Public Diplomacy

This tag is associated with 56 posts

Public Diplomacy in Action at IPDGC

The author (far left) and Professor Nathan Brown (immediate right) discuss the importance of dialogue in public diplomacy with a delegation from the Middle East at the School of Media and Public Affairs, September 9, 2014.

The author (far left) and Professor Nathan Brown (immediate right) discuss the importance of dialogue in public diplomacy with a delegation of Islamic scholars from Al-Azhar University in Cairo at the School of Media and Public Affairs, September 9, 2014.

As the new Public Diplomacy Diplomatic Fellow at GWU, I still stand with a foot slowly lifting off from my last “post” – U.S. Embassy Cairo and the other foot planted in an office at the IPDGC.

On September 9, both worlds merged as IPDGC hosted a delegation of Islamic religious scholars from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the major center of Sunni learning in the Middle East, as well as imams and representatives from the Dar al Iftah and the office of the “Grand Imam” at al-Azhar. The visit was organized by the Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (CECF) and its director, Imam Bashar Arafat; and funded via a public diplomacy grant from the Public Affairs Office in Embassy Cairo.

The program, a three-week visit to the U.S., took the scholars all over the United States to meet with representatives of religious, academic, government and NGO institutions. This people-to-people dialogue was aimed at increasing awareness among the delegates and the people they met regarding points of mutual interest, concern and potential cooperation.

Professor Nathan Brown from the Elliott School Middle East Studies program joined me in a discussion with the delegation. Previously, Dr. Brown had met some of the delegates during a speaking program in Cairo, organized by the Public Affairs Office, on comparative constitutions. Members of the delegation were glad to see a familiar face. They were curious about the School of Media and Public Affairs and how media could be used to improve understanding rather than increase stereotypes.

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Imam Bashar Arafat (right corner), director of the Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation, partakes in the discussion with the author (left corner) in the School of Media and Public Affairs, September 9, 2014.

They stated their dedication to increasing mutual understanding and their appreciation for the members of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities who met with them during their visit. Members conveyed their concern for the threat from terrorist groups, whom they noted had nothing to do with the real “Islam”. Their final request was for greater contact and cooperation between George Washington University and Al-Azhar University in Egypt.

Opening doors to dialogue is an important function of public diplomacy. Listening to the point of view of others and finding common interests is step one in the process of explaining American society and values. A common foundation of knowledge and understanding is useful when public diplomacy professionals at the Department of State are trying to explain and convey U.S. policy objectives. On September 9, GWU and the IPDGC played an important role by offering a warm welcome to the delegation and listening to their concerns, goals and hopes for the future.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the U.S. government. The author is a State Department officer specializing in public diplomacy, currently detailed to the IPDGC to teach and work on various Institute projects.

Can a U.S. Summit Change Perceptions of Africa?

President Barack Obama (center) with (left to right) President Macky Sall (Senegal), President Joyce Banda (Malawi), President Ernest Bai Koroma (Sierra Leone), and Prime Minister José Maria Pereira Neves (Cape Verde) in the Cabinet Room of the White House on March 28, 2013. Credit: BusinessWeek.com/Getty Images

President Barack Obama (center) with (left to right) President Macky Sall (Senegal), President Joyce Banda (Malawi), President Ernest Bai Koroma (Sierra Leone), and Prime Minister José Maria Pereira Neves (Cape Verde) in the Cabinet Room of the White House on March 28, 2013. Credit: BusinessWeek.com/Getty Images

In advance of this week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., National Public Radio published an article that discussed the goals of the summit, the first such event organized by a U.S. president for 40 African leaders. One is to bring African heads-of-state in contact with American business leaders for discussions on investment and business opportunities; the other is, according to the article, “to change the narrative” about Africa, from one mired in violence and humanitarian crises to that of business opportunities.

