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Diplomacy in Action

Public Diplomacy and International Perceptions of America

Gordon Duguid
Director, Foreign Press Centers, U.S. Department of State
International Council for Central Florida
Orlando, Florida
November 12, 2009

Date: 12/04/2009 Location: Washington, DC Description: Gordon Duguid, Director, Foreign Press Centers, U.S. Department of State © State Dept Image

As prepared for delivery.

I would like to thank the Board of Directors and the Anniversary Committee for the invitation to share with you this 44th Anniversary of the International Council of Central Florida. And I would especially like to thank Ms. Alma Gray for her vision in founding this organization 44 years ago. Alma, your work has paid off as shown by the twenty International Visitor programs ICCF has hosted this year, and the 103 foreign visitors you have welcomed into your homes.

My experience has taught me that the International Visitor Leadership Program is one of the most valuable diplomatic tools we have. I know that every day you open your homes to our participants in the International Visitor Leadership Program. I’m sure you’ve heard President Obama talk about the spirit of service. In his inauguration speech he said of public service: “It cannot happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice. So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other.” All of you embody that spirit of service and I wanted to come here tonight to personally thank you for volunteering to promote America’s public diplomacy.

The U.S. State Department recently hosted a conference for its Public Affairs Officers from across the world. During discussions on how to improve operations, one colleague said that the very definition of Public Diplomacy was a problem as many people working in the field held different views on what the term meant. This surprised me as I thought I had been working in a clearly defined fashion for the past twenty years, but on reflection I will concede that there is confusion between the roles of public relations, public affairs and public diplomacy. Allow me to present my understanding of those functions.

Public Relations is managing the image of a fixed commodity, for example a business has a brand that is well understood by its customers. It wants to enhance the positive image of that brand through positive engagement with the public. Public Affairs – for the Executive Branch at least - is standing to account to the American people. The State Department holds a press briefing every day in which the media hold us accountable for our actions. Public Diplomacy goes beyond Public Affairs by explaining an Administration’s foreign policy to foreign audiences and providing them with the context in which those policies are formulated in an attempt to get those audiences to support our policies.

Through your participation in the IVLP, each one of you here tonight contributes to American public diplomacy—even when you are explaining to a foreign visitor why you disagree with a particular US policy -- because you provide very important contextual understanding of American society, culture and history.

The discourse and debate on the need for stronger public diplomacy in American foreign policy has been vigorous since the September 11 attacks, especially as opinion polls have routinely demonstrated negative views of the United States following the invasion of Iraq. But I would argue that Iraq merely sped-up a trend that had existed perhaps since 1918, that is the expression of dissatisfaction with a nation that is unique in its ability to affect the lives of everyone on the planet. Everyone has an opinion of the U.S. because everyone has some experience with America, Americans or U.S. policy. This kind of exposure, I think, tends to the negative, but no opinion poll can give a complete picture. Let me explain.

I heard all of the anti-American arguments I have ever heard in my first two weeks abroad in 1978.
“You are militaristic!”
“You are imperialists!”
“You have no culture!”
“You are materialistic!”
“You have a racist and reactionary society!”
“You are against Muslims!”
“American tourists are incredibly rude and loud!”
I believe you can also find these opinions reflected in the writings of Samuel Johnson in the 18th Century and Fanny Trollope in the 19th.

These perceptions are real and troubling but each has a counter perception that expresses a positive quality.

While some say we too frequently intervene militarily, everywhere a conflict breaks out; American troops are seen as crucial to success by both sides.

While some say we are imperial, almost no one wants us to completely pull out our troops, factories or investments from their countries.

While some say we have no culture, the world indulges in our popular culture and treats George Gershwin, Emily Dickenson and Andrew Wyeth as international treasures.

While some say we are materialistic, they know Americans give more to private charities than most others. And we don’t do badly through our public institutions, either. Just since last September, Americans have provided over 25 million dollars in comprehensive relief, recovery and reconstruction assistance for the natural devastation in the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Samoa, and Tonga.

While some say we are racist, the world uses our legislation as the model for protecting minorities, and marvels that we elected the most powerful man in the world from a minority community.

While some say we are anti-Muslim, Bosniacs and Kosovars know that Americans risked their lives protecting Muslims from genocide.

While many say our tourists are rude – well, no nation should be judged on the behavior of people on vacation.

So the positive images of the U.S. are always there with the negative ones. Each is brought out in turn at different times in different places in reaction to a certain set of circumstances. After several years of generally negative opinion polls on the image of the U.S., examples from recent polls show opinions changing for the better in countries as diverse as Russia, Indonesia, Thailand and Colombia. From my work with foreign correspondents in 2008, I know that the Presidential elections -- not just the election of President Obama, but the entire process of campaign, debate, protests, and primaries – has been a major factor in this positive trend.

A currently improving image is not to make light of negative perceptions of the U.S. or suggest that they are easily countered. In places such as North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan and throughout the Middle East there is a general mistrust of the U.S. and its motives. Nor do I suggest that some foreign perceptions are mistaken. We are not perfect, and many reasonable people disagree with our policies on rational grounds. Rather, my example suggests that providing context –that is the political, cultural, economic background to our actions -- is crucial to explaining ourselves and understanding others.

Our elections were not some ploy on our part to prove to other nations and societies the vibrancy of our democracy. It was just, us doing what comes naturally to citizens of this republic; and the world marveled at it. I cannot tell you how many of my foreign friends and contacts seethed with jealousy that they could not vote – and how many felt I needed to vote for their preferred candidate!

