Connecting in the time of Covid-19: US Embassy Moscow

With a global pandemic and lockdowns in many countries, U.S. diplomats have to find different ways to engage with people in their host countries. In this PDx episode, GW student Olivia Estes interviews Karl Stoltz, Counselor for Public Affairs at the US Embassy in Moscow, Russia.

Together with the challenges of the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship, Karl and his Public Affairs team have had to be very creative in coming up with content for virtual programs that would appeal to the Russian public who are stuck at home. He even recruited family to participate in a presentation on American music!

Karl also recounts his previous posting to Moscow, right before the fall of the Berlin Wall; and crises he has experienced in other countries. Karl is a Senior Foreign Service Officer who joined the service in 1986 and has served in Washington, D.C., Europe, Africa, East Asia, and the Pacific. Karl was the GW Visiting State Department Public Diplomacy Fellow, 2018 – 2019.

Please enjoy this PDx episode on Connecting in the time of Covid-19: US Embassy Moscow.

Other PDx episodes are available here.

Is a trade deal in the best interest of the “Special Relationship”?

By Luis Calvo, MA International Affairs ’20

With the United Kingdom exiting the European Union earlier this year, many questions arose about the U.K.’s future. While the U.K. is still hatching out the specifics of its departure from the EU, there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding their future relationship. However, the biggest question in the minds of Washington D.C. policy experts is what does Brexit mean for the U.K.-U.S. economic relationship? President Trump and U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. Robert Johnson have both been strong advocates of promoting a future trade deal between the two countries. Ambassador Johnson has even said in his remarks that the U.K. is next in line for a trade deal with the United States. Is a trade deal the best way to support our long-term ally and in the best interest of the “Special Relationship”?

Courtesy free photo from

Both countries currently have a lot to prove to the world. The U.K. is focused on showcasing itself as independent and able to not only survive but to thrive on its own and prove that Brexit was the right decision for the country. Meanwhile, President Trump has to prove that he can jumpstart the American economy and make America great again by establishing newer and better trade deals that will resonate with his voters in November. Covid-19 has only exacerbated these necessities, especially since both Boris and Trump have been heavily criticized about their handling of the pandemic. On the U.S. side, there is a lot of pressure to demonstrate that we stand with the U.K. as they go independent, especially since the current administration has been a vocal supporter of Brexit. A trade deal could also benefit both countries’ economic recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic passes.

While each country would get a different reward from the deal both will benefit greatly from appearing united. The Special Relationship has had its ups and downs during history. A,  trade deal could give it a significant boost especially in times of uncertainty where President Trump has been accused of abandoning U.S. allies. By playing on the narrative of the Special Relationship, both countries can easily sell this trade deal to their citizens. The U.S. can highlight the entrepreneurial spirit that both British and American societies share. This can be an important motivator for a potential trade deal that benefits the growing sectors of the changing economies of both countries. The U.S. can evoke master narratives prevalent in U.K. such as “Britain first or pro Brexit narratives” to frame this potential deal as beneficial for both countries and to urge the U.K. to prioritize it as much as the U.S. is doing. Both Boris and Trump are presidents who have gotten elected utilizing nationalistic narratives, U.K. society values individualism as much as American society does. The U.S. can capitalize on framing the opportunity of having a trade deal where the U.K. has its own voice to negotiate its own terms and not those dictated by the EU. The necessity for British independence was one of the mindsets that led to Brexit.  The US should emphasize how much control the U.K. will have in deciding the terms of the agreement.

This trade agreement can signify an opportunity for both leaders to appeal to the sectors of their societies that feel like they have gotten the worst end of past trade deals. It allows both governments to appear as though they are working on the best interest of their own economies. An economic partnership between the two countries founded on the idea of assisting the economic sectors who have been hurt by past trade deals aligns perfectly with both Trump and Boris nationalistic messaging.

The narrative of “the fall of the British empire” plays a crucial role on the British side in the necessity for a trade deal. The uncertainty generated by the Covid-19 pandemic has the world wondering whether or not the current world order will be changed. In times where the U.S. can fear that its hegemonic power is declining, the U.K. offers a different perspective. Under this narrative, the British have handled their power decline over the last decades with grace and humility, which has allowed them to create a resilient mindset in their society. The U.S. now has a unique opportunity to learn from this narrative for the benefit of both countries. A strong economic alliance with the U.K. could stop fears of an American decline, while also fortifying British and American reputations among the international community. A trade deal could reverse the mindset of a decline in power for both countries; it reframes it as we are stronger together to combat other rising powers. The Special Relationship can be utilized as a beacon of hope in uncertain times for both countries to handle economic crises with humility and resilience, showing the word that this is a strong partnership. Both countries can utilize this trade deal as a way to signal to the rest of the international community how united and strong the Special Relationship is. The ‘’ Decline narrative” allows the US and Britain to take back control of their narrative and frame a stronger narrative based on resilience through a partnership that will provide beneficial for both allies. A positive trade deal can be a wonderful platform to promote strategic narratives of unity and strength that both countries need.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not express the views of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.

Facing the Invisible Enemy: The Case For Narrative Unity In Europe 

By Natalie Morgan, B.A. Political Communication and Economics ’21

Infecting over a million people in at least 177 countries, the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging the globe in unparalleled proportions. Facing public health, diplomatic, and economic crises, Europe must improve its current disjointed response.  If the European community intends to defeat Coronavirus, European Union member states must unite together as allies under a common narrative.


