Cultural Diplomacy

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Four things President Trump should remember for his first speech abroad

From his decision to host Chinese president Xi Jinping at his home in Mar-a-Lago Florida to his apparent refusal to shake Angela Merkel’s hand during her recent visit to the White House, President Trump has been forging his own path when it comes to US foreign relations, bucking tradition and instead providing his own personal brand of public diplomacy. The same says-what-he-thinks, does-what-he-likes mannerisms that propelled him to victory in the 2016 elections are now being used in the White House to greet foreign dignitaries and leaders alike.

While such unpredictability may have connected with American voters, President Trump may not always have the luxury of an American audience. As he gets further into his administration, the time may come when President Trump is expected to deliver a set of remarks in front of a foreign audience. Whether he gives just three speeches abroad, like President Bush, or a dozen, like President Obama, there are a few lessons that President Trump can learn from previous administrations experiences abroad. Here are the four things President Trump should remember for his first speech abroad.

1. Choose a good location

First things first — choose an appropriate location for your speech. Visuals matter. Ronald Reagan’s speech in West Berlin, for example, was amplified by the choice of his location. His challenge to Secretary Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” was made more powerful because the chosen location for the speech.

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President Reagan speaking in front of the Berlin Wall. Photo courtesy of the White House Press Office.

He allowed audiences viewing the speech live, as well as those watching from around the world, to see the very wall to which he was referring; to view the physical boundary that separated the East and West. By remembering that speeches are not only heard, but also watched, a speech can become more powerful and more poignant.

2. Speech should be connected to policy

In Matthew Wallins’ blog post for the American Security Project (ASP), he states that matching action to words is a critical factor in maintaining the credibility for public diplomacy officials. When the president goes abroad, he is, in effect, acting as the US’s most powerful public diplomacy official; thus, his words must be connected to US policy action in order to maintain credibility.

During his historic trip to China, President Richard Nixon’s primary policy goal was to normalize relations and communications between the two nations.

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President Nixon toasting with Premier Enlai. Photo courtesy of the White House Press Office.

The toast, which he gave at a banquet in Peking, emphasized Nixon’s desire to exist in peace with China, while more subliminally promising to the Chinese people that the US would not try to influence their system of government.

Chairman Mao reportedly appreciated his honesty, and as a result, state media reported on their meeting favorably.

3. Don’t be afraid to take on the real issues.

Speeches provide a unique opportunity for presidents to address a captive international audience, as well as communities that they may not otherwise have access to. Though it may be uncomfortable at times, the best way to capitalize on the audience’s’ attention is to be forthright about the issues you want them to pay attention to. Wallin also makes this point in his ASP blog; transparency is key.

For example, when President Obama gave one of his first international speeches at a university in Cairo, he did not attempt to shift away from the significant policy issues that divided the Muslim world and the US. While the purpose of President Obama’s strategy in the speech was to open a new dialogue with Muslim communities, he went about this effort in two ways: the first method was to admit and apologize for what he perceived to be the previous administration’s mistakes; the second, was using his platform to address the contentious issues between the US and the Muslim communities. He openly condemned attempts by Muslim leaders to deny the Holocaust and 9/11. He rejected the use of violence by Palestinians.

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President Obama addressing the crowd in Cairo. Photo courtesy of the White House Flickr.

By seizing upon his position and his audience to address the actual issues facing the two sides, President Obama was able to turn the page on one chapter of Islamic/ American relations, and have the new beginning he sought.

4. But make sure your message doesn’t fall on deaf ears.

Like any public diplomacy officer, presidents must first understand the cultural context of the country they are walking into, before they can expect to be listened to by the general public. At the end of the day, if no one in the audience is listening, the speech will have no impact. It is therefore important that President Trump connects with his audience, and shows some understanding and appreciation for the history and culture he’s addressing.
Each speech requires a different method of connection. In his Cairo speech, for example, President Obama used personal testimony to engage with the Muslim audience he was attempting to reach by describing the deep ties to Islam that his Kenyan family has, as well as his own experiences living in Indonesia as a young boy. In the first President Bush’s address to the people of Leiden, he connected the history of the early Pilgrim settlers to the proud history of the Dutch people. President Kennedy, meanwhile, in his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, used the German language to demonstrate his efforts to understand the position of the people of Berlin and of Germany more broadly. Even these small acts can have profound effects on the reception of the speech.

Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.

Disability Diplomacy: Raising Awareness to Make the Invisible, Visible

At some point in your life, you have probably been asked, “If you could have one wish, what would it be?” Some people might answer the ability to relive one day; others desire to win the lottery; and some wish to have an unlimited amount of wishes. Then there are people who might have more modest wishes such as simply to be accepted and understood by others. This would certainly be the case among individuals who have invisible disabilities, such as one of the many types of mental health illnesses. One of the ways to help these individuals feel more accepted and understood is to raise awareness of invisible disabilities at the government level.

 

The State Department does a great job on their website promoting different initiatives for people with visible disabilities. However, they need to focus more on initiatives for people with invisible disabilities, such as mental health illnesses. One in five adults experience a mental health condition every year, affecting family, friends and communities. According to new estimates released by the World Health Organization, depression, an invisible mental health disability, is the largest cause of disability worldwide. The State Department website might consider creating more programs and social media campaigns to ensure more awareness and acceptance of mental health disabilities are seen in the US and thus, around the world.

 

The United States signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, becoming the first country in the world to adopt legislation condemning discrimination against people with disabilities. In 2008, the US expanded the depth of this act to reach around the globe, creating the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the United Nations. In 2014, an excellent blog was written identifying a gap in mental health diplomacy awareness. Nonetheless, the same gap remains three years later, and this gap is especially visible on the State Department website.

 

Currently, there are many different initiatives for programs including people with disabilities on the State Department website: #withoutlimits social media campaign, Paralympic sports games, and exchange programs in other countries helping vision impaired and paraplegic individuals. Each program has many accompanying videos or images, some of which are shown below.

 

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Photo Credits: State Department

 

It is easy to tell that these individuals above have a disability because they are visible. The woman in the first image is blind and is shown hugging her Seeing Eye dog. The second photo portrays a paraplegic man in a wheelchair playing basketball. Finally, the last photo shows a blind person, wearing sunglasses, and somebody in a wheelchair smiling at some type of conference.

 

What if the images were replaced by images such as the ones shown below?

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Photo Credits: Flickr

 

These people do not have visible disabilities, but they do have invisible ones. Will Smith has ADHD, Demi Lovato has bipolar disorder, and the people in the middle have ADHD, dyslexia, and other invisible conditions. Highlighting celebrities and real people with these invisible disabilities in images could help raise awareness and create more tolerance by eliminating individuals from feeling ostracized by others.

 

Additionally, the State Department could cosponsor programs with NGOs for people with invisible disabilities abroad, such as the World Health Organization and International Medical Corps. The World Health Organization works directly with governments to improve the health of the people that they serve. Their Mental Health Action Plan for 2013 to 2020 outlines the need “to recognize the essential role of mental health in achieving health for all people,” placing an emphasis on the importance of prevention. The International Medical Corps is known for providing aid during humanitarian crises and has enacted mental health and psychological programs in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. A partnership with these organizations and the State Department can help to raise awareness and provide direct help to communities all over the world.

 

The State Department can also work directly with embassies to raise awareness across the globe in this area. Influential community leaders with invisible, mental health disabilities could sponsor arts or sports programs and the US State Department could incorporate press from these co-sponsored programs into their website. An example of this type of program would be to have singer Demi Lovato, one of the celebrities above, host a music event for people with and without invisible disabilities. In this instance, music would be used as a way to bridge people together and the State Department could document these connections through press on their website. Promoting cultural events can help change the stigma felt throughout a culture and allow people the opportunity to become more tolerant. The culture change needs to come from governments, whom people look to for guidance.

 

The State Department could incorporate more about invisible disabilities into their #withoutlimits campaign too. Individuals struggling with mental health disabilities can share their stories of perseverance, and have their videos featured alongside the stories of individuals struggling with visible disabilities. On World Mental Health Day, Tuesday, October 10, the State Department could launch a new social media campaign, starting with a webinar series. They could pull together people who have mental health disabilities from around the world and have them speak about how it impacts their lives and what they have done to overcome their disability. The State Department can also work with embassies to create a resource page for people in the US and abroad to highlight resources in their countries. It is beneficial to all countries to have people with disabilities as active members of society.

