There Is Only One Superpower Left, and It’s Not the U.S.
Listen to the full discussion between Cull and Scheer on historical propaganda, modern communication, diplomacy and the many challenges of a global crisis that can no longer be ignored. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the media player and find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
—Introduction by Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence–this immodest title–but the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it’s Nicholas J. Cull. He’s a professor of public diplomacy at the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California–and a colleague of mine–where I also teach. And at first when I met this guy, I thought, what is public diplomacy? It’s like public relations, it sounds like a con job. You know, as a working journalist, I always thought people in public relations were skimming the truth, or presenting the best case. I still haven’t gotten used to the idea that it’s an honorable profession. And then I feel in some ways about public diplomacy that, well, wait a minute–isn’t that just lying with another title? And then I read your book.
Nicholas Cull: Mm-hmm.
RS: And I feel, oh, you make a very–this is sort of the primer: [Public Diplomacy:] Foundations for Global Engagement in the Digital Age. And like public relations, although this is a more honorable public diplomacy, it’s obviously an effort to find soft power, ways of communicating with others. And you even have a list. I’m not going to get the list, but it begins like something you tell kindergarten children: keep your listening ears open.
NC: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right.
RS: Listen, think, be sympathetic, see the other point of view, all of which is admirable. However, that’s not the reason I wanted to do this show with you. And it is because we are in a strange moment historically, where we’re acting–at least on the level of establishment media, and also that–because of Donald Trump representing such an egregious figure, and himself hurling this charge of fake news, we’re in this kind of weird moment where we’re talking about lying or distorting news, information, as if it’s an aberration, as if it just came here now. And because you, in addition to your current book, you’ve written a number of really important books. You wrote one on the–in fact, you’ve written a couple of things on the United States information age, the Cold War and so forth. And it really, it talks about the decline of that agency. You wrote one about British intelligence, your land of birth–Selling War, and British information before Pearl Harbor; basically, about tricking the U.S. into getting involved more quickly than it wanted to. And a definitive book–and by “definitive” I don’t mean you should ignore it, but the title would suggest maybe you should, but really. You’re a coauthor of something called Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: [A Historical Encyclopedia,] 1500 to the Present. So fake news, lying, exaggeration has always been with us.
NC: Well, this is my–my position is that propaganda is an element in the structure of communication. It’s not a moment in the history of communication. And I think that’s really, really important. Right now, because we have new technologies of communication, people are newly–or once again–susceptible to being deceived and manipulated by a new medium. And I think that’s what defines our current moment. I do not see manipulation as being new; I think it’s as old as human civilization. I think humans have always sought to use communication as a multiplier in politics, and that the ability to just make something up, and integrate that into political power, is ancient. Is ancient. So we’ve always seen lies, we’ve always seen rumors, we’ve always seen fakes. It’s just that these things are at their most powerful when a new method of communication comes on the scene.
RS: Well, let me defend the internet and the wired world and all that. And as I tell my students–and you’ve been in my class, you’ve probably heard me say this–I say it is true. It was I think Mark Twain, at least it’s attributed to Mark Twain: A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth can put its pants on, or put its shoes on. And that was a statement made quite a while ago. It is true now, with the internet, you can spread some fake story or fake picture. And you can do it brilliantly; people can’t tell which is the fake and which is real, and so forth. However, in this wired world, we have a corrective. People can weigh in. And they can say: No, no, no, no–let’s look at the original document, let’s look at the other manifestations. And they can do it from all over the world, because now we have instant translation. So if we claim something about China, as Trump is doing now with trade, you know, you can read the Chinese press. And you know, or if you want to follow Hong Kong, if you want to follow what happened with Iran and Saudi Arabia, you can get an Iranian point of view. So I think the takeaway, however, is that you have to want to challenge. You have to be suspicious.
