My good friend Fay Lewis died last September, and I’ve been mulling her passing the last many months. For years, I had grown used to Fay calling me up and shaking me out of my self-importance and a schedule that I thought couldn’t bear any more meetings.
Lewis had become America’s super-agent for placing foreign visitors that the Department of State had targeted as prospects for serving as better bridges between their countries and the U.S. Through her demands issued to me from her perch at the Meridian International Center, directing the Center’s work with the State Department”s International Visitor Leadership Program, I met somewhere around 1,000 people since she first put me to work for her.
Now when I travel around the world — almost anywhere in the world — I know a prominent journalist, or someone who has become a mayor, or Ambassador, or even head of government, as in the case of Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard who visited the US in this very same leadership program years ago. We talked a lot when Gillard visited about DC’s lucrative think tank business. I know regular folks who came through these programs — and despite my impulses of real irritation now and then that Fay Lewis just didn’t understand how busy I was, I am so grateful to her for never allowing me to say no.
We are led to think that diplomacy is a function of this or that Secretary of State, or the exchanges between Presidents — and of course, that’s true. But the foundation of public diplomacy happens through the tight knots tied through high quality, high impact people to people encounters.
This kind of diplomacy is vital if America is going to eventually bridge an embarrassingly large gap between this country and many countries in the increasingly turbulent Middle East North Africa region — or in South Asia. And frankly, it’s also vital in places the US thought were checked off boxes.
I just returned from Austria on a State Department invitation to meet with Austrians and discuss the impact of new media on political trends around the world. The program — organized by two women who clearly come from the diplomatically committed, tough as nails gene pool as Lewis, Alice Burton and Karin Czerny — impressed with me by how much the meeting and encounters seemed to be sticky for everyone involved, that what we were doing would matter beyond that moment.
My final night in Vienna I went out and ended up meeting quite a large number of young Austrians who were pretty ambivalent about the US. They felt ‘pushed around’ as one young man told me by demands of the international economy (i.e., Greece bailout) or forced by the US to think one way or another about problems like Afghanistan or Libya. One woman said she felt that Austria didn’t really matter to the US and that her country got ‘passive-aggressive abuse’ from the US.
I’m not entirely clear what she meant by passive-aggressive in this case, but it’s clear that the trust that existed on one level in the silo of US-Austria relations might not be filtering down to the next generation.
If America is going to continue to lead in the world, it will need partners — and those partnerships can’t be considered ‘checked off boxes’, or as places in which the US has done enough investment. If we are going to ask the citizens of other nations to stand behind a global agenda of which the US is primary sculptor, then we are going to have to find dynamic ways to continually re-invent the social contract between Americans and others — in distant countries and those we consider close.
I want to give a shout out to my old friend Klaus Bondam, Copenhagen’s excellent “Bicycle Mayor” who many may remember from his breakout role in the international film, The Celebration. Bondam is also a leading European activist on climate, sustainability, and anti-discrimination causes.
I met Klaus in the late 1990s because of a Fay Lewis directive that I would meet with him — and over the years, she wouldn’t let us be done with each other. I got bi-annual reports, sometimes quarterly, on what Bondam was up to and how his political fortunes and gay and green activism were faring in Denmark. Not sure if he got reports on my stuff, but I’ve felt reasonably close to this fascinating guy for years — and now that Fay Lewis won’t be there to continue to slap us together, we’ll have to do on our own.
In my view, we owe a lot to the people who work hard to organize encounters abroad for Americans and collisions of ideas and culture when foreign visitors come to the US.
So a big salute to the extraordinary diplomatic cogs in a machine that doesn’t give them enough recognition for the incredible work they do.
Recently, Hillary Clinton gave sinologist and outgoing National Security Council Senior Director for Asia Jeffrey Bader the Distinguished Service Award. Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingguo actually participated in the ceremony — which was extraordinary and unusual on many levels. Bader’s well deserved distinction got me thinking.
The rules on these awards are complicated — but a friendly note to Secretary Clinton: You or someone should consider giving the great Fay Lewis a posthumous distinction for her loyalty to the diplomatic portfolio and objectives of this country and use it as a way to pay tribute to the many doing the daily grind of meeting planning and coordination, those who have to fight through to the policy divas of Washington who are often too busy, too distracted, or just too important to pay attention to those lesser known folks visiting from Nigeria, and Malta, and Sri Lanka, and Denmark, Mongolia, or from anywhere and everywhere else around the world.
Fay Lewis and ‘they’ deserve a celebratory exclamation point from Secretary of State Clinton, President Obama, and the rest of us.
— Steve Clemons is Washington Editor at Large of The Atlantic and Founder & Senior Fellow of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation