public diplomacy

Balancing Relationships: Bridging the Gap Between Exchanges and Policy Work (Part 6)

This is the sixth of a seven-part series. See parts one, two, threefour  and five for background.

Why then are cultural programs under assault by certain policy making circles?  Part of the problem may be that PD officers are much more effective advocates with contacts than with colleagues.  PD officers need to make a regular case to Washington and to other parts of the Embassy why and how exchange programs support policy goals.  Many do this already, and an effective PAO realizes that the most important diplomacy work for a PD officer is within the bureaucracy itself.   As argued in previous blogs, we need a policy edge for everything we do.  We need to sell our ideas internally without assuming that the decision makers understand what we do or that they see the connection to their policy interests.  If PD professionals don’t do the necessary internal PR work, they won’t have the resources next time around to support our external programs.

Rather than protect exchange programs from perceived policy taint, practitioners of cultural programming can tap the programs to support U.S. foreign policy goals without harming the integrity of the exchange.  The following are some examples from our Afghanistan public diplomacy efforts that illustrate the point.  Prior to the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, an enterprising desk officer recruited 12 Afghan Fulbrighters who were already in country to join the conference.  The Fulbrighters not only met high level Afghan and U.S. officials, which strengthened their network, but provided much insight on the Afghan context to global participants in the youth conference that NATO held alongside the summit.  Several years later during President Ghani’s visit to the US, a similar group of Afghan Fulbrighters were invited to the State Department dinner hosted by Secretary Kerry, one assigned to each table.  There they could express directly to American and Afghan leaders their hopes for the future of Afghanistan and demonstrate some of the changes that have taken place in Afghan society over the last decade.   Deploying Fulbrighters in this way helped promote the success of the Fulbright program to legislators and others in attendance,  gave the students a forum for introducing themselves to potential employers in their own country, and helped strengthen a pivotal bilateral relationship.  Even some of the more short-term exchanges can be used to forward policy in ways that do not conflict with the spirit of traditional people-to-people programs.  Whenever a group of Afghan international visitors visited the Department as part of their exchange program, the same desk officer conducted a focus group and invited policy offices throughout the Department to attend the session.  In the informal sessions, the hard policy professionals saw the value of the program as they heard multiple insights about Afghanistan.  The informal discussions also broke down the hierarchical relations among the participants and empowered less senior members to speak their mind. These examples show that there need not be a contradiction between short term and long term exchanges or between exchange programs and policy.  They can and should be one and the same without damaging the integrity of the program.

It is helpful to remind those in policy circles of the long-term benefits of exchanges with alumni occupying important positions in institutions both within and outside of the government, alumni who remain influential as governments come and go.   Upon their return from the U.S. the thousands of Pakistanis who receive M.A.s and Ph.Ds  impart their ideas on critical thinking and democratic classrooms to their students while staying connected to the U.S. universities

After a six month institute where they met professors, civil society representatives and American students pursuing environmental activism and volunteerism,  alumni of our SUSI exchange created volunteer associations in their respective countries, held beach clean-ups, and talked to school children  about climate change and water issues.   Thus, cultural exchanges often have immediate payoffs at the local and institutional level even if alumni don’t reach high positions.   But they often do.  The key official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Germany responsible for the country’s policy in Ukraine, for example, is a former Fulbrighter and an excellent Embassy contact.   Long term exchanges may have a delayed payoff but a much more consequential one than programs designed to support more immediate policy priorities.  The CAO and the cultural staff should report regularly on the impact of past exchange programs and report on insights gleaned from regular meetings outside the embassy.  CAOs and their staff spend more time outside the embassy than any other section.  They have well connected contacts in the academic community who can provide a unique perspective on how US policy is perceived.  If the knowledge acquired is not shared internally, it is as if the meetings did not take place as far as headquarters is concerned.

Connections to policy should not only be top down from PAO to staff but bottom up from staff to supervisors.  In larger embassies, PD staff often attend staff meetings of other sections so that they are aware of policy developments.  In my last two assignments, PD staff including Locally Employed Staff were assigned to work closely with specific parts of the embassy;  the press section representatives attended cultural section meetings and vice versa.  This resulted in much richer programming with short-term as well as long-term payoffs.  For example, the press section in Germany ensured that there was a social media component for every exchange program or that whenever appropriate a media engagement was incorporated into the program.   In a true collaborative networked approach, they shared ideas from their contacts and from meetings they had attended in other sections, resulting in innovative and exciting programs.  The staff’s marching orders were simple: find creative ways to implement U.S. policy in ways appropriate to the German context.

Turning to the academic community, how can we be better at bridging the gap between study and practice?   My colleagues who read the theory have difficulties envisioning putting it into practice.   For example although there has been much criticism of an overemphasis on messaging, it has proven extremely useful in political campaigns and is therefore supported by political appointees who occupy key positions in the Department.   What aspects of messaging which have proven so effective in political campaigns can one apply to public diplomacy abroad?  Which type of messaging is more effective and why and how can we make messaging more dialogic? How can we benefit from management theory to help budding PD professionals to effectively harness human and financial resources?  PD professionals could benefit from studying management literature, which is full of useful suggestions for keeping supervisors in the loop or involving key players in an organization early in the process.  How can we foster long term relations among the press?  (Many posts conduct journalism training, which raises the standards while developing long term relationships with the Embassy.)

This post has advocated that the most important diplomacy a PAO practices is within the bureaucracy itself and that all PD activities have to support USG policy in some way.  The hard distinctions between cultural programming viewed as having a long term payoff on the one hand and press and policy work with short term benefits on the other hinder us from maximizing our resources.  One can often design more effective exchanges by breaking down the artificial barriers between short- and long-term goals.  Former diplomats and now scholars such as Bruce Gregory or Donna Oglesby, or a team consisting of a diplomat and scholar such as Lee and Davis provide models of how one can usefully combine theory and practice.  It would also be extremely helpful have more of this teamwork as well as more time and attention in the scholarly literature on the policy aspects of PD, which after all is the reason PD professionals are in the field in the first place. End Part Six.

Disclaimer: The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect official positions of the United States Government.

This is the sixth of a seven-part series. See part seven here


About Thomas Miller

Thomas Miller is the Public Diplomacy Fellow at George Washington University on loan from the Department of State.


One thought on “Balancing Relationships: Bridging the Gap Between Exchanges and Policy Work (Part 6)

  1. Great post, Tom. And today’s news about Russia canceling cultural programs with Turkey highlights the connection between culture-driven PD and policy:

    Posted by sean aday (@adaystew) | November 30, 2015, 11:26 am

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