During the complicated video conferencing, the Secretary met with Secretary of Foreign Relations Marcelo Ebrard and other top officials for wide-ranging discussions and kept to a “robust” schedule for his first trip to each country. In Mexico, subjects such as pandemic response, bilateral economic issues, irregular migration, environmental concerns, security cooperation, and educational and cultural exchange were on the agenda. In addition to bilateral meetings, the Secretary also toured the port of entry between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and saw the work of the Department of Homeland Security in ensuring what he called “the safe, orderly and the humane processing at that crossing, and to facilitate the flow of individuals and commerce.” A spokesperson fact sheet on the Mexico visit included a solid section on PD efforts, such as a large Fulbright program; the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund; and more than 14,000 Mexican students in U.S. higher education institutions.
From Mexico, Blinken traveled to Canada virtually, where he met with Prime Minister Trudeau, Foreign Minister Garneau and others. The over-all diverse and lengthy agenda covered topics such as the pandemic, climate change, economic ties and economic security through USMA implementation, and shared defense and security.
In Ottawa, it was good to see that he made time for a PD event. He held a virtual discussion with representatives and alumni of the Students on Ice Foundation, a Canada-based polar education and youth engagement nonprofit. The Secretary learned that the U.S. Embassy has helped support youth and educators on expeditions to the Arctic to study climate change, environmental protection and increasing collaboration awareness and support for the Arctic and its indigenous Inuit people. He also heard about the Fulbright Arctic Initiative, which gets funding from both Canada and the United States.
At the end of the long day, the Secretary held an evening press availability to summarize his “very constructive engagement” with two important allies. He said by using technology he was able to connect to our two neighbors and do “what we would do on an actual visit.”
For details of the Secretary’s many February 26 events, go to the United States. Embassy Ottawa website at https://ca.usembassy.gov/. For information about Students on Ice, visit http://studentsonice.com/.
2. CAN A “RETURN TO CIVICS” HELP SAVE DEMOCRACY?: Two urgent reports have just been issued which warrant PD community attention. One, an annual report from a reputable non-governmental organization, has a global audience. The other, a nonpartisan study funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education, targets K-12 schools and tries to engage American citizens.
Both are “must-reads” for anyone in the profession of explaining U.S. society and values and concerned about two issues: the continued decline in democracy in the United States and around the world, and the erosion in U.S. history and civic learning across all grades. They serve as a wake-up call to those who want the United States to be a positive model for democracy and civil society. To regain credibility, the United States arguably needs to strengthen democracy and restore civic norms. The Biden Administration, including its PD leadership, should review both reports as it formulates policies and programs which explain and promote democracy and civic education and advance skills and knowledge needed in the 21st century. (PD officials might also want to review “lessons learned” from past U.S. Information Agency (USIA) and State programs to promote democracy and civic education. For example, for several years in the mid-1990’s, USIA — under Deputy Director Penn Kemble’s leadership — had a very active program to strengthen CIVITAS, a network dedicated to teaching about citizenship and civic education in a democracy.)
The 2021 edition of Freedom in the World: Democracy Under Siege is Freedom House’s flagship annual report on political rights and liberties around the world. For the 15th consecutive year, the news is not good. Documenting a decline in global freedom, the report concludes:
“As a lethal pandemic, economic and physical insecurity, and violent conflict ravaged the world in 2020, democracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny. Incumbent leaders increasingly used force to crush opponents and settle scores, sometimes in the name of public health, while beleaguered activists — lacking effective international support — faced heavy jail sentences, torture or murder in many settings.”
For the full report, including individual country narratives, go to: https://freedomhouse.org/
The Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy is an unprecedented report by a team of more than 300 scholars, educators and practitioners with diverse perspectives which spent a year focusing on ways to build excellence in civic and history education for all K-12 students. According to the project’s investigators, “The Roadmap, released against a backdrop of political polarization and increasing inequality threatening the country’s civic strength, provides a framework for innovation and improvement in history and civics learning with the goal of supporting the development of all students into prepared, informed, and engaged citizens.” The Roadmap is available at: www.
