1. COMMISSION REPORT STIRS CONTROVERSY OVER HUMAN RIGHTS: United States diplomats have always been committed to human rights internationally, but how that commitment is practiced in terms of specific foreign policy and countries and communicated through credible PD efforts can be contentious. The new 60-page report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, personally established by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to “go back to the basics,” has stirred debate within the Department and beyond. The Secretary has been accused of trying to use the report to advance his personal political and religious agenda and shape foreign policy that is grounded in the so-called “culture war” and his views of America’s founding ideals.
According to the Commission, “human rights are now misunderstood by many, manipulated by some, rejected by the world’s worst violators, and subject to ominous new threats.” A key finding was that property rights and religious freedom are the foremost unalienable rights. For the full Commission report and the text of remarks by both the Secretary and the Commission Chair, Harvard Law Professor and former Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon, at the July 16, 2020 report release ceremony in National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, go to: https://www.state.gov/unalienable-rights-and-the-securing-of-freedom/.
One specific aspect of the Secretary’s remarks — harsh criticism of The New York Times “1619 Project” — drew particular media attention. He said the newspaper “wants you to believe that our country was founded for human bondage” and “they want you to believe that America’s institutions continue to reflect the country’s acceptance of slavery at our founding.” The Project is an ongoing, major initiative from The New York Times Magazine that started in August, 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. For details, go to: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html. According to The New York Times on-line store, the original magazine has been reprinted, but is “now sold-out and is not expected to return.” The lead essay won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for its writer, Nikole Hannah-Jones.
2. STAYING COOL DURING “POLAR WEEK”: The recent news that the United States — after 67 years and with the strong support of the Kingdom of Denmark — has re-opened a Consulate in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland – hopefully with at least a Public Affairs Officer (the University of Greenland in Nuuk already has an American Corner, and the remote Thule Air Base is a U.S. military installation). The move is just the latest indication that the vast polar region is getting more attention, as the United States and other friendly and not-so-friendly countries realize that the region is facing growing geopolitical tensions, environmental challenges and economic competition.
Beyond the expanded work of the State and other agencies on both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, the efforts of the non-partisan Wilson Center deserve attention as the so-called “Arctic Public Square”. Since its start in 2017, the Center’s Polar Institute has gained a reputation as a premier forum to discuss the regions’ policy issues. According to the Center, “The Institute holistically studies the central policy issues facing these regions – with an emphasis on Arctic governance, climate change, economic development, scientific research, security and indigenous communities – and communicates trusted analysis to policymakers and other stakeholders.”
Its director is geographer Dr. Michael Sfraga, the former Vice Chancellor of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who served as co-scholar for the first two State ECA-funded Fulbright Arctic Initiatives starting in 2015. An Institute senior fellow is David Balton, former United States Ambassador for Oceans and Fisheries. A good example of the Institute’s outreach efforts is its second “Polar Week”. Over July 27-31, 2020, the Institute in partnership with diverse groups is hosting daily public events (via Webcast), and a variety of past and present U.S. and other government officials and experts are participating. For Polar Institute details, go to wilsoncenter.org/about-the-polar-institute. For information on the State Department’s Fulbright Arctic Initiative, go to: https://eca.state.gov/fulbright/fulbright-programs/program-summaries/fulbright-arctic-initiative
3. PEACE CORPS STRUGGLES IN A CHANGED WORLD: Peace Corps Volunteers have long been recognized as goodwill ambassadors, in effect, doing public diplomacy at the grassroots level. Although not part of the official diplomatic establishment, they serve abroad as Volunteers within the greater foreign affairs community, and their mission of promoting peace, friendship and development qualifies them as players in the people-to-people exchange world. Of late, the Peace Corps has come on unusually challenging times. In mid-March, 2020, all of the 7,000 or so Volunteers serving in some 60 countries were suddenly evacuated and terminated due to COVID-19.
