U.S. ADVISORY COMMISSION ON PUBLIC DIPLOMACY
Minutes and transcript from the quarterly public meeting focused on key issues facing the future of American public diplomacy and highlighting the release of the 2020 Comprehensive Annual Report on Public Diplomacy and International Broadcasting
U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy Quarterly Meeting
Thursday, February 11, 2021 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m. EST
Virtual Public Meeting via Videoconference
COMMISSION MEMBERS PRESENT:
TH Sim Farar, Chair
TH William Hybl, Vice-Chair
TH Anne Terman Wedner
COMMISSION STAFF MEMBERS PRESENT:
Dr. Vivian S. Walker, Executive Director
Mr. Shawn Baxter, Senior Advisor
Ms. Kristy Zamary, Program Assistant
The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy (ACPD) met in an open virtual session from 12:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 11, 2021 to discuss the future of U.S. government public diplomacy during challenging times for America’s image abroad.
A distinguished group of independent experts addressed key issues facing the practice of public diplomacy, such as the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and growing authoritarian influence campaigns, and the panelists highlighted the release of the Commission’s 2020 Comprehensive Annual Report on Public Diplomacy and International Broadcasting. Panelists included Martha Bayles, Senior Lecturer in Humanities at Boston College; Kathy Fitzpatrick, Director and Professor at the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications at the University of South Florida; and Jay Wang, Director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy and Associate Professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
ACPD Executive Director Vivian Walker opened the session, and Chairman Sim Farar provided introductory remarks. Senior Advisor Shawn Baxter moderated the Q&A, Commissioner Anne Wedner provided a discussion wrap-up, and Vice-Chairman Bill Hybl closed the meeting. The speakers took questions from the Commissioners and the online audience, as detailed in the transcript below.
More than 250 participants joined the ACPD’s virtual public meeting, including:
- PD practitioners and PD leadership from the Department of State, USAGM, and other agencies;
- Members of the foreign affairs and PD think tank communities,
- Academics in communications, foreign affairs, and other fields,
- Congressional staff members,
- Retired USIA and State PD officers,
- Members of the international diplomatic corps, and
- Members of the general public.
Vivian Walker: Hello everyone and welcome to this U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy quarterly meeting. My name is Vivian Walker, and I’m the Executive Director of the Commission. It’s my great pleasure to welcome you today to the first meeting in calendar year 2021 and the first meeting of the new administration. Indeed, with every new administration, there’s a significant opportunity to look at current policies and practices to see what can be done better, what needs to change. That is especially true of the practice of public diplomacy. We’re very pleased today to have a distinguished panel of outside experts to help us think about some of the challenges as well as the opportunities facing public diplomacy practitioners today.
We’re also very pleased to be rolling out our 2020 Comprehensive Annual Report on Public Diplomacy and International Broadcasting. Many of you should have already received the link to the report. If you haven’t, you can find it on our website. This report not only provides a useful platform for today’s discussion about the future of public diplomacy, but in general offers a rich store of information regarding what’s going on in American public diplomacy today and future directions.
To get us started, I want to run through the agenda for the program. To lead us off, the chairman of the Commission, Sim Farar, will provide a few introductory remarks. Then, I’ll return with a few top lines and a summary of some of the key recommendations in the 2020 report. This short brief is primarily aimed at those of you who might not yet have had the opportunity to take a look at it.
Then, we’ll go straight to our panelists. We will begin with Martha Bayles, then turn to Kathy Fitzpatrick, followed by Jay Wang. We will hold the Q&A session until after everyone has completed his or her remarks. As the panelists are speaking, we encourage you to send your questions in via the Q&A function at the bottom of your screen to the right. Senior Advisor Shawn Baxter will be taking your questions and moderating the Q&A session.
With that, it is my pleasure to introduce the Chairman of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, Mr. Sim Farar.
Sim Farar: Thank you, Vivian, and all of you who have joined us today from across United States and around the world. I understand we have several hundred people online with us today. Welcome, welcome aboard. We appreciate your continued interest in and commitment to the practice of public diplomacy. Thanks, too, to our panelists, who have agreed to share their insights into challenges facing U.S. government public diplomacy in the new decade at the beginning of the new administration.
With me today are my distinguished colleagues from the Commission: Vice Chairman Bill Hybl, who hails from Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Anne Wedner from Miami, Florida. Our bipartisan Commission was created by Congress in 1948 to appraise U.S. government activities intended to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics and to increase the understanding of, and support for, these same activities.
For more than 70 years, the Commission has represented the public interest through regular reviews of the U.S. government’s global information, media, cultural, and educational exchange programs. The Commission also assesses the effectiveness of these public diplomacy activities, recommends changes when needed, and reports its findings and recommendations to the President of the United States, Congress, the Secretary of State, and of course, the American people.
This brings us to the publication of our flagship report. Today, we are very pleased, as Vivian mentioned, to present to you the 2020 Comprehensive Annual Report on Public Diplomacy and International Broadcasting, the Commission’s premier research and assessment product. You can now access our report via the ACPD website.
This document details all reported major PD and international broadcasting activities conducted by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for Global Media. It is based on data collected from all State Department PD bureaus and offices, Public Affairs Sections of U.S. missions worldwide, and from all USAGM entities.
At a time when we are engaged in a serious national discussion about equality and inclusivity, this report also showcases U.S. public diplomacy’s embrace of diversity, to include the promotion of broad information sharing networks, multiple viewpoints and voices, and varied cultures.
Again, thank you all from around the world for joining us today. Now, I am pleased to invite our distinguished panelists to speak. But first, back to you, Vivian.
Vivian Walker: Thanks so much, Sim. So, as promised, let’s take a little time to look at the top lines and key recommendations from the report.
We’ll start with what I think is the most important challenge, or at least the one that’s on everyone’s mind right now, and that is the impact of COVID-19 on educational and exchange programs and outreach as well as cultural programming.
The question for all of us is what happens to that precious “last three feet” in a virtualized post-pandemic world? The suspension and curtailment of multiple short and long-term professional, educational, and cultural exchange programs has raised some really challenging questions, such as, what happens to current and future program participants? With respect to the timing and design of future programs, what has to change and why and how? What about the host institutions who serve as partners for a number of these programs? Many of them are facing enrollment declines and financial shortfalls as a result of the crisis.
