Q&A with CPD: Arturo Sarukhan

A career diplomat in Mexico’s foreign ministry, Ambassador Sarukhan is an international strategic consultant and advisor who currently serves as a CPD Distinguished FellowThe following is an edited transcript of an exclusive interview conducted at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy.

How did you first become aware of the field of public diplomacy?

I think the first time I started processing what public diplomacy meant or entailed was as a young child being raised in the United Kingdom. Understanding the power and attraction of British culture around the world, whether it’s Shakespeare, the Beatles, or Francis Bacon – how culture in particular was a key component of public diplomacy outreach efforts –  was probably how I later started thinking in a more organic way of how countries can harness the assets, the tools, and the advantages they have because of their cultural footprints to develop public diplomacy strategies. 

I think that the dramatic change in my own experience was when I was able to marry technology with traditional public diplomacy implementation. I think the moment technology and public diplomacy came in line was a “before and after” moment for how countries, ambassadors, foreign ministries, and NGOs conduct public diplomacy.  

Could you describe a joint public diplomacy effort for U.S-Mexico relations that might benefit both countries?

I think it is evident that instead of going about the traditional way of conducting public diplomacy – with each country designing priorities, its vectors of action, and the strategy to roll out public diplomacy in each country – both Mexico and the United States need to modify that paradigm and develop and implement joint public diplomacy that they can conduct together, simultaneously, in both countries.

Why is this important? Because one of the greatest challenges the U.S-Mexico relationship faces these days is winning the hearts and minds of Americans and Mexicans on both sides of the border. This bilateral relationship is vital to the prosperity, security, and economic well-being of both nations. A profound sea-change has occurred in U.S-Mexican bilateral relations over the last 20 years that needs to be recognized, processed and acknowledged.

Can you give an example of what you consider a successful digital diplomacy program?

Well, quite frankly, mine – as Mexican Ambassador to the United States and first ambassador there to use Twitter as a tool for public diplomacy! Joking aside, I think there are several countries that have started to do this in an organic, holistic way, that are sort of trail-blazing, leading, and teaching other foreign ministries and governments how to do this. I would probably single out Canada, Sweden, and Italy as three nations doing some of the most innovative, comprehensive, and coordinated work. What I think these three countries have in common is that they are training personnel, they are developing standard operating procedures, they are developing a whole-of-government approach that underpins these strategies for digital and public diplomacy, and they have embraced how to bring traditional public diplomacy in line with some of the new tools that the 21st century offers governments and citizens to interact.

Please share some of the more difficult and rewarding aspects of your experience as an Ambassador managing U.S-Mexican relations?

Some of the most frustrating aspects are obviously related to how hard it is to change perceptions and misperceptions, which is why public diplomacy is such an important piece of not only how these two countries understand one another, but how they go about engaging and changing narratives that persist in both countries regarding the other. As we pushed back on stereotypes and misperceptions we saw loonies on both sides of the border. They run in the best families, and that can be very frustrating. 

I think some of the most rewarding aspects are obviously being able to see how societal connections impact perceptions. Societies have always blossomed in history because of human connections and, again, the combination of what we have traditionally done with public diplomacy now tethered to the digital platforms and technology we now have at our disposal, means that we are able to reach more people, in real time, and faster. This allows us to potentially impact perceptions before they become so engrained and written in stone that it is then impossible to change them. 

What career advice would you give to students of public diplomacy?

That it is not only about your vision, it is not only about possessing the necessary tools and having an objective or clear mission statement of what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it. It’s just as important to understand the bureaucracies and government structures that are relevant to your vision. You may have the best of visions but if your bureaucracy is not streamlined enough, is not modern enough, is not willing to take on risks, change and innovation, the best visions can flounder.

Government bureaucracies are very resistant to change. I have always said that we must remember that everybody except babies hates change and government bureaucracies are no different.  But, at the end of the day I think governments, governmental institutions, and bureaucrats that do not take into account the promise, the opportunity and the perils that technology wedded to public policy can deliver, will do so at their own risk. 

About Q&A with CPD

In this series, the USC Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD) interviews international thought-leaders as well as key practitioners of public diplomacy and related professional fields to provide our readers with insight into the inner workings of some of the world’s most thoughtful PD practitioners. For more information about the Q&A with CPD series, click here.

To read the other interviews in this series, please click here.



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