Mad Men: Blurring Advertising and Policy Lines

Since early 2007, the Republika Srpska (RS) Government has retained public affairs advice and services in the US. But for the first time to our knowledge, these advisors have managed to package its advocacy with the apparent endorsement of a widely read policy journal.

The RS has clearly allocated funds – either directly or via one of their foreign partners – to ramp up the RS’ own state-building campaign in advance of the 20th anniversary of the Dayton Accords in November. The otherwise reputable magazine Foreign Policy had its “Editor’s Picks” sponsored by the Government of the Republika Srpska on September 28. The banner links to a promotional site connecting interested yet uninformed readers to the marketing narratives of RS entity resources that consistently omit any mention of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a country – for point of reference a map notes Istanbul is 1,299 km away, but fails to mention the country’s capital Sarajevo is less than 200 km away. This is hardly novel, or new for the RS, which had paid advertisements in the pages of the European Voice (as well as in EV’s promotional gift calendar), a now-defunct weekly aimed at Eurocrats in Brussels.

Foreign Policy – presumably with RS Government sponsorship, or at a minimum, policy coordination – will host a roundtable in Washington DC on October 14, “to mark the 20th anniversary of the Dayton Accords. The invitation-only group will include policymakers, thought leaders and experts, as well as senior representatives from the Republika Srpska.The discussion will focus on the road to Dayton, lessons learned from the agreement, and the economic and political future of the Balkan region,” to quote from an e-mail invitation signed by David Rothkopf, CEO and Editor of the journal. At the time of writing it appears that while high-level RS representatives will be featured, no similarly senior representatives of the central government or the Federation – Bosnia and Herzegovina’s other entity – will be in attendance. It remains unclear whether US Government representatives or legislators will be present (though it scarcely makes sense to hold such an event in DC without them), or which “thought leaders” will be at the discussion.

With the RS planning a referendum on the legitimacy of the entire state-level judiciary, and the Chapter 7 mandate for EU peacekeepers in Bosnia and Herzegovina up for a vote in the UN Security Council next month, it would appear the Foreign Policy roundtable is not only an attempt to spin the RS version of Dayton and its aftermath, but also to engage in preemptive damage control by openly challenging policymakers in DC, the Western capital most vocally opposed to the referendum and the most supportive of maintaining the Dayton executive instruments – EUFOR and the High Representative. The RS has spent millions in the US alone to promote its version of reality in the past decade. One doubts the RS representatives will openly quote RS President Milorad Dodik’s oft-stated view that “Dayton is a fundamental mistake because it allowed Bosnia and Herzegovina to survive”. The discussion will certainly be more nuanced and subtle; but no less detrimental to the country. But Foreign Policy should at least invite representatives from elsewhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina and other experts who are likely to be acquainted with these views and are prepared to counter them.

Closed-door roundtables are part and parcel of serious discussions about policy matters. But those associated with credible media and policy outlets ought to at least include the full spectrum of stakeholders in the country being discussed, as well as reflect the breadth of opinion available in Washington, the capital of the country which brokered Dayton. We hope Foreign Policy reconsiders its invitation list, as well as policy discussions sponsored by just one interested party. Advertising is one thing. Lobbying camouflaged as policy discussion undercuts the integrity of a respected policy journal and supports the critique that everything – even integrity – is for sale.