Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Returning to Old School U.S. Public Diplomacy

In what some herald as a return to the spirit of the good old days of U.S. public diplomacy, the State Department is pursuing expanded means of establishing exchanges. There is a portal for interaction that allows over 8,000 members from 170 countries to post and view content. In one of the latest projects, members could contribute, view, and vote on videos for the My Culture + Your Culture = ? Contest. I will withhold comment on the membership of the "expert panel" that selected the finalists and allow you to draw your own conclusions there.

Interesting little factoid shows that, as of November 2008, there were 66 Chiefs of State/Heads of Government around the world that are alumni of Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) programs.


  1. As much as I love the concept of cultural exchange, and as hippie-esque as I can be with my ideals cross-cultural communication through art, the DipNote write-up on this project really rubbed me the wrong way. Even though the video is kind of cute and artsy ( the blog post accompanying the video was far to cheesy to get my respect.

    "What do a 14-year-old freshman in Columbus, Nebraska; a 23-year-old software engineer in Bangalore, India; a 16-year-old senior in Recife, Brazil; and a 22-year-old Fulbright scholarship recipient from Wheaton, Illinois have in common? They share a strong desire to create bridges across cultures and their unique action and vision has earned each a video contest Grand Prize: -a two-week international exchange program and a featured role as a citizen diplomat."

    Really? I get that this is State's official blog and all, but do we really need one more stereotypically politically correct plug for how we're all different but maybe more similar than we thought after all? Let me reiterate, parts of the video are fairly creative, and the project as a whole at least came out of good intentions. I simply have a hard time getting past the artificiality of it all.

  2. And wait just a minute...Fran Drescher?!

  3. Kathy, you're not alone. I also came away feeling that metaphors of multiculturalism through art or the history of modern sports were a bit thin. It's a great opportunity for Drescher's winners who get to come to the US or be sent from America abroad, but the chief audience of the videos (besides Fran) are likely ECA bureaucrats and other domestic audiences, so what are the metrics for PD at work here?

    The epitome of my culture + your culture is year-long, face-to-face, cultural exchanges. ECA should stick to what it does best (and I hope exchange diplomacy funding continues to grow). Moreover, claiming 66 heads of foreign governments as alumni of such programs is great, but I hope exchanges are also targeting future heads of opposition parties, rising-star journalists, and biologists. They are likely not hanging around the US embassy or America Center come application time, but will probably bring more away from a year in the US than the trilingual nephew of the finance minister.

    Cynicism aside, I wholly support exchange programs as a vehicle for real and lasting public diplomacy, and was myself an incredibly fortunate beneficiary of exchange. True, they can only affect a small sliver of foreign publics directly and are pretty costly per head. But if State wants to broaden the effectiveness of ECA outreach, it should be developing programs and initiatives to keep engaging exchange alumni long after they return to their native countries and not touting cutesy YouTube contests.