The U.S. crafted the existing international system after World War 2. This system carries on today through existing norms, treaties, and international bodies. In the unique case of Japan, U.S. influence lives on in its very Constitution. It is no coincidence, then, that with such a high level of influence, U.S.-Japan relations remain strong. However, multiple outside influences threaten the U.S.- led world order and challenge U.S.-Japan relations. Examples include the rise of regional powers and a multi-polar system, security threats in the Asia Pacific, and political shifts in the U.S. that normalize isolationist rhetoric and downplay nuclear proliferation. In the transition to the new world order Japan is redefining its identity and national narrative to cope with these changes, rather than recycling the post-War narrative crafted for and at the hands of the U.S. Maintaining one of our strongest alliances relies more than ever on the idea of the alliance itself. How will the U.S. craft its narrative in the face of a shifting international system? The Okinawa base relocation debate is a microcosm of this narrative contest.
Nowhere is Japan’s struggle to come to terms with the post-War world order more pronounced than in Okinawa. The debate over U.S. plans to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma has lasted over 20 years. U.S. and Japanese governments have been lobbying for the base’s move to Henoko, a more remote part of the island than the central hub of Futenma. However, the larger question is not whether locals support the base move, but whether they support U.S. military presence on the island at all. Okinawa already houses the majority of the American military presence in Japan, which residents feel is an unfair resource burden. Narratives ranging from environmental activism to pacifism have emerged in criticism of U.S. base relocation.
Now, as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasizes normalization and revisions to Article 9 of the Constitution, protests have reached a clarion call. Abe is continuing his campaign to realign Japan with the ever-shifting construct of “the West,” while many in the Japanese general public and the majority of the public in Okinawa prescribe to a divergent vision. Okinawa can be viewed as a microcosm of the narrative contest between traditionally defined notions of the “West” and rising counter-narratives about the West itself, as well as its importance in the multipolar order. Below, we map both pro- and anti-base narratives to depict counter-points and potential areas of collaboration. The outcome of this narrative contestation provides a window into future trends in U.S. – Japan relations.
This post uses the phrases “Base Relocation within Japan” and “Base Removal from Japan” as labels to analyze the broader contesting narratives. However, note that these are simplifications of local narratives with complexities beyond the scope of this post. Sourcing for narrative examples without links can be found in the footnotes.
If Japan’s national government is to achieve public support for the base relocation issue, the U.S. needs to rebrand its military as a force for peace in the region and win the narrative contest. There are some overlapping points between the two narrative camps, notably the consensus on rising regional security threats. However, for those in the “anti- base relocation” camp, the negative portrayal of U.S. soldiers and the linkage of the modern-day U.S. military with collective memory of violence on Okinawa trumps abstract regional threats. In short, the “anti-base relocation” camp does a better job making concerns relevant to Okinawans’ everyday lives. The U.S. needs to do the same, while addressing local needs and concerns.
This can be accomplished through:
The failure to address the Okinawa base relocation issue leaves space for competing narratives to gain traction. The above actions will contribute to an overall battle to “win the narrative”, not just in Okinawa, but within the U.S. – Japan security relationship as a whole.
The views presented in this post are the author’s own.
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.
You wouldn’t know it from President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, but Latin America is an immensely important economic and security partner for the United States. Increasingly open and engaged, the region has seen a dramatic shift in the last twenty years away from insecurity and protectionism and toward international cooperation, with deep impacts for the United States. Opening doors for U.S. investments in Argentina, President Mauricio Macri has enacted outward-looking economic and trade policies following decades of protectionist economics. Bringing revenue to U.S. farmers, the North American Free Trade Agreement has more than doubled United States agricultural exports to Mexico, making the country the United States’ third largest agricultural market. Securing peace in the Western Hemisphere after 52 years of conflict, the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia have taken steps to reconcile polarization and to reach a renewed peace agreement following the national plebiscite. Far beyond the picture of illegal immigration Donald Trump paints, Latin America has benefited the United States and will continue to do so. The region has cleaned up its act. If the next U.S. administration wants to continue its strategic and beneficial partnership with its neighbors to the South, it may want to clean up its rhetoric. Public diplomacy can help.
In the weeks following the election of a presidential candidate that espoused a vision of isolationism and “America first,” engagement with Latin America has come under fire. In fact, if President-elect Trump sticks by his promises, U.S. bilateral and free trade agreements with countries in Latin America may be rolled back, cultural engagement may wane and investments may suffer. With countries like China and Russia increasingly present in Latin America, gaps may widen that allow for these nations to predominantly influence the political, cultural and economic conversation and realities in the region with potentially far-reaching consequences for the United States.
Whether or not a Trump-led pivot inward becomes a reality, at a time of deep misunderstanding and polarization, U.S. public diplomacy is imperative. Having long sustained relationships, public diplomacy has the potential to not only highlight the plethora of benefits engagement has brought to the United States and to countries in the region, but also assure the United States is seen as more than Donald Trump makes it out to be. Public diplomacy’s ongoing and long-term nature can thus help counter negative perceptions to facilitate the continuation of U.S. ties with the region. If nothing else, public diplomacy must go on.
During the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States, Latin American governments and publics bristled at the anti-Hispanic, anti-immigrant and anti-trade narrative the Republican candidate adopted. As a result, weeks after the election, it has been suggested America’s soft power may be a casualty of that toxic narrative. Shashi Tharoor, former Under Secretary General of the United Nations, suggests that while America’s domestic narrative has in the past made up for its foreign policy mishaps, Trump’s narrative of Mexico as a hub of illegal immigration, his suggestion that a Muslim registry be enacted and his overall comments against NAFTA and trade may now lead countries to associate America with “xenophobia,” “misogyny,” “pessimism,” and “selfishness.”
In lieu of the future President’s campaign promises, United States diplomats will have the tough job of shaping a narrative in a world replete with uncertainties. Because candidates tend to act on the promises they make on the campaign trail, the United States is likely to turn inward and to prioritize little about foreign policy with Latin America other than immigration and border security. Consequently, at the end of four years, the United States may no longer be seen as the country of the American dream. From a security standpoint, it may no longer have the influence it wishes to have.
Realistically, it is too soon to say just how United States foreign policy and alliances will change when President-elect Trump comes into office.
But, in Latin America, U.S. public diplomats can capitalize on shared interests and general positive public opinion of the United States to enhance a public diplomacy strategy that emphasizes the political processes, the strength of civil societies and businesses, and the freedom of speech and press — pillars of North American and Latin American democracies. United States personnel on the ground will surely encounter challenges in creating mutual understanding with Latin America because a say-do gap will inevitably exist. That said, vast sectors of the United States already actively engage with the region: businesses are investing, universities and research institutions have ongoing student, scientific and professional exchange programs, and NGOs already have a robust presence on the ground. In other words, public diplomacy is being conducted by other parties, whether or not we want to call it by that name. The foundation for collaboration is in place. Realistically, that foundation and those shared interests will not disappear overnight.
All of this is to say that as the new President prepares to enter the White House, U.S. public diplomacy should be more committed than ever to mitigating alienation of foreign audiences and sustaining open-minded two-way conversations. Latin America is moving away from populism at a time when the rest of the world moves toward it. U.S. public diplomacy is ripe to simultaneously reconcile a United States history of interventionism and foster long-term relationships by emphasizing shared interests, by sticking to active sectors of public diplomacy, and by sharing with the world the diversity of viewpoints that exist in the United States. This country has an interest in fostering mutual understanding, maintaining engagement, and sustaining its long-standing partnerships in the region. Beyond the narrative that comprises “America first,” “bad hombres,” and “nasty women,” U.S. public diplomacy remains alive and has the potential to mitigate negative perceptions over the long haul. At a moment of worldwide uncertainty—wars in the Middle East, a debilitating refugee crisis, increasing Russian and Chinese influence, and Britain’s exit from the European Union—Latin America is not only a region at peace but one that is quickly growing. It falls on U.S. public diplomats to bridge divisive narratives fueled by Donald Trump to assure engagement efforts are sustained. This will help guarantee the United States continues to reap the mutually prosperous benefits of collaboration with Latin America.
