Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Admiral's Critique: "Getting Back to Basics" in Strategic Communication

An authoritative voice that has joined the "stratcom" debate, rather unexpectedly, is that of Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen. His recent commentary in the current issue of Joint Force Quarterly about "getting back to basics" in strategic communication includes the revelation that he does not much care for the term itself. Strategic communication, he continues, has become "something of cottage industry."

Mullen sees a degree of arrogance in current Pentagon stratcom efforts, noting that "We've come to believe that messages are something we can launch downrange like a rocket, something we can fire for effect." Adm. Mullen makes what is just about the most important observation that a senior military officer or Administration official possibly could on this subject -- namely that "we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate." Amen.

It was something of a surprise, then, to see the Admiral's observations bludgeoned shortly thereafter in a "guest post" on Matt Armstrong's influential blog, mountainrunner.us. A Marine Corps information officer, who insisted his comments were his own, dismissed Mullen's Joint Force Quarterly piece as a reflection of bureaucratic tribalism -- an attack by the Chairman's ostensibly misguided aides, adherents of a traditional "public affairs" emphasis at the Pentagon rather than a more forward-leaning "strategic communication" approach. "DoD needs to be in the SC business -- etymology of the term be damned," he writes. "The generation of leaders that has come of age in this war -- those who have real experience on the ground -- they know what SC is, they know how to do it, and they are getting better at it."

Talk about a strategic disconnect!

Aaron Snipe -- Reflecting on His Time in Iraq

One young State Department Foreign Service officer who will be joining us on Monday, October 5 for the "Ground Truth" panel of civilian and military practitioners is Aaron Snipe, who just completed a year on assignment to the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Muthanna, Iraq. Aaron kept up a steady stream of blog entries during his time in Iraq, and collectively they provide a fascinating look at this type of new public diplomacy work, at the retail level, in an unstable and chaotic environment.

Whatever theological-bureaucratic differences may exist inside the Beltway about how the U.S. should go about improving its standing in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in the rest of the world, Aaron was out there in the field, listening, engaging, and making things happen.

Whether he was publicizing a rural veterinary partnership, dipping a few sheep along the way, or organizing a woman's art exhibition in cooperation with a local NGO, or just enjoying the simple luxury (in the Iraqi context) of walking the streets of a provincial town, Aaron was proving that Edward R. Murrow's proverbial "last three feet" are still the most compelling ones of all.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

New Approaches to U.S. Global Outreach -- Monday, October 5

Time to shift focus somewhat from what was a "golden moment" in U.S. public diplomacy, half-a-century ago at Sokolniki Park, to questions of the present and future. How can U.S. efforts to reach out to the world regain some of that luster?

George Washington University's Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication, in association with the GW Public Affairs Project and our friends and colleagues at the Public Diplomacy Council (PDC), are hosting a two-panel conference on Monday, October 5 at GW's Marvin Center under the heading "New Approaches to U.S. Global Outreach: Smart Power on the Front Lines of Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication." The first panel, entitled "Engaging Global Publics in the Obama Era -- Can the Interagency Respond?" will bring together some notable figures in the field who are laying the groundwork for the Obama Adminstration's efforts, including Rosa Brooks, a Pentagon senior advisor charged with reviewing the Department of Defense's communication and information efforts overseas and Daniel Silverberg, from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who has been examining the issue of overlapping and conflicting USG authorities in America's public interface with the rest of the world. A second panel, entitled "Ground Truth -- How Civilian and Military Communicators Shape the Opinion Landscape," will feature diplomats and military officers fresh from countries where the U.S. faces some of its biggest PD and communication challenges, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. They will share their insights -- including successes and lessons learned.

More details on the conference are available here. Attendance is free, but space is limited. If you are interested in attending the "New Approaches" conference, please RSVP by email to ipdgc@gwu.edu.

Meanwhile, the "New Approaches" conference is intended to set the stage for an even bigger event that evening at Lisner Auditorium: a joint appearance by Secretaries Clinton and Gates, for a dialogue on "smart power" and America's global role, moderated by CNN's Christiane Amanpour and Prof. Frank Sesno, Director of GW's School of Media and Public Affairs.

