The city of Palmyra, recently liberated from Isis, has seen a return to civilisation and culture with a performance by a Russian orchestra. The concert, conducted by a ‘close associate’ of Vladimir Putin, was of course a propaganda exercise – but what a propaganda exercise!
It fills me with genuine sadness that no western power would ever think to pull such a stunt, and this reflects a deeper problem with our foreign policy; that is, what are we promoting?
Western policy in the region since the start of the Arab spring has been crippled by an absence of clear, set goals, and a lack of confidence in our own ideals; in Syria we flirted with removing President Assad, despite having no idea what would follow, and a suspicion that the strongest opposition were Islamists – this policy having worked so well in Iraq.
Worst of all, though, western foreign policy is hampered by an ability to impose our values on the wider Middle East, because we don’t know what they are. This is why the west doesn’t understand symbolism in foreign policy – and when it does it’s only aimed at a very particular set of very novel western values. As someone pointed out on Twitter, the only symbolism western leaders would associate with our foreign policy is a girl in a hijab going to school. Western foreign policy = gender equality.
Female education is probably one of the most important causes on earth, but I can’t say it’s enough of an image to fight a war over. In contrast the sight of classical music being played in a great city of antiquity that was until recently under the control of Islamists strikes me as powerful. It clearly says that here is a war being fought for civilisation, even if the’ good guys’ in this case have absolutely dreadful human rights records (and may well have conspired with the baddies). Can you imagine any western power having the cultural confidence to pull such a trick? Gosh, let’s ask the local ayatollah if he approves first.
Symbolism matters: under American rule dozens of Iraqi churches were allowed to be attacked or destroyed, and America’s leaders did everything to play this down. Compare to Syria, where after the Christian village of Ma’loula was retaken by the Syrian Army, President Assad made a show of visiting its fourth century monastery and standing with its monks as they recovered its ruins, dressed in his standard secular dictator suit.
Many of Putin’s stunts appear to western eyes a mixture of the primitive and unintentionally homoerotic, the kind of thing one might expect Borat to be impressed by, but he does understand symbolism and how that reflects cultural confidence; he shows great piety in the presence of the Orthodox clergy, and even kissed an icon of the Madonna at the Vatican.
No western European leader would do so, because they think it would invoke ridicule, even if they believed it. But the thing about propaganda is that you can’t really fake it. Western propaganda is empty perhaps because our leaders don’t believe in anything except values relating to gender equality and LGBT rights; all well and good, but people are not going to fight and die for such things, and indeed such ideas depend on the wider protection of western self-confidence.