Practicing Effective Public Diplomacy in Africa (or elsewhere)

Let’s say you’re charged with finding the path to partnership with a few dozen African countries that have resources you want and need. How would you approach the them to establish a relationship to establish a partnership? This might be especially important if you are locking for priority treatment or even to lockout a competitor. A blocking strategy would really entail developing a deep partnership of trust, or coercion. If you want to go with the trust route, believing that it will cost less in the long run (i.e. soft power vs hard power) it would make sense to establish and build trust and understanding. Perhaps even a spirit of mutual assistance since. A little give, a little take. Making governments and people comfortable with your overtures would require a coherent policy, right? What might that policy look like?

Relationships begin with dialogs. The goal is to build trust. Trust cannot be manufactured, it has to be earned. On a personal level now, how did you come to trust your best friend? Was a bond of trust "created" or did it evolve over time? It probably built up over time through actions by both you and the other person after some initial, perhaps small, amount of trust was placed in the both of you by the other. We build trust, we do not "create" trust. We can build and maintain trust just as we can "fritter" it away, to quote Martin Rose of the British Council.

So, in this hypothetical let me add something. Let’s say you’ve had a presence in the region for a few decades. Nearly fifty years ago you initiated a program to assist, convert really, the peoples and governments to your way of thinking. This established contacts in the region. It didn’t go over the way you really wanted, but it didn’t end up in flames either. The reasons for that original approach are now in the pages of history and the contacts have been maintained and in the last few years, you reactivated them to get to a new level. So, with the knowledge that you have at least some amount of trust built up with these countries. What would you do next?

You might consider documenting a policy to share with Africa. This would describe how important sincerity, friendship and equality are to you. It would also put you on a moral high ground when contrasted with other global players. It would emphasize your belief in the mutual benefit of economic and social development and cooperation, especially focusing on reciprocity and common prosperity.  This would probably sound like a good, if not great, deal to the Africans, corrupt or not. There is something of a track record that leans toward the positive side, if not completely positive.

The idea of riches to be made in global economy might be appealing, or even just being heard when you suggest how you will help them strengthen their role in global institutions through coordination and support. Those are great words to use, in fact. Non-threatening, friendly, and reciprocal. All key in building trust and deepening ties.

This relationship you’re seeking to build upon and expand would cause each side to learn and develop. So you would suggest cultural, civic, and educational exchanges to deepen understanding and awareness of each other as you learn from each other and create a sustainable world. Well, you can hope for a sustainable world, which is what you want to try for, right? You do not want to pollute. You want a moral high ground, especially when considering the beautiful African continent. Perhaps you might suggest something to your friends on this? There is money to be made in eco-toursism, after all.

How about cooperation on resources, tourism (means $), debt reduction ($ — offering assistance with the global institutions), infrastructure (goods, people and tourists have to get around), agriculture ($ greater crop density and quality), education, media, consular affairs (helping in the international community, did I mention you’re a big country with pull?), disaster reduction, relief and humanitarian assistance, military training, police, courts, and more.

Sounds pretty fancy. Too much to lay out in a document, isn’t it? I mean, who would really go so far to do this? Africa does have all that oil, natural gas, and plenty of other fantastic resources, energy and otherwise.

Does it sound too fantastic if you have already been building prestige buildings on Africa? You’d offer the people the choice of a sports stadium or a government building. Most of the time they picked stadium, but once the bureaucrats got lucky and a government building was built. Africans might see the friendly side you’re trying to promote, right?

They might also see a friendly culture if you’re broadcasting the English language TV into Africa. That would be great, wouldn’t it? Let’s say you’re doing that already.

Does it sound like I’m trying to sell you a bridge or ocean front property (sorry, US-centric joke)? I’m not. The policy document I described exists and was published January 2006. China reportedly gets over a quarter of its oil from Africa, so it is not surprising it’s interested in building up and maintaining relations on the continent. In 2000, Beijing established the China-Africa Cooperation Forum (CACF) to promote trade and investment with 44 African countries. In 2003, Prime Minister Wen visited several oil-producing African states accompanied by Chinese oil executives, and President Hu toured Algeria, Egypt, and Gabon. China has been working closely with governments in the Gulf of Guinea, from Angola to Nigeria, as well as with the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Libya, Niger, and Sudan. (See Sep/Oct 2005 Foreign Affairs: China’s Global Hunt for Energy)

In mid-January 2006, China issued an African Policy Paper. The strategy China has laid out, besides being laid out open for all to see, should cause concern at State. This paper is divided into six parts:

    1. Africa’s Position and Role
    2. China’s Relations with Africa
    3. China’s African Policy
    4. Enhancing All-round Cooperation Between China and Africa
    5. Forum on China-Africa Cooperation And Its Follow-up Actions
    6. China’s Relations with African Regional Organizations

The document is easily available as html, making accessibility as universal as possible. The English is simple and straight forward, making it easy to read for those who first, or even second or third, language is not English. This document is public diplomacy at its finest. The Chinese are doing a bang-up job in the region. China’s connection with the public goes beyond building prestige buildings for the public. Offered the option of a sports stadium or government building, the public gets to chose, only once did a public group chose the government building. Television in the region is also becoming largely English language broadcast from China. In the culture war, the West, and the US specifically, is losing.

The most visible American presence in the area is a multinational military base on the Horn and corporate oil on the Gulf of Guinea. The rhetoric out of Washington is militaristic and focused on counter-insurgency (COIN) and counter-terrorism. Efforts at public diplomacy, economic and cultural connections are not heard when they are spoken at all. They are drowned out by louder actions and lousy follow through.

