Thursday, June 17, 2010

Biden, Kenya and the Diplomacy Gap

[Caroline Chumo writes:] It was interesting how little criticism I could find online on Biden's trip to Kenya of last week. So here is my take on it...

As the USA goes about its diplomatic activities in East Africa, and American people go about life as usual, the two can be strangely distinct. Last week US Vice President Joe Biden visited Kenya. At the same time, observers of US culture and race relations circulate the latest documentary film from the home front about race: “Blacking Up: Hip-Hop’s Remix of Race and Identity”.

I thought the race film was done well and speaks to the pain many Americans feel due to identity politics and social inequality. The California Newsreel’s new film asks whether white identification with Hip-Hop “reflects a new face of racial understanding in white America or [reinforces] an ugly history”. Hip-Hop culture in all its manifestations and evolving race relations are indeed life as usual in the USA. I wonder what the world knows now about this side of the US as the anti-American wave continues to grow.

In Kenya last week VP Biden gave the usual type of speech (text, video), praising Africans for resilience and stating the obvious (i.e. corruption is bad, education is good, a new Kenyan constitution is important, and Somalia and Sudan represent huge security threats). With my mind on the new race film I thought it strange that foreign American diplomats don't give American citizens much mention, let alone the daily struggle some Americans face. My hope is that more reflection on social problems in the US will transform US relations with the rest of the world.

I started writing a commentary on the situation, on the premise that Biden's presentation in Kenya represented the worst in American diplomacy - patronizing and boastful - but ran into a problem when I looked up his profile online.

It turns out the man is famous for making outrageous statements, including occasionally using swear words in speeches. But he is still widely respected among American liberals for his leadership in the US Senate on foreign affairs and the US justice system. Benefit of the doubt made me try to take passages such as this one from his Nairobi speech with a grain of salt:

My prayer is that very soon after you [Kenyans] make these momentous changes that are needed, we'll be talking about not what we [Americans] can do for you, but what we can do with you, because you have begun to realize the great potential you possess. The change is within your reach. The same change that occurred in other parts of the world, including Iraq, can change here.

Is it just me or did Biden compare Kenya to Iraq?

So now I am confused. Is the speech Biden's own work? Or did a strategic communications specialist at the US Ikulu prepare or edit it? You would think a public official with a track record for making embarrassing comments would have someone looks at his speeches before showtime. Or does the trust of the Obama administration in Biden's goodwill deafen them to the nuances of delivery?

While Biden and the Obama administration are said to be proponents of diplomacy, the patronizing tone as shown in Kenya is confusing. While American foreign relations is supposed to serve the American people, that message is often lost in "translation". In fact not once at his major Kenya talk did Biden share the struggles or dreams of everyday Americans. The result is that through expressions such as the film on race inequality in America, and official US diplomatic activities, multiple faces of the US come forward. Why the contradicting dichotomy? Let's get together to unite the two. US diplomacy may be more palatable to broader audiences if its communication is clear.

© Caroline Chumo


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