NC: Yeah. And that’s the–that is about the position of the individual in the presence of media. The media is always telling you to just relax, and “trust me.” But as educators, as intellectuals, we have to teach people to say–you know, in all things question everything. To be on the lookout for being manipulated. And as a historian, you know, I have the privilege to look across a great scope of history. And my position would be that each time a new technology becomes available, we see an inordinate trust in that technology, we see an element of distortion in that technology, and we see conflict arising from that technology. So you know, you can look at World War I as arising out of the ability of the popular press to manipulate people. You can look at World War II as arising out of the ability of the radio and the newsreels to manipulate people. People hadn’t got the skepticism of those media, they hadn’t internalized that, at those points in time. You know, maybe the conflicts of the Renaissance, of the Reformation, are tied to the introduction of movable type. And you can see how people were more malleable by that technology. So, but the question is, how do we manage a transition in new kinds of media technology without having global conflict? And minimally, these times are disruptive, and leave people looking for certainties. And there’s only–the obvious place for people to look for certainty is to the past, to an idealized view of the past. And that is present all around the world in the new populism, where politicians are pointing to an idealized vision of the past and saying: Oh, we’ll make Country X great again. Or in–the slogan that was used during Brexit was “Take back control.” As if at some point in the past, the British public had had control over their destiny.
RS: Well, I think that that’s an important takeaway, not to romanticize the past. In fact, the past was deeply racist, exploitive, mean-spirited—
NC: Sure. I’d hate to live there, I’d hate to live there.
RS: Yes, but I want to get at a more basic and current point. And that is, there’s been a glorification of the establishment institutions. Including, now, people have–we’ve gotten over Snowden’s revelations; and Julian Assange is now, you know, dismissed; and Chelsea Manning is in jail, as is Julian Assange. And we have this idea of, “Oh, if we could only get back the old media. And to the degree that we have it, we’re going to celebrate the New York Times. The problem with the internet is everybody gets to play, everybody gets to have a story, everybody gets to”–right? OK, as if there wasn’t mischief until we had the internet. And I just want to–you know, reading your book, your current book came out this year, Public Diplomacy: Foundations for Global Engagement in the Digital Age. You, in your book, say: Wait a minute. Lying was the norm in a number of these places. You bring up the Vietnam War, for example, you know, and so forth. And I want to get to that in a bit. Right now–let’s start with that. Because right now, the New York Times–you know, everybody loves the New York Times who doesn’t like Trump. But people forget it was only, what, less than two decades ago that the New York Times was instrumental in lying this country into a needless war that you could not justify in Iraq. And they ran story after story claiming there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
NC: For sure. And people who contradicted that were vilified. And were–in the legacy media, mainstream media.
RS: Yeah. So it’s a convenient fiction to think there were these good old days, as you say.
NC: Well, to be honest, Bob, as a historian, I don’t recognize the view of media history that I find celebrated in the mainstream media. You know, when I look back at the parts of history that I know best, like World War II, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, I see the media making some tremendous mistakes. And particularly in the Second World War, the way in which competition between, say, CBS and NBC nearly compromised security–even nearly prematurely announced D-Day. If the Germans had been listening, they could have deduced when D-Day was going to happen based on a mistaken news flash that came over the American commercial airwaves, just because one network wanted to have the story quicker than another network. So I’m really troubled by some aspects of American media history, and don’t feel that the complexity of that, and the disruption, or the–the disruption to media’s democratic role that comes from its financial and commercial pressures–I don’t feel that’s properly discussed when people think about American media history. There’s too much emphasis on the romance, and the celebration of the contribution of the media to democracy–which is real, but it’s also historically been a challenge to democracy.
RS: Well, let’s talk about the challenge. We’re going to wander a bit in this discussion, let’s just say, right. There’s a lot to talk about and get our hands on. But one challenge of our media in a self-proclaimed free society is that the public, through long periods of history, accepts that they’re being told the truth. By their democratically elected government, by their media, by their institutions, and so forth. And as a journalist who covered stories from totalitarian countries, deeply authoritarian countries, religion-dominated countries, one thing that I–I don’t know if you’ve had the same experience; you’ve traveled and looked at a lot of different situations in the world. But I rarely found people in, say, the old Soviet Union who believed that Pravda–even though its name meant “truth”–was telling them the truth. They thought it was telling them the position of the Communist Party. And Izvestia, the government paper, was telling the position of the government. You read it–and this would be, like, maybe I would talk to 40, 50 people when I would be there on a trip about some story. And they’d say, of course, that is what the government is putting out about this situation. It’s important because they are the government, and they can do things. And that’s what the party believes, and so forth. And at the same time, when I would be reporting back here on the United States or on U.S. policy, particularly in foreign affairs, they would say–Oh, no, the Gulf of Tonkin must have happened, and must justify our bombing–or people would have told us, the government would have told us. And so in an odd way, the frame of mind that we’ve had–and it’s been shaken now with Donald Trump, because like him or not, if you like him he’s telling you about fake news, if you don’t like him he’s the President of the United States dispensing fake news–we have, in an odd way, a more sophisticated public now. And as I say, with the internet, we actually have the tools of checking things out. But I want to get to your area of public diplomacy. And I didn’t mean to start off with a negative rap on that, or–
NC: No, I think it’s deserved. I think we need to–we need to have that in the open.
RS: Right. But there’s something wonderful about it, of the idea of soft power. And I actually lost a bit of sleep the last few days thinking about this, you know. How could one challenge–it’s obviously better to talk to others–you know, as Nixon did when he went to the Soviet Union in the Kitchen Debate and all that–than just shooting people up. But when I thought about it a bit more, soft power has often been used as a disguise for inviting harsh power. And I want to give just a couple of examples. One is in your book. You talk about the Congress on Cultural Freedom; you talk about these institutions that sounded wonderful during the Cold War, on the face. Oh, we’re helping artists tell the story of American freedom and democracy–well, it was a whitewashed version of that, and it was used as propaganda. And I thought, you know, let’s take Vietnam. How did we–what was the image that got us into Vietnam? It was soft power. President Kennedy did something that Eisenhower, his predecessor, didn’t do. Eisenhower was worried about fighting a land war in Asia anywhere, very cautious about it. Kennedy came in and listened to people who told him, we really have to get involved, you know, in Vietnam, and we have to get involved with Cuba, did the Bay of Pigs. And in the case of Vietnam, the subterfuge was we didn’t say we’re sending troops to Vietnam to prevent an election and stop this popular guy, Ho Chi Minh, from winning that election. We said we’re sending flood control advisors to South Vietnam, they have a civic mission, and we’re going to send teachers, we’re going to send scholars.
NC: You remember Tom Dooley?
RS: Yes, Tom Dooley was a medical doctor in the Navy, and told heroic stories of saving refugees. We had the American Friends of Vietnam, who were basically university scholars, and at Michigan State they became a cover for a treacherous program of torture and assassination in Vietnam. You know, so what I’m worried about here–in my only specific dispute, maybe, with your focus. Because you’re head of the public diplomacy program, and the founder of it, at the University of Southern California. And, you know, you’re training people in this. But it seems to me we need a caution about it.
RS: Soft power quite often becomes an excuse for hard power.
NC: Well, I would–just to jump in on that, I would say that the reason the United States became involved in Vietnam was because it wanted to perform its power. It felt that it had to prove that it could win revolutions, and that Vietnam was a kind of a stage for an American performance. Part of why they wanted to be in Vietnam is because it wasn’t actually central to American strategic interests. But the point was to show the credibility of American power. And Kennedy actually said that in an interview with James Reston, when he was in Vienna after his meeting with Khrushchev. He said, the United States has to prove the credibility of its power; Vietnam is the place. So part of the problem in Vietnam is that it was about–it was a form of propaganda by deed. It wasn’t actually about what’s best for the Vietnamese people, it was kind of a generic conflict that was put into Vietnam without any thought of the welfare, or the specifics of the needs of that country. And the conflict didn’t fit with the country, and the U.S. lost control of the of the script. Public diplomacy was devised as part of the Vietnam conflict. The idea was to have a–to be able to say to the world, those wicked communists do propaganda; the United States as a democracy has a different thing called public diplomacy. Now, initially, it was just a switch of terminology. But once the United States had announced that it had an alternative approach, a democratic approach, then the practitioners themselves kind of hijacked the terminology and said, well, if this is American, if this is democratic, then it has to be two-way. It has to be about listening, it has to be about exchanges, it has to be about a–our country learning as much about foreigners as it is about teaching foreigners how fantastic we are. And that’s the part of public diplomacy that I find interesting, and that I would try and teach the students. Not the idea–you know, they don’t need to be told about propaganda. But they do need to be told about listening, and a kind of a dialogue around international, people to people–a diplomacy that flows from people-to-people contact.
