The Undiscovered Country: Managing and Analyzing Pivots

//Efe Sevin is one of the seven 2013 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2013 Milton Wolf Seminar.  Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2013 Seminar discussions.

Fundamental assumptions about the nature of international politics and communication are being challenged, due to contemporary developments—from the Arab Spring protests to Burma’s democratization, from Iran’s shifting media landscape to Syria’s internal struggle. As scholars, we try to better make sense of these developments by revising existing theories, crafting different models, and asking new questions; this is indeed a daunting task. Given the unprecedented nature of these events, it is difficult to clearly state the ultimate outcomes of these contemporary developments and the ramificaitons for these countries and our world.

The 2013 Milton Wolf Seminar (MWS), in this aspect, was an invaluable opportunity to deliberate about the future by bringing scholars and practitioners together. The seminar was built around the concept of (geopolitical) pivots—“the states whose importance is derived not from their power and motivation but rather from their sensitive location and from the consequences of their potentially vulnerable condition for the behavior of geo-strategic players” as defined by Zbigniew Brzezinski. The discussions focused on the role of practitioners—ranging from diplomats to journalists—in managing these volatile situations, and the role of academics in analyzing the cases of Iran, Syria and the Arab Spring, and Burma to make better sense of the world around us.

I left the seminar with two big questions on my mind. Firstly, why are these pivots so important—either when we take them case-by-case, or when we look at them collectively? Why do we call these cases geopolitical “pivots”—a term that attaches a greater level of importance to these specific events? Secondly, what do we learn from these cases? Are there any generalizable lessons we can draw? Is understanding the ongoing situation in Syria, for instance, going to be helpful outside the Syrian context?

“The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns”[i]

The discussions at MWS revolved around three specific geopolitical pivots: Iran, Syria in the context of the Arab Spring, and Burma (Myanmar). All three pivots have two important characteristics in common. First, they all represent unique political developments. Iran’s ongoing rhetorical struggle and simultaneous attempts to control both traditional and online media platforms, Arab Spring’s widespread popular uprisings, Syria’s prolonged armed and communicative war, and Burma’s political opening are very difficult to compare to previous democratic transitions or civil wars. Scholars have attempted to establish analogies between these pivots and previous events such as the Latin American democratization process and post-French revolution Europe.

However, most of the presentations at MWS underlined the fact that such analytical comparisons limit our capability to understand the depth and bredth of these issues. The Arab Spring is not the same as the Prague Spring. The former was driven by a combination of online and offline activism against authoritarian regimes  while the latter was an elite-driven  attempt to oppose dominant Soviet ideology. Burma is different from the South American post-military democratization experience given the existence of exile media institutions and the nascent development of free media in the country. Similarly, given the multiplicity of the strategies and the changing dynamics in the region, Iran’s attempts to carve a powerful position for itself in the region and Syrian uprisings cannot be understood by comparing them with other cases.

Apart from their unique nature, all the developments discussed have seemingly come to a point of no return. The rebels in Syria remain dedicated to their struggle; the people on the streets in Tunisia and Egypt are likely to continue their political activism; and the processes of political openings in Burma look set to continue. Here it is important to note that I am not trying to present a Fukuyama-esque argument that the specific countries discussed at MWS (or any other country) are moving towards a liberal democratic government style. Rather, I argue that these movements have changed the domestic political landscape and the dynamics of social life in and have the potential to influence other countries inside and outside the region.

Iran, Syria, and Burma should be considered as geopolitical pivots because the changes in these countries are also influencing the political and social scene in their respective regions and beyond. They have attracted the interest of various actors—from individuals to civil society groups, from neighboring countries to international organizations. Their journeys will have larger ramifications for the way that we conceptualize international affairs.

“I offer a toast. The undiscovered country–the future”[ii]

It is too early to forecast how any of these movements are going to end. Yet, regardless of their final outcomes, the aforementioned events and processes have changed the future on how we conceptualize and practice international affairs.

