In my previous assignment in London, the U.S. Ambassador was so committed to public engagement that he reached as many as 30,000 students in 260 schools over the course of his three-and-a-half-year tenure. Through his outreach, he made a number of observations about British public opinion toward the United States, and he noted that there was one controversial question that emerged again and again when he met with the general public: Why is the American public so fixated on guns?
It was evident that the British public struggled to understand this phenomenon and saw it as a major cultural and political difference between our two countries. Students in particular wanted an explanation for gun violence in the United States, and the topic stood as a hurdle in moving on to other positive areas of discussion. The Ambassador understood that if our embassy didn’t address the topic head on, the U.S. government’s overall credibility would be significantly hindered. And so, although he admitted he did not have “answers,” he tried his best to provide a historical, socio-cultural explanation for this vast dissimilarity between our two countries.
Audience members may not have been convinced that his explanation was accurate. They may not have believed his statistics, and they might have thought he was trying to justify the unjustifiable. However, addressing the topic head-on allowed the discussion to move forward. His willingness to directly answer tough questions especially disarmed students of their “gotcha” questions, thereby creating space and time for other foreign policy-related questions. Most important, his honesty enhanced our embassy’s overall credibility and made the relationship—whether between audience and speaker or between our two countries’ publics—more open and more authentic.
Addressing difficult topics directly and honestly is not always easy in public diplomacy. Foreign Service Officers are often nervous about deviating from official talking points and saying the “wrong thing” that could garner negative attention for their U.S. Embassy, the U.S. government, or—perhaps most terrifying—for the officers themselves. But in my modest nine years as a U.S. diplomat, I have seen colleagues deftly maneuver contentious topics, and their honesty and courage lays the foundation upon which U.S. foreign relations are built and sustained.
Below, I summarize a handful of approaches I have observed as useful in addressing the most controversial topics.
Small-Group Topical Discussions
A masterful Public Diplomacy Officer I once worked for made a habit of organizing small-group discussions for university and high school students on divisive issues in U.S. current events. The pivotal detail was that these discussions all took place on U.S. government property, within the protective walls of our consulate. This meant no cell phones, no uninvited foreign media, no tape recorders and no cameras. In this environment, it was difficult to attribute specific words to specific individuals, and so it kept officers better protected and allowed them to be more honest and open. Our Public Affairs Section invited officers from throughout the consulate to speak about topics they were familiar with— veterans spoke about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, officers with corporate backgrounds discussed gender in the workplace and former journalists spoke on themes ranging from U.S. foreign policy to women in U.S. politics.
We asked participants to keep the conversations private, and by and large, they adhered to our request, with the exception of a few benign write-ups in college newspapers. The hot topics attracted hearty crowds, but guests did not seem interested in aggressively cornering speakers. Instead, they came prepared with thoughtful questions aimed at better understanding the topic and, more broadly, the United States. Neither the questions nor the overall conversations were easy, but the location allowed more candid conversations than are generally possible at larger public events.
Let the U.S. Speaker Program Speak for You
While small-group discussions provide a great way to engage students in frank discussions, it is not the best way to engage busy, working professionals who are unlikely to carve out a tech-free afternoon at an embassy, and who may be less likely to adhere to the request for small-group discussion privacy. For these targeted audiences, the U.S. Speaker Program of the State Department’s International Information Programs brings in U.S. specialists to answer tough questions on a wide variety of themes. Speakers from the program tend to be experts in their field and thus can draw large audiences and speak with greater authority than a U.S. government representative. And best of all—because these specialists do not speak on behalf of the U.S. government—they can provide authoritative, direct answers that may be more satisfying to professional audiences.
The most impactful speakers from the program are curated to cover a topic of particular interest that the Foreign Service officers cannot so easily address in a certain area. This can be effective in covering controversial themes such as religious freedom or human rights, as well as highly specialized topics. This program is a great tool for tough-to-reach academics, journalists and practitioners and can foster genuine conversations between the people of the United States and other countries. When speakers are not available to travel to the overseas post, embassies can utilize technology to connect audiences to speakers in the United States.
The Power of Alumni
Foreign nationals who have experienced the United States first-hand can be powerful messengers in helping foreign audiences better understand the United States. Alumni of State Department exchange programs and graduates of U.S. colleges and universities can serve as cultural ambassadors whose influence and trustworthiness in a local context sometimes exceed that of an American. However, giving alumni full control to lead a controversial discussion can be risky, since it’s impossible to gauge exactly what the alumni might say or in what direction the conversation might go. In these circumstances, having an American officer lead an alumni panel allows the U.S. government to guide the conversation and the atmosphere, while still benefiting from the credibility of a local perspective. Of course, embassies need to select alumni participants with great care, so as to provide a balanced perspective.
Say It with a Movie
Public Diplomacy Officers can also use movies as a tool to stimulate difficult conversations with foreign publics. This works especially well if the overseas post can gain access to that movie before its general release in country—free, “sneak-peek” screenings of big-name movies can draw large crowds and create powerful platforms for discussion. While most movie screenings are followed by Q&A, films covering particularly controversial topics can simply be preceded by a thoughtful introduction of the topic, which can serve to guide viewers through the movie’s treatment of the complicated theme and can provide alternative perspectives.
The most challenging aspect of using a film as a public diplomacy tool is finding just the right film with just the right angle. As with the U.S. Speaker Program and alumni programs, an embassy needs to make clear that the message of the film does not necessarily reflect the perspective of the U.S. government.
The ideas above are only a smattering of the countless possible ways to engage foreign audiences in meaningful discussions of contentious topics. Just as the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom developed a strategy to address a contentious topic of concern to the UK public, so too must our public diplomacy practitioners overseas identify appropriate tools to match their local context. While bold and brave individuals can always tackle tough questions in front of large audiences at public events, for others the techniques listed above can make the discussion of controversial topics more manageable and less daunting.
Most important, difficult topics need to be addressed. Foreign publics need to feel listened to. And our diplomats must be able to tackle these topics in order to build and sustain the United States’ soft power throughout the globe.
Shanna Dietz Surendra
Shanna Surendra was a CAA Kathryn W. Davis Public Fellow from 2015 to 2016. She joined the Foreign Service in 2009 and has since served as Consul at the U.S. Embassy in London, the Desk Officer for Portugal and Malta and as a Cultural Affairs Officer in Chennai.