Making Foreign Policy Less Foreign
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
PACO PEREZ: Welcome to Conversations with the United States. I’m Paco Perez from the Office of Public Affairs at the State Department. This program is very special because it is the first segment in Spanish. I’m joined today by our head of the Office of Public Affairs, Assistant Secretary Mike Hammer. Welcome, Mike.
MICHAEL HAMMER: Thank you very much.
PACO PEREZ: Today we will discuss all of the ways in which the State Department communicates with the rest of the world. On February 20th of this year, the Secretary of State, John Kerry, gave his first speech after having taken on his post before a national audience at the University of Virginia. During his speech he affirmed, more so than any previous time, that the decisions that we make to protect our borders not only make waves outward, but also influence currents here within the United States. American public participation in advancing the Department’s work within our country and abroad is one of the highest priorities for Secretary Kerry, and the Office of Public Affairs has the responsibility for carrying out that mission. Mr. Hammer, could you begin by explaining a little about your role as Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs?
MICHAEL HAMMER: Well sure, first of all, thank you very much Paco. It’s a pleasure to be here with you and to explain a bit to the American public and the rest of the world about what our department’s mission is around public affairs. Principally, our mission is to inform the public about the United States’ foreign policy, and we hope to do so quickly, efficiently and correctly, because it is very important that the American public understands what we, as the State Department, are doing around the world. We are advancing the United States’ interests. Economic interests, national security interests, clearly, as well as dealing with timely issues that affect our citizens, because as Secretary Kerry said during the speech that you mentioned that he gave at the University of Virginia, he sees foreign policy as something not so foreign. It affects our citizens. So it is very important that our citizens understand how policy, and how we are implementing each initiative, how it affects them in their daily lives.
PACO PEREZ: Yes, clearly it is very important. And can you explain a bit about what the benefits are to having a well-informed public?
MICHAEL HAMMER: Well, we are of the opinion, and President Obama above all, that we want to have a very transparent government. We want people to feel connected to the United States government. So, a public of students, young and older, that closely follow what is happening around the world and what our policies are, is something that strengthens us and empowers us to advance their interests. In fact, when the public travels abroad as tourists for example, it is as if they were ambassadors of the United States, because one way or another, they are representing our country. So it is important that they know what is going on in the world and what our mission is. That we can answer their questions. Today I believe we have received some questions from the public that we obviously would like to answer, so as to have that dialogue and know what the population’s interests are, because that’s why we are in government, to advance the public’s interests.
PACO PEREZ: Yes, yes, it’s true. And can you please explain a little bit about what the differences are between your interactions with the domestic public and an international public?
MICHAEL HAMMER: Well, Paco, as you may know, when we are speaking with the American public here in the country, the focus is obviously about how we are advancing U.S. interests, and how that affects them in their daily lives. When we are speaking with an international public, we do the same. Obviously, we are explaining U.S. policy. We are trying to see if we can influence their opinions so that they also respect the United States and support us. So, it is a slightly different dialogue, but in reality, we have to realize that today, wherever we are speaking in the world, that news or that speech is heard all over. So we have to always take into account the fact that it is difficult to communicate with just one public; rather, you’re always communicating with all of them. But the focus that we have here in the Department of Public Affairs with programs like this one is to see how we can connect even more with the people of the United States, who, perhaps daily don’t follow foreign issues very closely because they don’t see how they affect their daily lives. And, in fact, we believe that there is a strong connection between what happens abroad and people’s daily lives here.
PACO PEREZ: I am reminded of an article that Secretary Kerry wrote recently for the blog. He explained that today 60 million U.S. citizens are part of international diasporas. These communities are strong and vibrant here in the United States and many of their members are first or second generation here in the United States. What are the ways in which the State Department coordinates and collaborates with the diasporas in the United States, and particularly with the Latin American diaspora?
