Targeting America and Beyond: China’s Soft Power Initiatives

One of the biggest spenders in the worldwide information space has made the U.S. population a prime target in its attempts to secure a more flattering image of itself on the international stage: China.   The country’s efforts to reach Americans and overcome its general lack of credibility come with a significant price tag.  The Communist Party of China has spent around $6 billion  in the past few years on media campaigns in the U.S.

China’s efforts put an interesting twist on the U.S.’s own public diplomacy attempts to reach international audiences in an attempt to bolster U.S. objectives abroad, whether through Twitter diplomacy, education exchanges or other similar efforts.

As China becomes both an economic and political power, the threat it poses to U.S. supremacy has given China a global image problem. To thwart this perception, China has leveraged showcase events like the 2008 Beijing Winter Olympic Games and the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, in addition to more traditional methods of strengthening Chinese soft power.

Chinese diplomatic efforts in the U.S. have focused primarily on advertising campaigns and other soft power initiatives to drive positive public opinion of China. Notably, the government-run Xinhua News (with an office in NYC) has a national broadcasting station in the U.S. as well as online resources.  Other efforts include the Confucius Institutes which aim to promote cross-cultural exchanges, although they are sometimes viewed as “Chinese foreign propagandists.”

The Chinese government’s soft power initiatives also help to satisfy the country’s seemingly insatiable demand for natural resources.  The Chinese government’s work in Africa trade infrastructure development for access to the continent’s natural resources. However, rumors of human rights violations and lack of adherence to democratic principles in general make diplomatic efforts essential for China in this region. The expansion of China’s state news agency Xinhua to Nairobi, Kenya, is meant to thwart biased Western views of China. Particularly in countries where China takes an investment-for-resource approach to foreign policy, effective public diplomacy efforts are vital.

Generating credibility is at the root of public diplomacy efforts and China’s “peaceful rise’ is contingent on its ability to effectively target and influence audiences in the U.S. and abroad. With billions invested so far, will China improve its image among Americans and even best American influence in diplomacy efforts in Africa and worldwide?

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Combating Violent Extremism in Pakistan with Soft Power

As the U.S. withdrawal of forces in Afghanistan nears, the question of how to combat violent extremism using non-violent methods has come to the fore. Given Pakistan’s cultural and geographic ties to Afghanistan, not to mention the network of Taliban fighters consistently crossing in and out of the two countries, de-radicalization in Pakistan has become ever more important. A recent study by Dr. Hedieh Mirahmadi, Medhreen Farooq and Waleed Ziad of the World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE) argues that engaging with faith-based organizations is the most effective way to do this.

In Pakistan, madrassas, or Muslim seminary schools, are often funded by Saudi Arabia and Pakistani extremist groups acting under the umbrella of charity organizations, or more moderate groups supported by the government’s limited and less-than-successful attempts at restructuring public education. Religion plays an integral role in developing positive social networks, especially in low-income areas such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Khyber, and Southern Punjab, as many citizens rely on madrassas as their most legitimate source of education, employment, and humanitarian aid. Unfortunately, this has also turned educational centers into prime recruiting ground for well-funded extremist groups that can offer educational/humanitarian aid and employment in exchange for adhesion to extremist ideals.

Though these madrassas have been successful, WORDE’s study has shown that with proper funding and support, moderate faith-based civil society organizations (CSO) can be very effective in combating militant jihadi networks as their perceived legitimacy is already higher than that of an international organization or even the government, itself.

Coordinating with senior community leaders, one could reach Pakistanis at grass-roots levels and promote peace the same way extremists promote violence: advocating for social cohesion, non-violent conflict resolution, and interethnic and interfaith dialogue justified by Islam through public awareness campaigns, issued Fatwas /public statements and public debates against extremism or rallies that increase exposure in the traditional and social media spaces.

The U.S. has a tradition of pulling funding and assistance from countries after it disengages from them militarily. Although the U.S. has no combat boots on the ground in Pakistan, a centerpiece of foreign policy between the two countries must include continuing civilian assistance to Pakistan, public diplomacy efforts and partnerships with moderate CSOs.

