Interview with Christopher Browning on Humour, Nation Branding and the Politics of Identity

The role of humour in nation branding and public diplomacy, and the politics of identity are two of the topics which Christopher Browning discusses in this interview. Christopher is a Reader in Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom.

Christopher, do you remember when you first heard about the concept of “nation branding”? What got you interested in studying the politics of identity?

My interest in the politics of identity dates back to my Masters dissertation in the mid-1990s, and subsequent doctoral studies. At that time, I became particularly interested in post-Cold War debates in Finland, especially with respect to the future of Finnish neutrality and the country’s geopolitical position between East and West.

Mainstream theories of International Relations, which typically emphasise foreign policy as a rational process of strategic calculation taking account of geopolitical factors such as location and the material distribution of resources, seemed unable to grasp the extent to which such debates within Finland were fundamentally embedded within competing claims about the nature of Finnish identity.

For instance, even those invoking geopolitical realism and arguing that in a changed geopolitical situation it was simply rational that Finland should move away from neutrality and embrace a more overtly Western geopolitical orientation did so through making claims about Finnish identity; in particular, about the Finns being rational pragmatists, while simultaneously arguing that the end of the Cold War provided an opportunity for the country to ‘come home’ to the West.

Both these claims were typically supported through drawing upon historical legacies of Finnish ‘pragmatism’ and ‘Westernness’ that aimed to naturalise such claims as central components of Finnish national identity.

My doctoral studies essentially sought to unpick the historicised nature of such claims about national identity, demonstrating both their historical contingency, but also the diversity and politically contested nature of debates about Finnish national identity through time.

Once this is recognised then it also becomes evident that foreign policy is not only fundamentally embedded in claims about national identity, but is also performative and constitutive of such claims.

It was only in the early 2000s that I first began to think seriously about the concept of nation branding. Indeed, like many scholars within the discipline of International Relations I was, I think, guilty of treating the practice of nation branding as superficial and the concept as lacking analytical purchase.

My interest first deepened, however, when I began studying the changing fortunes of the various region building projects that emerged in northern Europe from the mid-1990s onwards (e.g. Baltic Sea Region, Barents Euro-Arctic Region, Northern Dimension, Northern Calotte).

It is worth remembering that at the time northern Europe was often depicted as a laboratory and testing ground for initiatives to overcome East-West divides once and for all, the opportunity to build an inclusive, open Europe of integrated overlapping spaces.

Three things became particularly interesting to me:

  • First, the striking resemblance of these region building practices to historical practices of nation building, where nations are brought into being as imagined communities.
  • Second, the role of academic colleagues in becoming actively engaged in such constitutive practices, some more self-consciously than others.
  • Third, the perceived threat these new emerging regions were seen to pose to the future of Norden (the Nordic region).

Difficult as it might be to believe today in a context in which bookshops in international airports are piled high with tomes about Nordic lifestyles, in the early 2000s there was a palpable sense that the very idea of the Nordic region and what it stood for (the brand if you like), was decidedly outdated, too modernist, too much connected to Cold War thinking.

My very first academic piece directly on the concept of nation branding, was therefore actually concerned with this question of the future of Norden – and more particularly the idea of Nordic exceptionalism central to Cold War constructions of Nordic identity – as a brand and the way the Nordic brand feeds into national identity debates in the different Nordic countries in different ways.

It is interesting to me how this initial foray, which somewhat predates official efforts by the Nordic Council to rejuvenate the Nordic brand, has become something of a reference point in more recent academic debates on the theme.

How has your view on the topic changed since?

I retain a particular interest in the link between nation branding and the politics of national identity. In my view this relationship is more complex than often claimed.

For example, claims that nation branding is simply an updated form of nation building are too simplistic, not least because for the most part nation branding is not targeted at manufacturing citizens, but impacting on external audiences.

But this isn’t to say that nation branding has no impact on nation building practices. For instance, at an elemental level the increasing prevalence and utilisation of branding benchmarking indices increasingly shifts attention to what others think of us in the generation of national self-esteem.

To give an example, when Prime Minister David Cameron made his major intervention in the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 he did so, not so much by appealing to the sense of kinship which the other nations of the United Kingdom feel with the Scots, but by emphasising the ‘powerful brand’ of the United Kingdom, therefore suggesting others’ perceptions of the UK should be a considerable source of national pride and reason enough to stay united.

Framed a bit differently, in such arguments it is also possible to see how nation branding is increasingly being utilised as a mechanism for dealing with national anxieties, but where such practices may not necessarily provide the basis for the tackling the unpinning causes of such anxieties.

However, my interest in nation branding has also expanded beyond the politics of identity to reflect on the broader politics underpinning the emergence and proliferation of nation branding worldwide.