Business and entrepreneurship are not often considered as public diplomacy strategies, but it makes sense why they should be. After all, business affects the national economy, which then affects how the people see their lives and their country, informing their relationships with other nations. History supports this phenomenon: after the Korean War, it was economic reforms that provided the initial boost to help South Korea become the cultural and economic powerhouse it is today. Brazil’s economic growth in the past decade has renewed international business interests in the country, with many companies establishing South American hubs in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Changing continental perceptions are not new – both of the aforementioned countries were largely obscure in the world consciousness, recognized only by their regional identities until they received individual economic breakthroughs or high-profile public diplomacy events (i.e., Olympics, World Cup). But is a three-day summit in the U.S. the answer to changing the world’s perceptions of Africa? After all, Africa is comprised of 54 nations; to suggest that (largely Western) countries should singularly invest in an entire continent is vague at best and ignorant at worst.

In addition, none of the forums and panels are schedule to address specific regions or countries in Africa. Even the name – U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit – perpetuates the idea of Africa as a single unit with monolithic problems. The recent health crisis involving the Ebola virus is case in point: although only three African leaders, not the entire continent, had to drop out of the summit to address the crisis in their respective countries, international media seem to have already juxtaposed the issue with that of the entire summit involving all of Africa.

Whether the continent’s public diplomacy will be helped by the U.S.-based summit remains to be seen. Sources in the NPR article conceded that the summit is more of a “pageant” rather than a site for actual deal making. But if the amount of time, money, and attention paid to the summit are any indication, it’s clear that many are regarding it as more than just a show.

The US-German Relationship at a Critical Public Diplomacy Moment

The U.S. and German flags. Credit: DW.de

The U.S. and German flags. Credit: DW.de

I just returned from a week in Berlin—a lively city teeming with people. There is a whiff of spring in the air and the outdoor cafes have begun to crowd the sidewalks with the European buzz that Berliners uniquely create.

But along with good cheer is a damp residue from this past year’s revelations by Mr. Snowden that the American government has been eavesdropping on conversations between German officials including listening to the phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel. A post-NSA hangover has left German intellectuals reeling and ordinary citizens confused and angry.  Even the biggest supporters of Atlantic relations have found themselves challenged to defend a kind of surveillance and intrusion so antithetical to modern day Germany.

My trip was an opportunity to practice public diplomacy, which involved meeting with national security experts, academics, and a large contingent of students from multiple countries spending a semester in Berlin. It reinforced for me the importance of face-to-face contact and person-to-person dialogue to listen to the point of view of others.

Virtual diplomacy is great; E-exchanges are useful. But nothing beats sitting around a table, handing a physical business card to a new colleague, and chatting at coffee breaks about family and friends. Emotional setbacks in relationships have real consequences and they are best dealt with in human settings as opposed to on line.

The U.S.-German relationship is at a critical inflection point.  We need one another to confront the situation in Ukraine and to find common ground so that American-European-Russian relations do not lead all of us down a dangerous path.

In addition to Ukraine, our countries face common challenges around energy, finance, trade and the growing influence of China.  We have multinational trade deals at stake, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and monetary policies with impact on one another’s fiscal stability.  Not to mention climate change, terrorism, and the problems posed by failing states around the globe.

In the end, I think US-German relations can weather the storm.  Pragmatism tends to prevail in both countries.  A crisis often brings partners closer together, and for us, decades of close relations. But this relationship, like all relationships, takes commitment on both sides and a willingness to meet, talk, debate, discuss and disclose on the public side to deepen diplomacy.

From One Undersecretary to Another: Congrats, Rick Stengel!

Richard Stengel, former editor of TIME magazine, started his new position as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Feb. 18, 2014. Credit: Politico.com

Richard Stengel, former editor of TIME magazine, started his new position as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Feb. 14, 2014. Credit: Politico.com

Congratulations to Richard Stengel, the new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.  All of us – especially those of us who have done the job – wish you well.  We know how vital the work of PD is at this time in our nation’s history.

