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Not a Short-Term, For-Profit Venture: Why Diplomacy is Not Like Running a Business

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With the departure of U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson, and the continual upheaval of the U.S. Department of State, American diplomatic relations and U.S. national interests are jeopardized. The world watches with trepidation as the U.S. Department of State once again processes new leadership.The implications for numerous bilateral and multilateral agreements remain unknown. The Trump Administration, thus far, has failed to recognize that diplomacy is not like running a business. There is no profit model or clear revenue determination of success. While in the private sector, at times, it may be effective management to cut leadership at the top, and start with fresh new ideas, diplomacy does not work in the same way. Diplomats are not selling a product,they are promoting an idea. They give voice to what the U.S. stands for, its values, and ideals. While Secretary of State Tillerson and President Trump are often praised by their supporters as being successful businessmen, they need different skill setsto carry out successful diplomatic work. Namely, diplomacy requires the long game. Relationships in diplomatic engagements are cultivated for years, or even decades, with long term gains. It is often slow, nebulous work that is hard to measure. However slow, this work is vital to U.S. long-term economic and security interests.

It is important for the United States to continue engagement globally towards a stable, peaceful, democratic world. Democratic leaders make better allies; stable countries make better trade partners[1]. However, as most U.S. leaders have understood prior to this administration, democracy development takes time, even generations. In 1992, Presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Ross Perot recognized the large pay-off and importance of long term American diplomatic engagement, specifically in assisting with stable democratic in post-Soviet states. During their presidential debate, they echoed nearly identical sentiments to this end. Bill Clinton stated, “I think we will have a continuing responsibility, as the only remaining superpower, to stay involved. The Soviet Union is no more. Now we’re working to help them become totally democratic through the FREEDOM Support Act that I led on[2].” To this Perot, famously replied, “Well, it’s cost-effective to help Russia succeed in its revolution. It’s pennies on the dollar compared to going back to the cold war[3].” Both leaders understood the long-term value and important investment of democratic development.

It remains unclear if leaders within the Trump Administration, clear novices as to the inner workings of the U.S. government, and complexities of U.S. foreign policy, grasp the far-reaching impact of the State Department. One pundit from the Washington Post speculated that Tillerson did not comprehend the full extent as to how the Office of the Secretary of State exerts power and influence globally. Thus far, the current leadership seems to lack an understanding of the diverse diplomatic programmatic work of the Department. One such important program funded by the Education and Cultural Affairs (ECA) Bureau of the Department of State is the Fulbright Fellowship. Established in 1945,during post-war reconstruction, the goal of the Fulbright Fellowship is for “the promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture, and science.” Former ECA Assistant Secretary of State Evan Ryan said,“We view exchanges as long-term investments. Exchange is something foundational that we build upon. We might not be able to see the exact benefits of it for many years, but we know it is there.” One benefit is shaping positive relations with Americans and future global leaders. Numerous world leaders have been Fulbright Fellows;37 as heads of state. The Prime Ministers of Korea and Ghana, to name just a few,were Fulbright scholars early in their careers. Decades later, at times,they have implemented policies in their own countries that engendered a positive relationship with the United States. While the pay-off is slow, the return on investment for the U.S. national interest is enormous.

Worldwide, the U.S. is one of the largest donors to international humanitarian aid. Part of this assistance is human rights promotion, work that also is slow, but important for America’s long-term interest. In Jordan, for example, American diplomats forge relationships with Jordanians to “assist political parties in the country, improving the ability of parties to develop platforms, diversify membership, and more effectively advocate for the passage of legislation in line with party values and citizen interests[4].” Jordan remaining a stable nation in the Middle East is critical to U.S. interest in the region. In other countries, diplomats work towards religious tolerance, the rights of persons with disabilities, ending trafficking in persons, and beyond.

Diplomats also work to protect American citizens;indeed, this is a core responsibility of embassy staff. In 2010, when Morocco began expelling American Christians allegedly for proselytizing, for it was the work of countless hours of diplomatic engagement that made the expulsions stop. Some of these Americans had lived in Morocco for decades running orphanages, and after diplomatic intervention, they were reunited with their families,and manyallowed to remain in the country. This example of quiet diplomacy does not often make headlines. In fact, successful diplomatic engagement is often to stop a public incident or row over a specific issue with the host country. No news, is often good news for an embassy. It is this unsung work that the current administration seems either ignorant of, or disregards entirely. Whether to protect American citizens, promote religious freedom, women’s rights, or free and fair elections, diplomats conduct long-term work critical to U.S. national interests and strengthening stability the world over.

