What is U.S. “soft power” in a digital world? A key facet is the ability to form international friendships, person-to-person and organization-to-organization, in the 21st century. This enhances, in a very human way, “hard power,” the ability to affect militarily the fate of societies and nations around the globe.
Here in Washington, soft power advocates recently have been exploring or will learn more about exchanges activities as:
- The State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA)
- Private non-governmental organizations such as Global Ties (GT), the Public Diplomacy Council (PDC), the Public Diplomacy Association of America (PDAA), and the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center
- The role of objective news by U.S.-funded international broadcasters as contributors to soft power in a curious world.
Four DC roundtables have or will focus on the value of soft power in its many forms:
- February 25: The American University’s School of International Studies welcomed a capacity crowd of 165 students and specialists to focus on that fine art in its many forms. A five-member panel shared views on how non-profit citizen organizations make a difference globally and in America, “handshake to handshake.” Watch the video of the panel.
- February 28: Meeting just hours after the recent breakup of the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, the PDAA hosted a timely luncheon discussion on prospects for long-range denuclearization of North Korea and possible eventual American humanitarian assistance to that isolated country;
- March 5: Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce offered an update to a PDC First Monday gathering at George Washington University on the status of official U.S. exchanges with other countries in many fields and the lifelong impact of these programs on visitors to the U.S.;
- April 8: Another PDAA luncheon will examine the challenges international exchanges, official and non-governmental, face after U.S. embassies identify candidates for academic, cultural and leadership exchanges.
FEBRUARY 25 — The AU panel, chaired by long-time educational and cultural exchange specialist Dr. Sherry Mueller, attributed the originator of the concept “The Hard Case for Soft Power” to historian James Billington. The distinguished scholar served more than three decades as director of the Library of Congress. His vision was that the Library might be “an active catalyst for civilization, as opposed to a passive mausoleum for dusty volumes.”
Leadoff panelist at the AU roundtable was Dr. Fanta Aw, a professor at the university. She posed the central question for the scores of students and exchanges leaders who attended the session: “What is the value of private citizen-driven international education?” This is a partnership between overseas students and the American specialists they meet, here and abroad. “How,” Professor Aw asked, “can we accelerate the pace of international exchanges worldwide?”
The non-profit Institution of International Education (IIE) and the Department of State actually have performed that task quite well lately. The number of international students visiting the U.S. last year was an all-time high in 2018, more than a million exchange visitors. For the third year in a row, according to the 2018 Open Doors report on educational exchanges, the number of student exchanges topped the one million mark.
A major force in this effort is Global Ties U.S., a non-profit organization that’s active in exchanges focusing on culture and arts, development, educational exchanges here and abroad, tourism and sports. It has local chapters throughout the U.S. These have organized exchanges here, in Argentina and a number of Western hemisphere countries, as well as Benin, France, the Ivory Coast, Hungary, Italy, Kosovo, Pakistan, Romania, Spain, Sudan, Zimbabwe and many more.
Dr. Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, and one of the nation’s leading scholars, stressed that overall impact is more important than numbers. His prime example: 58 heads of state earlier had at least some of their U.S. exchanges arranged officially or through the non-profits. “Those relationships,” Dr. Goodman said, “indicate that international education harmonizes foreign policy.”
Panelist Blake Souter, a legislative assistant for Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), has served in the U.S. Army on the frontlines in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He notes that training officers in such countries who are exchange visitors in the U.S. can reap huge dividends. “If you bring them over to our country”, he added, “they’ll almost automatically win a promotion at home. “Any journey that opens eyes and opens hearts”, he noted, “can be very powerful.”
Lynne Weil is a veteran communications specialist who has served on the staffs of both the Senate and House foreign affairs committee, as well as a senior aide at both State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. In her view, investment in exchanges in the universe of U.S. public and private organizations creates genuine friendships between professionals in other countries and ours, and explaining their impact in those terms rather than just one or two words is “ultimately more powerful than either ‘soft or hard power.’”
FEBRUARY 28 — Early reaction at a recent PDAA luncheon just hours after the unexpected ending of the Trump-Kim talks in Hanoi illustrated soft power as a means of sustaining contacts between Washington and Pyongyang. A highlight at the luncheon was a statement by Lynn Lee of the National Endowment for Human Rights, formerly from North Korea. She began by informing us that her mother, brother and sister remain in North Korea today.
Ms. Lee said she was deeply disappointed at the failure of the Hanoi discussions but insisted that above all, “the dialogue must continue.” She credited the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia for “airing civil society voices” of North Korea citizens lacking press freedom. “If the sun shines in darkness,” Ms. Lee said, “then light will follow.”
Sean Powers of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, parent organization of VOA and RFA, said the two international networks broadcast 13 hours a day to North Korea. Mr. Powers said that in a just-released survey of those who have fled the North, 84 percent said they listened frequently to one or both networks. Food shortages, the audience said, continue to be high and police powers are growing.
MARCH 5 — The Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, Marie Royce, spoke at the monthly George Washington University School of International Studies luncheon roundtable forum co-sponsored by the PDC, the PDAA, and the USC’s Annenberg School.
Assistant Secretary Royce was recently quoted in a joint report of the IEE and State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) as saying: “International students studying alongside Americans are a tremendous asset to the United States. We need to help develop leaders in all fields who can help take on our toughest challenges. We need friends who can find solutions that keep us secure and make us prosperous. We want to send a message that international education makes us stronger as a country.”
APRIL 8 — The forthcoming PDAA luncheon will examine the challenges international exchanges face after U.S. embassies identify candidates in their host countries for travel to America. As the publication PDAA Today put it: “How do they maneuver between State Department offices and the citizens and institutions that come face-to-face with grantees while they are in the U.S.?”
In addition to the moderator, again Dr. Mueller, and the IIE’s Dr. Goodman, others invited to participate are Mark Rebstock, vice president at the Meridian International Center here in D.C., and Ilir Zherka, executive director of the Alliance for International Exchange. Mr. Zherka gained experience with exchanges working on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, and as a political appointee.
The United States National Security strategy of 2018 cites what it terms “two overarching strategic goals.” These apply to exchanges as well as international broadcasting. Those goals are: 1) expanding freedom of information and expression, and 2) Communicating America’s democratic experiences and values.
The April 8 PDAA roundtable on exchanges will take place at DACOR-Bacon House, 1801 F Street NW. Registration for the luncheon on-line, no later than April 4, may be made at pdaa.publicdiplomacy.org. The cost is $35 for PDAA members and $45 for non-members.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More