RS: Right. But is that–it’s the same as with public relations.
NC: I see it as different. Because I see public diplomacy as being inherently ethical, and I think public relations do not have to be ethical. And there’s a flaw within public relations, is that for some people, it can mean toxic sludge is good for you. How can we defend and promote, you know, an opioid that is killing hundreds of thousands of people around the world.
RS: In both of these professions, there are good people, and they say–I know, we have them here at our school. And they say the only good, effective public relations is honest, telling your side of the story.
NC: For sure.
RS: OK. And–but the reality of power and wealth and influence is that whether your intention is to do public diplomacy or public relations, there will be other people who take control of the action, or as you say, write the script. And they will turn out to have more power than these more idealistic–right?–people. And they will say, no–we’re in war, or we have a problem, or we have an enemy, or this is after 9/11. And then suddenly, public relations becomes lying. And I dare say public diplomacy can become a rationalization for one country’s powers. So you mentioned losing the script–well, when they lost control of the script, somewhere between three and five million people, Indochinese people were killed. They died. And so we’re talking about major tragedies that happened. Let’s take a case much closer to home. We have a big investigation going on right now, as we’re recording this, of Donald Trump and his relation to the Ukraine. And the interesting thing, in reading the newspaper accounts and all this–and in your book, actually; I looked up your references to the Ukraine. And there’s–oh, yes, it was good that we reached out to the people, and the Orange Revolution that we had and so forth. But the fact of the matter is, that was playing out against a complex situation of a divided country. And the pro-democracy people on one side didn’t have the same perspective as the Russian-speaking people on the other side, who were a significant part of the population.
NC: I’ve been to the Ukraine a couple of times now, and I would hate to be a Russian speaker in Ukraine. I could see how difficult it was for those people in the early 2000s. That their world was changing around them, and that they had–well, they were having a really difficult time at that point.
RS: Right. But I’m just thinking specifically, again, how do we get to the truth of anything? And my only goal is to make people suspicious [Laughs], and therefore, then have to work harder. You know, my slogan in journalism of who’s getting screwed and who’s doing the screwing. And that, you know, kind of in any situation. And I’m thinking, just taking this current moment, where most of my friends and our colleagues here at the university–Trump once again has done something terrible, he tried to get some–let’s cut to the chase–dirt on Biden to use in the election, right.
NC: Well, David Frum is suggesting that he was actually asking the Ukrainians to fake dirt on Biden. [Laughs] So it could be even worse, depending on how you–
RS: Yeah, and the fact is, you know, it wouldn’t be the first time a president did that. Lyndon Johnson actually faked the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident.
RS: We only learned 20 years later, when they finally released the key documents, that he was told by the captain of the Maddox and others in the field that there was no evidence of an attack. Yet he went before the nation and said, the evidence is very clear. So a president is lying to advance–
NC: Well, in an example in my work, I found that British intelligence faked a map of German plans to conquer Latin America, passed it to FDR, and that on the eve of Pearl Harbor, he’s making a speech saying, “I have in my hands a map showing German designs to conquer Latin America.” So World War II is introduced to the American people, not as something abstract, not even as something in the waters off the coast of the United States, but on territory of the Americas, in violation of the Monroe Doctrine. And that kind of–so these manipulations, even the best of our statesmen will massage the truth and create some sort of–bring in little bits of fakery from time to time when it suits them. Nobody is–
RS: I’m going to go further. I’m going to say fakery is the norm. And I want to get to a basic issue here. I think–and Ukraine, what we were just talking about, is an example of how difficult it [is] to figure out anything. Most people didn’t even know that there were Russian-speaking and non-Russian, they didn’t know the history. They didn’t know that Khrushchev was Ukrainian when he gave [unclear] But it was giving it, like, to his favorite state. It would be like a senator from Mississippi saying, let’s reward the folks in Mississippi with some thing on the river, and you know, so OK. People don’t have much of a sense of this history at all, you know. But the interesting thing about it in this reporting, and I’d like to take an up-to-the-minute example–you know, all right, a lot of people I know don’t like Trump. And he, maybe he did something terrible in asking for dirt on someone he’s running against. And I happen to think that’s the norm; I mean, we’ve been interfering in elections going back to the Italian election in ‘48. And we’ve asked people to mess up elections, and we interfered in that Ukrainian election, and we backed one faction over another.
NC: Well, we certainly–not only did we interfere in the Russian elections in the late nineties, it’s not a secret, they made a feature film about it with Jeff Goldblum. [Laughs] You know, this was a cover story of Time magazine. So the idea of American political consultants intervening in elections or trying to swing elections–
RS: Oh, no one knows that better than Vladimir Putin, who after all was running against the Communist Party in Russia. He was Yeltsin’s guy, they brought him from St. Petersburg. And he knew full well how the U.S. was up to its eyeballs, and that stuff. But I’m trying to get at a larger point here, is that if you are going to be involved in foreign adventure, you’re going to lie. And you’re going to lie from day one, and you’re going to lie to the end of the war. And I–people listening to this show are groaning right now and saying, he’s bringing up George Washington, warning us in his farewell address about the impostures of pretended patriotism. And then he’s going to bring up Eisenhower warning us about the military-industrial complex. And the fact of the matter is, you know, it has been said that the first casualty in war is truth. And it’s the area where the public cannot question effectively. They don’t know, they’re not on the ground, they can’t see it. And national security makes it easier to lie. You can’t get that information, whether it’s about–you know, which is the argument that Nixon used in Watergate, even is the argument Trump will now use: I can’t give you these phone conversations. And you know, and other people leaking it on the other side will also say, I have to leak it anonymously. And so the real issue is, how do you have a coherent, logical, fact-based foreign policy, which is where a lot of the lying comes in? And the answer may be, you can’t, and that’s why the choice has to be made: Are you going to be an imperial power, or are you going to be a republic of involved citizens who make decisions? And I want to get to a question about public diplomacy. That’s the subject of this book. I’m talking to Nick Cull, [Public Diplomacy:] Foundations for Global Engagement in the Digital Age. I think you hold out a third way. Let me now promote the book. You know, because if soft power really means no, not the beginning–and then you use it as a disguise to get people worked up so they can send the Marines in. But if you really think about extending the influence of what’s best about your own country–any country, whether it’s Switzerland, whether it’s, you know, Japan, whatever–that’s admirable.
NC: Yes. Well, this is the point, Bob, is that–the point of soft power is that we accept that countries are evaluated in the world, and can do more in the world based on what people think about that country. So the idea underpinning the concept of soft power is that a country is judged based on its culture and its values. But we now have a global system of a recognition of human rights, and of a sense of what the global good is–that is, acting around issues like climate change, and acting in the collective benefit. So what I’m arguing is, we should maybe move a little bit away from the idea of soft power, which is being good so that you can get more done, and think instead about what I call reputational security. And that means working with others around ethical activities collectively, so that your country is of value to others. Because unless you’re valuable to others, they’re not going to stand by you when push comes to shove. And I’ve got historical examples–including Ukraine. Ukraine was not–had not succeeded in being of value to its neighbors; they didn’t see it as being for anything.
RS: Or to its own people. It was a center of corruption.
NC: Indeed, indeed. Whereas there are other countries who–for example, Poland in the 1970s is understood as being of more general value to the world. And so when it’s threatened by the Soviet Union in the late seventies, through martial law and so forth, there’s kind of an outcry–Oh, no, we have to protect Poland, Poland is an important thing. There was no outcry like that leading up to what happened to Ukraine; Ukraine was not understood as being a particularly important thing, any more than Czechoslovakia was understood as being an important thing in the late 1930s.
RS: Right, but let me–because we’re going to have to tighten this up a little bit. I want to raise a question that seems to me more and more obvious an issue. And that is the limits of nationalism.
NC: Absolutely. Well, that’s in the book.
RS: I know, I know. And–oh, it’s on every page of the book. Because the fact is, when you pursue nationalist–first of all, what is the nation? Who’s the “we”? Who’s benefiting from this policy? You know, that’s one whole area. Is it very wealthy? I mean, who’s benefiting from our trade policies towards China now? It’s certainly not the people assembling iPhones in China; they would like to have better terms of trade, so maybe they’ll get paid better, maybe they’ll be more affluent. But the other question that’s left out of this is what does the world really need as an example? Does it need a fantasy of the good nation, which is what all of these countries have been promoting? Even Saudi Arabia promotes it, when they’re out there in Afghanistan or somewhere, as they were, you know, pushing an idea of Islam. It’s what communist Russia and China promoted at different points. And we use this democracy rubric. But in terms–that’s where I’m starting to object to the word “power.” I just wonder whether the best thing about the–let’s take one of the great ideas to come out of the American experience: the notion of suspicion of one’s government, checks and balances, individual rights. Let’s take that as a package. The way to get that across, it seems to me, is to show what our own government has done, that’s wrong, when it ignored those limits. So it’s much better to tell the story of, say, the destruction of Native Americans, or the existence of slavery, as something that the country had to learn from. Horrendous activities done by this so-called great nation–no, they weren’t great, they were awful in the extreme; genocidal, right. And same thing, if you take the Vietnam War, if you take–going through it. And then you say, well, maybe the most important thing we have to export is a notion of searching for the truth.
NC: Yes, no, I would agree. I would agree with that. And I think that some of the most effective American public diplomacy during the Cold War period was actually talking about the Civil Rights Movement, showcasing the principles and approaches that are used in a free society to deal with its own problems. And Watergate in fact was, in American public diplomacy, was turned into a civics lesson for the world to explain how it was possible for a country to regulate itself. And it was a tremendous advertisement for the American way that the president himself could be called to account. Because that couldn’t happen in many, many other countries. And many other democratic countries would have tried to fix things in a different way without going into so much public exposure.
RS: Let’s go a bit further with this. I think it’s a good takeaway from your writing. And I want to point out to people that we’re–we got into public diplomacy, which is your most current book, but you’re really a leading expert on propaganda. And its effects, and how effectively, unfortunately, it works. And so I wonder if the most important takeaway is the old idea of power corrupting. And what better way to understand that than to look at our own experience? Which is what you will never get–the people who talk about America being great, whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, they never want to do that. You know, they never want to admit mistakes, they never want to admit the effect. And they don’t want to admit to the unequal distribution of power. Because most of these wars, most of these terrible policies are fought because somebody makes a lot of money from them.
NC: Yes. No, absolutely.
RS: Yes. Or they want the economic zone, or they want the trade. And then you got a guy like Hearst, who controls papers because he has money, and give me the picture, I’ll give you the war. And so what I’m trying to suggest is that the issue is not the means, soft power or hard power. The issue is who you’re trying to represent, and who do you put in your accounting. Is it all those people who will be bombed or hurt around the world from stupid policies? Right, you know? Or not standing up to bad dictators?
NC: OK. So to come back on that, Bob, I mean, the first thing to say is that I see some of the processes of public diplomacy as being like a sort of sinews of international relations that we can have as an alternative to great power politics. So for example, exchanges–if we have regular exchanges with a country like Russia, the fantasy Russia that is articulated by propagandists at the top of our foreign policy system is not credible, because we have our own direct experience. And so people–diplomacy can disrupt the certainties that are offered by propagandists
RS: You have a scene in Iowa in your book.
NC: Oh, yes, yes.
RS: No, because it’s very constructive. What Eisenhower did when he brought Khrushchev over to look at the way we grow corn, and so forth. It’s, you know, familiarity and real knowledge about other people and what they want, you know. And that includes the big events in their life. I mean, so few people now in this country–this was the subject of our podcast a couple of weeks ago–know about the impact of the Opium War on Chinese thinking.
NC: Well, here’s the thing. The opium–one of the American businessmen involved in exporting opium was Lord Astor, which is very odd. Because in Britain, the Astor family were the fathers of liberal journalism, owners of the Observer newspaper; so much good has come out of the Astors in the UK. And yet in the U.S. it’s complicit, the Astor fortune is complicit in peddling drugs to China. You know, the history does offer a critique of some extraordinary choices that were made by big business.
RS: OK, so in order to have a debatable point here, what I’m going to suggest is the evil in the world is nationalism. There was a time that you might have–and sometimes it appears that it’s religion, as a divisive force. But it seems to me most of the mischief that has been done in the world–and I’d put Russian communism as a nationalist manifestation. And China is nationalist. And nationalism is, unfortunately, all too alive and powerful in this world right now. And it’s informed by other things, like religion and so forth. And where I wonder about the use of any power–soft, military, hard, what have you–is it doesn’t, it begs the question of towards what end?
NC: Yes, absolutely.
RS: Right. And given–let’s switch to global warming. Clearly, the whole message of global warming is that you can’t save the world in an inconsistent way. You can’t bemoan Chinese pollution, and not recognize your own pollution–that we actually still, per capita, pollute, have polluted three times more than they do. And it seems to me that the soft–the great thing about public diplomacy, when it works, is it puts all the people on the same level.
NC: That’s right.
RS: They meet in Iowa, that scene in your book; they talk about how do you grow corn, that you meet the daughter of the guy who did the thing, and so forth. Or they go to another country, student exchange, or what have you. And you end this conceit, this arrogance, this stupidity of thinking that somehow you were born to a more important stock.
NC: Yes. Well, I think the great, one of the great psychological forces in persuading us is similarity. If you can find somebody who’s similar, or recognize the extent to which you’re similar to somebody across international lines, you have the ability to start creating international connections that can challenge the fake or the manipulated position of the nation state. But part of the way that the nation state is powerful in the first place is because it articulates the similarity that people have who share a geographical boundary, who share a linguistic similarity. But, you know, I find in my own life that I’m much more similar, in what really counts, to people who share the most important things in their life. Which in my case would be being interested in the same things, having family members in the same situation as my family members. So you know I, for example, I’m the father of a disabled child. And I find that when I’m with other fathers of disabled children, we’re on a completely different level of interaction. And when that similarity is experienced across an international boundary, then something really remarkable can take place that transcends national identity, which I think is such a superficial kind of similarity.
RS: So I’m going to make a proposal for your career change now. I think you’ve taken a notion of soft power–maybe you could talk to your colleague, Joseph Nye, about this–as far as it can go. And clearly soft power is better than hard power; bones are not broken, people don’t die in the moment, there’s time to reevaluate, and so forth. And if you can accomplish things–but we, what we learn is it’s the whole idea of power, for what–the nation?