The list of questions goes on. What’s important here, we think, is to find a way to gather and frame all of these questions in a productive discussion or series of discussions that will produce some answers for use in the near future.
The second big challenge area we identified will be familiar to those of you who had a chance to look at the report we issued last September on countering state-sponsored disinformation. That challenge is, of course, the increasing intensity of malign influence campaigns and the need to focus even more actively on short-term measures of deterrence, but also, and equally importantly, on longer-term resilience strategies, working with host country and institutional partners to identify the vulnerabilities that create fertile ground for malign influence campaigns.
Finally, we highlighted as a challenge the questions surrounding the need for sustained interagency coordination to assure cohesive action in the global information space. There have been a number of proposals for a single coordinating entity or proposals that call for one or another of the institutions or agencies within the federal government, including the Department of State, to take over such a function. Moreover, there are some discussions out there that suggest such an overall coordinating function might not be feasible. What we’d like to see is a more sustained and practical framing of this discussion that produces a set of solutions that can be operationalized.
With respect to specific recommendations, there’s one recommendation that appears every year, and maybe this is the year in which we will see it fulfilled. That is, to appoint a career Foreign Service officer–a public diplomacy officer–as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and also to make sure that career public diplomacy officers are put in leadership positions.
We also returned to a recommendation that we offer almost every year, the need to prioritize and upgrade research and evaluation efforts. In this day and age, it has never been more important. We are also particularly interested in seeing more work on influence measurement initiatives, which actually assess the impact of cultural programming on individual perceptions of U.S. government policies and behaviors.
We also want to see a continuation of strategic reviews of our exchange and outreach and cultural programs. There are many, many outstanding programs, but we need to make sure that they are streamlined and that we maximize the efficiencies of these programs, particularly in a scarce resource environment.
We’re also very interested in assessing the radical reframing of Foreign Service Locally Employed Staff overseas to prioritize audience engagement. We’d like to see an assessment of how this paradigm shift in thinking about staff performance overseas has developed.
We’re very happy that one of our recommendations–one that we put forward this year and last–has already been addressed: the return to daily high level, in-person press and policy briefings at the Department of State. We, of course, can’t take credit for that. All credit goes to current State Department leadership. But we’re very pleased to see that the State Department is now, once again, taking its rightful place in the global discussion about key foreign policy issues.
And finally, our recommendations look at the U.S. Agency for Global Media. The first of our recommendations calls for an end to all efforts to politicize the agency’s journalists and also for the need to repair recent breaches to the congressionally required firewall. Some of this is starting to happen under new leadership, and we’re pleased to see that. We would like to see that carried further.
We also have another recommendation that is perhaps not as high profile as the previous one, the restoration of congressionally approved and allocated funding for USAGM grantees, for the networks, and for the offices to help them improve news programming research and particularly technology. We need to make sure that our international broadcasting services have the resources they need to keep the U.S. government competitive in the global information space, and we need to address that as soon as possible.
With that, I am now pleased to turn to our panelists. We will be starting with Martha Bayles, Senior Lecturer in Humanities at Boston College. Martha, over to you.
Martha Bayles: Thank you very much for inviting me. It’s really an honor to speak before this group, and it’s also a pleasure to speak to a group of people who know what public diplomacy is. Usually when I give talks I have to start with a lengthy explanation of public diplomacy, what it means and what it doesn’t mean, at least according to me. It’s a term that has befuddled and bemused many people. When I started working on my book that was published in 2014 called, Through a Screen Darkly, I was trying to understand public diplomacy. I read all the post-9/11 reports, and the more reports I read, the more confused I became. Then, I discovered a scholar by the name of Nicholas Cull, who’s now at USC. I’m sure you all know who Nick Cull is, and he clarified it for me by putting forth five different – not agencies, not organizations – but functions, missions, activities. I like the word activities.
In his most recent book, he calls them “ways that international actors can engage foreign publics.” That’s a little long, so I’ll just call them activities. You know them. The first and foremost for Nick, and for every one of you, probably, is, or ought to be, listening. That has a benign side, in the sense of listening to people to hear what they have to say before starting to talk to (or at) them. It also involves the gathering of information and intelligence, which shades into a less benign realm, of course.
Cull’s second activity is probably the most problematic these days: advocacy. I use the term policy advocacy. It’s the short-term effort by a government to further its policy goals by means of persuasion and so forth. This is an ill-understood and oftentimes rejected function of public diplomacy.
Then, there’s cultural diplomacy, which I don’t need to explain to this group, and exchange diplomacy, which I don’t need to explain to this group.
Then, there is international broadcasting. Now, we’re supposed to call it international media to get rid of the idea that it’s only using obsolete broadcasting technology. Of course, it has long, long since gone past means of radio and so forth. It uses every medium that is available and everything that’s appropriate for a given audience or setting.
Nick mentioned one more, which is psychological warfare – psyops, info ops. Some people call that strategic communication, another vexed term. Nick makes the point and, of course everyone here would make the same point, that psychological warfare should be completely cordoned off from all of these other activities. It should take place in a completely separate sphere. There’s also supposed to be a firewall in Nick’s conception, and I agree with it, between policy advocacy and all the other functions.
This is, I think, where the vexation and the confusion surrounding U.S. international media has arisen. That confusion has been there for a long time, but it grew very visible during the recent conflicts over Trump’s appointment of Michael Pack as the CEO of the entire agency and the firings and changes and all the destruction that was wreaked then. It was done in the name of turning the entire agency into a kind of advocacy organization for not just the U.S. government, but for the Trump administration.
Now the opposite of Pack’s effort, if you look at the public debate, is, of course, journalism, good journalism, honest journalism. So, the debate shaped up as a kind of moral drama between the journalists and the propagandists, if you will, with the Trump side being the propagandists and the journalists being the defenders of free journalism. I don’t think it’s quite that simple. In my view, advocacy and speaking on behalf of the government are a necessary part of all government-funded communication with the rest of the world, including cultural diplomacy and educational exchanges. They are just kind of there in the background.
I have talked to a great many practitioners from earlier periods, including many old hands who have been enormously helpful to me when I was working on my book. Some of them are no longer with us. They always emphasized that if the government is paying the bills, there’s a certain realism about the limits to which you can take things and the degree of autonomy that you can enjoy. This is particularly vexed when you get to the subject of news reporting and journalism.
