Monday, December 5, 2011

Recognizing the Need of 'The Other'

I'd like to build upon the brief mentioning of "Postcolonial Approaches to Communication" and Edward Said's Orientalism and perhaps extend it to the more recent discussions on public diplomacy and strategic communication.

As Said noted, there has been a historical recognition of the West as a colonial and postcolonial power, including in academic thought. This has created an unbalanced view of Eastern thought by both West and East alike. Up until very recently, strategic thinking involved putting the Western ideals at the forefront of economics, politics, communication, science and other fields. Only with Said's insight has their been existential pondering of how this thought process affects both Western and Eastern societies.

Perhaps one of the most thought-provoking notions Said delved into was the concept of 'the other'. This is something we have touched upon in class before, as we have discussed the dynamics of how international communication applies to global governance, marketing and other relevant topics. In these cases, it can oftentimes be advantageous to conceptualize one culture/group/nation etc dominant or superior to another for purposes of enriching nationalism. Said brings up the fascinating prospect that 'the other' is an absolutely necessary concept - that one culture/group/nation etc cannot be dominant if it doesn't have a lesser, oppressed other.

This seems to make logical sense, but how does this play into international relations, especially public diplomacy? Public diplomacy, in its most glossy definition, is about forging relationships with other countries and working towards strategic partnerships. How are Western countries supposed to engage in public diplomacy with Eastern partners when they are actively immersed in scholarship that has historically framed them as inferior?

This dated approach is changing as we speak. As of late, there have been some strategic moves made by the United States regarding Asian countries and their rising power. One of the earlier markers of this movement was President Obama's decision to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference in Hawaii in November to meet with leaders in the Pacific Islands. Then, Obama ramped up efforts to secure American presence in the South China Sea by deploying Marines to Australia. This was seen as a major warning signal to China. Finally, these events have been complimented in recent weeks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's historic visit to Myanmar(Burma) in a diplomatic effort to reach out not only to the national government but to reformists as well.

These individual steps are amounting to what could be seen as a new strategy in Asia that hasn't been attempted before. For the first time, the US is recognizing Asian powers as a threat to their own space on the global stage and, after years of ignoring diplomatic efforts as a whole, are now reaching out to remain on top.

When comparing this to Said's notions on 'the other' and Orientalism vs Western thought, we could see these events in two different lights. This could be seen as the US finally nodding to Eastern countries as a competitor and casting thoughts of them as 'the other' away. However, I tend to lean on the other, more interest-based thought that the US is reaching out diplomatically in Asia in order to keep the suppression of Eastern influence going. In the macro context of Western vs Eastern thought, these "nice on the face of it" acts by the US may be well received in Western countries (and Eastern countries as well, given the previous discussion of Western concepts of Eastern permeating Eastern countries' considerations of themselves), but it is actually a strategic way of ensuring Western dominates Eastern.

Because China has yet to react to the moves the US is making, it will be interesting to see if they retaliate by flexing their own muscles against Western influences or if they quietly operate their own diplomatic strategies throughout the region.

1 comment:

  1. Such a thought provoking post! I think that our outreach to countries that we formerly did not consider so much is strategic. While lingering imperialism may have a role I do not think it is the whole story. Right now we are fighting a "War on Terror", which one can consider a fight against a competing ideology- Islamic Fundamentalism. In the same way that the US courted developing countries during the Cold War, it must now try to reinforce the supremacy of Western values and institutions in order to "win" the war of ideas. It is an "Us vs. them" mentality. While we may not fear countries like China turning Islamic, China has shown its willingness to work with countries such as Sudan and Iran. We are focusing our PD efforts on these up-and-coming countries is to ensure that they align themselves with our interests and not the enemy's. The US will need to tread carefully and recognize the potential for these emerging global actors in influencing the global order.