The views expressed in this posting are the author’s only and do not necessarily reflect those of George Washington University.
While studying abroad with the GW School of Business in Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics over the past three weeks, I had the extraordinary opportunity to attend a site visit to visit an NGO which combines sport with education and empowerment for the betterment of society.
Fight for Peace (FFP), known as Luta Pela Paz in Portuguese, is a boxing and martial arts gym in Complexo da Maré that was founded in 2000 by Luke Dowdney, a social anthropologist from England. Dowdney moved to Rio in the late 1990s to complete research on his masters thesis on street children and the drug trade, and has since built FFP into a world renowned sport for peace NGO that has been recognized by the International Olympic Committee and countless governments and foreign ministries for its life-changing work. In 2015 alone, 1,913 young people attended Fight for Peace, and 34% were girls. Last year, the organization expanded to London, and is operating a similar socially-conscious sport NGO model there as well.
Life in Complexo da Maré, a favela in Rio, is far from predictable. Violence from within the community, as well as increased raids by police and other law enforcement have fostered a cyclical environment of danger in a very densely populated community. After speaking with a panel of young people at FFP, what I thought was most striking was that while all of them are fearful for their safety and the safety of their families, they are not resolved to doing nothing with their lives, and are vocal about their aspirations. While I didn’t meet them prior to entering the program at FFP, I can imagine that the values the organization teaches using their custom “theory of change” methodology have empowered these young people to become the leaders that they are today.
The young women of the group were particularly inspiring to me. Their very presence in the room was a testament to the importance of a program like FFP in a community where their voices may be marginalized. Some were young mothers, others were finishing high school and didn’t have a concrete plan for the future prior to joining FFP. All of them talked about the importance of FFP in empowering them to become leaders in their community, and leaders at FFP. The mothers are now teaching their children the values instilled in them through the methodology learned at FFP.
In the lead up to the Olympics, the media portrayal of Rio, and in particular of the favelas, really dehumanized the people living there and reduced their stories to tragedy porn. While life is by no means easy for the participants of FFP’s Rio gym, spending time laughing, joking, and sharing our cultures was an important part of my Rio experience. It allowed me the opportunity to see their community with my own eyes, and be able to take away a more complex understanding of their lives and the impact that FFP has had upon them, and empathize with their feelings of fear of uncertainty.
Sports diplomacy can be tricky–many public diplomacy scholars are skeptical of the results or impact that it can have long term. However, by visiting an organization like FFP, I realized that the true takeaway from public diplomacy or track II diplomacy with a sport component is the learning of best practices that can be applied in other communities around the world to better society. FFP has already partnered with the Jamaican government to implement their theory of change in sports programs within the country. Furthering local level initiatives is likely the best way to see positive impacts of sports diplomacy.
Being in Rio for the Olympics was in and of itself an extraordinary experience. However, being there is kind of like being at Disney World; you’re in a bubble of Olympic proportions. You eat, sleep (or not), and breathe Olympics. Everything from logistics to sport to “news” updates which generally consist of scores and which celebrities visited France House the night before. It can be incredibly difficult to contextualize the Olympics within the confines of the actual city that is playing host. Even more difficult is imagining the impact that they have on the average Carioca (the term citizens of Rio call themselves). Having the opportunity to visit Fight for Peace was by far the most important factor in shaping my opinion of the impact of the Games on the people of Rio both during the two weeks of the event, and after the torch is extinguished. Will there be further investment in peace through sport efforts? Infrastructure developments that will further connect people to major economic and social hubs throughout the city? One of the members of the youth council at FFP was very skeptical of the sustained efforts to improve the daily life of Cariocas post-Olympics. Only time will tell as far as further government involvement. However, it is all but certain that FFP will continue its efforts both in Rio and abroad to foster communities of strong young people eager to make a positive impact on the world.
Digital diplomacy is a complement to traditional diplomacy because it can reach specific audiences in a more timely, relevant, and flexible way. Jed Shein, co-founder of the Digital Diplomacy Coalition, said that digital diplomacy is “about recognizing where people are spending time today, where they are the most active, and how they receive that information.”
