Conversations With America: Making Foreign Policy Less Foreign

Michael A. Hammer
   Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Cheryl Benton
   Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Washington, DC

The video is available with closed captioning on YouTube.

MS. BENTON: Hello. I’m Cheryl Benton, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Public Affairs, and I’d like to welcome you to Conversations with America. Today, I’m pleased to be joined by Assistant Secretary Mike Hammer, leader of the Department of State’s Bureau of Public Affairs, and he’s here to discuss the Department’s communications efforts. And just an added note, he’s also my boss. We’ve received questions and comments on today’s topics from around the world through our blog DipNote and on Twitter, and we have selected several for this broadcast.

When Secretary of State John Kerry was sworn into office this year, he delivered his first speech to a domestic audience at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. During his address, he stated, “There is no longer anything foreign about foreign policy. More than ever before, the decisions that we make from the safety of our shores don’t just ripple outward. They also create a current right here in America.” Engaging the American public to advance the Department’s work at home and abroad is a top priority for the Secretary, and the Department’s Bureau of Public Affairs is charged with accomplishing that mission.

I’d like to turn to Mike now and ask him if he could start us off by just talking a little bit about your role as Assistant Secretary and what exactly that entails.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HAMMER: Well, thank you very much, Cheryl. It’s a pleasure to be with you this afternoon and to have an opportunity to have a good discussion on the work that we do here in Public Affairs.

First and foremost, people need to sort of understand our mission, which is to communicate timely and accurate information to the American people in the world about America’s foreign policy. And so my job and our job together here, not only with the Bureau but also starting from the Secretary on down, is to engage and to have opportunities to explain what it is that we’re doing internationally, why it matters to them.

As you pointed out, Secretary Kerry, in his first big address, went to UVA to tell the American people and remind them that, in fact, what we do in terms of the State Department and our work to promote foreign policy affects them back home, whether we’re trying to push for the creation of more jobs and open business opportunities for our American businesses overseas, whether we’re serving American citizens who travel, whether we are looking to make treaties that maybe improve the environment around the world or reduce weapons of mass destruction.

We are interested in creating a more peaceful and stable world, and the United States is a world leader. And what we do in Public Affairs is make sure everybody hears about it, also to hear from them. It’s great to be able to travel the country and talk to our youth and other citizens who want to be engaged and want to know how they too can contribute to advancing our interests around the world, because many people are engaged and want to see, in fact, that we succeed as a nation. And our primary goal is to advance America’s interests and values.

MS. BENTON: Exactly. So why is it so important to engage the public on the Department’s efforts? And I guess as a follow-up to that, what are just some of the benefits?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HAMMER: Well, it’s important because the American people deserve to know what it is that we’re doing. The taxpayers deserve to know that we’re spending their money wisely as we look to promote America’s interests abroad. And we also feel that we have a very good story to tell, quite frankly, that doesn’t always get heard in terms of the work that we do, because the Department’s work is so diverse. I mean, we promote exchanges, students that come to the United States, tourism – we promote tourism, businesses, as I mentioned before. So there’s a lot in it that people just don’t really recognize.

But when you get outside of Washington and you go and have these conversations with America out in America, people are really interested. They want to know more. And in fact, many are interested in coming to serve at the Department of State because they see that our mission is one that they can relate to. And so as Secretary Kerry said, foreign policy is no longer foreign. If we do our job well – and that’s really critical – then it’ll perhaps prevent deployment of our troops overseas or even spending more money to bail out some foreign nation.

So it’s important that people know every day what it is that we’re doing here to keep America safe and to advance our economic and other interests.

MS. BENTON: So part of what you do is bridge that gap as it relates to that.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HAMMER: Well, yeah, absolutely. And frankly, what we see on the news oftentimes is what’s – where there’s conflict or there’s crisis and, rightfully so, we need to be explaining what we’re trying to do to end the slaughter in Syria and to advance peace in the Middle East, or what are we going to do about the concerns in North Korea, or what’s happening with health issues and development in Africa, or our trade relationships within our own hemisphere, or expanding trade with Europe.

We are involved all around the globe, and people tend to be interested, and we need to be out there talking about it, and that’s what we do in the Bureau of Public Affairs. We try to make linkages through sometimes – whether it’s programs like this, or virtually getting people connected to hear what we have to say, or bringing in groups into the State Department, but also going to different towns around the country to make our case to why foreign policy matters to them.

