The United States has been called the planet’s one indispensible nation in world affairs. And with that role comes the responsibility to weigh in on seemingly everything that’s happening in every corner of the globe, from routine national day messages to more serious matters such as elections, wars, natural disasters and acts of terrorism.
In May, the State Department published more than 200 press releases, posted hundreds of updates to its Facebook page and tweeted with gusto. These communiqués, particularly the press releases, are often filled with platitudes about common interests and shared values. But a close look at them reveals a lot about America’s bilateral relations with other countries — how they change over time, and what matters most about that country to U.S. policymakers.
“The State Department churns out a lot,” said Tara Sonenshine, a former undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs at the State Department who is now a distinguished fellow at the George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. “There is almost an overflow of press releases, but if you are going to do one you have to do them all. If you’re the regional assistant secretary of state or the ambassador or the public affairs person working on a specific country, you want to make sure your country feels loved.”
The least controversial press releases the State Department sends out are congratulatory messages to countries on their national days or during important religious holidays, such as Nowruz, which is celebrated in Iran and other countries in the region. National day messages are rarely controversial and attract little attention, but they also serve as succinct snapshots of America’s bilateral relations with a given country at that moment. They are often drafted by lower-level employees, typically State Department desk officers who are both Foreign and Civil Service. But the texts they draft have to be cleared by a large array of other offices within the State Department bureaucracy, so the language is carefully vetted.
The tone that the State Department uses can change in a flash. For example, in February the State Department issued a press release, sent in Secretary of State John Kerry’s name, effusively praising Brunei, a tiny oil-rich kingdom in Southeast Asia, as “wonderful” and “commendable” on its national day.
“The friendship between our two countries goes back more than 160 years. The depth and value of this relationship was plain for me to see during my two visits to your wonderful ‘Abode of Peace’ last year,” the release said. “Brunei’s chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations during 2013 was commendable in every way.”
Just weeks later, though, the Sultan of Brunei introduced harsh new criminal penalties, based on Sharia law, targeting gays and unmarried persons who commit adultery with punishment such as flogging, severing limbs and death by stoning. The move sparked a boycott of luxury hotels owned by the Sultan that was championed by Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres and other celebrities. The State Department is apparently pushing ahead with a trade deal that would include Brunei, and a spokesperson said only that they were “closely monitoring” how the new rules will be implemented.
“In many respects, these national day messages are the only visible comments out there on these countries, so some care should be taken about their content,” said Philip Seib, a professor of journalism, public diplomacy and international relations at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy. “I suspect that next year the message to Brunei would be toned down or there would be some cautionary inflection added to it.”
National day messages tend to be somewhat cordial, but the State Department also sends subtle messages and not-so-subtle digs buried in them. A recent example of this tactic can be found in the final line of a terse three-sentence greeting for Eritrea on its independence day in May: “Know that the government and people of the United States stand beside you in your continued search for the promise of a free, prosperous, and democratic Eritrea.”
The line has the veneer of diplomatic nicety, but make no mistake: The implication here is that Eritrea isn’t free, prosperous or democratic now.
“These messages are directed to the people of those countries,” said Seib. “So that sounds quite appropriate for a country like Eritrea.”
But there is also no guarantee that countries with repressive leaders and no freedom for their citizens will get chilly communiqués. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has ruled oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, which is perennially near the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Index and other human development indices, with an iron hand since 1979. But his country, a popular destination for U.S. investors, received a surprisingly cordial national day greeting from the State Department in 2013.
“The United States and Equatorial Guinea share many binding ties…. Our close cooperation on maritime security has contributed to regional peace and stability. And we remain committed to continued collaboration for the benefit of the Equatoguinean people, especially in the areas of health and education.”
Countries that move toward democracy, such as Myanmar, feel more love from Washington as they make improvements. In an independence day message to Myanmar in 2012, the State Department called for the “release of all political prisoners, a halt to hostilities in ethnic areas and an inclusive dialogue with ethnic minorities toward national reconciliation, space for all political parties to freely compete in April 1 by-elections, and full implementation of legislation to protect universal freedoms of expression, assembly and association.”
Not exactly a raise-a-glass-and-here’s-to-you slap on the back, but greetings in subsequent years were reflective of Myanmar’s tentative moves toward democracy. In 2013, after Washington re-established normal diplomatic relations with Myanmar, the national day message read almost like a successful report card: “Together, our two countries have been working on a number of important issues, and we are pleased with the steady process of reform,” the statement said, although it still referred to the country as Burma, a name that’s frowned upon by the military junta.
