1. THE WESTERN SAHARA PUBLIC DIPLOMACY CHALLENGES: President Trump’s historic December 10, 2020 proclamation recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara has created new U.S. policy — and PD — challenges. That territory has long been controversial, and it is quite an uncharted area for traditional diplomacy. After Spain withdrew from its then-colony in 1975, Morocco claimed sovereignty over the region, and a UN peacekeeping operation there has been monitoring a ceasefire between Morocco and the independence-seeking, Algeria-backed POLISARIO Front since 1991.
Until recently, the U.S. position — like that of most of the international community — was committed to self-determination and the principles of international law and diplomacy. That changed with the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords and Morocco’s agreement to establish formal relations with Israel. (Earlier, UAE, Bahrain and Sudan normalized ties with Israel.) The move by the United States to officially endorse Morocco’s claims led former Secretary of James A. Baker, who was the UN Secretary-General’s personal envoy for Western Sahara from 1997-2004, to criticize the new policy as a “rash and cynical action”. He said the move, in part, “threatens to complicate our relations with Algeria, an important strategic partner, and has negative consequences on the overall situation in North Africa.”
U.S. Ambassador to Morocco David T. Fischer has quickly inaugurated the “U.S. Virtual Presence Post for Western Sahara” and announced that the U.S. Embassy in Rabat is initiating “the process of identifying an appropriate site for a physical consulate” in Western Sahara. Secretary of State Pompeo has said the United States “looks forward to this increased engagement and we will continue to support political negotiations to resolve the issues between Morocco and the POLISARIO within the framework of Morocco’s autonomy plan.”
The policy shift and any opening of a fully functioning consulate could escalate tensions in the region and surely are a work in progress that will challenge PD officers. How, for example, do they pro-actively communicate with Western Sahara local people who have favored independence? Most people in the area probably oppose the new U.S. move, and it’s debatable whether the United States could say anything that would persuade them or the Algerians otherwise. A recent Western Sahara envoy and former PD official, Ambassador Christopher Ross, said “By denying this right, the United States is turning its back not only on centuries-old support for [self determination], including in Algeria in 1959, but also on the principle of annexation of territories by force,”
Meanwhile, in the new year, Embassy Rabat will also be busy observing the important 200th anniversary of the opening of the American Legation in the medina of Tangiers. In 1821, the site became the first property acquired abroad by the U.S. Government, and for 140 years it housed the U.S. Legation and Consulate. Today, the elegant, historic site is unique – it’s a nonprofit cultural center, research library, and museum.
For Baker’s December 17,2020 criticism, see: washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/12/17/james-baker-trump-morocco-western-sahara-abraham-accords/. For other reactions from a cross-section of Atlantic Council experts, including retired PD foreign service officer Nabeel Khoury, visit: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/experts-react-what-the-morocco-israel-deal-means-for-the-middle-east/#KhouryWS.
2. NEW FULBRIGHT BOARD APPOINTEES: In a flurry of last-minute appointments to various boards and commissions, President Trump named three new members to the 12-member Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board (FFSB). They are: Hope Charlotte Hicks, his long-time assistant; Derek S. Lyons, his former White House Staff Secretary; and Amy Hanson Swonger, a former aide to Senator McConnell and a lobbyist.
Earlier, President Trump had named his 2017-2019 White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, to the bi-partisan board. Another current board member overseeing the nation’s prestigious global educational exchange program is Heather Nauert, former Acting Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, former Department spokesperson, and former broadcast journalist. The Board is chaired by Paul Winfree, former White House domestic policy official now with the Heritage Foundation.
For information about the Board, go to: eca.state.gov/fulbright/about-fulbright/fulbright-foreign-scholarship-board-ffsb. For the December 22, 2020 press release on the new appointments, go to https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/president-donald-j-trump-announces-intent-appoint-individuals-key-administration-posts-122220/.
3. CULTURE UNDER A BIDEN PRESIDENCY: Compared to the big challenges and crises that the new Administration will have to address, culture and the arts, understandably, have received scant attention. A President’s view of policies and programs that, say, would promote the creative arts within the country or use culture more actively to explain U.S. society to foreign audiences usually doesn’t really matter. During this pandemic time, however, when large and small cultural institutions across the country – including gems like the Smithsonian museums, the Kennedy Center and Broadway — have been badly impacted, some are wondering whether Biden will show any special interest in advocating for government funding domestically or increasing the State Department’s attention to cultural affairs. It’s even been suggested that the new President create a “Presidential Arts and Cultural Advisor” to oversee government-wide arts engagement. (Biden does have an “Arts and Humanities” transition, or agency review, team that is looking into the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution.)
One civil society group that does care what the President-elect thinks is the Arts Action Fund, a bipartisan national arts advocacy organization established in 2004. The nonprofit has been hard at work trying to make the case that “the arts are essential to our free and democratic society, to our culture, and to our local economies.” Its mission is to mobilize one million citizens to join in an effort to support the arts and arts education around the country. The Fund’s board includes at least one name familiar to the PD community: Ann Stock, who was Assistant Secretary of State for ECA from 2010-2013 and Kennedy Center Vice President for Institutional Affairs from 1997-2010.
For background on the group, go to: https://www.artsactionfund.org. For an article on how Biden views the arts, see: https:/www.nytimes.com/2020/10/30/arts/biden-arts-culture.html.
4. @AMERICA CELEBRATES 10th ANNIVERSARY: The State Department manages a complex network of more than 600 public diplomacy spaces — American Centers, American Corners and binational centers — scattered around more than 140 countries. According to the Office of American Spaces in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), they all strive to support U.S. policy by being technologically modern and welcoming places for direct foreign audience engagement. One, however, is clearly unique, and has just celebrated “10 years strong”. It is Jakarta’s @america, the first high-tech PD space in rented commercial mall space and focused on students and young professionals.
Established in 2010, @america has reached out to Indonesians using both social media and a wide range of free, in-person events, including student advising. In recent months, the pandemic has disrupted normal programming, but still @america is alive and well and doing excellent virtual programming from its facility in the Pacific Plaza Mall in central Jakarta. In fact, the space has taken on a role of serving as a hub for virtual programs across Southeast Asia so that has been an effective pivot in operations and a good demonstration of the value to public diplomacy even when in-person programs have had to be limited.
To mark the anniversary, @america held several special virtual events in December to highlight the facility’s decade of programs and meaningful collaborations with many Indonesian and American organizations and individuals. For an anniversary tweet by U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Sung Y. Kim and a short video introducing @america, go to id.usembassy.gov/education-culture/america/.
5. AU HONORS “DR. ANDREA”: Andrea Mitchell, the veteran NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent who has traversed the globe covering seven administrations and probably understands public diplomacy better than any other American journalist, has been honored by American University (AU). At its December 14, 2020 virtual celebration of the 140th commencement, the university awarded Mitchell with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters and made her its main speaker.
Mitchell’s encouraging charge to the graduates was: “While we can all feel overwhelmed at times, let me suggest an alternate path. In confronting the challenges that surround us, we can also view them as opportunities, opportunities for learning how to be resilient. Despite all the isolation and self-sacrifice, as we come through this crisis, we can find a new mission to do more for the communities in which we live. And we can focus on what this year has taught us about what it means to be a citizen, not only of the country, this country, but a citizen of the world.”
To view Mitchell’s commencement speech, which briefly mentions the Foreign Service and also challenges like “alternative facts” and conspiracy theories, go to https://fb.watch/2MpKpJA5rO/
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.