At the beginning of the pandemic, the European response was incohesive.  Fearing depletion of resources and cross-border transmission, individual countries prioritized their own citizens over European solidarity. Germany and Austria almost immediately reestablished borders, and six other European nations instituted export bans on medical equipment.  The “me-first” narrative of these countries was well intentioned.  However, as the pandemic continued to spread, the individualized responses of member nations increased diplomatic tensions and put citizens and the EU as a whole at risk.

Even after some efforts were made to resolve tension between countries, dissension within the EU remained.  For example, in an attempt to combat the potential economic collapse resulting from the Coronavirus, several member nations proposed a plan to provide economic relief.  Although the plan was recently enacted, its proposal was met with stark criticism from countries under the “me-first” narrative.  More frugal member nations did not want to take responsibility for other nations’ debt and fiercely debated the specifics of the plan.

Disjointed and divided, Europe was ineffective in its response.  The divisiveness and delayed action called into question the validity of the European project and caused some nations to even threaten leaving the EU.  As one French official said, “On the issue of solidarity, we had a narrative weakness…Europe hasn’t, as a group, communicated enough on the concrete efforts it was making at the local or regional level towards one another.”  This lack of unity lets citizens down in a time when cooperative action is the only protection against COVID-19.  In this critical moment for Europe, there remains hope that member nations can shift away from the “me-first” narrative to better protect both citizens and solidarity.

Wartime Shift

France’s involved response to the pandemic provides a transparent example of the potential for shifting narratives.  In early March, France enacted protectionist measures under the “me-first” narrative and just a few weeks later, found itself with a concerning spike in the number of COVID-19 cases.  As a result, President Emmanuel Macron drastically shifted the narrative from national protection to wartime urgency by declaring repeatedly that the nation is now “at war” with Coronavirus. This declaration was particularly relevant as it evoked the master narrative of revolution and war ingrained in French culture.  Strategically, by conveying the threat of COVID-19 as a war, France strengthened its response on both a domestic and international level.

Domestically, citizens are able to resonate with the narrative as it is relevant to French political culture.  The ask by President Macron to abide by a nationwide lockdown is contrary to the liberated mindset of French citizens, but placing such measures in a context of war rationalizes the implementation.  On an international level, France provides a poignant example of not only a shift in narrative but also action to support the fight against COVID-19.  The nation is leading the charge of cooperative economic stability in support of the war effort.  France’s shift to a wartime narrative supports the dire need for unity throughout Europe. 

Join the Battle

Although not all member states have followed France, this narrative shift indicates the potential for EU nations to join together under the wartime narrative.  The wartime narrative is a powerful motivator in European culture, and in the EU in particular, the wartime narrative can unite nations with different interests against a common enemy.  Furthermore, during war, citizens sacrifice a great deal for a larger mission.  In the war against COVID-19, the narrative of war allows for comprehensive measures not typical of Western nations.  Additionally, the wartime narrative pushes nations to work togetherdespite differences.

In Europe, the narrative of war may invoke fears of nationalism, but in unprecedented circumstances, it must be utilized for states to work together in the fight against COVID-19. European Union leadership has urged war-like cooperation of its members, and with Coronavirus cases at an all-time high, it is time for member states to answer the call.  Only through a unified narrative can Europe emerge victorious against COVID-19, and the wartime narrative holds the power to successfully unify.

Despite the disjointed initial response of Europe, victory against COVID-19 is possible. Following the example of France, EU member states must shift narratives from “me-first” to wartime.  Although difficult, it is essential for the protection of citizens. With the number of COVID-19 cases mounting daily, the pandemic is an unparalleled threat to the globe.  Europe must join together with unprecedented narrative unity in order to win the battle against COVID-19.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not express the views of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.




President Donald Trump’s impeachment could ruin U.S. influence in Ukraine—but it won’t. Here’s why.

By Joli McSherry, MA Global Communication, ’20

On July 25, 2019, President Donald Trump had a good, normal call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The rest—forgive the cliché—is now history. We know that this call led to the President Trump’s eventual impeachment and acquittal, which is both a cause and a symptom of the continued fracturing of the American public and political institutions. We already know the impact on the American public, but what about the impact America’s very important strategic partner in Eastern Europe and our characteristically friendly relationship with its people? Could this be a dangerous blow to the relationship? Fortunately, President Trump does not have to be, nor should he be, the sole diplomatic messenger. And the United States, dealing with its own conflicting national narrative as its public becomes more deeply divided, is at an advantage: Ukrainians understand what it is like to call a country that is fractured by two opposite narratives home.

As a young country sharing a long history with its aggressor, Ukraine deals with dual competing narratives for the same stories and events. One is the pro-Ukrainian, pro-West narrative, which emphasizes a shared Ukrainian fight for freedom, as well as the drive to stand against and overcome oppression. This narrative is woven into prominent figures and events, such as nationalist revolutionaries Stepan Bandera and Ivan Mazepa, and the devastating Holodomor genocide where Ukrainians were starved out by the Soviet Union. However, take those same events and one can see the pro-Russia, anti-West narrative: Ukraine and Russia’s shared history is to be honored through their bond, and those who reject the bond (as Bandera and Mazepa did) are defectors and traitors.


