Remarks on Public Diplomacy - Davis Welcome Dinner 2023


Remarks to the Kathryn Davis Fellowship Program

Council of American Ambassadors and PDCA

“Critical Challenges Facing U.S. Public Diplomacy in Today's Environment”

By Kristin M. Kane

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Global Public Affairs

September 12, 2023, 5:30 p.m.

DACOR-Bacon House, Washington, DC

Good evening, and thank you for the warm introduction, Ambassador Hughes.  Thank you also for all you do on the Council of American Ambassadors, and I would like to also recognize the Public Diplomacy Council of America.  I extend an especially warm greeting to the Kathryn W. Davis Fellows, especially the three new Fellows whom we are celebrating tonight.  I enjoyed learning more about Kathryn Davis in preparation for this evening: She was a formidable person, a diplomat and PD professional in her own right.

It is an honor to speak to you this evening, at the beautiful and historic DACOR-Bacon house, and a personal honor for me to speak on Public Diplomacy, a field I am getting back into after a handful of years out while doing political affairs, and Embassy leadership. 

I will also note that while I am passionate about “PD”; help lead a PD bureau, Global Public Affairs, charged with the Department’s communication to foreign and domestic publics; and have many years of PD experience in the field, I am mostly a senior officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, who has focused much of her career on PD, rather than the other way around. I will frame my remarks this evening in that vein.

Effective PD work starts with mastering global affairs. Where are we in the world today?  Over the course of my lifetime, U.S. standing on the global stage has changed.  Current challenges to our credibility coming from Russia, China, and even from the so-called Global South have certainly added more complexity to U.S. leadership, but our leadership role is arguably more important than ever. In fact, in many ways these challenges, when shared, have strengthened our partnerships.  U.S. public diplomacy has adapted to this dynamic global context and remains I would argue a strong model and partner for confronting old and new challenges.

I grew up during the Cold War, was nearing the end of school when the Berlin Wall came down, and got my graduate degree (right up the road at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service) at the turn of the millennium, just as the United States Information Agency was being folded into the State Department, and our budgets overall were decreasing -- because after all, we had “won” the Cold War, and this new era of globalization, this post-Cold War period, was going to be… different and a little scary but mostly positive for the United States.  We had problems – especially that of terrorism, as 9/11, Al Qaeda and then ISIS made very clear – but U.S. global leadership at that time seemed more or less unquestionable. 

Our leadership now, a quarter-century later, is undeniably much more complex. The current times seem uncertain.  I don’t envy those in academia who are trying to name this era – I don’t think we yet have a way of describing it.  And this uncertainty makes our public diplomacy, like all our diplomacy, more difficult.

We are of course adapting to the new world dynamic, especially through solidifying our partnerships and alliances, and taking a clear-eyed look at the top challengers to the values-based system of democratic global leadership we’ve built over the past 75+ years, especially challenges from the PRC and Russia.

(I would note that our democracy, like those of our partners and allies, is still a work in progress, and we note with a deepened understanding especially now that some of our population did not have full rights 75+ years ago, but a relatively strong democracy still we have been, for a long time.)

Challenges in the World Order

There is the extreme challenge from China – the only country in the world that economically, militarily, and diplomatically truly competes with us, with a very different vision of the world.  There is Russia and the atrocious war Putin has inflicted on Ukraine, a threat not only to Europe but with massively devastating consequences around the world, including threatening food supplies to Africa and the Middle East.  There is violent extremism, still a threat in too many places. 

There is the set of cross-border global challenges that affect not just the United States but so many countries – yet as is so often the case, needs the United States’ leadership in order to resolve them: illegal immigration, violent extremism, and the consequences of climate change.

All of that is not even to mention the crises in sub-Saharan Africa, the concerns of anti-democratic behavior by states in just about every region of the world, or the extreme poverty and all the health, education, and societal problem sets that go with it, that still weakens so many populations and nations and that we work with our G7 partners to alleviate. 

This is not an easy state of world affairs, especially when our leadership is both called for, but also challenged in new ways.

The New Paradigm:  Networks of Partnerships and Alliances

In the face of global challenges, our partnerships are evolving, and this network of partnerships and alliances may comprise the new world order, so to speak.  I urge you all to follow Secretary Antony Blinken’s speech tomorrow at John Hopkins’ Advanced School of International Studies on “The Power and Purpose of American Diplomacy in a New Era” which will tackle these very issues.  

Russia’s terrible war on Ukraine has underscored incredible unity across North America and Europe through NATO, and with many other partners around the world, to combat the aggression and refute all that Putin stands for – the autocratic rule, the suppression of journalists and opposition, the brutality, the thirst for conquest.

