Soft power? No, soft in the head

 

From unsplash.com / © Jannes Van Den Wouwer

 

“And our hard power, conference, is dwarfed by a phenomenon that the pessimists never predicted when we unbundled the British Empire, and that is soft power – the vast and subtle and pervasive extension of British influence around the world that goes with having the language that was invented and perfected in this country, and now has more speakers than any other language on earth.

 

“And up the creeks and inlets of every continent on earth there go the gentle, kindly gunboats of British soft power, captained by Jeremy Clarkson – a prophet more honoured abroad, alas, than in his own country – or J.K. Rowling ,who is worshipped by young people in some Asian countries as a kind of divinity, or just the BBC.  And no matter how infuriating and shamelessly anti-Brexit they can sometimes be, I think the Beeb is the single greatest and most effective ambassador for our culture and our values.”

 

So spoke Boris de Piffle Johnson at the Conservative Party conference in 2016 on the subject of soft power and the United Kingdom’s ability, at least back then, to project it.  The term ‘soft power’ was coined in the 1980s by Joseph Nye, who described it as ‘getting others to want the outcomes you want’ on an international level. With sufficient soft power, a country can influence other countries through them ‘admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness’ rather than by ‘threatening military force or economic sanctions’ against them.

 

According to Nye, a country’s soft power comes from its culture, political values and foreign policies and its success in communicating and marketing these to an international audience. The UK had several historical advantages here. It was the original exporter of what is currently the world’s most popular international language, a language that, handily, it shares with the world’s number-one superpower.  It was also once a superpower itself, a ruthlessly imperial one, which left a legacy of connections around the world with its former colonies.  And, before 2016, it enjoyed a position as one of the main players in the European Union.

 

With these channels in place, all the UK needed were effective agents to facilitate the flow of its soft power and it had these in abundance too.  Not so long ago, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Department for International Development (DFID), the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the British Council (BC) did a great deal to promote the UK abroad in the fields of, respectively, diplomacy, development, broadcasting and education.  It helped too that the UK had many world-famous educational, cultural and sporting brands it could draw on, ranging from Oxford and Cambridge Universities and William Shakespeare to Manchester United and the Beatles.  Though Johnson, never one to let the fear of appearing crass get in the way of what he thinks is a jolly joke, claimed that much of the UK’s soft power was due to foreign petrolheads getting off on Top Gear.

 

It’s been a long time since I felt any affinity for the UK as a political entity.  I would, for instance, be happy to see Scotland become independent of it.  But I still feel I have a dog in the fight over the issue of British soft power because for most of the last quarter-century I’ve worked for various organisations and institutions in the fields of education and development that, directly or indirectly, have helped to promote British soft power abroad.  This hasn’t bothered me too much.  The days of the imperialist British Empire mentality were, I thought, long gone.  And although there have been a few catastrophic foreign policy errors, such as Tony Bliar’s decision to involve the UK in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I thought that the ‘values’, ‘examples’ and ‘openness’ Britain promoted abroad weren’t negative ones.  At least, in the early 21st century, they could have been worse.  I wouldn’t necessarily say the UK was one of the good guys as far as countries went, but it seemed one of the better guys.

 

That, however, was before the disaster of 2016’s Brexit referendum vote and the decision by voters in Britain – well, in England and Wales – to amputate the country from the European Union and embrace a parochial Little Englander nationalism.  This was promulgated by an array of shameless opportunistic chancers like Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Dominic Cummings, Daniel Hannan, Aaron Banks and of course Johnson himself.  Cheering them on was Britain’s right-wing press, owned by the billionaire likes of Rupert Murdoch and the Barclay Brothers.

 

Johnson’s government, and that of Theresa May before him, have done their best to play to a gallery of xenophobes, reactionaries, gammons and flag-shaggers, making decisions that right-wing tabloid headlines construe as sticking up for plucky little Blighty whilst giving Johnny Foreigner one in the eye.  In fact, what they’ve succeeded in doing is eroding the once-impressive edifice of British soft power on the international stage.  You can read about Britain’s decline in the world’s soft-power rankings here.

 

One example of this, perhaps small in the general scheme of things but telling in its malignant stupidity, is how the decision by Johnson’s government to cut UK overseas bilateral aid by at least 50% has impacted on the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) organisation.  VSO is dependent for half its budget on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which is the unwieldy result of DFID being amalgamated with the FCO in 2020.  With the foreign aid budget decimated, VSO is now preparing to shut operations in 14 countries, wind down its Volunteering for Development scheme and end its Covid-19 response initiative, which supports four-and-a-half million people in 18 countries.  This follows on from the demise of VSO’s International Citizen Service in February.