The narrative used by the U.S. diplomatic system focuses, obviously, on reaching those pro-West Ukrainians who favor their own democratic state, free from Russian meddling. Despite Trump’s own words and behaviors, Ukrainians who are sympathetic to European integration will be particularly responsive to the messages that continue to be put forth by a plurality of the U.S. government and population, working to see its own unrelenting desire for freedom, independence, and democracy overcome its internal ills. This resonates with the Ukrainian master narrative of overcoming oppression. All the U.S. diplomatic system must do to avoid endangering relations with the Ukrainians is continue to hold steady and show Ukrainians that nothing in the context of the relationship has changed. As far as public influence goes, the golden rule of successful public diplomacy is that it must be rooted in truth. The United States, casting an inconsistent president aside, undoubtedly has that covered.

While U.S. soft power has been on a steady decline since President Trump’s 2016 election, the United States has long held influence on Ukrainian public opinion, particularly when the choice at hand is America vs. Russia (a 2019 International Republican Institute public opinion survey gives a detailed picture of Ukrainians’ opinions of the two). This is in large part because the United States invested early emphasizing the role it can play in fulfilling the fledgling Eastern European country’s desire for freedom and democracy. The United States has continued to firmly promote a narrative of support and shared objectives with Ukraine even during times of turmoil; the pithy “Crimea is Ukraine” refrain is a great example. It has then backed these messages up by conducting a robust public diplomacy effort connecting with and engaging the Ukrainian people, and targeting some of the most pressing issues Ukrainians face, like an eager civil society and independent media, both desperate for more resources to foster their own fight to maintain freedom and stability.


In short, the United States has long talked the talk and walked the walk. Since Ukraine broke free from the Soviet Union, the United States has stood behind the strongest and most effective narrative that a freshly post-Soviet state with often insurmountable historical ties to Russia can expect to have: the right to an independent, democratic Ukraine. This would take a while to undo. Contemporarily, as America struggles to get its own domestic narratives in order in a Trump world, the use of this narrative to advance foreign policy goals in Ukraine has not waivered. The “partners in freedom and democracy” narrative holds strong, even as both countries deal with the calamities caused by President Trump. As the president’s own drama unfolded, the U.S. State Department faithfully told Ukrainians: Ukraine is so important to us; we share your values of freedom and progress; we have a shared adversary; and we will not let that enemy impinge on your right to a secure, democratic, and prosperous state.

While there is concern over a growing distance between Ukrainians and the United States in light of recent events, thanks to the decision to not stray from the strong U.S. narrative promoting friendship and cooperation among a shared goal between the two states and their people, the Ukrainian peoples’ disillusionment with America will likely not last. Despite some political decisions that left Ukrainians questioning America’s commitment, Ukraine holds an identity narrative that leaves it feeling something of an underdog truly in need of support in its fight to maintain their right to exist in the manner it feels it deserve. The country needs support, and the U.S. has positioned itself to still spread the idea its strong and unwavering support despite any of its own internal ills. In fact, those ills may help the cause—Ukrainians know well what it is like to be fractured by an internal divide. The fact that the U.S. continues to maintain its commitment despite this can only mean positive things for the relationship going forward.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not express the views of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.

The Battle for Georgia: How Strategic Narratives Inform and Impact a Geopolitical Struggle

By Jenna Presta, BA in Political Communication ’19, MA in Media & Strategic Communication ‘21

In the 1990s, the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared their independence and intentions to secede from Georgia. Neither of these territories is widely internationally recognized as an independent state. However, in 2008 Russia moved troops into the regions, declaring them to be independent. Georgia, backed by most Western nations, declared Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be occupied territories. Russia’s destabilizing moves point to more than a display of dominance. They have consequences for Georgia’s larger place in the international system and its identity as a nation. These are shaped by and build upon strategic narratives.


There are several layers of narratives that grant this territorial standoff a greater meaning. Narratives are the frameworks by which we understand the world around us. When it comes to international affairs, narratives can describe and shape a particular issue, the identity of a nation, or even the international system itself. These all help to shape and explain Georgia’s resistance to Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Also relevant to this issue are master narratives, which are those embedded within the historical memory of a nation or people. Master narratives do not have to be taught; they are passed down through a culture. Two of Georgia’s most salient master narratives are (1) the struggle for sovereignty against an imperial power and (2) the rebirth of Georgia as an independent, self-governing state. These narratives often operate in tandem; rebirth following struggle. These master narratives explain why Georgians perceive Russia’s presence within its internationally recognized borders as a continuation of the historical aggression the Georgian state has experienced from Russia and the Soviet Union. Georgia’s historical memory catalogues the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as an affront to its sovereignty, rendering Russian narratives ineffectual.

This perspective feeds into Georgian identity narratives, which are those that describe Georgia’s identity as a country. These identity narratives depict Georgia as a strong, independent, and unified state which governs itself. Identity narratives can also constrain a nation’s behavior. Georgia, for example, values self-governance and is a nascent democracy, and thus is expected to behave as such. Additionally, Georgian nationalism has become increasingly important since it seceded from the Soviet Union in the 1991 referendum. This helps to explain why Georgia views the Abkhazia and South Ossetia controversy as an occupation of their territories, rather than accepting Russia’s narrative of support for independent states.

