1. THE OH-SO-POLARIZED U.S. ELECTIONS: The rather sad, nail-biting U.S. elections are finally behind us. I say “sad” because our public diplomacy officers around the world were relatively limited as to what they could say and do about the long, drawn-out process. Many opportunities to explain U.S.-style democracy and our complex voting system and changing media landscape were lost. Contacts noticed that for the first time in memory our overseas posts were not hosting “election watch” events. In the wake of the pandemic and the hard-fought campaign, many traditional diplomatic practices have been affected.
Part of the problem was obviously the severe limitation that the pandemic placed on personal connections and on in-person events organized by posts to help local audiences understand how “free and fair” elections work in the United States. Another factor was the negative nature of this year’s campaign and the unprecedented influence of social media and cable TV, which tended to highlight aggressive campaign rhetoric and project how deeply divided the American people were. As always, foreign audiences were very interested in the presidential race, and they were closely watching, but it appears that in many countries people turned away from our embassies and got much of their information from less traditional – and perhaps unreliable – sources. Whether public diplomacy can help our embassies regain trust and resume so-called “normal activities,” such as representation and programs, remains to be seen. Can trust, for example, be regained virtually?
For thoughts on how the 2020 elections played out in the field, see Embassy Election Night Spectacular? Not in 2020 by former FSO Robin Holzhauer, Diplomatic Diary senior editor, at https://diplomaticacademy.
A reputable international election observation mission from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly watched the elections up close and on November 4, 2020 issued a 24-page statement of their preliminary findings and conclusions. The team of 102 observers from 39 countries concluded that the elections were competitive and well managed despite the many challenges caused by the pandemic but, at the same time, the campaign was characterized by deeply entrenched political polarization that often obscured the broader policy debate and included baseless allegations of systematic fraud. One of the conclusions was: “Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions.”
For the text of the mission’s initial report, go to osce.org/odihr/elections/usa/
For a discussion of how good, old-fashioned post-election diplomacy might help heal our deeply divided nation, see a think-piece in The Hill by retired Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, at: https://thehill.com/opinion/
2. REVITALIZING THE STATE DEPARTMENT: Suggestions on how to improve U.S. foreign policy are coming into the Biden-Harris transition office fast and furious from all corners. But the ones most likely to get the new administration’s serious attention are coming from one source – the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations. Just a few days after the November 3 elections, the Council issued a 64-page special report titled Revitalizing the State Department and American Diplomacy. Council Senior Vice President James N. Lindsay explained:
“In this report, Jon Finer, adjunct senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy, and Uzra S. Zeya, CEO and president of the Alliance for Peacebuilding, contend that the Department of State has fallen into a deep and sustained period of crisis. In response, the authors call for departmental reform to address talent flight and deficiencies in policy focus and capacity, while laying the foundation to cement these and other changes through legislation.”
Finer has close ties to President-elect Biden. He was the State Department’s chief of staff and director of policy and planning from 2015-2017, and is a former Vice President Biden speechwriter and advisor. In preparing their report, the authors consulted with an advisory council co-chaired by retired Ambassadors William J. Burns and Linda Thomas-Greenfield. (Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield has been named by President-elect Biden as team leader for the transition officials working with the State Department. Former Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Rick Stengel has been named the team leader for the transition group looking at the U.S. Agency for Global Media.)
The Council’s far-ranging, valuable report covers such timely issues as shifting global power, pandemic disease, climate change, economic competitiveness, technological transformation, institutional reform, and amending the Foreign Service Act. While not giving attention directly to public diplomacy, the report touches on many PD concerns. One of the report‘s many recommendations, for example, is “resume daily press briefings by the Department of State spokesperson, to ensure that foreign policy positions are being clearly communicated to the nation and around the world in the increasingly contested information space.”
The full report is available at cfr.org/StateDepartment.
