1.ROLLING OUT “AMERICA IS BACK!”: The incoming Biden Administration has named its key foreign policy officials, most of whom are well-known, reassuring names to many within the public diplomacy community. Of the six appointees in the cluster, five have had extensive experience within the State Department. In announcing the appointments on November 24, 2020, President-elect Biden explained: “It’s a team that reflects the fact that America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it, once again to sit at the head of the table. Ready to confront our adversaries and not reject our allies.”
The new appointees were announced during an effective, carefully scripted, and made-for-television rollout which had appointees tell stories and speak about their commitment to public service. Biden’s message was clear: the diverse, highly experienced and cohesive team of internationalists is ready to reverse the “America First” policy of the current Administration. That message was continued a few days later when Jen Psaki, the State Department’s spokesperson from 2013-2015, was named as Biden’s Press Secretary and part of an all-women communications team at the White House.
Except for John Kerry, the new special envoy for climate, the most familiar name was the new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who has held such senior positions as Deputy Secretary of State and Deputy NSC Director. (His spouse, Evan Ryan, knows PD well. She was Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs from 2013-2017.) In his remarks, Blinken went out of his way to praise the service of career diplomats.
Another well-known appointee is the UN Ambassador-to-be, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a 35-year veteran of the Foreign Service. She has been Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Ambassador to Liberia, and Director-General of the Foreign Service. In her acceptance remarks, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said:
“And on this day I’m thinking about the American people, my fellow career diplomats and public servants around the world, I want to say to you: America is back, multilateralism is back, diplomacy is back.”
The Louisiana-native — known as “LTG” — set the right tone with her personal reference to having long-time practiced “gumbo diplomacy” — using food to foster people-to-people ties and engage with contacts.
For details of these appointments and of the transition, go to buildbackbetter.gov. For a fascinating discussion between Jake Sullivan and former Vice President Walter Mondale held just one day after Sullivan’s NSC appointment was announced, go to https://youtu.be/cj0UOhTLhkQ. The Zoom webinar was hosted by the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Both Mondale and Sullivan are from Minnesota.
Meanwhile, advice to the Biden-Harris team continues to pour in. One of the best sources of recommendations is “Hard Choices: Memos to the President,” a new CSIS series of short memos which offers experts’ views on how the new administration should handle some of its toughest foreign policy decisions and opportunities. Check it out at https://www.csis.org/programs/hard-choices-memos-president.
2. CELEBRATING DIPLOMACY AND DEVELOPMENT, VIRTUALLY: Just when one global, “virtual experience” or event takes place, another pops up that seems even more star-studded. At 8 p.m. (EST) on December 1, 2020, World AIDS Day, the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC) welcomed everyone to join Tribute Celebration — 25 Years of Building a Better, Safer World Together.
USGLC, a bipartisan, broad-based group of 500 businesses and NGOs that advocate for strong U.S. global leadership through development and diplomacy, produced an online, mega-event that seemed to have every A-list name imaginable on the schedule. As the organizers explained, “Each year, we bring our community of leaders together to honor the positive, bipartisan change American citizens are making on global issues spanning diplomacy to disease, and economics to hunger. This year, we’re going virtual, expanding our reach for even more celebration, unity, and progress.”
The upbeat event, hosted by USGLC President/CEO Liz Schrayer, gave lifetime achievement awards to Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health; Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director; and David Beasley, World Food Program Executive Director. Special guests included Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Gen. James Mattis, Condoleezza Rice, George Shultz, Sir Elton John, actress and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Tea Leoni, Chef Jose Andres, and Barbara Bush of Global Health Corps. In addition, by invitation only, special pre-event receptions were held around such substantive themes as Empowering Women and Girls, Transforming Global Development, Celebrating PEPFAR’s Legacy, Boosting Global Food Security, Energizing Partnerships for Economic Growth, Building Global Health Security, and Investing in Africa.
The event was a powerful reminder that America must remain a force for good in the world and that getting that message out at home and abroad — virtually — is important. For information about this year’s USGLC event, go to: https://celebrate.usglc.org/
3. A LESSON IN HOW NOT TO RUN A SUMMIT: Public diplomacy practitioners quickly learn how to provide assistance to a Presidential (POTUS) or other VIP visit or a special event, like a summit meeting or an important conference. USIA and State even had thick manuals which prescribed — step-by-step — how to plan and provide media and other support so as to ensure success. [Ed: the White House now manages press support directly.] The November 21-22, 2020 G-20 Summit, hosted by Saudi Arabia, might well go down in history for how not to run a high-profile event. The Foreign Service Institute would do well if it developed a case study of the not-so-successful summit in Riyadh and the challenges it must have caused for U.S. personnel.
The scaled-back leaders’ meeting was marred from day one, and expectations were low. Due to the pandemic, the event had to be conducted online which made coordination, communication and collaboration — not to mention media coverage — challenging. Also, it was hosted by a government which faced protests from within and internationally over human rights abuses, and whose powerful Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman (“MBS”), was determined to host to try to improve the kingdom’s image and advance his “Vision 2030” efforts.
This year, the United States — traditionally a leader in the annual premier global forum of economic leaders — was all but missing. If media reports are accurate, a distracted President Trump didn’t decide to participate in the G-20 until the last minute. He did apparently make two brief video appearances over the two-day event, but then reportedly went off and golfed while the leaders kept meeting to address a range of economic and public health challenges, such as how to foster greater cooperation in getting an effective vaccine out to the world. The United States seemed to have no clear strategic message to deliver during the summit, which included two side events, Pandemic Preparedness and Response and Safeguarding the Planet. It made no new pledges, and it seemed alone and out-of-place at a gathering that was struggling to find answers and project “good news” and hoping to produce a substantive “Leaders’ Declaration”.
Things were awkward because the President was not only pulling the United States out of the World Health Organization (WHO), but also was not supporting COVAX, the WHO-linked global vaccine alliance initiative that is working with governments and vaccine manufacturers to make sure affordable COVID-19 vaccines are available to all people. The summit produced no memorable photo ops; the texts of the President’s “go-it-alone” remarks were difficult to find; and the resulting media coverage was minimal compared to other “traditional” leaders’ gatherings on the global stage.
For the White House Press Secretary’s November 22, 2020 statement, go to https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-press-secretary-112220/. For other documents and background on the 2020 Riyadh Summit, visit the University of Toronto “G-20 Information Centre” website at: http://www.g20.utoronto.ca/summits/2020riyadh.html.
4. PEOPLE-TO-PEOPLE INITIATIVES OF SOUTH KOREA AND THE VATICAN: The United States certainly has no monopoly on the use of public diplomacy to generate positive attention and deliver a strategic message. Two recent examples of creative, timely “citizen diplomacy” efforts are worthy of attention. One from Seoul had to do with a care package for former U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers put together by a Korean foundation, and the other from the Vatican concerned the Pope’s personal interest in U.S. sports and social justice issues.
The Republic of Korean government-run Korea Foundation — which supports Korean public diplomacy to “deepen mutually friendly international civil networks” — recently implemented a brilliant project that highlighted the historically-close people-to-people ties between Koreans and Americans. The Foundation sent “COVID-19 Survival Boxes” to more than 500 of the 2,000 former Peace Corps Volunteers who have served as teachers or health care workers between 1966-1981 when Korea was still a developing country. Included in the thank-you gift were items such as 100 masks, skin-care products, silver chopsticks, a silk fan and ginseng candles.
The message was clear: “We remember you. We love you.” This expression of gratitude was warmly welcomed by the former Volunteers, and it showed to the world not only Koreans’ friendliness towards Americans but also how far Korea has developed. Also, to get its message out more widely, the Foundation created a touching, 20-minute video about how the Peace Corps program in Korea has generated lasting trust and friendship. The tear-jerker of a video rekindles memories of bilateral ties, and it is available at https://youtu.be/H7YNiNlpXdk. A positive, November 21, 2020 feature, “South Korea Delivers ‘Something Magical’ to U.S. in Time of Need,” appeared in the New York Times. See it at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/20/world/asia/korea-coronavirus-care-package-peace-corps.html.