Just days ago, there was a G20 summit at which the African Union was invited to join, expanding that group in a historic move.  During that meeting, we helped launch a new railway project to expand trade between our partners India, Europe, and the Gulf. 

Overall, working with superb partners and alliances over these past few years – NATO especially but also Asia-Pacific partners, including the Quad, and emerging economies as well, like Brazil and South Africa – has made our position stronger, because it’s shared. 

We are not a member of all the world’s partnerships and alliances, to be sure.  Just a few weeks ago, I was in South Africa, as they were getting ready to host the BRICS summit, two members of which of course are the PRC and Russia.  The members chose to expand their partnership to Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Iran, and others.

This global network of alliances, seemingly comprising a new global order, seems stronger today than we have seen in a very long time.

Challenges for Public Diplomacy

In framing the top challenges to PD, I am going to skip over the challenge of living in an incredibly complex information space – so much has been said and written about this.  The data is compelling:  Whereas just a generation ago, we got our information from 1-2 news sources, often a hard copy newspaper and nightly TV news, now it’s 10+ sources, credible and not credible, in short bursts, and almost all digital.  There is no turning back, and almost all communication organizations, including of course U.S. government public diplomacy, has adjusted and continues to adjust, trying to stay with – or even get ahead of – the constant change of platforms and ways to message.

Spoiler alert:  I am not going to say Artificial Intelligence.  I am happy to share with this group that we are currently undergoing “AI for PD” project at the Department, looking at the opportunities that AI can bring to our PD work.  As our Under Secretary says, “It’s not a matter of AI replacing humans, but it’s a matter of humans using AI replacing humans who don’t use AI.”  We have to be on the cutting edge here.

However, AI efforts are widespread, throughout the Department and U.S. government.  We clearly have concerns about how certain nations and individuals are using AI.  But as I’m not an expert, and this is a subject far beyond PD, I will leave it there.

Let me instead put a few other challenges before you.

One: working in this age of misinformation and disinformation. In this digital era, false narratives spread like wildfire, threatening to distort the truth and undermine trust between nations.  As Ben Lingeman, one of this year’s Fellows, told me he had learned at USC this summer, “There is a primacy of first message.”  The first message is what holds.  Well, in a government bureaucracy like ours, we are not always known for our speediness.  Worse, our adversaries spreading disinformation don’t have rules they must abide by, certainly not the rule of truth, so their work is so much easier.  We must bolster our efforts to provide accurate information, while disentangling falsehoods, and cultivate transparency, ensuring that our bridge remains solid and reliable.  Most of you know the Global Engagement Center under our Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy is charged with countering mis and disinformation that affects the United States.  They are doing admirable work, and I’d encourage you all to look at their recent reports on kidnapped Ukrainian children, and the webs of Russian lies.  The point here is that our public diplomacy messaging efforts are of course thwarted by mis and disinformation.

Two: the threat to digital freedom and connectivity.  As the world becomes more interconnected through technology, there are sinister forces that seek to stifle open communication and suppress the free exchange of ideas.  We see this of course in autocracies like the PRC, Russia, and Iran.  As we champion a free and open Internet and enable global dialogues, the fundamental rights of individuals to have digital access and use it are deeply threatened – which is a large reason why so many Russian citizens support Putin’s war.  As Ukrainian President Zelenskyy has said, there are two wars going on there – the military one, and the information one.  

I’ll also add that we also occasionally limit ourselves.  As you know, U.S. government officials cannot be on TikTok as part of their official capacity.  So while my bureau, GPA, runs social media accounts – Twitter (now called “X”), Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and more – we can’t be on TikTok, the biggest platform, by far, in reaching young people across the world.  How do we communicate with these youth?  They are not on Facebook, that’s for sure.  We go back to partnerships – in this case, influencers who are on TikTok.

Three, and finally: resources.  I know that this often comes up in PD articles and reports but it is true:  We cannot compete where we are not.  We are, I am heartened to see, getting out behind the walls of our Embassies, but it’s still not enough when our PD practitioners are double or triple hatted, performing other Embassy duties.  Our PD officers and their staffs at our Embassies often have small teams and limited funding – we know the Chinese outnumber us, and sometimes the Iranians do, too. 

While our budget is about $2 billion/year - -including the U.S. Agency for Global Media -- that of China is at least from what we can tell, $10 billion.

