Flags carry political risk

Flags carry political risk
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The renewed debate in the United States over the Confederate flag has shown how flags can carry political risk for national and local governments. In the globalized era, it is more critical than ever that policy makers and business leaders make decisions regarding flags carefully.

Supporters of the Confederate flag from across the conservative spectrum have been shocked by the sudden tide of events that led to its removal at the South Carolina state house.

Mississippi, the last state to contain the Confederate battle flag within the canton of its flag, could be next. States in the Deep South are establishing stronger ties to international markets and its populations are becoming younger and more ethnically diverse.

However, it’s not just in the United States where policy makers and business leaders will need to make important decisions regarding flags and their use. From flag emojis on social media to being present on every type of product imaginable, flags are big business.

Across the world, there are flags both past and present that have landed officials in difficult circumstances, and should always demand careful consultation before use.

Revolutionaries, regimes, and reform

For opposition and rebel groups demanding reform, flags present an interesting case in international diplomacy. During the Arab Spring, the Syrian revolt quickly adopted the pre-Baathist flag of Syria (though this recently caused its own divisions within the Syrian opposition).

On the other hand, for Egyptians, the national flag was not as closely associated with Mubarak’s government.

The Cuban flag is another symbol that transcends the regime in Havana and the opposition. As the United States rapidly advances bilateral ties with Cuba, its flag is already popular on and off the islandInvestors can feel safe regarding both the left-wing revolutionary and anti-Castro sentiments associated with Cuba’s flag.

The flag of Mozambique is still adorn with the AK-47 assault rifle (the only such flag in the world) and is closely associated with the ruling leftist FRELIMO party. Though Portugal retains close business ties with Mozambique, and although an estimated 23,000 of its citizens live and work in the country, Mozambique’s officials have failed to take on a new flag in the globalized era. 

New flags can be a visual sign of political and economic reform, as noted by Myanmar’s decision to adopt a new flag in 2010. This marks a clear break from the dour flag that flew during the many years of authoritarian isolation, even though the citizens had varying feelings on how it would impact national pride and potential tourism. 

Tyranny, terrorism, and oppression

The swastika remains banned in Germany and other parts of Europe. An ancient symbol for India, East Asia, and indigenous North Americans, the swastika was forever changed after being adopted by the NSDAP and modern day far-right political movements.

The most potent and politically sensitive flag symbol, the swastika is still present in parts of the world, hidden away in places such as the autonomous Kuna Yala region of Panama (or rather not so hidden in India).

On the far left side of the political spectrum, the flag of the Soviet Union remains one of the most politically acceptable and popular flag items in modern times. The hammer and sickle are still widely used by leftist parties throughout the world. This is despite the fact that millions of Soviet citizens were murdered under its political oppression. Members of several former Soviet bloc countries are taking measures to ban communist symbols in a renewed wave of anti-Russian sentiments. 

The legacy of WWII is felt through flags in all parts of Asia. The rising sun flag of the Japanese Empire is sorely associated with war atrocities. Yet, it is used on many commercial products, and is becoming increasingly popular with Japanese chic in gamer and J-pop cultureIt will be important for the Japanese government to be mindful of this as it transitions to an active military role to counter China.

Likewise, the United States, in building a relationship with Vietnam, will also have to consider its own domestic Vietnamese community, since the flag of the Communist government is looked upon with negativity. The Vietnamese in the US tend to favor the yellow flag of the former government of South Vietnam.

The flag of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was widely used by protesters in Toronto and around the world to voice awareness of the Sri Lankan government’s culpability in the killing of Tamil civilians during the army’s final offensive against the Tamil Tigers in 2009. This led Canadian officials to controversially side with the Sri Lankan government’s view that the demonstrators were supporting terrorism. 

Religion and Culture

Religious connotations carry their weight as well. The flag of Saudi Arabia was used in soccer ball design prior to the 2010 South Africa world cup. Since connecting the Islamic declaration of faith, the Shahada, with one’s foot is considered desecration by some Muslims, this led to an outcry.

The flags of the United Kingdom and the Nordic countries are based on symbols of Christianity. This is despite the fact that the region is largely secular and is home to large Muslim communities.

The red cross of the English flag has perceived by some to have links to the crusades, and has generated its own contentious debates in the UK.

The United Kingdom’s Union Jack remains one of the most popular symbols in the world. Hong Kong’s demonstrators have used the British era colonial flag in recent protests. However, some movements in the Pacific region countries, such as Australia, are considering dropping the Union Jack from their flags. New Zealand has over forty new designs on the table but costs for a referendum could run well above $18 million USD

Meanwhile in the US, officials in the many states with the boring “blue bedsheet” flag design are considering alternatives in order to market their states for business opportunities and tourism.

Well-designed flags with unique, inspiring designs, such as Arizona’s flag appearance at the World Cup, will go far in bringing positive attention to the state. To stay competitive in the ever connected world, it will be more crucial than ever for public officials and businesses to carefully research and understand flags.

Categories: International, Politics

About Author

Chris Solomon

Chris Solomon is the GRI Guest Post Editor and a Senior Analyst. He has supported several US government-funded international development programs in the Middle East and Africa throughout his professional career. He has also been a guest lecturer at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIS. Christopher holds a master’s degree in Public and International Affairs from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) at the University of Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter @Solomon_Chris.