I say that is because, since the 1970s, there have been three major changes with regard to American journalism. The first is the emergence of what I call the Watergate ideal, which came about as a result of Watergate and other investigative reporting post-Vietnam. During that period, whether it was played by Robert Redford or by Dustin Hoffman, you had the ideal of the completely independent journalist, who is beholden to no corporation and no government, who is simply a truth teller. This is a romantic view of the journalist as this autonomous, almost anointed prophet, who speaks the truth. I think that’s an unrealistic ideal, and it has done a certain amount of harm to international broadcasting as operated by the U.S. government, because there’s no way you can pretend that even the grantee networks – meaning not VOA but RFE-RL, RFA, and the others dedicated to “surrogate news,” which are quite independent in many ways – are completely independent from the U.S. government. They are not understood to be that way overseas, and they never have been, and they never will be. So, what’s needed here is a balancing, as was just stated by Vivian, a kind of practical, reasonable, sustainable debate about how you balance these different things.
The second change since the 1970s is a decline in the quality of American news media. The first steps were taken when the comedian George Carlin and others went after the FCC decency regulations. That was a cultural change. Carlin lost the case, but he won the war, and those are still in place, but our media, in general, do not observe those kinds of proprieties if they can get away with it.
The third change was deregulation. That began in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration eliminated the Fairness Doctrine and all other FCC rules intended to make broadcast news some kind of a balanced, fair-minded operation. It became a matter of the bottom line after that, when a second round of deregulation under Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton allowed much greater concentration of media ownership. Together these changes led to the U.S. news media becoming a polarized, profit-seeking entity long before the arrival of social media. The internet and social media only exacerbated the process.
As everyone here is surely aware, one reason why President Trump rose to prominence and was so quickly nominated and elected is because he was making a lot of money for the cable TV networks. They loved him. He was so telegenic, and it improved their bottom line. Of course, there were other reasons for his election. I’m not disparaging those other reasons, but that’s another subject.
Because of these changes, the American news media that still try to maintain standards are doing so out of a sense of tradition, and they are all voluntary restraints; they’re not required to do it at all. Of course, the print media have never been regulated in the way broadcast media have been, so they have never been required to restrain themselves. When they do observe journalistic norms, it is because they, too, are acting out of a sense of tradition. But as print media, too, have become polarized, the situation has devolved into two extremes: on one hand, an ideal of journalism as a completely independent thing, and on the other, extreme pressure to turn news media into partisan mouthpieces. This is what the Trump administration was trying to do with U.S. international media – turn it into a mouthpiece, less for the United States than for Donald Trump.
Despite the firing of Michael Pack and the removal of some of his appointees, I don’t think this polarization will go away soon. And neither will the misunderstanding of the relationship between news reporting and advocacy in all U.S. government-supported media. Indeed, these confusions are worse in the digital age, so we’re not quite out of the woods, yet.
I commend the report of the ACPD for its excellent coverage of the whole USAGM network system. Your coverage of all the networks and all their money and how the whole system is structured – I’ve never all these pieces put together in one place quite that well.
The other thing I’d like to talk about is the relationship between Nick Cull’s five different activities or modes of engagement and the charter of the Voice of America. VOA is the only part of the USAGM system that has more than one mission. All three of the grantees (non-profit entities funded by Congress) and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (a strange animal that’s part of a federal agency, rather than an independent grantee) are devoted to surrogate news, by which I mean the reporting of news about country X in the language of country X to the people of country X, because country X is a place where the media are either censored or otherwise compromised. The three grantees and OCB serve only in countries where there’s a problem with the local media, to provide a surrogate or a substitute. This is generally admired, and most people in Washington think it’s great.
There are traditions associated with surrogate news reporting, which in some ways I think are more reasonable than our commercial media. Surrogate news relies very heavily on emigres – foreign nationals who are native speakers and conversant with the culture and politics of their countries – to speak on the radio, and to research and report the stories, some in the country, some out of the country. For understandable reasons, a lot of those people see themselves as doing oppositional propaganda when they first come to work at the U.S. networks. And it takes a lot of training, and a lot of time, for them to become acclimatized to Western ideals of journalism.
My point is that it used to be easier to train these foreign nationals – all you had to do was point the domestic American news media. But you can’t do that anymore, because our own news operations have become so polemical and so oppositional, they no longer uphold the traditional ideal of journalism.
At the same time, from observing the USAGM system and getting to know many of its foreign national journalists, I can report that they are not enamored of the Watergate ideal. Instead, they practice realistic, work-a-day journalism, according to norms that they understand better than a lot of American journalists do, because they’re less romantic and more realistic. I think this aspect of USAGM is really poorly understood in the discussion that goes on in Washington, because it almost never brings up these people. It never talks to the men and women who are actually doing the work and who are risking their lives in every country that these services operate.
One last thing: VOA is definitely involved in surrogate news reporting. It started off that way in 1942, broadcasting into Nazi Germany with the stated intention of reporting the news. And today VOA is the only U.S. network serving the continent of Africa. So, it’s not fair to say VOA is not a surrogate news service. But it has inclined more and more in that direction in recent years, because of this Watergate ideal. And this presents a challenge, because the VOA Charter includes two other missions besides news. The second is to “present American life in a balanced way, not a single segment, but a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions” and the third is advocacy – to “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively and also responsible discussions and opinion on those policies.” Neither of these has been done very well for a long time. So this is one of the hotspots where the sustained and reasonable debate that Vivian is calling for needs to be carried out. Now, I suspect I am out of time.
Vivian Walker: Great, thank you so much for those informed and in some ways provocative comments, and I think we’ll have a rich discussion about them in the Q&A session. Now, it’s my great pleasure to turn to Kathy Fitzpatrick, Professor and Director of the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications at the University of South Florida and a longtime contributor to and commentator on an important body of scholarship on U.S. public diplomacy. Kathy, welcome.
Sim Farar: We’re having technical problems, so let’s move on to Jay Wang, Director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy.
Jay Wang: Thank you so much. Thank you to the Advisory Commission for having me today. I want to talk a little bit about the implications to public diplomacy practice in light of the pandemic.
