For our last class we had the opportunity to attend “The Last Three Feet” public diplomacy forum at George Washington University, where the discussion centered around the challenges to public diplomacy posed by the changing communications context we are experiencing. In his keynote address, Ambassador Thomas Shannon spoke about the need for public diplomacy efforts to be relevant in order to be successful and spoke of the trends towards more two-way dialogue, a US role in facilitating connections between societies, and an increasing importance of the “social”, the broad global challenges that all nations face.
One initiative that stood out to me as being exemplary of this broader approach was the Youth Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program (YIEP) in Turkey, presented by Elizabeth McKay, Director of the Office of Press and Public Diplomacy at the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. YIEP brings together classrooms in Turkey and the U.S. to develop entrepreneurial projects that will have positive impact on communities around the world via online training, virtual team-building, entrepreneurial education in the classroom and exchange.
McKay discussed recent initiatives to improve US-Turkey relations by engaging youth in dialogue, highlighting what worked and didn’t work. The first effort to build an online platform for youth of the US and Turkey to come together didn’t work because it lacked relevance for the participants. However, bringing them together through YIEP, under the framework of something that positively impacts their lives and the world, gives youth a reason to connect within a context that articulates the benefits of partnership, collaboration, trust, dialogue and understanding, making the discussion more relevant and necessary. Participants from the US and Turkey are equal collaborators and the exchange is not only geared towards learning about another country, but understanding each other in order to work together more effectively on a common goal, the development of their project. The project also promotes cross-cultural dialogue to understand needs and interests in another country in order to design an appropriate product for that population. The success of the recent YIEP program so far in improving relations has been, as McKay phrased it, “a re-focus on the positive parts of our relationship [US and Turkey].”
What I appreciated about this effort was that rather than focusing on how to better utilize technologies in trying to get the US message out, it utilizes the technologies to produce an environment where the cross-cultural lessons are learned as a by-product of mutually-beneficial collaboration towards a common positive goal (developing a business).
Understanding the challenges and opportunities posed by new media and how to use them effectively is of course important, but what about the fact that these technologies that have had such great impact were born out of an innovative environment that is a big part of what the US represents? Therefore sharing the tools and facilitating the development of that environment that encourages risk-taking, creativity and individuals motivated to think about and design solutions to improve our lives, creating the technology that positively impacts the world and affords greater capacity to meet global social challenges, would make US public diplomacy efforts more relevant in addressing the challenges we all face and need to work together on.