All Talk

Posted January 2, 2006

Categories: Articles

Before the recent nuclear test and the famine of the mid-1990s, North Korea engaged in a form of public diplomacy. It promoted juche, its home-grown philosophy of self-reliance. Juche societies sprang up in dozens of countries around the world, especially in the global south where the rhetoric of self-reliance appealed to post-colonial sensibilities. At the Tower of the Juche Ideal in Pyongyang, plaques donated from these juche societies cover the base of the monument.

In the 1980s, a delegation of North Koreans came to the United States, with a visit to the U.S. Juche Society at the top of their wish list. Imagine their disappointment when the delegates discovered that the New York branch office was a tiny, run-down outfit tucked away in an anonymous building. The New York stop disappeared from future itineraries. And today, as the gap between the promise of juche and the reality of the North Korean system grows ever wider, the various juche societies have slipped from obscurity into history.

As with juche, so with democracy. Washington trumpets the success of exporting the U.S. philosophy of democracy and liberty, but despite much glitz and expense, people around the world are just not buying the message.

One major reason is that U.S. public diplomacy has become like AM radio: all talk, all the time. The United States is one big mouth. Our ears have withered away like vestigial organs. We simply don’t listen to what people around the world are saying.

Actually the extent of the hearing loss is even greater. Our leaders don’t listen to the U.S. public, the U.S. Congress, the State Department, or even top-level administration officials. Mark Danner’s recent piece in the New York Review of Books reveals U.S. policy in Iraq as a slapstick tragedy of active non-listening. Paul Bremer arrived in Baghdad with orders for a thorough “de-Baathification” of the country and refused to listen to his predecessor—or anyone else with knowledge of Iraq—who predicted a swelling insurgency if 50,000 people were kicked out of their jobs.

“The United States has been suffering gradual hearing loss for some time. The louder the world raises its objections, the more deafly the United States soldiers on.” FPIF wrote that back in early 2003, and alas, the words still resonate.

Wanted: Hearing Aid

U.S. public diplomacy is broken. With a new strategic dialogue, FPIF investigates ways to fix the system.

“This advice to listen, rather than simply push a product, is central to salvaging the international reputation of the United States,” writes Nancy Snow in Anti-Americanism and the Rise of Civic Diplomacy. She argues that Washington has a one-track mind: “It is essential to move from the efforts of government officials to those of ordinary people, from the formal world of Track One diplomacy to Track Two diplomacy, in which non-governmental exchanges play a leading role.”

R.S. Zaharna, in her contribution to the dialogue, focuses more on U.S. lack of credibility. “If U.S. diplomats are struggling at the level of listening, then U.S. public diplomacy is in worse shape than we realize,” Zaharna writes. “Unfortunately, even listening—without first establishing credibility—can be perceived as gratuitous and insincere.” John Robert Kelley, meanwhile, argues that before civic diplomats replace the State Department as the chief conveyors of U.S. public diplomacy, the professional diplomats have to get their act in order.

Finally, Nancy Snow responds to Zaharna and Kelley: “While I recognize that “track two” diplomacy will never replace official diplomatic efforts, we’ve barely tapped the possibilities of what the United States might accomplish in gaining credibility if we shift focus away from foreign policy lectures to international understanding.”

China Focus II

The second round of China Focus pieces are now up at FPIF. This week, China Focus looks at China’s influence in its “near abroad.”

Evelyn Goh evaluates the U.S.-China competition for influence in Southeast Asia and recommends that the United States “use Southeast Asia as a testing ground to evaluate China’s intentions by giving engagement policies a chance. ASEAN’s attempts to enmesh and socialize China have no chance of success without U.S. help. Washington must be willing to extend its security umbrella so that these countries dare to reach out to China.”

A far less subtle game is going on in South Asia, meanwhile, as the United States pushes hard for a nuclear deal with India to secure its allegiance in an emerging anti-China bloc. The agreement on nuclear cooperation is angering quite a few countries, not least of all Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the “war on terror.” As Tim Beal points out, “Washington’s willingness to jeopardize other important relationships indicates just how central the containment of China is to U.S. strategic policy.”

Finally I argue that a distracted United States with flat-footed diplomacy has gradually lost influence in the Asian region to a focused China with a nuanced, multilateral diplomacy. If the mandarins of realism retake power in Washington, China and the United States may well work out a power-sharing relationship under which “China would thus gradually gain power at the expense of the United States in Central Asia, on the Korean Peninsula, and among certain Southeast Asian countries. Eventually, by expanding strategic flexibility, devolving military authority to Japan and South Korea, and maintaining focus on the Middle East, the United States would retreat from Northeast Asia under cover of “strategic disengagement” or a “retrograde maneuver” or some such euphemism.” And voila, the U.S.-brokered order in Asia would give way to a Sinocentric order.

Pinochet, Pink Tide, Pyongtaek

Also at FPIF, we have several new contributions on the death of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Juan Antonio Montecino writes about the human tragedy of the Pinochet years in Chile and the execution of his uncle. Gustavo Gonzalez talks about the court case that Pinochet’s death interrupted. And Marcus Raskin urges the Bush administration to release unclassified documents connected to the assassination of Institute for Policy Studies staffers Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt in 1976.

FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen discusses the pinkward shift in Latin American politics. Don’t be taken in by the rhetoric, she cautions. “Leftist parties in many cases have little to offer that really addresses the demands and the discontent of the poor majority. Whether it’s the corruption scandals of the Lula administration, the social conservatism of Tabaré Vázquez’s Uruguay, or the unprincipled opportunism of Ortega in Nicaragua, leftist “populists” have reproduced politics-as-usual with disappointing frequency once in government. The right and the left are not identical twins, but acquisition of power usually reveals some family traits.”

And Christine Ahn is just back from South Korea where she was part of a delegation with Cindy Sheehan that visited the town of Pyongtaek. The U.S. army base is relocating to Pyongtaek and Ahn sent us a picture of the destruction of the village houses. “As our delegation toured the village, we saw half-demolished homes like the one pictured. Roof tiles, electrical wiring, and a blue plastic toy car were mixed in the pile of rubble. The ruins serve as a visible scar and a constant message to the residents: leave now or witness more destruction.”

Senator Johnson, the IMF, and Baseball

When Tim Johnson had emergency brain surgery last week, everyone was suddenly as concerned with the fate of the Senate as they were the fate of the man. Dan Smith reflects on the vagaries of human health and politics in a commentary on the various implications of Sen. Johnson’s future recovery.

Daniel Bradlow addresses the identity crisis of the International Monetary Fund, arguing that the proposed institutional reforms are not nearly comprehensive enough.

And finally: baseball. In last week’s World Beat, I wrote that George W. Bush owned a football team. As several loyal readers pointed out, he in fact owned a baseball team. I apologize for dropping the ball. But despite the differences between the two games, the metaphor still holds. “Us versus them” and “win or lose” dichotomies apply as much to baseball as they do to football. The point is: such dichotomies are fine for the playing field but they do not serve our foreign policy well at all.

FPIF, December 18, 2006

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *