Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine, who delivered the annual Walter Roberts Lecture at George Washington University last Thursday, comes from a serious press and media background. She is the recipient of 10 News Emmy Awards and other awards in journalism for broadcast programs on domestic and international issues. She has also worked as strategic communications adviser to Internews and the International Women’s Media Foundation, among a number of other international organizations.
So it was all the more striking how prominently cultural diplomacy featured in her comments last Thursday, just as it does in many of her other communications — including the U.S. public diplomacy highlights she publishes every few weeks.
This is a reminder that the Under Secretary recognizes and embraces the fact that cultural programming IS communication. It is an essential diplomatic tool that enables the U.S. to persuade influential people to listen to us with an open mind; allows us to share knowledge and skills with potential international partners and allies; and helps us attract positive attention via mass media and digital media.
As Harvard scholar Joeph Nye has noted, the scarcest information resource in the 21st Century is likely to be the audience’s attention span. Here in the U.S., despite the plethora of contemporary media distractions, most citizens still pay some attention to what our own government says, because we know it might affect us directly, and also because we conceive of every citizen having a watchdog role. Certainly U.S. journalists see scrutiny of government as an obligation.
But it would be a mistake to think that official U.S. statements and policy explanations get even the modest automatic hearing abroad that they do at home. People are certainly interested in what the U.S. is up to, but they have a host of non-U.S. sources for that information that are more familiar to them, more trusted, and frequently more accommodating to their preconceptions.
Overseas, it takes creativity and insight to increase the chances that people will listen to U.S. officials with an open mind, and be prepared to respond accordingly.
This is why public diplomacy practitioners know that cultural programming is increasingly vital to the achievement of foreign policy goals. Some cultural programs serve as the proverbial “picture worth a thousand words,” projecting the essence of American policies, principles, and values via local mass media and fast-growing new digital media. Some cultural programming works as a powerful teaching tool to help influential people abroad understand (if not necessarily accept) both U.S. foreign affairs priorities and fundamental American principles.
More fundamentally, cultural programming fosters relationships and understanding between foreign officials and U.S. diplomats who will be called on, sooner or later, to work on contentious issues across the table from one other. It helps sustain generalized affinities even as individuals come and go in the diplomatic service. And it helps connect the real global communicators of the 21st century: journalists, activists, scholars, researchers, teachers, writers, artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs, as well as young people just joining the conversation.
The following recent U.S. public diplomacy highlights show the variety of ways in which cultural programming communicates. These highlights, published in January by the Office of the Under Secretary, are here sorted into three categories: Talking, Teaching, and Spreading the Word.
1) Talking – recognizing the people who are (or are likely to become) influential, and bringing them together across borders for focused and purposeful exchange of ideas.
2) Teaching – transferring knowledge and skills that are essential in civic life, political life, and international relations. Cultural programming promotes retention and “useability” of new knowledge through dialogue, debate, and learning-by-doing. Two-way knowledge transfer and “paying know-how forward” are frequent outcomes of cultural programming.
3) Spreading the word - via local media coverage or on digital media. While the previous two genres of cultural programming are designed to make a significant impact on the immediate participants, the purpose of this third type is to spark positive interest among the many.
All the above constitute just a few of the highlights shared by the Under Secretary’s office for January alone. January’s highlights in turn constitute a tiny sliver of the cultural programming that takes place week in, week out at every U.S. Embassy and Consulate around the world. Most of it is targeted to advance specific foreign policy goals, and just about all of it is conceptualized strategically.
Each example is also a reminder that cultural diplomacy IS communication. The U.S. can only benefit from greater use of cultural programming to advance U.S. foreign affairs priorities.
Tucker Carlson explains why it’s hard to put catchy titles on foreign affairs events:
“There are legitimate, even powerful arguments, to be made against … [an] administration’s foreign policy. But those arguments are complicated, hard to explain, and, in the end, not all that sensational.”
- Tucker Carlson
Or maybe the problem goes even deeper:
“Bringing democratic control to the conduct of foreign policy requires a struggle merely to force the issue onto the public agenda.”
- Eric Alterman
What too many people think:
“Whatever it is that the government does, sensible Americans would prefer that the government does it to somebody else. This is the idea behind foreign policy.”
- P. J. O’Rourke
What Public Diplomacy folks like to think:
“The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls.”
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton
The neoconservative view (and Kennedy definitely was one):
“Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.”
- John F. Kennedy
And, would that Henry Kissinger had paid more attention to his own words:
“No foreign policy – no matter how ingenious – has any chance of success if it is born in the minds of a few and carried in the hearts of none.”
- Henry A. Kissinger
An early Christmas present arrived in the mail today – a new book called Sensible Politics: The Visual Culture of Nongovernmental Activism (Meg McLagan and Yates McKee, eds., Zone Books, 2012.)
The “visual culture of nongovernmental activism” seems like an important topic for U.S. public diplomacy practitioners to consider. Even though public diplomacy isn’t exactly nongovernmental, neither does it represent the prevailing governing power of the countries in which public diplomats work. And in “making the case for America” in those foreign lands, we are very much activist, vying for attention along with non-governmental (and other-governmental) efforts of every stripe. We may ally ourselves enthusiastically with some causes, for example women’s empowerment. We may argue against others, for example restrictions on free speech deemed blasphemous. But we are always one voice among many, without the authority (however defined or felt) that a government body carries in its own country.
And of course, one of public diplomacy’s key resources is visual culture. From the first great expansion of U.S. public diplomacy during the Cold War period, the U.S. looked for ways to make visual our ideas, our values, our culture. Jazz Ambassadors did not tour just so people could hear their music; these mega-stars were sent abroad so that their photos would be on the front page of every newspaper, perhaps shaking the hand of a prime minister or jamming with local musicians. Jeeps and trucks carried USIS officers to remote areas with movies and portable generator-run projectors. Every month USIS distributed glossy color-photo magazines in Russian, Arabic, Spanish, French, and other languages. U.S. cultural centers were and are full of posters, photographs – even décor – supporting our particular “cause,” i.e., America itself. With the advent of satellite television in the 1980’s, USIA under Charles Wick eagerly embraced the opportunity to engage via this new medium. Interestingly, the first and most prominent use of USIA’s “Worldnet” television was to bring together multi-country audiences in mutual discussion and debate.
In the past couple of decades, non-governmental and civil society organizations have proliferated across the globe. In wealthier countries, philanthropy and sometimes government grants provided support. In the developing world, international donors channeled development assistance funds to and through such groups. Even before the Internet became widely accessible, NGOs expressed their activism visually, via photography, posters, videos, theater. Some development agencies ventured deep into visual culture territory, funding local NGO partners to produce films and television programs designed to promote positive actions such as conflict resolution or combating HIV/AIDS. Non-governmental organizations around the world became sophisticated in working with visual culture. Under-funded public diplomacy organizations have felt the pressure.
Today, we all continue to be amazed at the impact and promise of digital media. Digital and social media most certainly multiply our ability to communicate, but they expand the opportunity exponentially to those who may not have much in the way of funds, but who do have the passion, energy, and creativity to produce powerful images that draw us to their message. In this significantly more crowded visual-culture landscape, the U.S. will likely continue to focus on innovative ways to maintain our profile and to partner with other visual-culture organizations to tell America’s story. But this new book is a reminder that in the 21st century, communicating “who we are” is losing ground to communicating “what must change” — with real implications for public diplomacy.
In any case, it’s exciting when a book provokes so much thought via the title alone. And now I see that already on p. 14 there’s a discussion of Walter Benjamin on the “’aestheticizing of politics’ by fascism” in the 1930’s, which somehow got me thinking about the global reach of U.S. consumer culture and how this also shapes the landscape in which we public diplomacy practitioners work. Sounds like a topic for a future blog post!
When the recent Diplopundit post and related news items came out about State Department revising its external communication clearance rules, a lot of people reacted with concern that State was either deliberately or merely blind-bureaucratically limiting its ability to communicate by imposing a new delay on digital communication, even on tweets. Colleagues here at GWU quizzed me with “State Department rules might impose a 48-hour review period on employees tweets. Because that’s the best way to communicate in the era of instant communication?”
