Russia’s Repeat Failures
Moscow’s New Strategy in Ukraine Is Just as Bad as the Old One
Foreign Affairs: In today's world, evidence of globalization is everywhere. As you yourself mention, we are even seeing the rise of "superbrands" such as the EU and CNN. Yet you are the first person to really articulate the notion of the brand state. What led you to do so and how did you first come up with the idea?
Peter van Ham: Over the last few years, I've studied the changing nature of European politics. This is a political landscape where classical notions such as sovereignty, power-politics, and even the "national interest" are losing their traditional centrality, especially within the EU. In my book European Integration and the Postmodern Condition (recently published by Routledge), I've outlined a novel conceptual approach using the catch-all term of postmodernism as my theoretical guideline. Although postmodernism is discredited in some academic circles as vacuous mind-candy, there remains much to be said for taking a postmodern, unattached, and more lighthearted look at how European society and politics are changing. This also implies that one has to think up new words and concepts for processes and developments that are unprecedented and often revolutionary. The brand state is just one of these new concepts which we need. It may not fit in any clear theoretical framework, or any other established approach to understanding what's going on in Europe and beyond. But I think that may be just as well since bringing hammer and nail to fix your personal computer tends to be both frustrating and useless; bringing traditional modern concepts to bear on contemporary European politics is equally rewarding.
When did the notion of the brand state first come up? Every student of politics knows that the modern state is a quite recent invention and an "imagined community" based on a mythical sense of belonging among people. In order to stay in the same place, the state has to adapt itself continuously, using nationalism to charge the emotional batteries of its citizens. The state has always used the latest technical developments (newspaper, radio, television) to preserve its institutional power. What we see today is a continuation of this process, since the state has entered the brand age. In Europe, most states are losing their classical power tools, now that they pool their currencies and armed forces within the EU-context. In other parts of the western world, the use of force and crude political arm-twisting is delegitimized and no longer comme il faut. What is left for the postmodern state? It is now applying the same branding and marketing techniques as big companies, using the same PR and consultancy agencies, and communicating through the same media as brand-products. Given the history of state-building, this should not surprise us. The obvious conclusion is that the modern state is reinventing itself as a brand state and is transforming the nature of the political game in the process.
FA: In your article, you state that branding gives products and services an emotional dimension. Some would argue that products with brand names do not have an emotional dimension at all. Rather, they have something more akin to a personality, an aura, a character, or perhaps a sensibility. How would you respond to this argument? What exactly do you mean by "emotional dimension"? Can you explain how products evoke emotions?
van Ham: The key issue of branding is to create an emotional bond between the product or service (or state) and the global customer. Do we feel in some way touched by the brand? You may call it an "aura" or a "personality," but it basically amounts to the same thing: Do we have a personal relationship with the brand? Giving the brand an emotional dimension is my shorthand for this vast collection of feelings, ranging from respect and affection to disgust and all-out hatred. Today's savvy, young cool-hunters working in the brandology business try to manage the "brand essence" of the things they sell us, which means that they are carefully nurturing the salient meanings and feelings their products have for people around the world. I cannot explain how these products evoke these emotions (I'm not a psychologist), but one can hardly contest the fact that they do. It would be naïve to assume that the people who buy Porsche cars and McDonalds hamburgers are just buying cars and hamburgers. Sure, they want to drive fast and eat fast, but they also buy into the myths these brands have built around themselves. They do not just consume a product, they also acquire a lifestyle, an attitude, and often even a sense of self-respect. Brands work hard to establish emotional ties with their customers by evoking the Marlboro, Starbucks, and Calvin Klein "Experience." Brand consciousness is especially high among youth, but with the billions of dollars firms spend on their image and reputation, no single customer is left untouched.
Although on a different level, it works the same with the emotional dimension of NATO membership for Central European applicant countries. Are these countries really afraid of a renewed Russian threat? Surely not. What they want is the prestige of the ultimate security-brand, offering them the exclusivity and assurance that they belong to the "West." Once they join this elite club, they know that their country's image will improve and that attracting foreign direct investment will become easier. For the vast majority of Central Europe's political elite, it was NATO that "won" the Cold War, returning their countries back to the free world. This has given NATO an image similar to that of Nike: candid, cool, and capable. Whereas other organizations were still debating how to handle the Kosovo crisis, it was NATO that just did it, and bombed its way towards a peace-agreement. This is the "NATO Experience" that builds a brand based on strong emotional ties between the alliance and the general public.
