PDAS Kristin Kane comes to Boise State to speak on diplomacy

Courtesy of Kristen Kane

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Global Public Affairs Kristin Kane came to speak at Boise State on Feb. 22 about diplomacy in the 21st century. 

Kane always wanted to work in public service. For her, this started with a service in the U.S. and Mexico. After college she combined her “love of service with internationalism” and she joined the Peace Corps. 

After returning from the Peace Corps, Kane continued her education at the School of Public Service at Georgetown, which existed even before the State Department’s foreign service. There she learned from professors who were former diplomats, and later entered a career in public diplomacy.

Public diplomacy, sometimes considered “soft” diplomacy, is about building connections. According to Kane, part of the job is being the first to know what’s going on, and knowing who in the community has influence. Typically, around one half to two thirds of the staff at an embassy are local. 

Her first assignment in Lagos, Nigeria remains one of her most impactful experiences. At the time, tensions were high between the Christian and Muslim populations from decades of religious conflict. 

After 9/11, the people of Nigeria were waiting to see how the U.S. would respond, and it was Kane and her team’s job to make sure the U.S.’s stance was clear. At the time Kane was a cultural attaché, and it was her boss who was supposed to give a speech to a crowd of thousands of men. When he fell ill, that responsibility fell to Kane. 

“And [I had] all these questions, like you know, do I wear a headscarf? How do I communicate? Do I greet them in Arabic? You know, all these sorts of things,” Kane said. “And I went there as a quite young woman, brand new diplomat, to speak to them about what the United States was doing and why we were working in Nigeria and what our message was to the Muslim community and it was just such a massive crowd and I was so young in my career, and when I think back, that was again, likely one of the few of only experiences they had with an American official, and that those people probably went back and for them, I was the United States and the United States government.”

It was Kane’s job to explain that the U.S. was not anti-muslim, but trying to find a way to move forward after the terrorist attack. Nigeria has a long history of violence between Christian and Muslim populations, and at the time Kane visited the tension between the two groups was high. 

“I remember getting a letter, you get all sorts of letters that people address to embassies, and I got this letter that I’m almost embarrassed [to] say the kind of language the person was using but essentially was saying ‘what those Muslims do to you guys on 9/11 was awful and we should kill them all and we support you and bombing them all,’” Kane said. “It was just terrible to get that kind of thing, even though it was, in the guise of supporting us. And so we just realized there was so much more we had to do.”

After 9/11, the U.S. received international backlash for its handling of 9/11, and its wars in the Middle East, which have been called “forever wars”. 

“One of the big questions after 9/11 was, why do they hate us? Right? Like how could this have come to this, where they did this kind of attack and killed so many of our people?” Kane said. “So we needed to do a lot of like, reflecting on us as a nation and as a people and to try to explain that and then of course, we went to war in Afghanistan, and not too much later in Iraq, and that made it even more complicated.”

According to Kane the global public opinion of the U.S. went down, not just in Muslim countries, but in allied European countries as well. France was a vocal critic of the U.S.’s actions at the time. In response, there was an anti-France movement in the U.S., where some began calling french fries “freedom fries”. 

“But truly I’m from California, wine shops [were] pouring out French wines. I mean, it was really incredible. So much of the world was concerned about where we were going and what we’re doing with those wars that were as a direct result of 9/11,” Kane said. 

Kane went on to have an impressive career in public diplomacy, including being the Political Counselor at the U.S. Embassy Brasilia, during transitions between three Brazilian presidents, Chargé d’Affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy Lisbon from 2019-2022 and has even worked U.S. assistance programs on counter terrorism funding in the Sahel region. The Sahel region is made up of several states that have had multiple coups,  are poverty stricken, and have active extremist organizations. According to Kane, some of them are “offshoots” of al-Qaeda or similar organizations.

“For young people that don’t have really much opportunity it’s very easy to get pulled into that the same way that kids in the U.S or Brazil can get pulled into gangs … it can give you a community and frankly, can give you some financial support,” Kane said.

