1. “RESETTING” STATE DEPARTMENT: January 27, 2021 was a historic day for the State Department and all who follow U.S. diplomacy. It was the first full day on the job for the new 71st Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. Politics and personality aside, it was a welcome change for many, who have felt demoralized under the previous administration. An “internationalist,” or “multilateralist,” Blinken is clearly part of the diplomatic family, and he was pleased to be back in the Department and literally among many enthusiastic friends and old colleagues. For his arrival remarks delivered from the C Street lobby at main State, see: https://www.state.gov/
Rather than “swagger,” the new Secretary can be expected to bring humility and confidence to the job plus a long and very personal tradition of public service and respect for the work of career professionals, including those specifically dealing with a wide range of exchange programs. After all, he had served as Deputy Secretary; his father Donald had been Ambassador to Hungary; his uncle Alan had been Ambassador to Belgium; and his spouse, Evan Ryan, who is Biden’s new Cabinet Secretary, had been Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) from 2013-2017.
Blinken’s priorities are music to the ears of many professionals. He has promised to “reinvigorate the Department by investing in its greatest asset: the foreign service officers, civil servants, and locally employed staff who animate American diplomacy around the world.” He has said he was committed to “advancing our security and prosperity by building a diplomatic corps that fully represents America in all its talent and diversity.” Explaining “American leadership still matters,” he has said he would work across government and with partners around the world to “revitalize American diplomacy to take on the most pressing challenges of our time.”
One of the most visible — and welcomed — early signs of real change at the “new, improved” State Department was the resumption of the regular press briefings, which new spokesperson Ned Price will conduct. The return to a time-tested tradition is being widely welcomed not only by journalists, but also by U.S. and foreign ambassadors, Bureau of Global Public Affairs personnel, and public diplomacy officers who appreciate policy guidance. The public, too, should be pleased since it wants a better understanding of how the new administration’s foreign policy vision will be translated into practice.
In Blinken’s first press conference as Secretary, he told the press corps that the administration is committed to truth and transparency and would treat journalists “with immense respect”. He also made very clear that “a free press is a cornerstone of American democracy” and “this is a critical moment for protecting and defending democracy, including right here at home.” For the video and text, go to: https://www.state.gov/
The new administration has not escaped early criticism, including some grumbling that almost all of its initial foreign affairs appointments have gone to “political personalities” rather than career diplomats. See former diplomat and Business Insider columnist Brett Bruen’s critique at: https://www.businessinsider.
2. WHAT’S ON JAKE’S PLATE?: Hats off to the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) for producing a timely, effective program on January 29, 2021. Titled “Passing the Baton: Securing America’s Future Together,” the hour-and-a-half virtual event featured former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice collegially exchanging views with Jake Sullivan, the new Biden National Security Advisor, and the last Trump National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien. Anyone wondering about the foreign policy priorities of the new Biden administration will find Sullivan’s comments, particularly on Iran, helpful.
Organized by USIP’s Chair Stephen Hadley and new president/CEO Lise Grande, the event offered more than just big-name foreign policy experts talking about the usual national security challenges — China, Russia, Iran, terrorism, cyber, climate change, etc. What made it so remarkable was that the three main speakers interacted with respect and civility towards each other and their profession, and actually agreed on some shared interests and values, if not policies. The event clearly served to reaffirm the idea of continuity and a peaceful transfer of power, and left viewers with the notion that a degree of bipartisan consensus just might be possible. Former President Trump’s name barely came up throughout the entire event.
The event was unusual because it was conducted with the cooperation of six other major think-tanks. In a concluding segment called “Reflections on Priorities,” a senior rep from each co-sponsor — American Enterprise Institute, Atlantic Council, Carnegie Endowment, Center for American Progress, Heritage, and Hudson Institute — was given time to share their perspectives. Another segment featured retired Admiral Michelle J. Howard, the first woman to become a four-star admiral in the U.S. Navy and the first African American woman to command a U.S. naval ship, stressing that “sustainable peace” begins with peace-building right at home.
To watch the entire event, visit https://www.usip.org/events/
3. WHICH TANK TANKS ARE THE BEST? The “2020 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report” is hot off the press and offers detailed answers to this complex, subjective question. Members of the public diplomacy community will find the report worth skimming since it will remind them of the role that think tanks both in the United States and abroad play in explaining, researching and proposing policies and programs. At most posts, think tank leaders are among an embassy’s key contacts.
Each year, Dr. James McGann’s Think Tank and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) at the University of Pennsylvania uses a complex international survey and peer review system to rank the more than 8,000 think tanks by various categories and criteria. His purpose is to “increase the profile and performance of think tanks and raise the public awareness of the important role that think tanks play in governments and civil societies around the globe.” (The United States has the most think tanks at 2,203, followed by China with 1,413; India 612; and the U.K. 515. In the United States, DC alone has 148 think tanks, and is second only to Massachusetts, which hosts 168.)
The 362-page, 2020 report is chock full of interesting findings, trends and challenges (such as the influence of the pandemic on think tanks), and background on the methodology used in the report. Two key findings: Brookings Institution was declared “Think Tank of the Year – Top Think Tank in the World Center for Excellence 2017-2020,” and the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA) was named “2020 Think Tank of the Year – Top Think Tank in the World”. For the full report, go to: https://repository.upenn.edu/
Each year’s findings understandably give organizations an excuse to proudly issue press releases citing the recognition. Immediately after the latest findings were released January 28, 2021, for example, the Heritage Foundation explained that it is “ranked No.1 among think tanks worldwide for ‘Best Use of Social Media and Networks’ and, for the third year in a row, received the top rank for being the ‘Think Tank with the Best Use of the Internet’.” The Atlantic Council declared: “For the sixth consecutive year, the Atlantic Council rose in the index, ranking #7 in the category of ‘2020 Top Think Tanks in the United States,’ a rise from #8 last year. The Council also ranked #10 globally and #6 among the U.S. think tanks for ‘Top Foreign Policy and International Affairs Think Tanks,’ a rise from #14 and #19, respectively, in last year’s index.”
The East-West Center (EWC) noted that it has again been ranked #4 in the list of “best government-affiliated think tanks worldwide, the same ranking the Center has received for the last several years.” According to the Center “it is notable that the only three institutions ranked higher than EWC are affiliated with such large organizations as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and U.S. Congressional Research Service.” And the Ecologic Institute said it was honored to be ranked in first place worldwide among “Environment Policy Think Tanks” and to also have achieved first place among “Think Tank with the Best Quality Assurance and Integrity Policies and Procedures.”
4. DEEPENING TIES WITH BRAZIL: Brazil is one of those so-called “big, emerging” countries that Americans think they know a lot about. Images of tropical beaches, Amazon rainforests, Carnival festival, music, soap operas, coffee, and soccer stars come quickly to mind. A few people may even have seen recent reports of Brazil’s problems with the pandemic or one controversy or another surrounding its strong-man president, Jair Bolsonaro. But people know relatively little about Brazil as a growing regional economic, defense and science, and technology power with a large middle-class and a long-standing, strong diplomatic relationship with the United States. (The United States was the first country to recognize Brazil’s independence from Portugal in 1822.)
To give Brazil more attention, a new report from Daniel F. Runde and Arianna Kohan at CSIS — “Toward a Brazil-U.S. Binational Institution” — makes the case for the creation of a binational organization that would “advance and institutionalize the Brazil-U.S. relationship by promoting innovative ways of thinking and inviting a new, collaborative, and transformational approach to partnership development.” They suggest potential areas of focus such as environment and sustainable development, food security and agricultural development education, economic stability, and information technology (IT), among others. For the full report, go to: https://www.csis.org/analysis/
To say that the authors are “thinking really big” — or comprehensively — is an understatement. They say the organization could be set up with an endowment by the United States and Brazilian governments and then supplemented over the long term by philanthropic and private sector funding. They suggest that the new organization could learn from how comparable organizations like the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Costa Rica United States Foundation for Cooperation (CRUSA) and Luso-American Development Foundation (FLAD) operate.
The plan has great potential to expand people-to-people ties, but it does need fleshing out and, obviously, visionary leaders and realistic supporters and stakeholders from both countries. If the proposal is to go anywhere and be sustainable, it will need powerful political and financial backing from within Brazil and the United States. In preparing their report, the authors sought insights from former U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Thomas A. Shannon, who has a good appreciation of public diplomacy. Supporters should now seek out public diplomacy experts who know Western Hemisphere affairs and can share their experience with other “big ideas” and ambitious cultural and educational initiatives — some which have worked, and some which have flopped, but which were designed to significantly advance the potential of a bilateral relationship.
5. “TIME” COVERS TRUMP’S COVERS: Despite the decline in the influence of magazines, TIME remains an influential media brand known around the world. Appearing on the magazine’s weekly cover or in its many on-line editorial products, is still a big deal for any newsmaker. Donald Trump seemed to have a fascination with TIME, and he finished his term after appearing on 35 TIME covers. In terms of number of TIME cover appearances, Trump is behind only Richard Nixon with 55, Ronald Reagan 46, and Bill Clinton 40.
D.W. Pine, Creative Director at TIME, has designed and produced more than 700 TIME covers, including some controversial ones on Trump, over the past 12 years. For a behind-the-scenes look at the creative and editorial process, see Pine’s “The Stories Behind Donald Trump’s TIME Covers” at https://time.com/5928282/
Speaking of TIME, the February 1-8, 2021 edition (with Biden’s swearing-in on the cover) offers some sound, timely advice about an inclusive phrase, ‘We the People’.” In a by-liner titled “Our Destructive Cycle of Us-Vs.-Them Thinking, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright writes: “At this moment of shock, sadness and hope, it might be wise to reflect on the two most dangerous words in the human vocabulary: ‘us’ and ‘them’. On January 6, we received a dramatic reminder of this peril when our nation’s political divisions erupted into a spectacle of lawlessness on Capitol Hill.”
For the text of her article, go to:https://www.scribd.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.