Narratives related to the international system are especially important in this situation as they demonstrate the aforementioned line between “occupation” and “independent states.” Georgia and most of the West have invested in narratives which demonstrate the importance of international institutions. They argue that the international community should be the forum for recognizing nations, and that, therefore, Russia’s occupation of Georgian territory violates international norms. This further influences the perspective of Georgians by characterizing Russia’s moves as an infringement, thereby decreasing the power of their narratives. These separate narratives all come together to emphasize the sovereignty and independence of Georgia as a self-governing state, in turn shaping Georgia’s – and most of the West’s – response to Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

This situation further impacts Georgia’s larger place in the international system. As a relatively young democracy, Georgia is seen by many as torn between allying itself with the West and with Russia/Eurasia. Where Georgia chooses to align itself has real consequences, as narratives do shape and constrain behavior. A Georgia in a Western alliance may behave quite differently than a Georgia in a Russian alliance. In the fight for Georgia’s allegiance and national identity, Russia attempts to cast a shadow on partnership with the West in order to bring Georgia into the sunlight of a Eurasian bloc. Its presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is supported by propaganda campaigns asserting that aligning with the EU, US, or NATO will corrupt the traditions and identity of Georgia as a state. This taps into narratives related to Georgian nationalism, sovereignty and independence to create an overwhelmingly negative picture of a Western Georgia.

Despite these efforts, polling data collected by NDI shows that the overwhelming majority of Georgians do support EU and NATO membership. This could point to the salience of the Georgian narratives I’ve described here. Russian propaganda efforts do not seem to be enough to override Georgia’s historical memory, or its vision of itself as a sovereign nation that is part of a greater system. It is clear how the various narratives surrounding Russia’s presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia feed into a larger picture of Georgia’s place in international affairs – and vice versa.

> The author has also written a case study of the battle of narratives over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not express the views of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.

4 Reasons Why COVID-19 Won’t Change Italy’s Stance on Migration

By Rachel Pastor, M.A. International Affairs ‘20

Turin, Italy, 2015 © Stefano Guidi

The destabilization of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region since the 2011 Arab Spring spurred a mass exodus of people fleeing civil war, instability, and authoritarian regimes. As a Mediterranean neighbor with a lengthy coastline, Italy is an attractive destination for North African migrants. Its geographic positioning has led to its outsized role as a receiving and transit country in the current European migration crisis. Due to cultural, security, and economic concerns, Italy has adopted a harsh policy restricting the flow of refugees into the country. The European Union campaign to influence a more relaxed Italian migration policy has been routinely ineffective due to a lack of understanding on the EU’s part. The fragility of the country coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic will harden the line between Italians and migrants. There are four perceived security threats that migration poses to Italian stability and the narratives shaping each perceived threat are likely to solidify after the current health crisis.

  1. Physical Security: Italy vs. Outsiders

A major issue narrative surrounding Italian migration policy is the physical threat refugees pose to the domestic population. The typical Italian identity is founded in the belief of the “benevolent” Italian, a person with Italian heritage raised on the principles of family and hard work, and migrants have thus been identified as the antithesis. The way in which Italy has been impacted by the Coronavirus will affect the population’s ability to separate negative identity narratives from minority populations. The virus is seen to have been inflicted upon the Italian population by “outsiders.” This is already evidenced by the stark decline in Italian patronage at minority-operated stores and restaurants before the lockdown. Any counter narratives aimed at reframing Italian views on migrant populations will find it difficult to penetrate the COVID-19 story informing a larger narrative: if Italy opens its border to migrants, they will bring violence and disease.

  1. Cultural Security: Migrants Threaten the Rebuilding Process

The Italian identity is heavily shaped by its cultural history and blood relations with a view of “Italian” and “other” group divisions. Italian society rewards hard work and bases the foundation of business and political decisions on relationship-building. Italy doesn’t believe it owes migrants anything because, in their view, they have not worked hard to deserve it. More specifically, they have not contributed to Italian society and thus don’t get to reap the benefits. The EU often misunderstands this narrative and frames public diplomacy campaigns around the message that Italy “should” open its borders to migrants, which backfires due to Italy’s view of system roles.

Migrants are also viewed as threats to Italian communities. Families are the foundation of Italian society and the maintenance of Italian family units is often considered the chief concern of all political policies. COVID-19 deaths are severely impacting Italians as they have a large elderly population, many of whom are matriarchs and patriarchs. The social aftermath of the coronavirus will be focused on rebuilding communities and strengthening family systems. Migration is viewed as the biggest risk to Italian communities as refugees are believed to dilute the cultural identity.

  1. Economic Security: Italy Cannot Afford More Financial Stress

Italy’s economy is struggling, and domestic and foreign policies are geared towards strengthening its economic power. The richness of the Italian identity informs the belief that cultural and financial prosperity go hand-in-hand. Fortifying the economy and reducing the national debt will protect the prosperity of the Italian identity, making it a stronger European leader. Prior to COVID-19, the economic migration narrative focused on the financial burden migrants put on the Italian economy. The fact that the virus has brutally impacted Italy’s tourism industry, the main source of its GDP, will not entice Italian lawmakers to consider migration reform.

  1. Political Security: EU Interference

Italy identifies as a prominent country, and any perceived threats to sovereignty will fuel intolerant migration policy. The German NGO rescue ship that illegally docked in an Italian port in June 2019, was perceived as an act of force interfering with Italy’s right to determine and enforce its own laws. Italy views itself as a global leader in culture, arts, fashion, and more and thus it should be respected and many EU migration narratives are interpreted as acts of disrespect. Italy promotes the story that the country is at capacity because it was not aided during the influx of maritime migrants. This narrative of abandonment supports feelings of disrespect in the EU sphere.

The inevitable weakness of the Italian state following the pandemic will be a sore spot, and the primary political focus will be to bolster state institutions to maintain respect in the global arena.

Angelos Tzortzinis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Often dubbed a “war of words,” EU public diplomacy campaigns fall short of accounting for the underlying narratives shaping Italian perspectives. The continued EU messaging approach only further antagonizes Italians and engrains their stance on migration. Any EU reframing of its current public diplomacy efforts to counter Italian narratives is a difficult feat in and of itself. The added layer of a global pandemic further complicates the situation and makes narrative alignment even more crucial following the COVID-19 pandemic.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not express the views of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.

I Spy With My Little Eye – How U.S. Surveillance Punctured German Trust


us-de-dartsImagine being a 25-year-old adult who has moved out of your parents’ house and is successfully living on your own only to find out that your parents are spying on you and reading your text messages.  It’s pretty egregious and a violation of trust.  That is exactly how Germany feels toward the United States.

The pinnacle of relationships in the international community built from decades of diplomatic partnerships, economic growth, and most importantly, trust, is now chipped away because of American surveillance scandals.

Trust began to fade precipitously around the time of the Edward Snowden leaks, and the policies and political behavior of the Trump administration further aggravate the U.S.-German relationship.  It is becoming increasingly difficult for the German public and leadership to trust American messages, which can make it difficult for U.S. public diplomacy officials to succeed in their work.

The State of Things

There are two stark perceptions of the U.S.-German relationship among both national publics.  A Pew study conducted just this past February shows that while 68% of Americans view the relationship between the United States and Germany as good, 56% of Germans view the U.S.-German relationship as bad.  And to make matters worse, Germans now trust the United States as much as they trust Russia (which is a stunning low of 21%).  Over the past few years, German public opinion of America is dwindling, threatening the stability of diplomacy in the international community.  As grave as that is, not all hope is lost. A significant portion of Germans still believe that the U.S. is an important partner in foreign affairs.  But if the Germans don’t trust us, how can we succeed in bolstering a relationship that is faltering?

Growing Up, Germany

 In Germany’s “coming of age” story, the United States played a big role in developing this now European powerhouse.  Germans widely trusted the United States and creating a quasi-parental narrative, as America offered guidance to help rise from the ashes of a nation divided.  As the country grew to once again become a prominent force in European politics, Germany also became one of the United States’ closest and strongest allies in Europe.

Though relations between the U.S. and Germany started back in 1790, the modern U.S.-German relationship began with the implementation of the Marshall Plan providing economic aid to Western Germany, but not the East.  That parental aspect comes really kicks into gear during the Cold War, where the U.S. acted as the protector from the Soviet Union and developed West Germany into a budding democracy.  The U.S. seems to always have had Germany’s best interest at heart as evidenced by the Berlin Airlift.  Here, Western allies airlifted supplied to West Germany in response to the Soviet blockade of Berlin, keeping Berliners equipped with daily necessities such as food and fuel until the Soviet Union lifted the blockade in spring 1949.

While the U.S. had a helping hand of grooming Germany to take the lead in European politics and be a democracy on its own, today the U.S. seems to be overstepping their stake in the relationship.  Due to recent surveillance efforts by the United States, that alliance might not be as strong and close as we would like.  Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency employee, leaked information showing that Germans had been a target of American surveillance programs, spurring outrage and distrust among the German people.

The Parental Image, Quashed

Unsurprisingly, Germans were angry that one of their closest allies was spying on them.  Matters only worsened when it was revealed that the Obama administration listened in on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls.  This struck a chord with the Germans as they viewed the U.S. favorably and in the parental role, but now—this was a breach of moral authority – the parent now ceased to be the guiding hand and is now the overbearing dad overstepping boundaries.

More so now in the Trump era, German trust in the United States is on a steady decline, coming to an all-time low. President Trump’s “America First” and nationalist policies threaten the international balance in the global economy, which would directly affect German economic stability. In his first year in office, he has demonstrated unpredictability and his lack of experience in political affairs worries the German public.  The actions from Washington in conjunction with the surveillance efforts now leaves the role of the trustworthy parent in shambles and now means nothing to the Germans.

The United States is now attempting to transform the parental narrative to be more of a partnership rather than something hierarchical.  An example of this is the Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Initiative, a State Department and German Marshall Fund effort to develop and cultivate relationships among emerging European and American leaders.  Even though this initiative includes young leaders from many European countries, for Germany, this conjoined effort is meant to evoke the spirit of the Marshall Plan and strengthen transatlantic cooperation.

