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.

Staying locally, Looking globally

At one point in the not-too-distant past, COVID-19 was a relatively minor news item–the virus didn’t even have a name, it just sounded like another SARS, and cases were linked to specific areas. Now, it’s a pandemic and there have been over 1.2 million cases and 60,000 deaths worldwide. Much of the world is now living under social distancing measures, ranging from full lock-down to more voluntary guidelines.

Everything’s changed so quickly–it’s hard to believe that it’s just been a few weeks. In mid-January, our local GP clinic had a little sign up on the door saying not to come in if you had recently travelled to one of the countries on their list and presented the listed symptoms. That clinic is now completely locked-down, with dozens of signs and taped off entrances, and the walk-in clinic and all non-essential appointments have been cancelled. I had to take my son in for his 8-week vaccinations, which thankfully was deemed essential. We had to be triaged on the phone, then they had to unlock the door to let us into the empty waiting room. The nurse who gave him his jabs was in full protective gear, too–I’m grateful for her sake that she had it, when there are so many stories of frontline healthcare staff working without adequate kit.

It’s been a surreal experience, living through this pandemic and its countless impacts. Social media has been a lifeline, enabling interaction with friends and family around the world as we all go through it together, separately. It’s been interesting (and often upsetting) to see how different countries deal with the virus. As an Italophile with friends in and from the country, it’s been particularly heartbreaking to see what’s happening in Italy. This viral video was an excellent example of people-to-people international communication:

When the video was posted on 15 March, we were still living as normal. We were commuting to work, doing the school run, shopping for non-essentials, attending public events, etc. My nephews in Minnesota, as well as family and friends in Washington state, had their schools closed that week, and ours were closed the week after. My friends and family and I are all living under slightly different restrictions and timelines, but we’re all going through this together.

The pandemic is a global experience that truly highlights our common humanity and underscores what really matters–physical and mental health, and interpersonal relationships. This is an opportunity to humanize international relations, not through exchange and face-to-face contact, but through shared experiences on a global scale.

What I’m Watching: Eye in the Sky

Last night, we watched Eye in the Sky, a 2015 thriller that centers around a drone strike on a terrorist group. I didn’t expect to like it, but it was very moving and thought-provoking. It did an amazing job of bringing the complex world of counter-terrorism, international military cooperation, and the unique ethical considerations of drone warfare to life.

The film humanises “collateral damage” by giving a backstory to a little girl, Alia, who happens to sell bread near the strike target. She has no idea that US and UK military officials are watching the house behind her, or that some of the most wanted terrorists in the region are preparing bombs inside it. She’s just selling bread. Her parents are lovely, of course, and they go against the oppressive regime’s misogynistic attitudes by educating her and allowing (even encouraging) her to play. You’re rooting for her, and it’s incredibly sobering to think of all of the real life humans like her whose deaths have been described as “collateral damage”.

Phil Taylor used to talk about his work with US and UK soldiers and officials, and how modern technology had turned warfare into a video game–how physically removed they had become, how you no longer wait to see “the whites of their eyes” before firing a weapon. This film proposes that, despite the physical distances involved, drone warfare still involves significant emotional intimacies and ethical dilemmas.

It also happened to be Alan Rickman’s last film, and he was brilliant, as usual. He was very human, real, and his performance was heartfelt, while at the same time deadly serious (it’s his voice, and the subject matter).

Further reading:

Wired review

Phil Taylor, Munitions of the Mind, 2003, Manchester University Press