But my experience with the State Department tells me this is not what the new draft clearance rules are about — and here is why:
Right now, if you are an Ambassador or PAO (public affairs officer) overseas you are cleared to tweet or post to social media (as well as talk to local journalists, do interviews with local media, etc.) as you see fit — and it doesn’t look like these new rules would change that. And if you are in Washington in an office that needs to communicate publicly about something, you can work with the PA staff in your own bureau to get near-instant clearance.
(Plus, employees can always use language that’s already been cleared, e.g. text from previous official speeches and statements — and frankly, a lot of language gets recycled this way because it’s efficient and ensures consistency, which is necessarily valued in this business).
So I don’t see the new rules having any restrictive effect on on-the-job communication via digital media, either overseas or at reasonably senior levels in Washington.
To me (and again, this is just from looking at Diplopundit and the spinoff media articles from it), the new draft rules appear to do two things:
Up until now, there’s been a blanket maximum time of 30 days for clearance of such quasi-official communication, via any media. But according to the new draft rules, the very small subset of employees’ social media content that might be subject to review through this formal Department process would be guaranteed a much shorter maximum (not target) deadline for clearance.
But it’s good that journalists and the general public are interested in this. (Government always works better when the citizens are paying attention and can give sensible advice if insider-thinking shows signs of going off the rails!)
On November 13, IPDGC had the privilege of sponsoring Public Diplomacy: the Next Four Years, a terrific “insiders” discussion featuring two former Under Secretaries of State for Public Diplomacy (James Glassman and Judith McHale), a key Senate senior committee staffer (Paul Foldi), and a former State Department Assistant Secretary / spokesperson (Philip “PJ” Crowley). These are all people who not only have a vision of what America’s public diplomacy can and should do, they also know a lot about what it actually does.
Panel members enthusiastically debated the role and strengths of contemporary U.S. public diplomacy. One area of complete agreement: two-way engagement is a big priority over one-way messaging. Another consensus: information technology is a game-changer in diplomacy and foreign affairs.
Key Takeaway: Signficant discussion revolved around how diplomacy itself – not just public diplomacy – is changing. The implication was clear that diplomacy must change even more in this modern world of globally shared challenges and exponentially more information networks.
Here is one blogger’s observations on key points and highlights from this IPDGC-sponsored panel:
McHale: The world has changed [and] we will not be able to move our foreign policy goals and objectives forward without having a better relationship, better understanding and engagement with people all over the world. We simply can’t do it.
Crowley: [re: tweeting with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez] By doing that, the folks in [the Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau] will go, why are you doing that? I’d say, it is generating a debate within Venezuela. And one of my colleagues said, when you wrestle with a pig you get dirty. I go yes, but this is a debate that we will ultimately win. [We] have to be willing to let our diplomats engage in this debate and quite honestly that’s a phenomenon that will happen.
Foldi: Sometimes I think the department falls into this trap of, “well we put all things out on a web and then we let people comment on them.” Well that’s not what they really want, they want to engage in a conversation
Glassman: You look for those avenues where you can pursue those conversations, where you can build relationships even in very difficult and challenging parts of the world for us.
But at least one voice made the case for “messaging” — when it is done in new, relational contexts:
Glassman: I realized that simply standing up and preaching at people… is not a very effective way to communicate. [Foreign audiences] don’t want to listen to you, to Americans preaching at them. But rather a better way to communicate is to use American authority, such as it is, to convene a large, broad and deep conversation in which American messages are … injected [or] distributed among other messages
So the emphasis is on relationships and engagement. And whether focused on advancing foreign policy goals or debating policies and ideologies at the head of state level, the panelists are not just talking about public diplomacy, they’re talking about all of diplomacy.
2) Another area of agreement: Information technology as a game-changer:
McHale: The world has changed so dramatically and so fundamentally with … technology and with information and power now being widely dispersed. We have got to find better ways of influencing foreign populations or we simply can’t go forward. [For example], right now in this room there is nobody here who can raise their hand and say ‘I can identify who was the leader of the Egyptian revolution.’ Because there wasn’t one; it was coalitions, ever changing coalitions of interests.
Glassman: And second, it’s just amazing, we … have lucked into this world — and we haven’t “lucked” into it, but the tools are there, tools that did not exist ten years ago. The tools for communicating in a public diplomacy 2.0 way.
3) Defining the core goal of public diplomacy: is it “Benefit of the Doubt?”
Paul Foldi and PJ Crowley both focus on the perceived gap between words and deeds as a major challenge for public diplomacy. Foldi describes how a country that builds up its soft power can get over specific policy hurdles:
Foldi: It can take years to get what I call ‘benefit of the doubt,’ which I believe is the goal of public diplomacy. So that when your country does something or has a policy that seems counterintuitive to the rest of the world, they’ll go “oh, but they are the United States — so maybe they’re doing this [thing we don’t like], but for the most part we agree with them.” And to me … it’s a question of can we get back into the ‘benefit of the doubt’ category for many of these countries?
(Note: Foldi’s view – creating the benefit of the doubt – strikes me as something a lot of public diplomacy practitioners would agree with. I think many of us would see this is as an achievable goal in many overseas contexts, and we would consider the public diplomacy ‘toolkit’ useful in pursuing this goal.)
By contrast, PJ Crowley focuses not on helping contextualize policies that are unappreciated abroad as being inconsistent with shared values, but rather on trying to eliminate them:
Crowley: Ultimately the best public diplomacy is … policies that reflect your interests and your values and [when] the gap between what we say and what we do is as narrow as it can be. … [One] of the great challenges for public diplomacy is to bridge the gap between words and deeds, to narrow that to the extent possible. … [Polling trends] should inform what our short term and mid term actions are.
Meanwhile, Glassman and McHale reject a polling-driven “popularity contest” approach, maintaining that targeted PD efforts can and should be used to further specific U.S. foreign policy goals.
Glassman: I don’t think that favorability ratings in the Pew survey are evidence of whether we are doing something wrong or right. [I tried] to disabuse people of that notion and rather to focus attention on what public diplomacy can do to achieve specific ends that are part of [our] goals in foreign policy and national security policy; that’s what public diplomacy is supposed to do.
McHale: I’m certainly in agreement with Jim on this issue, it’s not a popularity contest … that is absolutely the wrong focus.
As the panelists fleshed out their ideas, however, I heard each one suggest support for Foldi’s “benefit of the doubt” role for public diplomacy:
Crowley: we will always be challenged …for example Indians have expectations in terms of the US policy towards Pakistan or Pakistan has expectations towards the US policy towards India, and those two… do not easily coexist. And when… you sit in between those two long time antagonists, you are going to end up disappointing both of them to some degree or another.
McHale: There were many areas where … we do find areas of common interest, science, technology, education, all of those areas. … [N]aturally you are going to encounter a lot of resistance and what have you but that’s no reason to give up. And you look for those avenues where you can pursue those conversations, where you can build relationships even in very difficult and challenging parts of the world for us.
Glassman: [A]s Senator Fulbright said, the Fulbright programs teach empathy, standing in somebody else’s shoes. I’m a huge believer in that and I think that is valuable. (But should two thirds of the money be spent on that?)
Glassman (again): [A]s president Obama said right in the beginning … we need to focus on mutual interest and mutual respect and there are many things that we can get done in that fashion.
All of these comments reflect the idea that some U.S. policies will inevitably be viewed by some other countries as inimical, unfair, and/or a betrayal of U.S. stated values — so concentrating on other interests and values that we do share, as well as working to promote mutual empathy and understanding, is essential.
4) This is really about “all of diplomacy”:
It is worth repeating Judith McHale’s observation about the Egyptian revolution: “right now in this room there is nobody here who can raise their hand and say ‘I can identify who was the leader of the Egyptian revolution.’ Because there wasn’t one, it was coalitions, ever changing collations of interests.”
