1. A STUNNING DAY FOR PUBLIC DIPLOMACY: Friday, February 19, 2021 was not “just another news day” for America. If you were a U.S. diplomat, especially a public diplomacy officer, it was arguably a great day. Several things happened within just a couple of hours to significantly explain and advance U.S. policy of partnership, cooperation, engagement and concern for the real health and other needs of people. One was a Presidential speech to Europe, one was a formal international agreement notification, and one was a Presidential visit to the U.S. heartland.
President Biden’s remarks to the 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference and participation in a Group of Seven leaders’ meeting, hosted by Britain, delivered a crystal clear, much-appreciated message not only to the NATO Alliance, but to the wider world: “America is back. The transatlantic alliance is back. And we are not looking backward; we are looking forward, together.” Besides giving strong support to collective security, the President also sent a clear global health partnership message: “We must cooperate if we’re going to defeat COVID-19 everywhere.” The President pledged $4 billion to GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, for use by the COVAX Facility in global vaccine distribution. For the President’s text, go to: https://www.whitehouse.gov/
Also on February 19, 2021, the United States officially once again became a Party to the historic Paris Agreement, an unprecedented framework for global action on climate change. Secretary of State Blinken called the occasion “momentous,” and said:
“Climate change and science diplomacy can never again be ‘add-ons’ in our foreign policy discussions. Addressing the real threats from climate change and listening to our scientists is at the center of our domestic and foreign policy priorities. It is vital in our discussions of national security, migration, international health efforts, and in our economic diplomacy and trade talks. We are reengaging the world on all fronts, including at the President’s April 22nd Leaders’ Climate Summit.”
For the Secretary’s press statement, see: https://www.state.gov/the-
Finally, that same day, the President traveled to Kalamazoo County, Michigan, to tour a Pfizer vaccine plant. His messages there were intended to reassure a domestic audience, but clearly they were also important for a global audience to hear. The President reported on progress made in getting people vaccinated, emphasized his administration’s commitment to listening to scientists, and showcased cooperation from a leading global pharmaceutical company. He made clear that “it’s not enough that we find cures for Americans,” adding “There needs to be cures that the world is able to take part of, because you can’t build a wall or a fence high enough to keep a pandemic out.” For the Kalamazoo remarks, go to: https://www.whitehouse.
All in all, the day’s events gave PD officers plenty of policy guidance, visuals, and “good news” to share with local audiences and contacts.
2. THE CASE — YET AGAIN — FOR “RESTORING” USIA: On October 1, 1999, the U.S. Information Agency ceased being an independent agency. However its demise is described — consolidation, integration, reform, restructuring, or hostile take-over, USIA’s non-broadcast functions on that date moved into the State Department and international broadcasting went into a separate entity. Whether those were wise decisions continue to re-surface and be hotly debated more than two decades later.
The basic debate is between those who argue “USIA is an outdated relic of the Cold War” and “the PD function needs to remain an integral part of the Department of State to stay relevant” versus those who say an “independent, revitalized, flexible USIA-like agency” is exactly what is needed to meet today’s PD challenges and explain global issues such as climate change, pandemics, terrorism, cyber, nuclear proliferation, refugees, and democracy and human rights.
The latest experts to propose bringing USIA back are Evan Cooper and Robert A. Manning, both with the Atlantic Council. (Manning held State Department senior counselor and Policy Planning Staff positions between 2001-2008). In “How to Fix the U.S. Public Diplomacy Deficit: Restore USIA,” a February 13, 2021 piece for The Hill, they make the case for why the time is right for the United States to “remedy its public diplomacy deficit, and re-engage globally both to better tell America’s story and expand people-to-people, art and cultural exchanges.” They concluded:
“Rebuilding trust and moral authority for U.S. global leadership will take time and effort to demonstrate that U.S. policy is adapting to a multipolar world. But for that process to have a chance to succeed, the United States must be able to communicate to foreign publics what it is doing and why it is doing it and understand foreign perceptions as well. That is a harder task than ever before thanks to modern media ecosystems. Re-establishing USIA and equipping it for this challenge would be a step in the right direction.”
For their analysis, go to:https://thehill.com/
3. TRYING TO RE-ENGAGE WITH CHINA: Communication with China continues to be strained, as the two governments review how to interact with each other and what role public diplomacy, including exchanges, will be allowed to play. About the time of President Biden’s first call to President Xi Jinping, the State Department was condemning China’s decision to bar BBC World News from broadcasting in China, and — separately — Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) said it was suspending the relaying of BBC World Service radio in the region. Also, criticism of China’s human rights abuses — “genocide” — against the Muslim Uighur minority was drawing attention to China’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
In his important February 12 call with the Chinese leader, the President not only brought Lunar New Year greetings, but also “affirmed his priorities of protecting the American people’s security, prosperity, health, and way of life, and preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific.” Also, he “underscored his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjian, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan.” On the more positive side, the President “committed to pursuing practical, results-oriented engagements when it advances the interests of the American people and those of our allies.”
At about the same time, an important — but little noticed — effort to re-engage was launched. On February 2, 2021, the Institute of International Education International Institute of Education (IIE) announced a “one-time” China-U.S. Scholars program with $3.1 million in support from five major foundations — Carnegie Corporation of New York, Ford Foundation, Harvard-Yenching Institute, Henry Luce Foundation, and Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The funds will “support 48 Chinese and American faculty and students in the arts, humanities and social science to conduct research, study or teach abroad in the United States or China in the 2021-22 academic year.”
