One of the things that kept me very busy over the past weeks was helping to put together the SIS Conference on Cultural Diplomacy on Monday, November 8, which I think went very well. Updates and videos are promised to come soon (all participants will surely be notified), so those interested who could not attend - for whatever reason - will be able to get a taste of it too.
The conference focused on "Cultural Diplomacy as a Listening Project" - what's the role of listening in public diplomacy? Is it merely a way to formulate better targeted and more effective PD/communication strategies, or is it actually a factor in making more informed policies? None of the speakers seemed to be giving a definitive opinion on this fundamental issue, although almost all of them touched upon it in one way or another.
Of course, it might be easy to suggest that governments should be more responsive to foreign public opinion when making foreign policy decisions; but then, that would mean completely ignoring all domestic and foreign constraints that these decision-makers usually face. It also raises the issue of national interest and priorities: after all, any policy-maker represents, first and foremost, the interests of their own "constituency." And yet, in a networked world where all are increasingly interdependent, selfish "blindness" might not only limit the effectiveness of a policy (public diplomacy among others), but might actually be detrimental to the country's security and prosperity, cutting it off from the vital global networks.
Although there was some discussion of the significance of citizen diplomacy - particularly surrounding the talk by Sherry Mueller, President of NCIV - most of the conversation centered on government efforts involving public diplomacy. Even within the discussion of "Public Diplomacy 2.0" and the general suggestion to empower the American public so as to enhance its ability to engage with the world, the talk was mostly of providing software and tools to facilitate this engagement.
Prominently missing from the discussion was the actual need to cultivate the Americans' interest about the world - about those foreign countries and people they are supposed to be interacting with - in the first place. After all, as demonstrated by the most recent election, the outside world seems to be far from being a priority issue for most Americans, whose major concern is their country's well-being (well, in fact, that is arguably the case everywhere else), even if/when it comes at an expense of foreign "partnerships" and relations (just look at all the talk surrounding China). After all, why should the general public concern itself with people and events in faraway lands that lie beyond the ocean or South of "The Border"?
But then, how can someone expect them to engage with the world when not only cultural knowledge, but actual interest is absent?
Image courtesy of Alpha Designer. (Click to enlarge)
It would be very unfair, of course, to blame it all on the society or individuals - after all, there are certain historical, cultural, and even geographic explanations for such a culture of "ignorance". And yet, since everyone is talking about the role that the American government can play in enhancing Americans' interaction with the world, perhaps there should also be more serious talk of the government engaging and educating an interest among its own public first?
Balanced international news, world history, and even basic geography are mostly absent from the "usual" information intake of an average American; unless, of course, any of that directly involves American interests, (still resulting in a very American-centric view). Disasters, conflicts, or extremely moving negative events abroad also attract media attention; but they only contribute - further - to the formulation of a negative image of the world that is full of chaos and security threats to the U.S.
When so many resources are spent on cultural and educational exchanges, perhaps a fraction should also go to promoting awareness among the local population itself, with the very objective of cultivating the demand for foreign interaction? (A first step here could be allowing VOA, RFE/RL and the like to broadcast in the U.S.)
Listening, then, is very much about the public's attitude and outlook, too. During the conference, a very interesting comment in this regard was made by Prof. Nick Cull of USC, who said that according to him Americans cannot be "taught" to listen. Instead, there should be a concerted effort to teach foreigners to "shout" louder, with the hope that they can get at least some of their points across.
Here is another quote - from Entman - which I came across as I was doing some research for one of the papers I'm currently working on:
“Foreign elites and citizens often see the United States as a self-interested superpower, a perspective greatly at odds with Americans’ self-images as altruistic supporters of universal human values such as democracy, freedom, and peace. In fact, because of the conflict between the U.S.’s self-image and its common images abroad, the very conditions amenable to favorable habitual framing in the American media may yield more unfavorable habitual framing in foreign countries.”
A point that certainly needs to be considered more seriously when putting together any American PD initiative: tune down the arrogance and work on getting stronger "cultural intelligence" skills.