At the Foreign Press Centers in Washington and New York, we spent all of 2008 highlighting our elections. Our job is to support U.S. policies and priorities by helping resident and visiting foreign media cover the United States with greater accuracy and understanding of the context in which U.S. policies are developed. Additionally, the FPCs work to deepen the comprehension of foreign audiences of the cultural, political, economic and social contexts from which the American people interact with the world.

During the elections we provided regular press briefings on the process, history, importance of regionalism and the leading issues of the campaign. We arranged interviews with American newsmakers on the main issues. Our full-time research librarian offered fact-checking and detailed background assistance on our comprehensive website ( And the youngsters in the office whacked it all on Facebook and Twitter.

We organized press reporting tours to all of the critical primary elections, to both party conventions, and we brought 50 international journalists to the United States where they worked alongside American journalists to cover the last three weeks of the campaign.

These are the kind of things we have been doing since 1948.

But as much as we work, there just aren’t enough of us. Secretary Clinton has worked hard to get the State Department fully staffed, and her work has shown success. For the first time in my career, we have as many public diplomacy officers as there are Public Diplomacy jobs at State. That is for the first time in 20 years, we have enough people to do the work that Congress and the Administration say we should be doing. But there still aren’t that many of us. Please bear with me through a few statistics; as of September 30th:

The total number of people working for the State Department is 63,529. The total in the Foreign Service is 11,000, of which 7,000 are involved in diplomatic work. And of these, the total working in Public Diplomacy is 1,226.

Even with modern technology, 1200 people are going to have some heavy lifting in a world of six billion non-Americans. That is why the mission of the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) to foster mutual understanding between Americans and the rest of the world is so important.

You are Citizen Ambassadors of the highest caliber.

I was impressed to learn that over 290 current and former heads of state and government have participated in the International Visitor Leadership Program, for example, Gordon Brown of the U.K., Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Abdullah Gul of Turkey and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of Zimbabwe. And, fully a quarter of all UN member states are currently led by people who have toured our towns and dined in our homes.

You ensure that virtually every International Visitor goes home with a better understanding of our country and of what makes us tick as Americans. Such enhanced knowledge better informs their discussions, their writing, their teaching, their policy formulation. Stereotypes are eliminated and misperceptions are corrected, both in the IVs’ countries and here at home.

Let me share an example of such improved understanding. An IVLP alumnus from Pakistan recently wrote an article recalling the following observations about the United States:

A visit to America is sure to change you and your mind. It brings you into the schedules of punctuality and you learn to say, "Sorry" I am a few minutes late. Your mind and heart opens up. … You learn to be a cautious driver, taking care of pedestrians crossing the road. There is an urge to step forward and ask whether someone needs your help. You feel like greeting people that you come across on your way and most of all, you tend to preach how important each citizen of your country is to your state and last, not the least, the human element in you opens up to welcome any important initiative leading towards meaningful working mechanisms into minute daily routines.

These are views he is taking back to a country where anti-Americanism is currently at an all-time high.

An IVLP alumna from Nigeria recently reported triumphantly on her NGO work on behalf of women and girls following her IVLP visit. In her words:

Before IVLP, I never understood fully the concept of volunteerism as practiced in America, but today I can boast of about 40 volunteers who work under my projects and programs at no cost. … I owe these to the exposure the IVLP provided and the ever willing American spirit to invest in others. They invested in me and today [I] am investing in others.

Central Florida is a favorite stop for many IVs.

A small delegation from Indonesia, studying the role of the legislature in a pluralist society, felt right at home in Orlando. Not only was the weather hot and humid like in Indonesia, the streets and layout of the city even reminded them of Jakarta. More importantly, the Floridians they met with had a positive impact on their perceptions. Ms. Deanne Schott of the Seminole County League of Women Voters so interested the IVs that one woman signed up to become a member of the League right after the meeting finished, intent on learning from the League so that she could enhance her own political activities back home.

A group of Chinese IVs studying rural development and poverty alleviation said that Orlando was the best part of their program. They remarked that Max Stewart (executive director, ICCF) went beyond the call of duty to accommodate their needs and interests, including showing Chinese movies and throwing a birthday party for one of the participants. They were honored by his efforts. When the program took the Chinese delegation to a women’s shelter, one participant said she wanted to cry right on the spot simply because the place was exactly like the dream facility she had worked hard to establish in her province in China. She was so encouraged by the work of her counterparts in the U.S. that she vowed to continue her efforts to fight for women’s rights and interests in China.

The Office of International Visitors recognizes the important contributions made by international visitor councils around the country. Without the personal touch and involvement of partners like the International Council of Central Florida, the program would not have such a powerful impact.

Despite these marvelous results, our efforts cannot stop. Public Diplomacy is an integral part of relations between nations. As the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Judith McHale, said in her confirmation testimony: “I believe passionately that public diplomacy is both integral to our foreign policy and essential for our national security.”

We can all improve our efforts by learning how people in other countries and cultures perceive us, by understanding their interests and aspirations, and forging relationships that become part of their daily lives.

You not only underscore our foreign policy objectives, but you form the link between the American public and the world. You represent every religious and ethnic background and come from every culture in the world, and as citizen diplomats, you, ably and admirably, represent the enduring strength of our global heritage to the world.

I thank you again for your commitment to this program and I urge you to continue in the great work of mutual understanding between nations and peoples. Happy Anniversary to you all.