Most of us would agree that the pandemic has only accelerated the change, the adjustment already underway, that is happening across a wide range of sectors, including the practice of public diplomacy. As in other sectors, some pandemic-induced behaviors will certainly stay, while others will be replaced by new ways of doing things.
Public diplomacy after the pandemic, at this point, remains an open question because we are looking very closely at how people behave during the pandemic and also what might be the types of behavior or what types of interests will continue post-pandemic. The pandemic has certainly accentuated that need for us to reexamine some of our assumptions about the practice of public diplomacy. At the same time, it asks us to explore possibilities and to explore new models of engagement.
I’d like to share three broad observations on the functional aspects of public diplomacy. The first is the need to integrate the digital and the physical. The pandemic has made it very apparent to us that, despite the ease of communication through digital tools, something fundamental is missing when we are removed from a physical environment. This is quite obvious because as we all know, in everyday life there are two basic forms of communication. According to the sociologist Erving Goffman’s very well-known book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the two basic forms are “expressions given” and “expressions given off.” It is the latter. The “expressions given off” are to him, the more theatrical; a contextual kind done nonverbally, and presumably an unintentional kind that is lost in most digital communication. Public diplomacy is primarily about relationships, and building relationships depends on us having access to “expressions given off,” not just “expressions given.”
At the same time, in an increasingly tech-infused world, there seems to be this craving – and this was true even before the pandemic – there seems to be this craving for a sense of place, a sense of conviviality that in-person engagement provides. This is because, fundamentally, physical presence represents a more elemental form of communication and human experience. That hasn’t changed. We remain the same in that the physical presence defines who we are.
At the same time, we see rapid advancements in digital technology that are changing the ways people experience events and programs, and our place-based programs are now being transformed into trans-media experiences. This, of course, calls for building distinct digital voices and digital identities. As our digital life interacts ever more with the physical realm, we’re seeking to combine the digital and the physical. There is a new, quite ugly sounding word, for this called “phygital” reality, a hybrid of in-person, physical, and digital engagement and experiences. The question is, how do we design this type of integrated, blended strategy?
To design this type of combined strategy requires that we develop a more sophisticated understanding of how our audiences combine these experiences and interaction points with us. That is, we must understand our audiences’ preferences and how they go from one phase to the next as it relates to our PD engagement. This mapping needs to take place, and this is currently still unfolding because our audiences, in general, just like every one of us, are still navigating through this new information environment. Combining the offline and online sometimes is quite seamless and at other times it is not. To map this is the first step, and that will provide us with the principle for organizing and crafting communications online, offline, or combined.
My suggestion would be, we can take a program or a few programs, typical engagements, and try to see what the audience’s preference is now. How did it go from one phase of interaction with us to the next, and how can we provide those kinds of communication touch points most effectively? We can think of strategies that will be able to provide the optimal mix of the digital and the physical or whatever the phygital reality or phygital experience is.
My second observation is that we need to take a network view of public diplomacy. I mean, as I was just saying earlier, because it is about relationships. Focusing on relationships, rather than merely messages, through a social network approach, allows us to identify and mobilize stakeholders and influencers to achieve scaled presence of our programs, of our policy advocacy, and, hopefully, desired impact. These networks include a variety of types of networks. Earlier, you were talking about the disinformation space, and [this results in] building a resilience network, but all of this comes down to looking at public diplomacy work through a network lens.
Take the example of international exchange. Formal and informal networks, as we all know, were established through these exchanges, and these networks have value, in some instances strategic value. This could be a good time, because we are not doing as much [in-person] international exchange, to take a closer look at what kind of networks we have developed as a result of the programs over time, [and] to build and maintain and sustain these types of networks. Hopefully, then we can unleash their value. This requires an understanding of basically two things: what is the nature of these types of networks, and how do these networks perform?
This is a strategic question and also an empirical question. A comprehensive mapping and evaluation of these relationships using, for instance, social network analysis or some of the other relationship management tools is the first step that will shed light on the types of networks that we have, how they are performing, what their potential is, and how we can unleash their value going forward.
The next question, probably the most important of all the things that I’ve been discussing, is whether we have the right tools and the right skill sets to take on these challenges and opportunities. There is an urgency to build capabilities and to close skill gaps in public diplomacy. This is certainly not a unique challenge facing public diplomacy, because digital transformations are creating the phenomenon of shortening skills’ half-time, and we all need to re-skill more regularly than in the past. Certainly, digital transformations are also creating new in-demand skills. Re-skilling and up-skilling will be a mainstay for the future of the practice. So, what are the contemporary public diplomacy knowledge and skills types that we need to pay attention to? I see them manifested in four clusters.
The first is the foundational knowledge of the field that looks at both the new thinking and the enduring challenges concerning the practice. This would include understanding the core principles of public diplomacy in the context of changing geopolitics and technology, exploring, for instance, the latest social science research on phenomena such as disinformation and understanding the emerging communications landscape. Also, the changing media consumption habits of audiences.
The second cluster of skills is in data analytics and evaluation that focus on how we drive strategic insights from various forms of data for better planning. This entails an understanding of basic computing data concepts. When we use “computational thinking” or “computing,” it sounds like engineering. And we’re not trying to ask all our practitioners in public diplomacy to be scientists or data scientists, but we do need to have a general understanding of these basic computing data concepts, such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and different forms of data – text data, multimedia data, geospatial data, and big data. All of them have their practical implications in the context of public diplomacy. This includes evaluation approaches, methods, tools, and models, including common qualitative or quantitative methods, that can be integrated into formative or back-end evaluations from audience segmentation to impact assessment.
The third skills cluster is next generation content creation, which allows us to develop content across platforms in innovative, engaging ways. From creating strategic narratives and learning leveraging storytelling practices from other fields like the creative sector to developing skill sets in creating social digital content and immersive experiences through virtual reality and augmented reality tools. The costs of these tools have come down tremendously in recent years.
The fourth cluster is organizational leadership in public diplomacy. What we need is communication leadership; to demonstrate communication leadership in this age of contentious global politics and culture, including on important matters such as countering disinformation and the ethics of communication. Communication leadership helps to reshape approaches to how we organize our public diplomacy responsibilities as the practice continues to evolve. If you think about this, the way we organize our work today is not that fundamentally different from decades ago, while the communications landscape and all the other stuff in our information environment or this communication ecosystem has changed, has been transformed. So, we need to look at how we organize our public diplomacy responsibilities going forward. Organizational leadership in public diplomacy also reflects the requirements of engagement with not just foreign but also domestic and in-between diaspora publics.