The Under Secretary’s introductory message to the public diplomacy community is a welcome sign of outreach and engagement. It lays out some clear foreign policy objectives and goals including the need to forge new and deeper connections with young leaders. It is especially gratifying to see that the youth focus will “put special attention on girls and under-served youth.”

The other priorities mentioned in the note include focus on entrepreneurism, educational diplomacy, environmental diplomacy, countering violent extremism, and the need for enhanced public diplomacy training and resources.

The network of public diplomacy practitioners will be ready to assist.

Public Diplomacy and the State of the Union

President Obama delivering the State of the Union address, Feb. 12, 2013. Credit: WhiteHouse.gov

President Obama delivering the State of the Union address, Feb. 12, 2013. Credit: WhiteHouse.gov

A State of the Union address is always a major public diplomacy moment. Rarely do you have the full attention of the entire world to tell every listener, watcher and tweeter, what exactly your current policy priorities are.

For 2014, it is likely that President Obama will focus on domestic and international topics that are high up on America’s agenda and he is likely to stress that if Congress remains intransigent, he, the President, will have to use his Executive powers to make things happen in 2014 on the following issues: 

  • Income Inequality
  • Climate Change and Clean Energy
  • Reigning in chemical and nuclear weapons
  • Winding down costly wars
  • Transparency in the national security agency
  • Immigration reform

The president is likely to take credit, rightly so, for progress on removing chemical weapons from Syria, progress on a nuclear deal with Iran, and a strong push for peace in the Middle East. But he will also have to acknowledge that the world is pretty messy right now from violent protests from Kiev to Cairo, and that American leadership remains critical to bringing about a more peaceful 2014.

Nuts! A Missed PD Opportunity!

Released on January 17, the film is about a squirrel on a mission to break and enter a nut store for the winter. Credit: Redrover Co., Ltd. (2013)

Released on January 17, the film is about a squirrel on a mission to break and enter a nut store for the winter. Credit: Redrover Co., Ltd. (2013)

I took my kids this weekend to see the latest blockbuster animated film, The Nut Job. It wasn’t until the film ended, however, and an animated Psy appeared to lead the cartoon cast in a Gangnam-style dance routine alongside the rolling credits that I realized that there was major Korean support for the movie.

In fact, the South Korean government provided substantial financial support for the joint Korean-Canadian production that featured the voices of Will Arnett, Liam Neeson, and Katherine Heigl and ultimately cost over $40 million to produce. According to news reports, moreover, this is one of a series of several films that the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism has supported from a fund of that is expected to grow to over $21 million for 2014 alone.

Few would question the influence of film as a medium of soft power, particularly as exemplified by Hollywood, Bollywood, and many other countries. Public diplomacy, moreover, makes frequent and explicit use of film as a tool of cultural diplomacy to promote mutual understanding and cross-cultural collaboration. Having already demonstrated the international reach and positive impact of its own cultural offerings in other areas, especially pop music, it seems only logical for South Korea to venture into international filmmaking…

Which is why I am a little puzzled by The Nut Job. The film is set in a nondescript American town in the recent past, the characters are voiced by major Hollywood actors, and the plot consists of a squirrel that tries to pull off a bank-style robbery of a nut shop. There was nothing about the film that was even remotely Korean at all and I missed the Korean connection altogether (although in retrospect there was a scene in which the music to “Gangnam Style” featured briefly). Psy’s cameo didn’t come until after the film had ended and the credits were rolling.

The film was mildly entertaining and the credits were amusing to watch, but I fail to see how this does much to leverage Korean soft power or advance Korean public diplomacy, despite the not-inconsiderable official Korean investment.

In my humble opinion, Korea would do well, instead, to choose its future film projects with an eye towards vehicles that feature Korean actors, settings, narratives, or themes. We all love Psy, and he could certainly help market other Korean cultural products, but his cameo was largely wasted in The Nut Job, a film I will remember only as a major missed Korean public diplomacy opportunity.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the U.S. government. The author is a State Department officer specializing in public diplomacy, currently detailed to the IPDGC to teach and work on various Institute projects.