The challenge now is not only to plan to return Volunteers to the field as soon as it is safe to do so, but also to cope with a changing America and a changing world. Peace Corps Director Dr. Jody Olsen and former Volunteers in the independent National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) realize that to remain relevant the Peace Corps will need to “become better” and more actively demonstrate the values of empathy, equity, and justice.
To shape strategies and action plans, the NPCA has just completed an impressive series of virtual events, including eight town halls and a July 18, 2020 “Peace Corps Connect to the Future: Global Ideas Summit,” which was broadcast on Facebook Live. Much of the discussion centered around how the Peace Corps can help the nation live up to its ideals and how a more diverse, inclusive, and welcoming Peace Corps community can be developed. According to NPCA President and CEO Glenn Blumhorst, “this is a perilous time for the Peace Corps” and his organization, which represents 230,000 returned Volunteers and former staff, is eager to share ideas, listen, and make recommendations to help shape the future of Peace Corps, which will observe its 60th anniversary in the next fiscal year. In addressing the summit, Director Olsen emphasized that “our dedication to the core mission never wavers” and pledged that Volunteers will return to the field as soon as it is safe to do so.
She also announced that the Peace Corps has signed an agreement with Vietnam to start an English education program in that country for the first time. Vietnam will be the 143rd country to host Volunteers since the agency was established by President Kennedy in 1961. One of the town hall speakers was retired Foreign Service Officer Vicki Huddleston, a former Volunteer in Peru, who later served as Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba and Ambassador to Madagascar and Mali. For details about NPCA’s work, go to: https://www.peacecorpsconnect.org.
4. RESTORING U.S. FOREIGN POLICY LEADERSHIP: These are gloomy times for many PD professionals concerned about the future of the good old “liberal international order,” which the United States built and led for so many years, or even diplomacy as a profession. For a little optimism and inspiration, let me suggest a fresh think-piece by William J. Burns, the retired, highly respected career senior diplomat who now heads the Carnegie Endowment.
Titled “The United States Needs a New Foreign Policy,” his thoughtful analysis of the post-pandemic future of America appeared in the July 14, 2020 Atlantic, and argued that our most exceptional national trait is “our capacity for self-repair.” According to Burns, “The United States must choose from three broad strategic approaches: retrenchment, restoration, and reinvention.”
He concludes: “We must reinvent the purpose and practice of American power, finding a balance between our ambition and our limitations.” This can be done by using American foreign policy to support domestic renewal, develop a new multilateralism, and manage competition with China. Burns does not go into detail as to tools needed to get a “restored” United States fully engaged again, but clearly PD should be one of them if future global challenges are to be met.
As Burns concludes: “If ‘America First ‘ is again consigned to the scrap heap, we’ll still have demons to exorcise – our hubris, our imperiousness, our indiscipline, our intolerance, our inattention to our domestic health, and our fetish for military tools and disregard for diplomacy.” For the text, go to: https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/07/14/united-states-needs-new-foreign-policy-pub-82295.
5. REFLECTIONS FROM “INSIDE THE BUILDING”: The U.S. State Department is undeniably complex, stove-piped, and hard for the public, the media, and even other government officials to understand. Therefore, it is useful when “outsiders” from another part of government come into the Department to actually work and then agree to share their views after leaving. This is what happened recently in the case of a professor from the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute who had a 13-month detail in State’s Policy Planning Staff (S/P).
Latin American expert Professor Evan Ellis candidly shared his experiences in “Reflections for the Army from a Year at the State Department,” an article in the July 16, 2020 Global Americans, a non-profit website for Latin American specialists. Ellis does a good job explaining bureaucratic terms such as “regional” and “functional” bureaus, “clearance,“ “dissent channel,” “split memo,” “PCC” (NSC Policy Coordinating Committee), and “Extended Staff Meeting”. The good news is that he said he left his State position “with a deepened respect for the capabilities and professionalism of my State Department colleagues, the dynamics and culture of the organization, and the complexity of the challenges with which they wrestle.” His article is available at: https://theglobalamericans.org/reflections-for-the-army-from-a-year-at-the-state-department/.
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.