Monday, March 28, 2016

Public Diplomacy

Andrés Federman,

image (not from article) from

Hits and misses of a historic visit: Obama meets with great success but made one big mistake

Government supporters as well as its diehard opponents agree in defining the US president’s visit as a complete success. Mauricio Macri’s followers argue that the visit has reconnected Argentina with the world, with the added bonus of the full and explicit endorsement from Barack Obama. And those in the opposition explain that the visit is instrumental to the needs of the world power — and its local ally, Macri — to finally deliver this country into the hands of its imperial masters. The former consider this moment as a blessing, while the latter think it accelerates Argentina’s plunge into very hard and dark times. In their eyes, Obama has — unfortunately for Argentina — succeeded.

A third, more moderate position, is that of those sympathetic to the government who choose to temper their optimism with prudence. They warn that the airplanes full of investors announced by some of Macri’s spokespeople are still in their hangars and their passengers have not as yet packed for the trip.

All three may be partly right, but in all cases, they might be looking at the issue only through the perspective of the immediate political impact — and failing to examine the long term implications for the bilateral relation and standing of the US in Argentina. Not today or next time there is an opinion poll but — at least — a couple of years down the line. Not in short term political impact but in terms of how Joe Public feels about Americans.

In any embassy, improving the long term perceptions about the country they represent is one of the jobs of its Public Diplomacy team. Just as it is their job to expand the network of contacts, not only political but also in terms of trade, investment as well as cultural and scientific cooperation.

Considered from this perspective, an event like President Obama’s visit can be a wonderful opportunity and the best possible tool that a Public Diplomacy team could dream of. But, unfortunately, the reverse is also true. The results of a mistake could have a long term political impact and burn away years of painstaking and resource consuming work.

In all likelihood, by last Saturday personnel at all levels of the US embassy in Buenos Aires were breathing normally again. Obama is gone and, with him, the toughest challenge that an embassy like the American can face: an official visit by its head of state. True, the efforts and toils of all the agencies involved in the protection of the US president were more attractive in terms of media coverage due to their size and high visibility. But the fact is that the long-term impact of the presidential visit will depend on the wisdom qualities and abilities of the embassy’s public diplomacy department. Much in the same way as — in all likelihood — it was the organizer of many of the activities that involved and supported Obama’s presence in Argentina.

True, the embassy team had an advantage: the Obamas are a dream come true for anybody dealing in public diplomacy. They are charismatic, terrific speakers, spontaneous and relate well to their audiences. Moreover, their personal histories vouch for the values they espouse. Their performance with the youngsters — Barack with young entrepreneurs — ranged between very good and perfect. So did the choice of venues, themes and audiences. Full credit to the embassy’s Public Diplomacy team.

However, in the context of such success in terms of delivering good messages, it could be suggested that there was one big mistake which seems attributable to Obama himself or his close circle.

Obama’s celebration of the new times of Macri’s Argentina seems quite overdone. In fact, it sounded as the celebration of a new regime that takes over after a dictatorship. This is not the case. Macri won a democratic election with a slim margin over another candidate — Daniel Scioli — who also has strong democratic credentials. The US president has no business implying anything different about former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The line he took was tantamount to becoming involved in Argentina’s internal affairs. Which is not the done thing.

Some argue that this was Obama’s payback to CFK for her continued attacks at the UN and elsewhere. True as this may be, if he had a problem with CFK he should have addressed her directly. Getting the president into the crossfire could boomerang on Macri.


No comments: