Explaining the Inexplicable

This week I’ve been going back to my survey of American study abroad participants, in which I asked about their experiences of talking about US politics overseas during and after the 2016 election. By far the most frequently asked question they faced was simply “What happened?” They wanted to know why the election had the outcome it did, why Trump won, why Clinton lost, and whether Americans were actually in agreement with Trump’s platform.

It’s been almost two years since the election, and we still don’t really have all of the answers. Hillary Clinton even used that question as a title for her book, which she’s now promoting again for its paperback release.

There are a lot of contributing factors–the electoral college, for starters. Americans might be asked to explain the electoral college to people they meet overseas, often without fully understanding it themselves. There have only been a few elections in which the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral college, but two of them have now happened in our lifetime, and both were to the detriment of the Democratic party (2000 & 2016). That’s going to raise some eyebrows when we try to explain it overseas.

Another factor is the problem of “fake news”–not Trump’s definition of “fake news”, i.e. every form of journalism but Fox News–but actual misinformation disguised as news and circulated on social media by readers who may or may not be aware of its true nature. Trump’s overuse of the term has turned it into a joke, but the spread of fake news stories that smeared Hillary Clinton may have had real consequences, particularly in swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Ilkley Brewery’s real ale with the slogan “Making Beer Great Again!” and Topshop jeans

There’s also the matter of Russian influence that we still don’t really know the full details of–but a few things are certain: 1) Russia did definitely meddle in the election, 2) they wanted Trump to win, and 3) Trump really doesn’t believe they did.

There are a range of other contributing factors, too: the Democratic party’s in-fighting and prolonged primary with Bernie Sanders, the “baggage” of Bill Clinton’s scandals, James Comey’s investigation announcement that came far too close to the election (and although it turned up nothing, the damage was done), Hillary Clinton’s so-called “likability” problem which is probably just sexism against the first female Presidential candidate, etc.

I’m still going through the survey data, but so far I’m just struck with the enormity of what we Americans abroad are asked to do, when we’re asked to explain the 2016 election. There’s really no explaining it, not then and not even two years on from it.

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The added value of diplomats’ spouses

This morning I came across an article about a group of ambassadors’ wives working together on economic inequality–arguably one of the greatest challenges facing the world today, alongside (and linked with) climate change. The Spirit Level is a fascinating book that makes a strong case for inequality being the root cause behind a wide range of problems, from crime to obesity, teen pregnancy to the opioid epidemic.

These ambassadors’ wives, whose husbands are based at embassies in Berlin, are led by Julia Przyłębska, the wife of the Polish ambassador to Germany. Amongst their proposed projects, they want to organise international youth exchanges with a technical, environmental and agricultural focus. Przyłębska noted that diplomats’ wives have access to a highly international network of contacts, and they want to use this network to tackle collective problems:

She added that being wives of diplomats the group is in an ideal position to support those struggling against economic inequalities. 

She said: “Within the embassy, it is easy to bring together an international group of people from different countries in order to exchange and work together on solutions for today‘s global problems: unequal salaries and wages, the rights of the disabled and seniors, the access of the poorest to education. Also we ladies often have the advantage of having enough time, because we are rarely active professionally.” (source)

That last sentence sounds like something out of the 1950s, but it’s a good point: the accompanying spouse (male or female) of an Ambassador does have limitations on his/her career, due to the temporary and mobile nature of a diplomatic career. The realities of moving between countries for undetermined periods of time precludes having much of a professional life, and it’s something that the couple must negotiate between themselves.

This story reminded me of the Fulbright wives I discussed in my chapter for the upcoming book, The Legacy of J. William Fulbright, edited by David J. Snyder, Alessandro Brogi, Giles Scott-Smith, University of Kentucky Press (forthcoming 2018).

My chapter, Fulbright Women in the Global Intellectual Elite, includes a section on the contributions of accompanying spouses to the goals of public diplomacy. In my archival research, I noticed the prominence of Fulbrighters’ wives in the field–they volunteered at local schools, joined community organisations, hosted parties for their husbands’ colleagues and students, etc. In some cases, they were arguably more closely integrated into the local host community than their husbands were. By engaging in these kinds of activities, they were directly contributing to the culture learning processes that are an expected outcome of exchange diplomacy.

This has observation important implications for our understanding of how public diplomacy works–who the key actors are, how people engage with hosts, what kinds of activities enable culture learning to take place. The wives were not the recipients of grants, they didn’t attend orientation programmes or briefings, they had no formal role in exchange diplomacy–yet they formed lasting ties with members of the host community and played a significant role in culture learning processes.

These women (and male spouses of grantees) represent “added value” for exchange diplomacy practices. Their contribution has often been overlooked, or even discouraged. Senator Fulbright himself believed the grants should go to unmarried scholars, who would be able to focus on their work and engage with their colleagues without the ‘distractions’ of a family life. I would argue that this view is very much based on Senator Fulbright’s experience as a Rhodes Scholar. Bachelorhood was one of the original requirements of the program–the Rhodes Scholarships were even opened to women long before they were opened to married candidates (1977 vs. 1995, p. 345). This view fails to see the potential for spouses and children to enrich the culture learning experiences of an exchange programme. A spouse, particularly one who cannot work due to visa regulations and therefore has a lot of free time, can connect with locals in the community on a much broader and deeper level than the grantee can. Children can integrate their parents into local schools, parent-teacher associations, community activities and playgroups. They can represent added value for the grantee, not a mere ‘distraction’.

Cultural Diplomacy and Brexit

In the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, the urgent considerations are the basics: food, water, shelter, healthcare. After those needs are taken care of, after some time has passed, victims start to realise the full scope of what’s been lost: their favourite pair of shoes, their photo albums and scrapbooks, the irreplaceable heirlooms, etc. Some things will be more important than others, and the absence of some missing items won’t ever be noticed.

Brexit is shaping up to be such an event–a disaster with far-reaching impacts in areas that we hadn’t fully considered or predicted–and some people won’t even notice them. I suspect that cultural diplomacy and cultural relations between the UK and EU might be one of them.

I’m starting to work on a chapter about the European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO), a cultural diplomacy initiative by the EU that has recently moved its headquarters from London to Ferrara, Italy due to Brexit. As the name suggests, it’s an orchestra made up of young musicians from each of the 28 member states. They were formed in 1976 and have been touring the world as a European delegation to foreign audiences since 1978. They’re collaborating with Chinese musicians from the Shanghai Orchestra Academy as part of the EU’s Experience Europe campaign in China.

In a 2016 speech, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the orchestra was “the best possible ambassador for the European Union. Wherever it plays, the European tune becomes a political programme, and vice versa. And I am therefore pleased that we have a European Youth Orchestra. I would much rather see young people playing music together than politicians plotting against each other.”

The future of British performers’ eligibility will be determined by the current negotiations taking place, but it is likely that they will no longer be able to participate. Their website states that they only accept applications from EU member state musicians–so no Norwegians, Swiss, or Icelandic musicians. Under an FAQ about British eligibility, they write: “UK players ARE STILL eligible to apply in the autumn of 2018 for the EUYO 2019 Orchestra. The arrangement for future years will depend on the details of the agreement negotiated between the EU and the UK.”  (emphasis as original)

Most of the people who voted to leave the EU won’t notice or care about the orchestra’s move to Italy or the fact that British youth won’t be able to apply for it anymore. They’ll point to The Proms and insist that we don’t need foreign musicians to have a great orchestra.

But one of the reasons why I love this story and decided to research it further is that I know it does matter. An orchestra is a great metaphor for international cooperation, for the European Union’s motto “United in Diversity”. Each instrument makes a different sound, gets played in a different way, but they all work together to create an orchestra. You can’t play orchestral music alone. There might be soloists who shine a bit brighter in the spotlight than the rest of the group, but at the end of the day the success of an orchestra depends upon the contributions of all of its members.

We don’t know what’s going to happen in 6 months’ time when Britain leaves the EU. Negotiations are still going on, plagued by in-fighting in the UK Government (though seemingly unchallenged and untempered by the opposition party–apart from Sadiq Khan). There’s a great deal of uncertainty in this, but I do know that leaving the EU means leaving EU cultural diplomacy and exchange diplomacy activities, and thereby represents a loss to the ultimate goal of international mutual understanding and goodwill.

It’s the young people who will be hurt by this change–the talented young British musicians who want to join a competitive, prestigious orchestra that has been touring around the world for 40 years. They weren’t old enough to vote in 2016, so they were shut out of this opportunity with no say in the matter.

When the British people went to the polls and ticked a box next to a simplistic “Yes” or “No” question, they had no idea of the full scope of the implications that would arise from their vote–and I’m certain that there will be more cases like the EUYO that we’ll learn about in the years to come.

 

Montenegro and the role of values & culture in diplomacy

One of the stranger international affairs headlines (apart from Steven Seagal’s envoy appointment) in recent weeks was Trump’s criticism of Montenegro in an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. It was part of his criticism of NATO and Article 5 (which has only ever been invoked by the US), but it seemed particularly out-of-left-field, even for Trump.

“Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. They are very aggressive people, they may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III.” (Politico’s coverage)

There are a lot of issues with this, obviously, but rather than spending time picking apart Trump’s bizarre statement, I’d like to highlight the way the UK ambassador talks about and with Montenegro as a point of contrast.

HMA Alison Kemp recently spoke at a panel marking the 140th anniversary of UK-Montenegro relations. In her remarks, she emphasised the role of culture in international relations:  “In many ways Culture, even more so than a diplomat, is the Ambassador for a country, it shapes a people’s response to a foreign country, and influences, enchants or repels decision-makers. ” The anniversary celebration events include cultural diplomacy activities, including a Montenegrin art exhibition and concerts in London and a Play UK festival in Podgorica.

Kemp’s speech gave some interesting insights into the Government’s current mindset and approach to world affairs, which have often been obscured by the uncertainty of Brexit negotiations, the gaffes that often seem to happen when Brits are around Chinese delegations, and the sideshow of last month’s Trump visit. I also particularly liked her thoughts on the role of culture & values in diplomacy more generally–very much in line with the “humanising IR” approach:

“As diplomats, we spend our days thinking about values: explaining and projecting the values that form the basis of our society and national interests. And in seeking to understand and influence the values of the countries to which we are posted.

And our values, our culture, drive our international diplomacy. Whether we are standing with Montenegro and 80 other countries in support of a safer world by seeking to improve the ability of relevant international organisations to investigate chemical weapons attacks, or working with Montenegro and 37 countries who have signed the Global Call to Action to end forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking.

These examples prove another important point, that culture and values in diplomacy are powerful ways of building consensus around issues.

A government can’t construct culture, it can only provide an environment in which culture develops. In the UK this means focusing on creativity in education, in valuing the arts, and in ensuring we champion our values through our policies.”–Ambassador Alison Kemp, 27 June 2018