1. COMING UP: A COSTLY U.S. DEPARTURE FROM AFGHANISTAN?: For literally decades, one of the most challenging and frustrating jobs for U.S. diplomats, as well as the military and non-governmental organizations, has been trying to deal with the Afghanistan war and the Afghan government and the Taliban. Billions have been spent on various well-intended “nation-building,” “reconstruction,” and humanitarian efforts. Also, many public diplomacy resources have gone into explaining our policies and supporting a variety of programs to counter extremism and promote democracy and human rights, especially women and girls’ education.
After campaigning to end the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and the Middle East and now facing a May 1 withdrawal deadline, President Biden has stressed leaving Afghanistan “in a safe and orderly way” and made clear: “We will leave. The question is when we leave.” As the Biden Administration consults its partners and focuses on the timing of its plans, Matthew Wallin of the American Security Project (ASP) has written a timely analysis titled “The Need to Prepare for the Consequences of Withdrawal from Afghanistan.” Wallin, a PDC member, leads ASP’s research on public diplomacy and strategic communications.
Arguing that “at the core of the issue, is the realization that there are no good-policy options for the United States in Afghanistan, and the acceptance of defeat,” Wallin says that the United States and its NATO partners must be prepared to deal with some significant consequences of withdrawal: “The slaughter of America’s allies in-country; the increased oppression of women; an increased terrorism threat; another refugee crisis; and damage to America’s credibility.” For his April 2, 2021 article, go to: https://www.
For an update on the complicated U.S.-Afghanistan relations, the current “Level 4” (Do not travel) advisory, various educational and cultural opportunities, and even Kabul “air quality data,” visit the U.S. Embassy website at: af.usembassy.gov. A veteran PD Foreign Service Officer, Scott Weinhold, has served as Embassy Kabul’s Assistant Chief of Mission since July, 2020.
2. LESSONS FROM THE SUEZ “CHOKEPOINT” CRISIS: For six days, the world’s attention was focused on the gigantic container ship, the Ever Given, as it blocked the busy Suez Canal and seriously disrupted international trade. When the ship was finally dislodged on March 29, 2021 and the strategic waterway reopened, one could almost hear the entire world — including certainly the U.S. Embassy Cairo and the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) — breathe a collective sigh of relief, and cheer: “Free at last!”
The good news is that the unusual incident, or accident, could have been much worse considering the Canal’s location in a troubled region and the disruptions to international commerce. Under intense pressure, the Egyptian government and its Suez Canal Authority and even the ship’s embarrassed multi-national owners and operators — to their credit — seemed to do a good job of damage control. The ship could have been stuck for a longer period, and other factors — sensational traditional or social media reports, deaths or injuries, terrorism, piracy, crew dissension, supply chain shortages, messy legal battles, etc. — could have greatly worsened the situation.
Some “lessons learned” should have come out of the disaster. The world was reminded that Egypt under President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi remains an important country and a good U.S. friend, which still gets large amounts of annual U.S. economic and military aid. (State says that since 1978 the United States has provided Egypt with more than $50 billion in military aid and $30 billion in economic assistance.) The world should have gained a better understanding of not only the critical role that shortcut — but vulnerable — sea-lanes, like the 150-year-old Suez Canal, play in globalization and in keeping supply chains open, but also how complicated and “internationalized” shipping has become. (The Ever Given was reportedly Japanese-owned, Panama-registered, Taiwan-operated, German-managed, Indian-manned, and Egyptian-rescued!)
Also, as every PD or PR practitioner knows, a crisis communication plan must be in place — and practiced — as part of any embassy or other organization’s credible emergency action planning. “Bad things” do happen, and every organization needs to have a credible spokesperson ready to tell the truth. Media reaction was understandably intense but relatively responsible. Kudos should go to the media’s highly effective use of stunning satellite photos to tell the story of how the ship was wedged across the canal. A Westminster, Colorado-based company, Maxar Technologies, and other companies seemed to provide major media clients, like Reuters, with some dramatic, high-resolution images showing conditions around the stuck ship. For information on how the company partners with media, go to: https://www.maxar.com/news-
Fortunately, “fake news” and conspiracy theories didn’t seem to go very far in shaping the story for global, multi-cultural audiences. There were some wild, mischievous “stories” out there in social media, but they didn’t get much traction. USA TODAY’s excellent “Fact Check” service on March 26 and April 1, 2021 refuted several false claims. One was that “a ship that is stuck and blocking traffic in the Suez Canal is a human trafficking vessel connected to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.” Another was that the Suez Canal grounding was “a planned event because similar accidents had not happened before.”
Egypt can take pride in largely freeing the ship using its own national resources, but a close friend like the United States can take a little credit for being a very interested by-stander but not jumping into the fray and perhaps making a sensitive situation even worse. U.S. ships, of course, often transit through the Canal, and there were scattered reports that a U.S. Navy team might be “coming to the rescue.” But the official U.S. reaction from State, the Pentagon, and CENTCOM was restrained, and experienced Egyptian personnel working around-the-clock were able to manage the situation largely on their own.
