1. THE WORLD WATCHES HISTORY IN THE MAKING: The smooth January 20, 2021 inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris will surely go down in our political and strategic communications history. Although intended for a domestic audience, the jam-packed schedule of televised events over 24 hours reached many international audiences, and must be counted as an impressive public diplomacy success for America. It showed that the tradition of a peaceful transfer of power was still possible and that America’s democracy — although tarnished — was still working.
The made-for-TV inaugural events clearly served to advance one of the new Administration’s immediate priorities: “restoring America’s global standing”. The complicated events — carefully planned and implemented by the bipartisan Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies in coordination with the Biden transition team and the Secret Service — sent generally positive messages and powerful images around the world. Most foreign audiences welcomed what they saw — both national renewal and continuity and images of our nation’s beautiful capital district.
Despite unprecedentedly tight security and the absence of the out-going President, large public crowds, the lengthy parade and the inaugural balls, the events projected surprising calmness and “normalcy”. The new President’s handlers helped him disseminate reassuring messages of national unity and healing and take bold steps to address converging crises. The day’s schedule showed the orderly transfer of power and some bipartisan interaction, and honored the 400,000 who died from Covid-19 and the veterans who gave their service. The visuals made Washington’s Capitol, The National Mall, the White House, Arlington Cemetery, and several monuments look like the iconic, peaceful venues we expect and respect in our democracy. And they made instant celebrities out of an individual like Amanda Gorman, the 22-year-old Black activist and National Youth Poet Laureate, who wowed everyone on the inaugural stage with her poem “The Hill We Climb”.
The events also showcased America’s cultural power. From performances by Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, and Garth Brooks to a star-studded, prime time “Celebrating America” special hosted by Tom Hanks, Kerry Washington, and Eva Longoria, and featuring talents like Bruce Springsteen, John Legend, and Katy Perry, the events showed the strength and diversity of American pop culture. The special lighting, camera angles (including dramatic shots from atop the Washington Monument), flag displays, and fireworks were spectacular and provoked emotions.
Beyond the ceremonies and all the Hollywood-style spectacle, President Biden found time during his first few hours in office to take immediate executive actions intended to generate both domestic and international support. For example, to address the climate crisis, he had the United States rejoin the Paris Agreement. To tackle the Covid-19 crisis, he launched a serious national strategy and had the United States rejoin the World Health Organization (WHO) and participate in the WHO-led COVAX cooperative effort to get vaccines out to the entire world. To start addressing the chaotic immigration system, he moved to rescind the so-called “Muslim travel ban” that Trump issued in 2017. And to gain public trust and media support, he had his new press secretary, Jennifer Psaki, on day #1 resume the tradition of the daily White House press briefing, which had disappeared under Trump. Psaki parried a range of questions and spoke of Biden’s commitment to bringing transparency and truth back to government.
While watching all the events, I couldn’t help but think of U.S. public diplomacy personnel posted around the world. Probably exhausted and breathing a sigh of relief that the inauguration went off so peacefully, they were undoubtedly thinking ahead to all their new challenges of explaining the policies, priorities, and styles of the incoming Administration and having to welcome and break-in new, Biden-appointed ambassadors. They also very likely were thinking how best to program in-person and virtually on America’s values and topics like democracy, press freedom, and human rights amidst a still-toxic environment back home.
2. DR. FAUCI REMAINS “THE EXPLAINER-IN-CHIEF”: Much of America — and probably the world — was reassured by the Biden Administration’s early decision to not only keep Dr. Anthony Fauci as the most visible spokesperson for the government’s efforts to fight the Coronavirus but even give him more duties as the new President’s chief medical advisor. The long-serving government scientist is a textbook example of an effective leader who can communicate under intense political and media scrutiny. A household name and media favorite, Dr. Fauci seems to be everywhere — virtually and actually! He even has been marketed as a bobblehead, and his face has appeared on other products.