PD in Practice: U.S. Facilitates Religious Dialogue on the Central African Republic Crisis

Michel Djotodia resigned on Jan. 10 amid rising conflict between Christians and Muslims in the country, leaving thousands dead. Credit: AFP/Getty via DW.de

Michel Djotodia resigned as president of the Central African Republic on Jan. 10 amid rising conflict between Christians and Muslims in the country, leaving thousands dead. Credit: AFP/Getty via DW.de

Note: I have noticed that much of the commentary and academic literature on public diplomacy tends to focus on the leadership, structure, funding, and theory of public diplomacy, with much less attention on the actual conduct of activities and programs in the field. In an effort to help redress that imbalance, I hope this will be the first of a series of blog posts that highlight current or recent U.S. public diplomacy efforts around the world.

The ongoing crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR) has attracted little attention in Washington over the last several weeks. The news last week that the CAR president agreed to resign has sparked hopes for a possible peaceful resolution to a situation that has already claimed a thousand lives in the last month alone and displaced almost a million people from their homes.

The African Union and France have led efforts to stabilize the situation and broker a solution and senior U.S. officials, including Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield, visited last month and pledged U.S. support as well.

In addition to our traditional diplomatic efforts, we have also brought public diplomacy efforts to bear on the problem. Some have been concerned that the conflict could exacerbate tensions between the majority Christian and minority Muslim populations, as well as other groups. With a view towards promoting dialogue and connecting religious leaders with their American counterparts, the U.S. Department of State, led by U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Rashad Hussain, hosted an interreligious dialogue last week on the crisis that included the Archbishop of Bangui, the President of the National Islamic Association, the President of the Evangelical Association, and the Mayor of Bangui.

According to a U.S. Department of State press release, “The religious leaders from CAR described their efforts to end the ongoing violence and promote peace, thanked the United States for its assistance and efforts, and called for further international humanitarian and security assistance in CAR. The panelists from the United States praised the religious leaders in CAR for their efforts to promote religious tolerance and reconciliation, noted examples of successful interfaith cooperation in the United States, and proposed further collaboration with their counterparts. Both sides agreed to continue the discussion further, to work together to increase education and training on reconciliation and peacebuilding and to seek opportunities to support the travel of religious leaders to CAR to support peace and inter-religious cooperation.”

As always, it is difficult to measure the value of such public diplomacy efforts, but I think there is little doubt that these are exactly the type of people-to-people contacts that can help defuse tensions and contribute to a long-term resolution of the conflict. U.S. Special Envoy Hussain, the Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, and the U.S. Embassy in Bangui should be commended for their efforts in this regard.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the U.S. government. The author is a State Department officer specializing in public diplomacy, currently detailed to the IPDGC to teach and work on various Institute projects.

2014: The Year of Public Diplomacy

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (L-R), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israel's Justice Minister Tzipi Livni shake hands at a news conference at the end of talks at the State Department in Washington, July 30, 2013. (Credit: Reuters via ChristianPost.com)

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (L-R), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni shake hands at a news conference at the end of talks at the State Department in Washington, July 30, 2013. (Credit: Reuters via ChristianPost.com)

2014 could be the year of public diplomacy, particularly throughout the Middle East where citizens continue to exercise enormous influence over the direction of events on the ground, from Iraq to Syria, and from Israel to the West Bank.  Public opinion in the U.S. matters, as does public opinion “of” the United States around the world in an interdependent world.

As Secretary of State John Kerry makes his tenth peacemaking trip to the region to broker a “framework” between the Israelis and Palestinians, the looming question is the degree to which ordinary citizens throughout the Middle East will pressure their own leaders to resolve conflicts in ways that avoid violence or maintain the status quo. The region is a giant puzzle with interlocking pieces and interdependent variables from economic stability to physical security.  For the United States, shaping a positive outcome in this region is a tall order at a time of decentralized decision-making in much of the region where the U.S. is trying to contribute to stability.  It is a tall order, but a vital one.

