Doing Better at Doing Well

Lessons from Department of Defense Disaster Relief Efforts in the Asia-Pacific Region
Jennifer D. P. Moroney, Stephanie Pezard, Laurel E. Miller, Jeffrey Engstrom, Abby Doll



US Air Force personnel deliver relief supplies...

US Air Force personnel deliver relief supplies to Burma (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If there is a unifying thread across the string of natural and human disasters that have torn across the Asia-Pacific region in the past eight years, it is that in each instance large chunks of the U.S. military dropped what they were doing at the time and placed their resources in the service of the governments trying to save lives, save property, recover the dead, and lay the groundwork for a speedy recovery.

There has to now not been an assessment of the effectiveness of that work, nor of the lessons learned. The RAND Corporation has taken on the task of making that assessment, and the results are now available in this concise volume. Taking into account four cases – that of Cyclone Nargis in Burma in 2008; the Padang earthquake in Indonesia in 2009, the monsoon floods in Pakistan in 2010, and the Tohuku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011 – the study offers some thought-provoking conclusions.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that, left on its own to conduct operations, the US armed forces show a remarkable degree of improvisation and can-do spirit that often overcomes the lack of preparation, and provides the basis for the kind of flexibility that evolving disasters demand. What the study suggests is that not all of this improvisation is necessary, and that with the proper salting of expertise and experience, time and lives could be saved when lessons don’t have to be relearned by different units and personnel in similar situations.

The RAND experts also note that the military needs help playing nicely with others. In this, they echo the oft-repeated entreaties of grand strategist Thomas P.M. Barnett. While the military has learned to overcome its parochial service-first thinking at lower and lower levels of command, this process took over 60 years. Now, however, the military must start thinking not just “mulit-service,” but also “multi-agency” and “multi-national.” The military may be alone on the battlefield, but when the mission is saving people and property, they work best when they work smoothly with the UN, with the Red Cross, local governments, and the Department of State, to name a few.

To the credit of our people in uniform, that stuff is hard, and it is even hard when civilian agencies try to play nice. This is exactly what the study argues. It’s hard, but we have to do it, and better we start now training leaders and operators at every level of the armed forces how to work in an environment like this.

That conclusion seems intuitive to civilians. But to someone in the military – especially someone who has to train people in the face of tightening resources and limited time – it seems like another unfunded mandate from “experts” who have no idea of the challenges in the field. Cross-training a medic is easy. Cross-training a 19 year-old airman third class who specializes in operating a helicopter sonar how to conduct humanitarian tasks is a lot more time-consuming. And what should the military do? Spend more time getting that kid proficient at his highly technical job, given they’re only likely to have him for another couple of years? Or interrupt that time to teach him how to perform technical rescues?

The RAND study, to its credit, doesn’t try to overtask the military, but offers some simple and clever solutions to the problem.

This book is a great read, a must for disaster geeks (I admit to being one) and to anyone with an interest in how we can all get better at saving people after “the Big One.” And for those of us with an interest in China and soft power, it is a silent reflection on how far China must come before its aircraft carriers mean more than menace in Asia.

My Power is Softer than Yours

English: Press room of State Council Informati...

Press room of the State Council Information Office of China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

China’s Soft Power in East Asia: A Quest for Status and Influence?
Chin-Hao Huang
National Bureau of Asian Research
January 2013

China has pledged itself to winning the “soft power” game in Asia and worldwide ever since the phrase became a buzzword among international relations literati following the 204 publication of Joseph Nye‘s Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. Beijing has spent billions on this campaign, funding schools of Chinese language and culture, big-budget films, and an expanding global media network of foreign language television, radio, magazines, newspapers, and wire services all controlled by the State Council Information Office.

Beijing has done little to help itself in this campaign, especially with its neighbors. Armed belligerence in the South China Sea and the Senkakus, bolstered by questionable legal claims, has made China look less attractive to its neighbors and more like a teenaged dragon out to test the limits of its growing power.

Chin-Hao Huang of USC tells us not to let ourselves get lulled by this ham-handed behavior. China appearing itself in the foot does not mean that the U.S. and Europe can let up their efforts to build attraction and influence in the region. In fact, it doesn’t mean that it is losing the soft-power war, either. Studies indicate that China’s soft power is rated just below that of Japan and the United States by populations in Asia. So, in fact, the U.S.  needs to get better at playing the game right now, both to exploit the current opportunities and as a hedge against the day that China begins playing the coquette again.

We also have to consider the possibility that the elements that invite soft power may vary from culture to culture. We see that in our own efforts to build soft power among Muslim populations worldwide. It may be that by compartmentalizing the Senkakus and South China Sea disputes that China is able to play divide-and-conquer among its neighbors. Or it may be that some cultures respect the might China has created even as that power is aimed at them, especially if China is able to rise at the cost of Japanese and American prestige in the region. Asia for the Asians Redux, if you will.

Whether you buy Huang’s argument or whether you think he is repeating the obvious, he deserves credit for pointing out that just because China is playing the bully doesn’t mean they’re losing hearts and minds, and we need to figure out how to play that game much better in a region that has stymied us for half a century.

Replacing Propaganda

US Navy 091123-N-2420K-520 Capt. Alyson Caddel...

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While the works we discuss at The Peking Review tend to be book-length, we occasionally review shorter works because the pithy writing makes them as effective as books. One such work is Christopher Paul’s Getting Better at Strategic Communication, essentially a transcript of his lengthy but tight testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities.

I have a lengthening bookshelf of works on various aspects of strategic communication, which Paul defines as “coordinated actions, messages, images, and other forms of signaling or engagement intended to inform, influence or persuade selected audiences in support of national objectives.” What Paul does in the space of twenty double-spaced pages is provide a layman’s summary of the field.

