1. GLOBAL TIES U.S. MARKS 60 YEARS OF CITIZEN DIPLOMACY: The March 22-26, 2021 National Meeting of Global Ties U.S. — the nation-wide network of partners and community supporters which makes the successful, State Department-funded International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) possible — was historic. Not only did the huge annual gathering mark the 60th anniversary of the largest and oldest citizen diplomacy network in the country, it also took place entirely in a virtual format for the first time. (In 2014, the organization’s name was changed from the National Council for International Visitors.)
With barely any glitches, the non-governmental organizers worked closely with State Department officials to pull off an amazing, complicated virtual gathering of exchange leaders and supporters focused on one theme: “Exchange Matters”. The crowded schedule consisted of five days of plenaries; regional briefings by State Department public diplomacy officials; storytelling; IVLP alumni and community leadership award presentations; exhibitor meet and greets; networking with the European Union Delegation and embassies of South Africa, Sweden and the UAE; and “fireside chats”. A number of senior officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Matthew Lussenhop, and John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, showed their strong support through remarks.
But the real stars of the meeting were the many individual exchange advocates at the community level and the talented IVLP participants they host. Among the latter were two IVLP alumni who were honored with the IVLP Alumni Decade of Social Innovation and Change Award. They were 2016 alumnus Saad Abid, an environmental activist and community organizer from Morocco, and 2007 IVLP alumna Raisa Banfield, architect and environmental activist from Panama. Both gave inspiring presentations.
All in all, the event advanced professional exchange development and learning and showed that exchange programs like the IVLP still very much do matter. Highly resilient and creative, a time-tested program like the IVLP depends on a wide network of extraordinarily dedicated and hospitable volunteers and exchange professionals plus continued strong support from both State Department and Congress.
Led by President and CEO Katherine Brown, Global Ties U.S. has some 34,000 enthusiastic volunteers — citizen ambassadors — in a network of some 120 organizations in all 50 states, and they annually welcome some 5,000 exchange participants in-person and virtually. For more information, visit globaltiesus.org and eca.state.gov/ivlp.
2. “INTERIM” GUIDANCE ON BIDEN FOREIGN POLICY: On March 3, 2021, the White House issued Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, a 24-page document that presents the new President’s first effort at conveying a comprehensive vision for how the United States will engage with the world. A later, Congressionally-mandated “National Security Strategy” will be issued after a review and more work. In the interim, the document sends important, early messages to both foreign and domestic audiences, and will serve as a useful guide to departments and agencies on how to align their actions. State’s Bureau of Global Affairs and our PD operations abroad will find the guidance especially helpful in their messaging.
Specific policy recommendations aside, the document is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, it has been issued very early in the new administration, which has many positions still unfilled. The release of an initial document so quickly indicates that the senior Biden team has entered office relatively well-prepared and focused. As the President’s intro states, “We have no time to waste. The simple truth is, American cannot afford to be absent any longer on the world stage. . . . America is back. Diplomacy is back. Alliances are back. But we are not looking back. We are looking irrevocably toward the future and all that we can achieve for the American people — together.” Secondly, the text is very direct and clear. The language is polite and the tone diplomatic as the strategy realistically spells out what it calls the “accelerating global challenges” and new crises which demand attention.
Diplomats will like the document’s emphasis on the use of diplomacy to advance our interests. Many public diplomacy officers, who welcome the challenge of explaining U.S. society — will like the emphasis on upholding universal values and democracy. The document doesn’t directly talk about public diplomacy or “soft power”, but — after reading the document — a PD officer will surely ask, “How can the new administration’s goals possibly be met without effective public diplomacy?” The President, for example, says he is “committed to engage with the world once again”; wants to “reinvigorate and modernize our alliances and partnerships”; wants to incentivize “the world’s best and brightest to study, work and stay in America”; wants to “join with likeminded allies and partners to revitalize democracy the world over”; wants to “advance our interests and reflect our values”; will seek to reverse trends such as misinformation and disinformation; “will stand up for democracy, human rights and human dignity”; and will “rebuild our human capital to ensure a strong corps of diplomats.”
To deliver on these and other ambitious goals, the new administration will need a very robust PD toolkit. For the text of the interim document, go to: https://www.whitehouse.
3. ADVISORY COMMISSION CHARTER RENEWED: The State Department has “renewed the Charter” for the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy (ACPD). While not surprising, it still is welcome news for the PD community. In making the announcement in a March 22, 2021 press release, the Department Spokesperson added:
“For more than 70 years, the ACPD has appraised U.S. government activities intended to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics and has aimed to increase the understanding of and support for these activities. The Commission conducts research and symposia that provide honest assessments and informed discourse on public diplomacy efforts across the U.S. government, and it disseminates findings through reports, white papers, and other publications.”