The African Policy Paper is quite impressive. It is a great piece of propaganda (in the pure sense) and a tremendous example of what public diplomacy can look like. Working from an equality in partnership, establishing two-way communication and understanding is done through exchanges and commitments to build trust through assistance in all sectors of the civil sector. Textbook.

With established relationships with nearly all the countries on the continent, including expanding cultural and economic ties, this policy could very easily be seen as likely steps the Chinese would fulfill. The Chinese are not perfect, despite the appearance of The Policy. Holes in both reality and the document will be discussed in a follow up post. As well as the importance of China in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review.

The international military on the Horn is an effective fighting force working with some USAID elements, but where is the full frontal effort on public, cultural, and diplomacy diplomacy to build deep relationships and trust? Building schools, roads, economies, and social structures is the best way to prevent terrorism and to assure a resource supply that will be steady and sure. The Chinese seem to know that. Does the United States want to sit back and see if the plan works? Countering such a plan is just like countering and preventing terrorism: a long and steady effort. Will it happen? We’ll have to see, unfortunately, I doubt Las Vegas bookies will give me good odds on it.

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6 thoughts on “Practicing Effective Public Diplomacy in Africa (or elsewhere)

  1. Pete,I must disagree with you on the educational front for African nationals. China has made the effort to pick up the slack in the educational front and already has established exchange programs. Remember the US foreign student programs are suffering big time from post-9/11 rules. Incidently, the UK has also enthusiastically and aggressively gone after foreign students. The UK has done, in part, for the money. Just like US colleges and universities made extra off foreign students, the UK does as well.
    Educational and cultural exchanges are difficult unless a comprehensive approach appears. Which, as you point out, is more difficult in the US. The US needs to firewall these activities from the politics and from the likes of Jesse Helms.
    Consider a quote from a Congressman after World War II questioning the need to spend money on educating and information people of the US (vis a vie the USSR): “For more than 200 years – even in the remotest corner of the earth – people have known that the United States meant freedom in the fullest connotation of the term. Things which are self evident require no proof.”

  2. MattThe US will probably have an edge in providing opportunities for African nationals to visit the US say for undergraduate and post graduate technical training.
    The Chinese for all their shrewdness are more racist towards blacks than the US (except the South). So education of future leaders in (say) California or the North East may help.
    On “The rhetoric out of Washington is militaristic and focused on counter-insurgency (COIN) and counter-terrorism.” Unlike China the US needs to “sell” the idea of expensive bilateral or multilateral aid to Congressmen and the US public. Under China’s political system there is no democratic imperitive to do this.
    The US Government needs to understand that suppressing African insurgents doesn’t sound to attractive to Africans (no surprise). The US needs to dress up its message in a more comforting way.

  3. YeahIt seems China has made a much more sustained and well thought out effort to provide education, aid and expertise to Africa. This has benefits in winning African votes for Chinese interests in internatioinal forums (eg the UN).
    I’ve seen the French doing this well with countries from francophone Africa in forums like INTELSAT and Inmarsat.
    Obviously the US has higher priorities eg the Middle East and ex Soviet Asia.
    A real problem – is it a question of bucks or a better strategy? Usually both.

  4. The comparison w/ France isn’t really “fair”. The French are trying to save the French “empire” of culture. French spending on “cultural diplomacy” projects $17.57 / per French citizen that goes for subsidies for schools and other educational work, promotion of the French language, etc. Meanwhile, the US spends $0.80 / US citizen. The US is generally looking to expand its virtual borders (open markets, etc).Bucks or better strategy? You’re right, it is both. There’s also an issue of policy disconnect. Do the actions match the words? Is there a means to the same ends?

  5. Matt:Nice summary of Chinese intentions. You’re missing out, however, on the American approach to Africa, which is a whole lot more than a base in Djibouti that digs wells for PR purposes. You’re also missing out on the down side of Chinese activity, unconditional support for unpalatable regimes and disregard for labor, to name only two stains on its way fo doing business.
    It’s true that the U.S. could use the type of policy paper that the Chinese do so well. But would that have made any difference in the high ratings that Africans consistently give to America and Americans? A five-decades long approach that includes the Peace Corps and USAID, and more recently, HIV/AIDS and malaria initiatives are not to be frowned over. Nor is a legacy of education and health-care going back more than a century driven by private citizens, unversities, and churches. Nor a rich legacy of centuries of cross-pollination in music, art, literature, and dance.
    And that wonderful Chinese position paper is available in which language — English? Soft power starts with the power of language, one that gives Americans a decided advantage in the half of the continent that claims English as an official language, something that fifty years of USG-supported English-teaching programs have constantly supported and which provide a foundation for admittedly a relatively small USG-exchange and scholarship programs and much larger private ones.
    Don’t miss out on the role of Hollywood and sports, either (your USC pedigree wouldn’t let you, I know): Will Smith and before him, Muhammed Ali, have been two of the most popular Americans in Africa not just because of their skin color and accomplishments, but because of their undubbed English that speaks directly to tens of millions of Africans.
    This is only the start, Matt. Perhaps a conference is due here. We could learn that Africa is perhaps the outstanding success story of American “PD”. And maybe not having that superbly-crafted public policy position paper may be an advantage after all.

  6. Good points. The post is more than three years old and it should be updated and given greater context. The purpose was, however, to highlight Chinese intentions. Subsequently we have seen, as you note, the “say-do” gap of the Chinese, as well as increased competition from the Iranians, not to mention more American efforts, including AFRICOM (which should have been State or USAID on steriods with DOD underneath but who would have supported Rice at the helm of that?). Of course there’s Will Smith, Muhammed Ali, some basketball players, and Obama…Conference? hmmm…

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