The Foreign Service Journal, March 2020

50 MARCH 2020 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL ” I wonder if sparkly sneakers are too out there?” I thought to myself as I prepared to moderate the second annual State Depart- ment–sponsored panel on popular arts diplomacy at the 2018 San Diego Comic Convention. SDCC is the premier comic book and popular arts convention in the world, and the biggest revenue-generating annual event in San Diego, California. My proximity to San Diego while I was the public affairs officer in Tijuana gave me the opportunity to establish inroads for Con- sulate General Tijuana and State with SDCC. It was a way to add to our public diplomacy (PD) toolbox for audience engagement. As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry about my footwear. Unless dressed like Wonder Woman or Daenerys Targaryen, one faded into the hundreds of thousands of people who were flock- ing to this event. My sparkly sneakers were positively humdrum. My message, however, wasn’t. Superpowered Public Diplomacy Preeti Shah joined the Foreign Service in 2004 and has served in Mexico, Afghanistan, Turkey and Nicaragua, in addition to several tours in Washing- ton, D.C. She is a public diplomacy–coned officer currently in Jakarta. She fell in love with comics as a child, discovering Indian mythology as portrayed through superhe- roes, secret powers, good guys and bad guys. Updating the PD toolbox with popular arts. Old Script, New Actors In PD lore, we learn how the U.S. Information Agency’s cultural envoys helped spark a desire for free expression within those behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. We learn how painters, musicians and performance artists brought in new audiences to witness firsthand the boundless spirit of cre- ativity of America’s most talented artists. And we learn how our own ongoing reckoning with true diversity and inclusion, as told through jazz and other medi- ums, gave our PD forebears entrée into segments of society previously deemed inaccessible. In pursuit of the same goals, comics and popular arts are a much-needed update. While the playbook remains basically the same, we just need new players to connect with our screen- driven, digital media–consuming, distraction-filled world. America’s film industry needs no promotion in the tradi- tional “commercial officer” sense. That said, acknowledging our most popular exports as vehicles to broadly reflect U.S. values and society modernizes our PD toolbox. And yet, some of these tools have been available for decades. Take, for example, the American Film Showcase, a juggernaut funded by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs that has had a long partnership with the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. AFS brings American theatrical releases and the people behind them (directors, producers, etc.) to overseas audiences via embassy programming. FEATURE BY PREET I SHAH