The age of PR imperialism

From Afghanistan to Darfur, all the world's a stage for image-conscious statesmen.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

The 2012 Olympics have apparently been ‘in crisis’ before a high-security brick has even been laid; the London stock exchange – heart of the UK economy – has come under threat of foreign takeover; the health service has been in turmoil (again). So the publicity-hungry leaders of Britain’s political class have naturally raced to make high-profile political statements: that is, they have raced to Afghanistan (Tony Blair), to Iraq (Gordon Brown), and Darfur (David Cameron).

Why can you never find a UK politician when you want one? (Yes, I know you cannot imagine ever asking that, it’s a rhetorical question.) But if you happened to live in one of the world’s high-profile trouble spots these days, you might well think that British political leaders are like London buses: you have hardly seen one, then they suddenly come along three at a time.

Each of the three leaders was making his first trip to the war-torn region concerned. But the coincidence of their visits confirms a well-established rule of politics today: that it is easier to look statesmanlike striding across the world stage than scrambling about in the muddy middle ground of domestic issues.

If feeling in need of a pick-me-up, many people now take a budget flight to warmer climes for the weekend. When politicians feel the need to top up their false tans or authority, they fly off to an international hotspot with a media crew in tow, for a short session basking in the bright lights.

Two striking images were splashed across facing pages of The Times (London) this week. On one side New Labour prime minister Tony Blair was pictured, ‘in navy blazer, casual trousers and black suede shoes’, smiling and talking to members of the crack Royal Marine Commandos in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, ‘the heart of Taliban country’. It was classic Blair – a show of resolution, helicoptering into a war zone to rub shoulders with men in uniform, talking about the Afghan conflict as the frontline in the battle for the future of the free world (and in the process momentarily focusing attention on this ‘good war’ rather than the unfolding disaster in Iraq).

On the opposite page, Conservative Party leader David Cameron was pictured in shirtsleeves, chatting earnestly with African Union peacekeeping troops in Darfur, where the Sudanese government has been accused of supporting genocide, before visiting a camp for civilians displaced by the conflict. That Cameron has not yet got the hang of this globalised gesture politics became clear when he could only describe the situation as ‘quite depressing’ – not exactly Blaire-standard rhetoric. Cameron also had to fly in a private jet owned by the Tory Party deputy chairman, rather than the prime minister’s military helicopter, but Conservative aides were keen to stress that the trip was ‘carbon-free’ because they had planted trees to compensate for their emissions (oak trees perhaps, as seen in the party’s new symbol?).

Revealing an acute awareness of what all this was about, The Times then got three leading spindoctors from the world of communications and PR to give their interpretation of how the two leaders’ trips – or rather, the images they were staged to create – might ‘play’ in political terms at home. One noted that Blair was with the troops in Afghanistan because ‘he needs to convey a sense of purpose about the military intervention and distinguish it from Iraq’. Another suggested that, in a world dominated by ‘symbols and images’, the Blair pictures provided ‘an image that should restate the government’s concerns with global security and statesmanship’, while Cameron in Darfur was ‘an attempt at portraying a clear symbol of a new, caring Conservatism’. The third observed that, ‘Tory leaders traditionally visit the troops and Labour leaders the starving in Africa. What a contrast!’

As party leaders jostle to show their best side on the world stage, it can seem as if foreign policy has been reduced to a photo-opportunity. They are seeking to project a dramatic image of the sort of authority that they find so elusive in the dull world of managerial politics back home. How much easier it is to strike an international contrast between good and evil against the Taliban or genocide in the Sudan, than to try to differentiate the attitude of your party’s accountants towards NHS funding or VAT.

Welcome to the age of PR imperialism, where Western leaders trample across other countries not to capture territory so much as to capture a defining image of their intervention. PR imperialism is not in any way limited to the ultra-PR conscious Blair and Cameron. Even boring old Gordon Brown has caught on, travelling to Africa and now to Iraq in order to look like a world statesman in the run-up to his expected coronation as Blair’s successor.

Darfur has become a particularly powerful magnet for international politicians in search of a dramatic platform. The camps visited by Cameron have previously ‘entertained’ US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and her predecessor Colin Powell, along with lesser New Labour lights such as Jack Straw and development minister Hilary Benn. One aid worker there was quoted complaining that politicians should ‘go elsewhere and raise the profile of other, more-neglected areas’. But that is not the sort of ‘profile’ these trips are designed to raise.

It is not just that political leaders are cynical. Most of them are no doubt well-intentioned in their interventions. But the moribund state of Western politics continually pushes them to seek energetic causes elsewhere. Over the past two decades, several leaders started out with the intention to focus their efforts on domestic matters, often in contrast to the international posturing of their predecessors or opponents. All soon succumbed to the call of the world stage. It is often forgotten that Bill Clinton’s famous election slogan ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ was meant as a criticism of the amount of time President George Bush senior had devoted to international affairs, supposedly at the expense of America’s own wellbeing. Yet within no time at all, President Clinton had won a reputation as the ultimate global politician/poseur. For his part, Blair came to power on the slogan ‘New Labour, New Britain’. But it was not very long before New Labour’s inability to forge that ‘New Britain’ had Blair turning outwards, redefining his mission as to heal the world.

In many ways, as we have argued on spiked, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were themselves products of PR imperialism; supposedly ‘nation-building’ exercises that were really more about forging a purposeful image for the US and UK states. But such militarised stunts can have grim consequences for those on the receiving end. And the way that Bush and Blair have become bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan shows the problem with trying to make the real world bend to fit a PR consultant’s image of how things ought to look. Darfur appears to be next in line to discover the high price the developing world has to pay for being used as advertising space in the West’s PR imperialism (see Darfur: damned by pity, by Brendan O’Neill).

As so often today, celebrities seem to do these things with more pizzazz than the politicians, whether it is George Clooney crusading for intervention in Darfur or Madonna treating Africa as an orphan in need of adoption. But it’s a similar script, an everyday story of influential folk showing they care for the wretched of the Earth in order to meet their own unfulfilled needs (see Brad, Angelina and the rise of ‘celebrity colonialism’, by Brendan O’Neill).

At spiked we have always been firmly in-interventionist where foreign wars are concerned, believing that Western intervention only creates, intensifies and perpetuates conflicts. Of course, as an alternative to all this we don’t want Western isolationism or ‘Little Englander’ leaders; every politician needs to be more engaged with the wider world. But not as a backdrop against which to strike messianic poses for the international media.

A century ago, the White Man’s Burden was about colonial conquest and imperial domination. Now the burden often seems to be more about carrying enough guns and digital cameras to helicopter in and out again with the right image, usually leaving the ‘extras’ on the ground worse off than you found them. PR imperialism is not a pretty picture.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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