Last week I spoke to a Great Decisions discussion group in Arlington, Virginia. Great Decisions is a program sponsored by the Foreign Policy Association to encourage citizen awareness of foreign relations.
The topic, “The Media and Foreign Policy,” gave me the chance to highlight the work of public diplomacy. As so much diplomacy is carried out in the public sphere, it’s important that voters understand the wide and varied advocacy that our diplomats and locally-engaged staff conduct on their behalf.
The audience engaged in lively discussion, which in Arlington entails knowledge and, usually, a liberal point of view. The subject of Russian “sharp power” featured prominently in our discussion, with several participants bemoaning our society’s polarization.
After the talk, amid pleasantries and mutual congratulations, a woman strode up to me and announced herself as “one of the Deplorables.” She proudly stated that she had voted for Donald Trump and indicated her steadfast support of the President. I listened without comment, and we extended the conversation to less political matters, including her recent road trip across the full breadth of the United States. To me, she came off as “a character;” she was fun to talk to.
Later, I recognize a missed opportunity. This woman was far too individualistic to be labeled in any way. She was labeling herself, I guess, to defy a majority in that room on that night.
What if I had told her, “You don’t seem like a “deplorable” to me. You’re way too much of a free thinker for any label.” Would that have opened up more space for honest discussion?
Russian active measures have succeeded beyond expectation because Americans have retreated behind labels: “Deplorables,” the Resistance.” Red, Blue. That makes it easier for propaganda, falsehoods, and yes — biased media coverage — to divide us.
Russia will not let up on its active measures and information wars. That’s how they operate. And unless Americans change, the Russians (and other foreign powers) will continue to have success. At the same time that we secure election systems, voters should punish politicians who try to exploit division; they are making America weaker.
In the process of chucking political correctness, Americans seem to have thrown out respect for others. We need more people like Ambassador John Feeley, who wrote about his decision to resign his position as ambassador to Panama:
I now return to the United States of e pluribus unum. I am confident that we can heal the polarization that afflicts us — one conversation at a time.
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