3. THE DUBAI EXPO –THE COUNTDOWN BEGINS: In less than a year, the U.S. Pavilion at Expo 2020 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), will begin its run from October 1, 2021-March 31, 2022. Originally scheduled to begin in 2020, the Middle East’s first-ever world’s fair had to be delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Expos are always excellent platforms to promote commercial and public diplomacy and plans now seem pretty much on track for the pavilion to open next October to millions of guests with the theme Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of the Future. That theme will support the overall Expo 2020 Dubai theme of Connecting Minds, Creating the Future. The circular pavilion, which will feature slants designed to give the impression that the building itself is moving, will showcase American freedom, ideals, enterprise, and innovation. Construction in Al Forsan (North Park) is scheduled to be completed this month, and State Department Counselor Ulrich Brechbuhl will participate in a ceremony marking the pavilion’s core completion.
The UAE has contributed $60 million to help construct the pavilion, and U.S. private sector entities are also contributing. The design and installation of the exhibits are being done by Thinkwell Group, a Los Angeles-based, award-winning global design and production agency that creates content-driven experiences in the physical world. According to the Department, TVG, a Thinkwell subsidiary that specializes in Expo operations and retail, will “deliver the United States National Day and provide media and communications and outreach programs working collaboratively with the Pavilion’s stakeholders, partners and sponsors.”
The pavilion is the responsibility of the State Department’s Expo Unit in the Office of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. The unit was created in 2017 to manage U.S. engagement with the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE). The U.S. Consulate General Dubai’s Expo Unit has been providing support. The Commissioner-General is Ambassador to the UAE John Rakolta, Jr., and the Deputy Commissioner and head of Dubai’s Expo Unit is Matthew K. Asada, an FSO. In partnership with the Department, Global Ties U.S., the citizen diplomacy network, has started recruiting 75 “Youth Ambassadors” to serve as college-age, energetic hosts – “Faces of America” – to welcome Expo visitors. It also is lining up a variety of cultural performers from around the United States to do scheduled and informal “dance, music, theater, literature, art, food, sports, spoken word, and more” engagements at the U.S. Pavilion.
4. VIRTUAL EXCHANGE THROUGH THE STEVENS INITIATIVE: On September 11-12, 2012, J. Christopher Stevens, the well-liked and respected U.S. Ambassador to Libya, was tragically killed by violent extremists in Benghazi. It is good to hear that his life — which since his Peace Corps Volunteer days in Morocco was dedicated to building bridges through open and respectful dialogue — is being honored through an initiative created in 2015 to assist young people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the United States through virtual exchange. Sponsored by the State Department with the U.S. Government funding, the Stevens Initiative is administered by the non-profit Aspen Institute and also supported by the Bezos Family Foundation and the governments of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. Mohamed Abdel-Kader, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for International and Foreign Language Education in the U.S. Department of Education, is the Initiative’s executive director at the Aspen Institute.
The Initiative uses technology to connect young people across cultures and continents to career readiness skills and life-changing exchange experiences. By the summer of 2020, the program hopes to reach more than 43,000 young people in 16 MENA countries and the Palestinian Territories, and in 45 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, three tribal communities, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Washington, D.C. For information about the Initiative, go to https://www.stevensinitiative.
5. U.S. EMBASSY ISLAMABAD RUFFLES SOME FEATHERS: American embassies are used to being accused of meddling in internal host-country affairs. Social media and U.S. domestic issues can sometimes lead to sensitive political flaps, especially if bilateral relations are rocky to begin with, and on rare occasions U.S. diplomats even have to apologize or issue a clarification if mistakes were made or relations damaged.
Our Embassy in Pakistan recently learned that the hard way when its official Twitter account retweeted an anti-President Trump post from a Pakistani opposition politician who was a rival of Prime Minister Imran Khan. After criticism from ruling party officials, a furor erupted in Pakistani mainstream and social media. The Embassy then deleted the retweet and issued a November 11, 2020 apology: “Dear Followers: The U.S. Embassy Islamabad Twitter account was accessed last night without authorization. The U.S. Embassy does not endorse the posting or retweeting of political messages. We apologize for any confusion that may have resulted from the unauthorized post.” Also, the Embassy is surely reviewing the safeguards it needs to have in place to prevent similar incidents in the future.
To its credit, VOA reported on the controversy. See its November 11, 2020 report from Islamabad at https://www.voanews.com/
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.