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Soccer: Battleground for Identity

The high-profile cases of regional soccer celebrities rising up to lead social change movements in the Arab Spring have thrust to the fore the importance of a highly-regarded sport in a highly contentious region (see Strategic Social’s earlier post about soccer as a battleground against authoritarianism).

In the second part of James Dorsey’s lecture “Soccer as an Engine of Change and Assertion of Identity,” he also described the paradoxical ability of soccer to create national unity and promote women’s rights, on the one hand, and to emphasize sectarian tension on the other. The stadium, he argued, is a battleground for identity.  For example, Israeli Arabs and Jews have rallied around the Israeli national team but, at the same time, fans of the club Beitar Jerusalem have been known to violently attack Arabs. In this sense, soccer can be a powerful unifier but clearly its societal effects are difficult to predict or control.

Dorsey presents these two options, unity and sectarianism, as fairly evenly matched. Strategic Social looked at examples from Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Yemen to see in which cases soccer is unifying and in which cases it is divisive.  In Jordan, soccer is violently sectarian. For example, a soccer game in December 2012 between the Palestinian-backed al-Wahdat team and the Jordanian-backed al-Faisaly ended in a riot injuring hundreds after the Palestinian team won. An interesting and perhaps explanatory dynamic in Jordan is its lack of a common identity despite Palestinians accounting for at least half of the population.  As one result, soccer team loyalty appears to be a vehicle for expressing and preserving these competing identities.

Soccer in Lebanon also can be divisive as lines are drawn along sectarian lines (as are most aspects of politics and society there).  However the sport does not always turn to violence.  The relative peacefulness of Lebanese soccer may be due to the state’s banning of spectators over concerns about sectarian rioting after the 2007 war with Israel. The ban was extended when the country was unable to select a president later that year. The government feared the violent ultras could have forced the hands of their co-religionists if rioting got out of hand. Like Tunisia, which banned soccer spectators for a year after the Arab Spring of 2011, Lebanon’s fragile peace in the aftermath of upheaval required a ban on soccer. Just as in Jordan and Israel, soccer matches seemingly cannot be held in Lebanon without stirring up violent sectarianism.

Somewhat ironically, Yemen may be the only example of soccer bringing unity as its hosting of the Gulf Cup in 2010 produced a large turnout of female fans. It would appear soccer fans in Yemen used the sport to  trump sexism. For an already conservative country battling al-Qaeda, the soccer stadium provides a battleground that gives women a fighting chance.

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Soccer: Battleground Against Authoritarianism

The Arab Spring of 2011 resonated across the Middle East and North African societies in unexpected ways. Despite the propensity of the news media and blogosphere to jump on social media as the enabler of the region’s revolutions, many researchers have begun to examine other factors that played a significant role in the uprisings.

In his recent lecture, “Soccer as an Engine of Change and Assertion of Identity,” James Dorsey examined the role of soccer in the Egyptian revolution, concluding that the violent and anarchist nature of Egyptians’ soccer habits make the sport an engine of change.

This view may be due in part to a lack of civil society in Mubarak’s Egypt: “soccer is like the mosque.” The sport is too popular for the government to shut down so autocrats must control it.  The fans, called “ultras” (التراس), are extremely committed. However, these crowds can tend toward anarchism as the soccer stadium dissolves into a battleground for street gangs and autocrats. Significantly, Dorsey argues that the organization and violent culture of the “ultras” enabled the protests in Egypt during the Arab Spring.

While Dorsey’s hypothesis applies specifically to Egypt, Strategic Social analyzed the role of soccer in Tunisia, Morocco, Bahrain and Syria to determine if the sport has played a similar role in these countries’ own uprisings. Though Morocco and Tunisia differ in the degree of political upheaval produced by the Arab Spring, the two nations’ soccer fans appear to fit the Egyptian “ultra” example, as soccer matches became excuses for indiscriminate violence and anarchist behavior, as opposed to political activism against authoritarianism.