Much more to follow in the days ahead on what we believe will be a particularly stimulating day on campus at GW...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Exploring the Kitchens Behind The "Kitchen Debate"

Often enough, the Kitchen has seemed almost incidental to the retelling of the "Kitchen Debate," which is dominated by the geopolitical drama headlined by Nixon and Khrushchev. (There were actually at least three kitchens at Sokolniki Park: the General Electric Model House Kitchen, the General Mills Kitchen and the RCA Whirlpool "Miracle Kitchen.") In Bill Safire's photo of the two leaders squaring off over the railing of the Model Kitchen, a box of SOS cleaning pads sits incongruously just to the left of future Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. Was the Kitchen a mere backdrop to the political theater? Just as the "Kitchen Debate" actually began in a TV studio, could it have continued anywhere else on the Sokolniki Park exhibition grounds?A number of scholars have taken a deeper look at the meaning of the Kitchen(s) at the 1959 American exhibition. Two U.S. university professors and their students have launched an online "research project on Cold War material culture," appropriately enough at the website kitchendebate.org. In Cold War Kitchen: Americanization, Technology and European Users (published earlier this year by the MIT Press), co-editors Ruth Oldenziel and Karin Zachmann argue that "the Nixon-Khrushchev kitchen debate demonstrates that artifacts are fused with politics in both small and big ways...As Nixon and Khrushchev realized, their kitchen debate cut to the heart of the kinds of technical artifacts and systems that their respective societies would produce. The shape and directions of innovations, politicians well understood, resulted from political choices. Both politicians discussed the kitchen as a technopolitical node that linked the state, the market and the family."

Whatever a "technopolitical node" might actually be, hyping America's lead in consumer goods over the Communist bloc did not begin at Sokolniki. For instance, model homes and kitchens were displayed in Western Europe during the early fifties under the Marshall Plan's informational program. At the 1952 "America at Home" exhibit in West Berlin, visitors from the East were offered admission at a reduced price, a conscious effort to boost attendance among the Berliners most subject to Communist influence.

Still, it was not a forgone conclusion that an American kitchen would go to Moscow. In Cold War Kitchen, the University of Louisville's Cristina Carbone relates how a Kentucky housewife, in a letter to her senator, pushed for an American kitchen to be included in the upcoming Moscow show. Chad McClellan, the exhibition's general manager, embraced the idea, enlisting the active support of a Long Island developer, Herbert Sadkin. Even before the exhibition opened, the Soviet media had insisted there was nothing typical about the Model Kitchen. Soviet commentators asserted that it was as if someone had asserted that the Taj Mahal was the home of a typical "Bombay textile worker." U.S. press reports about the concerted effort to undermine the credibility of the American exhibition's portrayal of a "typical" American lifestyle may have provided Nixon an extra incentive to emphasize America's lead in consumer goods.

Another contributor to Cold War Kitchen, Susan Reid of the University of Sheffield, describes the curious and conflicted Soviet reaction to the American kitchens. Just one day after the Sokolniki exhibit's opening, Izvestiya ran a picture of a beaming Soviet housewife proclaiming that her kitchen was "just as good as the American one shown at the exhibition in Sokolniki." Contradictory or not, a different "spin" angle adopted by the Soviet media -- and Khrushchev himself -- was to acknowledge that while the USSR might be lagging behind temporarily in the production of consumer goods and gadgets, it would soon catch up to and then overtake the U.S. Finally, other Russian media decried the very emphasis on household items and the like at the U.S. exhibition. As one Soviet paper asked rhetorically: "What is this, a national exhibit of a great country, or a branch department store?" Many Soviet visitors had, in fact, expected to see American industrial and technological accomplishments displayed -- what Soviet organizers of that summer's New York exhibition had emphasized for their American audience. But the U.S. emphasis on the individual American's lifestyle and well-being was "not accidental," in the words of a common Soviet-era phrase; it was in fact a carefully considered strategic choice made by high-ranking officials in Washington.

However many Soviet housewives were swayed or dismayed by all those "labor-saving devices," attendance figures showed that the Sokolniki kitchens were among the most heavily visited sites within the exhibition -- and the aroma of Betty Crocker cupcakes in the oven was almost certainly only part of the appeal.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Jack Masey's "Six Weeks in Sokolniki Park"

One figure whose role in 1959 was absolutely vital is Jack Masey, one of the lead designers of the Sokolniki exhibition. Jack's career spanned virtually the entire history of official U.S. government exhibitions during the Cold War, from earliest traveling exhibit "caravans" in Europe and in Asia to the huge World's Fair undertakings in Montreal and Osaka. Jack is the author of several books including the comprehensive and magnificently illustrated Cold War Confrontations: U.S. Exhibitions and their Role in the Cold War (2008, Lars Muller Publishers, Baden, Switzerland).
Earlier this year, Jack oversaw the publication of an attractive booklet entitled "Six Weeks in Sokolniki Park," prepared under the sponsorship of Pepsico on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the American exhibition. The limited edition booklet, in both English and Russian, was distributed at the July 9 Spaso House conference but deserves a wider audience. It is the best overview of the Sokolniki exhibition ever, and features photographs from Jack's own extensive collection, some never before published. The booklet also touches on the first official Soviet exhibition in New York, as well as the long series of U.S. exhibitions in the U.S.S.R. that were spawned by the Sokolniki experience. Jack's presentation at our July 23 conference was one of the key moments, and brought home in a powerful way just how innovative the U.S. exhibit design in Moscow was.