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Spiderman and Facebook: A Potent Alternative to Bridging relationships with the Muslim world??

by on April 4, 2012

A lot of retrospective analysis was made on how America handled its relationship with the Muslim world in the aftermath of 9/11, presently, the salient failure of its hard power strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan reinforces the notion by General David Petraeus (2008) and many other commentators that ‘they cannot continue to kill their way to victory.’  The cheerless realities of a war with no foreseeable end, made even more calamitous by American soldiers’ burning of the Muslim holy Quran, and an American soldier killing 16 Afghan civilians (Guardian.co.uk) certainly highlights that their diplomatic efforts are in flux.  Of course, the world remembers that famous Cairo speech by President Obama (2009), where he stated that he had come to “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition” (www.whitehouse.org), today, can we say the president’s hopes hold true?  Or will we have to look to American enterprises such as Facebook or maybe the tried and tested charms of Hollywood to make Muslims around the world fall in love with the America of yesteryear?

It should be said that America has come some way since the G W Bush era when Americans wondered why the world hated them so much.  The advent of the Obama administration held a lot of promise, Bush’s war on terror and the suspicion thrown on every Muslim, man or child, had disenchanted Muslims all over the globe of western values and principles.  The promise of building better and broader relations with Muslim and beyond by the use of American soft power embodied in its public and cultural diplomacy was, and hopefully still is part of the rebranding of the American image.  Joseph Nye, writing on soft power, stated that, it should have the ability to “shape the preferences of others” by the strength of perception – ‘where other countries will admire your values, emulate your examples, aspire to your level of prosperity and openness and want to follow you’ (Nye 2004, p.5).

From president Obama’s Cairo speech(2009) we  get an idea of the public diplomacy strategy that America hoped would define ‘a new beginning’ with Muslims around the world, with specific mentions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.   To engage with Muslim publics, amongst a sizeable host of promises, the Whitehouse planned to invest $1.5 billion each year over the next five years to assist Pakistan build schools, hospitals, roads and businesses (www.whitehouse.org).  America also promised to provide more than $2.8 billion to help Afghans develop their economy, as well as accepting America’s “dual responsibility” to assist Iraq forge a better future and “leave Iraq to Iraqis” (ibid).  President Obama also sold American public diplomacy with promises to expand educational exchange programs, increase scholarships, encourage more Americans to study in Muslim communities, provide internships in America to Muslim students as well as creating online networks to connect with young Muslims (ibid), all these promises were in line with what Nye called the three dimensions that characterise public diplomacy – information, influence and engagement (Nye 2004, p.107).

Almost three years to the date president Obama delivered his public diplomacy strategy for the Muslim world; can we say Washington is any closer to bridging its relationship with Muslims?  I would say Muslim public opinion at the moment does not seem to sway in Obama’s favour, the diplomatic impasse with Pakistan, hostile relations with Iran and America’s perceived indifference to the Syrian situation seem to incense animosities deeper.  Faced with these challenges, can American soft power be derived from other sources other than its government’s efforts?  William Rugh offers some alternatives, suggesting that American culture of  Hollywood films and popular music which are known, admired and respected by most people in foreign countries are evident of a “vibrant and innovative culture” –  an American culture which represents the power for the US (Seib 2009, p.7).

Rugh’s observations were also implied to in an earlier report by the Center for Strategic & International Studies Commission on Smart Power: A smarter more secure America in 2007, which stated that “many of the tools that promote change were not in the hands of government,” but in hands of the private sector who wielded a lot of the dynamic dimensions of these tools.   The report went on to suggest that NGOs, private foundations, businesses, universities, and citizens promoted “the power and attractiveness of the American model” through their innovative and exciting enterprises which they undertook everyday (csis smart power report, 2007).

Drawing from these observations, I am almost convinced that, for the present and most likely the near future, American public diplomacy’s success will be carried by corporations such as Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, and global brand such as Coca-cola, or the cultural institutes of the Hollywood influence, or educational institutions of the Ivy Leagues than by its government.  Though built on sound, appealing and widely admired political values and principles, it seems unfortunate that the Muslim publics have failed to admire or emulate Washington’s political system, and more dire, engage with America’s foreign policy.

The corporations I mentioned above, especially the social networks extended, and continue to influence the usually closed off Muslim publics, a fact that was proven by the Arab Spring which begun as a spark that quickly spread into a revolutionary fire, fuelled through Facebook pages, the 140 characters of twitter and YouTube video broadcasts, whatever the transmission, these American-driven social media channels were and remain a major investment in American public diplomacy and strategic communication.

President Obama coming into office enjoyed more international goodwill than had been the case in America’s recent history (Anholt & Hildreth 2010, p.11),  and the signs are there that America’s image to the general world population is almost polished back to its once lauded lustre, unfortunately though, in the Muslim world,  the shouts of  “death to America” are unlikely to be silenced, at least not by present American diplomatic strategies.  American foreign policy is strenuously disconnected at present, but, if its any consolation to its public and cultural diplomacy, it is cheers to the global popularity of the blockbuster super-heroes of Hollywood who seem to be drawing the short straw in all this!!

References:

Anholt, S. & Hildreth, J., 2010. Great Brand Stories: Brand America New Edition 2009., Marshall Cavendish.

Nye, J.S., 2004. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics 1st ed., PublicAffairs,U.S.

Seib, P., 2009. Toward a New Public Diplomacy: Redirecting U.S. Foreign Policy, Palgrave Macmillan.

http://www.csis.org/files/media/csis/pubs/071106_csissmartpowerreport.pdf

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/mar/13/afghans-protest-over-massacre-us-soldier?intcmp=239

http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-at-Cairo-University-6-04-09/

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