When you think of diplomacy, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? To me, I think of ambassadors uniting cultures, overseeing negotiations, seeking compromise and overall, representing their country.
Stemming from this view of diplomacy is the idea of public diplomacy. According to the State Department, public diplomacy is defined as “the means by which governments seek to advance their nations’ interests through understanding, informing and influencing the broader public in foreign countries.” Jennifer Rasamimanana, currently the counselor for cultural affairs of the U.S. Embassy in Paris, came the other day to talk to my School Year Abroad (SYA) classmates, a couple of high schoolers from a French lycée and I, about what public diplomacy entails.
Ms. Rasamimanana explained that there are two facets of public diplomacy: press and culture. The press side represents the publicized transparent aspect of US diplomacy. Although the emphasis varies from country to country, this generally includes working closely with local media, providing info on current US policies, arranging interviews etc. for US and occasionally host country journalists, assisting US correspondents, maintaining the information resource center (a virtual library), and running government sponsored broadcasting services (present in countries where news is often censored). In our modern age, the press side of things also covers social media (tweeting relevant information in the host country’s language for example) and PR. During big news stories, this can mean lots of interviews where Rasamimanana says it is especially important to be clear on the concrete American stance.
In the American Foreign Service (AFS), according to Mrs. Rasamimanana, getting in touch with the culture of other countries forms the heart of the embassy’s mission and is intrinsic to American foreign policy. As a result, the culture side of Public Diplomacy contains a very broad spectrum of responsibilities. The culture section is in charge of among other things scholarship and other programs, like the Fulbright Program, geared towards bringing foreign students to America and providing them with leadership seminars and a basic education of American history and culture. Additionally, they work on using economics to bind us all together in one global world, promoting political dialogue, encouraging places and spaces for people to talk and exchange ideas and using art as a teaching tool to both bring people together and help them find their voices.
Public Diplomacy is one of five options amongst which new arrivals to the AFS must choose. Mrs. Rasamimanana said that being a diplomat has both opened her up to the world and surprisingly confirmed her identity as an American. After spending four months abroad, I can sort of relate to that feeling of intensified patriotism that one experiences when away from home and one’s countrymen. When you live overseas, you become much more flexible and open-minded. As Mrs. Rasamimanana said, this exposure to new ways of life and foreign policies has reaffirmed her support and belief in the American way. Regardless of all the possible critiques, she is still proud to represent her country. After all, isn’t that the essence of a diplomat?