How Tina Turner, Pick-Up Basketball, and Sister Cities Can Undo Trump’s Diplomatic Disasters

A scholar and former “Ambassadude” shows why people-to-people contacts can help Biden, Blinken—and America.

In 2008, my students at Occidental College compiled a report, Rebranding America, which analyzed the state of American influence in the world after almost eight years of the Bush administration’s “Global War on Terror.” Bush left office as one of the most unpopular American presidents with foreign audiences. His excesses, including the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo, the black torture sites run by the CIA, and the now widely seen as discredited invasion of Iraq stained America’s reputation.

Because of the national status of Occidental’s diplomacy program, NPR covered the release of the report and featured two students, a Democrat and a Republican, on air. The students in the course were bi-partisan, or, one might say, non-partisan. They didn’t view America’s role in the world as a defining issue between the two parties, believing perhaps naively that politics, as the maxim goes, stops at the water’s edge.

The election of Barack Obama gave an immediate boost to America’s standing in international polls. In his first year in office, Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize, although he had not really done anything to merit it. As I told foreign audiences at the time, the Norwegian politicians who awarded the prize gave it to the American people for electing the son of a Black Kenyan immigrant and a White mother from Hawaii.

Although Obama’s record of success in foreign affairs was mixed, especially in Afghanistan and the Middle East, he and his team normalized relations with Cuba, negotiated the Iran nuclear deal, engaged China in environmental diplomacy leading to the signing of Paris Climate Accords, promoted a democratic transition in Burma, led the global health effort against the Ebola virus, and perhaps most significantly, repaired America’s relations with our allies. In the 2016 election, the world expected Hillary Clinton to triumph over Donald Trump. Citizens that I met in New Zealand, Canada, the UK, Germany, and almost every other country overwhelmingly preferred Clinton, a former Secretary of State who polled as one of the most admired women in the world. They expressed incredulity that the Republicans would nominate Trump — who attacked immigrants, particularly Muslims and Mexicans, ridiculed America’s allies, and promoted “America First” language reminiscent of the 1930s. If citizens in other countries could vote in the US election, they would have elected Clinton in a landslide.

But with the help of Russian agents of influence, Trump won the Presidency, revealing deep rifts in American society over race, class, and international involvement. Almost overnight, America did not seem so exceptional. The shining city on a hill that Presidents Kennedy and Reagan had celebrated was deeply tarnished. The American brand had become the Trump family logo.

In my course, I assigned students to write papers on the state of American influence under Trump. It’s no surprise that they found a decline in respect and admiration for the US in almost every country.

I’ve practiced diplomacy as the US ambassador to Finland and as a public diplomacy speaker for the State Department across Asia in China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand; in Europe, in Germany, Greece, Kazakhstan and the Baltics; in Chile, Bolivia, Brazil and Peru in Latin America, and in Syria in the Middle East. I’ve also advised the heads of the US Pacific and Central Commands, hosting meetings for them with foreign military leaders.

I’ve heard from former foreign ministers and diplomats representing countries in Asia, Europe, and Latin America about what Biden should do to reboot American diplomacy given the damage wrought by Trump.

Almost everyone echoed an Asian diplomat who said, “The world has to trust you to stay the course with your allies and stand for your values.” A European commented, “Your word needs to be good again.”

President Biden is doing that by rejoining the Paris Climate Accords and the World Health Organization, reaching out to allies in NATO and other international organizations, restarting talks with Iran, and appointing diplomatic and national security professionals. But the task is much harder now than simply returning to Obama’s policies of engagement. Russia and China are stronger and more aggressive, openly challenging America militarily, economically, and diplomatically. MIG aircraft buzz our fleet; China’s “One Belt, One Road” is an authoritarian version of the Marshall Plan. And there is the global pandemic consuming the president’s budget and attention.

America’s biggest foreign policy challenge is American politics. Every foreign diplomat with whom I spoke was horrified by the assault on the Capitol and by Republican attack on the electoral process. They’re petrified by the right-wing nationalist hold Trump has on the party. They may not have liked Dick Cheney’s blunderbuss approach to American power, but they’re horrified by seeing Liz Cheney booted from Republican leadership for standing up for democracy.

The New York Times has been running a series of video opinion interviews with foreign citizens on such topics as health, elections, culture, and law enforcement. In the segment on policing, foreign police chiefs are shocked to learn that in the US, police kill more civilians than in any advanced country and that the hours of training for police are less than in 95 countries—fewer than for barbers. A warrior mindset prevails, not a community guardian outlook, and police have qualified immunity for their actions, including corruption. Foreign experts in other fields were equally horrified when they learned about America’s weak social safety net, the cost of healthcare, and how we conduct our elections.

