1.U.S. TECH GIANTS: ARE THEY TOO BIG? Few players have a greater influence on the digital economy — or on international communication or exchange or the work of public diplomacy professionals — than the four so-called “Big Tech” companies: Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook. As powerful, private firms with a truly global reach, they are high-profile, complicated and difficult to understand and self-regulate.
The House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee on October 6, 2020 released a book-length report (449 pages long) that explains why the four have become too powerful. Titled Investigation of Competition in the Digital Marketplace: Majority Staff Report and Recommendations, the report is the result of a 16-month long investigation into the state of competition in the digital economy. According to Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler and Subcommittee Chair David N. Cicilline, the report outlines a roadmap to help Congress and the antitrust enforcement agencies “take action that restores competition, improves innovation, and safeguards our democracy.”
For members of the PD community trying to better understand how these firms operate and use their power in anticompetitive ways, the comprehensive report is a must-read. It makes clear that the firms have delivered certain benefits to society, but their dominance has come at a price. Besides outlining the challenges posed due to the companies’ market domination, the report offers possible remedies to “restore competition in the digital economy, strengthen the anti-trust laws and reinvigorate antitrust enforcement.”
For the full report, go to: https://judiciary.house.gov/uploadedfiles/competition_
The report will surely influence upcoming Congressional and public debate over not only antitrust issues but also more immediate concerns such as how these firms police their services and manage content on their sites. In turn, the companies will use their communications and other skills to lobby and push back and to explain how they are socially responsible and have created a lot of value in people’s lives around the world.
2. DEMOCRACY UNDER LOCKDOWN AND IN CRISIS: Freedom House, the non-partisan, non-governmental advocacy group supporting political rights and civil liberties, has released important research findings on the adverse impact of COVID-19 on democracy and human rights. In a timely, special report titled Democracy Under Lockdown: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Global Struggle for Freedom, Freedom House found that the pandemic has “fueled a crisis for democracy around the world” and the “condition of democracy and human rights has grown worse in 80 countries.”
Strongly supporting the hypothesis that the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating 14 years of consecutive decline in freedom, the report concludes:
“Not only has democracy weakened in 80 countries, but the problem is particularly acute in struggling democracies and highly repressive states — in other words, settings that already had weak safeguards against abuse of power are suffering the most.”
More specifically, the report describes five “aspects of accountability,” such as free media and expression and credible elections, that have been weakened, and offers a hopeful set of recommendations on how activists, journalists, and citizens are overcoming obstacles and pushing back against government abuses in new ways, including the use of social media. The report is important because it takes an in-depth look at how democracy is working in 192 countries during a worldwide health crisis. On America, the report says that COVID-19 has “deepened the fractures in the democratic institutions of the United States.”
For the report, which was designed and written by Freedom House in partnership with the survey firm GQR, go to: https://freedomhouse.org/report/special-report/2020/democracy-under-lockdown.
3. “TPP OR NOT TPP?” — THAT IS THE QUESTION: Anyone in public diplomacy who has dealt with U.S.-Asia policy and trade issues will know the heartburn that has been caused by the debate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The regional trade deal — signed in February 2016 by the United States with 11 Asian countries that together accounted for some 40 percent of the world economy — was the centerpiece of the Obama Administration’s “pivot,” or “rebalance,” to Asia.
By the time Donald Trump came into office after an election in which domestic pressures forced Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to change her pro-TPP position, the TPP had become a toxic, highly political domestic issue. Following the 2016 election, the new President decided to go it alone and to unceremoniously withdraw from the TPP. The other partners moved ahead without the United States on what they renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Now, with the rise of an increasingly assertive China, a window may be opening for the United States — regardless of who heads the next administration — to take a fresh look at trade with Asia and at multilateralism. Clearly, amidst the U.S.-China trade war, the TTP has not died a quiet death.
For a comprehensive discussion of where regional trade stands and a realistic examination of four options the United States has for reengaging, take a look at an important, new report issued by the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI). For content related to this report, visit AsiaSociety.org/TPP-Roadmap.
Titled Re-engaging the Asia-Pacific in Trade: A TPP Roadmap for the Next U.S. Administration, the report was authored by Wendy Cutler in her present capacity as Vice President of the ASPI and managing director of its Washington, D.C. office. In her previous life, she served for nearly three decades as a diplomat and negotiator for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR). Out in the region, Cutler was often the public face of the TPP.
