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.

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.

The added value of diplomats’ spouses

This morning I came across an article about a group of ambassadors’ wives working together on economic inequality–arguably one of the greatest challenges facing the world today, alongside (and linked with) climate change. The Spirit Level is a fascinating book that makes a strong case for inequality being the root cause behind a wide range of problems, from crime to obesity, teen pregnancy to the opioid epidemic.

These ambassadors’ wives, whose husbands are based at embassies in Berlin, are led by Julia Przyłębska, the wife of the Polish ambassador to Germany. Amongst their proposed projects, they want to organise international youth exchanges with a technical, environmental and agricultural focus. Przyłębska noted that diplomats’ wives have access to a highly international network of contacts, and they want to use this network to tackle collective problems:

She added that being wives of diplomats the group is in an ideal position to support those struggling against economic inequalities. 

She said: “Within the embassy, it is easy to bring together an international group of people from different countries in order to exchange and work together on solutions for today‘s global problems: unequal salaries and wages, the rights of the disabled and seniors, the access of the poorest to education. Also we ladies often have the advantage of having enough time, because we are rarely active professionally.” (source)

That last sentence sounds like something out of the 1950s, but it’s a good point: the accompanying spouse (male or female) of an Ambassador does have limitations on his/her career, due to the temporary and mobile nature of a diplomatic career. The realities of moving between countries for undetermined periods of time precludes having much of a professional life, and it’s something that the couple must negotiate between themselves.

This story reminded me of the Fulbright wives I discussed in my chapter for the upcoming book, The Legacy of J. William Fulbright, edited by David J. Snyder, Alessandro Brogi, Giles Scott-Smith, University of Kentucky Press (forthcoming 2018).

My chapter, Fulbright Women in the Global Intellectual Elite, includes a section on the contributions of accompanying spouses to the goals of public diplomacy. In my archival research, I noticed the prominence of Fulbrighters’ wives in the field–they volunteered at local schools, joined community organisations, hosted parties for their husbands’ colleagues and students, etc. In some cases, they were arguably more closely integrated into the local host community than their husbands were. By engaging in these kinds of activities, they were directly contributing to the culture learning processes that are an expected outcome of exchange diplomacy.

This has observation important implications for our understanding of how public diplomacy works–who the key actors are, how people engage with hosts, what kinds of activities enable culture learning to take place. The wives were not the recipients of grants, they didn’t attend orientation programmes or briefings, they had no formal role in exchange diplomacy–yet they formed lasting ties with members of the host community and played a significant role in culture learning processes.

These women (and male spouses of grantees) represent “added value” for exchange diplomacy practices. Their contribution has often been overlooked, or even discouraged. Senator Fulbright himself believed the grants should go to unmarried scholars, who would be able to focus on their work and engage with their colleagues without the ‘distractions’ of a family life. I would argue that this view is very much based on Senator Fulbright’s experience as a Rhodes Scholar. Bachelorhood was one of the original requirements of the program–the Rhodes Scholarships were even opened to women long before they were opened to married candidates (1977 vs. 1995, p. 345). This view fails to see the potential for spouses and children to enrich the culture learning experiences of an exchange programme. A spouse, particularly one who cannot work due to visa regulations and therefore has a lot of free time, can connect with locals in the community on a much broader and deeper level than the grantee can. Children can integrate their parents into local schools, parent-teacher associations, community activities and playgroups. They can represent added value for the grantee, not a mere ‘distraction’.