MICHAEL HAMMER: Well, as we know, the United States is a country of immigrants. And these diasporas are very important because they have connections with their countries of origin. And they can help in economic terms, in terms of how we want to advance democracy and U.S. values, the American values that we want to export. So when there are connections through diasporas, people can very efficiently communicate with those countries, and we know that the communities are large. I mean, the Dominican community, for example, or the Haitian community. In Miami, we have people coming from many different countries, obviously Latin American countries. The Mexican-American community. So, as the State Department what we want is to increase those connections, promote more business because there are many U.S. business people who, due to their links with family members in their countries of origin, perhaps want to invest. And so jobs are created not just there, in that other country, but also jobs for U.S. citizens. And it’s not just in Latin America. Obviously we do this with many other countries. I remember when Secretary Clinton was here, we gave a conference through our department for business people and the diaspora from Tunisia, because we wanted to support the democratic and economic efforts in Tunisia. So, each year we see how we can expand those links with the diasporas here in the United States. Secretary Kerry is really focusing on and emphasizing this issue, because we see how it is another way in which we can advance our interests, involving our citizens with their countries of origin.
PACO PEREZ: And in all of the trips that you have made around the world and also here in the United States, how do you see that people perceive the United States in general? And in the moments when you have wanted to change their perception of the U.S. a bit, how have you enacted that change?
MICHAEL HAMMER: No, that’s a good question. I believe that on the majority of my trips what I have seen is that when people speak of the U.S. abroad there is usually a very positive perception. Not necessarily about our policy—that’s not the most important. Rather, they see a tremendous country with a democracy where there is opportunity, where cultural issues are promoted, where there is sport, where there is tremendous economic energy. So, there is, in general, a good perception. Sometimes we don’t understand ourselves very well, and people don’t understand our policy on a certain issue. Perhaps in the Middle East, with Arabic countries, there is a certain friction. So, that’s what we have to explain. And, returning to your question, how we can change that perception, that’s part of our job, and it’s very important to inform people. We want the public, both abroad and here in the United States, to hear about our policies directly from us, from our spokespeople. We have press conferences daily. We want to inform the public. We don’t want them to hear things from other people, including our enemies, who perhaps would like to portray a negative image of the United States. We want people to realize what the United States is: a very prosperous country, that also has its problems, we recognize that, as President Obama has said and have other presidents and U.S. leaders, that is continuing to try to better itself. It’s a democracy that continues to grow and advance, but we are a country that I believe is admired by the majority of people around the world.
PACO PEREZ: I’m sure it is. And what is the greatest challenge that you have faced in communicating those methods in an effective way?
MICHAEL HAMMER: I think, Paco, that one of the difficulties that we face today is how quickly information moves. And there is so much information on the Internet, on Facebook and YouTube and blogs and social networks. How can we stay up to date with everything that is going on? Because there is so much information that is actually not true. That, really, confuses people a great deal. So we have to be clearing that up on a daily basis, ensuring that people know the true information, and that’s a huge responsibility for a government: to present the truth. And that’s what we have to do daily, but it is difficult because not everyone is paying attention to what the State Department says. So we have to promote connecting programs, so that people who are interested in what we are doing listen to us. I believe that if they hear our arguments, we’ll win the day, let’s say. But we have to realize that there are people abroad who are truly our enemies. They want to promote a very negative image of the United States and we have to fight those elements daily.
PACO PEREZ: Speaking of those programs, can you talk a bit more about the cultural exchanges that we have, especially with Latin America?
MICHAEL HAMMER: Well, I would say that although there is a lot of focus today on social networks, we want to be more virtual; we can’t lose sight of how important cultural and educational exchanges are. We want more students to come to the United States to study, and we want more U.S. citizens to travel to Latin America, for example. President Obama launched a very important program for the hemisphere in Chile, in which we want to promote 100,000 powerful exchanges. We want Latin American students to come to the United States and students to go to Latin American countries to study in the universities where we have links and connections. And the truth is that this is very important, because we see how exchanges between people create friendships and help to overcome misunderstandings, and that we can better promote diplomacy. When people understand one another there is less of a chance that a problem becomes a conflict. And that’s what we want to avoid. We want to avoid conflicts. And with respect to cultural programs, we believe that our music, our sports, our art are things that we would like to export, and are of great interest and can win us many friendships. So yes, in Latin America as well as in the rest of the world, we send out musical groups, musicians, perhaps groups from different areas of the United States that represent the great culture that exists as well as the variety, because we see that people abroad are very interested, and they want to hear jazz and they want to hear hip-hop. And they want to participate. So, that’s something that encourages a lot of energy and I thing that it also helps us advance diplomacy.
