Due to the pandemic, both occasions in the Department were largely virtual events, but a nice human touch was added by having the newest class of Foreign Service Officers join from their homes via video. The FSOs’ photos were shown on a giant screen behind the in-person VIP speakers. (A photo of the screen behind President Biden and Secretary Blinken ran February 5, 2021 on the front page of the New York Times.) The President first gave a pep talk from the Dean Acheson Auditorium directed to State employees, and then later in the afternoon, from the ornate Ben Franklin Room, he delivered a broad inaugural foreign policy address.
The President’s basic message was: “America is back. Diplomacy is back.” But what was most important was just showing up and personally thanking the diplomats for their service and sacrifice. A morale-building visit to the Department so early in the new administration clearly sent a well-received signal — Biden respects diplomats and is serious about restoring America’s leadership and its standing in the world. For the text of his remarks on “America’s Place in the World,” go to: https://www.whitehouse.
One early test of the new administration will be how it handles ambassadorial appointments. Will it increase the percentage of ambassadorships going to career diplomats, and, for its political appointees, will it select qualified people rather than partisan supporters and big donors?
The public diplomacy community will be watching to see how the handful of senior PD positions are filled — and what their agendas will be — and whether any career PD officers will be appointed ambassadors. Attention will also be focused on resources. Will PD get the budgets and personnel needed to address the many challenges facing the United States in a much-changed world?
One very specific PD issue that will be closely watched is how the Biden Administration cleans up the leadership mess at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) and allows international broadcasting to operate. The most important strategic issues will center around how Biden handles “the growing ambitions of China and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy.” Regarding strategic messaging, for example, will the Trump-Pompeo policy of publicly bashing China continue, or will Biden-Blinken opt to lower the rhetoric and take a “softer” public approach?
Meanwhile, advice to the new Administration continues to pour in, and much of it argues that an overhaul of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 is long overdue. One of the more interesting recommendations appeared in “Let 100 Foreign Services Bloom,” a Foreign Policy commentary by Sagatom Saha, a U.S. Commerce Department international trade specialist. Arguing that since the most pressing challenges U.S. diplomats now face are climate, public health and economic crises, Saha writes that the State Department needs more scientific and specialized expertise to “help expand the reach and depth of U.S. diplomacy and technical assistance abroad.” He specifically proposes that “Congress should fashion new foreign service cadres within the departments of Energy (DOE), Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Treasury.” See his essay at: https://foreignpolicy.com/
2. COUP OR NO COUP, AMERICAN CENTERS SERVE THE BURMESE PEOPLE: Of all the challenging places where American public diplomacy has shined, few countries have stood out more than Burma (or its newer, official name “Myanmar”). Sadly, recent developments there have reminded a shocked world how fragile and messy democracy can be and why public diplomacy — and brick-and-mortar American centers — still matter in that unique environment.
As Burma’s democratic experience failed, the State Department had to quickly and clearly speak out. It expressed “grave concern and alarm” over the February 1, 2021 military coup d’etat and state of emergency, and declared: “The United States stands with the people of Burma in their aspirations for democracy, freedom, peace and development. The military must reverse these actions immediately.”
The ruthless generals — unhappy with the November 8, 2021, landslide Parliamentary election results — staged a coup against the democratically-elected government and put Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s revered, top civilian leader with the National League for Democracy, under house arrest — yet again. They also blocked access to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, all social media platforms popular with civil society and young people who oppose the coup.
The military take-over is a huge set-back in the country’s slow, complicated democracy transition. Relations with the United States were greatly advanced in November of 2012 when President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the isolated, socialist nation. After decades of tight military control, civilian rule returned in 2015, and there was hope that Burma would re-engage with the wider world and respect human rights and democracy. Those hopes have now been dashed, and America’s ability unilaterally to impose consequences on those responsible is limited. For a good overview of the complex situation surrounding the coup, see a timely CSIS analysis by senior fellow Gregory Poling and research associate Simon Tran Hudes at: https://www.csis.org/analysis/
With Burma back in the spotlight, public diplomacy practitioners and “old Southeast Asia hands” may nostalgically recall the absolutely crucial role that the U.S. Information Service (USIS) in Yangon (old Rangoon) played in the country’s development. Opened in 1949 in a former British bank building in downtown, the American facility served as a “safe harbor” or “oasis of learning” space over the decades when the country was largely closed to the outside world. The American library, or cultural center, was extremely popular with students and other Burmese audiences who flocked to the facility to study English, learn the news, read U.S. magazines and books, attend cultural events, and meet Americans in-person. (Even the generals reportedly sent their kids there to learn English.)
The American space took on more importance after traumatic events like the 1988 uprising when the junta closed the universities. At some personal risk, many Burmese still dared to frequent the Center on Taw Win Road, where they enjoyed access to useful information and inspiring education and cultural programs.
On March 21, 2018, a new, stand-alone American Center — with the slogan “inform-innovate-inspire” — was opened in Yangon’s Kamayut Township on U.S. Government land close to both the U.S. Embassy and the University of Yangon. An embassy release said the new space represented “the largest single financial commitment by the U.S government in an American Center anywhere in the world.”
During pre-pandemic, “normal” times, the space offers not only traditional library resources, but also Internet, English language courses, a café, youth clubs, and civic education programs through iPACE, the Institute of Political and Civic Engagement, designed by World Learning. (The only other American space in Burma is the Jefferson Center in Mandalay, the country’s second-largest city. Housed in the old U.S. Consulate building, the Center is run entirely by contract staff. The official capital is off in a new city called Naypyidaw.)
Fortunately, the rich history of the old American Center in Yangon has been somewhat preserved. In connection with the opening of the new Center four years ago, the Embassy wisely funded a “Videography Oral History Project,” which documented some of the great stories about the Center’s truly unique history. A long list of dedicated American officers and loyal local staffers can be proud of how they provided a “window to the outside world” for so many Burmese.
Hopefully, Burma can somehow get past its devastating recent setback and get back on track towards some form of real democracy and human rights. The situation is complicated by the continuing persecution of the country’s minority Muslim Rohingya, many of whom have fled and become refugees. Whatever happens, an active, well-supported American Center can be relied upon to continue its longtime commitment to the people of Burma and their aspirations.
3. HOW “SICK” IS DEMOCRACY? One of public diplomacy’s greatest challenges is how to explain and defend democracy during a time when the process in the United States and around the world is not in the best of health — thanks in part to the pandemic. The current situation is thoroughly documented in the newly released, 13th annual “Democracy Index” produced by the respected The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the research and analysis division of The Economist Group.
“Democracy Index 2020: In Sickness and in Health?” provides a snapshot of democracy and freedom in 165 independent states and two territories, and it is not a pretty picture. In 2020, “democracy was dealt a major blow.” According to the 71-page study, only about half of the world’s people live in a democracy, and only 8.4% live in a “full democracy”. More than one-third live under authoritarian rule. The report “looks at how the pandemic resulted in the withdrawal of civil liberties on a massive scale and fuelled an existing trend of intolerance and censorship of dissenting opinion.” It also “examines the state of U.S. democracy after a turbulent year dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and a hotly contested presidential election.”
The lengthy report’s major finding is that “the global average score” is by far the worse since the Index was first produced in 2006. To download a free copy of the full report, go to eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-
Aware of the need to shore up democracy at home and abroad, President Biden has pledged to host “the Summit of Democracy” early in his administration. He has said its goal is to “rally the nations of the world to defend democracy globally, to push back the authoritarians’ advance.” Planners of the initiative should take a close look at EIU’s findings.
Another just-released report on the rather depressing state of global democracy came out of Washington, DC-based Freedom House and analyzed a worldwide pattern of violence and intimidation — “transnational repression” — involving some degree of cooperation between the “origin state” and the “host state”. Titled “Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach: Understanding Transnational Repression,” the research report explains that “dozens of governments around the world systematically employ violence against exiles and diasporas, reaching beyond the national borders to silence dissent.” Included in the study are detailed case studies from China, Rwanda, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey.
For more information, go to: https://freedomhouse.org/
4. AFRICA – SHOULD IT MATTER? It is no secret that President Trump had little interest in the nearly 50 Sub-Saharan African countries handled by State’s Bureau of African Affairs. He made one particularly disparaging remark about some African countries and never stepped foot in Africa, although First Lady Melania Trump made a heavily publicized, solo official visit to Ghana, Malawi, Kenya and Egypt in early October 2018 to promote her “Be Best” child-welfare initiative and highlight USAID’s work. Her one-week, whistle-stop trip produced numerous “interesting” photo ops, but mixed results. The Biden Administration has a good chance to improve bilateral and regional African relations, and to use public diplomacy to foster mutually respectful engagement — especially with young leaders and professionals — and promote new partnerships and cooperation in areas like sustainable development and trade.
“Does Africa Matter to the United States?” For a fresh discussion of why the answer is “yes” for a whole host of reasons, see a Foreign Policy Research Institute analysis by Charles A. Ray, former Ambassador to Zimbabwe and Cambodia, at https://www.fpri.org/article/
Outlining pressing issues like climate change, rule of law/mitigation of corruption, violent extremism and terrorism, and great power competition, Ray believes the United States can no longer afford to ignore Africa. He writes that if the United States approaches Africa as a partner rather than a patron — “with a focus on assisting African nations to improve governance, build critical infrastructure, boost domestic economies, and provide essential services to all — then Africa can be a positive contributor on the global stage.”
5. REMEMBERING “THE JAZZ AMBASSADORS”: As Black History Month kicked off, both WETA and WMPT — the D.C. area’s two PBS stations — promoted and aired primetime on February 2, 2021 an important documentary about music, cultural diplomacy, and race in the context of the Cold War and the civil rights movement.
Titled “The Jazz Ambassadors,” the documentary originally aired in May of 2018. It effectively used archival footage and music to tell the story of the dilemma jazz greats — like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Dizzy Gillespie — faced as they traveled the world as cultural ambassadors representing a country that still practiced segregation. The film, directed by Hugo Berkeley and narrated by actor-singer Leslie Odom, Jr., was a co-production of THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET and Antelope South Ltd. and Normal Life Pictures, in association with the BBC and ZDF, in collaboration with Arte.
The one-hour documentary remains a “must view” for anyone interested in jazz as “America’s coolest weapon in the Cold War” and in the good, old days when the State Department had an ambitious, decade-long program of sending big-name cultural figures on international goodwill trips to subtly offset Soviet propaganda.
In many ways, the documentary uses the jazz ambassadors program as the means of telling the larger story of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) and the positive influence of both the Voice of America (VOA) and cultural programming. Good use is made of both old video and original interviews with a range of people, including first USIA Director Theodore Streibert; Congressman from Harlem and civil rights leader Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who is credited with having convinced President Eisenhower that jazz should be used to fight the Cold War; USC Prof. of Public Diplomacy Nicholas Cull; musician Quincy Jones; VOA jazz program host Willis Conover; and career diplomat Thomas Simons, who escorted Duke Ellington on one of his jazz ambassador tours.
For background and a preview, visit https://www.pbs.org/show/jazz-
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.