Pair this with Crowley’s discussion of high-level public communications, for example those tweets with Hugo Chavez. He makes clear that informal and globally available public communication by heads of state and top diplomats (not to mention powerful business leaders and highly influential NGO advocates) is here to stay.
These panelists emphasized, in other words, that understanding and responding to events such as the Egyptian revolution or debating Hugo Chavez in his domestic political arena is not only the work of public diplomacy, it’s at the center of diplomacy and foreign policy. And engaging in this public sphere has to be a focus of the whole State Department, not just its public diplomacy bureaus.
Glassman makes the case that, in this new environment, using the tools of public diplomacy is a notably low cost / high impact strategy and should be expanded: “There are ways to move money within the State Department budget that would make the Department as a whole more effective by putting more emphasis on public diplomacy. … One of the reasons that I strongly believe that we need more public diplomacy … is because at a time of tight budgets, it’s the most cost effective way to achieve those national interest goals that I talked about.”
He takes that idea further to suggest that Embassies themselves may be obsolete.
Glassman: And the other thing that I would just throw out to you is whether in an era of social media and very, very fast communications, whether we should be spending as much money as we are in general at the State Department on things called embassies. Okay it made a lot of sense 100 years ago, but does it make sense today to have this edifice and this very complicated kind of arrangement where people go for a few years and live there, as though they couldn’t possibly influence people in those countries if they didn’t live there?
No doubt many would find controversial the idea that one can influence people whom one has never met face to face, much less grown to know better over time. But on closer examination, is Glassman really saying that diplomats don’t need to go abroad and meet people? Is it possible to envision an engaged diplomacy involving both face to face and online interactions that does not involve the traditional Embassy model?
I’m not sure. (What do TakeFive blog readers think?)
Advocates of ‘new approaches to public diplomacy’ often end up by proposing new approaches to diplomacy itself. As these excerpts from last week’s expert panel discussion show, our panelists at the IPDGC event were no exception. (And there was much more rich discussion that can be found on the event video or in the transcript.)
Yes, they were unanimous on the importance of existing public diplomacy efforts, and there was little disagreement on the impact of valued public diplomacy tools (exchanges, social media).
At the same time, these experienced public diplomacy experts expressed a range of ideas – some quite provocative – about how approaches rooted in public diplomacy are particularly appropriate for the 21st century challenges of U.S. diplomacy overall.
It will be great for IPDGC and other groups interested in the theory and practice of public diplomacy to get more such debates launched in the wider arena of foreign affairs / diplomacy.
Take Five’s blog post series on Public Diplomacy in the Field — Part Two
Background: As a State Department Fellow at GWU’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication (IPDGC), I’ve observed that a frequently missing piece of the academic puzzle is concrete discussion and analysis of what public diplomats actually do in the field. And considering that U.S. public diplomacy remains significantly field-driven, this feels like a major gap.
Thus a blog series is born.
As noted last week, the series showcases current field reporting highlights in U.S. public diplomacy work – through the lens of key PD principles and themes. Today’s theme is Building Relationships. Last week’s was Opinion Leaders. Future topics will include: Messaging Creatively; Crisis Zones; Arts as Communication; and more.
As always, readers, I welcome your interest and feedback.
New Wine in Old Bottles: Relationships in Public Diplomacy
Academic proponents of the “new public diplomacy” emphasize relationship building over the one-way messaging approach perceived to have dominated public diplomacy in the past. “The new public diplomacy moves away from — to put it crudely — peddling information to foreigners and keeping the foreign press at bay, towards engaging with foreign audiences” notes Jan Melissen (p. 13). RS Zaharna, in “Mapping Out a Spectrum of Public Diplomacy Initiatives” (here, p. xx) argues that “within [a] relationship framework, education and cultural exchange programs, cultural institutes and cultural relations represent a category of initiatives that use culture as a vehicle for building relationships.”
Meanwhile, Mette Lending (Section I) takes the broad view that “cultural exchange is not only ‘art’ and ‘culture’ but also communicating a country’s thinking, research, journalism and national debate,” and “the traditional areas of cultural exchange become part of a new type of international communication and the growth of ‘public diplomacy’ becomes a reaction to the close connection between cultural, press and information activities, as a result of new social, economic and political realities.” Finally, from Melissen again (p 22), “…the new emphasis on public diplomacy confirms the fact that the familiar divide between cultural and information activities is being eradicated.”
There is much to consider in the above concepts, and even more so in the detailed elaboration of these ideas that all three scholars and many others have brought to discussions of the “new” public diplomacy.
One caveat, however, is that these ideas are presented as new prescriptions for action, whereas the U.S. — perhaps unlike most European states — has long intermeshed its international information programs with cultural diplomacy, its messaging efforts with relationship building, and its arts exchanges with an emphasis on civil society development. Thus, at least to this veteran PD officer, the “new public diplomacy” seems perhaps more like a fully-developed ‘Platonic Ideal’ of what we have long practiced, rather than something qualitatively new.
Nevertheless, it is certainly true that the 21st Century has intensified the importance of bringing a relational, interactive, mutually productive approach to international affairs, and specifically to public diplomacy. As Joseph Nye explains in his seminal 2004 work Soft Power (p. 4-5), “[On the level of] transnational issues like terrorism, international crime, climate change, and the spread of infectious diseases, power is widely distributed and chaotically organized among state and nonstate actors. … [This is the set of issues that is now intruding into the world of grand strategy.” And Brian Hocking (in Melissen 1999, p 31) had previously characterized the “growing symbiosis between state and non-state activities as ‘catalytic diplomacy’ in which political entities act in coalitions rather than relying on their individual resources.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also cites such developments, noting that “we are living in what I call the Age of Participation. Economic, political, and technological changes have empowered people everywhere to shape their own destinies in ways previous generations could never have imagined.” And the State Department’s 21st Century Statecraft plan elaborates, explaining that “the U.S. is responding to shifts in international relations by … complementing traditional foreign policy tools with newly innovated and adapted instruments of statecraft that fully leverage the networks, technologies, and demographics of our interconnected world.”
It is in this context that Take Five continues our series on U.S. public diplomacy in the field, with the following examples from recent months – highlights distributed by the Office of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Tara Sonenshine (noted with *).
They are grouped according to specific concepts drawn from the scholarly works mentioned above, with the goal not only of showing how “new public diplomacy” principles are already being put into practice, but also of generating thinking on how PD could be even better informed by academia’s powerful and insightful ideas.
In other words, how the “new wine” of relational thinking can fill up the “old bottles” of long-valued program tools to create 21st Century public diplomacy with an exceptional bouquet.
1) “Public diplomacy builds on trust and credibility, and it often works best with a long horizon. It is, however, realistic to aspire to influencing the milieu factors that constitute the psychological and political environment in which attitudes and policies towards other countries are debated.” (Melissen 2007, p. 15)
* Ambassador Eisen Marches in Prague Pride Parade and Delivers Remarks: Ambassador Eisen and a group from the U.S. Embassy marched in the 2nd annual Pride Parade in Prague on August 18, 2012. Parade participants walked from Wenceslas Square to Střelecký Island accompanied by floats with music and dancers. This event supported Embassy Prague’s goals to promote tolerance and protection of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights. Ambassador Eisen took the opportunity to emphasize that “one of the many reasons why relations between the Czech Republic and the United States have flourished over the past century is because of our countries’ shared values regarding human rights.”
* Historic Encounter between Indigenous Peoples of the USA and Paraguay: Public Affairs Section Asuncion hosted a Native American dance group from Arizona, the Yellow Bird Apache Dance Productions. The group met with Study of the U.S. Institute (SUSI) alumni and their indigenous communities in Paraguay. In partnership with the Ministry of Education’s Indigenous Schools Department, the group traveled across Paraguay to meet, sing and dance with the Enxlet, Nivacle, Western Guarani and Pai-Tavytera communities. They also met with the governors of two provinces who welcomed their presence and encouraged more outreach to their indigenous populations. The visit provided some moving encounters between the Original Peoples of North and South America that broke down barriers, built bridges and encouraged development initiatives.