Official government-to-government relations will need to work in tandem with government-to-citizen relations in 2014 to take into account all the actors and voices in the Middle East drama of today. A critical pillar of 2014 foreign policymaking rests in trying to achieve some equilibrium and public calm to lower the levels of violence which, left unchecked, threaten all of us, everywhere.

American citizens should be supportive of American leadership as it tackles the thorny issues of countering violent extremism overseas and bringing about peaceful settlements of frozen conflicts—be they conflicts with Iran over nuclear weapons, or between Israelis and Palestinians over land and security.  American political will is best exercised with American public sentiment behind it.

What we know from past few years is how volatile public opinion in the region is, and how quickly the public mood can swing, making traditional diplomacy all the more difficult given 24-hour news cycles, the transfer of money and weapons, and the shifting political winds that make predictions difficult.  The rise of extremist groups seeking to take advantage of all the uncertainty adds another layer of complexity to al already complex situation everywhere from Cairo to Teheran, from Baghdad to Beirut.

Shaping public opinion requires paying close attention to national mood swings. For ordinary citizens, the direction of the economy, local unemployment, political representation, access to education and information, and day-to-day security top the list of concerns that impact how people behave.  Those are shared concerns around the world best realized without violence.

Let’s hope for bipartisanship and public support for peacemaking in the year ahead.

What Can Public Diplomacy Learn from Netflix?

Credit: Microsoft

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has always envisioned the video watching service to be on a streaming platform, not in mailing DVDs. Credit: Microsoft

I had the pleasure and privilege to attend yesterday’s meeting of the Broadcasting Board of Governors as a member of the public. The session featured two fascinating presentations and discussions. First, Voice of America Director David Ensor gave an inspirational presentation on the mission, goals, accomplishments, and challenges facing the Voice of America. Later, we listened to an insightful panel on Technology and Innovation that featured Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Coordinator for International Information Programs at the U.S. Department of State Macon Phillips, and Chief Technology Officer for the Atlantic Media Group Tom Cochran.

Among the many important issues raised in these discussions are a few key themes facing all of us who are engaged in the practice of public diplomacy. The dominant issue – as is often the case – is how to use our scarce resources most effectively. For the VOA, an organization with a multiplicity of missions (providing independent news, explaining U.S. policy, teaching English, training journalists, etc.) operating all around the world, this requires difficult choices on which audiences to target and which missions to prioritize. David Ensor pointed out, for example, that VOA recently cut the Croatian service after assessing that we have higher priorities elsewhere and that the audience there has ready access to other sources of independent news. Another way to make the most of limited resources would be for VOA to explore partnerships with like-minded media outlets and other organizations engaged in English teaching and journalism training (including the U.S. Department of State and USAID). Asked about the value of particular programs and broadcasts on American music, David Ensor gave a passionate and largely persuasive (in my view) defense of how these programs help Americans connect with foreign audiences around the world.

The VOA discussion featured a number of comparisons with broadcasting organizations of other countries like CCTV, Russia Today, and the BBC (usually to illustrate that VOA is relatively underfunded). BBG Governor Matt Armstrong highlighted a key point, however, when he remarked that unlike those organizations the VOA is not seeking to secure a permanent market share in each of its overseas areas of activity. Instead, the VOA is ultimately seeking to put itself out of business in each of these areas by encouraging the development of local, independent media sources (i.e., by “exporting the First Amendment”).

Unspoken but implied was the suggestion that we should be careful when we compare VOA and its sister broadcasting agencies with official foreign broadcasters. VOA Director David Ensor agreed, in part, but countered that we may ultimately decide that we should maintain at least some presence in order to explain U.S. policies. Personally speaking, I agree with Matt Armstrong and am inclined to believe that the U.S. Department of State can fulfill that function in said markets, while perhaps relying in part on VOA’s English-language resources available at the Washington headquarters and its online platforms.