And with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s planned visit to the White House this week, it seems like an ideal opportunity for the United States to further articulate a long-standing alliance and interest in Germany’s well-being.  Even still, the balloon of trust between these two nations has a small puncture hole and is deflating – merely putting tape over it won’t gain that trust back.

DisclaimerThe opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.


How ISIS seduces European Muslim women–and what Europe can do about it

Why are so many Muslim women in Europe susceptible to ISIS propaganda? Many of them join ISIS to commit jihad, or violence in the name of the “sustained struggle” to advance Islamic extremism. In 2014, about 18 percent of all European ISIS members were female. As of August 2017, experts believe the total number of women is more than 550. But are women brainwashed by the Islamic State or choosing jihad of their own free will?

Many Muslim women in Europe are enticed by ISIS’s recruitment videos and social media presence. ISIS portrays the Caliphate as a utopian land where ISIS’s very narrow view of Islam is strictly enforced. ISIS uses Hollywood-level video production and a social media strategy which rivals any Silicon Valley startup. On social media, women members of ISIS promise their women viewers a fulfilling life married to a devout Muslim man in the Caliphate. These women leave discrimination and alienation in Europe to support jihadis in Syria—or to take jihad into their own hands.

But why are ISIS recruitment efforts so effective? Answering this question requires an overview of how Muslim women are excluded from European society. For example, many French people do not consider a Muslim immigrant living in France to be “French, ” regardless of citizenship. A “French” identity includes Western clothing, language fluency, and a desire to assimilate. The French government and mainstream media view national identity narrowly—“traditional” so as not to make white French citizens uncomfortable.

Immigrant Muslim women are marginalized and their religion, way of dressing, and race are always at the forefront of their minds. They are forced to define their “Muslim” identity as incompatible with their “French” identity. Many choose to perceive themselves as “Muslim” rather than “French” in a nation that shows them time and time again that they do not belong. Taub calls this phenomenon “identity choice.”

ISIS uses these cleavages created by the French government to target French Muslim women who want to wear religious coverings and marry a devout Muslim man without being cast as a social pariah. Recruiters appeal to women fascinated by extremism and enamored with escaping France to join the Caliphate. By creating media channels apart from the French mainstream, ISIS can control the slant and message of their posted content to target and lure.

The divergence of media outlets can explain why recruitment videos spread like wildfire.

Model for Blog Post

The fork in the road: ISIS creates a sophisticated rival of mainstream media, which garners attention from the women who embrace this romanticized extremism


However, ISIS’s savvy productions only explain part of the phenomenon.

ISIS’s chosen messenger? Other women.

British women recruiters are master strategists at romanticizing life under ISIS: they catch more flies with honey than they do with vinegar. ISIS women reach out to other women by creating News Frames of the propaganda. Through a process called framing, they shape and interpret the content of ISIS videos and social media posts to win the upper hand in reaching French Muslim women—their target audience.

The most powerful way to frame ISIS propaganda is to create a utopian image of the Caliphate that is consistent with what many Muslim women have already determined to be their ideal society.

Women recruiters can frame ISIS propaganda to convince a woman that joining is in her own best interest. Here’s three ways how:


  1. They display their elite status in the Caliphate as wives and mothers and invite other women to emulate them.


  1. They provide detailed instructions on how to use weapons, travel to Syria, and even commit jihad.


  1. They distort the concept of women’s “empowerment” to mean challenging western gender norms and joining all-women brigades.


By glorifying this active role for women, recruits develop an affinity for a Caliphate ready to welcome them with open arms.

Despite its recent territory losses, ISIS still manages to release a few recruitment videos. Nations committed to countering violent extremism cannot fight fire with fire: instead of sensationalizing the videos and perpetrators to the public, European officials and mainstream media outlets must disseminate content that exposes these recruitment tactics that put women at risk.

In addition, French society must broaden their definition of “European” to include Muslim immigrants. In order for this shift in public opinion to occur, European mainstream media needs a new approach: discussing Muslim women as French citizens or residents, not permanent outsiders. Media accomplish this goal by at the News Frames stage of the model above.

Elected officials in Europe must rise to their higher calling as public servants and unite citizens of all religions and national origins under a new “European” identity. Factionalism may be good for getting votes, but this tactic has succeeded at the expense of Muslim women’s livelihoods. This is the most difficult and far-reaching change to implement, as the model suggests.

If France better integrates its immigrant communities, French Muslim women can emerge from the margins of society. ISIS’s power to prey upon these women diminishes when women can practice their religion, wear garments of their choosing, and access education and employment opportunities.

ISIS’s glossy social media images will lose their luster for the many women they once seduced. The news frames won’t be as effective for Muslim women immigrants once Europe stops treating them as “the other.”

Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.

Event Recap: Explaining Our New Cold War With Russia: Can Trump End It?

Just a day after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigations into the Trump’s campaign contact with Russia, the Institute for Public Diplomacy & Global Communication partnered with the Walter R. Roberts Endowment to host a lecture and Q & A with former ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul. McFaul’s lecture explored what had ignited the U.S.’ new Cold War with Russia – and what had changed after nearly 30 years of relatively constructive relations. In his lecture, McFaul outlined three possible explanations for the faltering relationship and Russia under Vladimir Putin.