 

 

I worked as a volunteer with VSO in Ethiopia from 1999 to 2001.  Now, thanks to some of my experiences there and elsewhere, I’m cynical about much of what goes on in the international aid and development industry and I agree with criticisms of it made in books like Graham Hancock’s The Lords of Poverty (1989) and Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid (2010).  In Ethiopia, where I worked as an instructor at a teacher-training institute, I went into primary school classes containing 40 or more pupils who often had to share one textbook in groups of three or four and had to sit on the floor because there weren’t enough chairs.  Classrooms often had gaping holes in their floors, broken furniture and no electricity.  Meanwhile, officials at the local Regional Educational Board luxuriated in carpeted, air-conditioned offices equipped with computers, printers and projectors.  The money given to the region’s educational budget by a Scandinavian aid organisation had never percolated down past the hands of the middle-class bureaucrats into which it’d been entrusted.

 

The campus I worked on featured its own monument to aid-industry inefficiency.  It contained a language laboratory that’d been gifted by French money.  I’m not sure if that language lab had ever worked but it certainly wasn’t in use while I was there.  It was full of big, dust-covered consoles that, like computers in a flashy 1960s spy thriller, used clunky spools of tape.  Whoever had signed the original cheques hadn’t done any research.  They hadn’t realised that the language-teaching world’s preferred medium for giving students practice in listening, especially in a rough-and-tumble environment like 1990s Ethiopia, was the humble, durable and portable audio-cassette tape.

 

But VSO’s modus operandum was not about spending money that was vulnerable to being misappropriated by corruption or incompetence.  It recognised that the key was training.  Transferring skills from one person to another, so that the recipient is able to do his or her job better, leads to sustainable positive changes.  Accordingly, the people who volunteered to work for VSO were experienced professionals in their home countries. By doing a similar job in the same field in what was then termed ‘a developing country’, they could contribute to improving the training and performances of the local people they worked beside.  This wasn’t because they were better professionals than their local peers.  They’d just had the advantage of having trained and worked in more developed countries.

 

One important feature of VSO was that its volunteers earned the same salary as their local colleagues.  This meant they shared the same working and living conditions as the locals did – unlike employees of other aid agencies, there was no living in fancy compounds, working in high-tech offices or travelling in supersized 4x4s for them.  Therefore, the problems faced by local professionals during their jobs were as much of a headache for the VSO volunteers too, and together they had to devise solutions to these problems that drew on local knowledge, were realistic and would actually work on the ground.

 

In my criticisms of foreign aid, then, I’m not arguing that budgets should be slashed.  If necessary, they should be recalibrated so that training and sustainability are at the fore, if those things aren’t already.  As the old proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.  Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

 

 

I knew from the responses of Ethiopian friends and colleagues that VSO’s work in their country earned much respect for Britain at the time.  Meanwhile, my VSO experiences did a lot for me personally, helping me to become more organised, practical, resourceful, confident and diplomatic.  So Britain and the VSO volunteers benefitted as much as the local folk did.  It was a win-win-win situation.

 

The fact that government cuts have subjected VSO to this crisis shows what hot air Boris Johnson’s words about the value of British soft power, quoted at the start of this entry, really were.  He clearly has no interest in how the rest of the world perceives and interacts with the UK, other than it providing a few post-Brexit trade deals and being somewhere that he and his moneyed cronies can escape to for their luxury holidays.

 

Government actions elsewhere underline this.  The plug has already been pulled on Britain’s participation in the Erasmus programme, which allowed 15,000 British students annually to study in European universities without paying fees.  The BBC seems to stagger from one government-induced crisis to another and its main instrument of international influence, the once-admired BBC World Service, has been in freefall from budget cuts since the Tory government of David Cameron.  Other organisations that promote Britain overseas are in similarly dire straits and the current Covid-19 pandemic has made the situation even worse.  But Johnson and company obviously don’t care if they wither on the vine.

 

Yes, as the Conservative government develops its new blueprint for the country as a giant sweatshop where the majority work for peanuts and without protections, and where a political / economic elite make a fortune and pay as little tax as possible, the drawbridge is being pulled up between Britain and the outside world.  It’s a tragedy that an exemplary organisation like VSO looks like being the latest victim of this mindset.

 

© Voluntary Service Overseas

Trump-town riots

 

© CBS News

 

“It’s a disgrace, there’s never been anything like that.  You could take third-world countries, just take a look, take third-world countries.  Their elections are more honest than what we’ve been going through in this country.  It’s a disgrace.”

 

So spoke President, now almost Ex-President, Donald Trump at a rally at Washington DC on January 6th.  This was before the rally’s attendees launched an assault on the US Capitol while members of Congress were meeting there to certify Joe Biden becoming the 46th president and Trump’s successor.