In fact, the fundamentals of public diplomacy can be found at the basis of digital diplomacy. It’s equally important for the State Department to recognize a target audience, identify the appropriate medium of information and choose the correct information platform when presenting a public diplomacy initiative online as it is in person.
The true essence of digital diplomacy is flexibility. Digital diplomacy efforts can be enacted across different online platforms including official blogs, social media pages, and websites, with relative ease. However, the savants are those who show a demonstrated ability to differentiate between content type and online platform type. Many have not strengthened their online presence as much as they would like because they follow the common misconception that all digital platforms are created equal. While there is a place for official policy documents on official websites, social media pages are not the right place. Foreign ministries should post content that engages the local audiences and creates dialogue through videos, images, and text on social media networks.
It is encouraging to see the international diplomatic community embracing digital diplomacy. On January 30, the United Nations organized the inaugural Social Media Day at its headquarters in New York City. The event was a collaborative effort between the United Nations, Digital Diplomacy Coalition and a number of international countries. This one-day event involved panel discussions, briefings from social media experts, as well a hashtag campaign using #socialUN.
The event also allowed anyone online to livestream the event on YouTube. This effort on the UN’s part showed the flexibility and relevance of digital diplomacy. For instance, the #socialUN campaign connected diplomats at the same event while the online video stream attracted foreign publics that were unable to attend the event in person. Furthermore, UN Social Media Day showed that digital diplomacy can strengthen multilateral efforts between nations and collaborate alongside new civil society partners.
The Digital Diplomacy Coalition is a new partner from civil society that is taking entirely new approaches to building connections within the diplomatic community using technology. While they don’t conduct diplomacy on behalf of a particular nation, the Digital Diplomacy Coalition is an “international, independent, volunteer-based organization,” that fosters a collaborative environment for members of the diplomatic, international and technology communities “to leverage digital technologies for diplomacy.”
Originally founded by Scott Nolan Smith, Roos Kouwenhoven, Jed Shein and Floris Winters in 2012, the organization has collaborated alongside the likes of tech titans such as Google, Fosterly, Tumblr, universities such as Johns Hopkins University, George Washington University and Georgetown University as well as the foreign ministries of Canada, Jordan, Peru, Kosovo, and Italy among many other nations. By bringing influential people from tech, government and international spheres, The Digital Diplomacy coalition is creating an environment that is realizing the potential of digital diplomacy challenges and best practices.
The U.S. government is also looking for innovative ways to drive digital diplomacy efforts. In 2013, the State Department announced the launch of the Collaboratory, an effort to use technology to drive public diplomacy efforts. Evan Ryan, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, explained that the program would serve as a “platform to collaborate, incubate and pilot new ideas that amplify people to people exchanges and connect people using technologies.” The Collaboratory will provide additional opportunities for public-private partnership as well as new programming ideas that are both timely and relevant for local audiences.
However, innovation in the digital diplomacy space cannot simply result in the recycling of old content. Innovation must be driven by entirely new forms of content that engage local populations in a personal manner. The efforts of New York artist Amir Bakshi is the type of innovation needed in digital diplomacy. In late 2014, Bakshi launched “Portals”, a contemporary art project that brings people together from opposite corners of the world through videoconference and a recycled shipping container. The first Portal connected New Yorkers with Iranian citizens who could see the life-size projection of their counterpart as they discussed issues related to daily life.
Bakshi’s New York exhibit also captured the attention of journalist, Fareed Zakaria and filmmaker Morgan Spurlock who signed up to participate in the cultural exchange. The Collaboratory could use a similar citizen-driven approach to create a digital diplomacy initiative that provides Americans and foreign citizens with the opportunities to become 21st century pen-pals. This type of initiative could also be more sustainable because local and foreign citizens have a hand in the diplomacy making process by driving the content themselves.
As the international arena moves further into the 21st century, which countries will adopt digital diplomacy as part of the status quo? What challenges will they face? Comment below.
Note: This entry was originally posted on ipdgc.gwu.edu as an event recap.
