The Duck of Minerva

Obama and Egypt: The Power of Inception?

12 February 2011

On 4 June 2009 US President Obama went to Cairo to make a speech to the Muslim world, where, among other things, he addressed the question of political reform and democracy in the Middle East. In February 2011 one Al-Jazeera columnist has associated the tumultuous changes in Egypt and Tunisia to the persuasive technique Inception, the film in which Leonardo DiCaprio tries to plant ideas in individuals’ minds by infiltrating their dreams. Larbi Sadiki writes, ‘A precedent has been set in Tunisia, and Egypt is on the move. Whilst the challenges are awesome, the seeds for planting democratic dreams have begun by the display of people’s power in Tunisia.’

For political communication analysts eager to evaluate the impact of Obama-type speeches, public diplomacy campaigns, American movies and TV as cultural exports, or other methods through which ideas may be planted in the minds of foreign publics, can we isolate the impact of those efforts when so many other factors come into play? 

Did Obama successfully use the power of inception, or would the last few weeks’ changes have happened anyway? This raises the larger problem of explaining outcomes whose causes may be extremely long term and difficult to identify – political scientists still struggle to explain revolutions. Certainly, in the coming weeks, months and years it will be interesting to see whether US public diplomacy teams claim any credit for incepting change.