Minutes of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy March 2006 Official Meeting

Remarks
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
March 16, 2006


 

Participants
Chairman Barbara M. Barrett
Commissioner Harold C. Pachios
Commissioner Maria Sophia Aguirre
Commissioner Jay T. Snyder
Commissioner Charles Evers
Commissioner Elizabeth Bagley
Athena Katsoulos, Executive Director
Leyla Strotkamp, Graduate Fellow

Background: The Commissioners invited Mr. Stephen Johnson, Senior Policy Analyst at the Heritage Foundation, to provide a review of U.S.-Latin American relations in the context of public diplomacy needs in the region. Mr. Johnson’s remarks were followed by a question and answer session with the Commissioners.

Chairman Barrett welcomed Mr. Johnson to the public session of the meeting, expressing the Commission’s view that Latin America is a key strategic interest for U.S. public diplomacy. She asked Mr. Johnson to speak on the subject of how to read progress on this front in this important region.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Johnson thanked the Commissioners for the opportunity to speak to them, and commended them on turning their attention to Latin America. He reviewed the history of the U.S.-Latin American relationship, which has waxed and waned repeatedly as a foreign policy priority. While it was at the top of the agenda as recently as the early 1990s, the fall of the Soviet Union and conflicts with the Middle East, respectively, have caused it to slip out of focus.

With respect to evaluating public diplomacy efforts in Latin America, Mr. Johnson acknowledged that perceptions are hard to gauge, but said that public opinion polls provide a piece of the picture. He mentioned Latino Barometro and a Chilean polling service that offer solid regional data. However, the countries of Latin America have distinctive political and social conditions that make it difficult to generalize, especially with regard to foreign policy issues. For example, on Iraq, Mexico, Brazil, and Chile came out against the war while, El Salvador was part of the "coalition of the willing" and sent troops to Iraq. On the other hand, the rhetoric of anti-Americanism is widely employed by politicians such as Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales and seems to have broad appeal.

Chairman Barrett asked Mr. Johnson which countries might be receptive to the U.S. message on the subject of democracy and free markets. Mr. Johnson replied that even though a number of countries are turning to socialist leaders, they are embracing democracy as a governing principle. This contrasts with a long history of personality cult politics. While populists still have appeal, as evidenced by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, there is the beginning of a movement away from that model. Mr. Johnson noted that public diplomacy efforts could help foster the idea of individual enterprise and merit as a means to empowerment.

Commissioner Aguirre asked Mr. Johnson how public diplomacy might play a role in Bolivia. Mr. Johnson responded that while the U.S. can’t expect to "flip the coin" politically, Morales would be receptive to some of our values. In particular, Mr. Johnson argued, a federalist political system would help to manage indigenous peoples’ rights and local economies—both of great concern to Morales and his constituencies.

Chairman Barrett and Commissioner Pachios turned the discussion to the subject of humanitarian aid as public diplomacy. Both wondered whether it would be worthwhile to increase this activity in Latin America. Chairman Barrett noted that Cuba gains regional goodwill with its practice of sending doctors and medical care units abroad. Mr. Johnson responded that the U.S. couldn’t operate similar ad hoc initiatives because its aid programs require long-term planning and Congressional approval. Notwithstanding this problem, the U.S. is missing opportunities to demonstrate where our interests ally with those in the region. Mr. Johnson mentioned that U.S. counter-drug policy in Colombia creates a single-issue diplomacy where it would be useful to frame the issue in terms of mutual interests.

Commissioner Pachios offered the example of the Peace Corps as a humanitarian program that the U.S. was able to formulate and activate quickly, with excellent results. He asked why the Peace Corps is not being discussed in the political discourse as a tool of public diplomacy. Commissioner Pachios proposed that an effective bureaucrat could use the Peace Corps to relaunch an idealistic connection with Latin America and be a more flexible presence for the U.S. on the ground.

Mr. Johnson agreed that the interpersonal contact that happens in the Peace Corps program can effect a deeper perceptual change than mass media public diplomacy. He attributed the downsizing of the Peace Corps to the end of the Cold War. As to the issue of bureaucratic efficiency, he suggested that the Commission could investigate ways to improve coordination at the executive level, noting that this is where cooperation can really inform policy and expedite it to action. He also noted that coordination is more difficult today than at the time the Peace Corps was created because of the expansion of the Federal Government.

Commissioner Aguirre asked whether, in fact, Latin American countries are more of a "mass" audience now, given the standardization of education and increasing economic development. She suggested that radio and television programming perhaps are becoming a more important opportunity for public diplomacy than in the past. Commissioner Aguirre and Commissioner Snyder discussed two options for U.S. strategy: strengthening Voice of America programming and/or creating a pan-Latin American, language-service oriented channel.

Mr. Johnson affirmed that Latin America is seeing some region-wide broadcasting efforts such as Chavez’ channel TELESUR. He agreed that mass communication needs to be a significant component of the public diplomacy effort in the region. He emphasized that programming, whether on Voice of America or some other outlet, needs to use more "slice-of-American-life" content. He noted the decision to broadcast American public radio shows such as Car Talk and Fresh Air on Voice of America.

Responding to Chairman Barrett’s question of what should be the top priorities of public diplomacy in Latin America, Mr. Johnson said that it remains important for the Under Secretary of Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy to coordinate efforts across the many government agencies whose programming contributes to public diplomacy, in order to multiply their effects. Secondly, the U.S. needs to recognize opportunities for public diplomacy and seize them. The U.S. benefits from being ready to work with a country when it proposes a project that can reap public diplomacy dividends, such as bicultural centers, scholarships, or youth programs. Finally, the U.S. should continue to be on the lookout for constituencies in the region who can support our values, such as indigenous groups or the Latin American journalist corps.

Chairman Barrett thanked Mr. Johnson for his insights and adjourned the public session.