“You are an unofficial representative of the American people.”
These were the words of Richard Gong, the head of the Public Affairs Section at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia. It was September 1997, and I had just started what I hoped would be an exciting year as a Fulbrighter. I’d been awarded a position as a Senior Scholar at the University of Indonesia, where I would be teaching in the graduate program of the American Studies department. You could also say that this was the start of my career in public diplomacy.
During the next twelve months, I watched the fall of a dictator, the complete reorganization of a media system, and the beginnings of democracy in a majority Muslim country. I also learned Indonesian, re-focused my research to the study of journalism in Southeast Asia, and began to do work in public diplomacy that has since taken me all over the world. The lessons I learned in Indonesia have been useful not only in other Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, Burma, and Timor Leste, but also more recently in on a USG speaker-specialist trip to post-revolutionary Egypt.
My start in public diplomacy may have been somewhat accidental, but I’ve been engaged in it for the past fifteen years. I’ve been a speaker-specialist in ten countries, and although the topics and challenges have varied from post to post, I’ve never forgotten what Richard said.
I like that I’m “unofficial.” As someone who’s spent a lot of time around embassies, I can’t imagine anything more difficult than being a diplomat, and having to guard each and every word I say. I’ve met some great diplomats and some mediocre ones, but the best are those who truly engage with the countries in which they are posted, while never forgetting who it is they work for.
In my work, engagement means taking each country and its media system on its own terms. In Egypt, I spent a lot more time talking about the Indonesian press system than I did about what we have in the United States. There’s a lot that Egypt could learn from Indonesia, another country that emerged from over 30 years of authoritarian rule with a tightly controlled press. As I pointed out repeatedly, the man who in my opinion was Indonesia’s best and most democratic president, Abdurrahman Wahid, was not only a highly regarded Muslim scholar and one-time student at Al-Azhar, he was also the man who abolished the Ministry of Information. As any Indonesian can tell you, democracy, good journalism, and the values of Islam are not incompatible.
I also like that I don’t represent the American government, but rather the American people. In nearly all of the places I’ve been — during Democratic and Republican administrations alike — it’s a cliche to say “we like the American people, we just don’t like your government.” In Egypt, this meant that I was free to point out the weaknesses of both American and Egyptian media coverage of the handful of American NGO workers who were flown out of the country in apparent violation of the principle of an “independent judiciary.” It also meant that I was free to note the hypocrisy of those Egyptian commentators who ascribed all progressive reform to “foreign interference.”
Accidental or not, this is public diplomacy from the trenches, and it’s what I’ll be writing about during my upcoming sabbatical year. As I tell visiting journalist friends who come to the US and meet my classes, they may be the first Indonesian or Malaysian or Bangladeshi whom my American students have ever met. At a time in which “we are all Khaled Said” or “we are all Trayvon Martin,” we are all public diplomats as well. Like it or not, in this interconnected world, each one of us is engaged in public diplomacy.