Can’t they just say what they mean? Can you? Language, after all, is not just about points and meanings. It is a medium of communication, yes, but also of avoidance, misdirection, self-protection and plain confusion…
The soldier and the lawyer may both love this country with equal passion, and yet reach very different conclusions on the specific steps needed to protect us from harm. The gay activist and the evangelical pastor may both deplore the ravages of HIV/AIDS, but find themselves unable to bridge the cultural divide that might unite their efforts. Those who speak out against stem-cell research may be rooted in an admirable conviction about the sacredness of life, but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son’s or daughter’s hardships might be relieved. The question then is, “How do we work through these conflicts?”
The eight Foreign Service Officer panelists, Figure Skating Champion and Public Diplomacy Envoy Michelle Kwan and Ambassador Thomas Shannon (keynoter) projected a recurrent theme at today’s “The Last Three Feet” forum: America’s public diplomacy must begin with the priorities and interests of its audience.
It was not always so. During the Cold War, public diplomacy officers (myself included) spoke of targeting audiences, projecting the policy (sometimes referred to as “freight’) and getting out the message.
A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum. Actually, several things:
the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of new regional powers
the fragmentation of news and entertainment media
the World Wide Web, and now the rise of social media
No one is working the way we old-fashioned propagandists used to work.
Ambassador Shannon stated that PD “is not just a public relations campaign …. But a campaign to connect different publics” on the issues that are shared. Elizabeth McKay explained that, faced with Pew favorability ratings of 9 percent, the embassy “stepped back six feet” and reflected before concluding that programs “had to meet Turkish needs and priorities.” Subsequent speakers voiced variations on the theme – with pretty much everyone playing with the “three feet” metaphor (corny? Yes!).
The new idea is not to ignore U.S. policy interests. It is to recognize that no nation, not even the USA, can dictate the topic of discussion; “target audiences” around the world are no longer listening automatically to the policy message of the day. In a remarkable variety of countries and programs, the answer has been to find new ways to connect local needs (for training, career advancement, knowledge) with American interests.
It has always seemed to me the real art in this business is not so much moving information or guidance or policy five or 10,000 miles. That is an electronic problem. The real art is to move it the last three feet in face to face conversation.
Consider the Arab Spring and its origins: The usual suspects — radical Islam, foreign intervention, and anti-Americanism — were not involved. Rather the uprisings emerged from local, domestic politics. We have been here before: The velvet collapse of the USSR in 1991 came as just as big a surprise as the Arab Spring — and for exactly the same reason. The two episodes seem far apart in culture, space, and time, yet they spring from the same causes: First, an abused and exploited people is systematically denied the ability to compare the way they live to the lives of others. Second, this people gains access to comparative information about how others with similar histories (or fewer advantages such as natural resources) live their lives. And, third, they are outraged by the comparison.
One difference between now and 1991 is how much more “real-time” the world is. The same technology that enables comparisons (today’s mobile phones are actually handheld computers) makes it impossible for governments to isolate protesters, or murder them privately.
And the Caux Forum? What is your assessment of what has been achieved and what should come next?
The Forum has done excellent work. It is approaching a profound analysis of the diversity and complex dimensions of human insecurity. The establishment of the five categories of human security issues is an important accomplishment. We see them clearly in the five pillars around which this year’s forum is organized: Healing Memory, thus overcoming the mistrust created by the wounds of history, Just Governance, to work for integrity, transparency and justice worldwide; Living Sustainably, which calls us to move towards greener economies and lifestyles; Inclusive Economics, to create a global economy that benefits everyone, and Intercultural Dialogue, that works for peace and physical security. We also see, powerfully, the need to work on them jointly, both as the different issues, and the different communities which tend to give priority to one or another. That joint intellectual and practical effort is above all what has been missing.
Why did you see Caux as the place where this dialogue should take place? How did you come to know Caux and Initiatives of Change?[Note: Initiatives of Change after World War II acquired the large Beaux-Arts Hotel in Caux, a village perched high above Lake Geneva.]
Caux is a place where interreligious dialogue is well and deeply established. I had heard about Caux from friends over many years, Algerians and others. I had also heard about Moral Rearmament (as the organization used to be called, before it became Initiatives of Change). Caux was a place, I had heard, where Muslims, Christians, Jews, and people of other religions could come together and negotiate, a safe place where people could build trust in one another. It has played a useful role in many settings, and I hope with this Human Security forum that we can continue the tradition.
But still more, organizing this Human Security Forum here, and now, gives us a chance and offers a way to make people understand what we really mean by human security. So often the understanding of security has been purely focused on physical security – that is what comes to mind. That is especially true for your people [Americans], and perhaps most of all the US military. But human security includes far more. It is about the very fundamentals of our existence. So first we must press to understand: what are the root causes? That is where the five categories on which the Forum has focused have emerged.
I place a special emphasis on healing wounded memories, because that is something that has played such an important role in conflicts in many places: Algeria and Northern Ireland for example. The feelings there, the product of long conflicts and pain and violence, run so deep that a special effort is called for to heal. That is also true in the Balkans, Japan, Korea, Africa, and many other places. We need more ideas on what we should do to heal.