Photo credit: U.S. State Department website
On Apr. 11, the Assistant Secretary of State for Global and Public Affairs, Bill Russo, visited West Chester on behalf of the State Department’s Hometown Diplomats Program. According to Russo, the program, which has been running for over 20 years, seeks to connect diplomats with their hometown communities to speak about the importance of American diplomacy. While on campus, Russo was also invited to take part in the Global Studies Speaker Series led by Dr. Peter Loedel and the Political Science and Global Studies Departments at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Assistant Secretary Russo to discuss his work at the State Department and American diplomacy efforts while he was in town.
What do you do in your current role?
Right now I am Assistant Secretary for Global Public Affairs at the United States Department of State, which is… a long title, a lot of words, but a pretty simple mission. Basically the team that I lead, the work that I do, is focused around telling the story of American diplomacy.
There’s really two parts to that. One part of that is the one that anyone who’s seen anything about the State Department can probably understand, which is doing that out in the world at our embassies and our missions all around the world. [Currently, this can be seen through the Secretary of State who’s] just about to get on a plane. He’s going to Northern Ireland, to the Republic of Ireland [and] to Vietnam.
[In] every corner of the world, we tell that story to foreign [audiences] to try and help them understand what America is, what our values are, what we’re trying to accomplish. But the other part of the job, is the one that I think is a little bit underappreciated and part of the reason I’m here today, which is that we also want to tell that story to the American people. Because it’s important for us, for the American people to understand what we are doing around the world, what we are doing in their name.
Increasingly, I also think it’s really important for people to understand the ways in which what happens out in the world has a huge impact in their lives. And so part of the job, as I view it, is making foreign policy a little bit less foreign because I just think the absolute reality of the world that we’re living in today is that a lot of things that happen in far-flung quarters of the world have a real impact on our communities, and our towns, and our friends and families and our lives.
What made you want to go into diplomacy?
I took a little bit of a roundabout way to get there… I knew, coming out of high school, and I knew when I was younger that I wanted to do something that was built around service. I wanted to do something that would help people. And when I first went to college… [at] University of Delaware, when I first showed up, I was a Psych major because I thought that was going to be the way to do it. And then I took one class and realized that wasn’t it for me. And so you know, I took some political science classes. I ended up kind of accidentally stumbling into a Political Science, History and English degree. And then went and got my Masters in Environment and International Development. But still, it was really through the luck of getting a White House internship, after I had graduated from grad school, that really put me on this path because that got my foot in the door in public service and government.
Once I had a taste of the incredible sense of purpose that you get when that is the work that you’re doing, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I knew I had a national security interest, and I got lucky enough to be able to move, after a few years, into a job working for Jake Sullivan when he was then Vice President Biden’s National Security Advisor. I just knew that issue — the global nature of it, the complexity of it — was what interested me. And so I’ve been trying to find ways to either work in government and serve in government, or find ways to get back into government, really, for the decade since!
How much do you think the U.S. values the role that social media plays in the relationship between politics and democracy?
I think we hugely appreciate it. I think we are increasingly appreciating it. And look, I mean it’s a huge part of the work that I do and that my team does, right. You know, we, of course, operate [official government accounts]. If you are following a State Department account, if you are following Secretary Blinken’s social media accounts — our team does so much of the work behind that.
We have well over, I think, 1200 social media accounts run by our embassies all around the world and they’re operating in whatever local language that the country’s operating in. Depending on the different country, they’re operating on different platforms because, you know, in some countries we’re trying to figure out how to use WhatsApp and Telegram because that’s where people are. Whereas other countries, you know, Instagram, Facebook, those are hugely important platforms to be on.
I think we also have an increasing understanding though that in addition to the positive opportunities that social media provides for us to get our message out, to reach an audience with what it is that we want to share about our policy and our values; that others are doing the same. And sometimes their values and their policies are not in line with what we’re trying to do. And of course, you know, there is, there’s disinformation. We’ve seen everything from undermining of elections to attempts to stoke violence, all being coordinated on social media. And so I think we’re also acutely aware of the challenges that social media poses to democracies, to free societies and so I think for us, it’s an ‘and-both’ kind of proposition where we need to be as active and as present on those platforms as we can so that people know what we believe, and what we believe is true, and at the same point in time, we need to be aware of what others are doing in that space.