* Art Without Artificial Boundaries: Embassy Celebrates Freedom of Artistic Expression: More than 300 musicians, filmmakers, photographers, artists, designers, actors and other guests gathered at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk on July 11 to celebrate freedom of artistic expression. This annual Embassy music festival provides talented Belarusian musicians an opportunity to perform despite restrictions imposed due to their political views or social activism. This year’s event featured, in addition to musical groups of various genres, several artistic exhibitions and showcased a documentary about the challenges that Belarusian musicians and other artistic personalities continue to face. Such restrictions are “incomprehensible for a country in the center of Europe in the third millennium,” noted Chargé d’Affaires Michael Scanlan.
* Positive Coverage of Cairo ‘Open Mic’ Event: At least five television stations and newspapers covered an ‘Open Mic’ sexual harassment awareness event at the U.S. Embassy Information Resource Center in Egypt last week. More than 80 people from different backgrounds and ages discussed harassment on Cairo’s streets and at the work place, as well as solutions. Both women and men spoke courageously, giving personal context to the growing problem and demonstrating the need for change. Participants expressed an interest in future cooperation with the embassy on the issue, and the Facebook event page became a discussion board on which the dialogue continued.
2) An intermediate-advanced “second tier” approach involves programs that “encompass social groupings such as institutions, communities, or societies. … The benefit of integrating foreign participants at this level is that not only do they take partial ownership of the program, but they can provide valuable cultural knowledge and indigenous connections.” (Zaharna, p. 94)
* Smithsonian Spark!Lab Opens in Ukraine: On September 5 Ambassador John T. Tefft opened the Smithsonian-Lemelson Center’s Spark!Lab, a month-long exhibit at the Art Arsenal Museum (Mystetskyi Arsenal) in Kyiv supported by a Public Affairs Section grant. Smithsonian-Lemelson Center Deputy Director Jeff Brody and Ukrainian Ombudsman for Children’s Rights Yuri Pavlenko also participated in the opening. This is the first international exhibit of Spark!Lab, which encourages kids to conceive, design, build and develop their inventions in an interactive laboratory. Over 200 educators, students and young volunteers were on hand for the opening, which was covered by major television stations. Thousands of students are expected to visit the exhibit, which is staffed by volunteers from local universities who are trained by Lemelson Center education specialists. Spark! Lab is the Public Diplomacy contribution to the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Partnership Commission’s Science and Technology Working Group.
* Consulate Istanbul Hosts Iftar for the Neighborhood: Approximately 500 people joined the U.S. Consul General, the Sarıyer Mayor, several Sarıyer City Council members, neighborhood muftis and imams, and American Consulate families for an Iftar on August 15. The dinner received praise in local media and by Mission Turkey leadership as one of its best public diplomacy events, demonstrating U.S. respect for Turkish culture and thanks to the Consulate’s neighbors.
* Ambassador and American Rabbi Meet Young Muslims in Cameroon: Ambassador Jackson addressed members of the Cameroon Muslim Students Union (CAMSU), the most influential Muslim youth organization in the country, at their annual conference in Douala. … [T]he Embassy has had relations with CAMSU for over a decade and its president is a recent International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) alum. The Embassy also supported the visit of Rabbi Abraham Ingber, Founding Director of Interfaith Community Engagement at Xavier University in Cincinnati, as a speaker at the conference. Rabbi Ingber was invited to the conference by CAMSU president Ismail Boyomo, who met Ingber during his participation in the 2012 IVLP program on Religious Tolerance and Interfaith Dialogue.
3) “[C]ulture does not appear to be the only vehicle nor do cultural programs constitute the most sophisticated relationship-building strategies.” (Zaharna, p. 86)
* TechWomen Mentorship Program Commences in San Francisco: From across the Middle East and North Africa, 41 women leaders in technology arrived in California on September 5, to begin a five-week professional mentorship program with their American counterparts. Professional mentors come from over thirty technology companies in Silicon Valley and the greater San Francisco area including Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, and Oracle, which hosted an orientation for the group.
* TechCamp Launches in Senegal: Embassy Dakar Public Affairs and Economic Sections helped launch the first-ever global TechCamp in Africa. After an opening reception with remarks by Ambassador Lukens and tech guru Marieme Jamme, TechCamp took off for two packed days of interactive sessions around mobile agriculture, or “mAgriculture.” Participants interacted with 71 different agricultural non-governmental organizations (NGO) and learned from 20 “technologists,” including 10 international trainers. Agriculture is crucial to Senegal’s development. 87% of the population owns a mobile device, while only 20% have direct access to the Internet. Getting the NGOs to learn about and engage in mAgriculture can propel Senegal’s agricultural development. TechCamp gave the Public Affairs Section the opportunity to engage with new groups of young entrepreneurs and to showcase Senegal as a leading partner with the U.S. in high tech solutions to economic development.
* U.S. Embassy Brings Google Scientists to Brasilia: Proving that science is the international language of cool, young computer scientists from Google pulled in a crowd of 400 students at Brasilia’s Marista High School for an interactive presentation entitled “You Can Do Computer Science!” U.S. Embassy Brasilia and its IIP-supported Information Resource Center sponsored both programs. Just a few years out of college themselves, the Google scientists provided students with a great example of opportunities available to youth while demonstrating the role science can play in public diplomacy outreach. The scientists also spoke at the Brasilia Science Corner, a joint project between U.S. Embassy Brasilia and the Brazilian National Council for Technological and Scientific Development.
4) Such programs also include “non-political networking schemes” — in which “PD officers in essence become network weavers. Non-political networking schemes build relationships between like-minded individuals or institutions working on a variety of areas such as science, health, environment, or literacy promotion.” (Zaharna, p. 95)
* Jerusalem Conference Connects Israeli Musicians with American Experts: Embassy Tel Aviv connected Israeli musicians to the dynamic U.S. music market by bringing U.S. music industry experts to participate in various panels at the multi-day Jerusalem Music Conference. Local and foreign professionals and artists enjoyed an interactive panel on the U.S. music industry and trends moderated by Cultural Affairs Officer Michele Dastin-van Rijn. The conference, modeled on Austin’s SXSW, created a unique platform for networking and collaboration between Jewish and Arab musicians.
* South Asian Alumni Discuss Climate Change: On August 29, Embassy Islamabad hosted a multi-country digital video conference for alumni of U.S. government exchange programs in order to engage across borders on environmental issues. Alumni from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nepal discussed drought, solid waste, and potable drinking water. There was a consensus that the younger generation should promote regional cooperation on environmental problems, and that alumni should work to raise awareness among youth. Other suggestions included sharing data and technology, updating regional cooperation documents, increased dialogue among environmental professionals, the mobilization of civil society, promoting policy on climate change, and the participation of Afghanistan as a full member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation rather than in an observer capacity.
* Making a Difference for Women Entrepreneurs: When IIP recently promoted non-governmental organization Ashoka’s “She Will Innovate” competition, a small business owner in Colombia connected with an Ecuadorian university’s entrepreneur club, which offered its web design and social media expertise for free. Now the owner will soon have a website, thanks to IIP’s Spanish-language Facebook community for aspiring entrepreneurs, Iniciativa Emprende.
* YAL Alumnus Spreads the Word on Youth Entrepreneurship: Zimbabwean Young African Leader (YAL) Limbikani Makani, who participated in the recent Innovation Summit in Washington, D.C., led a region-wide CO.NX-facilitated discussion on July 18. Makani, Founder and managing editor of TechZim, shared what he learned from his Mentoring Partnership with BlueKai, and urged African youth on-line to become leaders and leverage their innovative skills to boost the region’s economies. More than 240 online viewers from 17 countries tuned in to the live program. Embassies Accra and Zimbabwe and Information Resources Center Abidjan hosted viewing parties.