PACO PEREZ: Speaking of the energy in young communities, what is the role that communications technology and innovation has in the Department?
MICHAEL HAMMER: Well, I would say that it’s incredibly important. Secretary Clinton during her term pushed us that way. She wanted to ensure that our Public Affairs department was using all types of technology to communicate. And Secretary Kerry has started off with the same intention, including even with more energy. He himself uses Twitter, through the State Department’s Twitter account, with the initials JK, so sometimes you’ll see a tweet that he has sent. But it’s something that we recognize that in order to communicate… Especially with young audiences, that we have to use Twitter, we have to use Facebook, YouTube, Google Plus Hangouts, which Secretary Kerry did not so long ago. So, we have to go out and use the technology wherever there are audiences, because those conversations are going to happen with or without us, and we would prefer to be in the conversation. So, we see how technology can help us to expand our audiences and even reach out to obviously have exchanges with a great variety of people who perhaps had never had the opportunity to have an exchange with someone from the State Department.
PACO PEREZ: Speaking of Twitter, today we received some questions through Twitter. The department uses 10 languages on Twitter, and the questions today came from @USAenEspanol. We’ll start with the first one, which comes from Andres Sanchez from Barcelona, Spain. He asks, ‘Why is the United States not more active in Latin American countries on the issue of corruption? What’s the point of U.S. government agencies cooperating and recommending assistance to our countries, if that is then robbed?’
MICHAEL HAMMER: Well, Andres, thank you very much for that question from Barcelona. Clearly the issue of corruption is very important in Latin America and in the rest of the world. I travel frequently, and it is an issue that comes up in many countries in Africa, in places where I have been, in Central Asia… So, we obviously have programs dedicated to seeing how we can support government efforts against corruption by strengthening judicial systems, in order to ensure that there is a police agency that functions well… And these are issues in which investments are necessary. So, on behalf of the United States, in the last five years or so, we have spent more or less 5 billion dollars on programs that support the strengthening of institutions that fight corruption, that advance judicial systems, that increase people’s trust, that support human rights. So it’s an important emphasis in our foreign policy, and we obviously also speak frequently about the issue when the Secretary of State or any other of our officials sees that there is a problem with corruption issues, we handle that with those governments. So, I would say that yes, it’s extremely important. It is something that we take into account daily, because we know that any democracy, in order to be good and strong, must respond to the interests of its people and, obviously, corruption cannot be permitted.
PACO PEREZ: Of course. Another question that we have received comes from Ariel Jara. She asks, ‘What do the respective communication efforts consist of, and what objectives do you have for improving communication efforts through @DepartamentoDeEstado?’ She also wants to know if you have a global stance on communication.