And whereas the previous year’s message started tersely, “January 4, 2012 marks the 64th anniversary of Burma’s independence,” the 2013 communiqué began, “On behalf of President Obama and the people of the United States, I am delighted to send best wishes to the people of your country as you celebrate your Independence Day on January 4.”
Aside from the usual niceties, many of these messages lay bare what America’s key interests in that country or region are. For example, recent national day messages directed to Panama and Mauritania refer to the free flow of trade through the Panama Canal and the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, respectively — two areas that obviously have no relation to the holidays for which the press releases were crafted in the first place.
In spitting out such a large volume of official statements, is there a risk that if you say too much, you’ll breed resentment, or that others will start to tune you out? Seib and Sonenshine believe that the benefits of frequent communication outweigh the risks.
“In an e-world, two plus two equals 22,” Sonenshine said. “The cumulative effect is you are spreading your love. The counterargument is, if you don’t, a country feels ignored or disrespected or irrelevant or forgotten. If you don’t recognize a Baltic anniversary, for example, someone in the Foreign Ministry of Lithuania might say, ‘Estonia and Latvia were recognized, so why not us?’ What does it cost? It’s the opportunity cost of not doing them versus the two minutes it takes to do them…. I don’t know if you can argue that it’s wasting anyone’s time or effort.”
Seib said that national day and other routine press releases might be the only official communication smaller countries receive from the United States and thus have value because they are likely to be picked up by local media in that country.
“The audience it reaches, assuming local media picks it up, they don’t know there were eight other messages that went out that day to eight other countries,” he pointed out. “It gives us some visibility in those countries. I think it has some use, as long as a certain amount of care is exercised to keep the comments in line with policy.”
Indeed, few would doubt that the State Department does exercise care, but perhaps not much creativity or flair in drafting these releases. Case in point, empty statements like this one, which was a concluding sentiment in a national day message for Equatorial Guinea in 2012: “And we remain committed to working together to meet the challenges of the future.”
That line combines two cherished chestnuts — working together and meeting challenges — but there are a host of other public diplomacy buzzwords and catchphrases that proliferate. Based on the public statements issued by the State Department, the United States is a country that is perpetually “concerned” about one thing or another. We are “committed to building on partnerships” with just about everyone, we “share binding ties” with seemingly every nation on earth, and we are seriously into peace, prosperity, empowerment, democracy, human rights and plenty of other feel-good “diplospeak.”
Sonenshine says that repeating these ideals and using the same language might not be creative, but it works.
“Those are the evergreen statements,” said Sonenshine, who also served as executive vice president of the U.S. Institute of Peace. “It’s important to keep saying those things.”
She said that as a public diplomacy practitioner, she crafted messages directed at the people of a country, not the government, and focused on the “three Ps: people, principles and policy.” Sonenshine said the United States invented the press release and that other countries are moving toward its assertive, active approach to public diplomacy.
“We’ve always been a country that is sort of outreach crazed,” she said. “We have a press release tradition. It honors freedom of the press and it’s about telling our American story.”
In May, Great Britain’s Home Office issued 74 foreign affairs-related press releases, while Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs issued 73, far less than the 207 the State Department pumped out, but more than the United States on a per-capita basis, given our much larger population.
Before the advent of social media, the State Department had to send out press releases and hope they got picked up in order to get their message out. Now anyone can sign up for an email subscription to these press releases, or read State Department or embassy tweets and Facebook posts. Many have argued that as this ability to cut out the middleman — the press — has increased, the level of access and cooperation provided to media outlets has declined, given that these publications and websites are no longer needed to deliver the U.S. government’s message.
But the fast-paced, footloose world of digital diplomacy has its own drawbacks. In an era when one misstep can go viral, a culture of caution predominates. Seib pointed out that in December 2012, the State Department considered a two- to five-day review process for tweets, but ultimately backed off in the face of widespread criticism.
“That was ridiculous,” he said. “Why bother tweeting if you have to wait two days? Some of those institutional procedures have had to change in the face of reality.”
Press releases may be less important in the social media era, but there is no sign that they’re going the way of the dinosaur anytime soon. And people like Seib, who subscribes to them, say that’s a good thing.
“I like to receive them, actually,” he said. “Wasn’t yesterday Tonga Day? You don’t have to click into everything you get and, hey, it’s pretty easy to delete what you don’t need.”
About the Author
Dave Seminara (@DaveSem) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.