1. THE STRUGGLE TO REFORM PUBLIC DIPLOMACY STAFFING: As any PD officer knows, the effort to inform and influence foreign publics relies heavily on support from approximately 2,600 loyal PD Locally Employed Staff (LES) who do PD work in 189 U.S. missions around the world. Any attempt to reform their functions, structures, and position descriptions is challenging and can affect morale, as an important State Department Office of Inspector General report issued April 22, 2021 makes abundantly clear.
Titled Review of the Public Diplomacy Staffing Initiative, the report takes a good, hard look at the ambitious efforts of the Office of Policy, Planning, and Resources in the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (R/PPR) since 2014 to update all LES position descriptions. Fourteen “framework job descriptions (FJD) representing core public diplomacy functions” were established for worldwide use. OIG says they “had not been significantly updated since the 1970s, despite dramatic changes in global communications and the 1999 merger of the U.S. Information Agency into the Department.” [Ed: the Public Diplomacy Staffing Initiative has now been extended to revise Foreign Service Officer job descriptions as well.]
The goal of the initiative was to modernize and improve PD effectiveness by shifting the focus of local PD staff work from “programs” and “functions” to “public engagement”, “strategic content”, and “resources coordination”. The intent of a holistic, multi-year review was to develop “adaptive, data-driven, audience-focused U.S. Public Diplomacy outreach that achieved measurable foreign policy results.” But, as OIG discovered, creating an entirely new PD organizational structure in State’s bureaucracy was not an easy task. OIG found that, despite progress, deficiencies remained “in senior leadership involvement, project management, resource planning, communication with embassy and Department stakeholders, and training.” As of October 2020, only 36 missions — 19% of overseas PD sections — had “fully implemented” the initiative. The effort continues to have problems (and the pandemic has slowed down implementation), and the OIG has made six recommendations to address them. R/PPR concurred with all of them.
Although R/PPR leads the implementation effort, the initiative is complex, and other parts of the Department — the regional bureaus, the Bureau of Global Talent Management (Human Resources), the Foreign Service Institute, and Embassy Public Affairs and Management — all have roles to play. For the full report, go to: https://www.oversight.gov/
2. VACCINE DIPLOMACY AND INDIA’S GRIM PANDEMIC: World attention is focused on India, and the management of the coronavirus outbreak is challenging the policy and communications efforts of the governments of both India and the United States. The recent, dire COVID-19 surge in India offers a textbook case of the need for effective cooperation, emergency assistance, and public diplomacy in a public health crisis. U.S. policymakers — under increasing international pressure to “do more” to help other countries with their pandemic problems — are trying their best to explain U.S. policy to both American and foreign audiences and to balance domestic U.S. pressures with the need to step up their international engagement in places like India so the virus doesn’t spread and the glaring gap in vaccine access doesn’t grow. Senior leaders of the two countries are in close contact and have issued statements of mutual concern and cooperation. (The United States even publicly recognized how India, early in the pandemic, had sent assistance to the United States when our hospitals were strained, and now “the United States is determined to help India in its time of need.”)
The White House announced that the United States would be delivering more than $100 million emergency assistance to India and that travel from India will be restricted. After some delay and scrambling, the United States, through USAID, is now focused on mobilizing emergency relief delivery of urgently needed supplies, including oxygen cylinders, regulators, Rapid Diagnostic Tests, and N95 masks to help protect India’s frontline healthcare heroes. Also, the United States has re-directed its own order of Astra Zeneca manufacturing supplies to India so that country will be allowed to make more than 20 million doses of vaccine. (The most recent emergency assistance is in addition to USAID’s ongoing efforts to mitigate the pandemic in India. USAID has already provided more than $23 million in assistance since the start of the pandemic, directly reaching nearly 10 million Indians.)
The deteriorating India situation — and rising anger and concern — have caught America’s attention not only because of the dramatic, negative news of a new wave of COVID-19 cases, but also because of the country’s good strategic relations with the United States and its sheer size. The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi and its four consulates comprise one of the largest diplomatic missions in the world. When CNN and other media began reporting that official American and locally employed staff in India were at risk from COVID-19, that resonated back home. (Due to privacy concerns, the Department spokesperson has released no details about the number of embassy personnel infected.)
