U.S. Embassies in Central and Eastern Europe Ignore 100 Anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s Birthday

TedLipien.com TedLipien.com, Truckee, CA, February 08, 2011 — One would think that the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birthday could be a perfect public diplomacy theme for all U.S. embassies in Central and Eastern Europe — a great opportunity for embassy-sponsored events to strengthen ties with America among diverse nations that owe their current independence and freedom in large part to President Reagan’s vision combined with his steadfastness in standing up to the “Evil Empire.” And yet, both highly-trained and highly-paid U.S. diplomats working in the countries of the former Soviet Block by and large completely ignored the anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birthday. Only two diplomatic post out of more than a dozen in the region sponsored a public event designed to remind older and younger generations of East Europeans of Ronald Reagan’s contribution to freeing them from Soviet domination.

The U.S. Consulate General in Krakow, Poland, sent its Public Affairs Officer Benjamin Ousley Naseman to a conference “Ronald Reagan’s Crusade for Freedom” (Krucjata Wolnosci Ronalda Reagana) at the Jagiellonian University. The U.S. Embassy in Tallinn, Estonia, helped to kick off a Ronald Reagan Film Festival, with opening remarks from Chargé d’Affaires Robert Gilchrist. In addition, the Embassy is bringing to Tallinn noted Reagan expert Dr. Lee Edwards, who will be the keynote speaker at a February 14 seminar organized by the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute and held in cooperation with the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, titled “Ronald Reagan 100: President Reagan’s Legacy and Estonian-U.S. Relations.”

But the vast majority of America diplomats treated Reagan’s 100 birthday as if it were a plague. The U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, Poland — a country on which Ronald Reagan had focused more during his presidency than on any other nation in East-Central Europe — had Internet postings on World War II American photojournalist in Poland Julien Brian and the Holocaust Remembrance Day — both good public diplomacy themes but not really very relevant to the current state of U.S.-Polish relations. The U.S. Embassy in Warsaw was also promoting American hip-hop culture at what was described as “the biggest break dance event Rock The Floor featuring American b-boys Abstrak from New York as a judge,” but the embassy website homepage had nothing on Ronald Reagan’s support for the Solidarity movement and Poland’s independence. Why the U.S. embassy should be involved in pushing the style of American music and culture — known for its obscene, offensive, and misogynistic lyrics and behavior — in a mostly Catholic and fairly conservative country like Poland, is frankly beyond me. I think the Poles have much higher expectations of American culture and would benefit more from other examples — American music more appropriate for promoting goodwill toward Americans and appreciation for their cultural achievements.

The U.S. Ambassador to Poland Lee Feinstein, an Obama appointee and one of  Hillary Clinton’s former associates, did not mention the 100 anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth in his Ambassador’s Blog postings. There was also nothing on Ronald Reagan on the U.S. Embassy Warsaw Facebook Page. The U.S. Embassy Warsaw official Blog has not been updated in months. At least, Ambassador Feinstein did not object to the U.S. Consulate in Krakow participating in a Ronald Reagan birth anniversary observance. Krakow was a center of anti-communist resistance in Poland and remains a center of conservative thought. I don’t know to what extent the U.S. Consulate in Krakow was involved in organizing the Reagan-related conference or whether it simply responded to a local initiative, but at least the staff had the courage to send a speaker and post something about the event on their website. This is more than most U.S. diplomatic posts in the region have done.

The list of U.S. diplomatic posts in East-Central Europe which have completely ignored the 100 anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth is quite long, if one does not count automatic brief postings on a few embassy websites of a single America.gov article, which was written at the State Department in Washington. Not even the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, Belarus — a country still run by a post-communist dictator — bothered to mark the Reagan anniversary. The Minsk Embassy website prominently features an article on “New English Teaching Methodologies.”  The embassy website does not even provide a link on its homepage to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which had posted recordings of former U.S. President George Bush and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice(not President Obama or Secretary of State Clinton because they did not participate) reading the names of President Lukashenka’s political prisoners. 

The U.S. Embassy in Kyiev, Ukraine had a posting on the upcoming visit of Mary Wilson of The Supremes and “The Story of The Supremes Exhibit”  — certainly, a better example of American culture than hip-hop — but again nothing on Ronald Reagan. Keep in mind that all of these are U.S. public diplomacy events subsidized in some way by U.S. taxpayers.