One of the things that we say all the time is part of our job is setting ‘the rules of the road.’ So, a lot of what we’re trying to do is shape the norms and the rules so that… social media is a fair fight… and so that people can at least have a little bit of faith that when they’re seeing something, when they’re reading something, there’s a sense that it’s true, that it’s accurate, that it’s been vetted. We do a lot of work to try and expose where mistruths have been said. But also, again, from where I sit, a lot of our job is, is doing everything that we can to get our positive story and our positive message out there so that people know what we stand for.
In this new age of warfare, where we see a prevalence in crimes of cyber warfare and propaganda of that type of nature, how are we working with foreign governments to combat this?
I would say two things. One, I would go a little bit again back to the norms and ‘the rules of the road,’ which is… one of President Biden’s core beliefs, one of Secretary Blinken’s core beliefs and something I truly believe as well, is that you know the United States has an incredible amount of power and influence to shape the way the world works. But we can do so much more when we do it with our partners and with our allies, when we join with like minded countries to basically row in the same direction.
I think whether it’s, you know, cyber norms, whether it’s disinformation, propaganda… the same here is true, which is to the extent that we can make sure that we are pursuing… the same steps with our partners and allies all around the world, the things that we do will be that much stronger.
And so much of this is so cutting edge. I mean you talk about cyber, you talk about social media, but increasingly we’re looking at things like chatbots and artificial intelligence and a whole bunch of new and novel technologies — quantum computing — how are all of these things not only gonna shape you know the future, but increasingly like the world that we are living in today; and so it becomes only more important to make sure that as we’re trying to figure out, ‘okay, what what are the guardrails that we can put up for how we understand and how we handle these technologies and their impact on our societies, but also how we handle when is it appropriate to do this or appropriate to do that in terms of cyber norms?’ It’s increasingly important that we do it in coordination with our allies.
I think the other big piece of it in terms of cyber is that…we need to have a positive story out there about what we’re doing and what we’re trying to do. Because, you know, we’ve seen some of our adversaries saying, ‘oh, well, you’re just trying to keep us down’ or you know, kind of… fundamentally undermining the idea of truth — that there is a truth out there. And so part of what we need to do is just aggressively, again, lay out what our values are, and that we don’t engage in disinformation. We don’t do that as a government — that has been laid out, spelled out publicly, that is just not something we do. You know and I think being able to say that publicly to people, and look some people believe some people won’t, but the fact that that is a value that we have that others don’t necessarily have I think carries a lot of weight and helps us, again, pull people together and shape that.
They’re going to be bad actors who are going to try and exploit the cyberspace. There are bad actors who are going to spread disinformation and try and use it to sow chaos. But if we can marginalize them, if we can get 90% of the rest of the world aligned — we can marginalize them and we can reduce the impact that’s going to have on our societies.
With the introduction of the bipartisan RESTRICT Act in Congress, which would severely limit many of the freedoms that exist today on the social and digital space, mainly the Internet and apps, what is the goal of pushing this as a foreign issue instead of a privacy one, especially when there are companies within our borders like Meta, for example, that seeks to continuously violate the privacy rights of Americans. And why is this something that would give the Department of Congress accessibility instead of federal law enforcement agencies?
Yes, I mean I can’t necessarily speak to pieces of legislation that Congress has… But I think it gets to a larger conversation that we, certainly we as a society need to have, and we need to have it at the same time as we, as a government, are having it with our partners and allies; which is one, again to this idea of [cyber] norms, is one around data and data protection, privacy protections.
In particular when you’re looking at TikTok, which is, I think, in many ways the main focus of that Act and of a lot of the conversation in the space, it gets into the geopolitical sphere because really at the end of the day the concern here is about a company whose parent company is based in the People’s Republic of China and… again, when we talk about kind of the norms of how countries use data, how countries have access to that, does not necessarily subscribe to the same worldview that we do.
And so here, I think the big question is, ‘okay, big picture, what are the values about how you and I can control how our data is used? How can we enshrine that, right? How can we enshrine that in international organizations? How can we enshrine that in bilateral treaties that, you know, my country and your country or a grouping of 10 countries, however it is, how can we enshrine that in some in some formal way and how can we make sure that the way that we do that has the highest possible standards… so that our standards basically say governments can’t compel companies to push particular state narratives, or to exfiltrate huge, huge amounts of data and I think when we do that, look… there are probably some social media companies here who may have some concerns or some interest about the impact [this Act] could have on them. But I think the important thing is… for us at least, our focus is on the big picture values and the big picture ‘rules of the road’ that we’re trying to shape up. And part of it is about, you know, protecting our people and protecting their data.