David Ensor, director of the Voice of America, believes America’s voice is a “far more” effective weapon in foreign policy than most hard power tools, and that most Americans don’t realize the value it has in furthering US policy abroad.
He said this and more at Tuesday’s event, “America’s Voice: U.S. International Media in the Age of Putin, ISIS, and Ebola“, held at the School of Media and Public Affairs. In front of an audience of nearly 100 students, faculty, and professionals, Ensor shared his trajectory in becoming the director of VOA after 30 years as a journalist covering national security and a variety of other topics. He made the case for why VOA matters in today’s “crowded” global media market, despite having its roots in the U.S. government as a tool of public diplomacy.
“What VOA does is honest reporting and we do that because it’s the law of the land,” Ensor said. “There is room on the VOA platform for objective journalism and editorials supporting U.S. policy.”
After sharing two videos that demonstrated the VOA’s breadth of international news coverage in multiple languages, Ensor sat with Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, and discussed in an interview format the challenges VOA has faced in recent times, such as budget changes, the Russian crackdown on international media outlets, and the value of studying journalism despite declining job opportunities for recent graduates.
“If given a bigger budget right now, I would spend that on improving our news services in Russian, then Kurdish and Turkish, and then Mandarin,” Ensor said. In regards to Russia’s ban on VOA in the country, Ensor said he would reach out to private companies and set up alternate news outlets in the former Soviet space to help bring alternative voices to the country.
“There’s a reason some governments around the world try so hard to block alternative voices. It’s a powerful tool than most realize,” Ensor said.
Following the interview, Ensor took questions from the audience, which varied from the protection of journalists in dangerous countries and efforts by the U.S. in competing with terrorist communication networks.
“Yes, there a lot more voices out there,” Ensor said in his closing remarks. “But we offer a certain kind of credibility that cuts through the cacophony.”
“It is important to be ‘seen’ – being there physically matters if you want to be a successful diplomat,” noted Ambassador Robert Ford at the 4th Annual Walter Roberts Lecture last Wednesday.
Public diplomacy (PD) professionals have long emphasized that the last few feet of communication can make a huge difference in public perception and engagement. Ambassador Ford demonstrated clearly, through fascinating accounts from his tours overseas, that public diplomacy is essential to successful diplomatic work. Countering the notion that diplomats work behind the closed doors of government, the former U.S. Ambassador to Syria and Algeria emphasized the role of active public diplomacy in breaking down barriers and conveying policy messages.
Here are the five lessons that Ambassador Ford referred to in his lecture that he had learned were important for successful public diplomacy:
We often forget that many people around the world have never met an American, much less an American diplomat. People in Syria, Egypt, China or Brazil have a vision of Americans that is often formed by television programs, movies, websites, the news or the anecdotes of friends who may have come into contact with an American. One “ugly American” can color the perception of a whole village; conversely, one open, warm and understanding American student or teacher can influence an entire student body at a university.
Ambassador Ford noted that his visit early in the Syria conflict to Hama to witness local demonstrations and listen to the points of view of all parties had an enormous impact on the people he met and policy makers in Washington simply because he was physically there. He believed that his visit sent a message to Syrians that the U.S. supported the right to freedom of expression and assembly.
Over the years, as a public diplomacy officer in the Foreign Service, I have worked with many ambassadors. We have debated together the merits of “being there” to convey a message that actions could express more forcefully than words. Should the ambassador attend a funeral of a prominent dissident? What about attending the opening event at a film festival that was airing anti-American films? Would it be effective to speak at the opening of a Special Olympics event to highlight our concept of equal access for all? Or, to demonstrate respect for local culture and religion should the ambassador visit an historic mosque, church synagogue or temple?
As I accompanied these ambassadors, I met people who would consistently note how important it was for the U.S. to send the message of support for human rights, tolerance or inclusivity through the presence of our ambassador. No matter what the activity, just “being there” always had an impact and conveyed the essence of American values.
At my last post in Cairo, we debated the merits of what we called “grassroots public diplomacy” or reaching out to regular people, Ambassador Ford’s number two on the list of lessons. But, who are “regular people” and why are they important? Traditional diplomacy has focused on relations between governments and government officials. For centuries, diplomats met in offices at foreign ministries or at formal events. Over time, diplomatic activity expanded to include critical influencers of foreign policy or public opinion, such as journalists, writers or cultural figures.
