Saturday, November 12, 2016

U.S. Public Diplomacy meets a new challenge

Joe Johnson, "U.S. Public Diplomacy meets a new challenge," Public Diplomacy Council; via LJB

Johnson image from

Friday, November 11th 2016
About the time the world thought it had us figured out, here came the 2016 Presidential election.
On November 9, U.S. stock futures dropped over 700 points; the day after that, the Dow Jones average ended up more than 250 points.  Dire warnings about the future of American democracy ensued; today after the meeting between President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump at the White House, BBC News dared hope for a restoration of civility in U.S. politics.  One sure thing is that so far, no one knows what President Trump will do or how the world will react.
It’s also a safe bet that this transition and change of administrations poses a unique challenge for United States public diplomacy.
·      We speak of “telling America’s story,” but the story has been changing over the years.  In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, pundits around the globe – including our own diplomats -- realize there’s a lot to learn about U.S. society, politics and media.
·      Chinese and Russian media are enjoying this upset, casting doubt on the value of democracy, but the election proves the opposite.  American voters can effect a major change of direction in government.  So America remains an exemplar of freedom and democracy.  However, our system is surely not the sole template for that system.  Sometimes the grants and exchange programs I hear about from PD colleagues seem to preach, “Just do as we do.”  I think a change in the approach about how we promote democracy has for some time been overdue; now, it cannot be delayed.
·      We’re headed for policy changes, notably related to immigration and trade, that will be contentious and will sometimes offend friends in other nations.  It is the job of public diplomacy to add context to the policies and talking points.  Public diplomacy messaging pivoted smartly after Al Qaeda’s attacks in 2001, and it will no doubt transform again as the new policies emerge.  Public diplomacy needs to play a leading role in making official policies understood and in advocating U.S. foreign policy interests.
·      U.S. embassies are slowing becoming more strategic in their approach to program planning and evaluation, but as far as I can tell, embassy sections remain largely stove-piped in their interaction with host-nation governments and publics. Public diplomacy will have to assert and demonstrate its value to a Congress and administration that will look for ways to cut the budgets of non-military programs.
But here is the biggest change.  Donald Trump begins his apprenticeship for the highest office in the land public office with a major public-relations deficit among traditional allies – a problem that can deprive him of political capital as he pursues his vision for the United States. Thirty-five years ago, when President Reagan confronted a similar challenge, public diplomacy thrived.  When things are bad, that’s when our leaders need us the most.
I’ve heard that the word crisis comes from a Greek word meaning a threat and opportunity combined.  That describes the challenge that faces the leaders of the Department’s public diplomacy enterprise.