 

Bravely, Trump used the pronoun ‘we’, which normally means ‘me’ as well as ‘you’, when he declared: “…we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue… and we’re going to the Capitol…”  Then, bravely, he didn’t accompany his supporters when they marched off to confront and fight their way past the Capitol’s police force (many of whom, as it happened, were suspiciously reluctant to do their jobs).  Instead, bravely, Trump headed back to the White House where, bravely, he watched the ensuing carnage on TV.

 

In his speech, Trump claimed that November 2020’s presidential election, when Joe Biden won 72 more electoral college seats and 7,250,000 more votes than he did, and which everybody from the Supreme Court to the Department of Justice – not to mention the judges who chucked out 60-odd lawsuits filed by Trump in protest – agreed had been held fairly, was even more fraudulent than an election held in a third-world country.  Even more!

 

I guess I should credit Trump for using the term ‘third-world countries’, which is an improvement on his previous term for less-well-off parts of the planet, ‘shithole countries’.  I doubt, though, if he’ll ever evolve to the point where he refers to them as ‘developing-world countries’, or even less-patronising terms like ‘low-and-lower-middle-income countries’, or ‘the global south’, or ‘the Majority World’.

 

As somebody who’s spent much time living in (what I’ll call) low-and-lower-middle-income countries, I have to say I’ve never seen a spectacle as humiliatingly ridiculous as the one in the Capitol following Trump’s rabble-rousing speech on January 6th.  I’ve lived in North Korea under Kim Jong-Il and Libya under Colonel Ghaddafi, dictators whose perpetual self-aggrandisement led to some ludicrous sights indeed.  But nothing I saw in those places compares to last week’s scenes, where American politicians fled from their chambers while doors buckled, windows imploded and police and secret-service officers were pushed back by an inexorable, invading tide of white supremacists, Nazis, militiamen, crackpot conspiracists and MAGA nutjobs.

 

It resembled the start of a zombie-apocalypse movie – the bit where a live TV broadcast, announcing the emergency and urging calm, is interrupted by the studio staff looking into the lobby and screaming off-camera, “They’re here!  They’re here!”  Though this wasn’t so much Dawn of the Dead as QAnon of the Dead.

 

© Sony Soho Square

 

And during my time in what Trump thinks of as ‘shithole countries’, I’ve never seen performers from such a theatre of the absurd as those who were centre stage in the Capitol when, temporarily, the mob occupied it.  The QAnon-shaman guy with the buffalo furs and horns and the painted face, resembling the figure on the cover of the 1993 Jamiroquai album Emergency on Planet Earth after it’d spent a night sleeping in a skip.  The other guy with the furs, plus glasses and a dead beaver on his head, looking like the world’s shittest Davie Crockett.  The guy in the bobbled ‘Trump’ hat who walked off with Nancy Pelosi’s lectern, now under arrest and subject to a thousand jokes on social media about when he’ll ‘take the stand’.  The guy with the Santa Claus beard and the ‘Camp Auschwitz’ T-shirt, whom one right-wing idiot later tried to deflect criticism from on social media by suggesting he might actually be an ‘Auschwitz survivor’…  Hold on, though.  Someone celebrating Auschwitz in 2021?  That’s not absurd.  That’s frightening.

 

Indeed, after the initial absurdities broadcast on the initial news reports, there came more frightening accounts of what’d happened.  A police officer died of injuries sustained while being bludgeoned by a fire extinguisher.  Another officer, a black man, had to offer himself as bait and lure a racist mob away from the senate entrance, so that those inside got a few extra minutes to evacuate.  (While these things were happening, other officers, clearly sympathetic to the mob’s intent, were dismantling barriers to let them pass and posing for selfies with them.)  Journalists were attacked.  A makeshift noose was strung up outside.  Masked figures roamed around carrying zip-tie handcuffs, apparently planning to take hostages.

 

Meanwhile, there was the jaw-dropping contemptibility of Republican politicians such as Ted Cruz, the Texan cowpat, and Josh Hawley, a man who physically and spiritually resembles Miguel Ferrer’s scumbag executive in Robocop (1987).  Even after the insurrection, they kept on parroting Trump’s honking-mad claims about election fraud and they voted against Biden’s certification.  Obviously, this is because they want to secure the support of Trump’s deranged base when they launch their own bids to become president in 2024.  With Cruz and Hawley, it’s not so much ‘we the people’ as ‘me the people’.

