As the United States welcomes a new administration that will tackle the challenges presented by COVID-19 and seek to bridge the nation’s political divide, I would like to call Public Diplomacy Council (PDC) members and blog readers to reflect on what the last historical year allowed us to learn. Shutdowns around the world presented an opportunity to read, to write, and to adapt to new environments for work and school alike.
For me, alterations in plans due to COVID-19 led me to meet PDC President Sherry Mueller, join the Public Diplomacy Council, and begin graduate school at the American University School of International Service. As a PDC Rising Professional member, I have learned about PDC members’ exchanges overseas as teachers and students, facilitation of seminars for foreign educators and leaders, and experiences on tours with the Foreign Service. This installment of the PDC Q&A series highlights Leonard Baldyga, a distinguished PDC member who has demonstrated a passion for the interpersonal relationships that strengthen this country’s international ties.
Mr. Baldyga has supported American diplomacy in numerous capacities, of which only a few are listed here. As the Director of the Office of European Affairs for the United States Information Agency (USIA), he led efforts to negotiate the establishment of bilateral cultural and scientific agreements with the Soviet Bloc and the opening of new posts in liberated Eastern and Central European countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Mr. Baldyga’s time with the Foreign Service, before retiring as a Career Minister, he completed tours as a Public Affairs Officer in Warsaw, Mexico City, Rome, and New Delhi, among other postings. Mr. Baldyga also served as a senior consultant for Central and East European Programs at IREX, an international development and education organization.
Engagement in the Diplomatic Community: Mr. Baldyga’s Email Distribution List
In addition to membership in the Public Diplomacy Council, Mr. Baldyga remains active in the diplomatic community by curating an email distribution list, which he innovated during the early days of email in the early 1990s.
Mr. Baldyga reflects:
“[The distribution list] started when I was Vice President of the PD Alumni Association and Bob Chatten was president. When we had to communicate with members we would print out letters and notices and then the board members and wives would gather at Bob’s house to stuff, lick and seal envelopes for the mailing. My last posting was New Delhi where we had the most sophisticated computerized operation than any USIS post in the world. I told Bob I thought we should find out the email address of those members who are starting to use the Internet and I would send out the messages to them via computer…. At some point I started sending articles and other information to the listserv that went beyond PDAA-related business and USC’s [University of Southern California] PD department started maintaining my list for me.”
He now maintains this list on his own, which has grown to reach over 2,000 recipients with updates on current domestic and foreign policy issues.
Public Diplomacy and the Arts in Cold War-Era Poland
At the Institute for Management in Warsaw in 2011, Mr. Baldyga delivered a speech in which he described the challenges he and his colleagues at USIA faced when establishing English language and cultural programs in Poland during the Cold War. The role of the arts in US-Polish relations in the 1970s and 80s offers an example of public diplomacy’s dynamism in challenging circumstances. In his speech, Mr. Baldyga described the changing political situations under various Communist Polish regimes, which he and his fellow diplomats navigated as they sought to establish and promote education exchanges and conduct a wide variety of cultural programs. These efforts were met with varying degrees of reciprocity by the Polish regimes prior to Poland winning its independence in 1989.
During the Cold War period, censorship inhibited Polish social and artistic groups from openly expressing opposition to the regimes. While allowing the teaching of English language and literature, the Polish government resisted having courses in American history, political science, and sociology taught to students by American lecturers. However, depending on the internal political situation in Poland, Mr. Baldyga and other American Embassy public diplomacy colleagues were able to develop and maintain contacts with schools of music and the arts, with orchestras, operas, theater, and dance and jazz groups throughout the country.
They sought out the writers, playwrights, film directors, and “coffee-house” intellectuals to develop and maintain an open dialogue on issues and topics relevant to both sides. These contacts provided an avenue for transition into the expanded opportunities for bilateral exchanges and cooperation between Poland and the United States after 1989, including the establishment of a Fulbright Commission office in Warsaw. Mr. Baldyga continued cultivating relationships with these groups as the Director of the Office of European Affairs.
In looking back on his career, Mr. Baldyga reflects on the friendships he built.
“I have been fortunate to be able to say that I have maintained close friendships with both State Department and U.S. Information Agency colleagues with whom I served overseas. I joked about preserving these friendships because in traveling overseas after retirement it was nice to be welcomed to stay at these friends’ homes in visiting old posts. I still maintain correspondence with friends and former USIS staffers in Poland, Italy and India. None of my friends from Dakar [an early posting] are still living and those from Vienna are down to three, but the latter are very close friends.”
Professional Lessons: Listening, Patience, and Dialogue
Between his tours in Washington and overseas, Mr. Baldyga also served under several bosses who demanded the impossible. Mr. Baldyga shares the strategies he applied to manage professional discord.
“I had four [difficult bosses] during my career at USIA. Two in Washington and two overseas. My approach was to let them vent and then try to engage them in a discussion of the issue involved. In an overseas post, there was one ambassador who would yell loudly when he thought something was wrong. The DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission) would often ask me to engage the ambassador and I would do so and generally succeed in calming him down. In Washington, the difficult boss was the Director Charles Wick. Here again, [USIA Counselor] Jock Shirley would ask me to go into Wick’s office to hear him vent over something since Shirley was tired of hearing the frequent harangues. My position was one of complete candor but presented in a non-confrontational manner. Listen but don’t argue and then calmly probe to see if the rager is ready to discuss the matter calmly. Sometimes it might not work, but most of the time it did.”
Enduring Achievements in Poland
Mr. Baldyga proudly points to programs he helped establish in Poland which are still in existence fifty years later. He arranged for 20,000 books to be presented to the University of Poznan to help it reopen its Department of English, with an emphasis on American English. During his tour in Warsaw, he and his Cultural Attache Robert Gosende negotiated the establishment of an American Studies Center, which is now a full-fledged Ph.D. program. Mr. Baldyga adds:
“I was in charge of negotiating the establishment of the Consulate in Cracow because the State Department was not interested in seeking an appropriation of funds from the Congress to open a Consulate there…. USIA wanted a Cultural Center/Library in Cracow since it was the historic cultural and intellectual center of Poland and had a superb university present there. I started working on this project soon after I arrived in Warsaw in the summer of 1972.”
“The Communist government did not want us to open a cultural center. But they were willing for us to open a facility and call it a consulate when both sides knew it was functioning as a cultural center. However, since the building had the sign ‘American Consulate’ on it, Poles living in the Cracow area kept coming to the facility to ask for visas to the U.S. They were told they had to go to the Embassy in Warsaw to get a visa. They refused and started squatting on the sidewalk in front of the Consulate. The Polish government was not happy with the situation. After a year or so, the State Department agreed to assume operations of the facility and it became a full-fledged Consulate. It is now a Consulate General but the library/cultural operation is no longer an open access operation given the security restrictions for entrance we instituted following 9/11.”
In his 2011 speech, Mr. Baldyga attributes these triumphs of public diplomacy to the “courage and tenacity of the Poles themselves – the artists, the writers, students and academics and many others who constantly resisted and struggled against the political, religious and cultural repressions of the time.” While we should applaud the Poles for their perseverance, Mr. Baldyga and his colleagues with USIA also deserve recognition for their persistence, determination, and patience in exploiting whatever means of public diplomacy were available to them at the time.
Looking Ahead: Lessons for Public Diplomacy in 2021
The United States has begun 2021 with a dwindling number of public diplomats abroad, so Mr. Baldyga’s experiences in Poland during the 1970s and 80s bear special relevance as the nation and its partners adapt to a “new normal.” Just as Mr. Baldyga and his colleagues sought cultural openings in a country which at the time was hostile toward the United States, public diplomats today should consider ways in which they too can foster interpersonal, cross-cultural relationships and enhance understanding of American policies in spite of the barriers presented by distance, shutdowns, and political differences.
Mr. Baldyga proffered a strategy for public diplomacy in our media-dominated age in a 2009 commencement speech at his alma mater, Southern Illinois University’s College of Mass Communication and Media Arts.
“Our efforts to improve understanding and to persuade others overseas to support our policies and actions, to share in our values and beliefs, could only be effective to the extent that we promoted and protected those same values and beliefs at home.”
In this era of being homebound, we hold the power to continue efforts in public diplomacy through our usage of media, our relationships with foreign publics, and the policies which we advocate. By sharing his experiences with the PDC blog, Mr. Baldyga has contributed to a wealth of learning with lessons that carry into the remainder of 2021 and beyond.