The pandemic may very well turn out to be a watershed moment to usher in a new era of continuous education as we see professional and personal growth in response to all these changes and disruptions, also in response to the availability of educational resources and new delivery models and pedagogies. This fits very well with the broader trend of promoting self-improvement that has crystallized out of the pandemic experience.
It is, therefore, crucial that our public diplomacy organizations demonstrate their commitment to professional development to all practitioners through incentives or resources, and treat public diplomacy capability building with the kind of urgency it really demands. Let me stop here, and I would be happy to discuss some of these observations. Thank you.
Vivian Walker: Thank you so much, Jay, for the really helpful schematic you provided us. I was intrigued by something that you said at the very end about the domestic public and domestic outreach. I think that’s a newly developing area, and perhaps we can add that to our list of questions address. Thank you. Welcome, Kathy, and over to you.
Kathy Fitzpatrick: Thank you very much. Hello, from Tampa, Florida. It is such a pleasure to be here.
Thank you, Vivian, and congratulations to you and the Commission on the excellent report. I think you are going to hear some common themes in my comments and especially Jay’s comments.
In my book, The Future of U.S. Public Diplomacy, which was published about a decade ago, I described its fate as uncertain. I think that still holds, but I’m very optimistic about advancements in public diplomacy and the new administration’s commitment to rebuild diplomacy. This year, we will mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11. In many ways 2001 was a watershed year for public diplomacy in the modern era. The terrorist attack sparked a resurgence in U.S. leaders’ and policymakers’ interest in public diplomacy, and the events of that day also inspired scholars around the globe to take a closer look at the public dimensions of diplomacy, generating discussions and debates that stretched beyond security concerns and focused on public diplomacy’s role and value in international relations, and also the growing significance of publics in global affairs.
In the two decades since, as you all know, many new books and reports and articles and papers have been published and presented, new courses in public diplomacy have been taught, new centers and journals and association groups have been formed, and a large number of master’s theses and doctoral dissertations on public diplomacy topics have been completed. The academic enterprise in public diplomacy continues to grow. There have been advancements in practice as well. Increased emphasis on research and evaluation, which has been the subject of some of the Advisory Commission’s work, the integration of new media and technologies, and the development of new strategies and channels for global engagement all have strengthened public diplomacy efforts.
At the same time, it seems that many of the same issues that were top of mind in the post 9/11 period continue to challenge U.S. public diplomacy today. The [ACPD’s] report talks about the resources provided to public diplomacy and the fact they are still insufficient to build and sustain a robust public diplomacy operation. Debates about the structure and the management of public diplomacy go on, leadership vacancies persist, the value of public diplomacy as a critical resource in national strategy continues to be debated, with the historical undervaluing of public diplomacy still a problem. The policy advisory role of public diplomacy appears to be enhanced, but perhaps not fully embraced, by those who could benefit most from field intelligence that can inform policies.
Public diplomacy’s second mandate to enhance Americans’ understanding of the world and its citizens continues to be neglected, training programs are inadequate to meet the needs of those charged with carrying out the public diplomacy mission, and recruiting new and diverse talent has been difficult. At the same time, many senior staff have left.
So, although considerable headway has been made in advancing public diplomacy, some seemingly evergreen challenges remain. And, of course, new challenges have emerged: disinformation, cyber threats, the climate crisis, the global pandemic, economic concerns. Coupled with the deep dive in America’s image and reputation in the world in recent years, it’s clear that U.S. public diplomacy’s plate is quite full.
As we look ahead, however, I am highly optimistic and hopeful that both the old and the new challenges in the 21st century will be met with a new President and a new Secretary of State who have announced the return of diplomacy and a focus on restoring America’s standing in the world.
Moving forward, I believe, in fact, this is a time of opportunity for U.S. public diplomacy, and there are a number of areas in which public diplomacy might expand its work in the coming years. I’ll mention just four. One is in building diplomatic networks to facilitate collaborative cross-border problem solving. Challenges related to climate, to health, to cybersecurity, for example, all involve global publics – the realm of public diplomacy.
Public diplomats can apply their talents and their skills in bringing people and institutions together to facilitate problem solving through diplomatic networks and public-private partnerships. As just one example, I believe the corporate diplomacy door swung open in August 2019 when the Business Roundtable, which is comprised of CEOs of some of the world’s biggest brands, expanded the definition of a corporation to include stakeholders beyond shareholders. Expectations have increased for corporations to play a leadership role in addressing social issues. In its 2021 annual report, the Edelman Trust Barometer concluded that after a year of unprecedented disaster and turbulence, four institutions – business, government, NGOs, and media – have a mandate to rebuild trust in societal institutions and to chart a new path forward.
Of course, public diplomats have long played essential roles in building cross border relationships of trust and goodwill that contribute to the advancement of both national and societal goals. In this new global environment, they can play a more expansive role in building networks of relationships that include and serve broader segments of society.
Another area of opportunity is in restoring trust among global citizens in America and its defining principles and values. At its core, public diplomacy is a values-based enterprise. For example, if you ask USIA alumni, as I did in a research project a number of years ago, about the values that guided their work, at the top of that list are credibility, respect, truthfulness, dialogue, and openness. As Jay said, although much has changed over the past 20 or so years, one thing that remains constant is the human dimensions of public diplomacy and the importance of personal interaction, quoting USIA’s most famous director, Edward R. Murrow, as Vivian mentioned, “the last three feet.” With the support of a President who has their back, today’s public diplomats can engage local communities with confidence and focus on the long-term relationship building needed to restore America’s reputation and standing as an honest broker in world affairs.
A third area of opportunity for public diplomacy is in promoting informed and responsible decision making by policymakers. Public diplomacy’s policy advisory role, which of course is providing intelligence from the field that helps policymakers understand the implications of their decisions and actions, has always been important, but, as noted, historically undervalued and underutilized. In today’s climate, this advisory function is essential. Public diplomats can provide human intelligence that helps policymakers anticipate and respond to local and global attitudes and opinions, helping to ensure that policy decisions and actions incorporate the views and the voices of affected stakeholders as well as the broader interests of society.