This is not news to President Biden.

He and his team understand the linkage between domestic policy and foreign affairs as well as any president in modern times. While he is fighting politically for an expansive reform agenda at home, the president can also lead a revitalization of American diplomacy by focusing on what works best to promote American values.

Based on decades of experience with the International Visitors Leadership Program, the Fulbright exchanges, and the Peace Corps, we know that people-to-people contact is the most effective way of conducting public diplomacy. When I served as US ambassador in Helsinki, I found that every member of the Finnish cabinet had traveled to the US for study tours on the International Visitors program. I first met then Prime Minister, Paavo Lipponen, when he visited California on a program as a student leader in the 1980s while I was serving in city government. I saved his calling card and returned it to him when I met him again as the US ambassador. Our rapport made it easier for me to arrange for Finland to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace and to support Finland’s joining the European Union. When Secretary of Defense William Perry came to Helsinki, he joined the Prime Minister and I in the sauna to discuss the clean-up of radioactive material leaking from Russian submarines in Murmansk. Because of the close working relationship that I had with Finnish government, President Martti Ahtissari agreed to host the 1997 summit between President Clinton and Russian president Boris Yeltsin, loaning us the Finnish “White House” for the talks every year before the pandemic, an American professor has filled the Fulbright chair at Helsinki University, teaching courses on US history and giving guest lectures in other Nordic and Baltic universities. One year, my Occidental colleague Lynn Dumenil, an expert on women’s history, held the post. A country-based Fulbright commission selects Finnish scholars and students to teach and study in the US. With the rise of rightwing nationalism in Europe, revitalizing relations with friendly countries like Finland matters more than ever.

Fulbright exchanges and the International Visitors programs have been on hiatus because of the pandemic. American diplomats have been sidelined, prevented in almost every country from having in-person meetings. President Biden’s pledge that “diplomacy is back” requires a healthy world if his revival of American diplomacy is to have a long lasting impact.

Vaccine Diplomacy

On his first day in office, President Biden signed National Security Memorandum #1, directing the State Department and USAID to develop a strategy to lead the global fight against COVID-19 and combat future pandemics. After an initial focus on getting shots into the arms of Americans, the Biden administration has begun to assist other countries struggling with the virus, sending vaccines to Mexico and Canada, and voicing support for suspending patent rights to allow foreign countries to produce US-developed vaccines. Russia and China are engaging in aggressive vaccine diplomacy, providing doses of their home made vaccines to countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

It is a time that cries out for strong American leadership. President Biden has a tested diplomat in place to lead the effort—Samantha Power, newly appointed head of USAID. While serving as UN ambassador, Power helped coordinate the multilateral effort to combat the Ebola virus. Biden should task her with leading a global campaign to contain and defeat the virus.

As the world reopens to in person diplomacy, Biden should direct the State Department and other agencies to ramp up public diplomacy and provide the resources to support a “soft power” push. Every ambassador that Biden appoints, both career and political, should be expected to practice robust public diplomacy. Here are proven initiatives and programs that our diplomats can use.

Exporting the National Park Idea

The Ken Burns PBS documentary calls national Parks “America’s Best Idea.” During the Clinton administration, my sister Brooke Shearer worked at the Interior Department and pioneered export of the national park concept to former Soviet countries like Georgia. With local partners, she helped establish Tusheti National Park. A ranger station in the park is named in her memory.

Since that time, the National Park Service has created an Office of International Affairs which, pre-pandemic, ran a number of programs — including the International Volunteers-in-Parks program that brought over 100 foreign students on J-1 exchange visas to work in US national parks and take their training back home; Sister Park relationships, which link US parks with national parks in other countries; an International Technical Assistance project that has trained park rangers in Mexico, Central America and other countries; and the Learning From Our Colleagues initiative supported by a private donation which provides travel/study grants abroad for National Park Service field leaders. 

Higher Education: A Valuable Export

Until the pandemic, foreign students studying in the United States contributed $25 -$30 billion a year to US exports. The relationships and goodwill that result from opening our universities and colleges to foreign students go beyond the dollar value of tuition. Lifelong relationships also result, with diplomatic value. As a young man from Ghana, Koffi Annan studied at Macalester College in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Annan went on to become the first African Secretary General of the United Nations, working closely and effectively with the United States. The Prime Minister of Finland studied at Dartmouth as an undergraduate, playing on the water polo team. I arranged for Dartmouth to invite him back as the graduation speaker and accompanied him on the trip where he spoke about the common values uniting our countries. Not every foreign student is enamored of America, but the overwhelming majority take away an appreciation of American culture, a respect for our virtues, and an understanding that we continue to struggle with our flaws.