The United States, comparatively, is still a young country. Nations such as China or leaders in the Middle East often calculate much longer-term goals in their diplomacy. They may entertain delegations and diplomatic engagements to build relationships,not necessarily because they have any plans to implement near-term policy suggestions in the immediate future. China is famous for “playing the long game” in diplomacy. One example is Chinese construction of approximately sixty athletic stadiums across sub-Saharan Africa. While a huge expense in the near term to build a stadium, and no clear short-term interest for the Chinese people, Chinese leaders calculate the long-term gain of gaining good will and diplomatic ties with these nations as part of their national interest and worth the investment. The Arab world also values long-term diplomacy by way of personal relationships built over many years or decades in diplomatic relations. Thus, the jarring nature of changing U.S. leadership, or not valuing the true worth of diplomacy by the current administration, hurts U.S. ties across the world.

Diplomacy is not a short-term, for-profit venture. Rather, it is a slow, long-term endeavor to ensure American national interests.The long-term security investment of funding programs such as the FulbrightFellowship, democracy, and human rights programs is also clear: military and security cooperation can be linked back to decades of education and programmatic good will between two nations. Unstable leadership in the U.S. erodes critical trust between world leaders; with the leadership turnover agreements might not be honored and policies abruptly discontinued. Therefore, moving forward, it behooves the current U.S. leadership to stabilize its diplomatic core and run the State Department more…diplomatically.

[1] Müllerson, Rein 1997, 2004. Human Rights Diplomacy. Routledge, London, UK.
[2] Source: The Second Clinton-Bush-Perot Presidential Debate Oct 15, 1992
[3] Source: The Second Clinton-Bush-Perot Presidential Debate Oct 15, 1992
[4] U.S. Department of State. Jordan “Advancing Freedom and Democracy Reports.Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor May 23, 2008

Dr. Rainer serves as Assistant Professor of International Relations and is a former U.S. diplomat with the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Dr. Carlson-Rainer also worked with the U.S. Mission to the UN and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The opinions expressed in this article are solely attributed to Dr. Rainer and not connected to any affiliate institution

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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As Refugees Flee Central America, the Mexican Public Sours On Accepting Them

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Authors: Isabel Eliassen, Alianna Casas, Timothy S. Rich*

In recent years, individuals from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) have been forced out of their home countries by extreme poverty and gang violence. While initial expectations were that the Lopez Obrador administration would be more welcoming to migrants, policies have slowly mirrored those of his predecessor, and do not seem to have deterred refugees. COVID-19 led to a decrease in refugees arriving in Mexico, and many shelters in Mexico closed or have limited capacity due to social distancing restrictions. Now that the COVID-19 situation has changed, arrivals could increase again to the levels seen in late 2018 or 2019, with overcrowded refugee centers lacking in medical care as potential grounds for serious COVID-19 outbreaks.

Mexico increasingly shares a similar view as the US on this migration issue, seeking ways to detain or deport migrants rather than supporting or protecting them. For instance, Mexico’s National Immigration Institute has been conducting raids on freight trains to find and detain migrants. Public opinion likely shapes these policies. In the US, support for allowing migrants into the country appeared to increase slightly from 2018 to 2019, but no significant majority emerges. Meanwhile, Mexican public opinion increasingly exhibits anti-immigrant sentiments, declining considerably since 2018, with a 2019 Washington Post poll showing that 55% supported deporting Central Americans rather than providing temporary residence and a 2019 El Financiero poll finding 63% supportive of closing to border to curb migration.

New Data Shows the Mexican Public Unwelcoming

To gauge Mexican public opinion on refugees, we conducted an original web survey June 24-26 via Qualtrics, using quota sampling. We asked 625 respondents to evaluate the statement “Mexico should accept refugees fleeing from Central America” on a five-point Likert scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. For visual clarity, we combined disagree and agree categories in the figure below.