MS. BENTON: All right. Good. So what are some of the – better question: Are there key differences in how we engage the domestic community versus the international community?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HAMMER: Well, that’s a good question, because clearly they are different audiences. We, as we’re talking to Americans, need to make sure that we connect with them in a way that they understand that the work that we’re doing advances their interest. When we’re speaking to a foreign audience, frankly, they may not see what we’re doing as in their interest, and in fact, what we believe is that actually the kind of policies that we promote, the kinds of values that we promote, are in international interest, ultimately are in the interest of these foreign communities, but we need to explain that.

And frankly, oftentimes people may not agree with our policies, either here domestically or abroad, but we need to explain them and, as President Obama has asked, that we need to be transparent about what it is that we’re doing. So we think our core mission is really quite important.

MS. BENTON: Very good. So during your travels, both domestically and around the world, how do people generally perceive U.S. foreign policy? And in cases where you’d like to reshape public opinion, how is that handled?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HAMMER: Well, it’s difficult. And to generalize, you find that folks are interested in what America has to say. Everybody has an opinion and, as I said earlier, not everybody agrees with us. What we want to make sure is that it is we, the U.S. Government, who is out there explaining our policies and not that people get their information through foreign filters or whatever the broadcast might be. You may have the Chinese news agency, Xinhua, or communicated through Al Jazeera, or the Russian news agency, ITAR-TASS, and they may be getting their information that way. But if we’re not out there as spokespeople, explaining our policies, they may be misunderstood. Again, we don’t expect everybody to agree with us. And in fact, we have six regional hubs that the Bureau of Public Affairs has internationally to communicate to those audiences in language so that they can understand what our policies are. So we amplify what the President says, what Secretary Kerry says, and we are very much out there. We need to be out there to shape the public opinion.

But as you alluded to, it’s sometimes difficult to change public opinion. One thing that I would say is that, even though it’s not run out of the Bureau of Public Affairs, exchanges and having people come to the United States is an excellent way for foreign audiences and people to understand what America is all about. There’s no better way to showcase to the world how fantastic and wonderful our country is than for people to come and experience it first-hand. And that’s really important. And also, when our students and youth and others go overseas, they take America with them, and how they represent themselves and how they talk about America makes an impression.

So in a way, we all can be goodwill ambassadors. And again, you don’t always have to agree with every policy that comes out of the White House or the State Department. We’re an open democracy; we can debate these things. But overall, I think there’s a real sense around the world the United States is seeking to lead and lead in a direction that is good for everyone.

MS. BENTON: Right. And you tie that bow, when you educate America and you engage them so that they understand exactly what we’re doing in the international communities. How does innovation play into the Department’s communication strategy?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HAMMER: Well, thanks for asking. As you well know, Secretary Clinton, during her tenure, really pushed 21st century statecraft and innovation, challenging us to use digital platforms and be out there, speaking to new and broader audiences – oftentimes younger audiences. And Secretary Kerry, coming in and starting in his tenure, has doubled down. He is very enthusiastic about digital diplomacy. He has his own JK tweets, which he uses also to communicate things that he’s engaged in, working on, things of interest.

And so we feel that it’s critically important that, again, we use every platform to connect with people. If they’re not getting their news through conventional and traditional media, then we want to be using social media and other opportunities to project and explain our policies.

MS. BENTON: Very good. So what is the biggest challenge that you personally face while trying to effectively communicate the Department’s priorities to the public?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HAMMER: Well, I think the challenge is people are busy. There’s a lot of information out there. There’s a lot of news. And so how can you get people to focus or pay attention to what we’re saying, and how to communicate in a way that they understand? There’s no magic formula. We try to do our best, doing programs like these and engaging as much as we can, sending people out to talk to communities, universities, and different interest groups that follow foreign policy – World Affairs Councils, for example. That’s a way to be making our case and to be talking about it.

But whether at the end of the day, people will want to tune in, well, that’s the challenge that we face in a world where everybody is busy and looking at so many other issues going on in their lives.

MS. BENTON: Yeah. Exactly. So I wanted to go to our questions --


MS. BENTON: -- that we’ve received from DipNote, from our blog, and also from Twitter. Our first set of questions comes from DipNote, and from Reza (ph), in Maryland. And she asks: What is the U.S. Department of State doing to engage young people in the United States and abroad to cultivate a positive impression of the United States?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HAMMER: Well, thank you, Reza (ph), for that question, here in Maryland where I live. Well, we do try to engage youth. We have a youth envoy that goes around the world talking about what we do and our engagement with youth. This is something that we’ve put a high priority on. Again, Secretary Clinton put a high focus on it; Secretary Kerry has continued that focus. It’s something that we recognize is just really important, because the youth of today are tomorrow’s future leaders. They’re going to shape our world. And we need to identify those folks and be communicating with them, explaining U.S. policy, both at home and abroad.