The counter-terrorism programs Kane worked with partnered with development agencies to provide alternatives for youth in the region through providing job skills training, online classes, teaching English, and other opportunities. 

 “Sometimes it’s just connecting through the arts, through theater, through sports, through music, and we’ll bring over an American group,” Kane said. “And you’d be amazed that when you go to say a corner of Burkina Faso, just having like an NBA player come out and shoot baskets with some kids and talk about that. I mean, it can be life changing these kinds of interactions. So it’s a lot of fun to see those connections take place and we do think [it’s] important.”

Now, as the PDAS, Kane continues her work on making U.S. foreign policy known to the public in foreign countries, and the U.S. public as well. According to Kane, traditional media, such as news outlets are utilized, along with social media and other digital content platforms. 

“In short, it’s communications … We run a blog, and we’re trying to do that not just for our own State Department platforms, but really so that embassies around the world can use that,” Kane said. “So for example, 2020 for U.S. elections, everyone’s paying attention to it all around the world, right. So we have a number of materials that we can put out that are about how youth get involved or how people volunteer to help at election is different aspects of the unique US system like our electoral college, and we put together what we hope are going to be interesting, compelling stories, translate them into a bunch of different languages, and then get our embassies to use them so that they can interact with Mongolians or Brazilians or others on that.”

In addition to traditional ways of communicating, diplomats may put a message in a speech being aired to the public. When ambassadors give speeches, they may also have a message for another government. While they will communicate the same message behind closed doors, Kane said this is meant to use public opinion to get the message across. Often this technique is used to help encourage a peaceful transition of power.

“Often this is around democracy. Sometimes these are leaders, say in Africa where I’ve spent a lot of time, who don’t want to relinquish power, and  we can tell them ‘well, you know, sir, your time is up and the United States and other countries who support your government are going to be looking for you to you know, peacefully transition power,’” Kane said. “But sometimes when that message isn’t getting across, we will use language specifically to make sure that civil society knows that we are supporting them.”

Kane came to Boise State to give a talk on diplomacy in the 21st century. According to Kane, there has been a shift since the post Cold War era. According to Kane, the post Cold War era was “a time of pretty great optimism”.  During the Cold War, the U.S. was involved in many proxy wars. Once those wars were over, Kane said there was a sense of victory and that capitalism had won out over communism. 

“And we were just looking at what globalization meant, this was really the dawn of the Internet age. So it was really talking about what does this mean to be digitally connected to people all around the world and what will the internet bring us and this connectivity,” Kane said. “It seemed like, wow, there are no borders and we’re going to be able to reach people in incredibly new ways than we did before and people around the world will have an opportunity like they never did before.”

After 9/11, and America’s “Forever Wars” sentiments around globalization and U.S. involvement changed. According to Kane, while those wars are “mostly brought to a close”, the post 9/11 era is a “very complicated time”. While no one has given a name to our current era, Kane believes it is distinct from the post Cold War Era. According to Kane, China, Russia, and others are in “direct challenge” to the democratic world order the U.S. and allies have been trying to build since World War II. 

“It’s clear that China has a very different outlook, and it has the strength and the power to shape the world or try to shape the world in a way that doesn’t say hold democracy as sacred sacrosanct like we do,” Kane said. “And then Russia. I mean, the wars is the most telling part of just the atrociousness of that autocracy.”

While Kane acknowledged that the U.S. is an imperfect democracy, she pointed out that it is a “longstanding” one, over 200 years old, that “each time [is] trying to get better and improve itself.”

Kane also noted a generational divide when it came to views on U.S. global involvement. Kane believes that this is a result of Gen Z having information available at their “fingertips”. 

“I do think that your generation is just demanding a lot more because you’re a lot more engaged and involved and that has a lot to do with not just internet but social media,” Kane said. “How much did we know about climate change? You know, not a lot and the little bit of global warming that we heard or talked about, we didn’t take it seriously. Now we’re meeting up with countries who this is existential for them. They literally might not exist, right, these island nations that are dealing with the rising ocean levels. And so we just have all these challenges in front of us that I think [Generation Z] has grown up seeing and are and bring a passion to it.”

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