Hard right, soft power: fascist regimes and the battle for hearts and minds

This article was written by Dr David Brydan, a post doctoral researcher in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology and on Birkbeck’s Reluctant Internationalists project. It was originally published on  The Conversation.

A new global “soft power” ranking recently reported that the democratic states of North America and Western Europe were the most successful at achieving their diplomatic objectives “through attraction and persuasion”.

Countries such as the US, the UK, Germany and Canada, the report claimed, are able to promote their influence through language, education, culture and the media, rather than having to rely on traditional forms of military or diplomatic “hard power”.

The notion of soft power has also returned to prominence in Britain since the Brexit vote, with competing claims that leaving Europe will either damage Britain’s reputation abroad or increase the importance of soft power to British diplomacy.

Although the term “soft power” was popularised by the political scientist Joseph Nye in the 1980s, the practice of states attempting to exert influence through their values and culture goes back much further. Despite what the current soft power list would suggest, it has never been solely the preserve of liberal or democratic states. The Soviet Union, for example, went to great efforts to promote its image to intellectuals and elites abroad through organisations such as VOKS (All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries).

Perhaps more surprisingly, right-wing authoritarian and fascist states also used soft power strategies to spread their power and influence abroad during the first half of the 20th century. Alongside their aggressive and expansionist foreign policies, Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and other authoritarian states used the arts, science, and culture to further their diplomatic goals.

‘New Europe’

Prior to World War II, these efforts were primarily focused on strengthening ties between the fascist powers. The 1930s, for example, witnessed intensive cultural exchanges between fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Although these efforts were shaped by the ideology of their respective regimes, they also built on pre-fascist traditions of cultural diplomacy. In the aftermath of World War I, Weimar Germany had become adept at promoting its influence through cultural exchanges in order to counter its diplomatic isolation. After 1933, the Nazi regime was able to shape Weimar-era cultural organisations and relationships to its own purpose.

Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s film-maker. Bundesarchiv Bild, CC BY

This authoritarian cultural diplomacy reached its peak during World War II, when Nazi Germany attempted to apply a veneer of legitimacy to its military conquests by promoting the idea of a “New Europe” or “New European Order”. Although Hitler was personally sceptical about such efforts, Joseph Goebbels and others within the Nazi regime saw the “New Europe” as a way to gain support. Nazi propaganda promoted the idea of “European civilization” united against the threat of “Asiatic bolshevism” posed by the Soviet Union and its allies.

As seen in Poland: a BNazi anti-Bolshvik poster

Given the lack of genuine political cooperation within Nazi-occupied Europe, these efforts relied heavily on cultural exchange. The period from the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 until the latter stages of 1943 witnessed an explosion of “European” and “international” events organised under Nazi auspices. They brought together right-wing elites from across the continent – from women’s groups, social policy experts and scientists to singers, dancers and fashion designers.

All of these initiatives, however, faced a common set of problems. Chief among them was the challenge of formulating a model of international cultural collaboration which was distinct from the kind of pre-war liberal internationalism which the fascist states had so violently rejected. The Nazi-dominated European Writers’ Union, for example, attempted to promote a vision of “völkisch” European literature rooted in national, agrarian cultures which it contrasted to the modernist cosmopolitanism of its Parisian-led liberal predecessors. But as a result, complained one Italian participant, the union’s events became “a little world of the literary village, of country poets and provincial writers, a fair for the benefit of obscure men, or a festival of the ‘unknown writer’”.

Deutschland über alles

Despite the language of European cooperation and solidarity which surrounded these organisations, they were ultimately based on Nazi military supremacy. The Nazis’ hierarchical view of European races and cultures prompted resentment even among their closest foreign allies.

Jesse Owens after disproving Nazi race theory at the Berlin Olympics, 1936. Bundesarchiv, Bild, CC BY-SA

These tensions, combined with the practical constraints on wartime travel and the rapid deterioration of Axis military fortunes from 1943 onwards, meant that most of these new organisations were both ineffective and short-lived. But for a brief period they succeeded in bringing together a surprisingly wide range of individuals committed to the idea of a new, authoritarian era of European unity.

Echoes of the cultural “New Europe” lived on after 1945. The Franco regime, for example, relied on cultural diplomacy to overcome the international isolation it faced. The Women’s section of the Spanish fascist party, the Falange, organised “choir and dance” groups which toured the world during the 1940s and 1950s, travelling from Wales to West Africa to promote an unthreatening image of Franco’s Spain through regional folk dances and songs.

But the far-right’s golden age of authoritarian soft power ended with the defeat of the Axis powers. The appeal of fascist culture was fundamentally undermined by post-war revelations about Nazi genocide, death camps and war crimes. At the other end of the political spectrum, continued Soviet efforts to attract support from abroad were hampered by the invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968.

This does not mean that authoritarian soft power has been consigned to history. Both Russia and China made the top 30 of the most recent global ranking, with Russia in particular leading the way in promoting its agenda abroad through both mainstream and social media.

The new wave of populist movements sweeping Europe and the United States often also put the promotion of national cultures at the core of their programmes. France’s Front National, for example, advocates the increased promotion of the French language abroad on the grounds that “language and power go hand-in-hand”. We may well see the emergence of authoritarian soft power re-imagined in the 21st century.

The Conversation

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Commonwealth hamstrung to fight abuse in Sri Lanka

This post was contributed by Frederick Cowell, a lecturer and researcher in international law in Birkbeck’s School of Law. This article first appeared on The Conversation.

The list of crimes alleged to have been perpetrated by brothers Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa – respectively the president and defence minister of Sri Lanka – are truly horrifying. During the last few months of the civil war in 2009, the Sri Lankan army was alleged to have deliberately shelled civilian areas and since the ceasefire, as the Sri Lanka justice campaign has detailed, there have been numerous extrajudicial killings and incidents of torture.

Rather than being treated as international pariahs, though, the Rajapaskas are hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting this week, attended by representatives of more than 40 governments from around the world.

Since 1965 the Commonwealth has been an independent intergovernmental organisation, with its own headquarters and secretariat. From 1971 it took a leading role in facilitating negotiations over ending white minority rule in Southern Africa.

Sincere commitments at the organisational level, however, did little to affect the Commonwealth’s membership. Military regimes and dictatorships were prominent members of the Commonwealth throughout the 1980s. When the Commonwealth broadened its focus to the protection of human rights with the passage of the 1991 Harare Declaration, committing Commonwealth member states to the protection of “fundamental human rights” and democracy, it was clear a more robust enforcement mechanism was needed if the declaration was to have any meaningful effect.

Suspension is easy

Article 3 of the 1995 Millbrook Action Programme allows states to be suspended from the organisation when they were clearly “in violation” of the Harare Principles, “particularly in the event of an unconstitutional overthrow of a democratically elected government”. This was the first instrument of its kind and was a radical move. At the time the UN Human Rights Commission didn’t even have an instrument for suspending serial human rights abusers or illegal governments.

In 1995 Nigeria became the first country to be suspended from the Commonwealth after General Abache’s regime rejected the results of the 1993 elections and went onto commit series of human rights abuses including the execution of activist Ken Saro Wiwa. This was followed by the suspension of Pakistan in 1999 and Fiji in 2000, both following military coups.

The Millbrook action programme also allowed the appointment of ad-hoc groups of high level officials. Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002 after a troika of officials, including then Australian prime minister John Howard, concluded Robert Mugabe’s re-election that year had been “marred by a high level of politically motivated violence”. This led to Zimbabwe withdrawing from the organisation a year later. The most recent suspension was Fiji in 2009 after the government refused to accept a domestic court ruling that a 2006 coup was illegal.

Human rights play second fiddle

The focus of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), the decision making body of the Commonwealth, has been largely on the overthrow of democratically elected governments. This has led to the relative relegation of the protection of human rights, effectively turning Article 3 into an anti-coup instrument. And even as an anti-coup instrument, it has been applied inconsistently. When Maumoon Abdul Gayoom took power unconstitutionally in the Maldives in February 2012, CMAG issued a statement urging the government to hold fresh elections, but little action has been taken since.

It is also increasingly unclear what suspension is actually for. Fiji has been suspended for nearly four years, during which time it has made scant progress towards returning to constitutional government. Fiji’s government has covered the shortfall in development aid it suffered by receiving aid from China.

Anti-coup instruments have been adopted in several other international and regional organisations including the African Union. The problem is that they can easily become mechanisms that protect governments rather than human rights.

An anti-coup mechanism is also a barrier to gaining international recognition for a new government that comes to power through a coup. This can help deter future coups, which benefits exiting governments. This is why the Millbrook Action plan has received so much support from Commonwealth members. Commonwealth states have resisted attempts to create an independent Commonwealth Human Rights Commissioner, meaning that the decision to suspend states still rests with diplomats from member states.

The situation in Sri Lanka has split opinion among Commonwealth governments about the best way to respond to the human rights abuses taking place in Sri Lanka. Until a strong independent mechanism is brought in to assess suspension, Sri Lanka will remain a Commonwealth member, despite the atrocities that occur on its soil.

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UN General Assembly another venue for Obama’s inaction

This post was contributed by Professor Rob Singh of Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It originally appeared on The Conversation on 24 September 2013.

