Robert A. Saunders (Assistant Professor in Department of History, Economics, and Politics; State University of New York; USA)

12.03.2011 - Interview conducted by Ashley S. Fitzpatrick & Kim Cornett

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Q1. In the US, do you see a disconnect between self-image and the perceived image from abroad?

With the US, itís an especially interesting example. The US certainly believes that the US is number one in everything. The citizens believe that even though data doesnít back that up and increasingly the data is actually going against it. There was an article recently in the New York Times that showed that amongst 37 of the most developed countries in the world, the US is now basically at the bottom of that group. The Czech Republic is slightly above the US on that list. For Americans, there really is a disconnect between what they think of themselves and increasingly what the rest of the world thinks about them. You can tie this into imperial problems that many powerful countries have had over the past, like Britain or the Roman Empire, where there is still the assumption at home that everyone else is of lower quality and still gravitates to that imperial center. But there is a recognition outside the imperial center that that is now self-delusion and that things are changing but there is no recognition at home. We will see how much change there is. The Obama administration is certainly going in a different route than the Bush administration was in trying to come to grips with the United Statesí new role in the world, but it doesnít get reported at home. A classic example is when Obama went to India and was talking about the US as an important player and still perhaps the leading player in world politics, but that countries like India in particular and also China have a new role to play. The US wants to assist in keeping that transition quite stable and help countries along the way. But these things donít really get reported in the US. Iím curious to see how much change, speaking as an American, there will be in our selfís build over the next 5-6 years with Obama Presidency. It will be interesting to see whether that change will take place and if there will be some sort of harmony between how the rest of the world sees the US and how we see ourselves.

Q2. It was suggested earlier this morning that a countryís national brand is intrinsically connected to the government. Are you suggesting something similar with the Obama administration reframing the US image?

I would push back a little bit on that. Certainly in the cases of smaller countries and lesser known countries, the national brand really is affixed to the political leadership. Georgia is a case and point. Mikheil Saakashvili has really become that countryís brand for good or for ill. So with small countries that really is the case. The United States particularly, and perhaps a few other countries in the world, stands head and shoulders above other countries in that this is not necessarily the case. This is because so many people have a personal relationship with the United States, either through having lived there, or having one of their relatives living there or having visited there. Another factor is the media. People think that they know the United States through these media products. Zimbabwe does not have a direct media channel about its culture that is broadcast everyday across multi-platforms of every conceivable stride. The United States really does, through Hollywood and through other media. I think the United States can really be exempted in some ways from that particular description.

Q3. Relating to nation branding and the media, can that actually change the path a country is on? Can the global national brand competition make a country improve?

Countries certainly try to fix their problems on the surface if they recognize that governance particularly is being portrayed in the media as very bad and there are constant new reports about bad governance, corruption, etc. There are many examples where states have said that we really need to improve our image on this particular issue. They may not actually fix the problem, but they will represent some image of the country that suggests the problem has been fixed or is being fixed or is being ameliorated over time. I think there are lots of examples you can point to in that case. I think itís too soon to say if it will actually makes countries better because they are paying attention to their national brand. There may be a case for that but from a social sciences perspective, it would be nearly impossible to prove at this point.

Q4. You mentioned that one factor constituting a national brand is that it has to be mutually-exclusive. How do you reconcile that with some of the examples in Africa that we have heard about this week where many described themselves as being gems of nature, having rare animals and having the nicest people?

Regarding having the nicest people, everyone tries to make that representation, not just African countries. Anyone who is at this conference will realize that there is this enormous amount of brand overlap among Sub-Saharan African countries in terms of what at least their tourism brand is trying to represent to the world. We need to distinguish a little bit between the pure played tourism brand and this larger nation brand with the 10 components I talked about. Kazakhstan is a good example because here you have a country that until Borat, was lumped together as an anonymous ďstanĒ. It was just over there like all the rest and no one knew that it was the biggest landlocked country in the world, no one knew its history and in general no one knew anything. But because of Sacha Baron Cohen, now people know Kazakhstan. So the brand confusion that existed before has been banished by what was initially a negative media portrayal. There is actual proof that tourism spiked, at least from Britain, after 2005 because the currency exchanges had to constantly be renewing their Kazakh tenge because there were so many British tourists going to Kazakhstan. That was because Kazakhstan was now something different from this generic post-Soviet Central Asian state. It was now something that people were curious about. In terms of nation branding and tourism, yes people will go to the beach, go to the mountains, go for the wildlife and itís ok to have that overlap in your tourism branding. But if you are actually doing a genuine nation branding strategy, you must distinguish yourself. You must be mutually-exclusive from all other countries.

Q5. Since you are working on a book on comparing post-Soviet countries, could you talk more about Russia and Russiaís modern national brand. Is it still rooted in history which overlaps with the history of the region?