Regular people are basically everyone from the doorkeeper, elementary school teacher, and NGO worker to the owner of the local café. They are important because if you take the time to meet them, discuss and listen you can really understand the local economy, political situation or mood of a country. And, in societies where people believe their neighbors or family members more than the evening news broadcaster, your meeting could be significant in influencing public opinion.
I still remember the eyes of a mother from a poor community in Tunisia who took me aside at a student graduation ceremony to note that our English language after-school program had kept her son off the streets and out of trouble. We sat, surrounded by other parents, as she discussed her dreams for her son and I presented our exchange program opportunities. Taking the time to listen changed the entire dynamic of the event for everyone at a time when criticism of U.S. policy on Iraq was on the front page of every paper.
Ambassadors are notorious for their discomfort with the latest in social media. First of all – by the time you get to be an ambassador, you are usually older than the rest of the staff at the embassy (apologies to ambassadors!) Persuading an ambassador to tweet, use Instagram, or blog usually results in the Public Affairs Officer and staff being assigned another task.
The point is not whether the ambassador or other diplomatic staff knows how to use the latest technology – it is whether they understand how to incorporate it as a tool for planning and strategy in communication and outreach. In his speech, Ambassador Ford highlighted the use of social media in a restrictive communications environment. When he could not reach out to present the U.S. administration’s point of view on the treatment of Syrian demonstrators, he could still get out the word via Facebook. Whether it is Youtube, Twitter, Facebook or another platform preferred in a specific country, social media allows a diplomatic mission to reach large numbers of people.
In Cairo, the embassy currently has over 850,000 Facebook fans. They post questions and comments in Arabic and English, sign-up for events, or participate in competitions. Once we asked, who are all these people? And in keeping with point number two, an event was organized to meet 100 of fans. They came from all over the country and from every strata in society: students, businessmen and women, alumni of exchange programs, journalists, teachers… the list was endless. They all had one thing in common: an enthusiasm to engage. And in keeping with point number one, some of them had never met an American and now there was an opportunity for American diplomats to “be there.”
The usual modus operandi of all ambassadors is to get as much positive press coverage of U.S. policy or diplomatic activities as possible. Public diplomacy sections, especially the press officers, spend hours strategizing on how to make this happen. They work hard to figure out how to use media opportunities to convey important messages to local publics. And, the press officer will also arrange events where the ambassador and other officers have the opportunity to listen to the insights and opinions of local press.
Ambassador Ford, however, reminded the audience that more is not always a good thing: “Don’t overuse access to the media.” Some messages are better delivered in person behind the closed doors of a foreign ministry or in a speech to a specific audience of businessmen. The message, when delivered via the media, can result in host government backlash if it is unexpected. Or, because you just made the issue part of a public debate – it gets buried by the response of multiple and conflicting articles and opinions.
Public diplomacy officers are always aware, as well, that journalists want access to the ambassador just as much as we want to get out a good story. Sometimes that results in the equivalent of journalistic “blackmail” – “I am doing a story on X and it will run tomorrow. Can you give me a comment?” Or, they run a story and when you call to note they have the facts wrong – then the journalist asks for an exclusive to set the record straight.
So, use media access judiciously and with awareness that it is the right tool for the purpose.
As a public diplomacy officer, I was heartened to hear Ambassador Ford note that soft-power and outreach can have a tremendous impact on foreign publics. He recounted a story of visiting a university in Algeria. He told the PAO (Public Affairs Officer) to keep it low-key since he knew that U.S. policy in Iraq was not very popular at the time. When he arrived at the university, he was overwhelmed by a large and very public welcome. It turns out that the English language and skills building programs established by the Public Affairs Office and implemented by partnerships with U.S. universities where tremendously popular and successful. The university president wanted more! I could recount more stories where finding common interest has resulted in politics being put aside – but, I am running out of space. These blogs are supposed to be under 800 words and I am over!
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.
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.
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.
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.