NC: Well, I think that’s a very good critique of soft power. That it’s still, it may be soft, but it’s still seeking to advance one above the other. And to me, what we need is not a kind of–not a force of elevating one above another, or manipulating one above another, but rather bringing people together. And I’m very taken by a quote that I use early in the book, that there’s only one superpower left in the world, and that superpower is global public opinion. The problem is that the ability of global public opinion to fix the problems we have is disrupted by the narratives of nationalism. Which say, no, Chinese people and American people don’t have the same interest. Well, you know, if we have a two or three degree temperature rise over the next hundred years, as is projected, we’ll find our interest pretty much the same. Because Shanghai underwater and New York City underwater are going to be pretty much inconvenient for both peoples. So we need to get dealing with it now, because there is no alternative to fixing these problems. The problems are bigger than the nation state. Therefore, nation states have to find a way of dealing with them. And what I’m articulating in the book is that the real challenge is to work out, how can we cooperate? And how can we cooperate, not only nation state and nation state, but all the different kinds of actors there are in the world today? How can we bring cities into the mix? How can we bring nongovernmental organizations into the mix, individual citizens into the mix, and actually generate real solutions to these problems? And so often, you know, you really cut to the chase–so often, it’s the narrative of the nation state that is blocking what’s really important.
RS: You know, this is an idea that we’re coming to now in this podcast. But actually, this was a–I wouldn’t say widespread, but it was a view held by a lot of influential people coming out of World War II.
RS: And you had an organization called the United World Federalists. And you actually even had, people had the idea if we could all start speaking the same language, we could–
NC: Sure. And coming out of World War I, too, and then tragically even in the run-up to World War I, there were people talking about the grand illusion, the great illusion of national identity, and the extent to which that was making solutions to the problems of that era so much harder.
RS: Right. And what is intolerable about patriotism, as George Washington warned us about when he said “beware the impostures of pretended patriotism,” is any demagogue can use it. It appeals to the most narrow perception of self, of nation. And it always ends up betraying the people in the country that are being asked to be patriotic. Because they’re going to die on the battlefield. They’re going to have their economy wrecked. They’re going to suffer, right? Their schools are not going to have funding. I mean if you take the Vietnam War, for example, yes, many Indo-Chinese people were killed, and others were maimed, and that is a horrible tragedy. But America’s–you know, yes, we had 59,000 troops died. But that was not the real consequence. The main–the main consequence is we set back the country in its war on poverty. Right? We are broadcasting from here in downtown, the center of the city of Los Angeles, where we have homeless encampments all over the bloody place. Donald Trump was right on his trip to California, he said you know, this is a real problem. You know, how is this big blue state, where you claim to care so much about it, and look what’s going on.
NC: And you know, in our own people-to-people diplomacy, when I talk to foreign students who come to Los Angeles, they are shocked to see the levels of homelessness. Because it’s not the America that they’ve been told about in the movies, it’s not the America that they’ve seen in the magazines. And they feel it is a much bigger problem. I think Americans become inured to it, because they see it all the time. They don’t–they–or they learn how to turn a blind eye. So what I’m saying, Bob, is that we need the perspective of outsiders to understand ourselves. And that’s–this is the importance of listening, you are unable to evaluate your own life as an individual without output from–without input from somebody externally. And in the same way, countries cannot understand themselves without input from other countries. And so, you know, international exchange is essential for the health of a nation state.
RS: Yes. And it has to be honest, and it has to involve critical thinking.
NC: Sure. It’s a blessing, it’s a blessing. And I don’t think at the time, for example, that white South Africans would have felt that global criticism was a blessing. But talking to some South African diplomats, they came to realize that the criticism of the world was rooted in reality, and that they had to steer their government towards negotiation over apartheid. That essentially, the world had got something to say about internal affairs of South Africa. And there are other countries today who would do well to listen to international opinion.
RS: All right. So you heard now the opening line of Nick Cull’s next book, but the one that he did this year is Public Diplomacy: Foundations for Global Engagement in the Digital Age. And it’s an important reminder that actually soft power has been far more effective in creating conditions of our safety, security, well-being than sending all the bombs all over the world, which have created chaos and anger and everything else. So on that note, I want to thank Nicholas Cull. And I want to thank the Annenberg School, where you are a professor, for not only supplying you but for providing this facility where Sebastian Grubaugh is the brilliant engineer here that brings it at KCRW…Christopher Ho at KCRW is in charge of posting these shows. Joshua Scheer is our producer. And we’ll see you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.Wait, before you go…
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