Visiting State Department Official Talks Modern US Diplomacy

Jul 15, 2019

A U.S. State Department official is in Missoula this week. The University of Montana has a sports exchange program with Peru. MTPR's Kevin Trevellyan talked about diplomacy in the age of President Trump with Susan Crystal, deputy assistant secretary for the State Department.

Kevin Trevellyan: Can you talk a little bit about the work your division does in Montana?

Susan Crystal: The idea is that through promoting exchange programs and mutual understandings, then we get to know people better.

In this case, the program that I’m actually visiting at the University of Montana is with the country of Peru. It’s in our sports diplomacy, where we are focusing on promoting soccer, futbol, as they call it there, for women and girls.

Trevellyan: Have Montanans or other Americans reported being received differently since President Trump took office compared to previous administrations? Has that dynamic shifted at all?

Crystal: Part of having the exchange experience is having that experience to see another culture and another people. And even if you particularly, whether you’re an American or someone from another country, aren’t particularly excited about whatever the foreign policy is, whether it’s our country or the country you come from, the idea is that we get below that level. Yes, the State Department, our ambassadors, our embassies, the government. We have government to government relations, and that’s super important, of course, in implementing U.S. foreign policy. But at the level of exchange programs this is the people-to-people part.

Trevellyan: How do unfavorable foreign viewpoints affect the State Department’s ability to support the professional and cultural exchanges you’ve been talking about?

Crystal: At the end of the day we’re here talking about the American story, the American people, and promoting the opportunity to listen, to converse, to have those conversations and talk about issues. The idea is not on any of our programs to say 'We do it the best. This is the only way to do it.' It’s an opportunity to have that exchange and to be able to, in a sense, have a more nuanced appreciation of whatever the issue is.

We have young people who come on exchange programs, and they’re worried about what’s happening at the border or those kinds of issues. Well, they’re talking with their host families and they’re getting different points of view. And I’ve found that over time it’s the people who’ve come on programs who really that, as I said, have the nuanced appreciation to say 'Oh my gosh, how come Americans do this? That seems so crazy to us.' Whatever it might be, and for the exchange participant to say 'Here are the reasons why. This is historic what happened in their state or country. These are the things they look at, and ultimately this why they made those decisions.'

Trevellyan: Some experts have argued that diplomacy’s role in U.S. foreign policy has dwindled since the '90s, including with the current administration. As a career Foreign Service official, how have you seen the role of U.S. diplomacy shift over the years?

Crystal: Back in the 1940s and '50s we had what you might know about: our jazz ambassadors. People like Dizzy Gillepsie, African-Americans who went overseas to Russia and other places, who were telling America’s story. And they were coming out of segregation in the United States, but they looked at it as saying 'We’re telling America’s story.' And whatever it is. Sometimes it’s good; sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes there are warts; sometimes there are wonderful things. So I think that over time there are those kinds of opportunities.

I had the opportunity to meet one of our bands out in Los Angeles who are first generation Mexican-Americans. And they went to China. And they just had a spectacular time. And the Chinese found that 'Wow, this is part of America.' That they are first generation, they’re singing predominantly in Spanish. And I think that’s the thing that regardless, we were talking about the different administrations, I think ultimately at the end of the day, people in the United States, people from outside the United States, see the United States as an entrepreneurial nation, an opportunity to make it no matter where you’re from. That’s what draws people to participate in programs, and ultimately hopefully go back to implement some of the ideas they either learned on their program or learning from one another.

Trevellyan: What do you think is happening under President Trump’s State Department that maybe isn’t getting enough attention?

Crystal: Sometimes programs that fly a little bit under the radar are those kinds of programs in the arts, in culture. Because I think sometimes people see those as soft power, and they are. Sports are great; they’re fun; they can be fun; they can be exciting. But we don’t do this because they’re fun. We do them because they are part of U.S. foreign policy. They’re promoting what we’re doing in the United States. They’re promoting the mutual development. One of the things that we say in our bureau is 'We move people to move ideas.' And that ultimately the goal is to help everybody, rise everybody up from whatever that might be.

Susan Crystal is a deputy assistant secretary for the State Department. She’s in Missoula this week to talk with participants of a sports exchange program between the University of Montana and Peru.

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