 

Finally, the State Department could do more to promote their Deployment Stress Management Program, which is located within the Bureau of Medical Services in Mental Health Services. This program provides information, education, and treatment for Foreign Service officers and their families while they are serving the State Department. Creating blog posts about the program or promoting it on social media could help increase the quantity of information on the Internet, thus helping to raise awareness and normalizing invisible disabilities within State Department employees and their families.

 

By showing that disabilities come in all shapes, sizes and visibilities, the lack of acceptance associated with mental health disabilities can be reduced. More awareness and understanding can be created throughout the world.

 

Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.

Securing the Future With More U.S.-Taiwan Exchange Programs

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(Source: Flickr/Photo Phiend – American and Taiwanese flags at the Chinatown gate in Washington, DC)

Since the severing of official diplomatic ties between the United States and the Republic of China (Taiwan) in 1979, U.S. policy towards Taiwan has stayed relatively consistent throughout the past six administrations by adhering to the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and President Reagan’s “Six Assurances.”  Although the TRA continues commercial, cultural, and public exchanges under a de facto relationship, significant gaps remain. Much more can be done to strengthen the partnership between the U.S. and Taiwan.

The world has increasingly become more interconnected. However, Taiwan continues to be pushed out of the international community. Recently, Taiwan was excluded from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), and a U.N.-affiliated meeting in New York on rare diseases. The United States should consider deepening its exchanges with Taiwan. Public diplomacy efforts are inextricably linked with American national security. As such, the U.S. should place greater emphasis on its people-to-people exchanges with Taiwan.

At a time when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) exhibits increasingly assertive behavior in the South China Sea and East China Sea, the U.S. and its Asia-Pacific allies should highlight the positive role Taiwan plays in the regional architecture. U.S. strategy toward the region has taken a multifaceted approach that seeks to strengthen cooperation with like-minded nations to address shared challenges. In addition to commercial engagement, expanding people-to-people ties are essential for fostering goodwill and unity with our partners and allies.

In the absence of diplomatic relations, Taiwan has received diminished time and attention in Washington. Over the past ten years, the White House has not viewed it as a priority to support Taiwan and advance the unofficial bilateral relationship. This has affected the way everyday Americans and Taiwanese have come to view each other. According to survey results reported by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2014, only 28 percent of Americans would support sending U.S. troops to Taiwan in the event that the PRC invaded the island.[1] In sharp contrast, a 2016 poll in Taiwan indicated that over 70 percent of Taiwanese people believe that America would come to Taiwan’s rescue in the event of a Chinese invasion. It can be interpreted that—in addition to having a case of ‘war fatigue’ from 13 years of on-going conflict in the Middle East—this perception gap may be the natural result of many Americans having limited understanding of the TRA and the political complexity of cross-Strait relations.

Following the recent Trump-Tsai phone call, the misinformed American media further demonstrated a lack of concern and understanding regarding the nuances surrounding U.S.-Taiwan and U.S.-China relations. More exchanges, not only on the governmental level but also on the educational level, will allow for more Americans to understand Taiwan and its people better. Currently, the United States is struggling to establish a proactive international education policy and failing to meet its goal of 1 million Americans studying abroad by 2017. New and creative exchanges with Taiwan will boost U.S. foreign policy and security goals, and ultimately garner more public support on both sides of the relationship for stronger U.S.-Taiwan cooperation.

Current Public Exchange Programs

Despite the fact that the U.S. and Taiwan both have visa waiver programs that contribute to tourism on both sides—which may see a record high of over 1 million visitors this year—these types of exchanges are mainly short and business-driven. Long-term exchanges that seek to deepen people-to-people relations must be pursued as well. On the U.S. side, government-sponsored public exchange initiatives that have a Taiwan component include a variety of programs funded by the U.S. Department of State (International Visitor Leadership Program, Fulbright, Critical Language Scholarship, National Security Language Initiative for Youth, Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, etc.) and Boren awards for international study. The U.S. Department of Education also has 118 universities that offer the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships (FLAS) to study abroad. Language exchange programs funded by nongovernmental organizations include the Blakemore and Freeman Foundations.

