African Diplomats Orientation
Day 1: September 27, 2006
H.E. Ambassador Nabil Fahmy, Ambassador of Egypt to the United States and Chairman of the Committee on Capacity Building of the Washington-based African Diplomatic Corps
Panel 1: An Overview of the American Political System
Ambassador Howard Wolpe, Director: Africa Program and Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (WWICS)
Kent Hughes, Director, Program on Science, Technology, America and the Global Economy, WWICS
Panel 2: Getting Around the Hill
Adwoa Dunn-Mouton, Consulting Program Manager for Congressional Staff Forum on Africa, WWICS
Donald Wolfensberger, Director, Congress Project, WWICS
Ambassador Howard Wolpe, Director: Africa Program and Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, WWICS
Day 2: September 28, 2006
Panel 1: What Diplomats Need to Know About the Executive Branch
James A. Schear, Director of Research of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University
Whitney Schneidman, President of Schneidman and Associates; Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs
Panel 2: Using the Media to Maximize Visibility and Communication Effectiveness
Jim Margolis, Co-Chair Vox Global Leadership and Senior Partner GMMB
Donatella Lorch, reporter, correspondent, and former Director of the Knight International Press Fellowship
The morning session of Day 1 provided an overview of the American political system. Ambassador Fahmy opened the meeting with his observations on effective navigation and advocacy within the American environment. He spoke of the social and political factors which drive Americans and influence American domestic and foreign policy decisions. He highlighted the size and uniqueness of the American landscape, as well as the diversity of opinion, advising diplomats to extend their scope beyond Washington, DC. Finally, Ambassador Fahmy noted that while diplomats will likely not be able to influence policy once it has taken on momentum, understanding the nature and direction of American policy will allow them to tailor their advocacy approach to the interests of American policy makers.
Building on Ambassador Fahmy's introduction, Howard Wolpe outlined the American system of government. Wolpe explained the fundamentals of the different branches of government, as well as the roles and responsibilities of the Senate and the House of Representatives. In order to contextualize American politics, Wolpe began by identifying four major principles. First, he noted that Americans perceive their system of government as a representative democracy, which acts on behalf of its constituents. Second, America's founders had a profound mistrust of government. He indicated that this mistrust is reflected in the constitution which calls for a divided government, and a system of checks and balances. Next, American politics are driven by the concept of federalism. The national government shares its authority with the individual states. The nation, however, is clearly supreme, and individual states cannot undermine fundamental rights of their citizens as dictated by the constitution. Finally, he noted that there are limitations on the rights of majorities, as spelled out in the Bill of Rights. He noted that America is often mis-characterized as a pure system of majority rule; in point of fact, the governmental structure compromised with pure majoritarianism by establishing a Senate constituted of two representatives from each state, irrespective of the population of the states.
Kent Hughes followed Wolpe's presentation with an analysis of lobbying and advocacy. According to Hughes, in order to advocate effectively within the American system, it is essential to understand who is responsible for what. He identified the main actors in the Executive Office which are of interest to foreign diplomats, specifically, the Office of the Management of the Budget (OMB). Hughes emphasized the value of making contact with interest caucuses within the Congress, particularly the Black Caucus or Africa-specific caucuses. Hughes advised the diplomats to take the opportunity to go outside of the beltway and observe American society.
The afternoon panel of Day 1 addressed how to navigate Capitol Hill. Howard Wolpe opened the session indicating that African embassies, especially those that are short-staffed, will not have the capacity to track everything that goes on in Congress. He advised diplomats to know as much about the people as the politics and he identified targeting as an essential tool for accessing the Hill. Diplomats, he indicated, must research the different committees and members of congress in order to identify those individuals and forums which are of most interest to and can potentially have the greatest impact on their countries. In addition, Wolpe noted that the most important person to deal with is often not the member of congress, but rather the staffer. As a rule of thumb, personal contact is always the most effective means of gaining access and building relationships.
Donald Wolfensberger continued with a discussion of how to deal with congressional offices and key congressional staff, as well as useful entry points for African diplomats. He identified key dynamics of Congress which contribute to its uniqueness and therefore pose difficulties to individuals from different systems of government. He explained that first, Congress is a separate branch, independent of the president. Second, Congress is comprised of the House and the Senate, two very different branches who often do not talk comfortably with each other. In addition, members of Congress are most concerned about issues that affect their districts and their constituents. He noted that it is prudent for the foreign diplomat to find a way to tie his/her national interests to the interest of the members' constituents. He provided examples including international security, economy, and/or issues of fairness and equity. On the subject of targeting, Wolfensberger recommended the "Yellow Book," a guide to congressional members and staff, as an essential tool for foreign diplomats.
Drawing from her personal experience on the Hill, Adwoa Dunn-Mouton spoke of the need for diplomats to be more active on the Hill, as they provide a perspective which is not easily accessible to members on the Hill. Dunn-Mouton highlighted the bi-partisan interest in African affairs, reminding diplomats that they do not need to be concerned with party affiliation. In addition, she noted that diplomats should invest their time in attending NGO meetings and hearings on the Hill. She explained that hearings are often the best way to make a first introduction to staffers and members of Congress, and she emphasized persistence in developing relationships and navigating the Hill.
Day two of the orientation shifted focus to an analysis of the Executive branch of government with a presentation by James Schear. Schear's discussion addressed three important points. First, he looked at the dominant institutional and cultural aspects of the DOD. Second, he spoke about the DOD's perception of Africa, specifically as a second front on the war on terror. Finally, he provided helpful hints for engaging the department, stressing the importance of taking the initiative to reach out to different agencies and organizations, rather than waiting for a crisis to attract attention to the country.
Witney Schneidman added to the discussion on the Executive branch, contributing his expertise on the State Department. He centered his talk on acquiring tools to advance the interests of African countries. He outlined the basic structure of the State Department, emphasizing its highly visible hierarchical dimension. However, he noted that the inter-agency dimension, the interactions between different actors, is less visible, but just as important for African diplomats to understand. He emphasized that it is critically important that diplomats become involved with all the different agencies, and that diplomats should not be afraid to approach individuals that they feel would be important for their cause. In Washington, DC, according to Schneidman, it is not simply who you know, but who you would like to know. In addition, diplomats benefit greatly from building relationships with NGOs in DC. He highlighted the success of the African Growth and Opportunity Act of 1995, as an example of a change in US policy that could not have come about in the absence of backing from the African diplomatic corps.
Jim Margolis opened the afternoon session of Day 2 which addressed using the media to maximize visibility and communication effectiveness. Margolis described the media environment and tips for working with the media. The fundamental challenge, according to Margolis, is changing perceptions. He noted that the Washington, DC media environment is among the most competitive in the world and international news makes up only 22% of all news Americans receive. Margolis advised setting a strategic goal and focusing on the development of a systematic campaign rather than attempting to push a particular story. In addition, he emphasized building relationships, focusing on interests and personal stories, targeting a particular audience, reaching out to multiple mediums, and putting forth a clear and consistent message which will be repeated by everyone in the embassy.
Donatella Lorch added her expertise on building relationships with the media and constructing a media strategy. First, she emphasized that each reporter is different, thus it is critical that diplomats are familiar with the types of media and know which reporters are relevant to their cause. She recommended inviting reporters to press conferences and parties so as to create strong media connections and facilitate interactions. She commented on the tendency of US reporters to go to the easiest source, advising diplomats to make themselves available. Finally, Lorch touched on the rules of engagement in journalism, informing diplomats of their roles and responsibilities when interacting with the press.
The discussion concluded with an in-depth question and answer session and closing remarks by Howard Wolpe.