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.

Happy 73rd Anniversary to the Fulbright Program!

On this day in 1946, President Truman signed the Fulbright Act into law. As I did in last year’s post, the program’s anniversary is always an occasion to reflect on the program and what it’s achieved over the years.

Thinking back over its 73 year history, one of the things that stands out most to me is the program’s consistency and stability. The Fulbright Program has shown an amazing ability to survive. It’s outlasted political chaos and economic fluctuations, wars and diplomatic crises, and supportive and critical occupants of the White House.

Recently, I was looking through my old archive photos from University of Arkansas trip, and I came across this gem. The clipping was enclosed in a letter to J.W. Fulbright from Arkansas Gazette editor James O. Powell (Fulbright’s reply letter was dated 9 January 1978). At the time, the Fulbright Program was being shifted from the US State Department to the new, reorganised version of the US Information Agency (USIA), the US International Communication Agency (USICA). This Carter-era bureaucratic shift wasn’t an attempt to turn exchanges into propaganda, as the cartoon suggests. The Carter administration was supportive of exchanges, and it was really more of an effort to shift USIA towards two-way, mutual understanding promotion, instead of its original overseas ‘information’ (propaganda) remit. Despite the fact I disagree with this characterisation of the Carter administration’s USICA, I still like the cartoon, because it perfectly captures the tension between the two conceptualisations of exchange diplomacy–is it about education and culture, or is it about persuasion and national images? Are they mutually exclusive concepts, or is there room for both aspects in exchanges?

University of Arkansas Library Special Collections, Fulbright Post-Senatorial Papers, Series 4, Box 22, Folder 2.

Note the “America First” slogan on the eagle, too–Trump didn’t invent the phrase. This attitude is nothing new, and it’s part of a bigger concept of what the US is/does/stands for. I love that it’s opposed to education and culture. That’s appropriate for the current wave of populist politics–cutting public education funding, cutting the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, rejecting climate science and vaccine research, generally anti-expertise attitudes.

Yet, despite all of that, the Fulbright Program carries on, as it has for the past 73 years, quietly bringing students and scholars, professors and researchers into contact with their international colleagues, facilitating the exchange of ideas and promoting mutual understanding. When America’s President is viewed unfavourably around the world, the American people are still regarded in a positive light–and I think it’s thanks, in part, to interpersonal contact.

Pew Research Center, 2018

When you can relate the abstract idea of America to an actual person you know, not just Hollywood, or Coca-Cola, or blue jeans, or Disney, you can get past its leader. This gives some hope for other countries, too–if you know a British person, you’ll know they’re not all like Boris Johnson. My Chinese students are not Xi Jinping, my Brazilian friends are not Bolsonaro, etc. (That said, when you have a leader that’s viewed favourably, it helps!)

May the Fulbright Program continue bringing people together, showing Americans and international participants the realities of life in other countries and cultures, and promoting genuine mutual understanding of international affairs that goes beyond the headlines.