For a 3 ½-minute, Suez Canal Authority-released video (with dramatic background music!) on the successful refloating of the ship, go to: suezcanal.gov.eg/English/
For an April 1, 2021 Bloomberg report by Timothy Kaldas summarizing how “Egyptian can-do” helped free the Ever Given, see: https://www.bloomberg.com/
3. TWENTY YEARS OF U.S. RESPECT FOR CULTURAL PRESERVATION: On April 3, 2021, the State Department’s Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) marked 20 years as a successful program combining cultural protection with American diplomacy. With World Heritage Day on April 18, 2021, it is worth noting that, since 2001, more than a thousand AFCP projects in 133 countries have been supported with grants between $10,000 and $1 million in an effort to show that the United States values the preservation of cultural heritage and the diversity of cultures.
Based in the State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), the AFCP has helped preserve a wide variety of historic buildings, archaeological and other cultural sites, museum objects and even forms of traditional expression such as indigenous languages and music. The highly competitive Fund is popular not only with host-country governments and cultural organizations but also with American Ambassadors, who often enjoy getting very involved in the nomination process and visiting projects.
According to ECA’s AFCP program director Martin Perschler, U.S. missions around the world “have used the power of cultural preservation and AFCP to support post-crisis recovery, spur economic development, engage women and youth, promote tolerance and respect for cultural diversity, counter disinformation, rebut extremism, and advance many other U.S. foreign policy objectives. In the process, they have also provided professional development opportunities for American cultural heritage preservation professionals and students from nearly all 50 states.” To learn more about AFCP’s 20th anniversary in a recent Department blog post, go to: https://www.state.gov/dipnote-
4. RE-NORMALIZING RELATIONS WITH CUBA: When it comes to Western Hemisphere priorities, the new administration is understandably very occupied with managing the U.S.-Mexico border “crisis” and the current “surge” of unaccompanied minors and to a much lesser extent dealing with the democracy crisis of the dictatorship of Maduro in Venezuela and with the populist President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, and his pandemic and other problems. Set aside for at least the foreseeable future is any quick movement towards a new policy of engagement with our close island-neighbor or restoration of the lines of diplomatic communication and people-to-people ties that the Trump Administration had shut down.
The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) have recently produced a 28-page report, The United States and Cuba: A New Policy of Engagement, recommending a strategic shift in U.S. policy towards a changing Cuba under a rising generation of new leaders. The rationale:
“The reasons for engagement are the same as they were when the Obama administration introduced its policy on December 17, 2014. The old policy of hostility had outlived whatever usefulness it may have had and was not working. It was not improving democracy or human rights on the island, it was not advancing U.S geopolitical interests, and it was blocking progress on issues of mutual interest. Instead, the policy of hostility increased hardship for the Cuban people, alienated our allies in Latin America and Europe, excluded U.S. businesses from competing in the Cuban market and opened the door for our global competitors Russia and China to expand their influence.”
The report fully recognizes that Cuba is a contentious U.S. domestic political issue and that “the obstacles of Cuba’s support for the Venezuelan government and the unsolved mystery of the injuries to U.S personnel in Cuba” need to be surmounted.” For the text of the report, which includes a useful section of recommendations for educational and cultural exchanges to “establish civil society connections and foster deeper understanding and trust,” go to: https://www.wola.org/wp-
One of the most challenging issues affecting U.S-Cuba relations is the unsolved, so-called “Havana Syndrome” problem involving serious, unexplained health incidents. The State Department has appointed Pamela Spratlen, former U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, to oversee the Department’s response to the incidents, which have affected numerous U.S. personnel serving in Cuba and several other countries. In naming her Senior Advisor to the Health Incident Response Task Force, the Department’s March 12, 2021 announcement did not specifically name Cuba or any other involved countries.
5. KEEPING U.K. A “SOFT POWER SUPERPOWER”: The public diplomacy community, like diplomacy generally, can learn from how foreign governments see their own strategic challenges and opportunities. A new, comprehensive report from our closest ally and partner — which claims to have the world’s fourth-largest diplomatic network, with 281 posts in 178 countries and territories — provides useful perspectives into how tools, including public diplomacy, can be reformed and mobilized to meet the challenges of “an increasingly complex, contested and interconnected global context.” Titled Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy, the highly-readable document was submitted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Parliament in March.
PD practitioners will appreciate the report’s references to the importance of the United Kingdom as “a soft power superpower” with strengths such as media, culture, education, and people-to-people links. The reform priorities cited include “strategic communications and public engagement capability,” and continued support for the British Council, which operates in more than 100 countries, and for galleries and museums and strengthening of the United Kingdom’s “cultural and heritage infrastructure.” To read the 114-page report, go to https://www.gov.uk/government/
On a related issue, a new British Council-supported study claims that — over the past two decades — there has been “rapid global rise” in the teaching of English literature at universities around the world, even in countries where English is not the national language. The research found, for example, “a significant increase” in the number of British literature programs in Spain, Poland, and Russia, but also in the United States, Mexico, and Cuba. Write Now: Teaching C21 British Literature in Global Higher Education, a report by Professor Kathy Shaw, Northumbria University, Newcastle, United Kingdom, found, however, that the content of the teaching focused on pre-1900 texts (from Shakespeare to Dickens) at the expense of more contemporary British writings. For information about the study and to download the just-published report, go to: https://www.northumbria.ac.uk/
The British Council actively markets the delivery of British literature — especially contemporary works — outside its borders as a way to foster mutual understanding and support higher education, the publishing industry, and English teaching.
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.