On the Taiwan side, the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) provide generous scholarship opportunities for foreign nationals seeking language learning, degree programs, or research (Huayu Enrichment Scholarship, Taiwan Scholarship, and Taiwan Fellowship, respectively.) The Taiwan government also sponsors the Ambassador Summer Scholarship Program for the Taiwan-U.S. Alliance, known as TUSA, which is a non-profit organization that focuses on building international friendships on the student-to-student level. In 2014, MOFA launched an international youth leadership program called Mosaic Taiwan, which is committed to better informing future American leaders through a three-week program filled with workshops and seminars in Taiwan. Finally, a unique initiative is the Taiwan Tech Trek program, which recruits young people of Taiwanese ancestry for an eight-week summer internship or research program, allowing Taiwanese-Americans to learn about Taiwan and its well-known tech industries. These programs ultimately seek to promote and improve U.S.-Taiwan relations and counter China efforts to stop Taiwan from participating in the community of nations.

Challenges With Current Programs 

The U.S.-Taiwan pursuit to seek partnerships through educational and cultural exchange programs is laudable. There are, however, significant challenges with U.S. programs, particularly with the International Leadership Visitor Program (IVLP), that inhibit more meaningful exchange. IVLP is a three-week tailored individual or group program sponsored by the State Department that brings mid-career professionals and emerging foreign leaders to the United States. Former presidents Ma Ying-jeou and Chen Shui-bian are both alumni of this program. These leaders are nominated by U.S. embassies overseas, and in this case the de facto embassy known as the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), for meetings and opportunities to engage with Americans on global thematic issues. It is through collaboration with National Programming Agencies (NPA) that these projects are implemented. Due to fact that visits by Taiwanese officials in the U.S. are seen as highly political by Beijing (former President Lee Teng-hui’s visit to Cornell in 1995 sparkedthe Third Taiwan Strait Missile Crisis), it is protocol that Taiwan government representatives are barred from entering the Harry S. Truman Building of State Department, the White House, and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Another caveat with the IVLP is the small amount of funding available for Taiwan, in comparison to China. According to State Department statistics, the FY2016 budget only allowed for 16 visitors from Taiwan, while China had 112. The small amount of attention given to Taiwan negatively impacts U.S.-Taiwan relations. More can be done to support exchanges on the government and professional levels.

In the educational realm, there are many U.S. exchange initiatives in place that give exposure to Taiwan. However, the amount of students that go to Taiwan pale in comparison to the number of those who go to the PRC. From statistics provided for the 2013-14 year, the Institute for International Education (which is an NPA) reported that 13,763 American students studied in the PRC, while only a diminutive 801 went to Taiwan. Many American students are naturally drawn to China’s rich cultural heritage, strategic importance, and economic power (something which relates to future career prospects). However, U.S. policies and officially-expressed attitudes toward Taiwan and the PRC influence the choices made by young Americans as well. Many do not see value in learning traditional Chinese characters and view Taiwan as only a subsidiary to the PRC.

China Factor

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has worked hard to win the hearts and minds of the American people through its vigorous overseas propaganda efforts. Its Confucius Institutes are but one example. Confucius Institutes, which are operated under the PRC Ministry of Education, are an extension of the CCP. They have nearly 100 partnerships in the United States, with the stated goal of promoting Chinese language and culture. These institutes provide attractive financial packages to universities seeking Chinese language learning resources.[2] However, their programs engage in censorship and only allow for Party-approved rhetoric and policies to be heard. In 2014, the University of Chicago ended its partnership with the Confucius Institute due to concerns regarding censorship and limitations to academic freedom.

All American students deserve the right to freely discuss issues like the Tiananmen Square Massacre, U.S.-PRC relations, and the futures of Hong Kong, Tibet, and Taiwan. Yet, a Government Accountability Organization (GAO) report found that 12 overseas American universities in the PRC have challenges operating in a restrictive environment. Internet censorship and self-censorship are listed as two main problems. While Confucius Institutes offer generous funding to American educational institutions, the continuation of these engagements perpetuate the CCP’s authoritarian interests and leads to further marginalization of Taiwan’s influence in the world. While education initiatives between the U.S. and the PRC are important to the bilateral relationship, they tend to impact and diminish opportunities for greater American understanding of Taiwan. U.S. relations between the PRC and Taiwan should not be viewed in zero-sum terms, but the reality is that they are.