And so the annual autumn ritual of American masochism begins again in New York. Like inviting your least likeable in-laws to detail your worst features to your nearest and dearest after an agreeable Christmas lunch, this week’s 68th UN General Assembly welcomes heads of state and government from its 193 member states. With its plenary session overshadowed by Syria, and issues from Iran’s nuclear programme and Israeli-Palestinian relations vying for competition on the agenda, the media expectancy is even greater than usual. “The stakes are very high,” according to PJ Crowley, a former assistant US secretary of state.

What fatuous nonsense.

While the invitees marvel at the size of the food portions in New York City, and media frenzies erupt at incipient photo opportunities in Turtle Bay, let’s recognise this week for what it is – a symbolic spectacle signifying minimal substance. Yes, an enticing opportunity for non-US leaders to grandstand on the biggest international stage for strictly domestic political benefit. And yes, a chance for mere politicians – democratic and authoritarian alike – to pose as statesmen and solemnly pledge their fealty to human rights, the rule of law, and international peace (how very controversial). But, ultimately, whether New York or Washington, DC is the more reliably dysfunctional venue for serious politicking is up for debate.

Even by the standards of US politics, watching an array of exotic guests use one of the nation’s great cities to excoriate America and hail the arrival of a new “post-American era” must represent one of the more depressing spectacles for the domestic public. Sadly for the scriptwriters, the drama is not quite as vivid as when Chavez, Ahmedinajad and Gaddafi enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame denouncing George W Bush. Through fair means and foul, these characters have moved on.

But already, new scripts have been written and the question is merely whether the actors play their roles accordingly. Above all, will the Iranian and American presidents finally break a taboo and meet in the Great Satan’s living room (not, like Gordon Brown, in the UN kitchen)? Will the recent conciliatory words and gestures of President Hassan Rouhani receive symbolic reward – a presidential handshake, a deliberately accidental encounter, even a “meet and greet”?

To which the appropriate response is: “So what if they do?”.

Prior US presidents viewed the annual UN debate with emotions ranging from resignation to despair. But for Barack Obama, it’s tailor made. Teleprompter to the ready, warm words to go and nothing of substance to slog through. Only if one still buys into “Obama-world” – where grand speeches substitute for hard bargaining – can one continue to regard this earnest symbolism and soaring rhetoric as remotely consequential.

As such, it’s tempting to view the NYC goings-on as emblematic of not just the weakening of the West but also the end of US leadership.

But this wisdom is far more conventional than wise. On most measures of national power, the US remains far beyond all other nation-states. Not only is it the only player capable of global power projection, but America’s energy revival promises a “power surge” of substantial and enduring economic and geo-political dividends. No other power, or combination of powers, is likely to rival the US for decades to come.

The strategic problems, rather, are two-fold.

First, the UN’s profound limitations remain. A Security Council that reflects the power distribution of 1945, not 2013. A veto system that effectively precludes collective action even when genocide, ethnic cleansing and civil war destroy tens of thousands of lives and displace millions. And a gaping legitimacy deficit in which prolific UN declarations about the “responsibility to protect” are consistently belied as hollow by its inability, unwillingness and incapacity to do so.

Second, it is not American weakness that is at issue, but the irresolution, confusion and dwindling credibility of this particular White House. Like a poker player who believes that decent chaps don’t bluff, Obama is neither trusted by his allies nor feared by his adversaries. On the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, one has to go back to Kennedy’s besting by Nikita Khruschev at the 1961 Vienna summit to recall a US president so powerfully outplayed by his Russian rival. But that was in Kennedy’s first year as president. Less than a year after his re-election, Obama appears adrift, ineffectual and preoccupied by domestic, not international, politics.

Whether or not Obama meets Iran’s president, few will mention the recent appointment of hardliner Ali Shamkhani as secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, a clear signal that Rouhani intends to preserve Iranian nuclear “rights”. Whatever the Russian delegation declares on Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, few will focus on the 100,000 plus dead through conventional means of warfare – and counting. Festering issues from North Korea to a reconfigured and reinvigorated al Qaeda will receive minimal attention. And why should they? This week was never intended for serious diplomacy or meaningful negotiations. As for the Middle East, even now – never mind the rest of the world – Obama’s default disposition recalls Ernest Hemmingway’s in 1935: “Of the hell broth that is brewing in Europe, we have no need to drink.”

Mostly, the coming days represent theatre, and not especially impressive theatre at that. In the days of mobile phones, email and the internet, the notion that such international conflabs are necessary for genuine communication is redundant. It seems difficult, in that light, to entertain anything more than a minimal hope of substantive progress on Syria, Egypt, North Korea or any of the functional issues – from nuclear proliferation to climate change – that supposedly preoccupy our leaders.

Let’s hope I’m wrong. But ask yourself – when was the last time you either listened to, or took seriously, an Obama speech? Now imagine the response the average Syrian, Iranian, Israeli or Russian would have to that question. Ignore the theatrics and atmospherics. Lie back and take in the warm words. And watch the inaction.

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