MICHAEL HAMMER: OK. Good, Ariel, thanks very much for those questions. In fact that’s what we do here in the Department of Public Affairs. We examine how we can expand and improve our global communication. We are very proud of the work we have done in regards to what we talked about earlier—the use of technology, the use of Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Google Plus Hangout… We have to be using all of the platforms. We have even introduced a virtual platform through which we can hold press conferences from here with journalists from around the world, and we can have this sort of exchange. We also have conversations on Facebook. So we are constantly looking for how we can advance that type of communication. How we can expand it. And we have, in fact, six regional centers around the world that we use precisely for that reason. We have one in South Africa that covers the whole African continent. The Latin American office is based in Miami. We have a communications center in Miami. We have one in London, another in Brussels. Another in Tokyo and finally, completing our six groups, we have one in Dubai where our Arabic-speaking spokesperson is based. And as you mentioned earlier, we have Twitter accounts in ten languages, which are important for our ability to communicate with different audiences, not just in Spanish but also in French, Portuguese, Russian, Urdu, Chinese… There are Arabic languages, Farsi… They are important languages in which we recognize that in order to communicate with more people from those areas it is important to use those languages. Precisely for that we have been doing this today in Spanish, because we recognize that there is a very large Spanish-speaking community here in the United States and we want to be able to communicate with them. It also allows us to inform Latin American and Spanish audiences, as well as from other countries. So this is an issue that we deal with daily. We know that it is always changing. Where people get their information is dynamic. The press adapts itself to the new technologies, and we as government have to do the same. We are trying daily to se what more can be developed in order to have such global conversations, which we see as extremely important. We don’t want them to replace, and they never will replace, the work that all of our embassies do around the world. Our ambassadors use Twitter. They also use Facebook. They want to be available to the public and be able to explain our policies, but that’s what we want to do: promote a better understanding in order to avoid conflicts, to promote peace, and also economic issues, which is a big part of the State Department’s job, seeing how we can advance free trade, how we can promote better opportunities for our companies, for our citizens, create more jobs, how we can support them abroad with their passports, the issue of visas, encourage more tourism, for example, to the United States. We have to ensure that while we are protecting the country security-wise, we are also facilitating those people who would like to come to the United States to see our great country, to enjoy it, to invest and help us with our economy. So, it’s a very broad issue. We work on many issues, but what I would say, Paco, is that obviously from our point of view, and I think that citizens recognize this, is that the world is now very small. Everyone is connected. Global issues are local issues, and more and more we have to understand what is going on because at the end of the day it affects us here at home.
PACO PEREZ: Definitely. Are there other ways in which the public can stay informed about the State Department’s policies?
MICHAEL HAMMER: Well, I would say that through programs like this. Obviously, if they follow us on Twitter it would be good. If you go to 2009-2017.state.gov you can see the activities we have planned. We have a press conference daily, which we broadcast via live stream also. That happens around 12:30 or 1:00 in the afternoon. So there are many ways in which people can connect with us. They can also come and visit us. We have lots of programs through which students come to the State Department through one of our offices here in the Department of Public Affairs. So, we want people to come, to feel at home, to participate in our programs, and hopefully they will also consider careers in the State Department, which can be very interesting, especially if you like international politics.
PACO PEREZ: Unfortunately, Mr. Hammer, we have reached the end of this segment, and although we don’t want to, we have to finish up soon. I want to give you one last opportunity to share any final thoughts that you would like with the public.
MICHAEL HAMMER: Well, Paco, I would say that the work we do here at the State Department is something important in our citizens’ lives. And hopefully, through programs such as this one, they will see how important it is to follow what is happening abroad, what are our policies, know that we have a tremendous military capacity with our soldiers serving daily, but we also have diplomats who are advancing our interests with great courage also in very difficult places, working with our brothers and sisters in the military, and that together we are advancing the interests of our citizens. Economic interests, obviously interests in terms of defense and national security. But these are issues that we want to advance, and the more we hear from the public, the more it helps us to understand what your interests are and what you would like to see within the State Department. So hopefully this conversation will be the start of a longer conversation in which we can be in frequent contact through the social networks and through our programs, so that you can enjoy and be informed about the work that we are doing here at the State Department.
PACO PEREZ: Well now, as they say at the end of soccer games, there’s no more time. I would like to sincerely thank you for joining us today. I hope our audience has a better understanding about the communications strategies of the Department, and the importance of getting the support of the U.S. people to promote our goals. I want to thank each and every one of you for joining us today. We hope that Conversations with America will continue to inform citizens about this Administration’s efforts to face the challenges of the twenty-first century. We hope to connect with you all again very soon. Thank you.