Recommendations: Innovative Exchanges To Strengthen U.S.-Taiwan People-to-People Relations

More innovative solutions are needed to re-emphasize the importance of people-to-people exchanges with Taiwan. The Taiwan Travel Act, proposed by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), calls for more exchange between Taiwanese and American leaders at all levels. This could alleviate the protocol challenges for Taiwanese visitors. Additionally, some bottom-up approaches are needed to tackle the challenge of current institutional practices in place that continue to discourage American students from pursuing Taiwan exchanges, including the student-run Taiwan-America Student Conference (TASC). The program, currently making plans for its fourth annual conference, was founded on the premise that American students need to think critically about the strategic and cultural value of Taiwan, and Taiwanese students need to think globally and address where they fit within the international community. Every year, students come together at TASC for dialogue and discussions on ways to confront global issues facing their respective societies. These include issues such as environmental sustainability and modern issues in education, among others. This is an excellent model for more future citizen diplomacy exchanges, given the aforementioned constraints.

(Source: Taiwan-America Student Conference – Taiwanese and American students building mutual trust and understanding through an exchange program)

(Source: Taiwan-America Student Conference – Taiwanese and American students building mutual trust and understanding through an exchange program)

Another recommendation is the establishment of a foundation that seeks to strengthen U.S.-Taiwan educational and cultural exchanges, much like the U.S.-China Strong Foundation. The U.S.-China Strong Foundation is a nonprofit organization that seeks to strengthen U.S.-China relations by investing in the next generation of leaders. Its principal goals are to increase the number of American students in the PRC and to strengthen Chinese language learning opportunities in the United States. A U.S.-Taiwan Strong Foundation would be at the center of bilateral educational exchanges. It could house programs modeled off of TASC, establishing chapters in universities and high schools, and striving to increase the number of American students in Taiwan and vice versa.

Beijing’s influence operations continue to drown out Taiwan’s voice in the United States. Taiwan’s democratic society is full of Chinese culture and increasingly diverse. The island nation is a paradigm of pro-American progressive values. When it comes to learning Mandarin, the PRC is far from the only option.  Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stated that a more inclusive security architecture is needed. Emphasizing Taiwan’s role in Asia is smart policy. Advancing exchanges with Taiwan requires a willingness to employ all the available tools, especially the establishment of a new foundation dedicated to this mission. Doing so will add tremendous value to U.S. foreign policy and national security outcomes in the years ahead.

This article was first published through the Asia Eye, the official blog of the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington-based think tank focused on security issues and public policy in Asia.

[1] Americans Affirm Ties to Allies in Asia. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Pg. 2. October, 2014. <http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/sites/default/files/2014%20Chicago%20Council%20Survey%20-%20Asia%20Report.pdf&gt;

[2] Soft Power in a Hard Place: China, Taiwan, Cross-Strait Relations and U.S. Policy. Pg. 510. Fall, 2010. 
<http://www.fpri.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/delisle.chinataiwan_01.pdf>

When Public Diplomacy Is a Bad Joke: The importance of in-groups and out-groups to the successful use of humor by diplomats

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Secretary of State John Kerry jokes with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta | State House, Nairobi | August 22, 2016 | Photo credit: U.S. Department of State

 

Derision is a complicated thing. At its most sophomoric, derision is little more than blowing raspberries on the playground – good for a laugh at someone’s expense but without much of a point. When given proper thought and execution, though, derision can deliver persuasive satire or charming self-deprecation, both of which bond audience and humorist closer together.

While diplomats use humor regularly to engage foreign audiences, often with successful results, there is little study of its use as a public diplomacy tool. Unfortunately, there is no formal understanding of the strategic use of humor when engaging foreign audiences. As a result, we see some nightmares when humor is poorly applied. When a diplomat’s joke bombs, the risk of real bombs is greater than when a new stand-up chokes at Comedy Works. It’s like Bono pleading with the UN to send a CVE-comedy task-force to Syria – we seem to know that there’s something there, but we just can’t quite grasp how to harness it.

Let’s talk about the failures of derision in public diplomacy. The most glaring example is “Think Again, Turn Away,” a counter-terrorism effort so poorly conceived that even our own comedians mocked it. In 2013, the Global Engagement Center from the U.S. Department of State launched the video “Think Again, Turn Away” on YouTube, intending to reach the same young audience that ISIS targeted online for recruitment. It wasn’t long before people realized that the snark-filled, sardonic PSA was utterly tone-deaf.

 

 

The team that produced “Think Again, Turn Away” undoubtedly understands the situation in ISIS-occupied territories better than most. They just don’t know comedy.