For instance, significant claims have been made that nation branding offers solutions to problems of global underdevelopment that need to be thoroughly analysed and problematized, not least because such claims rarely challenge established conceptions of consumerist capitalist development embedded within global markets. As such they can have the effect of diverting attention away from broader debates about the underpinning structural dynamics of global markets and iniquitous terms of trade, never mind the problematic nature of such an economic model in a context of global climate change.

What role does nation branding play as a form of geopolitical practice?

It has sometimes been argued that the advent of nation branding marks the shift away from a world of geopolitics and power to a postmodern world of images and influence. The underpinning argument is one with which I am broadly sympathetic.

It suggests that a world of nation branding is one in which Hobbesian geopolitical logics premised on war and conflict are replaced by a more Lockean emphasis on competition between states as rivals, rather than enemies. So, while competition still exists, that competition is not conducted through war and other geopolitical machinations for access to territory and resources, but through grabbing people’s attention in a competition for investment and market share.

The claim, however, can also appear too categorical, not least in suggesting that nation branding is not also engaged in by states still operating according to more Hobbesian logics – the grand mass spectaculars specialised in by North Korea being one example.

However, even within the so-called Lockean world of competition states nation branding remains embedded within fundamentally geopolitical claims about the nature of state identity and where particular markers of geopolitical identity exist as geopolitical assets to be claimed, protected and utilised because they are viewed as privileged in some way.

For instance, this is evident in how some geopolitical markers are seen as being signifiers of knowledge, quality, civilization, safety (such as those of being ‘Nordic’, or European/Eurasian’) or where we see attempts made to turn ostensibly problematic geopolitical locations often deemed as marginal into assets by recasting them as ‘bridges’ or ‘meeting places between cultures’.

Meanwhile, other geopolitical markers are often viewed as irredeemably sullied and best avoided or in need of resurrection. A good example of this concerns different attitudes to the geopolitical marker of Africa, where some countries have made tackling negative images associated with Africa through cultivating a new invigorated ‘brand Africa’ a central part of their nation branding practices, while others have favoured other geopolitical identifiers.

This, of course, raises an interesting question of whether techniques and practices of nation/region branding are simply serving to reaffirm established geopolitical hierarchies, or whether they also have the potential to either overturn them or produce completely different geopolitical imaginaries for global politics.

With nationalism on the rise, what role do you think national identity is going to play in the near future?

The emergence of populism raises interesting questions for thinking about both national identity and nation branding, while it certainly problematizes any conflation of the two.

Since the 1990s nation branding practices and campaigns have been built upon and promoted largely utopian visions of globalised capitalism. A key aim of this is to appeal to potential investors, tourists and skilled workers, highlighting how particular destinations may be attractive to footloose global capital while also appealing to a mobile, educated and privileged cosmopolitan elite able to consume global cultures. Such people typically perceive themselves as benefiting both economically and culturally from the effects of globalisation.

The rise of populism is an important wake-up call that the effects and impacts of globalisation are uneven and that for many people the cultural, economic and social consequences have often been a mixed blessing and sometimes profoundly alienating.

The question of what role national identity will play in this context is extremely important, although I would suggest that the answer is open and dependent upon the ability and willingness of governments and ruling elites to engage in fundamental economic and social reforms that tackle the root causes of alienation and political disenfranchisement.

National identity is neither inherently good or bad, and neither are nation states. Individual identity inevitably requires identifying the self within broader communities through whom we generate a sense of belonging, home and community.

Nations are not the only way of doing this, but they are not about to disappear any time soon and remain the principal legitimating argument for political sovereignty.

What is evident, however, is that the challenges facing global humanity are now so significant, complex and interdependent that a retreat into the nation state and away from multilateralism will offer few solutions.

Multilateralism, however, should not be confused with globalisation, while the devastating ecological impacts of core aspects of globalisation should not be downplayed.

Which trends do you observe in nation branding research? Which are the “hot” topics right now?

Be it in terms of climate change and other aspects of ecological degradation, the rise of populism, and the connected problems associated with deregulated globalised capitalism, we are in the midst of a period of profound challenges.

One of the most interesting areas for future research is whether or not nation branding can be mobilised for the collective good. Simon Anholt’s ‘Good Country Index’ is a particularly interesting development in this regard.

The idea of nation branding having progressive potentials is, of course, not new. As I’ve already noted, claims have often been made that nation branding can offer both the keys to development, as well as fostering a more benign international sphere by changing the underpinning logics of competition between states. Such claims, I would argue, need to be treated with caution.

What I think is interesting about the ideas behind the good country index: it explicitly encourages states to adopt a more other-regarding perspective, and in doing so potentially shifts the emphasis in nation branding away from destination branding to policy branding and knowledge sharing.

There are many questions that can be raised about such developments. For instance, it is important to critically consider the implied assumptions that underpin existing benchmarking criteria of ‘goodness’.

It is also important to reflect on what happens to altruism and morality when ‘goodness’ becomes reconceptualised as a commodity to be competed over and ranked.