The U.S. Embassy in Tirana, Albania, features on its website a link to the State Department website page “Dreams for My Mother, Dreams for My Daughter” on empowering women and girls as a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, but again nothing about Ronald Reagan. (I wonder how this public diplomacy theme in support of women’s rights squares with sponsoring hip-hop events by U.S. diplomatic posts. Mr. Obama likes hip-hop, but would Hillary Clinton approve spending U.S. taxpayers’ money on promoting musical culture described as “ignorant, misogynistic, casually criminal and often violent” ? )The U.S. Embassy in Prague, the Czech Republic, promoted the screening of Kings Row(1942), starring Ronald Reagan, along with other Hollywood films, but failed to note that last Sunday was the 100 anniversary of Reagan’s birth. The U.S. Embassy in Bratislava, Slovakia, at least highlighted the America.gov article President Ronald Reagan: A Legacy of Freedom in Europe, but like most U.S. embassies it did not sponsor any Reagan-related special events and its website‘s main “Spotlight” was “Haiti After One Year.” I was particularly amazed that the U.S. embassies in Latvia (U.S. Embassy Riga) and Lithuania (U.S. Embassy Vilnius) — the two countries, in addition to Estonia, most exposed to pressure from Russia — completely ignored the anniversary. But, of course, the vast majority of U.S. diplomatic posts in the region did as well. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow had nothing on Ronald Reagan on its homepage, and neither did the official Blog of U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle. The U.S. Embassy Moscow Facebook Page, however, did have a link to the website of the Voice of America Russian Service, which — to its credit — prepared a number of special programs and interviews to mark the 100 anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth.  (VOA Russian Service had interviewed former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton.) We should all be grateful that the Voice of America is not under the direct control of the White House or the State Department, but VOA’s bipartisan managing body, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), had terminated VOA Russian radio broadcasts in July 2008, just 12 days before the Russian military attack on Georgia. Only a very tiny segment of the Russian public looks these days at the VOA Russian website. The U.S. Consulate General in St. Petersburg— a city considered much more liberal than Moscow — had nothing on its website on Ronald Reagan. Ironically, the Consulate had posted a large banner publicizing its sponsorship of “Film Noir: The Other Side of Hollywood,” described as “Russia’s first-ever festival dedicated to film noir and the other side of Hollywood.”  There was no mention of Ronald Reagan.

Thank you Mr. President
On the other hand, as reported by the Wall Street Journal “(Reagan Belongs to the World —
Countries in Eastern Europe join the celebration, in recognition of Reagan’s role in their liberation from communism
“), the East Europeans themselves understood perfectly the significance of the Ronald Reagan’s 100 birthday anniversary. They have a far better sense of history than most U.S. diplomats in the region.

President Ronald Reagan with Pope John Paul II in Fairbanks, Alaska, 1984.
President Ronald Reagan with Pope John Paul II in Fairbanks, Alaska, 1984.

In Poland, a special website devoted to the 100 anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birthday urged the Poles to sign an online thank-you card to honor the memory of the former U.S. president. A special Catholic mass was celebrated in Krakow to honor both Reagan and Pope John Paul, his partner in bringing about the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. NGOs, government bodies, and private citizens throughout the region organized numerous other events to celebrate Ronald Reagan’s legacy, thus putting U.S. diplomats, the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale, and the rest of the State Department to shame. 

I would argue that almost nothing was done by U.S. embassies in Central and Eastern Europe for this important anniversary because U.S. public diplomacy has become the domain of self-serving bureaucrats working within a broken, non-functioning system at the State Department. The current public diplomacy infrastructure had replaced the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), which was abolished during the Clinton administration. At least, American diplomats working for USIA enjoyed some measure of independence from the State Department’s political appointees, ambassadors and career political officers, and thus were able to take a longer view of American foreign policy interests. Even then, during the Cold War, I found that many career diplomats, including some USIA officers with whom I had worked at the Voice of America (VOA), did not have a very high opinion of Ronald Reagan. One USIA officer described Ronald Reagan as a raving lunatic after his “Evil Empire” speech, and, even while Ronald Reagan was at the White House, State Department political officers at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw attempted — unsuccessfully — to stop the Voice of America Polish Service from interviewing Solidarity leader Lech Walesa after he had been released from a communist prison.

Still, at least then, there were other Foreign Service Officers with whom I had professional contacts, who understood the importance of independent journalism and public diplomacy in support of human rights. Two of them became later U.S. ambassadors to Poland. While there were some differences between Democratic and Republican administrations, there was a general agreement on what represents good public diplomacy. Anyone who now thinks that there is such a thing as bipartisan public diplomacy designed to further long-term U.S. interests around the world regardless of who sits in the White House would have to conclude after watching the latest snubbing by American diplomats of the legacy of a former U.S. president — one who is particularly revered in Eastern Europe — that this idealistic assumption is no longer true. Most career State Department officials these days think first and foremost about who calls the shots at their embassies and in Washington, their performance evaluations, their next assignment, and their considerable perks.  Keeping each one of these senior Foreign Service Officers abroad costs U.S. taxpayers at least $250,000 a year.

The State Department’s public diplomacy infrastructure has become highly bureaucratized and politicized. If we had a Republican president or even a less ideological Democratic president like Bill Clinton, I would bet that all or most U.S. diplomatic posts in Central and Eastern Europe would not miss Ronald Reagan’s birthday as an opportunity for a public diplomacy event or a special posting for their website. Even though most Foreign Service Officers probably don’t think much of Ronald Reagan, they would undoubtedly do something to mark the occasion with the different kind of leadership from the White House and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But Barack Obama made it clear that he wants a “reset” with Russia and does not care much for public encouragement of human rights and pro-democracy movements a la Ronald Reagan. Only very few among the current generation of U.S. diplomats would dare to go against the tone set by the President and supported by the Secretary of State, even if she is not as keen as her boss on talking nicely to anti-American dictators.        

A conspiracy theorist might think American diplomats gave the whole issue a lot of professional thought but ultimately concluded that calling attention to Ronald Reagan would cause the East Europeans to draw uncomfortable comparisons between President Reagan and President Obama.  In my view, that was not the case. 

One could even understand if not excuse this kind of thinking — giving priority to short-term foreign policy goals of a particular U.S. administration over long-term national interests. I’m afraid, however, that the truth is more prosaic.  Having  worked with American diplomats for over 30 years, I can say with some confidence that for most of them,  if they were worried at all, they were worried primarily about their careers. Marking  Ronald Reagan’s birthday  with any kind of embassy-sponsored special events would be career-risky. It would look bad to their political bosses in the State Department and to the White House. For the vast majority, their decisions had nothing to do with what would be good for public diplomacy, long-term U.S. interests in the region, and expectations from the American taxpayers who pay their salaries. We no longer have many Foreign Service Officers of the same caliber as Ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane or Public Affairs Specialist John H. Brown. Ambassador Bliss Lane resigned during the Truman Administration in protest against the continuation of FDR’s policy with regard to Poland. John H. Brown resigned in protest against George W.  Bush’s war in Iraq. Each represented the kind of diplomat who would not be afraid to risk his career to do what he thought was good for the United States.

In terms of effective public diplomacy themes in East-Central Europe, one could not ask for a better one than the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birthday. For the East Europeans, Ronald Reagan not only contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and helped the “Captive Nations” achieve full sovereignty and independence. Reagan also represents the final break in U.S. foreign policy from the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who, in the words of the words of Ambassador Bliss Lane, had “sold down the river” Poland and other East European nations at Tehran and Yalta to Josef Stalin.

What the East Europeans see now is  a partial return to Roosevelt-style diplomacy in their region. Just as Roosevelt had been fooled by Stalin, Obama has shown FDR-like naivety in dealing with Vladimir Putin and his ex-KGB team that now owns Russia and runs it. Celebrating Ronald Reagan’s legacy at U.S. diplomatic posts in East-Central Europe would have send a signal to the government leaders, the media and the general public that not all U.S. presidents can be fooled by autocratic leaders and not every U.S. president is ready to abandon important political and military commitments to America’s allies to suit his particular personal worldview. For showing that most Americans would not tolerate a betrayal of U.S. allies, the Reagan anniversary offered a highly useful public diplomacy opportunity in East-Central Europe. 

But U.S. public diplomacy has indeed become an expensive farce. Consider this fact: among dozens or perhaps even hundreds of highly-paid U.S. diplomats and other State Department officials who knew in advance that President Obama was going to announce his controversial decision to cancel President Bush’s missile defense commitments to  the Polish government, apparently not a single one tried to warn the White House that making the announcement on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland would be a highly embarrassing public diplomacy disaster.  They also allowed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to embarrass herself with the Russian  mistranslation of the “Reset Button,” and the “reset” idea itself was, in the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski, “childish” as a public relations stunt.

There is no longer bipartisan consensus of what U.S. public diplomacy ought to be and no strategic plan of action. Hundreds of U.S. Public Affairs Officers abroad and public diplomacy specialists at the State Department have been unwilling or unable to save the Obama administration from other highly embarrassing public relations missteps in the foreign policy arena. Why even bother to have the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs if promoting hip-hop music takes precedence in Eastern Europe over Ronald Reagan’s legacy of support for freedom and human rights and his contribution to ending the Cold War and the freeing of the region from Soviet domination. The United States and the Free World no longer have a leader willing to lead the struggle for democracy and human rights, and therefore it has no public diplomacy to support this long-standing U.S. foreign policy goal. Ronald Reagan was such as leader. Sadly, President Obama is not.