Going off of that, with TikTok, it has evolved to become a major news source for billions of people around the world, including millions of Americans who are able to find important news that is not being covered by the mainstream media. How does this disrupt or improve the way that we engage with foreign entities, especially on your part?
Well, Congress has passed legislation and so we cannot use TikTok on official U.S. government devices. And on one hand, the State Department does not have an official presence on TikTok. Now, we have ways where we can get our message out onto TikTok and this is actually something that I’m really focused on, and that our team is doing a really great job on, because one of the fundamental realities of the world, of the job [and] the work that we do, is that we are focused on who our audience is and how we reach our audience.
That audience is gonna be different depending on where in the world we are talking about and what we’re trying to accomplish. But, to the extent that we are trying to reach a global youth audience, obviously platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok are going to be more prevalent among all of them.
We also know that particularly when reaching that audience, particularly reaching our youth audience, particularly on those platforms, we, the United States government might not always be the best messenger to deliver a message. But we can figure out some of the people who are, and we can find ways to partner with them so that we have an opportunity for them to work with us and deliver a message in an authentic way.
For instance, we recently launched the Culinary Diplomacy Corps. It’s a group of two dozen chefs from around America, some of the best chefs we have — Michael Solano from Philadelphia, from Zahav, [is] one of the chefs in our culinary Culinary Diplomacy Corp.
Part of what they’re going to do is… they’re going to go out in the world and they’re going to kind of talk about America and American culture and all of that. We had ten social media influencers from around the world come to [an] event [at the State Department with them] and we basically gave them access and had them talk to some of the chefs. We said, look, you’re gonna create your content, you know your audience better than we do, you’re gonna create the content that’s gonna resonate with them.
They posted mostly on YouTube, some on Instagram. [But] like many influencers these days, they post across a whole bunch of platforms and some of those probably include TikTok. For us, those kinds of partnerships with creators, with social media influencers who can connect with their audience in an authentic way, is for us a good way to try and reach that audience. Because aside [from]… the data concerns, the policy concerns, the legislative concerns that are going on with TikTok — on one hand — on the other hand we know that that is where people are going for a lot of information, including news and including the state of the world. And so we need to make sure that we find ways to partner with people so that our view of the world, our values, sometimes even fun stuff like culinary diplomacy is being present on the platform. That’s some of the creative work that my team is actually trying to do.
I know you’re here on behalf of the Hometown Diplomats program. What does this opportunity to speak to fellow students from your area mean to you?
It’s hugely important to me and I was talking earlier about how messaging our own country, talking to our fellow Americans about the importance of foreign policy is such an important part of the job. And I was also talking about how we think about who our best messengers are. And one of the things that I really believe is that there’s no better messenger for any community in this country than someone who came from that community. Someone who knows what people care about. Someone who can be a trusted face because maybe they’re your neighbor, maybe they went to school with you, maybe you’ve run into them at the grocery store before.
For over 20 years, we’ve been doing this hometown diplomats program to try and get our diplomats to go… to engage with a school, to engage with their high school, to engage with a local university, a Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club. Because we want them to be that authentic messenger. And so, coming back here for me, I mean, it’s home. We were just walking up and pointing out on the other side of the Calvary Lutheran Church is a parking lot, and that parking lot was the house my mom grew up in. [There’s] no longer a house there, obviously, now it’s a parking lot. But you know, she grew up there. And then my grandmother was farther down Rosedale Ave. [at] the Cambridge Hall Apartments. And I remember I would go over almost every summer and sit with her at the pool there. Back when I was very young, when the Eagles did their offseason training here, I would go and get autographs… I still have some autographs from like the 1995 Philadelphia Eagles team.
And so you know, this is an area that I know, and it’s an area that I care about. My family still lives here. And so I wanna make sure that Chester County, the West Chester Area, succeeds because the people I love still live here.
When I think about the work that I do every day to try and advance America, advance American foreign policy, deliver for our people at home here — this is the area that I think about. And for me, it’s a deeply personal, meaningful opportunity to be back here. But it also touches so deeply on the work that I try and do everyday.
As someone who’s been working very closely with policymakers like President Biden and Secretary Blinken, despite immense public resistance and scrutiny towards things like the Willow Project and combined with the State Departments various goals and policies on both the climate crisis and the environment, what was the decision to move forward, if you know anything about this, with such a proposal that is vehemently against the policies of the current Administration’s campaign pledge on climate and how does this impact your foreign engagements?
