As Americans struggle to regain our balance from the twin terrors of hyper-partisan infighting and the global Covid pandemic other countries are watching — and drawing conclusions about their future strategic and economic interests. Looking abroad, President Biden has emphasized rebuilding our global leadership and the advancing American strategic and economic interests through partnerships, a vision that presents an opportunity and a challenge for the Public Diplomacy community. In the best tradition of effective professional associations, our new Public Diplomacy Council of America must support our Foreign Service colleagues in answering that challenge by assembling a substantive working group.
After two decades of war, the Administration is committed to leading with diplomacy, and has placed many experienced career diplomats at the forefront of our engagement. The President and Secretary Blinken have pointed out that today’s greatest challenges cannot be managed by the U.S. alone — instead, global security, health and environmental solutions, and the defense of democracy and human rights require that we restore and advance our multilateral partnerships and engagement.Speaking at the Foreign Service Institute in November, Secretary Blinken outlined five pillars supporting current U.S. foreign policy – one of which is a Department commitment to “reinvigorate in-person diplomacy and public engagement.” The Secretary and other senior Department leaders regularly demonstrate their commitment through a vigorous schedule of outreach and engagement, reflected in the wave of interviews, public affairs briefings, meeting readouts and statements charting U.S. priorities. The Secretary regularly meets with foreign press, exchange alumni and community groups when abroad.
But for the PD Community: This mandate means ALL of us! The Administration’s FY 22 budget, passed by Congress, strongly supports Public Diplomacy, reversing several years previous Administration efforts to radically scale back PD resources. The Administration has not appointed an Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, yet the months ahead are an extraordinary season of opportunity for our public diplomacy community. We can’t expect much in the way of global direction, but three generations of public diplomacy officers have argued that our most effective activities are driven by field priorities and initiatives, rather than Washington directives and new programs.
Over the past twenty years, military and security concerns cast shadows over so much of what Americans have built together with our partners around the world. Our country and partners will continue to face instability, grave political-military challenges, the threat of violent extremists and State-sponsored terror. As in so many other matters, Americans remain largely wrapped up in debates over these matters, broadcast by media to global audiences.
As budgets flow this month from the Department to our Public Affairs Sections around the world and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs offices, the public diplomacy community will be shifting engagement into higher gears without awaiting instructions or well-defined Department initiatives. Our program agency partners are ready and willing to work with us to build new bridges of connection and cooperation. More importantly, there is a new generation of Americans willing to give of their time and skills to engage people from around the world. It’s time to bring them aboard.
The challenges are many – perhaps most difficult in countries where we have no operating Embassies – and the resilient Covid pandemic has curtailed the use of many of our most valuable tools. In support, the Public Diplomacy Council of America and our partner organizations should move quickly and immediately to support and highlight the effectiveness of initiatives undertaken by our State Department colleagues. Like other professional associations, we need to step up to offer our best ideas and support through activities that move far beyond past practices – helping to bring more of America’s extraordinary talent into the effort to rebuild our country’s image and leadership.
How can we do this? Our Ambassadors and public diplomacy field officers have Washington’s clear backing and the necessary resources to engage in creative initiatives that demonstrate or strengthen ties with nations around the world, and with people beyond governments. For the New Year, the PDCA should announce its launch by launching a structured effort to support the work of public diplomacy – meeting, consulting, proposing and highlighting. Many of you have indicated an interest in a substantive engagement with our field PD practices – let’s make a plan! Send me an email to me Schwartzl2018@gmail.com with the subject: “PDCA Professional Practices WG” — we’ll convene a Zoom meeting within the next two weeks.
Larry Schwartz is a board member of the Public Diplomacy Council and a former State Department public diplomacy officer with assignments in Washington, the Near East and South Asia.