Yesterday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held its confirmation hearing for the nomination of Richard Stengel as the 8th Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
Stengel’s testimony and answers to questions heavily stressed the strategic importance of exchange, particularly academic exchange. Noting that education is one of America’s greatest strategic assets, he voiced his intention to strengthen programs which support innovation and entrepreneurship. Contending that the effect of academic exchanges is incalculable, Stengel pointed out the long term benefits of such programs, noting that 27 candidates who recently won elections in Pakistan had spent time as students in the U.S.
Unfortunately, lacking from the course of discussion about exchange programs during the hearing, was the need for America to focus equally on efforts to send its citizens abroad. Exchange cannot merely be a one way institution, and Americans stand to benefit greatly from the experiences, education, and connections they gain while studying in foreign countries.
A notable question was also posed during the hearing concerning the state of America’s political discourse, and how this is viewed overseas. In response, Stengel agreed with the premise that diversity of opinion is a strength of America, and that the ability of Americans to tolerate differing views, and allow free expression is something that should be promoted.
Also raised, were concerns about the state of the PD apparatus within the State Department, and whether the Under Secretary has the structural ability to manage effectively. Replying to these concerns, Stengel felt that the amount of authority allotted to the Under Secretary seemed appropriate. Later, he commented that he intended to bring the Public Affairs bureau in closer with public diplomacy.
Answering questions about State’s relationship with the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), Stengel contended that BBG’s activities were vital, and he valued the firewall it provides for independent journalism. However, he did feel there were ways State could work better with the BBG in the future.
Wrapping up questioning, Stengel was asked about the recent OIG report on the Bureau of International Information Programs, and the role of social media in public diplomacy. He replied that social media was not just another tool, and that it was actually a new form of communication, and believed that it is important for reaching young audiences.
Stengel is correct in the importance of these tools, but perhaps less so on the premise of it being a new form of communication. Social media may appear new, but it has actually been around in various forms for almost as long as the World Wide Web. Whether in the form of bulletin boards, forums, or newsgroups, these outlets have provided social interactivity in a fashion very similar to some of the social media we see today for a period far longer than people realize. They allowed for user interactivity, the posting of comments, and the sharing of pictures and videos before Facebook, Twitter and YouTube existed. Virtual social societies formed around these mediums, much as they do today. What has most notably changed with modern social media is not necessarily most evident in the mediums themselves, but rather user access and bandwidth—which have resulted in an explosion of usage.
It appears from the confirmation hearing, that Stengel does not appear to intend to make any massive changes to the way public diplomacy works at State. Rather, he intends to focus on enhancing America’s PD strengths, particularly in the area of exchange. For the time being, this is probably the best way to go, as before a case can be made for making significant structural changes in the PD apparatus, a successful portfolio of success should be assembled to help gain more of the support it deserves from Congress.
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