Is democracy overrated in the western style?

Transatlantic Relations

Martha Bayles

To person

B.A., Harvard University, M.S. Ed., University of Pennsylvania; Cultural critic, author and professor in the Arts & Sciences Honors Program, Stokes Hall, Boston College, 140 Commonwealth Ave., Chestnut Hill, MA 02458, USA. [email protected]

The central premise of this essay is that there is a worrying gap between what the United States exports to the rest of the world should and what they indeed export. What America Export should, is his unmistakable ethos of hope for human prosperity under conditions of political freedom, which at the same time knows about the material limits and - more importantly - about the limits of human endeavor. And let me add that ethos often has some sense of the comic, that is, the ability to see the absurd side of human arrogance, ambition and greed.

What America indeed exported is a contemporary popular culture that, despite its diverse charms, is more vulgar, brutal and hateful than ever before. In fact, today's popular culture creates a caricature, a failed selfie that glorifies the vices and mistakes of the country without - with regard to its virtues - any sense of proportionality. This caricature may amuse or offend Americans, but we know how to focus the image. And many others who have lived in the USA or are media literate also know this.

Unfortunately, that leaves a few billion people who believe the brutal films, sex-obsessed TV shows, and crude, excessive public discourse are an accurate representation of the country. This is the case even in Europe. Of course, the problem is worse in those parts of the world where the negative on-screen images are amplified by hostile propaganda - whether from violent extremist organizations like the Islamic State (IS) or less sympathetic regimes like Vladimir Putin's in Russia.

There was a time when the US government invested significant resources in driving back such hostile propaganda. During the Cold War, this effort was known as "public diplomacy". The starting point for my research [1] was the realization that the American leadership decided at the end of the Cold War to withdraw from public diplomacy, thereby allowing the entertainment industry to act as the nation's ambassador to a turbulent and skeptical world.

This essay begins with an explanation of the undesirable developments in Western public diplomacy, defined as the art and craft of conveying the intentions, interests and ideals of a nation to the public abroad. Then the difference between the American ethos and the images drawn by today's popular culture is worked out. Finally, it explains why censoring US cultural exports cannot be a solution.

Western Public Diplomacy Crisis

Over the past year, the Russian propaganda machine has pursued a two-pronged strategy towards its domestic audience. The first part, which is used to justify the seizure of power in Crimea, takes up what Hitler called the "Big Lie": a false historical narrative in which the democratic forces in Ukraine are portrayed as US-backed fascists, whose goal is genocide against ethnic Russians. The idea is that if you repeat a story enough times, the majority of the population will swallow it.

The second part of the strategy adopted after the Malaysia Airlines plane crashed could be described as Big Confusion: If an event upsets your Big Lie, start a disinformation campaign. Fill the airwaves with so many bizarre rumors, conspiracy theories, and paranoid fantasies that a cynical public will soon be indifferent to what actually happened.

This propaganda extends far beyond Russia. In recent years the Kremlin has launched Russia Today (RT), a nifty, fast-paced satellite television station that pays top salaries for non-Russian television journalists to repeat the same messages in English, Arabic, Mandarin and other world languages. A surprising number of journalists took up the offer, and an alarmingly large audience tuned in.

How should western governments react? Should they fight fire with fire and bombard Russia and Ukraine with counter-propaganda? Or should they do what is easy for democratic societies, in which freedom of expression and freedom of the press is sacrosanct, to gather the facts, identify the principles at stake, and disseminate both as vigorously as possible, even if some aspects of the history of Europe and to make the United States look bad?

This second option has a name: Public Diplomacy. The term was coined in 1965 as a meaningful alternative to "propaganda", which had been a gout since the First World War, when the British and American governments fabricated reports of atrocities committed by the "evil Huns". In the 1930s, both governments realized how much damage their hate propaganda had done. Not only did it inspire Hitler (as Soviet propaganda did), it also fueled skepticism towards early reports of Nazi atrocities, based on the assumption that these reports were fabricated as well. [2]

During the Second World War and the Cold War, Britain and America were relatively right in communicating with people abroad, namely refusing to spread blatant lies and disinformation. Compared to the aggressive propaganda of the "Third Reich" and the CPSU, this approach was decidedly asymmetrical. But it worked.

Unfortunately, truth-based public diplomacy fell victim to political change soon after the end of the Cold War. In the United States, where the spirit of victory was high, public diplomacy was seen as a relic of the past. So in the 1990s Congress cut funding by a third, and in 1999 the US Information Service (USIS), which had coordinated public diplomacy since 1953, was abolished. In Germany, these cuts became all too evident with the closure of libraries and cultural centers that had belonged to the America houses of the post-war period. Then came the 9/11 attacks and renewed calls for an effective, non-coercive response to the anti-democratic ideologies of the 21st century. However, this response has not yet been formulated.

America still has great diplomats. During the US occupation of Iraq, when American troops faced a bitter uprising, a diplomat named Alberto Fernandez stepped into the communication vacuum. With his fluent Arabic, Fernandez has appeared more than 500 times in Al Jazeera, al-Arabiya and other Arabic TV channels and was pounded by prominent moderators as well as furious callers. According to Marc Lynch, an expert on Arab media, this "one-man show" was effective because it was not a "grim diplomat reading a prepared text" but a flesh-and-blood person who was "ready to argue to get angry, to joke - in short, to show a truly human face ". [3]

In 2006, the US media broke out into anger over a remark by Fernandez in Al-Jazeera: "We have tried to do our best, but I think there is a lot of room for criticism because there was undoubtedly arrogance and there was stupidity on the side of the United States in Iraq. " Luminaries from Republican-dominated states fell on the remark; Fernandez quickly distanced himself from it. But it was part of a lengthy statement aimed at Sunni insurgents opposed to al-Qaeda, a strategy that ultimately led to the ceasefire known as "Sunni Awakening".

Of course, public diplomacy at this level is a tightrope act that is full of risks not only because of the enemies abroad, but also because of politicians who need to be recognized at home. Sometimes, however, a tightrope is the only possible way over an abyss of suspicion.

Any government has a hard time following the principle of telling the truth. Every government lies to some extent. But not to the same extent - and this difference is what counts. The Putin regime is trying to erase this difference by crushing any institution that believes that objective truth exists. When faced with this challenge, it is not enough to say: "The facts speak for themselves." Facts can't speak, only humans can. And after a century of propaganda offending everyone's intelligence, Russians are conditioned to roll their eyes when confronted with claims of objectivity.

If Europe and America are to reverse this situation, we must do two things. First, we have to agree on common ground as a basis for communication with the non-western world. With this task we must not wait until we have resolved our internal differences, because those differences will never be resolved. But that's exactly the point. The main message of liberal democracy to the rest of the world is that it is possible to build political institutions that recognize the inevitability of disagreement and thereby enable people to live together.