Thinking Aloud: Reflections of Ambassador Robert Ford

Nov. 13, 2014 by Darius 

Yesterday I saw former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford speak about his experience in public diplomacy.  Ford’s talk was quite interesting and filled with anecdotes and stories from his experiences in the Middle East.  Today, I’ll share Amb. Ford’s five lessons about public diplomacy in US foreign policy today.  Tomorrow, I’ll bring you some of his other comments.

  1. As ambassador, it is sometimes very important to be seen and to be there physically. In 2011, Ford, ambassador to Syria at the time, went to the city of Hama to witness protests there firsthand.  The purpose of the trip was not to show US support for the goals of the protesters but rather for their right to be peaceably protesting.  Ford said that he decided to go to Hama because there were reports that the Syrian army was massing outside the city and that bloodshed might follow.  Ford wanted to be able to see firsthand who started any fighting.  Although protests in Hama were peaceful during Ford’s visit, his visit showed ordinary Syrians that the US was paying attention.
  1. It is important to reach out to regular people. A few months later in Syria, an activist who had promoted nonviolent protest was tortured to death by the regime.  Amb. Ford, after contacting the family of the activist, attended the activist’s funeral along with several other ambassadors he had recruited.  It shined an international spotlight on a very local affair and sent the message that the US cares about ordinary people.
  1. Keep up with technology. TV interviews and newspapers aren’t enough anymore.  In Syria, for example, where there is no free press, newspapers and other local media were useless.  So Amb. Ford starting posting on Facebook.  Quickly, anything he posted on Facebook became major news for the Arabic satellite TV channels like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya.  Ordinary Syrians (and others throughout the Middle East) could watch these channels.  Facebook became a platform for important content: for example, when the Syrian government was denying it was shelling Syrian cities, Amb. Ford posted satellite imagery of the artillery on Facebook.  The denials stopped.
  1. Don’t overuse access to the media. Ambassador Ford didn’t spend as much time on this point.  He related, though, that when he was ambassador to Algeria, he maintained such a high media profile that the Algerian government began to get very anxious indeed.  He felt this was counterproductive.
  1. Don’t underestimate soft power. Ford related another story from Algeria.  He was going to visit a university in Tlemcen, in western Algeria, to see students who had taken classes in English and online classes in engineering and nursing that had been sponsored by the US government.  Tlemcen, though, is a very conservative, Islamic, city, and Israel had just begun bombing Gaza.  Amb. Ford wanted a small public profile and was expecting a hostile audience.  Instead, though, 500 students showed up and as soon as he walked into the room, every student there stood up and applauded.  Why?  Because literally every single Algerian student who had taken the classes sponsored by the US government had quickly found a job—in a country with incredibly high youth unemployment.  These classes, which had created so much goodwill towards the US, had cost about $750,000 total; or, as Amb. Ford put it, less than one cruise missile. 🙂

Tomorrow, I’ll share some of Ambassador Ford’s other interesting comments.

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