The reason this is important is that governments generally and the US government in particular are vexed by how hard it has become to influence a given population or group. Gone are the golden days of “weapons of mass instruction,” wherein influence over or control of the media and a few persuasively-worded messages were sufficient to change attitudes. The response has not been to shrug shoulders and give up on the effort, but to try and craft new ways to win friends and influence peoples, particularly overseas. Thus “strategic communication.”

But as Paul notes in this work, if you ask ten “strategic communication” experts to define the term, you would wind up with ten different definitions. That is only one of a number of problems plaguing governments in their attempt to bring their communications skills into the 21st Century, the most serious of which is that politicians, bureaucrats, and cadres the world over still think in terms of the mass-media message pump.

By no means is this problem limited to government: enterprises and NGOs are also struggling to figure out how to remake their thinking and their organizations in an age where the internet exposes brand as illusions and messages as spin. All of these groups are groping toward an answer, and Paul provides an illumiating snapshot of where the US government is in the process.

The Ripple Effects of “Collateral Damage”

If there is a single factor driving the U.S. armed forces and militaries around the world to explore airborne and surf unmanned combat vehicles, it is the growing political cost of battlefield casualties. What those technological marvels have been unable to do, however, is eliminate unintended casualties to civilians in wartime – a phenomenon commonly and somewhat coldly referred to as “collateral damage.”

As part of making a case for finding new ways to reduce or eliminate casualties among non-combattants in wartime, Eric Larson and Bogdan Savych wrote Misfortunes of War: Press and Public Reactions to Civilian Deaths in Wartime. In the book, the authors look at the communications aspect of the problem, not only assessing the different responses to the issue in Europe, the US, and elsewhere, but also urging military leaders to address the problem and specific incidents with the public in a more forthright manner.

This is going to continue to be an issue with all armed forces around the world, especially in an age where the Internet has altered the political and psychological effects of conflict. Indeed, the authors note that the challenge is likely to get worse with time, as incidents that would once have been buried in the scale of the conflict are magnified and twisted for the purposes of one side or the other. Part of the solution is finding ways to eliminate such damage altogether, but in a day of precision weapons and tactics, mistakes are still unavoidable.

Save eschewing “wet works” altogether, governments and non-state actors are going to find themselves enmeshed in a war of words over every mistake, and the states have the most to lose. The communications war will thus grow in importance, so this book is an essential read for anyone communicating – or being communicated to – such tragedies.

Rethinking Psychological Operations

The theory and practice of military psychological operations find their roots in World War II, and for decades remained largely unchanged. There was good reason for this: the media via which psychological operations were conducted were largely of a broadcast type. Aside from the advent of television, psychological operations were conducted with media that existed since the early 20th Century.

Now that the Internet has become all but pervasive, and mass media have begun to change, the military is being forced to take a step back from the channels of its communications and start to explore the nature of influence before trying to decide how to exert that influence. The result of that overdue introspection is Foundations of Effective Influence Operations.

I am a communicator by profession, and in the fraught, complex, and often dirty world of business in Asia I face challenges that bear notable similarities to those facing Army PsyOps people on the battlefield. As such, I was interested to see what a team of seven really bright RAND scholars could come up with.

The result was both surprising and delightful. Surprising, because the book is so good that it could serve as a capstone or entry-level introduction for anyone studying communications or marketing; delightful, because I found so many of my own conclusions echoed in its pages. My favorite passage:

Put simply, because what we actually do often matters far more than what we say, influence operations frequently will focus on explain- ing and leveraging off tangible actions by casting them in a positive context and thereby building trust with an audience or by countering adversary claims about such actions with factual information that is buttressed by facts on the ground and averred by local opinion leaders whose credibility and trustworthiness is judged to be high.

The other conclusion that hit home with me was that there are no easy formulas that will translate across different situations, much less across cultures, and that artful improvisation in the development of communications campaigns was essential. I’ve long believed that great communications is not a template, and to have that affirmed in this study was edifying indeed.

These glimpses only scratch the surface. There is great depth and much insight in this book that can only be appreciated by reading it.

The First Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR): Leading Through Civilian Power

Taking a page from the Department of Defense, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called on her department to produce a document that lays out State’s purpose and blueprint for advancing U.S. interests abroad. The result is this document, the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. Not only is this the first attempt at putting to paper the “soft” side of the Obama doctrine, it is probably the first time in living memory that the Department of State has actually articulated its worldview and its perceived place in Pax Americana.

An essential read for anyone watching U.S. foreign policy, and a necessary companion to the Quadrennial Defense Review.

Whither Strategic Communication?

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One of the effects of the globalization of our information environment is that diplomacy, even in places like China, is no longer the sole province of envoys meeting furtively behind closed doors. International relations has gone, in part, open source, hence the rise of fields like public diplomacy and strategic communication.

The latter used to be limited to propaganda and broadcasts like the BBC World Service, Voice of America, or China Radio International. No longer. The media revolution has changed the way governments talk to the citizens of other countries, and this pdf book examines the crisis into which this disruption has thrown strategic communications establishments worldwide.

Fascinating stuff: the line between propaganda, psychological operations, and Twitter falls, but the bar for effective strategic communications rises in an environment where every statement is under the public microscope.

Consolidation of the USIA into the State Department

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How is the merger of the State Department and the USIA working out? Was it the right thing to do? While this report is getting a little dusty, it is fascinating in that it harkens to a time when the US had few enemies upon whom to focus information efforts.

Reading this work begs a question: how have the U.S. efforts in The Long War suffered (or benefitted) as a result of the elimination of an independent broadcast public diplomacy agency? Clearly the time has come for an assessment of how such efforts have fared under three successive Secretaries of State (Powell, Rice, and Clinton.)