U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Goli Ameri will speak at a public forum today about the challenges that the U.S. government faces in public diplomacy. As the highest-ranking Iranian American public official in the U.S. government and the head of the state department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Ameri deals with cultural and public diplomacy issues.
Assistant News Editor Theresa Avila spoke with Ameri about her work on the government’s first social networking site and the importance of bringing people together from different cultures.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following has been edited for length and clarity.)
Daily Bruin: Your speaking engagement is titled “The Challenges of U.S. Public Diplomacy in the 21st Century.” In your opinion, what are the main diplomatic challenges facing the United States today that it did not face before?
Goli Ameri: Public diplomacy involves engaging people and informing foreign audiences. So the challenges of public diplomacy usually arise in times of conflict. So when you are in a time of conflict, it is difficult to direct the focus to how America and Americans are viewed by foreign countries.
DB: Is there anything specifically that your bureau is doing to help alleviate this problem?
GA: Well, it is sort of in three different steps, and this is part of what I will be talking about (today). First, of course, is through the war of ideas, and there’s no one that’s very happy with this terminology, but basically what it means is you know trying to create an environment where violent extremism will be repudiated, creating an environment where the thought process will be repudiated. So that’s one way. The second way is through the international broadcasting that the U.S. does. ... The third way is through international exchanges, bringing people together to create greater mutual understanding, and that is the bureau that I am currently heading.
One of the things that we’ve encouraged in our bureau is trying to push for exchanges into cyberspace because more and more young people are spending more and more time “hanging out” in cyberspace, and we need to be there to start conversations. To basically create an environment where we can bring people together. And that is what I’m most interested in talking about.
DB: Are you talking about the Web site that you launched recently?
GA: Yes, we are talking about our social networking site, which is the U.S. government’s; from what I understand, first social networking site, and basically what it does is it brings people together who are interested in international exchanges.
DB: And can anyone just sign up for this?
GA: Yes, anyone can join. And the more people join, the more relevant the site becomes. (The Web can be accessed at connect.state.gov)
DB: As the current head of the Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs, you work to foster mutual understanding with people across the world. In your opinion, what does it take to make exchanges with different countries, cultures and people have a long-lasting and positive impact?
GA: Well, that’s an excellent question. I have some relative experience myself. I grew up in Iran and left when I was 17. I’ve lived in Europe, studied in the United States and am an American by choice. But I think based on these experiences, I know for a fact it’s really difficult to get to know America and Americans and not to fall in love.
When you put people in contact with Americans and they get to know who Americans really are, it’s incredible how people truly fall in love. I can personally attest to that. But at the same time, I do know that when Americans go overseas and they get to know foreign countries, you know, the same exact thing happens. So when people come together, it’s incredibly powerful.
DB: I wanted to ask about your trip last fall when you traveled to Baghdad and you announced your bureau’s Iraq Cultural Heritage Project to help renovate and improve the Iraq National Museum. If you could explain why the U.S. decided to take on this cause specifically, and what sort of role this plays in public diplomacy?
GA: My bureau at the state department actually has been very active with cultural projects. And you know, since the war in Iraq and the looting started, my bureau has been very active in helping the Iraqis to make sure that there was a red list produced so that looted objects could be stopped at the border, confiscated and returned to Baghdad, and also in helping the Iraqis take better care of their national heritage.
Clearly, the Iraqi national heritage really belongs to the whole world because that’s sort of where the origins of the civilization are. But we got to a point where because of the surge and the improving situation in Iraq that we were able to actually do more.