Credit: Logan Werlinger

We cannot blame international politics

Firstly, McFaul discussed why the inherent structure of international politics doesn’t account for Putin’s interest in expansion or the strained relationship the U.S. has with Russia now.

“There’s this idea that this is just a natural correction. That Russia is a great power and is acting like a great power,” McFaul said.

But if that were the case, that Putin being more aggressive is just a natural correction, a similar pivot would have happened with Japan and Germany after World War II. At that time, great powers had fallen, but with U.S. aid and investment in each country’s ability to establish a democratic government, each country became a global power without becoming aggressors towards the U.S. If Russia were simply building up to become a major power again after the fall of the Soviet Union, there wouldn’t be a need for a strained relationship between the U.S. and Russia. Instead, perhaps the two countries could have worked together to establish a stronger democracy in Russia. According to McFaul, an error the U.S. made was not investing enough in Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Up until 2013, the world seemed to think that Russia was just becoming a more mature, global power. It wasn’t until Putin’s plans shifted so wholly that the rest of the world started to take notice that Russia was becoming an aggressor, not a peaceful power.

But it wasn’t until 2013 that the rest of the world started seeing a real shift in Putin’s plan. In 2013, Putin was concerned with the Eurasian Economic Union. He wanted the Ukraine to come on board with the EEU, rather than join the West to make the union large enough to be sustainable. Furthermore, up until 2013, Putin seemed to be going in a positive direction on the world stage mostly because of the olympics. The Sochi Olympics was Russia’s time to export a “new Russia” to the rest of the world. Putin’s administration reclaimed authors and artists that were excommunicated during the Soviet Union, and presented Russia as an inclusive country.

“They released Khodorkovsky. [Russia was] essentially saying, ‘We’ve had a rocky space. This is a signal to you, the United States, to have a new relationship with us’,” McFaul said.

Soon after the Olympics’ closing ceremony ended, though, Putin invaded Crimea.

If international politics was the real reason the new Cold War began, it would have started far before Putin decided to invade Crimea because simply the idea of Russia becoming a great power isn’t a threat to the world order or balance of power.

Credit: Logan Werlinger

And it’s not U.S. Policy

Another theory McFaul was quick to dismiss is that Russia has to be aggressive towards the United States because U.S. foreign policy pushed it into a corner. But to Putin, the U.S. seemed to be an emerging threat around in the early 2000s and into 2013. NATO’s expansion, the U.S.’ invasion of Iraq, the NATO bombing in Serbia in 2013 and U.S. support for color revolutions all could have been perceived as Western aggression towards Russia.   According to this theory, “We are too demanding of Russia, we were lecturing them, we support color revolutions. Putin had enough and his actions are a reaction to what we did”.

However, after these perceived threats the U.S. and Russia began a reset designed to be a win-win relationship between the U.S. and Russia – the idea was that through a strategy of active engagement, the U.S. and Russia would find common interests to strengthen both countries. It is important to note that at the time of the reset, Medvedev was president, and seemed more open to more open relations with the U.S.  According to McFaul, this worked for the most part. The new START treaty was put into force in February 2011, and it called for nuclear limits on both countries, eighteen on-site inspections of both countries and no constraints on missile defense or conventional strikes. During the reset, the Iran deal was also signed, which worked in both the U.S. and Russia’s interest to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Furthermore, the reset also included the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which supplied material to forces in Afghanistan in a combined effort on the war in Afghanistan.

“At the height of the reset, sixty percent of Russians had a positive view of Americans, and sixty percent of Americans had a positive view of Russians. That was five years ago,” McFaul said.

U.S. policy aided Russia during the reset – and it showed in approval ratings. The economies of both countries were steadily rising and there was more support of American-Russian relations than had been in years. If U.S. policy were to blame, how could one explain all of the positive developments in the relations after the perceived threats? According to McFaul, there is only one last narrative that could explain today’s tensions.

Russian Domestic Politics – it starts at home

When power shifted from Medvedev to Putin, the U.S. incorrectly thought that nothing should really change, according to McFaul.

“We all knew that Putin was doing everything behind the scenes anyway. We didn’t think anything would change,” McFaul said.

However, internal pressures created Putin’s aggressive pivot towards the West because he needed someone to blame the conflict on. Putin saw the U.S. supporting the revolutions in Egypt and Libya – and in his view in Russia too. Putin viewed demonstrators as traitors. Once Putin’s ally and Ukrainian leader Yanukovych fell in 2014, Putin pivoted completely against the U.S. as he saw U.S. ideology threatening his reign. The demonstrations in the Middle East and in Russia between 2011 and 2012 forced Putin to try and look stronger in his own country.

“The good news is, I don’t think Putin has a master plan to recreate the Soviet Union,” McFaul said. “There’s no evidence that that’s what he’s doing. The bad news is that Putin’s not changing. He can be in power legally until 2024, and Putin needs an enemy.”

As long as Putin feels threatened by revolutions and demonstrations in his own country and in those immediately surrounding Russia, the U.S. will continue to be his enemy. And, according to McFaul, a Trump presidency that is friendlier towards Russia won’t do much to change that.

Trump’s hothead meets the Cold War

Trump speaks about Russia as if the goal is to be Russia’s friend, McFaul theorized, and that could backfire.

According to McFaul, President Trump was confusing goals with means. “The job of a diplomat is to represent your country’s interest in another country. Not to be that country’s friend,” McFaul said.

