Webinar: Nancy Snow’s “Unmasking the Virus: Public Diplomacy and the Pandemic”

So amazing how technology can enable participation around the globe, bringing a conversation with public diplomacy experts and ambassadors to my bedroom!

Yesterday afternoon I watched a Public Diplomacy Council webinar from one of my PD scholar mentors/friends, Nancy Snow. She had worked with Phil Taylor (my first PhD supervisor) on the Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy (now in its 2nd edition, co-edited with Nick Cull, my external examiner). She shared her dissertation on Fulbright with me, and we met in person at the 2015 University of Arkansas conference on Senator Fulbright’s legacy. It was so lovely to chat with her about our mutual interest in Fulbright and our mutual friend in Phil, our adventures as Americans living overseas, and our experiences as women in academia. All of this preamble is just to say, I wasn’t surprised that Nancy’s talk resonated with me. She picked up on some excellent points about the current state of world affairs and how PD fits into it all.

Nancy Snow has been living and teaching in Japan for a number of years, so she shared her observations about Japan’s response to the pandemic. On the one hand, they are a success story. They have had a relatively low death rate, with fewer than 1000 deaths in total, and the country has lifted its lockdown. The general mood, however, is still grim–Snow suggested that the personal misery index has continued to climb because economic insecurity has risen. Furthermore, people perceived a lack of leadership at the top, with the late decision over Tokyo’s Olympics postponement and the lockdown.

This discrepancy between the figures and the prevailing sentiment is fascinating–as occurs so often in politics, it’s not what’s actually happening that matters, it’s what people think is happening. We’re seeing that in the UK right now with the Dominic Cummings scandal. The government has been trying to excuse it, explain it away, and tell the public to move on and focus on Coronavirus crisis instead. Meanwhile, a large proportion of the public thinks the Cummings scandal is about the Coronavirus crisis, that it is an example of “one rule for them, one rule for the rest of us,” and many people won’t take the lockdown/social distancing practices seriously, now that those who created those rules have been shown to break them. Perception is key.

Another interesting point was the issue of empathy, and the need to challenge the lack of compassion and empathy in our leadership. Nancy is working on building a gendered understanding of international relations, and recently wrote this piece that applied a gender lens to Joseph Nye’s work on morality and international politics. I’m inspired to build on this, especially given the excellent examples provided by female heads of state during this pandemic of empathetic and supremely competent leadership. Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand), Angela Merkel (Germany), Mette Frederiksen (Denmark),Tsai Ing-wen (Taiwan), Erna Solberg (Norway), Katrín Jakobsdóttir (Iceland), Sanna Marin (Finland) are all highlighted in this Guardian piece as success stories.

There was so much else in the talk, but I’ll just close with one comment on the other crisis the U.S. is facing right now alongside the pandemic: racial injustice. Nancy quoted Edward R. Murrow’s observation that if we don’t address race relations now (in the 1960s), it’ll become a propaganda tool for the Soviet Union. And it was–I discussed this in my dissertation, that African students were targeted for exchange programs in the Soviet Union during the Cold War and told that if they went to study in the U.S. they would be in danger (or at the very least, experience discrimination and segregation in parts of the U.S.). America’s race relations are still a significant part of our image abroad. I found it really sad that on a recent episode of TLC’s “90 Day Fiance: Before the 90 Days”, a Nigerian mother didn’t want to give her blessing to her son to marry an American woman because she said it was dangerous for black people there. “I’m afraid of how they will treat him, since the whites don’t like the blacks over there.” (clip at 2:20). I know 90 Day Fiance isn’t authoritative, but it does offer some candid, real-life examples of how the U.S. is viewed abroad.

These protests at U.S. Embassies over the murder of George Floyd are proof that Edward R. Murrow was right about the significance of U.S. race relations for the country’s national image. We need to do better as a society, and part of that, in Nancy Snow’s and my own opinion, is to challenge the lack of leadership we’re currently seeing–by protesting, by signing petitions and writing to elected officials, by donating to worthwhile causes, and by turning out to vote in November.

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