For every joke, there is an in-group and an out-group. These groups may be defined as those who get the joke and those who don’t, or along the classic laughing with/laughing at split. Derision especially lends itself to this split, more so than other comedic styles. Creating distinct in-groups and out-groups can reinforce or undermine existing narratives, depending on how those groups are framed.

Think of it this way: Everyone has a story in their head that tells them who they are. That’s our identity narrative. We have stories about our place in that world. We call those system narratives. In every narrative, there is a protagonist (the in-group) and an antagonist (the out-group). Generally, people like to be the protagonists of their own stories. We make this happen by aligning our identity narratives and system narratives in such a way that we belong to the in-group throughout. So, if we hear a different narrative, perhaps in the form of a joke, that recasts us as members of the out-group, we will reject that narrative. Not only that, we’ll likely cast whoever shared that narrative as a member of the out-group in our own narratives.

 

Here is a narrative map for a typical ISIS recruit, based on research on ISIS target messaging:

  Identity Narrative System Narrative
ISIS Recruit Young, over-educated & underemployed, an outsider (perceived or actual) of mainstream society, destined to and/or worthy of greatness Living in a society that is hostile towards identity, unjust, limited opportunities to advance; the West is keeping true believers down, only the caliphate is righteous

“Think Again, Turn Away” tries to undermine the “righteous caliphate” narrative by using sarcasm to cast ISIS in the out-group. However, the video fails to draw the potential recruits into its in-group. Therefore, it’s mockery only reinforces the theme of separation between recruits and the West present in both narrative levels.

 

So, if we hear a different narrative, perhaps in the form of a joke, that recasts us as members of the out-group, we will reject that narrative. Not only that, we’ll likely cast whoever shared that narrative as a member of the out-group in our own narratives.

Understanding the dynamics of in-groups and out-groups isn’t just good comedy – it’s good communication. Philip Seib says that successful communication is always audience based and ties into the narratives of that audience’s socio-political context. Obviously, “Think Again, Turn Away” is not audience based. Rather than embrace its target audience, clearly marking themselves as being “on the same team,” or both part of the in-group, the narrator mocks the ideological society that said audience expressed interest in joining. That is why the video targets its specified audience, after all. By mocking the group with which the audience has already identified, even superficially, it casts both in the out-group, cementing the audience’s allegiance to the butt of the joke.

One might have done less damage trying to sincerely persuade potential recruits to join ISIS. John Oliver points out that the State Department is “banking a lot on any potential militants understanding that [“Think Again, Turn Away”] is sarcasm,” the implication being that the intended audience won’t get the joke. Alternatively, the audience might understand the joke, but doesn’t find it the least bit funny. Either way, the video reinforces extremist messaging by squarely casting the audience in the out-group.

Whether or not potential recruits have the capacity or inclination to “appreciate” the video’s try at sarcasm, humans respond to humor cognitively and emotionally.  No one likes being mocked; it makes us feel bad. You learned this blowing raspberries on the playground. When the audience you are trying to reach is also the butt of your joke, you have missed the point.

 

The views expressed here are the author’s only and do no necessarily represent those of George Washington University.

Best ‘American’ Film: How America Lacks International Perspective with its Movies and Awards Shows

Movies are a very impactful and influential tool towards gaining a perspective of a culture, situation, norm, and/or environment, which is why PAOs acknowledge films as a legitimate form of cultural diplomacy. An American watching a movie taking place in Pakistan will notice norms that differ greatly from American culture, as would a Pakistani watching a film taking place in America. And through that simplistic cultural exchange, each viewer would have a better understanding of the other country. As Rhonda Zaharna mentions in her article The Cultural Awakening in Public Diplomacy, culture determines values, and movies represent culture.

So with this emphasis on movies and their impact, it’s hard to determine which film would be considered an all-encompassing “Best” film in the world. Film festivals that take place in Europe such as the Berlin International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, and the Venice Film Festival allow movies from all over the world to win the deserving “Best” film, actor, etc. category. The U.S., however, has only one category devoted to international films (Best Foreign Language Film) in their only film award show: The Academy Awards, or “Oscars”. The lack of international focus in film entries is representative of America’s overall lack of international perspective and interest in comparison to Europe’s.

In his article You Talkin’ to Me?, Begleiter states that Americans express an ignorance of the world by being ill informed about international politics and events, while not even caring enough to learn about them. He sees this lack of perspective as a lack of freedom, even though we pride ourselves on being the ‘freest country in the world.’

