Wednesday

Assassination, symbolism and implications for Public Diplomacy


5389! Yes, that’s the number of articles a simple Google search shows as I surf the web now to read about the assassination of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya. It is reflective of the immense symbolism of the incident across the world, especially in the Arab world currently undergoing significant political transformations. The world awaits the American reaction, and, maybe a lot of us are expecting spectacular retributive justice from the Americans.  It makes for a good show!

This unfortunate incident was powerful for its immense symbolism. Real close to the anniversary of 9/11, in a country recently ‘liberated’ from a dictator, in the lands of the Arab Spring with aspirations of becoming free and open societies. It is indeed great media fodder, especially the imagery of protests, the burning of the American flag and civilian assaults on the American embassies. An American response has to take into account this context and maybe a measured response will be beneficial if the United States wants a long term strategic involvement in the region.

Palestinians burn the US flag during a demonstration against an anti-Islam on September 12, 2012 in front of the UN headquarters in Gaza City. Source: www.presstv.com
In my previous posts I had written about the possibility of a counter reaction to the Arab Spring in the next few years. Viewed in context of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and rising tide of millenarian aspirations post the fall of the older political order, incidents such as these can play on popular imagination and provide the reactionary forces with just the ammunition to seize power. Enhanced strategic communications is now more important for United States than ever to counter such a possibility. This will call for more action from State Department to build ‘networks of influencers’ and deepen engagement rather than going out all guns blazing. Can these story tellers be crisis managers? Can PD/ Public Affairs be expected to manage such conflicts?

Policymakers must not lose sight of the fact that this battle will be fought over ‘24 hour media’ all across the world. This will be as much a battle of ideas and attitudes. Every action by both the parties will create different narratives that would shape perceptions, form opinions in societies currently undergoing tremendous change. The implications will be significant and it might help if policymakers indulge in some ‘scenario gaming’ from this perspective.

Can there be an internal foreign policy dialogue in the United States? While freedom of expression is sacrosanct, does it give the right to pull down other faiths, beliefs and way of life? Especially in a country that is committed to protect every community, every faith, and every belief in its land? If the action of a minority in the name of freedom of expression can bring mayhem, war and destruction to their own people what good is the right? Is the principle of “reasonable restrictions”, as it exists in Indian legal system, the answer to these issues that arise out of such incidents in the western world?

In an age of pervasive media and ‘continuous conversations’ these are important questions. I don’t know the answers, but what I would like to stress is that this is not a job for the marines alone, but communicators of the State Department have a battle in their hands too! A protracted struggle!

Suggestions/Critiques welcome.

-- Madhur
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