The value and importance of public diplomacy cannot be emphasized enough, both in normal times and even more so in times of the global Covid-19 pandemic that has brought the world to an almost standstill.
Often referred to as soft power (although I personally prefer smart power), the USC Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD) defines public diplomacy as “the transparent means by which a sovereign country communicates with publics in other countries” in order to inform and influence those foreign audiences. Diplomacy can take many shapes and forms -educational, academic or professional exchanges, as well as through sports, culinary and cultural activities. However, most of these efforts required at point some form of in-person interactions. Luckily, in recent years, virtual exchanges had already begun to gain some traction. And with the pandemic, international exchange organizations quickly pivoted to deploy virtual alternatives to the traditional face to face models. This move effectively spared public diplomacy, to some extent, from becoming one more casualty of Covid-19.
Public diplomacy is a very important and very strategic foreign policy tool for many governments. In fact, a number of countries make significant investments in their public diplomacy efforts, which are developed and deployed very intentionally in support of specific foreign policy goals. The Soft Power 30, one of my favorite yearly publications produced by Portland Communications and CPD, ranks countries’ soft power across six categories: digital, culture, enterprise, engagement, education and government. For any public diplomacy nerd, this is a fantastic publication. However, foreign policy leaders should also make time to study it closely.
In the case of the U.S., which usually is in the top 5, its ranking has been slipping: from third place in 2017 to fifth in 2019. Much could be inferred about why the U.S. might be falling behind in the global rankings. However, I’ll just focus on the investments the U.S. makes in public diplomacy efforts and the resulting volume of international exchange participants.
The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) at the U.S. Department of State is charged with developing friendly and peaceful relations between Americans and the world through exchanges. Through a variety of programs like the Fulbright Program, the International Visitor Leadership Program, and others, ECA touches more than 55,000 participants each year. These are both Americans in the U.S., Americans going abroad, and international visitors coming to the U.S. This investment will cost about US $730 million in 2020.
Through these programs, the U.S. government has had the opportunity to showcase the country and develop relationships with over 570 heads of state and government officials during their formative years. Additionally, these programs not only foster inter-cultural dialogue and understanding. They also have a significant economic impact on the people that participate in them, both foreigners and U.S. nationals. The local communities where participants come from and those that host them during their stay also benefit greatly. The economic impact of U.S. State Department-sponsored programs was about US $59 million in 2018 according to data compiled by the Global Ties U.S.. Now that’s a solid return on investment.
Unfortunately, not all countries are as strategic about using public diplomacy as a foreign policy tool. Case in point: Mexico, which stopped making the top 30 on the Soft Power index after 2015, when it ranked 29. Mexico has many assets: geographic proximity to the the world’s number one economy, world-class cuisine (including avocado anything), naturally beautiful tourist destinations backed by a solid tourism infrastructure and rich cultural treasures and history spanning from the pre-Columbian era to modern times. It is a tremendous missed opportunity.
With only a fraction of the investment compared to the countries that top the Soft Power index, Mexico could leverage one of its many assets to bring about significant domestic economic growth while at the same time, influencing and improving its image abroad.
Thankfully, with an important investment from both the US and Mexican private sectors, the US-Mexico Foundation (USMF) is doing very important work promoting Mexico’s image abroad. Through initiatives like the US-Mexico 360 Policymakers Exchange Program, the USMF is peeling back layers of myths and misconceptions about Mexico, to reveal real opportunities for collaboration between Mexico and the US. Over the past 3 years, USMF has impacted more than 450 US policymakers, however, much more remains to be done on both sides of the border and public diplomacy is an accessible vehicle to strengthening the bilateral relationship.
At a time when the world seems to be moving apart and in the direction of isolationism, both in response to the Covid-19 pandemic but also due to political, social, cultural and economic differences, public diplomacy is more important and relevant than ever. Governments must continue to fund these important initiatives today to continue to develop tomorrow’s global leaders. And, in countries where governments are not intentionally and strategically investing in public diplomacy, the private sector must step in to support these initiatives. In fact, I see it as their responsibility to do so, because only with peace and understanding, can businesses thrive in a globalized world.
* Daniel Bremer-Wirtig is the Executive Director of the International Student House of Washington, DC.The International House aims to provide an exceptional residential experience to a diverse international community of young leaders and scholars in Washington to foster inter-cultural dialogue, life-long connections, and global citizenship. Daniel is originally from Mexico and Germany, and has lived and worked in Washington, DC for the past 15 years. He is a member of the U.S.-Mexico Foundation’s Young Advisory Council and an alumnus of the U.S.-Mexico 360 Policymakers Exchange Program. Twitter: Twitter: @USMexicoFound