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The American Nation is Greater than the American Government


A valid criticisms of traditional history writing is that it personifies & treats countries as if they are individuals. You might read, “France was angry with Prussia over its actions.”  What does that mean?  Was everybody in France angry? How much does a government represent, really represent the society it governs?  For most of history the answer has been - not much. The rulers decided w/o asking most other people. It is true even in a democracy.  People making decisions are always removed and different from "the people."

Of course, when writing history we have to simplify. Beyond that, notions of sovereignty indicate that the government speaks for the country. This is true even for dictatorships where we know that most people do not support the current government.

But the whole idea of public diplomacy is based on the contrary idea, i.e. that “the people” are more than their current government and that we should talk to the people of the world beyond and sometimes in spite of their regimes.  In the old days, we reached out with Radio Free Europe or VOA. Today there are proposals to provide Internet to get around despots in places like Iran. 

In reasonably free countries, most important things happen outside the direct purview of government. A good government stays out of the way when possible and when it does get involved it facilitates but does not manage. This means that in a country like America we can live most of our daily lives w/o having to make overt political calculations. This is a great advantage and one that people like Americans, long accustomed to freedom, take for granted and often undervalue.

Freedom is like good health, something you don’t properly value until you no longer have it.

But understanding that public diplomacy should reach out to people of other countries, beyond the tradition diplomatic outreach to their leaders doesn’t always stop us from not understanding that many of the same things apply on our side. Even we sometimes fail to appreciate that the American people are greater than the American government. 

We often hear comments/complaints that official USG public diplomacy efforts are inadequate.  This may sometimes be true, but what usually follows this thought is more problematic.  After the initial complaints and listings of problems, we usually hear that somehow the USG has failed to but should “harness” the power of the American people, private business, educational institutions etc.   Whether or not you should (or can) do these things depends on what you are proposing to do.

First a little background.  The American nation is indeed greater than the American government and it is frustrating to American officials that all that power cannot be harnessed for what they consider good or that we/they cannot get credit for reaching out.  But the American nation is already reaching out.  

Private American “foreign aid” already dwarfs programs officially run by our government.   If you add in remittances and private capital flows, the USG “investment” is only 9% of the total.   This 9% is still $21.8 billion dollars and makes up around 20% of the total official government aid given by all the countries in the world, so it is still a really big number.  So how should those contributing 9% harness those who contribute 91%? Maybe things are going okay without the harnessing. 

The same goes for our educational system. Our universities are the best in the world.   Last year 671,616 foreign students were studying at U.S. universities. Our USG Fulbright program is something we can be really proud of. It helps some of the best and the brightest improve their educations. But each year only around 6000 students get those scholarships.  

The same goes for … I could go through a whole list of American artists, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and groups of all kinds. I never cease to be amazed by my fellow Americans, but you get the picture.

The American nation is already in the game. The American government has a crucial role to play but it is a leadership role of pointing the way and removing barriers rather than a management role of specifying how things should be done or working through details.

I wrote a post a few days ago about how America’s de-facto cultural policy works because it decentralizes decision making and rather than harnessing the energy of the American people, it allows them to express their ideas and innovation. If anything, the American government is the one that is harnessed to the plans and aspirations of the American people, and in a democracy that is fitting and proper.

Maybe that is what is going on internationally too.  (Recall that because of the nature of our tax system a lot of that “private” charity has a USG component.)  The essence of the so-called soft power is that it is dispersed and not always exercised by the same people who possess the hard power.  One reason why American cultural products are so influential is that they are not produced by the American government. People trust that they are not propaganda or even attempts at honest messaging.  The close embrace of government, even when it is loving,  is not always healthy for artists and writers and it can be downright suffocating for entrepreneurs.  Governments work best as consumers of their products, not co-creators.   

It is great for public diplomats to be able to “represent” the phenomenal vitality of the American nation. However, the scope for overlap and cooperation may be very broad, but it should not very deep. Public diplomacy professionals should certainly be consumers and enthusiasts of the best our country offers. That doesn’t mean that we can or should work in close partnership to guide or be guided by particular individuals or groups over the long term. *

Being broadly representative of America is what public diplomacy officers do best and what we should continue to do, but we need to recall that we work for the government, which is only a part of the nation, and there are not very many of us.  

We can bring attention to what is best in our country. We can explain U.S.  policies and advocate them.  We can make friends and nurture relationships.  But we have to be really careful when we try to “harness” the power of the American nation for our (perhaps ephemeral) particular programming needs. In many cases it is best for us to facilitate contact among those who truly know and care about an issue and then get out of the way.  Opportunities for cooperation should always be explored but with the considerations mentioned above always in mind.  Particular partnerships can come and go, but the core task of representing the American nation abides.  

To paraphrase Matthew, maybe we should render onto Caesar (government) that which is Caesar’s; render onto God that which is God’s and let the American nation take care of the rest.

***** * 

*The most obviously dangerous one is the simple matter of exclusion and inclusion.   Sustaining deep relationships with any particular Americans means that we must exclude most others.  We have limited staff and limited resources. 

I wrote a post last year about the possible conflicts of interests of too close ties with business.  If you are interested enough to read the post please do so, but the point is that if business and government form partnerships, they both hope to gain something from the joint enterprise.  Unless everybody thinks the relationship through, much of what they expect might give the impression of impropriety and sometimes might actually be unethical.

It can be too easy for particular firms to become the “go to” places for U.S. officials.  Pretty soon it looks like the U.S. is endorsing or backing their products.  Even though nobody says so, foreigners might treat them differently because of this. When working in Poland, I found that many people assumed that they could get better treatment for things like visas if they worked with firms somehow associated with the Consulate. We would sometimes have to distance ourselves from a firm that was in fact actively implying such useful connections.

You can also easily envision situations where closeness to the USG would be a negative.  Unfriendly foreign authorities might not be able to effectively harass our diplomats, but they can take out their frustrations on U.S. firms or their local employees.

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