The PD community respects a government official who is not afraid to speak out, clearly explains complicated and contentious policy issues, and understands public affairs and public diplomacy. Dr. Fauci clearly fits that bill. That is why new White House Press Secretary Jennifer Psaki, on January 21, 2021 and in only her second official daily press briefing, brought Dr. Fauci to the podium for his usual straight-forward, science-based remarks just minutes after he had met with President Biden. Earlier in the day, Dr. Fauci headed the U.S. delegation at a virtual WHO Executive Board meeting, which warmly welcomed the United States back into the UN organization.
Texas A&M Prof. Barbara Gastel has analyzed why Dr. Fauci is such an ideal face of the U.S. pandemic response. She lists ten factors that have contributed to his success: smarts, integrity, empathy, flexibility, energy, trustworthiness, connections, communication, recognizability, and teamwork. See her article in The Conversation at: https://theconversation.com/
3. MORE BIDEN PERSONNEL CHANGES AND USAGM TURMOIL: Most of the top political positions having to do with foreign policy and public diplomacy or public affairs have now been announced, and our embassies are preparing over the next few months to welcome new ambassadors appointed by President Biden.
The single most important position to the public diplomacy community that is still unfilled is the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. The position has not been filled by a Senate-confirmed political nominee since Steve Goldstein held the position very briefly in early 2018 under then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Since January 20, 2021, the “Senior Official for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs” has been Jennifer Hall Godfrey, a career FSO who has been Executive Assistant/Chief of Staff to the Under Secretary for PD/PA.)
One key, highly visible State position — Department spokesperson — has been filled by Ned Price, former NSC spokesman, CIA analyst from 2006-2017, and most recently an MSNBC analyst. He and his new deputy Jalina Porter, communications director for Congressman Cedric Richmond, are expected to reinstate daily State Department press briefings, a move which would be welcomed by both journalists and PD officers. One of Price’s first acts as spokesperson was to issue a January 22, 2021 press release on “the full resumption of employee training and professional development activities in support of diversity, equity and inclusion.” The move rescinded an executive order from the previous administration and signaled support for an equity agenda and a strengthened workforce.
Several significant personnel actions impacting U.S. international broadcasting are worth noting. The Biden Administration has moved very quickly to clean house at the troubled U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). Michael Pack, the highly controversial, Trump-appointed president and CEO, has been fired after seven turbulent months in office. No replacement has yet been named to that key position, which oversees all our international broadcasting, including the Voice of America (VOA). Kelu Chao, a highly respected VOA veteran, is now serving as Acting CEO, and she has already overseen the speedy removal of VOA Director Robert Reilly and his deputy, Elizabeth Robbins. For examples of recent VOA news reports on the embarrassing turmoil, see: https://www.voanews.com/usa/
Meanwhile, over at the National Security Council, Dr. Kurt Campbell, the former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Pacific (EAP) who helped plan and implement the “pivot”, or “rebalance”, strategy to Asia during the Obama era, has been named to a brand-new, senior position. As the first-ever Indo-Pacific Coordinator, he will serve as sort of an “Asia czar” broadly coordinating all aspects of U.S. policy towards Asia and the Pacific, including the high-priority, tense relationship with China. He will report directly to incoming National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
A respected Asian hand, Campbell understands the value of public diplomacy. While Assistant Secretary, he managed several high-profile PD initiatives, including the 2012 U.S. gift of 3,000 dogwood trees to Japan to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Japan’s gift of cherry trees to the United States, and the 2009 “100,000 Strong Initiative” to increase dramatically the number of U.S. students in China. For insight into Campbell’s current views, go to his and Rush Doshi’s January 12, 2021 Foreign Affairs article, “How American Can Shore Up Asian Order – A Strategy for Restoring Balance and Legitimacy,” at https://www.foreignaffairs.
4. “REPS” SHINE FOR PUBLIC DIPLOMACY: The past year has been a tough one for public diplomacy personnel. Due to the pandemic, the inability to routinely conduct face-to-face programs and contact work has severely disrupted efforts to explain U.S. policy and values. Changes in technology and social media, as well as the need to explain rapidly-evolving developments like the two impeachments, Black Lives Matter, the Presidential election, and the shocking January 6, 2021 attack on the National Capitol, plus continuing State Department morale problems, have combined to make the life of the typical PD officer difficult.
One little-noticed group of resourceful PD specialists, however, has been very much up to all the challenges of assisting our posts to cope with the stressful, “not-so-normal” times and the changing information environment. It is the corps of 25 experienced Regional Public Engagement Specialists (REPS) who are strategically assigned overseas with regional responsibilities and to State’s Office of American Spaces within the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). The position has been redesigned from the old USIA position of Regional Librarian, which evolved into the Information Resource Officer (IRO). (The REPS who currently directs the office is Carol A. Brey, a former public library administrator and a past president of the American Library Association.)
In February of 2017, the title change from IRO to REPS was made to reflect posts’ changing needs and 21st Century public diplomacy realities and priorities, such as different models of “American Spaces” and new technology affecting a variety of platforms and digital and analytics tools. Qualifications for the position expanded from Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science (MLIS) to also include communications and marketing. With the shift away from public-access libraries and cultural centers and the growth of social media, REPS’ management, advising and training skills in areas such as audience targeting, digital information campaigns, and effective use of technology have gained importance.
The REPS position is multifaceted, and the specialists serve as helpful advisors to posts regarding their American Spaces, instructors in the ECA-led American Spaces tradecraft courses, and employees in the public affairs sections of embassies worldwide. The Western Hemisphere, for example, has a REPS based in each of four embassies – Bogota, Brasilia, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City. The number of REPS worldwide has fluctuated slightly in recent years, but it remains in the 23-27 range. The ideal number is around 30, and State is currently recruiting. (Due to a shortage of REPS, the Department has had to fill a few positions with Foreign Service generalists, but that is not expected to be an ongoing practice.) For information about the REPS, go to https://americanspaces.state.
5. AMERICAN DIPLOMACY MUSEUM PROGRESSES: Since last March, the pandemic has posed unexpected challenges to the evolving public-private partnership between the Diplomacy Center Foundation and the new National Museum of American Diplomacy (NMAD) at the main State Department building. As a public health precaution, the NMAD — with its 21st Street glass pavilion entrance — has been closed since March 13, 2020, but work on its long-term development, including phase II of the capital campaign to raise $35 million, has continued. The ambitious goal is to support a unique public museum with a variety of exhibits and in-person and virtual educational programs that promote American diplomacy and help visitors be more aware of diplomacy’s role in our national security and well-being.
According to the Foundation’s President, Ambassador (ret.) Roman Papadiuk, the Foundation and NMAD have risen to the past year’s challenges. Design of the permanent exhibits for the museum is being finalized; services have successfully shifted online (its first virtual program was on “Diplomacy during a Health Crisis”); and new fundraising efforts have been developed. For example, the Foundation has joined the Combined Federal Campaign, making it easy for federal workers and retirees to make donations. An example of a recent generous gift was $4 million from former Ambassador to Denmark and philanthropist John L. Loeb, Jr. The Foundation will use his donation to support NMAD’s creation and maintenance of a gallery, exhibit, theater, and interactive film.
A variety of artifacts that help explain the history and work of U.S. diplomacy broadly have already been donated to the Museum. Let me highlight but two which specifically help tell the story of public diplomacy. One is an item donated by the late senior USIA officer Hans “Tom” Tuch, who was a strong supporter of the Museum and of the Public Diplomacy Council. His tongue-in-check gift was a “Kitchen Cabinet” certificate given to him by then-Vice President Nixon. Tuch, as Press Attache/Cultural Attaché in Moscow, had accompanied Nixon to his famous “Kitchen Debate” with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in July of 1959 at the American National Exhibition at Sokolniki Park in Moscow.
A second example are two item donations by retired USIA officer Kathryn Koob, who was director of the Iran-American Society in Tehran. One of two women held hostage by the Iranian militants in 1979-81, she has given the Museum a beret and silver cross which help tell her special story as a diplomat serving in a crisis.
The Museum’s director is Mary D. Kane, former president and CEO of Sister Cities International. The Foundation’s Board of Directors chair is Ambassador (ret.) Thomas R. Pickering. For Museum background, go to https://diplomacy.state.gov. For Foundation background, visit: www.DiplomacyCenterFoundation.
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.