Sunday, February 7, 2010

Snowtorious BIG

Like many a D.C. area resident, I'm "sheltering in place" this weekend, curled up on the couch with a cup of cocoa and a warm dog. And with nowhere to go -- and no way to get there until the plows come through -- there's nothing to distract me from my studies. Of course, I understand there's some sort of sporting event in which I should be feigning interest, but I doubt the labrador is going to chide me for my indifference, so I've been free to devote my time to reading and reflecting on the current state of U.S. public diplomacy.

Thanks to my Public Diplomacy syllabus, I got to spend some time with Barry Fulton this morning -- his writing, that is, but if the plows are efficient, I'll get to meet the man himself in class this week -- and I was intrigued by his recommendation to "stimulate the imagination of those who make a difference within their own cultures," and to recruit artists, scholars and scientists as public diplomats to that end.

This is the area of public diplomacy that most directly engages my interests. As a recovering English major, I have deep respect for the power of narrative, imagination and creativity. Fulton is hardly unique in emphasizing the need for reform in U.S. public diplomacy; the need for change seems to be one of the few areas on which most writers in the field can agree. But he was the first I've encountered to advocate imagination and creative thought as a solution.

Fulton underscores the importance of public diplomacy with an Edward Murrow quote: "There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference."

While Murrow and Fulton are emphasizing the need to correct ignorance, intolerance and indifference abroad, I wondered if that quote couldn't be directed inward as well. Is there not a great battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference within our own government? I said before that the need for change in the field of public diplomacy is one of a few areas of agreement. A general lack of understanding and appreciation for its importance is an equally dominant theme in the literature. It's no secret that support for public diplomacy operations correlates strongly with perception of foreign threats to U.S. security. Financial support wanes in times of peace and peaks in times of crisis, as if the only time our nation needs to communicate directly with foreign publics is when they're least likely to listen to us.

Our habitual cycle of complacency and alarm may stem from a false assumption that our allies must necessarily understand and love our nation -- and the reverse assumption that our enemies do not. In The Conquest of America, Tzvetan Todorov shows that both of these assumptions are false. Understanding, appreciating and equality can exist alone or in combination, and anything less than all three will lead to an imperfect relationship between cultures.

All of this is a fancy way of saying that long-term public diplomacy is necessary not only to foster understanding, appreciation and equal footing for the United States in other countries, but to generate better understanding, appreciation and assumptions of equality for other countries and cultures in our own. Our nation's tendency to withdraw funding for communication efforts and similar programs when we imagine ourselves to be comparatively safe betrays a lack of interest in the voices of others and a lack of appreciation for the benefits long-standing public diplomacy programs can confer.

Unfortunately, measuring those benefits is notoriously difficult, and persuading Congress to finance programs without easily measured benefits is even trickier. If I come up with a solution, I'll be sure to post it here, but at the moment I've got other obligations. There is, evidently, one thing in the house to distract me from my studies, and right now she wants a walk in the snow.

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