In Bahrain, where dissent has mostly been contained to the Shi’a majority, two Shi’a soccer players, Alaa Hubail, the best player on Bahrain’s national team, and his brother Mohammad, spoke out at an athletes’ rally against the royal family.  They found soccer was not untouchable in the island kingdom. When the government crackdown began, the head of the Bahraini Olympic committee made an example of athlete-protesters to cow the population: Security forces arrested Alaa and Mohammad during training and denounced the two as “traitors and spies” on state-run television, demonstrating that the stadium was not a safe haven for dissenters. They were imprisoned, tortured, banned from playing, and Alaa was exiled to Oman. Unlike Dorsey’s Egyptian example where fans use the soccer stadium as a venue for anti-regime activity, it was Bahraini athletes themselves who used their popularity to affect change. Syria presents a similar case, as the regime attempts to silence soccer personality Abdelbasset Sarout and has imprisoned Mosab Balhouse, the national team’s goalie. Like the Bahraini case, soccer players in Syria have become national symbols of the opposition.

Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia seem to fit into their own category of “soccer activism,” where fan groups act as a catalyst for change as the stadium is (was) one of the only arenas of expression outside state control. Alternatively, Bahrain and Syria have taken the increasingly common approach of using immensely popular (soccer) celebrities to advance already-developed movements for social change.

Though soccer plays different roles in each of these countries, the sport maintains potential for social upheaval in societies that value it for both the game and its communal nature. Therefore, it is precisely this societal importance of soccer that makes it an opportunity for change and simultaneously a threat to the status quo.

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Relationships Matter

Secretary of State Clinton appeared before a Congressional appropriations subcommittee today to provide her view of the budget needs of her department.

She covered the globe with five major areas of interest:

  1. Sustainment of national security missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan;
  2. A new focus on the Asia-Pacific region;
  3. Moving forward from the events of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa;
  4. Use of economic statescraft — using diplomacy and development to create jobs in the U.S.; and
  5. The elevation of development alongside diplomacy and defense to help build strategic depth in vulnerable areas.

In every sense, the State Department’s $51.6 billion budget request for Fiscal Year 2013, and the five priorities it’s centered on, value the development, maintenance and growth of relationships.  Investment in strengthening existing relationships and building new ones is vital to our country’s ability to engage and lead abroad.

The U.S. seemed slow to respond to the opportunities presented by the events of the Arab Spring.  Our efforts to engage and assist seemed uncoordinated and incomplete in the wake of sweeping changes across the region.  Secretary Clinton seems to recognize this, too, since her department’s FY13 budget request includes a $770 million incentive fund for the Middle East and North Africa.  The fund will enable the U.S. to be more flexible and speedy in its efforts to build relationships and assist in the region.  Unfortunately, the funds are needed now for such an effort, not at the end of this year.

Similarly, in the Pacific region, the landscape change brought by North Korea’s leadership shift and China’s growing influence calls for a concerted focus on building relationships that endure current challenges and create strength for the future.  Traditional partners like Japan and South Korea will be key to the diplomatic efforts.  Untraditional or new partners like Vietnam will play an increasingly important role.  The efforts of the Defense Department will clearly be important complements through programs such as joint, combined exercises and the military-to-military contact programs in the quest to build meaningful relationships that can help affect the future.

Clinton also testified to the importance of development and said her budget request would elevate that type of engagement to the equivalent level of defense and diplomacy.  The focus on development is a wise one and will help to ensure there are actions to back up the diplomatic words about the need to stabilize areas hindered by disease, poverty and hunger — destabilizing factors that provide fertile ground for violent extremism and conflict.

While many will argue against investment outside the U.S. while so many domestic demands face the country, only the U.S. has the reach, resources and existing relationships to help secure a more peaceful and prosperous world.  While relationships always have mattered in the realm of diplomacy, the dynamic nature of the modern geopolitical and economic landscape make these associations even more important.  Simply put, investing now in our country’s ability to grow and maintain key, international relationships will help to underwrite the future of stability at home and abroad.

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