One of the problems with benchmarking, as we know, is that it comes to shape behaviours by encouraging actors to engage in activities that are recognised and recorded in the benchmarks, while diverting attention and resource away from other activities that might be equally (or even more) important, but which remain uncounted.

Benchmarking, though, is a powerful tool and one which states frequently do respond to, so there are an important set of questions that need to be explored with respect of the ability of nation branding and its associated techniques and practices to be utilised for more progressive purposes and the global collective good.

Having just started a project on the role of humour in nation branding – can you tell us what this is about (and perhaps first findings)?

The project is premised on the observation that humour appears to be becoming an increasingly central part of both official and unofficial forms of nation branding, but also more prevalent in the public diplomacy strategies of states more generally, and where both are also evidently connected to the advent of social media.

This raises important questions as to why humour appeals, what effects it may have, and what this rise of humour in the increasingly mediatised global public sphere might tell us about changing norms of public and cultural diplomacy.

It is important to recognise that humour is generally seen as a positive virtue and something to be cultivated, but it is also connected to a range a fundamental social and psychological dynamics and can have powerful constitutive effects. Its use can also tell us something about the nature of subjectivities in construction and the changing nature of relationships between actors.

For instance, humour can be used to both build and solidify friendships, but is also often central in establishing who is inside and who is outside a political community. It can be a way of establishing one’s superiority, or of seeking to discipline others through mobilising humour as a form of shaming and stigmatisation, while it can in turn be used by the powerless or weak to ‘punch up’ and resist the intrusions of others. In this respect, humour can itself be a form of geopolitical practice.

However, humour is also often a coping mechanism, a way of dealing with and responding to anxiety and tension, and as such a potential indicator of stress and insecurity. Consider, for example, the proliferation of ‘America First, but ‘x’ second’ videos that accompanied the election of Donald Trump as US president.

It is therefore important to consider both how and why humour is used in official nation branding practices, but also how uses of humour more generally are themselves increasingly having branding effects, intended or otherwise – as for instance evident in the social media activities of political leaders like Donald Trump, Donald Tusk, or various Russian embassies around the world.

We often hear from consultants that too many brand managers still think that catchy logos, slogans and advertising campaigns are enough to enhance the reputation and competitiveness of their country, whereas such initiatives by themselves tend to be of very limited effectiveness. What would you tell country brand managers – how to do it better?

I would approach the issue a bit differently as I think the question belies a more general tension with regard to the whole nation branding industry and broader discourse on nation branding. The question reflects the typical ‘get out’ clause of the consulting industry – that failures are a result of insufficient follow-through and a failure to understand that successful nation (re)branding will actually require fundamental economic, social and political changes liable to take several years, perhaps even longer.

While I don’t disagree, I would suggest that such reorientations and structural transformations are usually driven by deeper socio-political movements and pressures, such as desires for enhanced social justice, and rarely by considerations of brand image. Until you have that commitment across the social, political and economic elites in a country it is unlikely that sufficient follow-through will ever occur.

My advice to ‘country brand managers’ (by which I am referring to political and economic decision makers, not to those people tasked with running specific branding campaigns), would be to remember first and foremost their responsibilities to improve the lives of fellow citizens, and to think of themselves as country brand managers only second.

I would then emphasise to them that to bring about profound societal transformation typically requires the development of an inclusive national narrative and vision that broad sectors of society find appealing and may be willing to accept sacrifices for.

One of the problems with nation branding discourse, coming as it does from the field of business and marketing, is that it can have the effect of making nation branding appear a largely technical and managerial/bureaucratic type of exercise. Instead, there is a need to emphasise that ultimately (successful) nation (re)branding is a political project dependent upon securing legitimacy and cultivating broader societal buy in and engagement.

Which countries or nations have impressed you the most in recent years, in how they have used place branding techniques for strengthening community identity or communicating their uniqueness abroad?

I think the Colombian case is very interesting. It is not one I have studied in depth, but it raises significant questions about the possibilities of nation branding in deeply destabilised and insecure contexts. What interests me about this case, is less how it has been received internationally, but more the possible effects for strengthening community identity and building national self-esteem.

My interest in this case was sparked a few years ago when I began discussing nation branding with a Colombian MA student I was teaching. His reactions were extremely interesting as he reflected on how the initial nation branding programme from the 2000s, ‘Passion is Colombia’, impacted on him and his friends in their everyday lives, in particular noting that it was the first time in their lives that they hadn’t felt embarrassed to say they were Colombian when travelling abroad.

How countries cope with and manage such legacies is a significant area of research, particularly amongst scholars interested in conflict resolution and state rebuilding. The idea that nation branding can contribute to such processes in some way, how and what risks or limitations may be involved is a very interesting area of possible research.

Thank you, Christopher.

Connect with Christopher Browning on LinkedIn, check out his research profile or enjoy this short piece on the rise of comedy in public diplomacy.


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