Because of the Trump Administration’s recent controversies, like Sessions’ recent recusal and Russia’s interference in the 2016, Trump will have difficulty making any headway in Russia–U.S. relations. As of now, it might be politically impossible for Trump to grant any significant concessions to Russia without the exchange looking like political favors.

Furthermore, according to McFaul, there’s not much Russia can give us in negotiations.

“They could lift the ban on adoptions, but on bigger things I’m less optimistic. Our overlapping interests are much smaller than they used to be,” McFaul said.

Unfortunately, it looks like the new Cold War won’t be ending any time soon. But according to McFaul, it’s important to realize that a powerful Russia shouldn’t be a fear. Rather, the more pressing need is to reduce the idea that the U.S. is Russia’s enemy, and that they are ours.

Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.


Best ‘American’ Film: How America Lacks International Perspective with its Movies and Awards Shows

Movies are a very impactful and influential tool towards gaining a perspective of a culture, situation, norm, and/or environment, which is why PAOs acknowledge films as a legitimate form of cultural diplomacy. An American watching a movie taking place in Pakistan will notice norms that differ greatly from American culture, as would a Pakistani watching a film taking place in America. And through that simplistic cultural exchange, each viewer would have a better understanding of the other country. As Rhonda Zaharna mentions in her article The Cultural Awakening in Public Diplomacy, culture determines values, and movies represent culture.

So with this emphasis on movies and their impact, it’s hard to determine which film would be considered an all-encompassing “Best” film in the world. Film festivals that take place in Europe such as the Berlin International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, and the Venice Film Festival allow movies from all over the world to win the deserving “Best” film, actor, etc. category. The U.S., however, has only one category devoted to international films (Best Foreign Language Film) in their only film award show: The Academy Awards, or “Oscars”. The lack of international focus in film entries is representative of America’s overall lack of international perspective and interest in comparison to Europe’s.

In his article You Talkin’ to Me?, Begleiter states that Americans express an ignorance of the world by being ill informed about international politics and events, while not even caring enough to learn about them. He sees this lack of perspective as a lack of freedom, even though we pride ourselves on being the ‘freest country in the world.’

oscars website photo
Oscars website presentation: Best (American) Film carrying more weight than Best Foreign Language Film

The U.S.’s nationalism is even represented on the Oscars website by presenting the Best Film, Actor/Actress, and Animated Film awards (all American-directed and starred, in addition to being spoken in English with no subtitles) at the top with large photos of each winner, while presenting every other category in small boxes below. In terms of placement, the Best Foreign Language Film award is given the same amount of importance as the Best Sound Editing award.

In the European film festivals, on the other hand, that is not the case. For this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, the first three most prominent awards were given to people of completely different countries. The film festival also makes a point to award movies on categories such as the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize, a feature film that opens new perspectives. The Golden Bear for Best Film is the most notable award a film can receive, and the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize is right below that in terms of importance.

berlin film festival photo

From left to right: The Golden Bear for Best Film: Fuocoammare (Italy); Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize: Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis (Philippines/Singapore); Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize: Smrt u Sarajevu/Mort a Sarajevo (France/Bosnia and Herzegovina)

This festival makes a conscious decision to establish the importance of exposing oneself to new perspectives by specifically rewarding movies that make an obvious effort to do so.

In order to overcome our inherent ethnocentric bias, some embassies consciously make an effort to put on events that combine differing cultures. For example, the Embassies of the Czech Republic and the United States of America created a film festival specifically targeting the exchanging of American and Czech cultures by exposing those from Nicosia and Cyprus to American films but directed by Czech director Milos Forman. It was called the Milos Forman Film Festival and through the combined Embassy efforts, the Czechs were able to be exposed to American culture, while still feeling prideful in their own culture since Forman is from the Czech Republic and, and, subconsciously added Czech cultural references within these American films.

milos forman film festival photo
Milos Forman Film Festival poster posted on the United States Embassy of Nicosia and Cyprus website

Since movies are such an impactful way to develop a better understanding of a culture different than your own, this type of film festival can be organized in the States as well. French, Japanese, Syrian, Hungarian, etc. embassies in the United States can create film festivals that are directed by people of those descent and represent the cultures of those from those foreign countries as well. There can also be an implementation of film festivals that represent American directors who live abroad and create abroad films in order to create a potential incentive or connection for American audiences to attend these film festivals. One example can be creating a film festival that highlights the work of French director Roman Polanski. Even though he was born in Paris, he has made movies in Poland, Britain, France, and the U.S., marking him the epitome of the quintessential international filmmaker. By hosting a Roman Polanski Film Festival in the states with the Polish, French, and British embassies involved, all four countries can experience and appreciate one another’s cultures, while giving American audiences an incentive to come since Polanski has made popular films in the states as well.

Through this cultural program, American audiences will become more informed about the culture that was represented in the movie he or she saw. And by becoming more informed about a culture, it will allow Americans to not only be less ill-informed, but also more inclined to learn more about said foreign country, it’s politics, international relations, and other foreign countries alike. By acknowledging these different cultures and learning that both your culture and another culture can coexist, it will allow you (American readers specifically) to base future decisions on this knowledge that people, places, and things can be different, and that’s okay.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. 

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