For the leader of one Southeast Asian country, meeting Obama is worth $24 million, it would seem.
The Malaysian opposition has unearthed a $24m bill that the Malaysian government paid to PR firm APCO for its services for a year, for which the government points to Prime Minister Najib’s meeting with Obama as part of his Nuclear Security summit as money well spent (among other things, of course).
The main thrust of the opposition criticism is that the PR firm’s close relationship with Israel provided a source for the Government’s new ‘let’s-all-be-happy-and-love-one-another’ unity campaign (this relationship is contentious because Malaysia does not recognize Israel). Putting this aside, I’m not quite sure which one is the best bit of the government’s response to laugh or cry at. That the bill was justified to undo the damage caused by 28 years of US-baiting by the previous two Prime Ministers (conveniently shifting the blame, and assuming that a public relations campaign is going to fix that), or that if APCO is the consultancy of choice for dictators and despots, that means that it is “bloody good” and worth the spending.
You couldn’t make it up.
The bigger question in my mind is about the nature of international diplomacy today. Like the rise of private military contractors off doing their own thing in Iraq or Africa, how far-fetched is it to think of privatized diplomacy?
Why would you need rather expensive embassies if you could hire a PR firm to host the glitzy receptions and meet government officials, all on your behalf? If you can subcontract visa processing to a third party, why can’t the more political functions of trade lobbying or security cooperation be passed on to private firms too? Just provide the instructions from the capital. In fact, PR companies probably already circulate pretty widely (and profitably) in the conduct of international affairs to burnish images and wine and dine legislators. But this, alas, is the side that we never see.