Citizens Diplomats Face the Challenge of News Media
Citizen diplomats are reshaping geopolitics in the age of Trump, populism, and increasing isolationism, as we discussed here at GMF last month. Part of the reason we are increasingly polarized is the fragmentation of our news culture, as key leaders in the GMF network have argued. This means it is increasingly difficult for the new generation of citizen diplomats to encounter societies abroad prepared with full and complex views of the realities on the ground. Yet a broad and sophisticated understanding of political and social conditions is essential both for effective leadership in general, and to elevate leaders’ efforts from mere transnational networking into the types of targeted international alliance building so urgently needed to guide us through this period of heightening tensions.
Reliance on news media has always been the first port of call for those looking to stay informed. Yet even with the best of news coverage, it can be difficult to construct a full and accurate picture of affairs abroad. This is especially true of those in leadership positions, who in the age of hyper connectivity are typically compelled to be on email and working soon after waking, and often continue to manage the responsibilities of their leadership roles well into the evening. Combine this with the advent of the 24/7 news cycle, and it is increasingly challenging for many to develop perspectives based on current and deep knowledge of affairs abroad. News may be consumed through radio, summary podcasts and audio “magazines,” print media such as newspapers, news magazines offering longer form analysis, blogs, direct communication of trusted counterparts, and analysis offered by organizations like GMF. The digest versions of these respective sources are available through social media, from Twitter to Facebook and the like, now the primary port of entry for many consumers.
In the midst of this chatter in a myriad of content types and forms, it is increasingly challenging to stay informed in a thoughtful, substantive and meaningful way. For example, the recent re-election of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the United States proved remarkably uneven. An American leader who turned on NPR the morning after the election would have risen to hear a two minute clip on Orban’s “decisive victory,” with no mention of the conditions that shaped the election: His ruling party Fidesz’s roll backs in recent years of democratic institutions; censorship of news media that have made it virtually impossible for a viable opposition to emerge; the fact that no more than half the country has typically even backed Fidesz in recent years; and the widespread propaganda used throughout the election, such as the photoshopping of images of George Soros alongside opposition candidates, and excoriations against immigrant hordes descending on Hungary. Coverage of this fuller context was available that day through The New York Times, but primarily via hyperlinks back to more detailed and nuanced coverage — a plethora of links a busy professional likely would not pause to read through, unless he or she had been following Hungary for months or years. A similar effect can be felt on the other side of the Atlantic, for example in regard to European coverage of the ever-revolving door of appointees and dismissals within the Trump administration. Reading the European press, it can be difficult to gain a full understanding of the U.S. process around political appointees, clearance processes, ethical and legal standards and the branches of government and agencies responsible for upholding these standards, leading to conclusions that agencies are in “disarray” that are perhaps overblown.
Where does this leave leaders working at the subnational or regional level, who increasingly seek to step out as citizen diplomats, and must understand how decision-making and democratic norms operate inside countries they wish to work?
The emerging cohort of citizen diplomats would do well to remember three factors:
First, being well-informed requires immersion in a range of news sources. This has always been a core standard, but the emphasis in the past was typically on ideology: seeking a range of sources across the political spectrum. While this remains important, “range” must be redefined. The new emphasis must be on content types. No leader should rely solely on social media, or print media. News must be consumed in a variety of formats, from the breaking news soundbite to long form analysis.
Achieving both this breadth and depth would of course be challenging, nearly impossible, on every issue. Leaders are therefore best advised to pick one broad issue area linked to affairs abroad and follow this in depth. It might be the rise of populism, for example — meaning a leader would pick up and pursue in more depth stories related to extremism in the United States, Hungary, Spain, Greece, or France. Topics linked to one’s own portfolio also offer natural synergy. The key then is to read and follow this topic with an eye to the ways this issue provides an avenue into wider sociopolitical developments — seeking out the longer form analysis on this topic that links the headlines to the deeper economic, social, and political currents reshaping that country or region.
Finally, while following the news is invaluable and indispensable, there is no substitute for direct, immersive experience. This is not only a core tenant of GMF’s approach to leadership development, but is also central to the advent of the very idea of the citizen diplomat a century ago. Time and resources were initially invested, most often by governments, in sending citizen diplomats abroad under the reasoning that the deepest impressions are always material and interpersonal. This remains true, even in the age of streaming video — but less because of impressions made on those the diplomat visits, rather more for the perspectives gained by the one who ventures abroad.
Citizen diplomats are redefining geopolitics. Whether or not they will ultimately be successful hinges on the leadership they show in shaping a thoughtful and three-dimensional worldview from the plethora of media available.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.