As a federal advisory committee, the ACPD is a rather complicated entity. It reports to the President, Secretary of State and Congress. Its administrative support is provided by the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs’ Office of Policy, Planning, and Resources.
Four seats on the seven-person Commission are currently vacant. The current three members are Sim Farar of California, Chair; William Hybl of Colorado, Vice-Chair; and Anne Terman Wedner of Florida. (The current party affiliation mix is two Democrats and one Republican.) Commissioners are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for three-year terms. By statute, no more than four Commissioners may be from one political party. Since the Commission is bipartisan, Commissioners can only be appointed in bipartisan pairs, and this makes the appointment and confirmation process slow. Hopefully, the remaining vacancies can be filled soon so the ACPD can be fully functional.
The ACPD has two full-time employees. The Executive Director is Dr. Vivian S. Walker, who is a Schedule B (limited term appointment) who serves at the pleasure of the Commissioners, and the Senior Advisor (usually a PD officer) is Shawn Baxter, who is on a two-year FSO tour ending this summer.
For information about the ACPD, go to: state.gov/about-us-u-s-
4. PEACE CORPS MARKS A YEAR OF DISRUPTION: As people-to-people, or citizen diplomacy, anniversaries go, it didn’t get much attention, but March 15, 2021 marked one year since the Peace Corps evacuated all of its 7,300 Volunteers from their far-flung assignments around the world. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers — sometimes with just a few hours’ notice — were unceremoniously pulled out of more than 60 countries. In the challenging year since that difficult, unprecedented decision, the agency has not only been hard at work preparing for the time when it will be safe for Volunteers to go abroad again, but also marking the 60th anniversary since President Kennedy established the organization with a March 1, 1961 executive order. Back in October, the then-Director, Jody K. Olsen, optimistically announced that, starting in January, 2021, the Peace Corps would cautiously be returning to the field, with the Eastern Caribbean as the first recipient program. But, with a new leadership team being assembled and the pandemic continuing, keeping to that schedule has not been possible.
For Peace Corps Acting Director Carol Spahn’s March 15th statement on “a year like no other,” see https://www.peacecorps.gov/
5. ERNEST HEMINGWAY RETURNS — VIA PBS: Back during the days of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), American literature was sometimes used to tell America’s story of a diverse, restless people. For many years, for example, the Agency produced – and even translated into several foreign languages — “Outline of American Literature,” a very useful American studies guide to literary trends and leading U.S. writers. It was written by Prof. Kathryn VanSpanckeren, who from 1993-1995 co-directed USIA’s Fulbright-sponsored Summer Institute in American Literature. One of the most revered modern American writers was Hemingway. She called him “arguably the most popular novelist “of the 20th Century and “a spokesperson for his generation.”
The days when U.S. public diplomacy gave considerable publication and program attention to libraries and “soft” cultural topics like literature are long gone, but a world iconic literary figure like Hemingway, who died in 1961, is not easily forgotten. A surge of international interest in the influential American writer and possibly literature generally is expected following the 8 p.m. (EST), April 5-7, 2021 premiere airing and streaming of “Hemingway” by PBS.
The three-part, six-hour documentary film by award-winning filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and writer Geoffrey C. Ward is a production of Florentine Films and WETA Washington, D.C. PBS described the film:
“Interweaving his eventful biography — a life lived at the ultimately treacherous nexus of art, fame, and celebrity — with carefully selected excerpts from his iconic short stories, novels, and non-fiction, the series reveals the brilliant, ambitious, charismatic, and complicated man behind the myth, and the art he created.”
Hemingway’s relevance today has been addressed by director Novick: “In an era when Americans are re-evaluating so many icons, Hemingway is a particularly compelling figure to revisit. He was hugely complicated, deeply flawed, and he truly revolutionized the art of writing.”
Given the renewed interest in, and concern about, explaining U.S. society and values, such as democracy, the new administration and PD leadership in State’s ECA and the Bureau of Global Affairs may want to revisit “old” information and cultural activities, such as development of materials on literature, programming of writers, support for American Studies, and use of video and other products on the lives of great Americans. “ShareAmerica,” the Department’s platform for communicating American foreign policy worldwide, may want to give more attention to sharing stories and images about “old-fashioned” topics, like literature and American studies. Such a move would not be “a return to USIA,” but rather a recognition that much of the world, and especially young people, do not really know much about American society, values, diversity, and institutions.
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.