We have wonderful exchange programs – Fulbright, International Visitor, Youth Exchange and Study -- but it’s not enough. We have American Spaces for programming as much as resources, but that is not enough.  We have the best universities in the world and are finally giving small scholarships to help impoverished foreign citizens get to them, but that also is not enough.  Many people have said, “the answer to PD is tripling the Fulbright program, increasing English language programs 10 fold, or re-opening what used to be American Cultural Centers around the world.”  Yes, yes, and yes.  Realistically, I don’t see it happening.  Congress sets targets, and we push and ask for more each and every time, but until those general targets change – until there is a larger appreciation of what we are doing to force the change, we are where we are.  In addition to our efforts on the Hill and through American voices (like you!) who advocate on the Hill, we will continue using partner resources including those tied to our own government, like Peace Corps Volunteers and Voice of America that is the only source of news, along with BBC, in two-thirds of the world’s land.

Why U.S. Public Diplomacy Is Strong

I would like to finish these remarks by highlighting some of the positives.  I would advance that the state of U.S. public diplomacy is strong.  Of course I’m part of the PD leadership team at the State Department, but that’s not where I take my assessment from.  I say this because we interact with other countries’ PD diplomats at institutions like USC’s Public Diplomacy Institute – where we have up to 10 PD FSOs a year, including the Kathryn Davis Fellows here.  Because we exchange PD ideas not only with our NATO partners on messaging in an annual conference but also in other multilateral institutions.  Because we are a model, including for some of our most sophisticated partners -- soon the Under Secretary and our bureau will sit down with the United Kingdom’s head of “campaigns” so they can learn from us.  Also, this:

We have a confirmed Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy for the first time in five years.  Liz Allen was confirmed and sworn in this past June but has been in the role for over a year before that, and leading my bureau, Global Public Affairs, before that. 

Our Secretary of State, who is a champion of people-to-people exchanges, gives strong attention to PD.  Our Under Secretary, our Assistant Secretaries, they are at the Secretary’s table, literally – at his meetings, helping make decisions.

I suspect most if not all of you read, with a lot of nodding, the Bob Gates piece this past April on “Re-learning how to tell our story to the world.”  Gates called for Department and the U.S. government to have clear, designated leader for PD, and we have one, who is advocating for more resources; steering officers in the field on practicing diplomacy with publics in line to advance our foreign policy; and supporting the backbone of our PD operations, our locally-employed staff. 

We have a Department-wide PD strategy to guide our efforts -- this seems perhaps obvious, but we didn’t have it so very long ago.

We are trying to build a less risk-adverse culture among our PD practitioners: of course, we must consider safety and security, and of course, we can’t go out speaking to the press on topline issues unless we’ve prepared and coordinated.  But there is encouragement from the mothership in Washington to “get caught trying,” and I would urge the Fellows here tonight to do that:  Take some chances, be creative.  Great ideas are very welcome – and can be awarded with resources.

We have good communications with the NSC “StratComm” and Press teams, with regular coordination calls and often Inter-agency Policy Committees, or IPCs.  We also have good communication with the Pentagon.  I’m not saying any of this is perfect, or that mistakes are not made.  But much more often than not, with a policy issue that demands our PD attention, we are talking in a coordinated way about how best to do it and then sharing guidance to the field so our posts can tailor, employ their language and cultural skills, and apply PD programs and messages to it.  Since I believe our PD diplomats have the best professional language skills in the world, I would note that in my bureau, we have official spokespeople in Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, Russian, and Arabic in addition to the “easy” languages, French and Portuguese.

We have in-depth, well-staffed audience and message research and analysis units – within PD. These are data scientists who not only do the research, in complementarity with our colleagues at State’s own Intelligence and Research bureau, but who analyze the right audiences to reach, the methods by which to reach them (radio, Twitter, through influencers or in-person events and conversations), and the best language to use.  We found that telling intending immigrants from central America that the overland route to the United States was actually counter-productive; more wanted to come.  We found that telling African audiences that Putin is a bad partner is counter-productive unless we can share with them how he’s hurting their economies, and provide solutions to them to help keep their nations safe.  Research & analytics on PD is work that wasn’t very developed some years ago; now we’re in overdrive. 

Finally, we continue to have strong bi-partisan support, and thank you for your bi-partisan efforts on PD, exemplified here tonight.  This is perhaps especially true for our exchange programs but also for PD writ large. 

Again, there is certainly more work to do, but I would say in my quarter century of representing the nation abroad, we are in a pretty good state, trying to make improvements within our possibilities every day.

To conclude, I offer a few words to our new Fellows: Seize the opportunities in Washington to go back out into the field and make real impact.  Don’t forget that despite all of our challenges as a nation – and we can feel in the thick of them in Washington, DC – we are still to so many people, the beacon of hope.  It may sound trite, but this is still, I firmly believe, the country that provides more opportunity than any other nation.  Ultimately opportunity and freedom are what most people are searching for.  That in itself offers us the best public diplomacy opportunity of all.  Thank you very much.