realities of being a working and breastfeeding mom. While I was downstairs listening to presentations, my husband was upstairs in our hotel room looking after our 9-week-old. Every time there was a coffee break or lunch break, I would dash upstairs and simultaneously pump and breastfeed until the start of the next session. My supply was low, so it was a struggle. This meant that I missed out on most of the conference’s networking opportunities. I was worried in equal measure about establishing my milk supply and establishing my career–and it’s easy to feel like a failure on both fronts when I look back at it now.

On a more positive note, blogging (also unpaid) about it and sharing our experiences with each other is a step towards raising awareness about these inequalities and the unpaid workload of participating in academia.

Unpaid Work, Part 2: Breastfeeding

Breastmilk is not free.

When I saw this on Instagram, I had an Oprah “Ah-ha!” moment, because I’d never thought about it this way. Nobody does! We see how crazy expensive formula is and think we’re saving money by breastfeeding (as well as all of the other benefits), but ultimately, we’re paying indirectly in the form of unpaid work. And we do, all too often, think of women’s time, bodies and carework as worthless.

We pay in lack of sleep. We pay in hours of unpaid “on-the-job training,” learning how to breastfeed while we’re also recovering from childbirth. We pay in delaying a return to work or pumping at work. We pay in having to buy supplies for this unpaid work: breast-feeding friendly tops and nursing bras and nursing pillows and pumps and nipple cream and Fenugreek supplements and lactation cookies and Motherkind tea. We pay in the emotional labour of fielding unsolicited advice from strangers and friends and family about how we choose to feed our babies, how long we keep it up and whether/ how we do it in public.

Not only is it not always easy–it’s also not free.

Unpaid Work, part 1: intro

I’ve been noticing more and more unpaid work going on these days–the Deliveroo cyclists sitting outside the Arndale centre, watching their phones for the next job; the undergrads eager to get unpaid work placements at media companies; the reviewing we do without pay in academic publishing. It’s also in the extra help and pastoral care we give to students–the out-of-hours emails, the discussions after class, the office hours that overrun. Research has shown that women faculty perform significantly more service than men. Women are more likely to mentor colleagues and support their fellow academics in unpaid ways. Early career academics, in particular, do unpaid research and extra teaching prep that often goes unnoticed and unrewarded as they try to secure better contracts and improve their CVs. It’s a particularly subtle form of self-exploitation–nobody forces us to do it but ourselves and “the system”.

I’m not sure what the answers are to any of this, but being aware of the problem is a good first step. To that end, I’m going to write a little series of posts on unpaid work.