And so it is definitely a priority, and part of the use of social media is to connect with people. People that are younger tend to be on Facebook and YouTube and Twitter and Google+ hangout. In fact, tomorrow, Secretary Kerry is going to do a Google+ hangout. How cool is that?

MS. BENTON: Great. Great stuff.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HAMMER: So we’re using every tool. The Secretary is keen on using these tools to communicate with the youth, because they’re getting their information from all these sources, and we have to be in the spaces where the conversations are taking place.

MS. BENTON: That’s exactly right. Another question over our blog. This is from Liz (ph) in Washington, D.C. And she asks: Building buy-in for foreign policy spending during what some call a budget crisis is very difficult. There are false claims that America spends 20 percent or more on foreign aid, for example, when in reality the U.S. spends less than one-half of 1 percent. So her question is: How do you work to dispel myths about the real cost of and the real impact of foreign spending?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HAMMER: Well, Liz, we really appreciate the question here from the District, and you clearly are well informed. Because most of the American people do have a misperception that our size of the budget is much larger than it is, when it’s around 1 percent of the federal budget, as you pointed out. And it is our firm belief that, actually, spending that 1 percent on diplomacy and development, and if we do our diplomacy and development well, we will save over time a lot in terms of cost of blood and treasure if we don’t have to deploy our troops.

And so making that case when I’ve traveled around the country, people are receptive to it. They inherently get it. But it’s hard to quantify. If we’ve avoided a conflict or a war through our diplomacy, or we’ve, through development, avoided a famine, or a health crisis, you can’t tell what it was that you prevented. So we need to be talking about it.

But we also need to be constantly reforming. And so we need to be having the best approach possible. Our diplomacy is not just about government-to-government contacts. We need to be engaging overseas with, as we’ve mentioned, youth, NGOs, making sure to promote the rights of women and girls, making sure we’re involved with the business community, that we’re talking to all important sectors of a society.

MS. BENTON: Right. And I think just dealing people to people is really going to get us the most traction, or a lot of traction.

So Eric (ph) in New Mexico asks: Well, we generally think of foreign policy as being outside our national borders when in fact all policy is local and thus one has to properly define the notion of foreign when trying to engage in common human understanding on the policy level. So my question to Mr. Hammer is: How do you put policy into plain-speak rather than diplo-speak? (Laughter.) That’s a new word.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HAMMER: Good, Eric (ph), coming from the land of enchantment. (Laughter.) Of course, it is important that we talk in ways that people understand us. And that’s hard because we get caught up in our world, in our foreign policy world. There are all these technical terms and treaty terms and acronyms. But you just need to, as you say, have simple speak and when you go out and talk to folks, make sure you’re understood. And if not, also tell them, “Hey, if you don’t get what I’m saying, ask me, stop me, interrupt me. I want to be clear.” But it is important that the people understand what it is that we do.

And I think the terms – we’ve become smarter about it – people can understand if we’re doing, for example, jobs diplomacy. They get, “Hey, the State Department is working to try to create jobs for America, promoting American business interests overseas.” If you talk about how we do digital engagement, people get it – oh, they’re out there on the internet and trying to finds to communicate.

So how we speak does matter, communicating effectively requires us to use language that is easily understood, and so we do think about it. And we do, through our blog and through our other tweets and so forth, try to package information in a way that’s attractive, that people will be interested in. And I hope you go, for example, onto our website and follow Flickr. Pictures are worth a thousand words, right? So to see Secretary Kerry or some of our other teams and people involved in promoting American interests, you can see them and visualize what they’re doing. That’s also a fun way. And that’s – you don’t have to use many words to do that.

MS. BENTON: Exactly. Good. We have another question from Howard (ph) in Georgia: What is the State Department doing to assure young Muslims already in the United States and those about to arrive that are made to feel welcome and that their assimilation into the American culture is facilitated?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HAMMER: Well, Howard, I appreciate that question; it’s very topical, particularly in today’s environment. But I think that Muslims around the world just need to see and experience what America’s all about. We’re a welcoming society. We’re a tolerant society. We believe in freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and, in fact, the grand majority of everybody who comes to America, regardless of religion, are welcomed and are able to enjoy our democracy much in the same way as everybody else.

