Saturday, July 28, 2018

Sumner Welles is My Favorite Secretary of State

On July 23 1940, Acting Secretary of State Sumner Welles issued a statement that came to be known as the Sumner Welles Declaration. In it, he condemned the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states and laid the foundation of the U.S. policy to refuse to recognize the recently installed Soviet governments in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Welles' bold act of diplomacy 78 years ago continues to impact U.S.-Baltic relations to this day. Last week, the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. Embassy celebrated the anniversary of the Sumner Welles Declaration in Washington Square in Vilnius. The Lithuanians call this event, “Thank you, America!” It is basically a U.S.-Lithuania mutual love fest with speeches by dignitaries, live music, and food trucks serving cheeseburgers and hotdogs.  A public diplomacy officer’s dream!

Last year when I attended the event for the first time, I was struck by how one seemingly simple statement could pay such enormous diplomatic dividends. History does not always stay in the past. The basis for the strong relationship our two countries enjoy today goes back to Sumner Welles and his decision to stand up for three small countries most Americans had probably never heard of.

I wonder how our actions today will be commemorated 78 years from now.

Friday, March 2, 2018

With Your Own Eyes

I was recently in Italy and the entire time I was there I wanted to shout at everyone I saw, “Put down your phone!” Does nobody experience anything live anymore?

I was in St. Peter’s Basilica paying my respects to Michelangelo’s Pieta, one of the most stunning works of art I have ever seen. A man holding up a smart phone in front of his face squeezed in next to me to get a photo, then turned his back to the statue to get a selfie. Then he walked away! Without LOOKING at this magnificent creation directly with his own eyes. If all you want is a good picture, pick up a post card in the gift shop.

I deliberately left my camera in my hotel room when I went to St. Peter’s. I wanted to SEE and EXPERIENCE and REMEMBER everything first hand without the distraction of obligation to “get a good shot” that having a camera around my neck forces upon me. Don’t get me wrong, I like taking pictures of cool things, but sometimes it’s more important to authentically experience a moment than to capture it.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Soft Power to Achieve Hard Goals

I'm often called upon to brief distinguished visitors to Lithuania about the embassy's public diplomacy activities. The DVs range from senators, congressional staffers, generals, and assistant secretaries. My spiel usually goes like this (modified for online consumption, of course):

Lithuania is a strong partner and ally of the United States and public opinion toward the U.S. and Western institutions is generally high. However, Lithuania is a frequent target of propaganda, disinformation, and cyber attacks, which seek to undermine Lithuania's faith in its own government, in its relationship with the U.S. and Europe, in NATO, and in democracy itself.

Certain populations are vulnerable to continuous exposure to these narratives. The Embassy engages with these communities through a variety of programs in order to blunt anti-U.S. narratives and present alternatives. Our sustained and varied programing with target communities has resulted in increased direct interaction with a population that had little previous exposure to Americans, positive local press coverage, stronger relationships with local contacts, and a better understanding of the issues these communities face.

One free jazz concert won't make a lasting impact. Continuous engagement with a community across a spectrum of public diplomacy activities - cultural performances, art exhibits, sports activities, exchange programs, English teaching, school presentations, film festivals, science & tech camps, U.S. speakers, social media - is how an embassy develops a relationship with the public.

I know I can't go tweet-for-tweet against those who try to malign the U.S. in the Baltic States. But what I can do is make sure those anti-U.S. narratives don't take hold. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

What Are You Doing for the Holidays?

It's that time of year again. For solo FSOs who do not have family at post, holidays abroad offer a few options. Spend them with your colleagues and friends at post. Pretend they are just regular days off and don't do anything special. Or take advantage of the time off to do something cool. This Thanksgiving I'm doing the latter and traveling to Luxembourg to enjoy some only-affordable-in-the-off-season luxury and do a little family history exploration.

It can be hard for some solo FSOs to answer the dreaded question, "What are you doing for the holidays?" But I got over that a long time ago. Certainly I would love to be with my family this Thanksgiving, but rather than try to recreate the perfect American Thanksgiving here (and fail miserably), I'll be having Thanksgiving dinner in a Michelin star restaurant with the ghosts of my ancestors. Not very traditional, but cool in its own way.

Whether you are surrounded by family, fortunate to have good friends nearby, or on your own, I hope everyone finds a way to enjoy the holiday season and that you do something that makes you happy.