3. LESSONS FROM THE KHASHOGGI MURDER: U.S.-Saudi relations must be giving headaches not only to senior U.S. policymakers but also to PD officers who have to explain U.S. action — or inaction — to foreign audiences. The young Biden Administration has already had to face one of the toughest foreign policy tests imaginable — How to manage its close, long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia in the wake of the 2018 brutal murder of journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
The response to date is worth examining because it highlights a classic dilemma in foreign policy when there is a clear clash between enduring American values, such as human rights and press freedom, and perceived American national security interests. The new President’s response in one word has been “recalibration.” The administration has dramatically changed how it deals with the Saudis compared to the Trump Administration. But it is clearly struggling to balance idealism and realism. The problem — complicated by issues with both Yemen and Iran — and negative media reaction are not going to go away quickly.
To his credit, Biden declassified a U.S. intelligence report confirming that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman approved an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi. The President moved quickly to impose some visa restrictions and sanctions on lower-level personnel and to personally talk only with his counterpart, King Salman. But — and it is a big “but” — the Prince, who serves as Defense Minister and is his country’s de facto leader, has not been personally held accountable. This stance is justified by those who say the United States usually does not sanction leaders from friendly countries whose cooperation is needed in the interest of national security.
Pressure on the Administration to “get tougher” on the Prince will undoubtedly continue. For a timely analysis of the fraught situation, see Wilson Center Middle East Fellow and former Washington Post correspondent David Ottaway’s March 1, 2021 essay, Dawn of a New Era in U.S.-Saudi Relations, at: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/
For a scathing critique of Biden’s policy, see a March 2, 2021 column, “Say It Ain’t So, Joe,” by Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan at: https://www.washingtonpost.
4. THE RISE IN ANTI-ASIAN VIOLENCE: As if explaining China policy or the rise of U.S. domestic terrorism weren’t big enough challenges currently facing PD officers, a new, serious problem has attracted the attention of the country and the world — a rise in racism and violence toward Asian Americans during the current pandemic.
The media is suddenly full of horror stories from across the country of racist incidents against people of Asian origin. Community leaders and celebrities, like actors and activists George Takei, Daniel Dae Kim, and Daniel Wu, are speaking out against racism. Much of the problem is related to fear over the so-called “Chinese virus” and “kung flu”, but some of it goes back much further to historic dislike of Asian immigrants and ignorance of U.S. history and cultural diversity.
The situation has recently become so serious that President Biden, in one of his first official acts, felt the need to sign a detailed memorandum “condemning and combating racism, xenophobia, and intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States.” Pointing to “increasing rates of bullying, harassment, and hate crimes against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) persons,” the President took several specific steps to guarantee the safety of all races, national origins, and ethnicities. For the text of his January 26, 2021 White House statement, go to: https://www.whitehouse.gov/
For an overview of the most recent surge in anti-Asian incidents, see a Brookings blog, Re-imagining Safety, Belonging, and Justice in the Wake of Anti-Asian Violence, by Prof. Jennifer Lee and Tiffany Huang, both of Columbia University, at https://www.brookings.edu/
For an example of how public service advertising from the Ad Council has been used to dispel the racism endured by the AAPI community, go to: https://www.adcouncil.org/
5. SHOULD “UNCLE SAM” BE FIRED?: For more than a century, the most famous symbol of the U.S. Government specifically or America generally has been a skinny, old, white guy called Uncle Sam. The real-life model coming out of the War of 1812 was reportedly one Samuel Wilson from Troy, New York. Now, with tongue-in-cheek, Matt Wuerker, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist of POLITICO, is asking whether the venerable Uncle Sam should be replaced with something new, especially at this time when the country is re-examining a number of prominent figures or iconic images.
Should Uncle Sam be rebranded so political cartoonists, artists, the media, and demonstrators have someone new or more modern looking to use to represent America? To view Time for a New Uncle Sam?, Wuerker’s creative and informative interactive video raising this topic, go to: https://www.politico.com/
Spoiler alert: Wuerker has no answer as to how today’s United States should be personified. He just raises the question, but some of his readers share their views on how an updated Uncle Sam might look. Meanwhile, Wuerker continues to draw old Uncle Sam.
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.