And so it’s important to make sure that we really make it clear what the reality is and to do away with the misperception. So as you mentioned before, the people-to-people contacts are important. But I remember serving abroad and running into a young Muslim who came to the United States and he feared – he was told, oh, don’t go visit; it’s really dangerous and you’re not going to be treated well. He came and he had a wonderful time and he was gushing about it. And that’s the experience, overwhelmingly, that Muslims or any other religious group or ethnic group coming to America is going to experience.

We have a wonderful country, and as long as we make sure that in issuing our visas we do it in way to ensure our security, which is a responsibility of the Department of State, that those people come, have a great time, talk to our families, our friends, our people, and then go back home. And then they can relate the positive experience that they’ve had.

MS. BENTON: Right. Exactly. So Sydney (ph) in Michigan has sent us in a question. And Sydney’s asked: Why can’t we develop public-private partnerships with collaborators in less-developed countries? An investment with a return on investment could be favorable to the governments, nonprofits, as well as for-profit business that yield tax revenue. A fair profit can expand a means to expand – can provide a means to expand. Sorry.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HAMMER: Absolutely. That’s a good question coming from Michigan. It’s, indeed, part of the work that we do at the State Department. We do try to promote global partnerships, private-public, because you can leverage private investment and their contacts and their resources to get more return for the money. And so we are keen on it.

And in fact, in the way that we do development, we’re always looking to see how we can do better, and we want, as Secretary Clinton used to say and Secretary Kerry has said, we want to work ourselves out of the development business. We want people to become self-sufficient and to be able to develop their economies on their own. And a way to do that is by involving more the private sector, by making sure that they have developed the skills necessary to grow their economies so that they can do the things themselves.

Just today, I know Secretary Kerry had an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune talking about Food for Peace Program and how we need to reform it. So we’re constantly thinking of ways that we can do better, make the best use of American taxpayers’ money, and to help others help themselves.

MS. BENTON: Exactly. Good. We now are going to turn to our Twitter and get a question in from @StatelessDiplomat (ph), who asks: The State Department educates as well as engages with citizens. Which is more important, transparency or engagement or communication and education?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HAMMER: Well, thanks for that. No, I mean, I don’t know how you can choose between either/or, as all those issues are critically important. We need to be transparent. We need to be promoting education. All of the factors that you raised are things that, in fact, we do at the State Department. A better educated public at home and abroad creates greater understanding for the different cultures and communities and histories so people can better get along.

And so I would say we’re not picking between one set of important priorities and another. We’re doing them all, and in a way that we think is a coherent way to be explaining our policies and making sure that we’re engaging with folks.

MS. BENTON: Exactly. So I wanted to ask you if you would – wanted to give us closing comments, because it’s getting to be time where we are getting to the end of the program. And of course it’s – one thing I don’t like is ending this program, especially when we have a terrific guest like you. And I would like to know if you’d give us some closing comments, Mike.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY HAMMER: Well, Cheryl, I would only say that it’s so important that people understand and take an interest in our foreign policy, because ultimately it does affect them at home. How we promote America’s interest is something that everybody should be thinking about, that perhaps they don’t always think about. But when they go overseas, they’re representing America and they’re leaving a piece of America with the people that they’re interacting with.

So we think we have an important mission here with the Bureau of Public Affairs serving America. We want you to be a part of that effort. We want to also be accessible to you. So it’s whether you tune into programs like these with Conversations with America, or if you follow us on Twitter or look at our blog, I think it’s important that we be hearing from you, that we have this ongoing conversation and that we do everything that we can, again, to educate ourselves and to think of ways that we can continue to advance the goals and interests of our great country.

So thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure being here with you, Cheryl, and spending some time talking about these issues, which I hope will resonate with our audience. And I hope that it’ll also attract tomorrow’s youth to at some point consider the Civil Service, the Foreign Service, working here at the State Department or our embassies abroad, or just in government or serving their own communities. It’s what we’re all about. It’s public service.

MS. BENTON: Great. Well, thank you so very much, Mike. You know Mike joins us here today and he’s a career Foreign Service officer. And we just really appreciate your insight and your knowledge about what is going on around the world in communications and getting our foreign policy priorities out there.

And I’d also like to thank our viewers for joining today and also those who have sent in questions over DipNote and Twitter. And we hope that you have gained an understanding of the Department’s communication strategies and the importance of gaining the support of the American people to further its objectives.

I’d like to thank each of you for joining us today. And we hope that Conversations with America will continue to inform citizens about the Administration’s efforts to address the challenges of the 21st century. We look forward to engaging with you again soon.