1. “TALKING ABOUT RACE” These are fast-moving, tumultuous, troubled and historic times that challenge all Americans, and they remind all of us how difficult it is to talk about race. An avalanche of media messages, horrific and powerful images, and statements are “out there” reflecting a range of reactions and emotions – sadness, anger, disappointment, shock, dismay, anxiety, hope, optimism, and frustration, to name a few.
Singling out a “highlight” or two that reflect the seriousness of recent violent and unjust developments is not easy, but let me try.
For inspiration and a specific plan of action, let me recommend Lonnie G. Bunch III, the new Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and the founding director of Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Making sense of the senseless,” he quickly spoke out in an eloquent public May 31st statement that said: “History is a guide to a better future and demonstrates that we can become a better society – but only if we collectively demand it from each other and from the institutions responsible for administering justice.”
And then his colleagues at the Museum responded to the crisis with action. They moved up the release of an online portal resource that could not be more timely. Called “Talking about Race,” the Web-based initiative provides practical tools and guidance to inspire conversation about race and inequality. The material should be immensely helpful to PD practitioners, as well as obviously to educators, parents, those committed to equity, etc. around the world who want to connect, promote understanding and better understand both history and current affairs.
For the Secretary’s statement, go to: si.edu/newsdesk/releases/statement-secretary-Lonnie-g-bunch. To learn about “Talking about Race,” see nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race.
2. DIPLOMATS ENGULFED IN CRISES The two national crises – COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustice – are simultaneously presenting almost unprecedented dual sets of challenges for our diplomats, including public diplomats out on the frontlines who are committed to not only disseminating U.S. policy but also explaining U.S. culture and society – warts and all. Given the evolving policies, the complexity of the American people, and the ceaseless 24/7 news cycle, not to mention very real health, economic and security concerns, the job of representing our country abroad is not easy. Therefore, it is good to see that diplomats are getting some positive attention, such as in much of the coverage of our embassies’ efforts to help thousands of stranded Americans get back home safely.
But the problems are undeniably damaging America’s international image. A June 3rd “Vanity Fair” article by Abigail Tracy, “With America Engulfed in Crisis, Diplomats Abroad Are Left at a Loss,” did a good job summarizing the challenges of promoting American values abroad at this particular time. She wrote: “The conflict is resonating around the world, and it will make diplomats’ work much more difficult.” See text at vanityfair.com/news.2020/06/state-department-diplomats-george-floyd.
3. THE NEED – “USIA ON STEROIDS” The July/August issue of “Foreign Affairs,” the respected magazine of the Council on Foreign Relations, has a must-read analysis by Robert M. Gates. In “The Overmilitarization of American Foreign Policy – The United States Must Recover the Full Range of Its Power,” the former Secretary of Defense shows that he understands what it will take to restore America to global leadership, and warns that “without American leadership, there will be truly dark days ahead.” According to Gates, “Washington has become overly dependent on military tools and has seriously neglected its nonmilitary instruments of power, which have withered and weakened as a result.”
Recognizing that “diplomacy is an indispensable instrument of national power,” he notes that the State Department has been starved of sufficient resources by Congress and sidelined by the White House. Also, Gates gives considerable attention to public diplomacy. Writing that the abolishment of USIA in 1999 had real consequences, he said: “By 200l, US public diplomacy was a pale shadow of its Cold War self. Unlike China and Russia, the United States now lacks an effective strategy for communicating its message and countering those of its competitors.”
Not content with only pointing out problems, Gates offers solutions. He says “the State Department needs a dramatic bureaucratic restructuring and cultural shakeup — and then significantly more funding and personnel.” As to public messaging, he concludes the current embarrassing effort has to be overhauled: “What’s needed is a new top-level organization – akin to the USIA on steroids and located within the State Department but empowered by the president – to enable consistent strategic communication using all available venues. It would oversee all traditional and electronic messaging, including social media, and all public statements and other communication efforts by other parts of the U.S. government relating to foreign policy.” For Gates’ text, go to https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-06-02/robert-gates-overmilitarization-american-foreign-policy.
4. “REOPENING AMERICA & THE WORLD” The unrest over police brutality understandably dominates all aspects of current American life, but let us not forget that the coronavirus continues to impose a very heavy toll on people’s lives. U.S. civil society, as well as countless public and private agencies and individuals here and abroad, continue to address the reopening challenges. The Brookings Institution is but one of many organizations who are tackling COVID-19 from U.S. and international perspectives. Its “Reopening America & the World” initiative focuses on both the American experience and the experiences of other nations and lessons for the U.S. As Brookings’ President John R. Allen has explained, “If framed and initiated properly, reopening efforts can set the conditions for a more fair, just and comprehensive recovery that embraces real reform and engenders a visionary re-imaging of America and global society.” For details about next steps and consequences of the virus, go to: https://www.brookings.edu/interactives/reopening-america-and-the-world/.
5. A “CITIZEN DIPLOMAT” SPEAKS OUT Anyone who has lived abroad has probably met special expatriate Americans who do not hold official positions but still are positive forces in the host-country and contribute immensely to the work that public diplomacy and other officers do to promote goodwill and mutual understanding. One such citizen diplomat, or unofficial Goodwill Ambassador, is Margaret Sullivan, who for 65 years has been the unpaid spouse of retired FSO Dan Sullivan and also a writer, artist and public educator.
Wherever she accompanied her husband on assignment in Asia or Africa, Margaret not only raised a family but got fully involved with community service and cultural projects, sometimes through the Embassy but sometimes thru local friends and community groups. In Indonesia, for example, she worked tirelessly with Indonesian and American partners to start a modern, coeducational high school in tsunami-hit Aceh in north Sumatra. Now 85 and living in a northern Virginia retirement home, Margaret still remains engaged with the wider world. NPR recently honored her in two “Weekend Edition” programs in which she spoke out about concerns such as the current pandemic. See, for example, https://www.npr.org/2020/05/30/865310478/i-find-myself-very-seriously-feeling-hollow-documenting-a-pandemic-experience.
Margaret recently wrote “Fragments from a Mobile Life,” her globetrotting life story that explains how she says “I found my own ways to develop skills and change expectations – mine and others’ – in order to come into my own and break glass ceilings.” PD professionals will appreciate her story because it chronicles in very personal, relatable terms how Americans abroad can make a difference if they are committed to cross-cultural communication and care about the local culture and community.
Dr. Michael H. Anderson is a public diplomacy and Asian affairs specialist with nearly 30 years of Foreign Service experience serving in the US Department of State and the US Information Agency (USIA) and working in South Asia and Southeast Asia. His Public Affairs Officer (PAO) postings included New Delhi, Jakarta, Karachi, Singapore, Manila and Port Moresby. He also has been a journalist, a teacher, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malaysia, an information officer with UNICEF, and an East-West Center grantee. He is a member of the PDC Board.