5) “[C]ultural relations as a wider concept now also include new priorities, such as the promotion of human rights and the spread of democratic values, notions such as good governance, and the role of the media in civil society.” (Melissen p. 22)
* Embassy Sana’a brings “In Happy Yemen” Cartoon Series to Thousands of Children: Embassy Sana’a finalized plans with the Yemeni children’s rights non-governmental organization the Shawthab Foundation for the distribution of 50,000 DVD copies of the cartoon series “In Happy Yemen” to schools and youth groups throughout Yemen, and for broadcast on Yemeni TV. The series focuses on civic education themes including resolving conflict through peaceful means, with the objective of enabling vulnerable youth in Yemen to make informed, practical, and positive life choices. Public Affairs Section Sana’a is also working with Shawthab to distribute Embassy-donated backpacks and school supplies to needy children.
* Building a Network of Change-makers in Nepal: More than 40 young leaders participated in “Generation Change” programs sponsored by the Office of the Special Representative for Muslim Communities in Kathmandu and Nepalgunj (once the hub of the Maoist insurgency). The program unites a global network of young Muslims working on community-based service projects, building bridges between people of different backgrounds and faiths, and countering extremist narratives. Pakistani-American trainer Wajahat Ali guided participants in developing leadership, public speaking, goal-setting, and teamwork skills. Participants developed ideas to combat educational inequity, pollution and climate change, drug abuse, corruption, and unemployment. Selected participants will receive Public Affairs Section grants to make their projects a reality.
* Consulate General Jerusalem’s “Wise Leader Summer Camp” Graduates 24 Youth: On July 24, Public Affairs Section Jerusalem held a graduation ceremony for 24 participants in “The Wise Leader Summer Camp.” The camp guided participants through the process of creating a youth government, writing a youth-based constitution, and representing the needs of young people without being directly involved in any party. The concept of the camp was developed by ACCESS [English language] and Yes [youth exchange] Program alumnus Abdallah Khalifah, who presented his idea at the Alumni Networking and Engagement Seminar in Jericho last April. The Royal Industrial Trading Company in Hebron hosted the ceremony.
* Caucasus Youth Council Seeks to Influence Policy Debate: An ECA alumni grant enabled forty Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX) alumni and young leaders from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to gather in Bazaleti, Georgia for a four-day workshop. The alumni established the Caucasus Youth Council (CYC) to lay the foundation for future cooperation based on the principles of democracy, rule of law, and human rights. The resolutions adopted at the CYC General Assembly will be sent to the South Caucasus governments to be considered when developing policy.
* ECA Arts Envoy Encourages Women’s Empowerment in Nepal: Arts Envoy and mural artist James Burns of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program visited Kathmandu, from August 5-14, and conducted workshops and lectures on mural-making for over 200 local artists. Also, 80-plus local residents participated in two days of “open painting” to help complete a public mural connected to Tewa, a philanthropic organization dedicated to empowering young Nepali women.
* ECA’s Institute for Women’s Leadership Broadens Horizons: Nineteen undergraduate women from Egypt, India, Morocco, Pakistan, and Sudan shared their impressions of the United States and the role of women in a democracy with Assistant Secretary Stock on July 27. The women just concluded five weeks in the U.S as part of a Study in the U.S. Institute on women’s leadership. The students outlined their plans to become leaders in their communities after they return home.
* Study of the U.S. Institutes for Student Leaders Feature New Media in Journalism: On July 20, Assistant Secretary Ann Stock addressed student leader participants in the Study of the U.S. Institute (SUSI) on New Media in Journalism. These student leaders came from Bahrain, Iraq, Oman, Palestinian Territories, and Yemen, and participated in a program at Washington State University. SUSI programs span 5-6 weeks and include academic study, leaderships development, and community engagement.
Note: First in a new Take Five blog post series
The Office of U.S. Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy Tara Sonenshine began several months ago to distribute summary PD activity highlights to interested members of the U.S. public. In a series of blog posts starting today, I’d like to showcase some of these highlights, and use them to illustrate key facets of ongoing U.S. public diplomacy work.
Last year, after diving into the world of public diplomacy scholarship as a Fellow at GWU’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication (IPDGC), I began to realize that a frequently missing piece of the academic puzzle is concrete discussion and analysis of what public diplomats actually do in the field. And considering that U.S. public diplomacy remains significantly field-driven, this feels like a major gap. Thus a blog series is born.
Each piece will begin with a few thoughts on what the selected programs and activities have in common, and what is significant about that common theme. The highlights speak for themselves.
Today’s theme is Opinion Leaders. Future topics will include: Not Always Setting the Agenda; Messaging Creatively; Arts Programs as Communication; and more. As always, readers, I welcome your interest, your feedback, and your additional thoughts.
Focus: Opinion Leaders
Over the years, debates have raged within U.S. Public Diplomacy about how much energy and resources to direct towards “opinion leaders” (journalists, professors, artists, political and social movement leaders) and how much towards the broad general public (e.g. via youth outreach.)
Rhetoric in these debates tended to confuse “opinion leaders” and “elites.” Practically no one objected to the idea of going far beyond elites, but most public diplomacy practitioners recognized that opinion leaders come in all shapes, sizes, ages, classes, genders, and income levels. Acutely aware that there were only so many PD dollars to go around, they hesitated to abandon working with opinion leaders (sometimes termed audience multipliers) in order to concentrate on engaging ordinary citizens directly.
Fortunately, among the many benefits of digital technology and social media are two that have helped lay to rest the elites vs. opinion leader debate. First, digital media has expanded the communication power and resources of non-elites to the point where no one any longer can doubt their ability to shape public opinion; and second, digital communication means field diplomats can now reach the general public (in a more interactive and targeted way than broadcasting allows) with much less expenditure of funds and time resources.
The following recent State Department highlights are selected to showcase the variety of ways that U.S. public diplomacy continues to work with opinion leaders — journalists, teachers, professors, NGO leaders, entrepreneurs, and selected youth leaders, and to communicate – through them – with their own respective networks and audiences. (Text from State Department highlights is marked with *)
Journalists are opinion leaders par excellence.
* VOA Program Connects US and Pakistan: Viewers in Pakistan can now experience a slice of life in America, with the premiere of a dynamic new VOA program called “Sana, A Pakistani,” that follows show host Sana Mirza — one of Pakistan’s most popular television newscasters — as she gets to know this country. “I just moved here, so I’m seeing things with fresh eyes,” says Sana. “I want the program to a picture of what life is really like in the United States.” The first program focused on Washington D.C. and included a visit to a mosque, the White House, and an aid organization that provides free meals to the homeless. Sana says she plans to travel around the country so she can show viewers how people really live, including the many Pakistani-Americans that have moved to the United States.
* Alumna’s Recognition Marks Fulbright’s 20th Anniversary in Vietnam: July’s State Alumni Member of the Month is Do Minh Thuy, a Fulbright Program alumna from Vietnam dedicated to raising the professional and ethical standards of Vietnamese journalism. The honor coincided with Fulbright’s 20th anniversary in Vietnam.
* Embassy Seoul Hosts Student Journalism Seminar: In a first-ever collaboration with the Korea
Association of International Educators (KAIE), Embassy Seoul arranged the 2012 Student Journalism Seminar, inviting 34 top student journalists from 17 university newspapers and broadcasting stations across eight cities in Korea. Under the theme of “Journalism and the Changing Media Environment,” participants enjoyed remarks from U.S. Ambassador Sung Kim, journalism workshops, visits to major media outlets, and meetings with U.S. and Korean journalists.
* Partnering with VOA in South Sudan: Voice of America’s (VOA) South Sudan Project held a reporting training workshop in Juba, South Sudan for 19 journalists, including reporters from VOA’s radio program, South Sudan in Focus, as well as reporters and announcers from the Voice of the People, Radio Miraya, and South Sudan Radio.
* IIP’s eLibraryUSA Wows Influential Ghana TV Station: The Accra Information Resource Center (IRC) hosted staff from one of Ghana’s most influential TV stations; showing them how to locate documentaries and books, podcasts, videos, articles and reference sources via the collection of 30 commercial databases available to audiences worldwide. Following the two hour session, TV3′s lead producer said they would extend training invitations to the most prominent people in Ghana’s media landscape.