The situation is rapidly evolving, and the State Department has authorized the voluntary departure of family members of USG employees in India, and has advised “that U.S. citizens not travel to the country or to leave as soon as it is safe.” The good news is that for decades the United States has worked closely with India to help address many health challenges, including polio, HIV, TB and maternal and child mortality. Also, through the new Quad partnership, the United States and Japan are funding the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which will be made in India. (India is the world’s leading manufacturer of vaccines, but its domestic vaccination rate has been relatively low.)
For the latest “Health Alerts,” official statements, and fact sheets on U.S. COVID-19 assistance for India, visit the Embassy New Delhi website at: https://in.usembassy.gov/. For a factsheet on the Quad vaccine partnership, go to: https://www.whitehouse.gov/
For a timely analysis of how the Administration has been dealing with India during the pandemic, see Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Thomas Wright’s “Biden’s Misstep in India“, an April 28, 2021 article in The Atlantic at: https://www.theatlantic.com/
Other key events on the Secretary’s crowded virtual Africa schedule included a meeting with Nigerian President Buhari and Foreign Minister Onyeama; a meeting with a PEPFAR program beneficiary and a Nigerian health care worker; a meeting with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Cabinet Secretary Rachelle Omamo to celebrate our 57-year bilateral relationship; a visit to Kenyan-based renewable energy companies; and an event to highlight a U.S.-donated Mobile Field Hospital with essential COVID-19 medical supplies through AFRICOM and the Massachusetts National Guard’s State Partnership Program. And, at the end of a long day, the Secretary found time to give an interview to CNN’s Jake Tapper. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Global Public Affairs (the result of the merger of the Bureaus of International Information Programs and of Public Affairs) was kept very busy issuing transcripts from, and background materials on, the day’s different virtual events.
4. IMPROVING U.S. RELATIONS WITH LATIN AMERICA: Given issues like migration, the pandemic, counter-narcotics, and the crisis in Venezuela, it is easy to be pessimistic about relations with the Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA) region to our south. Therefore, it is good news when a retired senior diplomat speaks up about the need for “a positive paradigm shift in hemispheric reactions post-pandemic that places U.S.-Latin American ties on a more strategic footing to respond to twenty-first-century challenges.”
Wearing his non-resident senior advisor with the Americas Program hat at CSIS, P. Michael McKinley — who held ambassadorships in Peru, Colombia, Afghanistan, and Brazil — has produced a comprehensive April 22, 2021 paper titled “The Case for a Positive U.S. Agenda with Latin America“.
Ambassador McKinley offers a very ambitious, detailed vision for engagement at the tri-annual Summit of the Americas, which the United States will host in the coming year. Besides factoring into the mix issues like populism and the inroads made by China, he suggests various Summit themes that the Biden Administration could emphasize. PD practitioners will be pleased that he does not overlook “people-to-people agendas” covering three areas: migration, health, and education. For example, he proposes expanded exchange programs and reinvigoration of the Obama presidency’s “100,000 Strong in the Americas” initiative on higher education partnerships and exchanges.
Not unimportantly, the CSIS report is out in time for the May 4, 2021 51st annual Washington Conference on the Americas, hosted by the State Department and the Council of the Americas. The conference, which will be virtually open to the public and livestreamed on www.as-coa.org, will give senior U.S. officials like Vice President Harris and Secretary Blinken an opportunity to highlight their hemispheric policy priorities.
To download the CSIS report, go to: https://csis-website-prod.s3.
5. OP-EDS — IN THE NEW YORK TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’: Every PD practitioner knows the meaning of “op-ed” since officials, including ambassadors, love to have their views — usually ghost-written for them by their staff — appear prominently under their by-line on a newspaper’s page opposite the editorial page. In many countries, an occasional think-piece by the U.S. Ambassador is relatively easy to place, especially if the topic is timely and relevant to the host-country.
The concept of the “op-ed” was started by “The Gray Lady” — The New York Times — back on September 21, 1970. But now, the old designation with a long tradition is being dropped. Outside, diverse opinion contributions in The Times are now being called simply “Guest Essays.” (Editorials will still be called editorials.) The paper’s opinion editor, Kathleen Kingsbury, explained: “The reason is simple: In the digital world, in which millions of Times readers absorb the paper’s journalism online, there is no geographical ‘Op-Ed,’ just as there is no geographical ‘Ed’ for Op-Ed to be opposite to. It is a relic of an older age and an older print newspaper design. So now, at age 50, the designation will be retired.” For her April 26, 2021 piece, “Why The New York Times Is Retiring the Term ‘Op-Ed’,” go to: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/
It remains to be seen whether other newspapers — and diplomats — will accept The Times’ decision and stop using the old term.
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.