America’s universities have global ties that will be revived as the world is vaccinated. But like the national parks idea, the concept of the community college is ripe for export. In most countries, only a small proportion of the population qualifies for university. American community colleges are unique in offering a stepping stone for students who couldn’t initially qualify and/or afford four year degree programs. President Biden’s wife Dr. Jill Biden knows well the value of community colleges, having taught at them for most of her career. She is the ideal person to lead an initiative to provide support for countries interested in creating community colleges.

We should also be open to learning from other countries, especially about K-12 educational practices. Germany’s apprenticeship programs have made them an industrial leader. Finland regularly ranks near the top of international educational rankings, as does Singapore; New Zealand has pioneered a child-centered humanist approach to teaching children; and French schools teach children to appreciate healthy, locally grown food.

American Entrepreneurship

As ambassador, I hosted visiting American businessmen and promoted American products, but I went beyond serving California wines at official dinners, giving Sees Candy as dinner gifts, and serving Bay Area microbrew tastings. I gave lectures at Finland’s leading business schools about America’s entrepreneurial spirit, citing Ben and Jerry’s getting started in Vermont. I explained how Americans at a young age set up lemonade stands on corners, sell Girl Scout cookies outside supermarkets, and raise money with bake sales for sports teams and political causes. Can the entrepreneurial spirit and start-up know how be exported to other cultures? Most countries, even the poorest, have vibrant open air marketplaces with stalls and small shops but individual sellers—many of them women—often lack the capital and knowledge to create sustainable business enterprises.

The Global Entrepreneurial Summit was initiated by the Obama administration in 2010. Co-sponsored with a host country, gatherings which brought together American entrepreneurs and young audiences were held in Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur, Marrakesh, Nairobi, and The Hague. Members of the Oxy Entrepreneurs from our campus attended the meeting in Malaysia. The Commerce Department started a program of Presidential Ambassadors for Global Entrepreneurship, sending successful US entrepreneurs to share stores, knowledge, and technical assistance, particularly with female and minority audiences abroad.

The State and Commerce Departments should jointly support an Entrepreneurial officer stationed in every American embassy, starting with the embassies in Latin America and Africa.

Sports Diplomacy

I routinely practiced sports diplomacy while serving in Finland. On Saturdays, I was the point guard on the embassy team that competed in an industrial league where we played against businessmen from leading companies. We also defeated the Russian embassy to win the ceremonial cup donated by a Finnish insurance company. On Sundays, I played tennis with leading Finnish diplomats, attended ice hockey matches with the Prime Minister and welcomed the US national hockey team when they came to play. I also threw out the ceremonial first pass at the championship game for the Finnish American football league at the Olympic stadium. The ubiquity of sports in American life and depth of community participation is a great diplomatic resource.

America’ sports franchises have a global audience. Athletes like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have an international fan base, and the professional leagues in basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer, football, and golf attract international talent—both male and female. The State Department has recognized the potential of sports to engage foreign audiences, particularly youth, and supports a Sports Envoy program which has sent famous athletes like NBA star Kareem Abdul Jabbar, MLB great Cal Ripken, Jr., and Olympic skater Michelle Kwan abroad to give talks, conduct clinics, and meet with local athletes, coaches, and sports administrators. One of its goals is to send women athletes and athletes with disabilities abroad to encourage diversity in sports. The Sports Visitors Program brings coaches and young athletes to the US for two week educational change programs. A Sports Grants Program sends groups of young American athletes abroad and brings foreign youth sports groups to the US. During the Obama administration, the program also embraced newer sports aimed at young audiences, like skateboarding. USC professor Neftalie Williams was the first Skateboard Envoy, conducting clinics for the State Department in Cuba, Cambodia, and the Netherlands. Secretary of State Blinken should embrace and endorse the Sports Diplomacy program and reach out to prominent athletes like LeBron James and Serena Williams to participate as Sports Envoys. The State Department should also engage the sports programs at American colleges and universities to participate in international exchange programs. The American ambassador to the UN should actively support the organization’s Sport for Development and Peace program (UNOSDP) created by Koffi Annan.

