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.

Out Now! Journal article on exchange diplomacy and the Fulbright Program

My new journal article in Place Branding and Public Diplomacy is now available online! It discusses the theory and practice of exchange diplomacy and analyses the results of a survey of Fulbright Program administrators around the world that I conducted for the 70th anniversary of the program, in 2016. I presented the study at the ICA Conference in Prague last year, and wrote and re-wrote this paper a few times between now and then. I’m much happier with it now that I was with its earlier versions, and it’s great to see it finally getting published.

Read it for free here.

This has been my first properly “independent” publication–my other 3 have all been published alongside other conference papers in special issues of journals/an edited book. I’m working on a couple of other independent things, so hopefully there will be more publication announcements in the near future!

The Short-Sightedness of “Unshackling” British Diplomacy from Brussels

Once again I’m finding news to be very distracting–between Trump and Brexit, it’s hard to focus (I feel like I’ve been saying that since 2016, though…). But I noticed something in the news today that actually is relevant to public diplomacy scholars–British diplomats are leaving Brussels now, before Brexit even happens.

British diplomats will pull out from the EU’s institutional structures of power in Brussels within days, under plans being drawn up by Downing Street.

In an attempt to reinforce the message that the UK is leaving the EU by 31 October, “do or die”, the UK will stop attending the day-to-day meetings that inform the bloc’s decision-making.

The move under discussion is said by UK officials to be in line with Boris Johnson’s first statement in the House of Commons, in which he said he would “unshackle” British diplomacy from EU affairs.

British diplomats to pull out from EU decision-making meetings within days, The Guardian, 12 August 2019

Admittedly, I didn’t watch Boris Johnson’s statement, but it’s not surprising and it sounds just like him. It’s a symbolic move, as the article says, and would just end up hurting UK interests in the end because we’re removing ourselves from discussions that impact us. “Do or die” is the most undiplomatic language to describe foreign affairs–but Boris is a very undiplomatic figure, too.

In dealing with this hot mess of foreign policy, one expert was quoted as saying that the UK would need to invest heavily in public diplomacy, including involvement from the private sector:

Paul Adamson, a visiting professor at the Policy Institute, King’s College London, said the UK government would need to build up its embassy in Brussels after Brexit.

He said: “One of the many ironies of Brexit is that the UK government will have to significantly increase its diplomatic presence in Brussels – as well as in key EU capitals – both to find out what is going on in meetings from which it will be excluded but also to try to influence the direction of EU policy making. Brussels decisions will continue to impact the UK.

“[The government] and its agencies will have to invest heavily in public diplomacy to repair alliances and to forge new ones. The private sector, whether its business, civil society, the think-tank world and the like, will very much need to be part of this exercise”.

British diplomats to pull out from EU decision-making meetings within days, The Guardian, 12 August 2019

Although it definitely makes some good points, this statement reminded me of a key takeaway from Phil Taylor’s Masters class in public diplomacy:

No amount of public diplomacy can make up for bad policy.

It is not a solution for the inevitable problems that will arise if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal on 31 October. It’s not an alternative form of international relations, or a consolation prize. Public diplomacy works best as an adjunct, supporting traditional diplomatic relations between states by offering additional (not alternative) forms of engagement. It also includes listening, something that the current UK government doesn’t seem interested in, given this premature disengagement in Brussels.

To illustrate the concept of PD not being a cure-all, Phil Taylor used to use the example of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Charlotte Beers’ failed efforts in the Middle East during the Iraq War. The “Shared Values” campaign was a particularly memorable disaster–a commercial-length TV program showing Muslim Americans talking about their life in America.

“Actors in the program talked of tolerance and religious freedom in lines including, ‘In my neighborhood all the non-Muslims, I see that they care a lot about family values just as much as I do. I didn’t quite see any prejudice anywhere in my neighborhood after September 11.’ Several countries in the Middle East refused to air the programs entirely.”

Anna Tiedeman, p. 22

Phil used to point out a major flaw in the “Shared Values” strategy: Middle East audiences didn’t want to hear “how good life was for Muslim Americans” while at the same time their country was being invaded by US and coalition troops, homes were being bombed, and innocent civilians were dying. “Good for them,” he’d shrug, “but what about us?”

These international broadcasting and information campaigns weren’t the only efforts–the US also re-established the Iraq Fulbright Program in 2003, and included other exchange initiatives in its public diplomacy efforts. Teresa Brawner Bevis’s book on post-9/11 US-Middle East educational exchange noted a dramatic rise in Americans studying Arabic and Middle East area studies, as well as studying abroad in the region–but this may have been too little, too late:

“The increase in numbers of Americans studying abroad was good news for policy makers, who for decades had lamented how few people in the United States studied the Middle East, a situation that created shortages of expertise in the military, intelligence services, and diplomatic corps.”

Bevis, 2016, Higher Education Exchange between America and the Middle East in the Twenty-First Century, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 87

The long-standing, systemic problems in US-Middle East relations, combined with the context of the Iraq War, meant that public diplomacy efforts could never repair Middle Eastern audiences’ negative perception of America. US foreign policy would always nullify any amount of public diplomacy.

Boris Johnson doesn’t care about that, of course, but it’s something the British people and officials should take notice of–crashing out of the EU with a “do or die” attitude will be remembered, and it will matter far more to global perceptions of the UK than any version of a British ‘Shared Values’ campaign.