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Oscars website presentation: Best (American) Film carrying more weight than Best Foreign Language Film

The U.S.’s nationalism is even represented on the Oscars website by presenting the Best Film, Actor/Actress, and Animated Film awards (all American-directed and starred, in addition to being spoken in English with no subtitles) at the top with large photos of each winner, while presenting every other category in small boxes below. In terms of placement, the Best Foreign Language Film award is given the same amount of importance as the Best Sound Editing award.

In the European film festivals, on the other hand, that is not the case. For this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, the first three most prominent awards were given to people of completely different countries. The film festival also makes a point to award movies on categories such as the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize, a feature film that opens new perspectives. The Golden Bear for Best Film is the most notable award a film can receive, and the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize is right below that in terms of importance.

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From left to right: The Golden Bear for Best Film: Fuocoammare (Italy); Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize: Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis (Philippines/Singapore); Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize: Smrt u Sarajevu/Mort a Sarajevo (France/Bosnia and Herzegovina)

This festival makes a conscious decision to establish the importance of exposing oneself to new perspectives by specifically rewarding movies that make an obvious effort to do so.

In order to overcome our inherent ethnocentric bias, some embassies consciously make an effort to put on events that combine differing cultures. For example, the Embassies of the Czech Republic and the United States of America created a film festival specifically targeting the exchanging of American and Czech cultures by exposing those from Nicosia and Cyprus to American films but directed by Czech director Milos Forman. It was called the Milos Forman Film Festival and through the combined Embassy efforts, the Czechs were able to be exposed to American culture, while still feeling prideful in their own culture since Forman is from the Czech Republic and, and, subconsciously added Czech cultural references within these American films.

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Milos Forman Film Festival poster posted on the United States Embassy of Nicosia and Cyprus website

Since movies are such an impactful way to develop a better understanding of a culture different than your own, this type of film festival can be organized in the States as well. French, Japanese, Syrian, Hungarian, etc. embassies in the United States can create film festivals that are directed by people of those descent and represent the cultures of those from those foreign countries as well. There can also be an implementation of film festivals that represent American directors who live abroad and create abroad films in order to create a potential incentive or connection for American audiences to attend these film festivals. One example can be creating a film festival that highlights the work of French director Roman Polanski. Even though he was born in Paris, he has made movies in Poland, Britain, France, and the U.S., marking him the epitome of the quintessential international filmmaker. By hosting a Roman Polanski Film Festival in the states with the Polish, French, and British embassies involved, all four countries can experience and appreciate one another’s cultures, while giving American audiences an incentive to come since Polanski has made popular films in the states as well.

Through this cultural program, American audiences will become more informed about the culture that was represented in the movie he or she saw. And by becoming more informed about a culture, it will allow Americans to not only be less ill-informed, but also more inclined to learn more about said foreign country, it’s politics, international relations, and other foreign countries alike. By acknowledging these different cultures and learning that both your culture and another culture can coexist, it will allow you (American readers specifically) to base future decisions on this knowledge that people, places, and things can be different, and that’s okay.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. 

The Power of Film

Owen Suskind, son of Ron Suskind, at age 12. Credit: Suskind family via NYTimes.com

Owen Suskind, son of Ron Suskind, at age 12. Credit: Suskind family via NYTimes.com

The power of film is as unimaginable as the characters within the movies. As an under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs I tried to talk about film diplomacy but only now, reading Ron Suskind’s article in the NY Times do I truly begin to understand it.

It is a personal essay about his autistic son but it is much more than just a personal story—it is a public call about how we approach those with disabilities and how the movies can be so much more than entertaining.

Ironically, while on public diplomacy missions I tried to address the issue of disabilities as part of the American value of inclusiveness and reaching out to those with physical and cognitive disabilities. But I did not understand the linkage between film and those with disabilities until this article which opens the window onto the human mind, human emotion and how through film and books we change the human being.

I urge my TakeFive readers to read every word of this piece. Try not to cry. Or do.

Culinary Diplomacy: Power to Unite or Divide

Culinary diplomacy can help soften areas of high political tension. Credit: Naharnet.com

Culinary diplomacy can help soften areas of high political tension. Credit: Naharnet.com

Cultural diplomacy is a source of uniting or dividing people. The White House decision NOT to participate in the Sochi Paralympic games for athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities is a reflection of the crisis in Ukraine which has divided cultures and now cuts American participation off.