The fourth and final area of opportunity is to expand outreach efforts to include domestic publics. Although the focus of public diplomacy historically has been on helping them understand us rather than us helping to understanding them, the current climate reveals the need for efforts aimed at achieving true mutual understanding in international relations, and we need a big conversation to talk about what that might look like. One way is to engage the diaspora community. They are major influencers in policy back home. Another would be to bring leaders in diplomacy, in the academy, in business and NGOs and other institutions together to create a global dialogue aimed at educating Americans about foreign relations and the importance of diplomacy to U.S. interests.
As President Biden said last week at the State Department, investing in diplomacy serves America’s interest, allowing for people to live in peace, security, and prosperity. Of course, relationship building takes time and talent and resources, and it requires the commitment and the ongoing continuing support of U.S. leaders who view public diplomacy as an investment in the country’s future rather than as a crisis management resource.
I will end on this point with a quote from a 1994 Foreign Affairs article in which Walter Laqueur pleaded with U.S. leaders to save public diplomacy from the apathy he perceived on the part of the administration toward public diplomacy at that time. He wrote, “Perhaps in the future, those who fail to accept the importance of public diplomacy will think of various excuses to justify their misjudgment. But, this will be of little help, for in this field there is no room for rush programs to make good the neglect of many years.” So, my recommendation for the new administration is to start now in building public diplomacy back better for 2021 and beyond.
Vivian Walker: Thank you so much, Kathy. That was both comprehensive and inspiring. Lots of great things to talk about, and in order to do that, I will now turn over the session to my colleague, Senior Advisor Shawn Baxter, who will be running the Q&A session for us. Shawn, over to you.
Shawn Baxter: Thank you, Vivian. We’re receiving a lot of questions in the Q&A feature now. Please keep those coming in. Right off the top, I’ll say we’re not going to be able to get to them all. There are a lot of great topics for discussion here, and to kick things off as we usually do, I’d like to turn it over to our Commissioners for the first question. Anne, did you want to kick off?
Anne Wedner: Sure, I have a question for Kathy or Jay, leveraging what you both talked about and in response to what I am seeing in some of the audience questions, which is a little more pragmatic. Namely, what is the result; what are the actions supposed to be going forward? Considering the Zoom culture that we’re in, is there a sense of changing our PD efforts to having a truly global focus? For example, look at how many people we have on the call today. Veering away from a regional or local focus, can we see benefits to opening up programming that might be for Africa or for Europe to people from anywhere on the globe? What do think about that from an academic perspective?
Jay Wang: I think that’s an important dimension. We currently have everything coming from headquarters and everything from the field. There needs to be somewhere in between. Of course, time zones allow us to reach a much wider geography. We need to think about the strategies. What are the issues – what are the countries and geographies that we can engage where there are convergences of interests, and through this type of digital platform that we can bring people together? Beyond the totally local or global, there’s somewhere in between that digital platforms allow us to [reach]. And, speaking from the Center for Public Diplomacy, when we schedule programming, we have two major time slots now because it hits multiple geographies and regions, and that’s a more regional kind of approach. That’s a very good point.
Kathy Fitzpatrick: I would just add that one of the things that I’ve written about is public diplomacy in the public interest. That really ties in with the idea of diplomatic networks and problem solving and collaboration. Public diplomacy is evolving into a more collaborative enterprise and there is great opportunity and great promise there.
Shawn Baxter: Thank you. I’m going to begin with a general question about America’s image abroad. Considering the events of the past month in Washington, not to mention U.S. struggles over the past year with race and with the coronavirus, how does the U.S. begin to recover its international reputation in the years ahead? What is the role for USG public diplomacy practitioners at home and abroad in that? Many of the folks that we have in this webinar are PD professionals for the Department of State and other USG entities. What would be your advice for them? Let’s go to Martha first.
Martha Bayles: It’s an interesting question. Right after Trump was elected, I was invited to come and speak to a certain division of the State Department. It was the East Asia desk. They wanted to know, “How do you do public diplomacy in the age of Trump?” and the age of Trump was barely beginning at the time. I summoned all of the optimism in my system and suggested that this is a teachable moment because suddenly Americans, particularly students like my college students and others, are asking, “What is the separation of powers? What does judicial independence mean?” These are the sort of basic political principles that are part of the mix in public diplomacy and should be part of the mix, although the effort has been besmirched by recent history, of course, but those principles matter a lot to people around the world. I’m wondering if these events that we’ve been going through these last couple of months do not present an even bigger teachable moment in the sense that the whole Trump phenomenon, the popular support for him, the out of control insurrectionism, and so forth hasn’t been contained by our system. Was our system built to contain that sort of thing?
Is there something to talk about there? Maybe the system is failing, but to point out that those ideas were in the minds of the American founders, they were very aware of those dangers, and that the system is meant to contain it, whether or not it’s doing it successfully, is something that I think a lot of people in the world that I’m in contact with are extremely interested in, more than some of the other things that have been on the public diplomacy agenda recently.
It’s ultimately a kind of political question that people have in a world of rising authoritarianism and endangered liberal democracies, so I would put that front and center. I’m not sure how to do that. The answer I got from my colleagues at the East Asia desk was, “Well, we don’t really do that anymore.” Or, “We don’t have that many people who are trained to do that.” I don’t know if that’s true or not. All of you have a much better sense of that than I do. But, I do think that kind of emphasis is an important one – not to preach, not to bloviate about the wonderfulness of America. We’ve done that, but to somehow work it in because it’s something people are very concerned with around the world.
Kathy Fitzpatrick: I would just add, one of the answers might be boots on the ground, of course, in terms of creating a more robust operation in the field. As an academic and a scholar, I’m always cautious about saying what might work in practice because I’m not a practitioner, and I value the views of practitioners. In answering that question, a really good place to start would be to ask the people in the field, to have a big conversation about what is happening where they are and what do people believe, what do they think, what do they know? Then, that helps inform strategies going forward because this is going to be a tough challenge in many ways, but it may be tougher in some places than other places, and there will be different strategies and approaches. So, the insights from public diplomacy officers would be really helpful in trying to answer that question.
