There is room for optimism that Congress will reject the Administration’s proposed deep cuts to exchanges programs and to public diplomacy in general. However, if you want to defend these programs, now is the time to speak out.
Through our member Sherry Mueller, the Public Diplomacy Council joined major PD advocacy organizations to sponsor “Making the Case for Soft Power” on October 9, where Congressman Don Beyer (D-VA) explained his view of the concept from an unusual angle: as a former businessman and diplomat. Now he represents many of our readers in Congress. Here’s his advice about advocating for exchanges.
“Many of our strongest exchange programs are at risk in the coming federal appropriations. You need to fight back, and you can fight back. Members of the Senate and House will listen to you. Calling the offices is OK. Emailing is OK. Actual paper letters are more powerful. But nothing substitutes for actually showing up on Capitol Hill and walking into the office of the Representative or Senator who represents you.”
We posted news of this event earlier, but Sherry was kind enough to obtain Rep. Beyer’s full text. Here it is, an echo from the conference that bears repeating.
The Hard Case for Soft Power
American University, October 9, 2017
Thank you for inviting me to be part of this panel this evening! I am a fervent, passionate, heartfelt believer in soft power – at least the way I understand it. I grew up across the kitchen table from my mother. Every day we had long conversations about life, culture, politics, and the world. My mom had been an experimental psychology major at Barnard College in the 1940s, and she wanted to try to understand why people acted and spoke the way they did. She was perhaps the most empathetic person I have ever known. Her favorite piece of wisdom was, there, but for the grace of God, go I.
So I came to understand soft power (although we never called it that) as doing our best to understand the motivations, history, emotions, the stories of the person with whom we were interacting. Truly being open to understanding the perspective of the Other. Walk a mile in their shoes. Because when we do, and when we genuinely communicate that we understand the needs of our partner or opponent, then progress becomes possible.
Let me offer three examples. First, Switzerland. We spent four happy, productive years in Bern, working with Federal Council members, members of Parliament, the cabinet ministers, newspaper editors, cantonal government leaders, business tycoons, and cultural leaders. This is not an exaggeration – virtually every one of them had spent some time in the United States, most of them as students. High school students, college students, International visitors, the American Swiss Foundation; they had worked here, travelled here, and every one spoke excellent American English.
I have never visited the Grand Canyon, but I am not sure I ever met an educated Swiss who had not. The Swiss are the #1 buyers and riders of Harley Davidson motorcycles in Europe, and a favorite vacation is coming to the US for a long motorcycle ride.
The omnipresent music of their radio stations and grocery stores is from Detroit and Nashville. The bookstores are filled with American novels translated into German, French, and Italian.
The abundant and ubiquitous nature of Swiss exchanges to the United States made my job as ambassador easy and fun. The soft power was built in to the relationship, despite very real areas of significant disagreement. Our number one issue was Swiss bank secrecy, Bankgeheimnis, tens of thousands of Americans with untaxed Swiss bank accounts. Negotiating a way forward, undoing a fundamental principle of the Swiss economic miracle, was difficult but never in doubt. The long-neutral and non-aligned Swiss were the potential hole in the sanctions donut for Iran, but worked closely with us to help bring Iran to the bargaining table. And it was Switzerland’s least powerful canton, Jura, who volunteered to resettle the two most difficult Guantanamo detainees, Uighur brothers the Bush administration had long decided had never been terrorists.
The myriad Swiss student and adult visits to the US created the perfect climate for cooperation, compromise, and genuine partnership. The only sad part for me was that the relationship was pretty asymmetrical. News from the US was prominent in Zurich and Geneva, but we know little about them. A far greater percentage of Swiss know America, than Americans know the Helvetican Confederation. But even asymmetric soft power has huge advantages.
Second, business, government, and diplomacy. Soft power is like water flowing downhill – it just avoids every obstacle, is relentless, and ultimately wears every mountain into the sea. I have been a car dealer most of my adult life – I think we are approaching our 100,000th new car sale. I have never once twisted someone’s arm to buy a car. Rather, we try to answer the simple question, how can we best meet the transportation needs you have? When I meet with a customer with a service problem, the most powerful three steps are to listen carefully, then repeat the customer’s understanding of the problem, and then ask what the customer thinks is a fair resolution.
As a manager, I have found the most powerful way to lead is to give my power away. To engage the people with whom I work, to share as much information as possible, to ask for their input and ownership. Soft power.
My House of Representatives legislative strategy is just as simple. I can do nothing by myself. Hey, I am a Democrat, one of 194, while the Republicans have 241. Even with every Democrat on my side, I can pass no legislation. Only by sharing, partnering, understanding, can I lead. Two quick examples: everyone wants fewer people to be poor. At the extremes, Democrats want transfer payments so that people are not poor, while Republicans want folks to lift themselves up by their bootstraps. Republican Bradley Byrne and I have put together a small group, six from each party, to find middle ground solutions that we can all agree upon.
I am part of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. We now have 28 Rs and 28 Ds, and are getting closer to actual legislative progress on climate change. Soft power can accomplish what hard power never can.
Third, soft power can help your advocacy efforts. Many of our strongest exchange programs are at risk in the coming federal appropriations. You need to fight back, and you can fight back. Members of the Senate and House will listen to you. Calling the offices is OK. Emailing is OK. Actual paper letters are more powerful. But nothing substitutes for actually showing up on Capitol Hill and walking into the office of the Representative or Senator who represents you.
Politicians are people-pleasers, by definition. Most worry about every voter, and they remember the old wisdom, your friends come and go, but your enemies accumulate forever. When someone comes to my office, to talk with me about type One diabetes, or a family member in an Egyptian prison, or airport noise, whatever, my staff and I do all we can to fix the situation. The most important people to visit are members of the appropriations committees – they make the final decisions on which exchange programs to fund, and by how much. And it is fun to advocate on the Hill – you will see lots of folks you know, many faces familiar from debates and tweets, in the mix where it is all happening, or often, not happening.
I look forward to your questions, and encourage you to remember that most of life is relationship. And relationships blossom longest and most beautifully when nurtured.
Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service. He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy. Read More