This morning I attended a discussion on ‘Soft Power in Countering Extremism from the Horn of Africa to the Western Sahel.’ The talk (I left before Q&A) was sponsored by George Washington University’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. It featured two elderly representatives from Albany Associates, a London-based firm that is ‘about trying to communicate in different environments’ and where it ‘sort of helps’ to be an ex-Royal Marine (in the words of its Chair, Sir Robert Fry). Oddly, as you see above, Albany was also a co-sponsor of the event.
The talk was billed as featuring two State Department representatives. They were not there and I was rather irked that the communications specialists had not mentioned this. Otherwise, I likely would not have attended, which I suppose is why they conveniently neglected to mention their absence in Twitter updates noting that the event would go on. Alberto Fernandez, a Counterrorism Communication staffer was to speak as was Todd Haskell, the Director of Press and Public Diplomacy, at the Bureau of African Affairs and someone who I thought would make a particularly great contact as a fledgling blogger.
In an embarrassing disclosure, I must admit that prior to the start of the event, I approached the panel moderator, Professor William Youmans, in the mistaken belief he was a GWU student and Africa in DC reader who I had briefly engaged in dialogue with.
Sir Robert Fry, the Chair of Albany Associates opened with some very big picture remarks that had little do with Africa. He noted that most of the 2oth century, from 1914 – 1989 was ‘fundamentally about Europe.’ He added that there has been a shift from the West defending liberal freedoms at home to propagating them abroad and termed that a ‘strategic aberration.’
Terming the US ‘a strategically impatient polity’, Fry noted that in the 21st century alone, the US armed forces have embraced four doctrines:
- The Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force
- Rumsfeld Doctrine, marked by a light footprint
- Counterinsurgency, which emerged from the Iraq War
- Counter-terrorist, which I presume is the current doctrine
Fry concluded his remarks by noting that terrorism would not go away (it being a residual, awkward thing) but that the US would not be willing to devote hard power resources to places like Mali where terrorism may emerge. Thus, he believes that there will be an increasing use of ‘non-traditional mixes between hard and soft power to bring about strategic effect.’ Apparently Albany Associates is positioned to offer assistance in regard to the latter.
Simon Haselock, co-founder of Albany followed, focusing a bit more on African hotspots, with a notable emphasis of the Horn of Africa over the Sahel. He began by noting that the West needs to improve its understanding of developments in these region and noted that Jihadist elements are able to ‘offer quite an attractive narrative’ to people that do not trust central governments.
He qualified this statement by noting that the leadership of Al-Shabab in Somalia and the non Tuareg groups in Mali were foreign (not sure how true that is), which weakens their position internally. His remarks were primarily analytical, but I was surprised when at the end when he noted that ‘there are links between al-Shabab and Boko Haram in Nigeria.’
Haselock noted that Albany has provided support to the African Union (AU) Mission in Somalia to refute al-Shabab allegations that AU forces indiscriminately bombed civilians.
The event had an interesting concept, but I think the execution was greatly hindered by the absence of the State Department speakers. I will state my wish that people would take interest in regions for reasons other than war and the economic opportunities that accompany it. The real luxury of Soft Power is the ability to live somewhere that one can have a blog like Africa in DC and exercise the luxury to study other societies. The military emphasis of such study (which popped up at Wednesday’s SAIS event as well) only undermines the ability to effectively exercise Soft Power.