The Last Three (Make that Six…) Feet

This pandemic has brought into question one of the basic tenets of public diplomacy–Murrow’s ‘Last Three Feet’ of international messaging. The ‘personal touch’ of a Cultural Affairs Officer or a citizen diplomat communicating with locals overseas face-to-face was the whole point of public diplomacy. Bringing people together, sharing ideas and experiences, learning through immersion–how can that happen at a distance? In this new global context of travel restrictions, what does public diplomacy look like? What is its raison d’être?

The USC CPD Blog has had some really interesting pieces over the past couple of months, and when I get a chance, I hope to read them all & reflect on them here. In the meantime, here are some of my preliminary thoughts on PD in the post-Covid-19-era:

  1. Moving (even further) online

Firstly, I think we’re going to see public diplomacy activities shift online, even more than they already have, with things like virtual exhibits and galleries, and webcasts of lectures, and distance learning versions of educational exchange.

This has tremendous opportunities for expanding the reach of public diplomacy efforts. Where an art exhibition might only reach a few hundred visitors in person, making it available on the web and sharing it on social media platforms could increase its reach dramatically. It also has significant cost-savings and environmental advantages, when compared with the expense and pollution of international air travel.

Craig Hayden’s 2016 chapter “Technology Platforms for Public Diplomacy: Affordances for Education” considered the potential applications of MOOCs (massive open online courses). It highlighted some of the ways technology can enhance PD practices, and raises interesting points for consideration as our reliance on technology increases. The US State Department’s MOOC Camp is discussed as a largely successful endeavour, and it offers a model which could be built upon in the future.

One caveat to techno-optimistic thinking, however, is that while the internet offers more potential for increased audience size and interactivity, it also suffers from attention scarcity–there is too much content and audiences are fragmented. It is difficult to be heard on the internet, especially by the general public (who are unlikely to do a google search for virtual cultural exhibitions). Also, it is always important to bear in mind that the internet is not universally accessible–just 59% of the world’s population are active internet users (Statista), and although internet penetration rates have increased significantly over the past decade, there are still dozens of countries where less than a quarter of the population are online (Wikipedia). A shift towards online public diplomacy can mean ignoring parts of the world that are significant public diplomacy targets for the West.

2) Uniting publics over shared problems

Pandemics have a strange way of bringing people together. Although we’re all going through it separately, this is a common experience that we’re all sharing. Some people are isolating more comfortably than others, of course, and key workers never stopped going out into the world, but for many millions of people, this has meant staying home and limiting contact with others–a weird time that we’re all processing together.

Pandemics are shared problems that demand shared solutions. We have to cooperate on a global scale to resolve the pandemic, whether it’s collaborating in medical research to create a vaccine or coordinating resources like PPE. A vivid illustration of crisis-induced cooperation is the fact that wars have stopped–apparently they weren’t essential after all.

Public diplomacy can play a role in addressing issues that transcend borders. Initiatives like Fulbright NEXUS were aimed at bringing scholars and professionals together to work on shared problems, such as public health, climate change, and food and water security. The program has been on hiatus since 2016, according to the 2019 USACPD Annual Report, but recent events may inspire a reboot.

Work cited:

Hayden, C. (2016) Technology Platforms for Public Diplomacy: Affordances for Education, In: Mathews-Aydinli, J., Ed. International Education Exchanges and Intercultural Understanding, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Humanizing UK-EU relations in the face of Brexit

Yesterday the UK government announced plans to prorogue (suspend) Parliament in the run up to the 31 October Brexit leaving date. The Prime Minister claims the timing decision was about making progress in other policy areas (fighting crime, funding the NHS & education, etc.) but that doesn’t fit with what he’s said in the past. During the recent leadership contest, he considered using it as a means to get Brexit through:

At Conservative hustings in Bournemouth on 27 June

Overnight, there’s been a huge backlash from politicians of all parties and members of the public. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow said, “However it is dressed up, it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty in shaping a course for the country.” A petition started just yesterday evening has already gathered 1.3 million signatures, and counting–far surpassing the 100,000 signature threshold needed to get the petition debated in Parliament.

Brexit has been 3 years of crazy so far, and I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I know one thing–on a human level, the people of the UK and the people of the rest of the EU are fine with each other. Even the most ardent Brexiteers actually love Europe. They drink champagne and vacation in Italy and Spain, they love the German Christmas markets and shop at Ikea. They drive Audis, BMWs, Volvos, Fiats, Renaults, Citroens, Peugeots, Dacias, Skodas, etc. They eat huge amounts of food imported from the continent–the UK imports nearly 40% of its food, and 79% of that comes from the EU. At grammar school, they learn European languages like French, Spanish, Italian, German–they’re not learning Chinese or Arabic (although Brits are well-below the EU average when it comes to languages: only 38% of Brits speak at least one foreign language, versus an EU average of 56%).

At the end of the day, Britain and the EU are neighbours and friends, colleagues and family members. They were before Britain joined the EU, and they will still be if/when Britain leaves the EU.

Early Career Academics and the Game

A recent study looked at managerialism in academia, and staff resistance & compliance to “the game”–the competitive regime that pits academics against each other in a race to gain publications, funding and positive performance reviews. The authors used an Australian university as a case study, where the structure had recently changed and the rules of the game had become a bit more intense–many staff left after its introduction, to be replaced with Early Career Academics (ECAs) on fixed-term contracts. The authors found little resistance to the managerialism; most staff quietly complied or left the University. ECAs, they found, were committed to playing the game and focused on accruing capital (publications, grants, etc.) to help themselves perform well in the game.

I read the article and blog post about it on LSE’s Impact Blog, and come away from it wondering what the alternative is. We ECAs are being accused of being complicit in this system, but what choice do we have? I’ve been struggling to play the game, because at the moment I lack the capital (publications) to compete with my colleagues, but I don’t know what else I can do. An academic CV doesn’t look right for jobs outside of the academy, with my extra years spent in higher education leaving me essentially inexperienced and fresh out of university when I was 28.

Why do ECAs play the game?

1) Because we feel that we have to–there’s no alternative available to us at the moment.

2) Because even though academia is changing, it’s still a really desirable lifestyle. It’s worth it.

3) Because we love what we do, and society’s always telling us to do what we love. Again, on balance, it’s judged to be worth it.

Reason #1 for not writing: News

I should be writing, but there’s too much crazy political news happening and I feel compelled to follow it all…

Here in the UK, the cabinet is being reshuffled after the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson and I’m curious to know why they left (not just why they said they did, but why they really did…) and to see what’s going to happen next. Is Theresa May going to face a vote of no confidence? (Apparently she warned her fellow Tories that not supporting her could mean Jeremy Corbyn could become Prime Minister, as if that’s a scary enough threat to keep the shaky status quo). Is the economy going to tank? (Even more than it already did after the Brexit vote?)

And in the US, Trump’s announced his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. He’s as conservative as we’d expect, pro-gun, anti-choice, etc. but with the added little twist that he believes presidents are above the law (“Mr Kavanaugh argued in 2009 article that presidents should be shielded from criminal investigations and civil lawsuits while in office.”) –the perfect nominee for a president currently under investigation.

And America’s putting the interests of formula companies above public health (but backing down when Russia supports it…), and thousands of children are still separated from their parents and being detained in cages/”summer camps” (estimates vary from 1,425 to “under 3,000” which isn’t very reassuring)

And Trump’s visiting the UK on Thursday, so I can’t even get away from him over here…

news

How am I supposed to focus and get any work done under these conditions? How is anybody getting anything done? I need to become a hermit until I get a few publications finished…