Are protestors our diplomatic messengers?

There was an interesting question posed to one of my classes this week that I thought I would share with you: Are protestors diplomats? Are they the messengers of America’s values to the world?

Some of you may know that I’m in my final semester of graduate school and (hopefully) will graduate later this year. My degree is in International Media, or the study of how we communicate messages across cultures and countries. It’s a dual degree between the School of International Service and the School of Communication. The whole crux of what I’m studying is that words matter and they can mean different things to different cultures. When there is a disconnect between the intended message sent and how a different culture interprets it, it can create conflict or even lead to war.

So I have a confession: I’m in three different classes involving messaging and “diplomacy” this semester and I am really struggling to do the readings. Not because the case studies aren’t interesting. It’s because I feel such cognitive dissonance between what I’m reading and the behavior of this administration. I see the people who do what I’m studying devalued and I understand there are consequences to that. It makes me anxious reading about what you are not supposed to do and then watch situations I’m being advised to avoid play out in real life.

Take, for instance, the tweet I woke up to on Wednesday morning:

By Wednesday evening, as I sat down to do more of my homework, there were reports coming out about communication debacles with Iran, Mexico and, even, Australia.

To be fair: Most presidents struggle with communicating to foreign audiences when they first take office. It is difficult to appeal to a domestic audience and realize the things you say to your citizens will be perceived differently by an international audience. Presidents must consider both audiences when communicating. That’s why you have someone with deep institutional knowledge about U.S. foreign policy and the reactions to that policy advising. Taking their advice helps a president avoid an international incident.

There are always mistakes made when we miss subtle cultural differences that result in policy or messages being misconstrued by a foreign audience. The goal is to avoid known pitfalls. To anyone with foreign policy experience it is obvious how this executive order would be interpreted outside the United States.

That’s why you’re seeing a thousand foreign service officers express their concerns through the dissent channel. For those not familiar, the dissent channel was established during the Vietnam War by the State Department to make sure alternative views were considered in foreign policy. It encourages the constitutional right to “free speech” among those who have taken an oath to publicly uphold the foreign policy of the United States.

The dissent channel makes us safer because it gives career diplomats a formalized avenue to express concerns about foreign policy and ensures that those leading the State Department consider alternative viewpoints. Attacks on civil servants using this channel to warn President Trump about how policy may affect Americans should concern all of us, especially since the dissent memo contains suggestions about how to improve the process while not fueling anti-American sentiment abroad. The suggestions outlined at the end of the memo make much better sense to me if our purpose is sincerely to make Americans more secure.

In addition, it should concern all of us that these people, who are experts in how policy is perceived in their respective countries, weren’t consulted. Here we are now with a poorly rolled out executive order that I feel confident has made us less safe. For a guy who is very attentive to executive-producing the theatre of this presidency, he seems oblivious to how his show will be seen by foreign audiences.

Here’s why we are less safe: The argument that “this isn’t a ban” and “Obama did the same thing” are irrelevant, even if they were true. If you campaign on a ban, put it on a website as a ban and tweet that it’s a ban. When policy enacted is poorly rolled out and primarily affects Muslim-majority countries, the world will see it as a ban. The narrative was already established months ago during the campaign. It doesn’t matter what Sean Spicer says at the podium. Foreign media isn’t taking cues from American media. They’re taking cues from how the policies affect their own citizens and diaspora.

It matters what people of those cultures feel, what they will say to their families, and what they will say on social media about how they were treated. Those feelings will become the narratives of media stories in those countries. Those stories will fuel propaganda in hostile countries and by what we refer to as “non-state actors,” which means groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda. Already, people have documented this happening.

This makes us less safe because it creates a narrative that the West is waging a war on Islam, which is exactly the narrative ISIS uses to recruit members. This is a narrative war and, though I am not privy to his decision process, I suspect President Obama was advised not to use the words “war with radical Islamic terrorism” to avoid winding up in an ISIS propaganda video suggesting Islam is at war with the West. (It’s what I would advise if I was asked and I cringe every time someone labels it as such.)

So back to the protestors: If the Trump administration has set a poor tone with this executive order, do the protestors counter that message? Are those who protest “diplomats” in the sense that they are conveying a different message to foreign audiences about what America stands for?

I think those pictures of protestors do send a strong message, but only in societies with a free press. And I’m sure the sight of protestors and the help of attorneys was very meaningful to people caught up in this process. I’m sure those stories will be told as well. But, as a fellow grad student pointed out when I spoke to her about this post, the real proof of diplomacy will be if the protests lead to change or action.

Let’s hope so.

 

Off topic : My friend, Elizabeth Arnold, has launched a new podcast about the people, politics and pop culture of Kansas called Per Aspera. Her first episode is about experiencing the inauguration and the Women’s March. Hope you’ll check it out!

 

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