Jay Wang: I just want to add an observation, not any solutions. I’m sure our diplomats out there will continue to underscore America’s values, what America stands for. It stands for openness and for possibility. Those are the things that inspire people around the world, and I’m also sure that diplomats will continue to advocate programs that build on the strength of the soft power assets that we have in this country. A lot of this resides in culture, in education, in our civil society, and we will continue to do that. One thing that is a challenge is that, going forward, our policies in terms of global relations will become more nuanced in many ways. So, how do you explain these policies to different stakeholders? That will require quite a bit of strategizing because social media in general is not very good at explaining nuanced policies, but there are other ways for us to convey them.
As I was saying earlier, the fundamental thing is about building networks because we need to know who we want to reach, who we want to talk to, who matters to us the most. Once we have the network, we can explain policies. We can even explain what transpired in recent times in American politics. This paranoid style of politicking, it’s nothing really new. The country has experienced this from time to time in its history. For foreign publics, it may be that this is the first time they have ever seen so much paranoia in the American body politic. That’s not the case.
Once we have the key stakeholders and identify the networks, we can explain these things quite effectively. The point is, we need to be more precise in the ways we do this kind of outreach because it’s more complex and layered, both in terms of our policies and also the complexity in audiences that are out there, the different segments that are out there on different issues.
Shawn Baxter: Thank you. I want to turn back to the discussion about USAGM and international broadcasting. There are several questions coming in about various aspects of that. One of them from Monroe Price got me thinking about the last time we had a public meeting in September, and there was a similar question about bilateral negotiation or international negotiation about what countries do in international broadcasting and through PD initiatives. The question is, “I wonder whether the panel thinks there is room for bilateral negotiation to reduce or mutually alter international broadcasting and PD initiatives, for example, between the United States and Russia or between the United States and China? Is such a negotiation possible or potentially productive?” We had a very similar question during our September meeting, specifically regarding disinformation activities and whether countries could reach agreements regarding disinformation – basically, a form of detente on that. Let’s go to Martha first, who is our lead in this conversation about international broadcasting. Thank you.
Martha Bayles: I’m not quite sure I understood one part of his question. This is bilateral agreements to reduce PD? What is the meaning there?
Shawn Baxter: Basically, could countries agree to certain standards in international broadcasting? I assume Monroe is talking about advocacy in that way, and also in our PD activities. So, perhaps less propaganda and more truth in PD.
Martha Bayles: Okay, I know Monroe Price’s name, and I’m delighted that somewhere in this mysterious cyberspace Monroe Price is there. That presumes a world of reasonable agreement about the basic values, and I don’t think we live in that world, if I understand the question. The closest thing I’ve seen to that is this whole issue of reciprocity between the United States and Russia on the one hand – not China so much because China has pretty successfully kept USAGM media out – but, Russia, in particular, has recently labeled RFE/RL and VOA activities as foreign agents. They are adding more and more restrictions every day on what they can do, and more and more disclaimers on top of all their content. [The content] has to have these huge disclaimers that are bigger than the content, saying, “We’re a foreign agent” and so forth. What they’re trying to do is drive RFE/RL, in particular, out of Russia, physically. There was a big debate recently about whether they should just pull out or not. I’m on the side that says, no.
What if we kick RT and Sputnik out of the United States? Then, the Russians could say, “They censor, too, in the United States. We’re doing nothing, they do the same thing we do.” My solution is, we do what they do. If they’re going to put big restrictions on the top of every piece of content on RFE/RL, we will put a big restriction on the top of every piece of content from RT. That’s as close as I can get to an agreement with that particular foreign power about how we’re going to conduct TV. If the U.S. government is given over to propaganda of that kind, of disinformation of that kind, which I don’t doubt is occurring in some places, that’s very worrisome because since World War I, the United States has tried very hard not to engage in disinformation and deceptive propaganda on a mass scale.
That doesn’t include psyops and things like that, but on a mass scale, there’s been a deep commitment, since the end of World War I, the beginning of World War II, not to do that. So, if that’s going on, then I don’t think either party is going to be interested in agreeing not to do it, but we are the ones who stand for not doing it, and it’s an asymmetrical battle. We are fighting with one arm behind our back, for sure, but we’ve always fought that way, and we’ve generally prevailed. So, I don’t think we need to resort to propaganda, nor do I think we can form agreements with countries that are engaging in massive information war to just stop doing it. I don’t think that’s very realistic.
Shawn Baxter: Okay, let’s move on to the next question. This one is for Kathy. You’ve written thoughtfully about PD’s neglected domestic mandate to increase mutual understanding at home, and as you mentioned, this seems more valid now than ever. As the USG prepares to reinvigorate engagement with other countries on international issues and global issues, how do you think the State Department’s PD practitioners specifically go about doing that? Of course, this brings up the old question of Smith-Mundt. How does that work?
Kathy Fitzpatrick: A big question. I’m not sure I have a full answer, which is why I recommend getting these bright brains together in a room to work through and think about how we can create a global dialogue and then move it down to local levels. What I would say as a foundation, though, is that it’s really important that we build a domestic constituency for public diplomacy to provide sustained support over time. Part of that is helping Americans understand diplomacy and their role in foreign relations, international relations, and so forth. There’s great opportunity to explore how that might work. As I mentioned, I think the diaspora communities provide one way to engage domestic publics.
This question is incredibly important, and in this environment of opinion, it’s time to take a closer look at that. Of course, when I was doing my research and I would mention something like this to Foreign Service officers, they would say, “What, we do foreign relations.” That’s where the resources were, and that’s where they’ve been over time, but the original mandate included the second half, the domestic mandate. If we look at it, maybe it’s not in public diplomacy, per se, but it is an issue for public affairs and public diplomacy to sort out to see what might be possible.
Shawn Baxter: Thank you very much. I want to build on that a little bit. We have a question from Matthew Wallen in which he says, “It’s been mentioned that PD is a values-based practice. But how is the practice to be credibly conducted in a consensus-based manner in a time when there is such a huge chasm in the way Americans see those values, especially when foreign publics so easily identify this problem? Let’s start us off with Jay on that.