The Vatican is not known as a particularly creative or “modern” institution. But a recent special event initiated by His Holiness Pope Francis himself suggests otherwise. On November 23, 2020, in an unprecedented move, a delegation from the National Basketball Players Association (NBA) drew attention when it was invited to make a quick, special trip from the NBA’s “bubble” in Orlando over to the Apostolic Palace in Italy to meet personally with the Pope for about an hour to discuss efforts to address social and economic injustice and inequality. The group consisted of five NBA players who have been active in various social justice initiatives and three officials of the players’ union. One of the players, Kyle Korver, reacted to the emotional experience: “We are extremely honored to have had this opportunity to come to the Vatican and share our experiences with Pope Francis. His openness and eagerness to discuss these issues was inspiring and a reminder that our work has had a global impact and must continue moving forward.”
The Pope rarely meets athletes so the gathering was significant. It showed the influence American players and the NBA have internationally, and it showed that, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Pope Francis is personally following “Black Lives Matter” developments in the United States and wants to show his support for the players’ advocacy. For details of the meeting, go to: https://nbpa.com/news/nbpa-delegation-meets-with-pope-francis. The only aspect of the rather unusual meeting that drew criticism was the fact that all the photo and video coverage showed neither the Pope nor anyone else wearing a mask.
5. ENGAGING WITH THE PACIFIC ISLANDS: One of the-long standing, more challenging problems facing U.S. public diplomacy is how to reach Pacific islanders. Conducting full-scale PD efforts is difficult because the island nations are spread across a vast, remote region with relatively few people and a scattered official U.S. presence. United States embassies are small and have limited resources and sometimes have to cover more than one country. (The old days when USIA used to cover the vast region with a two-officer Pacific Islands Program Office based in Honolulu are ancient history.)
State’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs has a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, but getting an inter-agency handle on cooperation and assistance is always challenging because of the many agencies, including the Department of Defense, which have a stake in the region. USAID’s Pacific Islands Regional Office is currently in Manila, and it has to cover 12 island-nations. Other nations, too, are interested in the region. Australia, New Zealand, France, and others all give parts of the Pacific close attention for historic, economic or security reasons.
It is encouraging to see that the United States has been trying to give more attention and assistance to the Pacific island nations, in part because of China’s interest in expanding its influence in the region. The United States, worried that Beijing has been “fueling” a narrative of U.S. withdrawal from the region, wants to make sure that a void is not created and exploited.
In October, senior State officials held a virtual discussion with the Ambassadors to the United States and the Permanent Representatives to the UN from 12 Pacific Island nations. Topics included pandemic and economic and development cooperation and promoting democratic governance, human rights and women’s empowerment. Also, in 2020, the United States announced more than $200 million in new funding as part of the Pacific Pledge of the wider Indo-Pacific Strategy. The funds will be used to support a range of country-specific or regional activities in areas such as economic opportunity, natural resource management, fisheries, COVID-19 recovery, maritime security, empowerment of women and girls, small tourism development, elections and political process strengthening, and countertrafficking in persons.
Also, the United States, in partnership with the governments of Australia, Japan, and Palau, will finance the construction of an undersea fiber optic cable to the Republic of Palau valued at about $30 million. The United States, too, has announced its intention to begin negotiations on certain provisions of the Compacts with the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau.
On the public diplomacy front, there are plans to add a second PD officer in Fiji, and add PD positions next summer in Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau. Other PD efforts include $200,000 in additional funding through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation to the Cultural Site Research Management Foundation for a project in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), and State’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) project to ensure access to credible and independent news by giving Pacific Island media outlets the ability to publish AP content in English and New York Times reporting in English and Mandarin free of charge.
Kudos to the East-West Center in Washington for focusing attention on the islands by hosting a high-profile November 19, 2020 online event on The United States’ Enhanced & Enduring Commitment to the Pacific Islands Region. More than 300 people attended the Zoom and YouTube live-streamed event, which featured six high-ranking U.S. officials sharing their perspectives. They were USAID Acting Deputy Administrator John Barsa; Cong. Michael T. McCaul, founding co-chair of the Pacific Islands Caucus; U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Admiral Philip S. Davidson; Cong. Ed Case, Pacific Islands Caucus Co-chair; Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David R. Stilwell; and USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator for Asia Gloria D. Steele. The event was moderated by East-West Center Vice President Satu Limaye, who announced that the Center has plans to produce a Pacific Islands Matter for America/America Matters for the Pacific Islands report. The event can be viewed at https://youtu.be/lWjFI9HX56U.
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.