* Libyan Civil Society Organizations Produce First Public Service Announcements: Four civil society organizations from the cities of Misrata, Tripoli, and Sebha completed technical training in video production and public messaging with a grant from the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). The organizations produced twelve public service announcements (PSAs) on electoral education, voter participation, rule of law, and mine risk awareness.
People listen to business leaders too (even those not profiled in major newspapers!)
*Russian Business Leader Credits FLEX Year in the United States for Success: Leading Russian businesswoman Marina Malykhina was featured in a July 27 article in The Moscow Times, where she attributed much of her success to the entrepreneurial values learned as a teenager on ECA’s Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) Program. Malykhina is the cofounder and CEO of one of Russia’s largest market research firms.
* Fortune Alum Pays it Forward with Mentoring Challenge in Nigeria: Consulate General Lagos partnered with Idea Builders Initiative, a non-governmental organization run by an alumna of the Fortune/State Department Mentoring program, to conduct a three-day orientation and training program for 35 young women. These 35 women accepted a “Mentoring Challenge” to reach out to 100 female students in area high schools over the next 12 months. They learned about public speaking, confidence building, goal setting, conflict resolution, money and time management, career planning, and handling peer pressure.
* Coca-Cola Scholars: The State Department’s Bureau of Near East / North African Affairs hosted 100 young leaders from the region on July 13 to mark the completion of their month-long entrepreneurship education program sponsored by the State Department and the Coca-Cola Company in partnership with the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University (IU.) The young leaders showcased community-based initiative proposals they developed during their program at IU. Under Secretary Sonenshine and White House Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes addressed the scholars and NEA Spokesperson Aaron Snipe took extensive questions from the group.
All posts aspire to engage future government and political leaders:
* ECA Alumni To Play Key Role in Yemen Transition: Yemen’s President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi has appointed five ECA alumni (from International Visitor Leadership Program and Fulbright) to serve on the Preparatory Committee for the National Dialogue. Committee outcomes will set the stage for the anticipated constitution-drafting process.
* First Mongolian Fulbrighter Joins Parliament: Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, a Fulbright and Eisenhower program alumna and a board member of the Embassy Alumni Association, was recently elected to the Mongolian parliament. She is the first Fulbright and the third Eisenhower alumna to become a Mongolian parliament member. She is one of only nine women parliamentarians serving alongside 67 men.
At the local government level, ensuring that at least one or two people know the U.S. can have a big impact:
* International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) Transforms Iraqi Views of Muslim Life in America: A member of the Anbar (Iraq) Provincial Council shared his views of Muslim life in America, after participating in the “Transparency in Federal, State, and Local Government” IVLP. He said his colleagues thought it was “impossible to be a Muslim in the United States, since the Americans all hate Muslims and kick them out of the country.” He said, “I immediately corrected my friends’ misunderstanding and told them about the vibrant community of Muslims that I met in Miami. I knew what they were saying was wrong, and I couldn’t stay silent.”
Teachers and scholars spread knowledge and shape opinions for a living.
* A Record Number of Fulbrighters Prepare for Departure: 180 new Fulbright Masters and PhD scholars from every province in Pakistan, the largest group of Pakistani Fulbrighters ever, prepared in June / July to head off for universities throughout the United States.
Exchange and public affairs reach current and future influential Americans too:
* ECA Teacher Alumnus Is Connecticut Teacher of the Year: ECA’s Teaching Excellence and Achievement (TEA) alumnus David Bosso was honored by President Obama as the 2012 Connecticut State Teacher of the Year for his passion for learning and teaching about the world. The TEA program provides outstanding secondary school teachers of English as a Foreign Language (EFL), social studies, math and science with unique opportunities to develop expertise in their subject areas. One student wrote: “Mr. Bosso has taken what he has learned from classrooms across the globe and shared his insights with us. When he learns something new, so do we.”
* USUN Panel on Media in a Changing World: Nearly 100 [U.S.] students interning at news outlets in New York City came to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations (USUN) on July 23 to discuss “Media in a Changing World” with peers and media veterans. The program began with a panel, moderated by Deputy Spokesperson Kurtis Cooper, featuring Richard Roth of CNN, Marcelle Hopkins of Al-Jazeera, Sylvan Solloway from the New York University Curtis Institute of Journalism, and Koda Mike Wang of the Huffington Post. The convergence of media and tech, social media, changing business models for news outlets, and many other aspects of covering international affairs were part of a lively discussion.
A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
~ Mark Twain (attributed)
Like many others, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks absorbed by Middle East events and wrestling with the many complex and difficult questions raised by journalists, analysts, and scholars: How much of the tragic violence in Benghazi and elsewhere was a genuine reaction to that now-notorious anti-Muslim video, and how much is being promoted by specific actors for their own political aims? Were Embassy walls breached in Cairo, Tunisia and elsewhere because the protests were uniquely powerful and emotional, or because some host-country governments, newly brought to power by the Arab Spring, hadn’t yet fully assumed the responsibility of protecting them?
As a public diplomacy practitioner, I’ve also been thinking about the people in the Muslim world who are most genuinely and deeply disturbed by the perceived insult — and am wondering, yet again, how best we can try to bridge the apparently yawning gap between their perceptions and those of Americans, for whom the positive value of free speech self-evidently outweighs the risks from insult.
It was through this lens that I took another look at “You Talkin’ To Me?,” Ralph Begleiter’s still-invigorating 2006 article about international perception. Begleiter describes a video dialogue between Lebanese and American university students in which a “common base of popular culture…did not mask notable differences in the way students at both ends of the videoconference saw charged political issues [such as] the publication of political cartoons lampooning the Muslim prophet Muhammad, including significant gaps in understanding of how the news media in each region relate to governments. In fact, understanding that media-government relationship proved to be a pervasive theme reflecting differences between the U.S. and Middle Eastern cultures [emphasis added].”
What does this tell us (beyond the fact that some things have definitely not changed since Begleiter first penned these words)?
For one thing, it is a reminder that dense thickets of factual misinformation currently impede mutual understanding on this issue of media-government relationships, and it suggests that more work on clearing away such thickets is needed before debates about principles can take place in a productively open field.
What do I mean by this? What is an example?
Again and again in commentary from the Arab world about the current anti-Muslim controversy, including in comments posted by young people on U.S. Embassy Facebook pages, the point is made that America is being hypocritical because “the West” prohibits Holocaust denial and similar speech related to protection of certain religious groups.
For example, a recent New York Times article quoted a “spiritual leader of Egypt’s mainstream Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, [declaring] that ‘the West’ had imposed laws against ‘those who deny or express dissident views on the Holocaust or question the number of Jews killed by Hitler, a topic which is purely historical, not [even] a sacred doctrine.’”
American readers may impatiently skip over such comments, thinking “that’s not true, our laws protect speech even as condemnable as denying the Holocaust!” We might also fail to see any legitimacy in the error, because many of us are unfamiliar with the fact that in Europe there are indeed laws prohibiting Holocaust denial.
And we may also fail to realize that such seemingly minor, in-the-weeds misunderstandings can have a big impact, for as Begleiter also notes, “‘double standards’ is one of the biggest reasons foreigners give for resenting the United States.”
Of course it’s not true that the U.S. free speech laws are applied selectively to different religions, but if people in the Muslim world widely believe that to be true, based on actual knowledge of certain European laws misapplied to the U.S. context, then our power to persuade people of the legitimacy of our free-speech position will be dramatically weakened.
Here is another example: public commentary on the current crisis reveals a mutual misunderstanding about numbers of people involved: earnest young peace-makers in the Arab world explain on Facebook that “only” 10% of Americans even saw the film in question, while bridge-building Americans comment online to the effect that “only” 10% of Muslims are violent extremists. If both sides knew the figures were perhaps closer to .0000001% in both cases, how much of the super-structure of blame, fear, and anger might dissipate?
So, returning to the public diplomacy challenge, what can we do?
First of all, we should accept that there will be no overnight transformations. The work of countless experts in communications tells us it is difficult to change peoples’ minds about what they think they know. Innovative thinkers from Walter Lippman onwards have shown how human beings are programmed to filter out information that doesn’t fit with our preconceptions, and furthermore that the source of new information is a powerful factor in whether or not we listen and accept it.
