How U.S. consultants changed the face of world politics

October 14, 2010


The following is guest post by Andrew Hammond, a director at ReputationInc, an international strategic communications firm, was formerly a special adviser to the Home Secretary in the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair and a geopolitics consultant at Oxford Analytica. The opinions expressed are his own.

With less than a month until the crucial November 2 U.S. mid-term elections, the eyes of much of the world are focused upon how many extra seats the Republicans will win in Congress. Should the party win back control of the House of Representatives and/or Senate, President Barack Obama’s agenda will be further stymied.  This could have profound implications not just for U.S. domestic policy, but also foreign policy issues, especially those which require congressional ratification, such as arms reductions treaties, or indeed any climate change deal to replace Kyoto.

At the heart of the battle for Congress is an army of political consultants, ranging from campaigning specialists to media relations experts. While global publics have long been attuned to the ramifications of US policies in their own countries, what is not commonly recognised is the role that many such consultants have also played in changing the face of global politics and indeed international relations in recent decades.

Already, it is estimated that US political consultants have worked in more than half of the countries in the world, and that tally will only grow as globetrotting firms reach out to more uncharted territory. In many far-flung parliamentary and presidential elections this Autumn, ranging from Bahrain (October 23), Brazil (October 31), Azerbaijan (November 7), Jordan (November 9), and Chad (November 28), U.S. or other foreign political consultants will probably be there.

Here in the UK, ties to U.S. political consultants have been relatively extensive since at least the 1979 General Election when the Conservative Party campaign made extensive use of techniques and personnel from the United States. More recently, both the Blair and Brown Governments, and opposition leaders, including William Hague and Ian Duncan Smith, have also utilised U.S. political consultants.

A key underlying premise of the industry is that U.S. political technologies and tactics can achieve success just about anywhere. Thus, countries as disparate as Bahrain and Brazil are deemed as international counterparts of U.S. election battleground states like New Hampshire and Nevada.

While the success of these political consultants is, in truth, uneven in terms of electoral outcomes, they have nonetheless had an enduring impact, prompting what some have called the ‘globalisation of the political communications industry’. Or, in the eyes of critics, the international triumph of spin over substance which has tended to promote more homogenous campaigns with a repetitive, common political language.

As James Harding, the editor of The Times, documents in ‘Alpha Dogs’, the origins of this phenomenon lie in the late 1960s and 1970s. It was then that U.S. consultants (at the vanguard of which was the New York-based Sawyer Miller agency, whose alumni include James Carville and now-Lord Mark Malloch Brown) began applying their skills internationally. Sawyer Miller alone worked in dozens of countries with success stories including Cory Aquino’s long shot election victory against the corrupt Marcos regime in the Philippines in 1986.

What started as elections and campaigning work branched out into providing an increasingly large number of foreign governments, political leaders, and bodies such as tourism and investment authorities, with international communications advice and, ultimately, what is now known as ‘country branding’. Country branding is founded (like disciplines such as public diplomacy) on the realisation that, in an increasingly overcrowded and complex global information market place, countries and political leaders are, in effect, competing for the attention of investors, tourists, supranational organisations, NGOs, regulators, media, and consumers.

Occasionally, countries may only get a few opportunities a year to make a favourable impression (and some of these ‘opportunities’ can be a result of events beyond their control — such as the recent floods in Pakistan).  In this ultra-competitive environment, reputation can be a prized asset (or potentially big liability) with a direct effect on future political, economic, social and cultural fortunes:

•    From time to time, a single catastrophic event can fundamentally damage a country’s standing, as China found following Tiananmen Square.  Especially in such cases, an approach involving a long recovery time to rebuild what is lost is often required.

•    A country may simply wish to promote an opportunity based on a specific single goal, such as wanting to attract more foreign direct investment or increasing tourism — as the current ‘Incredible India’ campaign illustrates.

•    Other states, for example Georgia, Rwanda and the Maldives, may want to establish a presence in the public mind because of fears about a specific issue (such as Russian preponderance, building sympathy amongst donors and investors and tourism in the short term, and/or climate change in the long-term respectively).

•    Realising a leader’s national vision, or a newly elected government’s mandate, may require a more systematic approach, with a comprehensive well managed programme to build and enhance reputation, aimed fundamentally at transforming the way a country is perceived on the world stage.  This was Barack Obama’s ambition when elected U.S. president following the unpopularity overseas of George W. Bush’s agenda.

Today, of course, it is not just U.S. political consultants who are blazing a trail in the industry.  Several UK firms, for instance, were early pioneers; this has helped London become a major country branding centre fuelled by its favourable European time zone between Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and North America; and the headquartering within the city of key global publications such as the Economist, Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal Europe.

Looking to the future, demand for country branding is only likely to continue growing given the increasing complexity and overcrowded nature of the global information market place. Indeed, in Asia and the Muslim world, much of which remains unchartered territory for the industry, globe-trotting firms may be on the very threshold right now of some of the most challenging work they have yet encountered.

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