Monday, June 21, 2010


I'm living about nine blocks from the stadium of Oaxaca's triple-A team, the Guerreros. This weekend, my classmates and I decided to catch a game there. As an academic tourist studying the intersection of tourism and cross-cultural interaction, there was something very meta about being American tourists at a Mexican stadium watching a baseball game. And it got significantly more meta when our group switched from spectators to spectacles.

You can read two detailed, and less academic accounts, of the fiasco here or here, but the quick version is this: Our group was approached by one of the team's cheerleaders, requesting eight of us to participate in a mysterious activity. The stadium was fairly empty, and if we weren't the only gringos in the stadium, we were definitely the most conspicuous, so the fact that we'd be singled out for potential humiliation was on all of our minds, but most of us took a life-is-for-living attitude and joined her in the dugout.

It turned out to be a typical ballpark game--put your forehead on a bat, spin until your dizzy, then try to run in a straight line. It was silly and embarassing, and at least one of us keeled over, but it was all in good fun.

Then we had to walk back to our seats, past the majority of the stadium. While many of the spectators whistled or hollered supportive comments, a few of us heard cries of "Arizona! Arizona!" There actually are a few people from Arizona in our program, and I was initially impressed by the crowd's ability to determine our states of origins, until more savvy students pointed out that they were probably expressing their disapproval of Arizona's new legislature, which I've blogged about before.

This was slightly disconcerting, as there's not a person in our program who approves of the law. But as American citizens abroad, we are representatives of the nation, and that means we represent its policies--even the ones we don't approve of. It was another reminder that foreign policy is an incredibly influential part of public diplomacy.

The sight of six dizzy students in jeans and tee-shirts lurching across a field doesn't exactly reinforce the imagery of a hemispheric hegemon imposing its policies and attitudes on its neighbors, but for some members of the crowd, our physical appearance was enough to mark us as Americans, and our nationality was enough to inspire disapproval.

Obviously some US (and state) policies are going to be unpopular abroad. You can't please everybody all the time. But I think this situation makes a good case for the inclusion of PD professionals in policy formation.

I'm tough enough to take a little cat-calling, but it occurred to me that in a different setting, under different circumstances, US policies could inspire more than a few whistles and jeers. The purpose of public diplomacy isn't simply to promote US foreign policy abroad, but to inspire goodwill towards the nation and its inhabitants. As an American abroad in a friendly state, I'd recommend holding off on the "Mission Accomplished" banner for this task.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Wish You Were Here...

Greetings from Oaxaca! I arrived last week and have since been making myself comfortable as a citizen diplomat (and despite my failure to produce a perfect definition for that term, I think I can apply it to myself, as I'm participating in both study abroad and home stay programs).

I'm currently staying in the home of an incredibly generous woman in Oaxaca, who has hosted some 70 American and Canadian students in the past. Like many participants in the citizen diplomacy process, I'm not sure she would choose to describe herself that way. She seems less concerned with representing Mexico or Oaxaca than in being a gracious host (a task at which she excels).

To be honest, if it weren't for my interest in public and cultural diplomacy, I doubt I'd describe myself that way either. Trying to think of myself as a representative of my country reminds me of elementary school field trips and teachers ominously warning us that were "representatives of our school" who would be disappointing our entire community should we prove incapable of behaving respectfully at the Kennedy Center.

The fact of the matter is that our relationship is both social, cultural and economic, and the primary way in which we define that relationship is as host and guest. But maybe that's one of the reasons citizen diplomacy is so successful. If it has as its objective the improvement of international relations, its motives are less obvious and therefore less suspicious. That objective becomes secondary to successful interpersonal interactions -- the last three feet.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Hasta Luego

Three days before I fly to Mexico, my friends and I meet at a bar in D.C. for a farewell bash. Half the crowd is from grad school, so there's a lot of academic talk mixed in with the typical D.C. wonkery.

We're there maybe six hours, talking about international communication and diplomacy and online dating and Strasburg's debut, and the evening is complete when Michaele Salahi herself teeters through the crowd in a pair of strappy sandals, her hair a color and texture rarely observed in nature. Sure, she looks as if she's heading toward the bathroom, but I know why she's really here: to crash my party, of course.

I am definitely going to miss D.C.

* * * Just a friendly PSA to remind you that over the next two months, I'll be blogging at this site: Feel free to follow me there -- or give your noggin a rest from my blogging and meet me back here in August.

A propos of nothing, that last sentence sounded way more like a Cole Porter lyric than I'd intended....