FA: You write that state branding is gradually supplanting nationalism and that the brand state's use of its history and geography limits the antagonism often inherent in nationalism. But is state branding as harmless as you make it out to be? Since states are responsible for creating their own images, what is to prevent a state from creating an exclusionary image that brings suffering and harm to others? And how can you argue that state branding is replacing nationalism, especially when the last decade has seen a resurgence of nationalist conflict?
van Ham: I argue that the art of politics is changing from old-style diplomacy to the art of brand-building and reputation management. This applies to all economic and political actors in Europe; no exceptions. Of course, the brand state is not a brand new state, but it has become a political player which is promoting itself smarter and more aggressively than before ("Now even more efficient/ clean/ democratic/ liberal ..."). Just as religious faith no longer has a monopoly in giving purpose to people's lives, the state can no longer claim the loyalty of "its" citizens; patriotism (let alone undiluted nationalism) cannot be taken for granted.
This does not mean that states are themselves completely responsible for their image, either at home or abroad. They cannot simply manipulate their reputation as they please. No amount of spin-doctoring can turn "Libya" into a welcoming holiday destination for the whole family overnight. You are, of course, right when you argue that states may still bring suffering and harm to others. But the price of having such a "rogue" image is becoming increasingly high. It's hardly any fun being a pariah state nowadays. The Iraqs and North Korea who linger at the fringes of the global economy, shunned by the world community, serve as deterring examples. In our globalized world, no state can afford a bad image and a shaky reputation. Postmodern states understand that they will have to drop their complacent take-it-or-leave-it attitude, and actively engage in brand asset management.
For example, even a country like Germany (not particularly well-known for its openness to foreigners), is now flirting with the image of multiculturalism. The reasons are mainly economic, since all demographic trends call for more immigration to Germany during the next decades just to sustain economic productivity and competitiveness. But Berlin's recent attempt to attract foreign computer specialists by offering them greencards proved harder than expected, partly because Germany is still tarred with an (undeserved) image of a xenophobic and closed society. German policy-cum-image makers know that in order to compete on the international market, the country has to reinvent itself and redo its image. This is why German politicians not only condemn neo-nazi attacks on foreigners on moral grounds, but also argue that it damages Germany's reputation abroad, and hence hurts the country's economy.
The brand state uses "nationalism" in a superficial, playful manner where patriotic feelings no longer run deep. Flags turn into logos; anthems become opening tunes for festivities and sports events; and kings and castles are reworked into cute tourist attractions. Are there exceptions to this happy Euroland? Unfortunately, yes; quite a number. But if countries such as Macedonia and Serbia really want to join the globalization bandwagon, they have little choice but to follow the brand state's rules and ethics, all of which clearly exclude runaway nationalism. Looking back on Europe's conflict-ridden past, this can only be called an improvement. That's why I argue that we should forget about nationalism in Europe, and welcome the brand state.
FA: In discussing the implications of state branding for Europe's political landscape, you pose the following question: "Why should we assume that the public readily buys into the seductive meanings of consumer capitalism but remains rational and objective when making political decisions?" Do you really think it is fair to equate a typical person in the marketplace and a national government working in the international arena?
van Ham: I'm not equating a typical person with national governments here. My argument is that the western public approaches economic and political questions with a shared attitude. Ideology and religion no longer offer clear guidelines for the average citizen and consumer, and today's TV-ads are happy to sell us presidents as well as God. Bureaucrats increasingly refer to citizens as their "clients," using the same marketing techniques and evaluation methods as their counterparts in the private sector. Just as big firms have to manage and defend their reputations-using advertisement, premium pricing, and trademarks-the brand state realizes that it has to invest heavily in business-to-customer as well as customer-to-business relationships. Although these dialogues were earlier called "democracy," the brand state now uses tried-and-tested techniques such as "identity consultancy" and "focus groups." As a state-with-an-attitude, it has to deal in new ways with customers service; community activities; environmental and ethical questions; as well as share- and stakeholder relationships. So, if citizens are treated as consumers of public policy and are addressed by the same media drawing upon the same set of tricks as used by commercial marketeers, should we really be surprised that the general public reacts in a similar way?