 

I suppose I should react to this with schadenfreude.  The USA has a long history of promoting revolutions and insurrections in other countries.  The most notorious of many examples were the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, which the USA and its little sidekick the UK orchestrated in 1953 (and which begat the Shah of Iran, which begat the 1979 revolution, which begat the Ayatollah, which begat the Iran we know and fear today), and the 1973 coup d’état it engineered against President Salvador Allende that resulted in the murderous, fascistic rule of General Pinochet.  Now it’s embarrassingly fallen prey to an attempted coup of its own.

 

Still, all the sanctimonious blather about the USA being the mother of democracy and the shining light for other nations to follow, often propagated by Hollywood movies, does worm its way into your consciousness no matter how hard you try to resist.  So although the idea of American democratic righteousness is more myth and propaganda than reality, seeing its political heart get trashed by Jamiroquai-shaman guy, beaver-on-head guy, lectern-guy, etc., was rather sad.

 

From twitter.com / schwarzenegger

 

Incidentally, if the notion that the USA is the great champion of democracy is cheesy guff, it was appropriate that a few days later Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of cinema’s greatest proponents of cheesy (though enjoyable) guff, went viral in a video in which he praised American democracy.  Arnie even likened its resilience to the sword of Conan the Barbarian.  The sword’s blade, he explained, becomes stronger the more it’s tempered by punishment.  (Sorry, Arnie, but I seem to remember Conan’s mantra being to ‘crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of their women’.  Which doesn’t sound terribly democratic to me.)

 

But returning to the topic of low-and-lower-middle-income countries…  From 1999 to 2001 I worked in Ethiopia.  When I arrived there, most Ethiopians’ experience of the outside world was via an antiquated TV set kept in a wooden cabinet in the neighbourhood coffee shop or bar, which gave them access to two terrestrial channels.  The channels’ output seemed to consist mainly of clips of traditional Ethiopian dancing, English football matches that’d taken place three weeks earlier, and reruns of Jake and the Fatman (1987-92).

 

Within two years, however, satellite TV had arrived with a vengeance.  Suddenly, those same people were being exposed daily to dozens, if not hundreds of channels crammed with glossy adverts and pop videos dripping with opulence – fancy cars, penthouses, jewellery, designer clothes.  It was all phoney nonsense, of course.  Most people in other countries didn’t live like that.  But how was your average Ethiopian expected to know?  And how, I wondered, would this impact on the psychology of a people whose country was then, and still is today, pretty impoverished?  (In 2018 its GDP per capita was ranked 167th in the world.)

 

As it turned out, I should have been more worried about the Americans and how they’d cope with rapid advances in communications technology and especially with the sudden arrival of social media.  For now we have vast numbers of Americans taking Trump’s twitter ravings as the gospel truth.  Also, vast numbers of them believe the insane drivel that is the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory, whereby Trump is battling a worldwide network of paedophilic, baby-eating Satanists who control everything, especially everything that’s liberal.

 

Whoever Biden appoints as a successor to Betty DeVos, Trump’s wretched Secretary of Education, will urgently need to promote 21st century skills like critical thinking and digital literacy in the nation’s schools.  Otherwise, thanks to social media and the Internet, the USA will collectively disappear down an extremist rabbit hole or get locked into a far-right echo chamber.

 

Ironically, Trump, so disdainful of ‘shithole countries’ in Africa and elsewhere, is probably closest in his vanity, bluster and puffed-up preposterousness to some of the infamous dictators who ruled certain African nations after the end of colonialism.  I’m thinking of Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko who, while most of his subjects lived in poverty, built a palace that became known as ‘the Versailles of the jungle’, travelled using a fleet of costly Mercedes-Benz motor cars and hired Concorde for shopping trips to France.  What Trumpian things to do.  I’m also thinking of Uganda’s Idi Amin, described in 1973 by his country’s American ambassador as ‘racist, erratic and unpredictable, brutal, inept, bellicose, irrational, ridiculous and militaristic.’  That sounds like Trump down to a T.

 

By the way, talk of Idi Amin makes me think of the 2006 movie The Last King of Scotland, based on the 1998 novel by Giles Fodden.  In that, a hapless, vain and dim Scotsman, played by James McAvoy, cosies up to Amin, played by Forest Whittaker, at the start of the latter’s career and soon gets more than he bargained for.

 

© DNA Films / Film4 / Fox Searchlight Pictures

 

Thinking of The Last King of Scotland’s imaginary scenario, I’m somehow reminded of the real-life scenario here:

 

© Daniel Biskup / The Times / News Syndication

 

Anyway, America, one week has passed since the Capitol insurrection.  You’ve got just one more week to go before Biden gets inaugurated and the Orange Blob, hopefully, is cast off into powerlessness and obscurity.

 

You’re halfway out of Crazy Town.  Hope you make it.  Good luck.