The new program is good news because it comes at a time when many government-funded programs with China — like Fulbright and Peace Corps — have been suspended. In a statement, the five foundations emphasized: “The initiative signals the critical importance we place on people-to-people engagement and will ensure that some level of exchange between our two countries continues through the next academic year. It is our hope that the fellowship — and more importantly the academic collaboration, teaching, research and exchange it facilitates — will inspire the resumption of such government-supported programs for the future. Our world, and the peoples of China and the U.S., need this opportunity for cooperation more than ever.” IIE will manage the program, which will involve fellowships 5-10 months long, beginning in fall 2021. For details, go to: https://www.iie.org/en/Why-
Meanwhile, negative perceptions of China persist, and bilateral relations are unlikely to improve very quickly as the new administration seeks to consult with its friends and allies on how best to deal with China and defend shared values. The Biden Administration is challenged because, on one hand, it likes some of Trump’s “get tough” positions against the Chinese government’s coercion and economic abuses, and, on the other hand, it knows it needs to use more diplomacy to deal with the realities of Chinese competition and try to find areas of common interest, such as the environment.
For a timely discussion of how U.S. views of China have plummeted in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, accelerating the steady decline of China’s image among ordinary Americans that began around 2018, see “U.S. Perceptions of China in the Pandemic Era and Implications for U.S. Policy” by Patricia M. Kim, a senior policy analyst on China at the U.S. Institute of Peace. She concluded: “The challenge for the Biden administration will be to demonstrate to U.S. allies and partners that their cooperation will be sought for critical efforts that serve vital ‘common’ interests and not just to score points in a U.S.-China tit-for-tat.” Her analysis is at: https://carnegieendowment.org/
4. BREAKING BARRIERS WITH THE ”JACKIE ROBINSON OF HOCKEY”: In celebration of Black History Month, the Cultural Programs Division of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) has come up with a creative partnership to promote a global discussion on racial equality, justice, and inclusion within culture and sport.
In partnership with Global Affairs Canada (the new name for the Canadian government’s department that manages diplomatic, consular, and trade affairs) and the National Hockey League (NHL), ECA is presenting a global screening of “Willie”, the award-winning documentary on the life of Willie O’Ree. He was the first Black man to play in the NHL when he came from New Brunswick, Canada, to pursue an ice hockey career with the Boston Bruins. Sixty-three years later, Willie serves as the NHL’s diversity ambassador who educates audiences everywhere on his story and the power of sport to break barriers in society.
U.S. and Canadian missions are collaborating to show the film virtually in more than 35 countries. For more information about the documentary and a global Zoom discussion with two of the filmmakers, Willie, and Blake Bolden, the first Black woman to play in the National Women’s Hockey League and current scout with NHL’s L.A. Kings, go to: https://www.state.gov/
D.C. area hockey fans and PD followers may recall that for part of the last two Black History Months preceding this pandemic year, the Embassy of Canada hosted on its Pennsylvania Avenue grounds a mobile Black History Museum, which toured major cities to celebrate diversity and inclusion in hockey, long recognized as a predominantly white sport. Willie was in town for the special embassy event.
5. PROMOTING WILSON CENTER, “AN INTELLECTUAL CANDY STORE”: Think-tank annual reports usually are pretty dull, stodgy, and self-serving documents. The Wilson Center — which has been described by its respected President/CEO, former Congresswoman Jane Harmon, as “an intellectual candy store” — has changed all of that with an exciting, first-ever inter-active annual report. Harmon is stepping down February 28, 202l after leading the Center for 10 years.
Titled A Year of Insight and Impact: FY 2020, the report self-promotes as it concludes: “Our ability to adapt to unprecedented circumstances and our seamless shift to virtual operations allowed us to reach bigger audiences than ever.” But, more importantly, it tells the story of an independent, non-partisan think-tank that throughout the past turbulent, pandemic-impacted year has actively conducted research and promoted dialogue on “actionable ideas” for Congress, the Administration, and the international policy community. Much of the Center’s work has centered around four clusters: The Arctic, Rule of Law and the Future of Democracy, Brave New Digital World, and Great Powers Competition. Congress helps support the Center through an annual appropriation, but about 70% of the budget comes from private sources.
As both an old-fashioned communications and a state-of-the-art digital marketing tool, the report successfully informs and engages about the Center’s priorities, programs, finances, and alumni and external relations outreach. It creatively uses not only traditional text, photos and graphics, but also video and audio products and interactive data (available for download and sharing) to tell the story of the Center’s past productive year.
The report touches only gently on the past year’s controversy over its namesake. The Center was chartered by Congress in 1968 as the official memorial to President Woodrow Wilson, who was an international affairs visionary but who held racist views as President of Princeton University and then of the United States. To the Center’s credit, its 2020 report does have a detailed section on the establishment of the “Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Council” to advise Center officials.
Wilson’s new President/CEO — former USAID Administrator, Congressman, and Ambassador to Tanzania Mark Green — will have a chance to put his stamp on the think-tank and its next annual report. In the interim, to access the 2020 interactive report, go to: https://www.wilsoncenter.
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.