Cultural Diplomacy

I only had a few suits that I wore as an ambassador, but I always wore a variety of Jerry Garcia ties. This bit of Grateful Dead-era memorabilia made great gifts to government officials and business leaders. I greeted American entertainers when they performed in Finland, hosting singers Johnny Cash, BB King, Wilson Pickett, Tina Turner, James Brown, and Jackson Browne, as well as cellist Ralph Kirshbaum and the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by a Finn, Esa-Pekka Salonen. At the Pori Jazz festival, I rode on the running board of James Brown’s white Rolls Royce as he arrived for his show. I invited the entire orchestra to my official residence for an outdoor party to meet their Finnish counterparts. For the Helsinki premiere of Oliver Stone’s film Nixon, I led a panel discussion on Watergate and freedom of the press.

Finland’s leading rock band The Leningrad Cowboys played at my 50th birthday party. I was made an honorary member of the band, inducted as “The Ambassadude that’s shakin’ the nation.” A Finnish professor of literature translated Elvis Presley’s greatest hits into Latin and recorded the songs, appearing naked with his guitar on the cover of the CD. I appeared at the press launch to congratulate him. To open the American Car Show in Helsinki, I rode into the arena in a classic fin-tailed Buick owned by my Finnish driver and was greeted by the country’s leading Elvis impersonator.

Leningrad Cowboys and Derek Shearer

Ambassador Shearer with “The Leningrad Cowboys” (Courtesy of Derek Shearer)

Such cultural diplomacy is part of any American ambassador’s diplomatic toolkit. The new Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, Daniel J. Kritenbrink, filmed a video with Vietnam’s leading rapper when he served as ambassador to Vietnam. Obama’s ambassador to France Charles Rivkin, who ran the Muppets company, brought American stars like Samuel L. Jackson to France. During the Obama administration, the State Department sent a theater troupe around China to perform a play on the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers written by Geoff Cowan, former head of the Voice of America. After the performances, Cowan would come on stage to discuss freedom of the press with the audience.

In addition to sending American performers and artists abroad, The State Department should revive the program where copies of any book published in America are made available to American embassies to give as gifts and to donate to local libraries. If I served as ambassador again, I would have a supply of Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem The Hill We Climb and my university classmate George W. Bush’s Out of Many, One: Portraits of American Immigrantsto give as exemplars of American culture and diversity.

City Diplomacy

My hometown Los Angeles has sister city relationships with Berlin, Auckland, Guangzhou, St. Petersburg, and other leading cities. LA’s Mayor Eric Garcetti has been a leading force in creating an international alliance of almost 100 cities to combat climate change. He established the first Deputy Mayor for International Affairs in the country, currently held by Ambassador Nina Hachigian who represented the US at ASEAN during the Obama administration. Under their leadership, Los Angeles established a Mexico-Los Angeles Commission that pairs leaders in vital economic and social sectors. The LA Mayor’s Young Ambassadors program sends disadvantaged community college students on overseas trips to meet their foreign counterparts.

As proposed by Congressional legislation, the State Department should establish a permanent office for city and state diplomacy, including detailing Foreign Service Officers to state capitols and city halls to support and build on local connections with foreign partners and to make sure that every American ambassador is aware of which cities in the host country had Sister City relationships with American cities. The Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy should convene a gathering of the nation’s mayors to promote global city-to-city engagement.

Fighting Misinformation in the Digital Age

When I served as an ambassador in the 1990s, the internet was in its infancy and social media consisted of gossip. My public affairs officer, Jeremy Curtin, created one of the first websites for an American embassy. I mainly posted copies of my speeches on it. Today, US embassies have the usual Facebook and Twitter presence, plus blogs and so on. The rise in misinformation, the deliberate spread of conspiracy theories, and online attacks on democratic institutions are supported by our adversaries, notably the governments of Russia and China. Sometimes, they come from non-governmental right wing nationalist organizations in the US and abroad.

The only antidote to lies and false narratives is to tell the truth. One of my hardest tasks as an ambassador was to explain the LA jury’s decision in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. When he was acquitted of the murder of his wife and her male friend, it was difficult for the Finnish media to understand how the Simpson jurors had voted and why. I explained that for Black members of the jury, the testimony of the police was not considered trustworthy, especially that of the lead detective who had a history of racist behavior. Decades of police harassment and brutality against the Black population of the city could not but affect the views of some Black jurors.

The men and women whom President Biden appoints as his ambassadors should be able to discuss frankly the Tulsa Massacre and George Floyd’s murder. If they are also sports fans and can promote American popular culture, so much the better. It’s all in our national interest.

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Derek Shearer

Derek Shearer, former US ambassador to Finland, is the Chevalier professor of Diplomacy at Occidental College and directs the McKinnon Center for Global Affairs.