Perception-framing and its Repercussions: The Soon-to-be-extinct Art of Americanization and Demonization in the Information Era
This week the United States made unprecedented steps towards rapprochement with Iran. The US also maintained its friendship with Pakistan despite a litany of violations of American “Universal Principles”. Lastly, we continued to ignore North Korea while it holds out its olive branch further than ever before.
Let’s try to make sense of these strange relations for a second. This post is an examination of Public Diplomacy and it’s effects on our perceptions of other human beings world-wide. This isn’t a political piece, though I cite politics as a culprit in forming our misguided world-views.
“America’s closest ally”, Israel, is in a peculiar situation right now as America makes steps towards rapprochement with Iran. Prime Minister Netanyahu made a failed attempt to prevent rapprochement by trying to shape perceptions of Iran with his comment “I think if the Iranian people had freedom, they would wear jeans, listen to Western music, and have free elections”.
Thousands of Iranians took to Twitter posting pics of just how Westernized they really are. But did America seek rapprochement with Iran because of their “Americanization”, or was it purely a geopolitical move on our part? I argue that we finally realized that the US and Israel can’t maintain stability in the Middle East alone. Did a miraculous sudden shift in Iran’s culture occur overnight, or did our perception finally catch up to reality?
No, it was just that President Obama finally decided to call them. They’ve been Americanized for a while, but suddenly we are just now seeing it. Suddenly Iran isn’t being demonized anymore. Now “they’re Americanized”. The image of Iran that was constructed, packaged, and sold; has now been recalled, returned, and deconstructed. But Iran didn’t change overnight. Only our perceptions of them did. Netanyahu is left without ally in his argument.
The level of Americanization within a country is not indicative of their freedom index. If anything, it is indicative of their bandwagoning status. Many countries have “earned their freedom” through Americanization. South Korea is one example. South Korea is our governments friend and ally; but we also like it that they have adopted our way of life. It makes it easier for us to trust them.
The Korean War was a proxy war. We chose a side, based on economic values, potential for strategic growth, and power projection in Asia. South Korea wasn’t much different from North Korea for the first thirty years after the Korean War. It wasn’t until they Americanized that they began to truly have a special relationship with the US. During that period, North Korea opted to maintain their way of life instead of Americanize so they became demonized while South Korea developed.
Not all countries who are our allies, have become so through Americanization.
Our “ally” Pakistan, whom we give nearly $4 billion in aid per year, in which 98% goes to their military, couldn’t be more antithetical to America’s “Universal Principles” if they tried. Pakistan legally maintained nuclear weapons at the same moment that they “””unknowingly””” harbored the worlds leading terrorist. Osama bin Laden was not an empty-threat maker like North Korea.
He actually tried to destroy America and was found right in the backyard of our ally Pakistan’s military academy version of America’s West Point. Pakistan is the same country where this years major Nobel Peace Prize contender Malala Yousufzai rose from the gurney after getting shot in the head for speaking out against her countries’ women’s rights violations.
In Pakistan little girls as young as seven years old are sold into marriage and raped and beaten. If it were North Korea we’d never hear the end of it. Malala just wanted to study in school. Can we blame her for wanting a non-traditional path? Pakistani netizens and media are now calling this victim of oppression, and assassination attempt survivor, by the name “Malala Drama-zai”, indicative of their apathy to American “Universal Principles”. They see her as nothing but a drama queen despite everything she’s been through and done.
So why do US – Pakistani relations remain strong as ever when but we won’t normalize relations with other countries because they don’t “value freedom”. The answer is because they are geographically located in the middle of a crucially strategic nexus of states: Iran, Afghanistan, China, and India. In this case we have no qualms overlooking everything they do because they are OUR regional hub.
The hypocrisy in international relations.
North Korean Machiavellian behavior is very misunderstood. North Korean Affairs experts could all sit down in a room together and look at one incident and make several contrasting conclusions. There is no real consensus on many things when it comes to North Korea. The main things experts can agree on is that North Korea wants to survive, to be given respect, and to maintain their national sovereignty. Also, we now have recently reached the consensus that they will never give up their nukes.
North attained their nukes at a great cost, during a time period in their development that nearly collapsed them. They did this because they think it’s the only thing that will help them achieve their desires to survive as a sovereign state and be given respect. It’s less likely that North Korea will use nuclear weapons than any other country who has them because that would be suicide, which conflicts with their main goal of surviving.
It is however, more likely that they will continue developing their nuclear program no matter what anybody dies, short of military invasion, which is when they would use them. Beside the point, North Korean elites spend more time trying to understand economics and entrepreneurship than that do planning for war.
North Korea has Westernized to great extent since Kim Jung Un has taken power, but still remains demonized by the international community. They’ve adopted Western capitalism, sports, entertainment, and food to varying but significant degrees. Even if only the elites have exposure to these things, they exist in the country and those things inevitably trickle down and spread out.
North Korea is only the size of Mississippi, so it’s not hard for things to trickle and spread. People argue with me that North Korean domestic law hinders “deviation of group-think”, but I disagree. North Korean’s have evolved. This isn’t the nineties anymore. There aren’t many people in the country who are unaware of the outside world anymore. Most have experienced some exposure to it.
Despite the past two years of unprecedented levels of Westernization, the only thing Kim Jung Un has asked from President Obama is a simple phone call. That request remains unanswered. President Obama refuses to talk to North Korea because of their nuclear program that they will develop whether he calls or not. So what could it hurt?
Rhetoric and Reality.
Let’s take a closer look at rhetoric and reality for a moment because there are several nuances in “American alliance logic” that require examination. In my public diplomacy analysis, it seems that we “strategically demonize” countries who we haven’t normalized relations with and because we haven’t normalized relations with them. Demonization has little to do with their location or their culture and everything to do with our own self interest. America shapes the global norms. American public perception framing of a country doesn’t reflect the real picture of that country.
Our public perception reflects the fact that we don’t trust them, so we make them look scary even if they aren’t scary and simply just don’t like us. This strategy is highly effective and necessary to maintaining the global image as always doing the right thing, which we’re starting to see that we aren’t always doing the right thing. American government behavior in the international community doesn’t reflect the behavior of those in civil society.
Thankfully, people abroad can still distinguish the USG from the people. Can we make that distinction between people and governments? I know people who I don’t like much but in order to coexist in peace I have made friend-enemies (“frienemies”) with them, and though they may not be the best looking person to me, they certainly don’t look scary to me just because I don’t like them all that much.
Can the government understand the concept of “frienemies”? We need to learn how to think like this at the government level in the information era or we will sorely regret it. We haven’t learned how to be “frienemies” with a country. We haven’t learned how to coexist peacefully. We have a mob-mentality where “you’re either with us or you’re against us; but there’s no in-between”.
This mentality is irrational and dangerous for two reasons. First, it destroys our credibility at home and abroad when we finally normalize relations with “despot nations” and realize that much of what we’ve propogated about them was not entirely accurate, or even starkly contrasting to reality. Secondly, it makes America look like hypocrites when we normalize relations with some countries, but won’t do so with others who are statistically the same, or even better than countries who we demonize.
Public Diplomacy: From swords to plowshares.
No country is perfect. Not America, not Pakistan, not Iran, not North Korea, not South Korea; and not Israel. In fact, despite our imperfections, we have a lot more in common than politics would lead us to believe. My conclusion is that we in America need to mature and act like the global superpower we are instead of some big bully who only sees things in black and white.
As the world’s hegemonic superpower we have the opportunity to lead the way in this new “information era” like we have in era’s of the past. We have the opportunity to play a transformational role in human and global state relations that has never been attempted. We have an opportunity to experiment and try new things. Just like we view America is a melting-pot of all types, we need to also view the world as a global melting pot. “It takes all types of people to make the world go round”, as my grandfather used to say.
This transformation will only happen if we mature and learn how to coexist. For this measure, our most powerful tool is public diplomacy. But we have to evolve public diplomacy into a smarter and more logical paradigm that isn’t solely operationalized at the government level. It needs to be transformed from a sword to a plowshare, or rather, used as a tool and not a weapon.
Public diplomacy is a dying art that is sadly being phased out of all uses besides projection of state doctrine. That needs to change. Public diplomacy can be an agent of transformational change in global human relations if used and wielded effectively. Public diplomacy can lead to peace. There is no question about that.
The question about public diplomacy is not what its capabilities are, but what the capabilities and social intelligence are of those who wield it. If we are of narrow mind and immature, we will use it for narrow purposes and achieve goals that have only short term political impact, and long term repercussions. We should do everything with future generations in mind.
Our strategies need to be long term. Public diplomacy is currently being used mostly for self-interest. It is my vision that in the future public diplomacy will be used for the global interest. In the cases of Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and other isolated nations; this world that we live in has no room for any nation to exist living in total isolation, pissed off, hell bent, and fueled by anger over how they’ve been trampled on their entire existence. With nothing to lose, and everything to gain, it is up to everyone to make friends out of their enemies, or at-least make “frienemies”.
Michael Bassett studied North Korean Affairs. He has lived and worked in Seoul as a civilian to promote unification on the peninsula. He is also a Senior Asia Analyst for 361Security, LLC, and a regular contributing analyst for The Fair Observer. Mr. Bassett is currently studying Cultural Diplomacy and Crisis Diplomacy as a graduate student at American University’s School of International Service, in the Executive Master’s in International Studies program, in Washington, D.C.