January 31, 2011

Engage in Culture’s Vital Importance

Too common in international relations, the importance of culture is belittled. But as Mark Twain reminds us, “culture is what is left after everything else is forgotten.” Conceptualizing public diplomacy has a great amount to do with culture particularly, as Geoffrey Cowan and Amelia Arsenault point out, when interpreting monolithic texts. They argue, “Messages designed for domestic or private consumption may well reach international audiences who will interpret (or misinterpret) them according to their own experiences, cultures, and political needs” (Cowan and Arsenault, 14). For this exact reason, while the authors weigh the values and limitations to the use of monologues, they articulate that dialogue and collaboration are both more engaging. Dialogue, also called “a conversation of cultures”, is an opportunity to exchange ideas between two parties, which ultimately could create greater understanding of each party involved. Collaboration is then the next step. When parties collaborate, they build bonds through collective action towards a cause.

In order to attract dialogue and collaboration, Eytan Gilboa notes the importance of creating a brand state. He cites Ham as offering that branding “implies a shift in political paradigms from the modern world of geopolitics and power to the postmodern world of images and influence” (Gilboa, 67). Furthermore, Gilboa clearly states, “Without branding they [states] would not be able to attract investments, tourists, companies, and factories; expand exports; and reach higher standards of living.” (Gilboa, 67). These brand states and cities, rated by Simon Anholt, seemingly have established images. However, images of a state or city are never static. Moreover, they are constantly in flux, especially when there is political, economic, and/or social unrest. How a state or city is perceived is greatly dependent on context of the environment.

Multilateral public diplomacy still has its limitations, particularly when voices prepared for dialogue and collaboration are ignored similar to what happened in Copenhagen during the 2009 global climate change forum. State branding and city branding, when properly embedded within the “layers” or communication methods of public diplomacy, can positively or negatively influence a targeted audience. Today, Egypt is experiencing political unrest and turmoil. For the safety reasons, students from many educational institutions are being evacuated from the country. With new conflict comes new responsibility to respond effectively and to rebrand each state’s response to crisis. Does pulling students out of Egypt send the right message that Americans support the Arab people? Only time will tell how fast American students are sent to study there again to continue dialogue and learn more about Egyptian culture. One thing is for sure- culture is the foundation from which communication is built. So understanding it and listening to what foreign publics are communicating is vital to the success of exchanges made, whether they concern “hard power” or “soft power”.

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