Wednesday, May 3, 2017

In Mar-­a­-Lago Blunder, a Glimpse at the Difficulties of ‘Soft Diplomacy’ Under Trump

via BK
By LYDIA KIESLING, MAY 3, 2017, The New York Times [original article contains links]; I.P.P. website at.

Image from article, with caption, "A view of the Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, in Feb. 2017

At the beginning of April, a short blog post about Donald Trump’s Mar-­a­-Lago resort appeared on ShareAmerica, a web property administered by the State Department. The post was an anodyne history of the property, one of many such posts on the site, which is full of easily digestible tidbits about America meant for a foreign audience (“New York Restaurant Named Best in the World,” for example, or “The Year of the Rooster: How Are Americans Celebrating?”). It sat quietly for several weeks, until a promotional tweet from a State Department account caught the eye of Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who wondered aloud on Twitter why the federal government was in the business of advertising the president’s private club. The post was removed after the subsequent furor, an apology left in its place.

The ShareAmerica site is maintained by a small group of writers employed by a division in the State Department called the Bureau of International Information Programs (I.I.P.). The bureau’s mission, according to its page on the State Department website, is to advance “U.S. foreign policy goals directly with foreign audiences in support of U.S. embassies, consulates and missions abroad.” Buried in YouTube, a webinar about ShareAmerica narrated by I.I.P. staff members puts a little more sex appeal on the project: “The official term is ‘public diplomacy,’” the director of editorial content explains. “The term they don’t like us to use is ‘propaganda.’”[JB emphasis]

The I.I.P. was formed in 1999 at the State Department from the wreckage of the United States Information Agency (U.S.I.A.) — the seminal Cold War-­era institution that at one time housed the Voice of America (a radio agency originally established to combat Nazi propaganda). Today, the I.I.P. runs “American Spaces,” physical locations abroad that host speakers and events and provide reading materials to foreign publics. (I.I.P. “used to send more good American writers to Europe than HUAC,” a former I.I.P. contractor told me.) It has worked with public and private institutions to sponsor contests and other programs aimed at attracting world youth to democratic ideals. But like the U.S.I.A. before it, the I.I.P.’s most tangible stock in trade is publications — in English and other languages — for global dissemination through U.S. embassies, consulates and, now, the internet.

For an American reader, I.I.P.’s body of work offers a fascinating look not only at what our government wants to tell the world but also at what it wants to believe about itself. The obvious conflicts of interest that accompanied Donald Trump into office are in one sense the least of I.I.P.’s problems; the larger question is what a propaganda unit is supposed to do when the pronouncements of its head of state are so often at odds with the national vision it tries to sell to the world.

Since the bureau’s inception, its web presence has gone through several major permutations (most of which are archived by the Library of Congress). I.I.P. publications, whether the web­-only ShareAmerica posts written by staff members or the longer pamphlets and books solicited from subject-­matter experts, often cover governance, trade and security as they pertain to America and the rest of the world or fun and inspirational facts about American culture. For every piece of lighthearted fluff about the significance of the Super Bowl (“On the menu for many: nachos, hot wings, chips and dips, and any food that can be made into a shape of an American football”), there is a pamphlet that makes more ennobling claims about American pluralism. The “American Communities” series, for example, highlights the cultural traditions of immigrants in America, including Bukharan Jews in Queens and Macedonian Roma in the Bronx. A book-­length publication on American Muslims rhapsodizes about the American experiment:
Thanks to its fundamental openness, the United States today is among the most culturally and religiously diverse countries in the world — so much so that, within 30 years, its minority populations will outnumber the majority. Without fear of encountering institutionalized discrimination, American citizens are free to practice their religion, give voice to their views and use their creative energies to pursue their personal aspirations. The result is a dynamic marketplace of ideas where all have the right to express themselves, as long as they are respectful of the rights of others.
In some I.I.P. publications, the reader senses an obviously corrective subtext for the hypothetical foreign audience — “A Practical Guide to Journalism Ethics,” for example, or “Freedom From Fear: Creating Safe Spaces for L.G.B.T. Youth”. A post called “Have You Ever Laughed at a Politician?” advises that “leaders, no matter how powerful, have learned that accepting criticism with grace comes with their jobs.” A series called “You Asked” functions more like apologia, taking the form of an F.A.Q. page: “Who Owns Guns in America?” one nameless foreigner asks; “The true nature of that tradition has been often romanticized, exaggerated or distorted,” the I.I.P. answers. Another pamphlet, “Why Does the U.S. Have Capital Punishment?” points, almost ruefully, to the Constitution: “The answer lies in the limited power of the U.S. federal government to impose laws on the states, the interplay between state politics and federal law, and the role of the U.S. Supreme Court in interpreting the Constitution.”

Although it originated in the era of print, the I.I.P. is ostensibly an outlet for the digital age. The internet demands speed, and public diplomacy requires a public response to events. Under George W. Bush, the war on terror was a persistent topic: a 2006 piece addressed “The Top Sept. 11 Conspiracy Theories” as part of a series on “Identifying Misinformation.” Washington File, the I.I.P.’s now defunct wire service, issued a fact sheet on the “the Taliban’s betrayal of the Afghan people.”

It’s unclear how, and how swiftly, a change in the Oval Office translates to an explicit shift in priorities for American public diplomacy, although since Trump took office and installed Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, the I.I.P. U.R.L. takes you to a new landing page with a fraction of the publications it used to have. (As of this writing, the I.I.P. staff has not responded to questions about program and content priorities.) But the Mar-­a-­Lago problem is just one piece of baggage in a
monogrammed set that Trump brings to his office, and a look at ShareAmerica since his election reveals that the I.I.P. under Trump is perhaps not so much a sinister puppet, as its new critics have claimed, but a beleaguered office with a challenging job to do.

Two months after Trump called NATO “obsolete,” a ShareAmerica headline read, “An Unshakable Commitment: The U.S. and NATO.” A week after Trump tweeted that “Mexico has taken advantage of the U.S. for long enough,” ShareAmerica posted a piece with the headline “U.S., Mexico: A Relationship Filled With Vibrant Colors.” A week after Trump’s first executive order halting immigration from seven Muslim­-majority countries, ShareAmerica published “A Look Back at How Presidents Made History With Executive Orders.” The post cites the Emancipation Proclamation, the New Deal and the order desegregating the military. Its conclusion is careful, even bland: “Very few of the thousands of executive orders and memorandums are as historic as those noted here. All, however, express the president’s opinions about a subject of importance and afford us insight into the times in which that president served.”

It’s easy to argue that the notion of exporting American values to the world is paternalistic, not to mention hubristic, in any circumstance. America’s human rights abuses at home and abroad predate its new president (ShareAmerica had to trot out “3 Police Chiefs on Race and Policing” before the election). But under the current administration, certain topics that have long been integral to American public diplomacy feel particularly farcical. How do we extol the virtues of free and fair elections while the F.B.I. investigates allegations of foreign interference? Or government transparency, when the White House is besieged with ethics abuse charges? Propaganda, now, can unwittingly become a sly form of criticism. The same day the ill­-fated Mar-­a­-Lago post went up, ShareAmerica published a post on shady politics in Nigeria. “Want to Fight Corruption?” the headline asks. “Follow the Money.”

Lydia Kiesling is the editor of The Millions. She last wrote for the magazine about the historian Marshall Hodgson.

© 2017 The New York Times Company

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