Overall, a plurality (43.84%) opposed accepting refugees, with less than a third (30.08%) supportive. Broken down by party affiliation, we see similar results, with the largest opposition from the main conservative party PAN (52.90%) and lowest in the ruling party MORENA (41.58%). Broken down by gender, we find women slightly more supportive compared to men (32.60% vs. 27.04%), consistent with findings elsewhere and perhaps acknowledgment that women and children historically comprise a disproportionate amount of refugees. Regression analysis again finds PAN supporters to be less supportive than other respondents, although this distinction declines once controlling for gender, age, education and income, of which only age corresponded with a statistically significant decline in support. It is common for older individuals to oppose immigration due to generational changes in attitude, so this finding is not unexpected.

We also asked the question “On a 1-10 scale, with 1 being very negative and 10 very positive, how do you feel about the following countries?” Among countries listed were the sources of the Central American refugees, the three Northern Triangle countries. All three received similar average scores (Guatemala: 4.33, Honduras: 4.05, El Salvador: 4.01), higher than Venezuela (3.25), but lower than the two other countries rated (US: 7.71, China: 7.26) Yet, even after controlling for general views of the Central American countries, we find the public generally unsupportive of accepting refugees.

How Should Mexico Address the Refugee Crisis?

Towards the end of the Obama administration, aid and other efforts directed at resolving the push factors for migration in Central America, including decreasing violence and limiting corruption, appeared to have some success at reducing migration north. President Trump’s policies largely did not improve the situation, and President Biden has begun to reverse those policies and re-implement measures successful under Obama.

As discussed in a meeting between the Lopez Obrador administration and US Vice President Kamala Harris, Mexico could adopt similar aid policies, and decreasing the flow of migrants may make the Mexican public respond more positively to accepting migrants. Lopez Obrador committed to increased economic cooperation with Central America days into his term, with pledges of aid as well, but these efforts remain underdeveloped. Threats to cut aid expedite deportations only risks worsening the refugee crisis, while doing little to improve public opinion.

Increasingly, the number of family units from Guatemala and Honduras seeking asylum in Mexico, or the United States, represents a mass exodus from Central America’s Northern Triangle to flee insecurity. Combating issues such as extreme poverty and violence in Central American countries producing the mass exodus of refugees could alleviate the impact of the refugee crisis on Mexico. By alleviating the impact of the refugee crisis, refugees seeking asylum will be able to navigate immigration processes easier thus decreasing tension surrounding the influx of refugees.

Likewise, identifying the public’s security and economic concerns surrounding refugees and crafting a response should reduce opposition. A spokesperson for Vice President Harris stated that border enforcement was on the agenda during meetings with the Lopez Obrador administration, but the Mexican foreign minister reportedly stated that border security was not to be addressed at the meeting. Other than deporting migrants at a higher rate than the US, Mexico also signed an agreement with the US in June pledging money to improve opportunities for work in the Northern Triangle. Nonetheless, questions about whether this agreement will bring meaningful change remain pertinent in the light of a worsening crisis.

Our survey research shows little public interest in accepting refugees. Public sentiment is unlikely to change unless the Lopez Obrador administration finds ways to both build sympathy for the plights of refugees and address public concerns about a refugee crisis with no perceived end in sight. For example, research in the US finds public support for refugees is often higher when the emphasis is on women and children, and the Lopez Obrador administration could attempt to frame the crisis as helping specifically these groups who historically comprise most refugees. Likewise, coordinating efforts with the US and other countries may help portray to the public that the burden of refugee resettlement is being equitably shared rather than disproportionately placed on Mexico.

Facing a complex situation affecting multiple governments requires coordinated efforts and considerable resources to reach a long-term solution. Until then, the Central American refugee crisis will continue and public backlash in Mexico likely increase.

Isabel Eliassen is a 2021 Honors graduate of Western Kentucky University. She triple majored in International Affairs, Chinese, and Linguistics.

Alianna Casas is an Honors Undergraduate Researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Business Economics, Political Science, and a participant in the Joint Undergraduate/Master’s Program in Applied Economics.

Timothy S. Rich is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics.

Funding for this survey was provided by the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

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