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Citizen Diplomacy -- Revised

The trouble with keeping a blog is that occasionally the pressure to produce a post will lead you to dash off something quickly without fully reflecting on it, and then people who are far smarter than you (and when I say "you," I mean "me"--or, in the interest of grammatical correctness, "I") will read it and point out its shortcomings. Which is exactly what happened to me this morning.

I'd contacted a PD scholar for advice on narrowing the focus of my thesis, and in the course of our conversation he revealed that he'd read my latest blog post and noted that my definition of "citizen diplomacy" was fairly broad, pointing out, "Civil society interaction is not the same as public diplomacy."

Well, this is absolutely true, and the implications are twofold. First, it means that, despite my fervent beliefs to the contrary, I am not 100% right all of the time. This is terribly disappointing. Second, it means that I need to continue refining my definition of "citizen diplomacy." No doubt, I'll have plenty of time to do so in Mexico where I'll have a front row seat to observe lots of international and cross-cultural interactions that may or may not qualify as diplomatic interactions.

And this brings me to another point. My computer access will be limited while I'm abroad, and my manIC productivity is going to be seriously curtailed. But don't despair! You needn't be cut off from the wit and charm you've grown accustomed to seeing on this site! While abroad, I'll be posting semi-regular updates here so you can stay abreast of every thought--from the brilliant insight to the lusterless observation--that my colleagues and I deem fit to share. And as we are all required to participate (is anybody else amused by the concept of mandatory blogging?) I'm sure there will be plenty of fabulous material.

Hasta luego!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Ugly American

This week the National Council for International Visitors celebrated 50 years of promoting citizen diplomacy.

According to its website "NCIV members design and implement professional programs, provide cultural activities, and offer home hospitality opportunities for foreign leaders and specialists participating in the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) and other exchange programs."

So what, exactly, is citizen diplomacy? According to the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy, it's "the concept that the individual has the right, even the responsibility, to help shape U.S. foreign relations." But I'm not a huge fan of this definition. Aside from its U.S.-centric attitude, I think it defines an attitude without addressing the actions. I would say that citizen diplomacy is the collective actions of the people of one country to communicate with people from other countries, with the objective of improving international relationships. Using this definition, it would be fair to say that while not every traveller acts as a citizen diplomat, each has the potential to be a citizen diplomat.

Travel's been on my mind this week, as I prepare to embark on a research trip where I'll be investigating the impact of globalization on a community in Mexico. In "Place and Power in Tourism Development," Raoul Bianchi argues that "as the forces of globalisation intensify, tourism destinations, much like 'world cities,' can perhaps be envisaged as a nexus, situated at the interface of a transnational web of flows in which tourists, workers, migrants, and residents intersect." In such communities, citizen diplomats have a variety of opportunities to work with others and construct new understandings of culture--and not just of their home culture, but of the new cultures that are shaped by such interactions.

So, what advice would you give me for my upcoming voyage, as I intend to be not simply a tourist and a scholar, but a citizen diplomat?

But soft!

Cartoonist and political genius Gary Trudeau on the importance of soft power:

Clicking the image will take you to the original (larger) source.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Best Laid Plans

A recent article in Slate discusses the impact of political unrest on Thailand's sex industry. The Washington Post has a piece on how the flotilla debacle has updated the relationship status of the U.S.-Israeli to "It's complicated." And a Wall Street Journal article on the Hungarian economy uses "Greece" as a synonym for financial meltdown.

All three articles illustrate an important point: A major crisis can quickly eclipse a nation's public diplomacy efforts. I'm using the term "public diplomacy" very loosely here, to cover all attempts at national branding and image building abroad. While Thailand may not benefit politically for its reputation as a haven for fast and loose hedonism, sex tourism is a significant contributor to the national economy, and the ongoing riots have introduced a libido-chilling element of complication and danger to the nation's image. Israel's global reputation has taken a sharp knock since its deadly response to the Turkish flotilla and its international relationships and policies have all been affected. And the Journal is hardly the only publication to use "Greece" as shorthand for fiscal ruin in recent weeks, showing how difficult it can be to shake a bad reputation, once acquired.

Every year, nations invest billions of dollars into public diplomacy efforts in an attempt to curry favor with foreign publics, improve national reputations and facilitate international policy. But even the best efforts can be undermined if the attention of the world's media is diverted by a catastrophe. To some extent, governments can compensate with typical damage control activities, but ultimately it is the actual policies and formal responses that will carry the most weight.

When it comes to crises, actions speak louder than words.