The Innovation panel also proved exceptionally interesting, highlighting the significant challenges that technology poses for the BBG (and the State Department). Netflix CEO Reed Hastings emphasized the need to always keep the big picture of the future in mind if we hope to develop tools and programs that will be effective in the future. He noted, for example, that Netflix always believed that streaming video was the future of the company and that snail mail DVDs were always considered an interim measure. Likewise, we in public diplomacy should all keep in mind that in another 20 or 30 years the internet will be everywhere, even overseas (a remark that caused many in the audience to ponder a future when television and radio will simply be obsolete).

Another interesting theme was the benefits and dangers of “personalization” (using technology to deliver customized content to individuals as Netflix does) and “balkanization” (the development of virtual “gated communities” in which there are no longer public squares and water coolers where people are forced to debate issues of general interest).

Finally, IIP’s Macon Phillips, who recently joined the State Department after heading up the White House’s digital outreach efforts, described the challenges that he faces of leveraging technology and our public diplomacy personnel and platforms overseas to engage foreign publics in a meaningful way that not only communicates, but also helps advance our policies. He mentioned an initiative that he helped launch at the White House – “We The People” – that allows people to submit petitions and, if they gather enough signatures, receive a response from the White House. A possible model for a similar State Department initiative?

A couple of great discussions and a lot of food for thought!

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the U.S. government. The author is a State Department officer specializing in public diplomacy, currently detailed to the IPDGC to teach and work on various Institute projects.

Mandela: Soft Power Personified

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As the Cold War was ending, Professor Joe Nye at Harvard introduced the concept of soft power, the ability to attract and persuade through shared interests, culture, ideals, legitimacy and credibility. Nelson Mandela was the personification of soft power, a one-man pubic diplomacy force of nature.

Mandela relentlessly pursued peace and reconciliation, had a keen understanding of his personal power of example and was not afraid to use it. As former President Bill Clinton said of Mandela at a peace conference on Burundi in Arusha, Tanzania in August 2000, “He knows there is no guarantee of success, but if you don’t try, there is a guarantee of failure. And failure is not an acceptable option.”

It was there that I had my one up close and personal view of Nelson Mandela in action. After several months of painstaking negotiations among the various Hutu and Tutsi factions waging a civil war in Burundi, Mandela cajoled the leaders of 20 countries – presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and other emissaries – to assemble in Tanzania and convince Burundi’s warring parties to sign a framework agreement that would establish a ceasefire, political dialogue and eventually an inclusive transitional government.

Months earlier, Mandela asked Clinton to be the “closer” at Arusha, taking advantage of his experience gained through the Dayton Accords in Bosnia, Good Friday Agreement in Ireland, and the Middle East Peace Process. Clinton willingly agreed, and once there, it was easy to see how and why Mandela was so effective.

Immediately upon arrival, Mandela briefed Clinton on the state of play. The conference was deliberately constructed to create a deadline – that day – to exert maximum pressure on the parties to compromise. Most factions were on board, but not all.

While the national security staff huddled to build a game plan to recommend to the president, Mandela grabbed Clinton, bolted out a side door and simply went to work. No script, just two great political players working around the scrum and judging based on experience and instinct how to advance the ball down the pitch.

At the end of the day, an agreement was reached, although tragically, the civil war would drag on for another few years. But the eventual resolution followed the framework that Mandela, with Clinton as his wing, put together in Arusha.

In his formal remarks to the conference, President Clinton called Mandela a “force for peace” but stressed that even Mandela could not impose a solution on the combatants in Burundi. They had to choose peace.

Then he reflected on the historic choice Mandela had made, relating a question he had posed years earlier. “When they let you out of jail the last time and you were walking to freedom, didn’t you have a moment when you were really, really angry at them again?

“You know what he said,” the president continued. “He said, yes, I did – a moment. Then, I realized I had been in prison for 27 years, and if I hated them after I got out, I would still be their prisoner, and I wanted to be free.”

The world is diminished by Mandela’s death, but we still have the power of his example.

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