The one thing about Russia is if you take nation branding and sort of make it retroactively applicable, you will see that Russia has always been pulled in two directions: the pro-Western orientation that sort of ignores the whole Asiatic part of the country and the Eurasian orientation which says that Russia is a special country with special geography. After all, one-third of it is in Europe and two-thirds of is it in Asia. It has multiple ethnic groups and religious groups, with 4 respected world religions of Judaism, Orthodox Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. They really have those 2 traditions. In the 90s, the pro-west pole was stronger and since Putin came into power, the Eurasian view that Russia is a special country is very strong. I think that in moving forward and with Russia being part of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China), †the future that Russia sees for itself is having a strong relationship with Europe but that relationship will be based on mutual interest in selling natural gas to the Europeans, particularly Germany. That relationship is not going to change. But in terms of the Russian relationship with those parts of the world that the Soviet Union used to be involved in during the 1950s and 60s, I think that Russia is going to try and brand itself as an alternative to the United States and as an alternative to American hegemony. They are going to try to take that special way that they see themselves and express that to the global south. I expect not a lot of change for Russia in terms of its relations with the United State or with Europe but I see a lot of movement on the way that Russia tries to engage with India, China, the Muslim world and other parts of the world. So thatís where I think Russiaís branding will probably be the most effective. I donít know how much change they can achieve in the minds of the average European or the average American over the next ten years but they have room to manoeuvre in other parts of the world.

Q6. In terms of the Borat phenomenon, you mentioned how the Kazakh government was agile, flexible and smart enough to react and reframe that in a positive light. What about popular media in some of the worldís most closed societies like Iran and China? Do you see those governments eventually reacting in a less negative way?

I think the biggest issue for those countries is certainly Al Jazeera and then some of the lesser popular Arab satellite networks. They very much care about what sort images are being presented. Thatís really where media plays a role if youíre talking about countries in the Arab-speaking world, where you find some of the more closed regimes. On a regular basis, Algeria will cut the power when they know that there is going to be a broadcast about Algeria on Al Jazeera. Then you have the arresting of reporters and all the other things that go on. I remember right before Hosni Bubarak stepped down, the Vice-President got on the radio and spoke to the entire world and said to stop listening to Al Jazeera. †This is a different kind of case but to me itís similar to the case of Nursultan Nazarbayev engaging Sacha Baron Cohen. He took his website down at one point and they were threatening lawsuits and all sorts of things. So you have this leader of a very powerful state, and Kazakhstan eventually will be almost as large of an oil producer as Saudi Arabia if their predictions are right, engaging this British comedian. This is a reflection of the environment we live in and the fact that you can have this mass media discussion between someone that comes from the media or entertainment industry and a world leader. I donít see this changing but rather more and more of this sort of engagement as we move forward.

Q7. You spoke about NGOs, civil society and mass media as potential challenges to national sovereignty. How influential is the unit of the state these days and do you think that modern nation states and their roles are changing?

Well I think there is definitely change in a way. I also think that the state is still indispensible. There is no other box or structure or anything yet that will replace the state. You talk about corporations in West Africa having more power than particular states in Africa. Thatís true in terms of economic power, but no state will have representation at the United Nations. There are many non-recognized states, like South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and all of them are countries but they are just not recognized by the UN members. I think pointing to those examples shows just how important it is to be recognized by the closed community of states that is the UN in the modern world that we live in. The flip side of that is that we all have to recognize the increasing influence and power of non-state actors. But that has always been the case. The British East India Company had an enormous influence in shaping the British empire and their policy in India. So itís not like all of a sudden corporations appeared and had power. They always had that. I think that what we are seeing is how all these things work together and are being knitted together by the radical changes that we are experiencing in our lifetime in terms of media and the interconnectedness that comes from satellite TV, mobile phones and the internet. All these things are sort of bonded together and this is where my professional experience plays into the research that I did. I was working in the 1990s as telecommunications corporations were building towards where we are today. Today, every piece of media can end up on every single device, whether itís the iPad or a 4G phone. That interconnectedness through media is going to continue and maximize this effect of other players really encroaching on the realm of the state. The state is however still indispensible.

Q8. Do you see the direction that the mass media is taking as possibly capable of awakening some dissent-interested societies, particularly in the US?

There is proof of the effect of social networking, whether you are talking about the uprisings that are happening in Moldova, or more recently and dramatically what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. The United States, and I hate to fall into this trap of American exceptionalism, is again a special case. The lack of politicization amongst American youth is unchanging and staggering at the same time. Youth are not interested in politics except every once in a while. The Obama presidential campaign was something that attracted them. But as soon as the election happened, they were just as disengaged or perhaps even more than they were before. I donít see very many positive trends in the United States, so I donít have any good news for you at this point.

Thank you so very much for time.