The role of strategic narratives and discourses was a recurring theme during the MWS. While communication and information flows have always been an important part of any political process, these pivots suggest that communication is starting to take a more central role. In the early 20th century, as Lippmann argued, most of the world was out of reach, out of sight, and out of mind. In the beginning of the 21st century, one can argue that most of the world is out of reach, out of sight, and out of mind if no one is tweeting about them. Media, whether it be traditional media resources or new online social media platforms, has the capacity to connect audiences to events happening anywhere in the world. Therefore, parties involved in these pivots actively try to be a part of the communication processes by controlling the message and managing the communication environment (For further academic information on this subject, you can visit Ben O’Loughlin’s Academia webpage. For great project examples, you can visit Albany Associate’s webpage.)

Secondly, during MWS, I heard discussions on the impacts of certain actors that I did not even know about – cyber dissidents and exile journalists being two of them. The academic field of international relations has long-accepted that international politics is no longer necessarily a state-centric activity and embraced individuals, civil society groups, and international organizations as influential actors in world politics.

Last but not the least, technology plays an important role in how communication campaigns are formed, executed, and managed. Most of the journalists and activists present at MWS represented either online-only organizations or organizations with strong online networks (e.g.. Radio Free Europe, cyberdissidents.org, Iranpolitik, Now News, and the Democratic Voice of Burma.  It is important to note that rise of online platforms has not necessarily killed the offline star. As we observed in the case of the uprising in Egypt, blogging and digital activist traditions in the country were important, but so too were the actions of protestors who expressed their political demands offline through mass demonstrations and traditional media channels.

Managing and Analyzing Foreign Affairs After Pivots

I want to conclude by summarizing the lessons I drew from these three pivots (i.e. Syria, Iran, and Burma) with three “new” concepts. We live in an era of a new diplomacy practiced by an abundance of actors, a new journalism delivered via multiple platforms and practiced by a range of journalists with varying levels of political engagement, and a new communication environment where competing discourses and narratives are produced by multiple actors.

Unfortunately, social changes of this magnitude do not occur without cost. Over the course of these events, we have witnessed great atrocities. Hopefully, understanding these pivots will help us make sure that such tragedies of political oppression and violence will not be repeated in future as of yet undiscovered countries.

About the Author

D13_249_015Efe Sevin is a Doctoral Candidate at the School of International Service at American University and is a Research Fellow at the Research on Collaboratories and Technology Enhanced Learning Communities (COTELCO). His research interests include strategic communication, non-traditional diplomacy, global governance, and research methodologies. Mr. Sevin’s doctoral dissertation focuses on the role of public diplomacy as a foreign policy instrument. Email: esevin[@]american.edu

About the Milton Wolf Seminar

Co-hosted by the Center for Global Communication Studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, the American Austrian Foundation, and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, the annual Milton Wolf Seminar tackles contemporary issues at the nexus of diplomacy and journalism – both broadly defined.  The 2013 Seminar, “Diplomatic Maneuvers and Journalistic Coverage in a Time of Reset, Pivot and Rebalance” explored the critical role of diplomats and journalists in shaping the outcomes of what we call global geopolitical pivots. Pivots in this case refer to emergent geopolitical shifts around which multiple stakeholders – from major powers, to multilateral organizations, to bloggers working in isolation – seek to provide input on the most appropriate outcomes. Examples of contemporary global pivots considered at the 2013 Seminar included: the ultimate resolution of the Arab Spring countries, the shifts in geopolitical approaches to Syria, calls for regime change in Iran, and the intense Western attention to reform movements and government change in Burma (Myanmar). A diverse range of academics, policy makers, and diplomats participated in the two days of presentations and discussions.  A full list of panelists is available here.

For more information about past and upcoming Milton Wolf Seminars and future Emerging Scholar initiatives, please contact: Amelia Arsenault.

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[i] Quote from Hamlet, Act III, Scene I.

[ii] Quote from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

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