Domestic Diplomacy in a Time of Refugees


Public diplomacy emerged during the Cold War as a means to directly speak to, and interact with foreign audiences to advance U.S. interests. It became possible for diplomats to bypass traditional bilateral channels by harnessing emerging technologies of radio and television broadcast, buoyed by the rising tide of popular U.S. culture. It was the first of many diplomatic barriers to fall in subsequent years.

In 21st century, globalization continues to destroy barriers that separate us from ideas, culture, and economies, including how and where people live whether that is by choice or horrible circumstance. In 2015, 244 million people, or 3.3 per cent of the world’s population, lived outside their country of origin. Would the U.S. and other Western countries be wise to redirect public diplomacy efforts to engage migrant and displaced populations within their own sovereign borders?

The Numbers Keep Growing

In 2015 and early 2016, between 40 to 65 million people have been displaced by armed conflict, violence or human rights abuses. Most notably, as of December 2015, 6,600,000 persons fled from Syria alone. While protected from the mass flows of displacement, the United States, Canada and Western Europe are beginning to note increasing number of new arrivals. Between 2013 and 2014, the foreign-born population in the U.S. increased by 1 million, or 2.5 percent. Of that figure nearly 70,000 were refugees resettled in the U.S., with top arrivals from Burma, Iraq and Somalia. (Note: Syrian refugees numbers a few thousand to-date and the Obama Administration has committed to only 10,000 by the end of 2016 and the current Administration is stopping that flow altogether.)

Public Diplomacy as a Community Service?

Public diplomacy has developed critical skills specifically to serve foreign populations. Public diplomacy officers bring a familiarity in serving information to families often bewildered and overwhelmed by a new culture. Public diplomats speak the language, they know the culture and life before displacement. While aid and social service programs can help families resettle, public diplomats can work alongside them as a conduit for helping domestic agencies and local governments to understand the context and circumstances of their new arrivals.

Recent studies of refugee resettlement point to the central role of acclimatizing families to their host countries. The initial flush of relief and success in extricating themselves from dangerous circumstances can give way to just how foreign their new lives are to their old lives. And this can be further exacerbated by the trauma of living through violence and displacement. A 2015 Canadian study of Iraqi migrants arriving 2009 and 2014 found that “refugees received little information about what to expect when they arrived and struggled to find affordable housing on income supports that didn’t cover the high cost of living in urban centres”.

Studies have shown that immigrants quickly adopt the values, or at least come to understand and appreciate the society of their new homes. A Pew Research study found that Asian immigrants reported that the felt in the U.S. they had more opportunities to get ahead, more political and religious freedom. The same survey found that sixty nine percent of foreign-born Asians in the U.S. had close ties to their home country.

Immigrants/Refugees As A Channel Home

Refugees, as well as naturalized citizens, represent a channel to reach back to overseas audiences. Under ideal circumstances refugees will return to their country of origin, bringing the experiences of their time in the West — including their exposure to democratic values. In more practical terms, many refugees will seek asylum or naturalization in their host country, but will still retain important ties back to family and friends in countries that represent the most intractable problems for Western foreign policy.

A practical example for engaging refugees in the West is combatting radicalization. In Brussels, the two attacks in Paris (November 13, Hebdo), the Boston Marathon bombing and the San Bernardino attacks demonstrate that close family ties can exacerbate radicalization and often be a conduit for finding recruits. The opposite is also true for reaching potential extremist recruits before they are radicalized by strengthening family ties that provide support for people who would alternatively might seek it in an extremist group and ensure they stay disengaged from extremism.

For public diplomacy engaging foreign citizens in the U.S. fleeing war or just seeking a better life is not about abstract democratic values. The opportunity is for frank and powerful conversations about the benefits and difficulties of Western democratic, economic and cultural life. The result will be highly credible and relevant communication back to the personal network of family, friends and former neighbors that carry an intimate understanding about the U.S.

Old Laws / Old Ways of Thinking

In the U.S., the central obstacle to considering these opportunities is the Smith-Mundt Act, a Cold War era law that prohibits the State Department and U.S. federal agencies from distributing content to influence domestic U.S. audiences. While the Act has had minor update, the key provision would require reinterpretation by risk-adverse federal lawyers, namely “No funds authorized to be appropriated…shall be used to influence public opinion in the United States.” The key is that the goal is not to influence public opinion of U.S. citizens, but communicate directly with foreign audiences no matter where they are residing at the moment.

The U.S. State Department is seemingly already taking a tentative step in this direction by partnering with USAID the International Diaspora Engagement Alliance (IdEA) to “harness the global connections of diaspora communities” and as a means for building collaboration with non-governmental organizations “to promote sustainable development in their countries of heritage.” Practically speaking it is a series of programs that engage and message to diaspora groups across the U.S. A small step, but a step nonetheless.

Public Diplomacy The Erasure of Borders

Public diplomacy is going undergoing several different fundamental challenges: the rise of digital, social and mobile media, the dominance of the youth demographic, the lack of trust in institutions and the dislocation of globalization. All of these forces have one thing in common: the erasure of the borders and barriers of the industrial age. In the new age, public diplomacy must be focused on advancing its own interests by identifying and engaging audiences where it finds them. Cutting edge digital and social brands build “influencer networks” to validate and expand the reach of their product; for public diplomacy the ultimate influencer network is already on its own shores.

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