Sunday, April 22, 2012

Ireland's Undignified Retreat

About seven or eight years ago, Joe Nye wrote a book called Soft Power, which talked about how non-economic, non-military power could be wielded in international affairs to great effect.  It discussed how the brand of countries was valuable and important, and how the desire to imitate could be leveraged towards the advancement of the admired country's ambitions.  There was an immediate relevance of course, with America in the process of burning a lot of international bridges in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, but Nye also made the case for small countries who simply didn't have military or economic power, and how important soft power could be.  If memory serves he mentioned Sweden's role in the development of International Law as a case in point. 

If ever Ireland needed to have or be building its soft power then it is now.  Ireland needs - as the Government is at pains to point out - "to rebuild its international reputation".  We need friends in the international community; we need people to think of Ireland in terms of its positive aspects, as a country to imitate, admire and respect.  In order to do that, a significant perpetual campaign needs to be run in order to improve Ireland's standing internationally.  Instead of that, we are retrenching, retreating, isolating ourselves in four key areas. 

1. We are closing embassies all over the world.  While the closure of the embassy to the Vatican grabbed most of the headlines, embassies were closed in Iran and East Timor, while other missions were scaled back and other cuts imposed on the diplomatic corps.  We should be opening new embassies, hiring more diplomats, and selling Ireland agressively internationally through our international relations.  The review, according to Eamon Gilmore, gave "particular attention to the economic return from bilateral missions."  Iran is at the eye of a worldwide storm right now, and buys a considerable amount of Irish food exports.  It needs friends, and a thoughtful, considered, Iran policy could have provided Ireland with some opportunities.  In addition, many countries have very active missions in Teheran because of the International Security concerns, and therefore Ireland's mission would have afforded an opportunity for her diplomats to meet with and develop relationships with many other countries.  The costs for such exercises are minimal.

2. We are reducing our international aid budget.  While relative to an atrophying GDP our contribution in percentage terms may not have declined as dramatically as the €200m cut in 2009 would suggest.  Foreign aid is a wonderful opportunity for Ireland to demonstrate leadership, particularly in growth markets, where burgeoning opportunities for food exports in particular offer massive potential. 

3. RTE is shutting the London office, and reducing investment in international journalism.  RTE has become more and more an odious, anachronistic and irrelevant institution over the years.  I believe it should be privatised and wound up, apart from its news coverage.  It is the only piece (though one can make perhaps an argument for culture) of the organisation that needs to be invested in, and though I don't know the complete economics, I would imagine that it is one of the most profitable areas of the business.  Journalists - news journalists, not "broadcasters" or "entertainers" like Pat Kenny, Marian Finucane and Miriam O'Callaghan - are not expensive, and the management and orchestration of news output (genuine news output, as opposed to sensationalist scandalising dressed as news like Prime Time Investigates) need not cost hundreds of millions.  In the area of international news reporting, Ireland's journalists abroad develop significant relationships with press corps in their host countries, and invariably become ambassadors for Ireland when Ireland is in the International news.  This is not recognised by RTE, who are short-sighted, under pressure, and acting in a ham fisted way, lurching from crisis to crisis.

4. We are not allowing our political leaders to travel abroad on relationship building missions.  St. Patrick's Day is a magnificent international celebration of Irishness, but we begrudge the politician's the chance to hob nob in some far flung corner of the world.  It is politically incorrect to get on a plane and fly somewhere because that seems like a perk.  We've really corkscrewed ourselves here, with some undercurrent of "well, if I can't afford a holiday this year, then they're damn well not getting one either".  Every single national politician should be out of the country on St Patrick's day.  Matter of fact, every single national politician should be out of the country more than they are in the country - the civil servants can run most of it, and they can leave the politicians do what they're really good at - glad-handing, kissing babies, schmoozing.  They might actually do some good. 

Bórd Failte does not seem to have been hit by the cuts, which is some good news, though it could do with additional investment.  We need to change our foreign policy, our foreign affairs strategy, and our investment in foreign affairs.  Or else we're just making a bad situation worse.

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