I mean, the Willow decision is what you’re referring to?
The Willow decision is one that wasn’t made by the State Department. And so I certainly couldn’t speak to what went into it or the decision that was made. You know obviously, look, we’re dealing you know right now in large part, in many ways, because of Russia’s unjust invasion of Ukraine with a global energy crisis. But at the same time, you know, as you reference the President’s commitment, we are also working to get to a zero carbon economy — zero emissions economy — as quickly as possible by 2050 with many parts of it trying to be done by 2030 or 2035. And so we are dealing with a very acute near term crisis at the same time that we are dealing with an existential long-term crisis; and those are really hard to do in tandem.
When I think about the work that the State Department does on this, climate is actually a really great issue to kind of look at the importance of diplomacy, right? Because even if the U.S. woke up tomorrow and had zero carbon emissions, we represent 15% of the entire globe’s carbon emissions. And so even if we woke up tomorrow and the U.S. was at zero there’s still 85% of the world’s emissions that need to be dealt with.
Unless we’re able to deal with at least some percentage of those, we aren’t gonna be able to solve the climate crisis that we’re in. And that’s where diplomacy comes in. We need to be able to not only at home, set ourselves up in the long term to reduce our carbon emissions. But we need to be able to work with people around the world to do the same.
And so I think, yeah, there has absolutely been some decisions that I think garnered criticism at home and abroad. But from where I sit, you know, things like the Inflation Reduction Act was the largest single investment in our climate future that the United States has ever made, and so when we’re having conversations around the world, when people see the real dollar amounts that we put down on that, when people see the kind of requirements and commitments that were laid out in that, that sends a signal to them that we’re serious about this and that they want to come to the table and work with us.
Now, not every country is yet of that point of view, but that’s our work. Our work is to try and get all of the people who are with us right away and do the most good that we can, and overtime bring other countries into the fold. Get other countries to understand that ‘hey, we see where this is going, come join us, get in on the deal now. Don’t wait any longer to begin reducing your carbon emissions.’ So it is an incredibly difficult thing to balance the short and the long term. As a whole, I think the administration is proud of the work that we’re doing to push forward on this, but know that that is never going to be fully satisfying.
While the US has federal organizations like N.O.A.A., for example, which is severely underfunded compared to its space counterpart N.A.S.A., what are we doing abroad with our global partners to both study and protect the Ocean and its marine life?
I’m glad you said oceans because the oceans and marine life element of this is incredibly [and] particularly important and we’ve actually accomplished a lot that I don’t know has gotten a huge amount [of attention]. For instance, we recently were able to get done a tuna treaty that will help ensure some sustainable fisheries [or] fish stock, particularly looking at the Pacific Ocean.
Monica Medina, who is actually stepping down at the end of this month, but for the last few years has been the Assistant Secretary for Oceans, Environment and Science and has also been our global water envoy, has really elevated the profile of all this work and really kind of particularly put oceans and marine biodiversity at the fore of the work. Cause just so much of the work in the climate space that we often think of is kind of land based — and that makes sense, right, we live on land and it’s so easy to see desertification and some of the environmental impacts from climate change, but, you know, what’s happening in terms of the oceans is this really… strong nexus between, you know, climate — which is warming the oceans and changing the biome there — along with things like overfishing and pollution and a bunch of kind of more directly man-made related things that are also basically each exacerbating each other.
And a lot of what we have done is try and put oceans as a more primary part of the larger climate conversation. But then separate apart from the larger climate conversation, also trying to make it a bigger economic issue because that for a lot of people and a lot of the world, whether or not they’re on board with our climate agenda… every government in the world is on board with having a good economic agenda. And so the extent to which we can make it about sustainable livelihoods, about food security, about things like that, that has enabled us to elevate this in the global conversation and try and bring more people to the table to make more positive change; then [it] necessarily would if it was just viewed as a climate [or] environmental issue.
So, I certainly would not say that we have solved every problem, but we’ve made a lot of progress, just in the last two years I think, in part because we’ve kind of adopted an ‘all of the above’ strategy to make it, yes, a core climate issue but also an economic and economic security issue.
To learn more about Assistant Secretary Bill Russo, the State Department and their goals and American Diplomacy visit www.state.gov.
Olivia Carzo is a third-year English major in the Honors College with a concentration in Visual and Digital Rhetoric and minors in Journalism and Linguistics. OC920925@wcupa.edu