Therefore, secondly, we need to remind ourselves of what public diplomacy practitioners and scholars have long emphasized, which is that how we present information, and how we establish ourselves as trusted voices, is enormously important. Facts and statements by themselves, no matter how often repeated or at what level, won’t make nearly as much difference if we have not built two-way relationships through which to share them, and if we haven’t built credibility over time through our consistency in conveying – and accepting — reliable information.
Edward R. Murrow knew this when he famously said, “It has always seemed to me the real art in this business is not so much moving information or guidance or policy five or 10,000 miles. That is an electronic problem. The real art is to move it the last three feet in face to face conversation.”
It is in this last three feet that a big portion of the public diplomacy toolkit is usefully and productively employed. For example, convincing influential local journalists (or religious leaders, or influential think-tankers) is easier if we take time to develop a track record of providing useful information targeted to their particular interests and cultural outlook. If we have also invited the journalist (or religious leader or think-tanker) to the U.S. on a study tour, she or he may have a clearer understanding of what our policy statements mean in context, and also some genuine appreciation for the travel opportunity.
The fact that most such discussions now take place online does not change the equation, with an important caveat: If the interlocutors know each other, then email, Facebook and now Twitter communications certainly qualify as contemporary “face to face conversation.”
And thirdly, creativity in opening minds to new ideas is essential. Ambassador Cynthia Schneider makes great points about promoting cultural understanding via the “Oh I Didn’t Know That” Factor – where presenting something eye-catchingly different from what the viewer expected opens the door to a reconsideration of many cross-cultural assumptions.
Finally, a very thoughtful perspective from Cristina Archetti (a U.K. scholar and former visiting lecturer at GWU’s School of Media and Public Affairs) in her 2010 piece, “Was Murrow Right About the Last Three Feet?” Archetti asks,
“Given that interpersonal communication is normally regarded as far more persuasive than other modes of communication, is this really the hard part? I’d be tempted to argue that the hard part is actually closing the distance to the last three feet, figuring out who you should be talking to, finding them and getting them into the same room. Alternatively it could be that finding the money to hire the people to do the talking is really the hard part [or, your blogger would add, finding the money to create sufficient exchanges and other collaborative opportunities for you to find the right people and ensure that they are in the room and are open to listening]. Or it could be trying to ensure that you are not forced to defend the indefensible.”
All excellent points.
World Press Freedom Day – celebrated today, May 3, with the centerpiece UNESCO event held in Carthage, Tunisia – is one of those global phenomena, like soccer, that seizes Americans only peripherally. Yes, the main event last year was held in New York, and yes, U.S. organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists release key reports on the occasion, but by and large the day comes and goes here in the U.S. without much fanfare. Through the wisdom of our founding fathers and much vigilance and hard work by journalists, editors, and publishers since that time, U.S. press freedom is secure. But this is by no means the case everywhere, and therefore World Press Freedom Day becomes an important opportunity – and sometimes an all-too-necessary excuse – for renewed discussion of media freedom issues in countries around the world. The U.S. government, through its Embassies overseas, is an active participant in these discussions.
President Barack Obama’s statement on World Press Freedom Day 2012 makes U.S. principles and commitment clear, as does the video statement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But U.S. Embassies overseas also actively seize the opportunity of World Press Freedom Day to reinforce American support for the principle and practice of media freedom. Many Embassies develop and promote creative opportunities for local journalists and editors to speak out. More on that below.
When the UN General Assembly proclaimed World Press Freedom Day in 1993, it outlined the following goals:
- to encourage and develop initiatives in favor of press freedom
- to assess the state of press freedom worldwide
- to remind governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom
- to encourage reflection among media professionals about press freedom and professional ethics
- to mobilize support for media that are targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom
- to remember journalists who lost their lives in the exercise of their profession
UNESCO’s selection of Tunisia as the site of this year’s World Press Freedom Day ceremony reinforces its key theme for 2012: Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies, summarized here: “the recent uprisings in some Arab states have highlighted the power of media and the human quest for media freedom, as well as underlining the fact that social inequalities will indefinitely search for equilibrium, in order to address those inequalities. Could the Arab Spring have taken place without the proliferation of social media or satellite TV? [Text messaging] and social media have enabled the diffusion of vital information to reach the widest number of people in a very short span of time. Social media have enabled protesters to self-organize, and have engaged the global youth in the fight to be able to freely express themselves and the aspirations of their wider communities.”
U.S. Embassies are making the most of this opportunity to reinforce American principles and policies in support of press freedom. Here is just a small sampling — from Angola to Surinam (both this and this), to Pakistan (via YouTube and Facebook); from the Philippines (through a new partnership with the Philippine Press Institute), to an op-ed by a State Department official that was shared via this all-Africa digital media outlet, picked up in Namibia, and tweeted by All-Africa news website Co-founder and Chairman Amadou Mahtar Ba; from an upcoming Twitter Q&A in Rwanda, to a seminar in Luxembourg, and this U.S. Ambassadorial initiative reported in Kyrgyzstan.
World Press Freedom Day is also an important occasion for the UN, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and other global organizations to recognize journalists who are “targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom” — in other words, journalists who have been intimidated, persecuted, jailed, or even killed because pf their work.
The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, through its website HumanRights.gov, also highlights compelling and emblematic cases of journalists who are imprisoned or living under threats, among them Reyot Alemu (left) of Ethiopia, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison in June 2011.
As the UN General Assembly of 1993 intended, May 3 has become an occasion in most countries for journalists and editors to sit down, sometimes with government officials, to discuss and debate press freedom issues of local concern. Not infrequently, governments use the occasion to reinforce their own perspectives on the need for restraints and limits on press freedom – or (per our recent blog post Fear and Loathing in Development Journalism) to define journalists’ role in the country’s development. This debate around media responsibilities vs. media freedom is discussed explicitly or implicitly in many local news stories on World Press Freedom Day, including in this revealing sample of pieces from Uganda, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, India, Guyana. and Ghana.
Press freedom is an issue for every day, not just for May 3. But World Press Freedom Day is a vitally important opportunity to get people talking about what is happening in their countries and what needs to change. And public diplomacy to promote press freedom is one of the most important kinds of public diplomacy there is.
Searching online for details about the life of Dr. Marie Gadsden, a ground-breaking African-American internationalist who was my husband’s dear friend and mentor, we discovered intriguing threads linking her to a complex and deeply fascinating story: the story of African-American political and cultural engagement with newly independent Africa in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.
It is also a story, I would argue, about two-way, collaborative, non-assymetrical dialogue — with and without government support — of the kind that today is the elusive prescription for successful public diplomacy as described by scholars such as Jan Melisson, Rhonda Zaharna, Kathy Fitzpatrick, and others. (If you have another view on this, Take Five welcomes your contributions and insights.)
To return to the story: Marie Gadsden was one of the first African-Americans awarded a Fulbright fellowship, which in 1953 took her to Oxford University in the UK. There, chance put her with roommate Sarah Ntiro, a future icon of Ugandan women’s rights, a pairing that added impetus to Marie’s growing interest in strengthening U.S.- African ties.
1959 found Dr. Gadsden teaching English to government cabinet members and to English teachers in newly-independent Guinea, as a response to President Sékou Touré’s first request of the first U.S. Ambassador to that country. In 1960, Dorothy Height, who was president of the influential National Council of Negro Women and who would go on to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal for her work in the Civil Rights movement, recalled joining in a women’s labor march with Marie Gadsden in the Guinean capital of Conakry.
Dr. Gadsden would likely have known of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s travel to Kenya and the UK, also in 1960. And a few years later, in 1966, Dr. Gadsden crossed paths with famed American poet Langston Hughes in Nairobi, most likely during his USIA-sponsored trip to Uganda and Ghana.
So what were these and many other African-American icons doing in Africa? The essential answer is that they were sharing ideas, and receiving them. Sharing expertise, and gaining inspiration.
They were seeking support from Africans for American civil rights – human rights — and working hard to mobilize American support for Africa’s political and economic development. Traveling for U.S. public diplomacy, and traveling as private citizens, and merging the two as true citizen diplomats.
And also pressing the State Department in Washington to include more African-Americans among the ranks of U.S. diplomats, and to focus more effectively on relations with emerging African nations.
We are by now familiar with the Jazz Ambassadors of that era, a much-lauded Cold War initiative of U.S. public diplomacy that projected American culture and society through jazz greats from Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and Dave Brubeck.
But fewer likely focus on the deeply emotional and polarizing backdrop of the early U.S. Civil Rights era, which saw, for example, Louis Armstrong temporarily refusing to tour for the U.S. in protest at President Eisenhower’s early handling of the Little Rock, AK, desegregation crisis. Such tensions are the focus of historian Penny von Eschen’s absorbing book Satchmo Blows Up the World.
So the heady era when a young America embraced post-WWII globalism (a zeitgeist intensified by visionary and inspiring initiatives of the Kennedy era such as the Peace Corps and rapid expansion of U.S. development assistance), was a stirring but also conflicted period for many African-Americans who saw the African quest for post-colonial independence as a mirror and metaphor for the horrifically daunting struggle for civil rights at home. In December 1960, Ebony magazine celebrated Africa’s emerging states as both the realization of a dream as well as a somewhat precarious, must-not-fail experiment that demanded the material and spiritual support of African-Americans as well as the official support of the United States.
Dr. Gadsden’s story, like those of many other African-American leaders whose threads were woven into it, brings that era to vivid life. The all-too-brief details that follow are offered as an introductory sample, a tantalizing glimpse, in the hope that you will follow our own footsteps in discovering the rich history of African-American and African public diplomacy in the early Civil Rights era.
Dorothy Height’s memoir Open Wide the Freedom Gates (2009), and especially her Chapter 14, “Citizen of the World,” highlights the immediate and compelling political relevance of Height’s own international experience and that of other Civil Rights leaders.
In 1960, Height traveled for several months in Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, and Guinea to study the training needs of women’s organizations. (It was on this trip that she met Marie Gadsden, then with the small and shrinking U.S. Embassy delegation in Conakry.) Meetings with grassroots women who had never before thought about their problems and goals in gender terms; being hosted by a new cabinet minister in Accra, and Nigeria’s new chief barrister in Lagos; gaining insights into the debilitating legacy of colonialism — all are vividly described.
On her return, Height helped form a senior policy advocacy group, the American Negro Leadership Conference on Africa (ANLCA), together with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, and other top Civil Rights leaders. A remarkable coalition of African-American religious, civil rights, fraternal, sorority, business, professional, educational, labor and social organizations supported ANLCA, including the American Committee on Africa, the Phelps-Stokes Fund, and even organizations whose primary commitment was clearly to grassroots Civil Rights organizing in the U.S. such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
Height recalls that Chief Simeon Olaosebikan Adebo, newly arrived in New York as Nigeria’s ambassador to the UN, invited ANLCA leaders “to discuss how Africans felt about U.S. policy. …He wanted black Americans to think more precisely about how the U.S. was relating [not just to South Africa but] to other parts of the continent too. He urged us to be aware of policies that affected the utilization of raw materials throughout southern and central Africa… Above all, he wanted us to know how U.S. policy played into these complicated issues.”
Meanwhile, American poet Langston Hughes had spent much of the 1950′s putting together a highly ambitious anthology of African and diaspora writing, published in 1960 as An African Treasury. Daniel Won-gu Kim, in his excellent, insightful piece, We, Too, Rise with You: Recovering Langston Hughes’s African (Re)Turn 1954-1960 in An African Treasury, the Chicago Defender, and Black Orpheus (2007), describes how Hughes began the project in 1954, correponding with hundreds of writers and sifting and weighing thousands of potential contributions, many of them handwritten and “accompanied by letters … expressing their gratitude and admiration of Hughes as an elder black writer. “
Notes Kim, “the friendship and comradeship of this new generation of African writers could not have had a more meaningful influence on [Hughes]. … The anthology served as a kind of crash course, bringing him up to speed in the dizzying but inspiring pace of change in his ancestral homeland, feeding his own drive to rediscover–via African liberation–his role as a cultural fighter for the liberation of his people in the U.S.”
In 1962, on the heels of the anthology’s publication, Hughes made two trips to Africa sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) — his first since he was an impressionable young man working on a tramp steamer in the 1920′s. In June-July of ’62, Langston Hughes’ itinerary included a major conference of writers at Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda, and the dedication of a new United States Information Service (USIS) Center and Library in Ghana.
The “M’bari Writers Conference” opened in Kampala with about 45 writers, editors, scholars and journalists from nine African countries, the U.S., UK, and Caribbean — including rising literary stars such as Chinua Achebe, future Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Bloke Modisane, and Cyprian Ekwensi. Langston Hughes already knew and admired many of these writers from his work on the anthology, and had also engaged in correspondence with the brilliant South African writer Bessie Head and others. His speech at the new USIS library in Ghana clearly drew inspiration from his experience at the Kampala conference: “[As] America comes to Africa, as through these library shelves, to offer an exchange of knowledge … [so] Black Africa today is sending rejuvenating currents of liberty over all the earth reaching even as far as Little Rock, Birmingham and Jackson, Mississippi.”
A modern awareness of this interweaving of literature, politics, culture, nationalism, and human rights echoes through “Langston Hughes in Paradise,” Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein’s beautiful and inspirational 2011 essay in Contrary. Lichtenstein, while teaching Langston Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son” (with its famous line “life for me ain’t been no crystal stair”) to students from the State University of Zanzibar, perceives this poem’s message of nationalism through the response it generates in her students.
Finally, there is the fascinating 1960 episode in which then-NAACP lawyer and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall served as an advisor to Kenyan nationalists during negotiations on a new constitution for Kenya, at the time a British colony. The story, outlined in Mary Dudziak’s Working toward Democracy: Thurgood Marshall and the Constitution of Kenya, describes an invitation to Marshall from Tom Mboya, a young nationalist leader from Kenya (who was assassinated a few years later, in 1967.) Marshall traveled first to Kenya, and then to London, while his offers of assistance were debated by both Kenyans and British. Interestingly, Marshall’s most substantial contribution to the Kenyan constitution was to strengthen protection for property rights, de facto those of land-owning white Kenyans. Dudziak’s insights into the nuances and apparent contradictions of Thurgood Marshall’s work on, and later views on, the Kenyan constitution are well worth a read.
In February 1960, Marshall quickly wrapped up his involvement and returned to the U.S. earlier than anticipated “after four African-American freshmen at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College held a sit-in at the segregated lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. The simple protest soon expanded into a widespread sit-in movement,” and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund set out to defend the students immediately. “The sit-ins posed a set of legal and practical dilemmas for civil rights lawyers,” among them the problem — felt strongly by Marshall in particular, echoing his property-rights concerns about the Kenyan constitution — that the students had violated “facially valid trespass laws, not facially vulnerable segregation laws.”
Meanwhile, Thurgood Marshall maintained ties with his Kenya colleagues, and his work on the draft Kenyan Bill of Rights continued to be influential. Marshall developed a deep affection for Jomo Kenyatta after his release in 1961. He traveled to Kenya on a U.S. State Department sponsored trip in July 1963, and was an honored guest of Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta at Kenya’s independence ceremonies in December 1963.
Marie Gadsden herself, after more than a decade with the Peace Corps, went on to become a pioneer in connecting America’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU’s) with international development training and exchange programs funded by USAID, USIA, and the State Department. Her work on this effort through the Phelps-Stokes Fund and later through NAFEO brought her a level of respect in Washington that led to her being named the first African-American board chair of Oxfam-America, among many other recognitions.
Throughout her life, she maintained a deep commitment to developing America and developing Africa, to engaging young Americans and young Africans in service, both at home and abroad. She seamlessly worked for the U.S. Government, for private organizations, and to advance her own deeply held personal vision.
Hers was a life of public diplomacy.