1.CHAOS IN THE CAPITOL AND DEMOCRACY: Any public diplomacy officer who has ever served in a so-called “banana republic” or Third World country — with authoritarian leadership, muzzled media, unfair elections, weak law enforcement, violence, and corruption — could not have been comfortable with the ugliness they viewed on January 6, 2021.
As the rioters stormed Congress, America’s reputation as a democracy and model of rule of law was severely tarnished, and our ambassadors and public diplomacy officers suddenly had their jobs made much more difficult. America’s brand of democracy was badly damaged, and explaining such a dark, violent day in our history will not be easy. But, on the bright side, the recent shocking events should serve as a wakeup call and help the United States get its own house back in order. They showed to the nation — and a stunned, watching world — the fragility of democracy and the urgent need to keep people safe and reinforce the Constitution and renew shared values.
President-elect Biden has promised to convene a “Summit for Democracy” after he has taken office. Such a gathering now will take on new meaning in light of recent U.S. developments. Hopefully, public diplomacy will be a key part of the planning, and much of the agenda should have the United States listening to — and exchanging views with — other nations’ government and civil society leaders who share some of the same problems and challenges of democracy under threat. Any summit or other diplomatic initiative should not be used by the United States to lecture or bully or claim to be “the” model for the rest of the world, but rather to find ways to work together and help one another strengthen democracy and address urgent, shared priorities, such as the pandemic and climate change.
For a summary of foreign reaction to recent developments, see Robin Wright’s “The World Shook as America Raged” in the January 8, 202l The New Yorker at: https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-world-shook-as-america-raged.
For an analysis of how democracy as a U.S. asset abroad has been damaged, see Anne Applebaum’s January 4, 2021 article in The Atlantic at: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/01/what-trump-and-his-mob-taught-the-world-about-america/617579/.
For the case why the United States needs to get back into the democracy business, see Sometimes You Get Another Chance, an in depth article by Stanford Professor and former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, at: https://www.americanpurpose.com/articles/sometimes-you-get-another-chance/.
For a discussion of how a democracy summit might work, see senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Michael Fuchs’ December 2, 2020 article, How to Bring the World’s Democracies Together, at: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/reports/2020/12/01/
For a discussion of democracy as a priority for U.S. foreign policy, see A Democracy Assistance Agenda for the Biden Administration, a November 13, 2020 article by Patrick W. Quirk and Daniel Twining of the Brookings Institution, at: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/11/13/a-democracy-assistance-agenda-for-the-biden-administration/.
2. CIVIL SOCIETY SPEAKS UP: Despite all the uncertainty, what has been amazing during recent days is how quickly a wide range of individuals and citizen groups have spoken up — usually to criticize mob action and the President’s behavior. Behind such public statements, there undoubtedly is an appreciation of the importance in a democracy of telling the truth and gaining trust through clear communications and respectful exchange.
Rather incredible statements from all the living former secretaries of defense, former presidents, and the business community, including especially social media officials, have been widely publicized. But let me cite just three examples of quick-moving, non-governmental groups that have stood up to help shape the conversation. Many more could be listed.
Freedom House, the independent watchdog organization that monitors the status of freedom around the world and advocates for democracy and human rights, issued a same-day condemnation of the January 6th political violence in Washington and then the very next day issued a statement saying that “President Trump must leave office immediately.” See these statements at https://freedomhouse.org/article/united-states-president-trump-must-leave-office-immediately.
The George Washington University’s Program on Extremism has launched a public service project to create a central database of primary source federal court records related to the events of January 6, 2020. An easy-to-use page is being updated as more individuals are charged with criminal activities. To access the legal cases database, go to: https://extremism.gwu.edu/Capitol-Hill-Cases.
Wilson Center President, Director and CEO Jane Harmon, a former Congresswoman, issued a January 8, 2021 statement calling the recent insurrection carried out by a mob against the U.S. Capitol, inspired by false claims of a stolen election “a sickening attack on our democracy.”
She pledged: “As part of our Diversity and Inclusion effort, the Wilson Center will help rebuild confidence and unity and community in our nation. Despite the increasingly partisan and divisive nature of our national discourse, we will remain staunchly committed to the nonpartisan pursuit of facts and the clear-eyed analysis of world events.” See her statement at https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/statement-wilson-center-president-director-and-ceo-jane-harman.
3. MEANWHILE, THE TRANSITION MOVES AHEAD: The public diplomacy community is carefully watching the incoming administration’s appointees, as positions are announced and as ambassadors and other political appointees finally are resigning and departing their posts. An important January 8, 2021 Biden-Harris transition press release almost got lost amidst the chaos that rocked the Capitol on January 6, 2021. It was a lengthy announcement of 21 additional members of the White House National Security Council (NSC) who will serve under Jake Sullivan, and it gave some clues on what NSC will focus on.
One thing which struck me about the list of diverse and talented individuals was how many were bringing communications/public affairs-type experience to their new positions. This bodes well for public diplomacy, although it remains to be seen exactly how the new NSC will address U.S. Government-wide communications strategies and work with both State Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy and the beleaguered U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM).
If the Biden team is to “restore America’s leadership in the world” and move away from the “America First” message, it will be immensely helpful to have political appointees who appreciate the value of public opinion and effective communications and bring some understanding of how State functions and how PD can assist as America is reintroduced to the world. Ideally, the new NSC team should be able to hit the ground running because it already has a good understanding of how State Department and embassies work.
Let me cite but a few of the new NSC officials: Ariana Berengaut, Senior Advisor to the National Security Advisor, is a former speechwriter and counselor to then-Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken and chief speechwriter and senior advisor to USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah; Tanya Bradsher, Senior Director for Partnerships and Global Engagement, is a former Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at Homeland Security, and a former Assistant Press Secretary on the NSC; Jon Finer, Principal Deputy National Security Advisor, is a former Washington Post foreign correspondent and a foreign policy speechwriter to then-Vice President Biden and Chief of Staff and Director of Policy Planning for Secretary of State Kerry; Emily Horne, Senior Director for Press and NSC Spokesperson, is former Brookings Institution Vice President of Communications, head of global policy communications at Twitter, and Assistant Press Secretary and Director of Strategic Communications at NSC; and Carlyn Reichel, Senior Director for Speechwriting and Strategic Initiatives, is founding Communications Director for the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, and a former Presidential Management Fellow who went on to work as a speechwriter at State, the NSC and the Office of the Vice President.
The text of the release is available at https://buildbackbetter.gov/press-releases/president-elect-joe-biden-and-vice-president-elect-kamala-harris-announce-additional-members-of-the-national-security-council/
4. CHEERS TO THE AP: Mark Twain once said: “There are only two forces that can carry light to all corners of the globe — only two — the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press (AP) down here.” Today, the AP claims “more than half of the world’s population sees AP journalism every day.”
With the end of such an unprecedented news-generating year, it somehow seems appropriate to thank the hundreds of dedicated AP journalists operating in 250 locations worldwide who, day-after-day in 2020, brought a steady stream of factual news and information to America and to much of the world. U.S. ambassadors and public diplomacy officers are especially appreciative of the AP news service, which has existed as an independent, nonprofit cooperative for almost 175 years (AP delivered the news by pony express for several years). A few PD oldtimers might even remember the days when some big embassies, like New Delhi, had an AP ticker right on the premises.
For decades, the AP bureau chief in far-flung capitals was likely to be an American male with a big “expat package” of benefits (and he was almost always one of the embassy’s key contacts). Those days are pretty much over, as a recent announcement naming veteran AP correspondent Kathy Gannon as AP’s news director for Afghanistan and Pakistan, suggests. A Canadian, she has covered the region since 1988 and in 2014 was seriously wounded when covering preparations for the Afghan national elections. Her AP colleague, photographer Anja Niedringhaus, was killed in the same attack.
AP has undergone tremendous technological and personnel changes and faced security and budget challenges in recent years, but it still provides an indispensable daily service. (It has even moved from its prestigious world headquarters in New York City’s Rockefeller Center.) For an update on today’s AP, check out: ap.org/about/. And the next time you meet a current or former AP staffer, thank him or her for the terrific service.
5. NEW MUPPETS HELP ROHINGYA REFUGEE KIDS: Except for perhaps Disney’s Mickey Mouse, the most popular American goodwill ambassador is arguably one of the Muppets of nonprofit Sesame Workshop fame. Again and again over many decades, the lovable educational TV characters have been effectively used to teach children basic skills and to promote good social causes not only in the United States but internationally. The latest humanitarian deployment of the Muppets is to the massive refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, which host stateless Rohingya Muslims who have fled persecution from their native Myanmar next door.
In partnership with the LEGO Foundation, the International Rescue Committee, the MacArthur Foundation, New York University’s Global TIES for Children, and the BRAC charity organization, Sesame Workshop has created new six-year-old twin characters – Noor and Aziz. They are starring along with older Muppet characters, like Elmo and Grover, in educational videos and supporting materials to meet the special early childhood needs of the hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Rohingya refugee children and their host communities. According to Sesame Workshop, the materials “foster engagement between children and their caregivers, nurture developmental needs, and build resilience for children ages 0 to 6.”
For information about the project, visit: https://www.sesameworkshop.org/what-we-do/refugee-response. For an NBC News report and video on the new characters, see: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/sesame-street-unveils-rohingya-muppets-help-kids-overcome-unthinkable-horrors-n1251413.
The U.S. position on the Rohingya refugees is to “continue to advocate for a sustainable solution that creates the conditions for the voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees and other displaced persons to their places of origin or to a place of their choosing.” For a summary of current U.S. humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya refugees, see Secretary of State Pompeo’s October 22, 2020 statement at: https://www.state.gov/u-s-announces-humanitarian-assistance-at-the-international-conference-on-sustaining-support-for-the-rohingya-refugee-response/.
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.