The Ukraine situation is a cultural breakdown between ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Tartars and other groups who struggle with cultural issues like language and history. Sports can be a part of positive diplomacy but is also a way to signal dissent with another country as is the case here. Cultural diplomacy – be it sports or other forms of so-called “soft power” is influential.

Recently I wrote about a form of cultural diplomacy known as culinary diplomacy where food is the source of bridging cultures.Taught and promoted at the Berlin-based Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, food diplomacy is taking off in the United States as well, in part due to an initiative started by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the Chef Corps which uses the power of chefs to teach slow cooking, agriculture, the business aspects of food, etc.

From Iran to Africa, from Haiti to Korea, from Ukraine to Uganda—food and sports are ways to motivate people: hopefully in a positive direction.

A Tribute to Shirley Temple Black, the Ultimate Public Diplomat

Editor’s note: Shirley Temple, famed former child actress, died this past Monday.

I met Shirley Temple when she was Ambassador to Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s at the embassy in Prague. She was charming, warm, and engaging—the perfect public diplomat. I was there on a delegation of women journalists and we stood in awe of the Ambassador’s grace and sparkle. She was the perfect host.

In this October 1990 image, U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia Shirley Temple Black speaks with Maj. Carolyn May. (Source: SSgt. David Nolan/dodmedia.osd.mil/)

In this October 1990 image, U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia Shirley Temple Black speaks with Maj. Carolyn May. (Source: SSgt. David Nolan/dodmedia.osd.mil/)

Shirley Temple Black’s career speaks to the inherent power of cultural diplomacy to move people in positive ways. As perhaps the biggest child movie star in history, she made magic with her dance and voice—and her talent echoed around the world as did her powerful films which made America look vibrant and culturally robust. In many ways she made America into the great “fairy tale” it could be—a nation beckoning others with its openness and warmth.

The innate connection of film and politics grew closer as Hollywood’s Ronald Reagan, who appeared with Shirley Temple in the 1947 film, “That Hagen Girl” became president and later Shirley Temple Black would become an Ambassador.

Shirley Temple Black will be missed. Her 8 ½ decades of successes live on.

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.

UNESCO and the US: Politics and Culture at the Water’s Edge

UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France. Source: Reuters via ibtimes.com

UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France. Source: Reuters via ibtimes.com

Earlier this month, the U.S. lost its voting rights in UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, after failing to pay its dues for the past two years following Palestine’s membership to the General Assembly. The move has been widely regarded by diplomats and experts as “undermining America’s ability to exercise its influence in countries around the globe” as well as UNESCO’s ability to pay the bills: the U.S. contributed approximately 22% of the agency’s $70-million-a-year budget.

More than anything, this is a major blow to U.S. public diplomacy. In addition to losing its say in the world’s preeminent cultural body, the image and soft power of the U.S. have also been diminished. Other consequences we can expect:

1. Delays in approving American historical sites to the World Heritage list. Two sites – one in Louisiana, one in Texas – were currently undergoing review when the deadline passed. Given recent events, their admission can expect delays. In the meantime, the thousand or so jobs that were anticipated with the designation of a World Heritage title remain in limbo.

2. Increased room for China’s growing soft power. In May, Hao Ping, the former Chinese Vice-Minister of Education, was elected president of UNESCO’s general conference, providing an invaluable opportunity for China to expand its own soft power prowess, especially now without the U.S. in the picture.

3. Decline and/or stall in programming. In addition to cultural programs, UNESCO runs hundreds of initiatives in education, science, and communication through field offices in every region in the world. Even with emergency funding, it is obvious these programs will suffer personnel lay-offs and funding cuts.

It is worth noting that the U.S. has always had a somewhat tenuous relationship with UNESCO. In 2002, it rejoined the UN agency after an 18-year hiatus over “a difference in vision.” And in spite of President Obama’s iteration to commit to UNESCO’s goals, the U.S. essentially has its hands tied due to laws enacted in 1994 by Congress that prevent it from contributing funds to any UN organization that recognizes Palestinian statehood.

Whatever the reason, the cultural legacy of the U.S., particularly as a founding member of UNESCO, now hangs in the balance. The last thing it needs after a year of public image disasters (Syria, Edward Snowden, NSA phone tapping, to name a few) is to have politics get in the way of something that was meant to facilitate diplomacy without it.

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