Jay Wang: At the highest level, I think, we stand for openness and stand for possibilities. Of course, when we come down to some of the most specific issue areas, let’s say human rights values, manifestations, and practices, as Matthew pointed out, it can become very contentious. That will require, in my mind, the need to look at priorities in different parts of the world and try to work through that.
In the global public’s mind, they watch elections in the United States and pay so much attention to us because they care about this country. It is the general openness, the sense of possibility – that is a universal aspiration. How we translate some of these things into specific value practices – we need to be more adroit in implementation in various regions.
Martha Bayles: I have a quick interjection; I think it was when I was in Cairo some years ago and I was talking to the people in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. I remember one young intern who was there, a foreign national who ended up being a stringer for me and helping me out a lot. She said, “The difference between America and Egypt is that we have a lot of problems, too, and we have some of the same problems and some different problems, but in America, you’re allowed to talk about it.” I think the best thing we can do with our divisions and all our other problems, including the race problem, including all of these things have been going on recently, is show the world that we’re able to talk about it. That means we have to discipline ourselves to present a two-sided debate about it. It says in the VOA charter, “responsible discussion and debate,” and that’s a hard thing to do, but it’s not impossible. That’s what real people; I’m sure everyone here knows how much people overseas respond to that. You talk about openness; that’s part of the openness, this fearlessness with which we debate our problems. It’s intensely valuable to us and to others, but others may see it more clearly.
Kathy Fitzpatrick: I would just add that we were talking about two different sets of values. I was talking about the values that guide the work that public diplomats do in terms of demonstrating respect and openness and truthfulness in the work that they do every day. American values, of course, are a different set of values, and I don’t think anyone is suggesting that we impose American values. I think Martha is absolutely right – the dialogue, the listening to try to understand.
Shawn Baxter: Thank you. We could go on and on – there are dozens and dozens of topics that people are asking about, but this is going to be the last question, so we can stop in five minutes. Some are asking about the structure of PD, specifically in the State Department. A few of you have touched on that. Kathy has written about it; you touched on it in your remarks. We’re all awaiting the appointment of the next Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. The Commission, itself, has advocated for the first time this year to take a close look at career officials for that position. There have been many years of vacancy in that position over the past 15 years. What are your thoughts on the characteristics a successful Under Secretary for PD and PA needs to have, and how that person and his or her staff can reinvigorate public diplomacy going forward? Let’s go to Kathy, first, because you’ve talked about some of the structural problems.
Kathy Fitzpatrick: When I started my work researching U.S. public diplomacy, who knew structure would be at the top of the list of the challenges that have become evergreen? I have a whole chapter on that, and I did not anticipate that when I started my research. It’s important and it’s still being debated. Do we create another USIA-type organization? Do we have a quasi-government agency with private participation? We need something that transcends political administrations, so we can really focus on those American values that we’re talking about.
With respect to the profile of the Under Secretary, I absolutely agree with the [ACPD’s] report that it would be wonderful to have a career officer in that position, someone with intimate insider knowledge of the challenges that are faced.
Martha Bayles: I have a thought that came out of my work on USAGM. If you look at the three missions of VOA, I make an argument that in the age of two-way communication, not just one way, it’s very hard to divide up those missions. If you’re writing a call and talk show in Cambodia, which was a novelty 15 years ago, you can’t control what the audience is going to ask. So, you have to be able to talk about American institutions, you have to be able to talk about the news, you have to be able to talk about American policy, because that’s what people are asking you about.
In the digital realm, it’s multi-way, so these missions are no longer as discreet as they were in the age of messaging. If you take that and scale it up, I don’t think you can unify or make a coherent coordinated governmental structure to do American public diplomacy. That starts to look a little too authoritarian for my taste. What is needed is an understanding of what the missions are; what the five goals are; a shared mindset of the kinds of things we do, the firewalls, the fundamental principles and values that we’re operating by and that we’re trying to express and share with the world. If there was more understanding of that, then you could trust our fragmented, decentralized, freewheeling, public-private way of communicating with the world that nobody is going to control. You could trust it a little more if there was more understanding. I know the culture war gets in the way of that; lots of things get in the way of that. But, I would prefer to see that happen rather than see some attempt to build a big bureaucracy that’s going to control the message. They have that in other countries, and it works too well.
Shawn Baxter: I want to give Jay an opportunity to chime in if he likes before we proceed to Anne for some final thoughts.
Jay Wang: No, thank you. I’ll yield my time to Anne.
Anne Wedner: I want to thank everyone, especially Jay, Martha, and Kathy, and everyone who’s listening from wherever you are in this virtual world that we’re engaged in. Today, we had a great conversation, and I particularly enjoy the Q&A and hope that we were able to address enough questions. What we were interested in, as the Commission, was to bring in people from the academic world to think about PD and put up a mirror to ourselves back in Washington, so we would have some perspective about how people are understanding what we do inside of our country and also then thinking about and pointing out some issues that become institutionalized and don’t think about in the same ways inside of Washington. I’m grateful that the three of you made time to share with our very diverse audience.
I particularly want to highlight some of the points that you all made in the conversation. One is that the advisory function of PD officers be elevated. I don’t know how often we need to stress that, but it never seems to get through enough. Thank you, again, for pointing that out. Properly resourcing the PD function is also super important. Again, you helped shine a light on that issue. I don’t think we resolved the nature of the USAGM going forward. There will continue to be some more conversation about that. Then, I did see one question emerge, at the very end, I think from Lynne Weil, an old USACPD friend, asking about whether or not young people should go into the field of public diplomacy. I will say that, in my own opinion, I would encourage any young person to apply for these jobs. We need America’s youth engaged in talking about America. To Martha’s point, this is a teaching moment, and there is no one better to teach about what America is than our youth. So, I would heavily recruit and encourage and hope that we can mentor some people coming into the PD profession because it’s so vital to our national interest. Once again, we appreciate everything, and we are looking forward to our next meeting. Bill, any final thoughts?
Bill Hybl: Thank you, Anne. Let me just say a special thanks from the Commission to all of you for being on the call, and to our panelists today, for a great program – provocative, certainly something for the Commission to think about. And, a special thanks to the over 250 participants who were in this particular session today. We will be meeting again in the next quarter, and we hope you will join us. I want to thank Vivian and Shawn and the staff for the really great preparation that went into this. With that, the session concludes and we’re adjourned. Thank you.