Ambassador J. A. Ereli. Photo from US Embassy in Bahrain.
The meeting was announced early on, it was webcast live, and Executive Director Matt Armstrong did quite a good job of utilizing social media to spread the word. And although it was a public meeting, since it was taking place in the State Department, one would still need to register well in advance and go through the whole security screening process upon arrival. As a devout fan, I had decided I should go, despite the increasingly hectic schedule.
So, I did. Arriving there half an hour before the start of the meeting turned out to be insufficient, even though we were advised to show up just 15 mins earlier. After standing in one line for 20 minutes, I was told that I should probably go to the other exit. At 9:55am, five minutes before the start of the meeting, there were close to a hundred people outside, waiting in line, to be enlightened about the most recent developments in public diplomacy and exchanges. The line was there for half an hour. No one was let in. The reason? Apparently, the security screening machines had broken down. And no, it didn't matter if you had registered in advance (which involved sending them quite a bit of personal information), you still couldn't get in for seemingly obvious reasons. (Could this be a great example of the efficiency of the State Department?)
Long story short, by the time we got in it was close to 10:35am (i.e. we missed more than half of the meeting, and certainly most of the presentation), so my account starts at that point.
As we walked in, Ambassador Ereli was recounting all the virtues of exchange programs, Fulbright featuring most prominently among those. In terms of impact, he said that the Bureau's evaluation - mostly through surveys, it seems - shows that most of the participants of the exchange programs go back to their countries with better understanding of and a positive disposition toward the U.S. Ereli also talked about all the positive input of these alumni in their respective societies through the multiplier effect and their ability to engage various local networks. He emphasized on the importance of technological innovation and the diffusion of that knowledge and technology in other societies precisely through such alumni networks.
All great buzz words and ideas.
In the Q&A part, Ereli told the touching story of a young Arab-American musician who had grown up in Oklahoma and liked country music, and was invited to perform at the Ambassador's Residence in Bahrain, touching the hearts of as many as 300 high school students. He also seemed very optimistic about Middle Eastern musicians' life-changing discovery that certain American drummers can catch and actually tune into their rhythm. Seems like it is at that mysterious, metaphysical level that American public diplomacy is at its best.
Perhaps the most interesting point that the Ambassador brought up was in the very end, when he emphasized the need for more people-to-people contacts. He did not want to discount the importance of digital diplomacy, and yet, he reminded the audience that nothing can replace the in-person engagement of the public. To quote him almost verbatim: "It is only then that we can win them ["the other guys"] over".
Last weekend marked the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks: Ten years since public diplomacy supposedly regained its importance. Ten years of experimentation and theorizing... and yet, it seems the DoS still has a lot to learn. Public diplomacy is still about "winning over" and "influencing". What is more, public diplomacy - especially cultural diplomacy - is obviously not fully understood. How does it work? How does it work best? Is it really just about chemistry?
Again, I should say I missed most of that meeting. Ambassador Ereli might have discussed much more substantive and informative issues while I was waiting in the line outside. To find out, I guess, I will have to wait for some four months for the minutes of this public meeting to be released.
UPDATE [9/17/2011]: I was contacted by Matt Armstrong, the Executive Director, who said that they are aware of the issue and will certainly try to address it in the future. Happy to report that the Commission has been responsive!