The report concluded that rejoining the TPP would be challenging, but the case “has become more compelling as the political and economic importance of the Asia-Pacific region has grown and concerns about Beijing’s state-led economic model have mounted.” According to the report, “To date, U.S. unilateral tariff hikes and export control restrictions have not led to meaningful Chinese reforms.” America’s reentry into the trade agreement and greater engagement with the critical Asia-Pacific region would be a huge, but not insurmountable challenge to U.S. public diplomacy.
Meanwhile, the over-all U.S. messaging towards Asia seems focused on several themes: “America First”; maintenance of a new “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”; increased collaboration among the “The Quad” (Australia, Japan, India, and the United States); and criticism of the Chinese Communist Party.
4. A CITIZEN’S GUIDE TO DEFENDING DEMOCRACY: With the unprecedentedly chaotic and uncertain U.S. election process in full swing, our ambassadors and public diplomacy officers posted around the world must be somewhat beleaguered as they try to explain the state of American democracy and the complex election system. In the not-too-distant past, that challenge every four years wasn’t all that difficult — our electoral system never really failed, “fake news” wasn’t a big issue, social media didn’t exist, cable news was limited, the debates always went off quite smoothly, public debate was fairly civil, and respect for the United States abroad was generally good. Also, posts always received terrific support from Washington, as USIA or State offices provided a steady supply of products, information and U.S. speakers and international visitor exchange opportunities to help explain how our “free and fair” elections were set up to ideally work. Much of that predictable environment has changed since these are not normal times, and everyone is struggling to figure out the “new normal”.
Amidst the avalanche of “stuff out there” on the current state of our democracy and all the advice about the upcoming elections, one article has stood out: The Atlantic staff writer Anne Applebaum’s The Election Is in Danger. Prepare Now. at: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/10/a-citizens-guide-to-defending-the-election/616574/
Writing that “pessimism is irresponsible” and that “civic engagement matters,” she offers a very practical, helpful list of nonpartisan suggestions that people can take now beyond simply voting. Although clearly U.S.-focused, her list of dos and don’ts are applicable in many other countries which — like the United States — are trying to make democracy work better. For example, she discusses how to talk politics with people who disagree with you.
5. TRAVELERS’ FAVORITE DESTINATIONS: One trait that seems to unite everyone in the public diplomacy community is a passion for international travel. Everyone has a personal list of “gems” they like to visit and revisit, but this pandemic year has made such travel very difficult, if not impossible. Leisure visits to neighboring Canada, for example, are not even permitted. For a partial remedy to “cabin fever” and to help get you dreaming and planning through probably more months without travel, check out the November 2020 issue of Conde’ Nast Traveler and its “2020 Readers’ Choice Awards”.
The slick travel magazine, founded by Sir Harold Evans, the famous British editor and publisher, who died on September 23, 2020, for 33 years has conducted an annual travel survey for editorial and marketing purposes. Its latest tabulation of results from hundreds of thousands of respondents ranks favorite destinations by countries, cities, hotels, trains, cruises, resorts, spas, airlines, airports, and islands. Some of the 2020 picks are not surprising. Italy is the favorite country to visit; Kyoto, Japan, the favorite “large city”; San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, the favorite “small city”; and Singapore has both the best airline, Singapore Airlines (SIA), and the best airport, Changi.
Other findings may be more surprising. The best hotel is Baur au Lac in Zurich, Switzerland; the top spa resort is Ananda in the Himalayas, Uttarakhand, India; and the favorite train is Belmond British Pullman in Europe. Arguably the most debatable category is the best island, and the survey cops out by reporting the responses by region. For example, the best islands in Asia are found in Cebu and Visayas, Philippines; in Europe on Folegandros, Greece; in the Caribbean on St. Barts; in Africa and the Indian Ocean Bazaruto Archipelago, Mozambique; and in Central and South America, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.
For a complete list of the 2020 picks, including within the United States by states or regions, go to cntraveler.com/the-bests/readers-choice-awards. For a tribute to legendary editor Evans by “Conde Nast Traveler” editors, go to: https:/www.cntraveler.com/story/remembering-sir-harold-evans.
Dr. Michael H. Anderson is a public diplomacy and Asian affairs specialist with nearly 30 years of Foreign Service experience serving in the US Department of State and the US Information Agency (USIA) and working in South Asia and Southeast Asia. His Public Affairs Officer (PAO) postings included New Delhi, Jakarta, Karachi, Singapore, Manila and Port Moresby. He also has been a journalist, a teacher, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malaysia, an information officer with UNICEF, and an East-West Center grantee. He is a member of the PDC Board.