Debate, diversity, and adult learners: the experiences of foreign nationals in the U.s. State Department.

Author:Benton, Bond

In Sardar and Davies's (2002) succinctly titled book, Why Do People Hate America?, they argue:

There are hardly any universals left in our postmodern times, but loathing for America is about as close as we can get to a universal sentiment: it [sic] is the one dynamic that unites fundamentalists and liberals, Arabs and Latin Americans, Asians and Europeans, and even the overshadowed Canadians with the rest of the world. (p. 195)

In the period after the September 11,2001, attacks and at the onset of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, concerns about anti-American sentiment became increasingly difficult for the Bush administration to ignore. As part of its response, the State Department was tasked with increasing local engagement with international populations. U.S. diplomatic posts throughout the world were asked to host events, cultural exchanges, and public forums to build connections with communities that had become skeptical and hostile towards U.S. intentions. Providing the foundation for the bulk of this project would be the State Department's Foreign Service Nationals. Foreign Service Nationals (FSNs) are a little known but integral part of the State Department's workforce, comprising 32% of all its employees (U.S. State Department, 2005). Foreign Service Nationals are typically non-U.S., locally hired employees at U.S. diplomatic and consular posts. As engagement initiatives require extensive knowledge of the local language, culture, infrastructure, and media, FSNs fulfill crucial roles in connecting U.S. messages with international audiences. They serve, in essence, a front line position in communicating the U.S. story abroad. In an era marked by distrust and anger towards the United States, that front line role also requires FSNs to have the ability to answer hard questions and respond to sharp criticism from international publics. As competitive debate provides an experiential opportunity for participants to develop argumentative strategies and argue in a way that enriches relationships, this research focuses on the positive outcomes created when debate-based presentation skills courses were provided to FSNs from 2004-2007. The results of these courses are intriguing in their relation to State Department goals, but they also prove to be instructive when looking at the possibility of debate-based teaching for adult learners and diverse populations.


Foreign Service Nationals comprise the bulk of the 42,000 locally employed staff members working at more than 250 U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide. They are often categorized as the "glue" that holds U.S. embassies together (Bureau of Human Resources: Department of State, 2007). As the glue of the State Department, FSNs provide logistical bridges between the embassy and the host country as many U.S. officers lack the cultural and linguistic skills to function in the country in which they are posted (Asthana, 2006). U.S. Foreign Service Officers in the State Department are typically posted in a country for only two to three years and sometimes for as little as six months. In that time, Officers are expected to serve the foreign policy agenda Washington has towards the country in which they are serving. With the broad agenda of winning the hearts and minds of the world community, it is unrealistic to expect that Officers could build the relationships and connections necessary to accomplish this end in such a short period. Thus, much of the legwork, communication infrastructure, contacts, and culturally appropriate programming become the responsibility of the Foreign Service Nationals.

Given the context of world attitudes towards the United States and the renewed focus on engagement activities, the State Department made improving the presentation skills of Foreign Service Nationals a priority. As such, the Regional Program Office of the State Department issued a solicitation for a series of presentation skills courses to be delivered to FSNs throughout the world (U.S. State Department, 2004). The Regional Program Office was headquartered in Vienna, Austria, where I was residing at the time of the solicitation. When I became aware of the solicitation, I expressed interest in submitting a proposal and was able to schedule a series of meetings with State Department officials to better understand the goals of the program. In conversations with the draftees of the solicitation, I learned a great deal about the needs of the FSN community and the role presentation skills played in their work. I was also told about the unique challenges FSNs face as, given the relatively short duration postings of Officers, they frequently become the public face of the embassy or consulate for the local community.

From this, I determined that an important role played by FSNs relevant to the proposed presentation skills course is that of a liaison between the host country and the United States. Foreign Service Nationals frequently communicate U.S. policies, rules, regulations, and interests to the communities in which diplomatic posts are located. Effectively communicating with local communities is an important part of FSNs' work. Fostering dialogue with the host country's population has been linked to the concept of public diplomacy (Benton, 2009). Effective engagement with local communities in a way that facilitates understanding is often associated with improved international relations (Leonard, Smewing, & Stead, 2002; Nye, 1990, 2002, 2004, 2009). Although the activities of FSNs are seemingly less consequential than policies emanating from Washington, the relationships they build locally in a host country have meaning for the community's perception of the United States. A small sample of the potential door-opening functions offered by FSNs include access to the local media, links to educational programs in the community, understanding how the FSN workforce will interpret U.S. directives, knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of local and regional governmental institutions, and the ability to articulate and explain local culture, cultural institutions, and cultural expectations to a U.S. audience. They also offer a significant resource in their ability to tell the U.S. story directly to the host country with increased authenticity because of their local status (Benton, 2009).

The U.S. commitment to effective public diplomacy, however, has come under sharp criticism. While U.S. foreign policy decisions undoubtedly explain a great deal of anti-U.S. sentiment worldwide, a State Department initiated study concluded:

We must underscore the common ground in both our values and policies. We have failed to listen and failed to persuade. We have not taken the time to understand our audience, and we have not bothered to help them understand us. We cannot afford such shortcomings. (Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World, 2003, p. 25)

Addressing these shortcomings appeared to be a need the State Department was committed to addressing.

From my meetings with Regional Program Office staff and follow up research, it became clear that equipping Foreign Service Nationals to more effectively present U.S. messages to often hostile local audiences was an important part of the proposed presentation skills course. My background is deeply rooted in competitive speech and debate participation and coaching. Through four years in high school and another four years in college, many of my weekends and much of my free time were spent developing argumentation strategies and considering the best rhetorical choices to achieve competitive success. This was followed by over a decade of coaching speech and debate in high schools and universities in the United States and Europe. The skills competitive debate provided both to my students and me were consistent with the outcomes suggested by much of the literature on the benefits of speech and debate. Chief among these were a willingness to consider issues from the perspective of others and the ability to energetically engage controversial and divisive themes without a corresponding increase in aggression. To me, that was the clear exigence in this situation. FSNs are required to argue for a specific viewpoint to communities likely to respond unsympathetically. Such situations, if managed poorly by a presenter, could digress to open hostility and further cement negative perceptions of the United States. If managed well, such presentations could be the starting point for dialogue and reduce the intensity of reflexive anti-U.S, attitudes. In this light, effective presentations would not lead to acquiescence or even agreement on the part of an audience, but, rather, facilitate thoughtful, informed, and considerate exploration of ideas completely consistent with the State Department's goal of engagement. With this in mind, I thought a proposal in response to the solicitation that focused on teaching presentation skills through competitive debate would be unique and serve the specific needs of FSNs.

Debate Benefits

A sampling of the research on the benefits of competitive debate strengthened the rationale for my debate-based course proposal. The links between competitive debate and improved communication skills are so clear that they are often assumed to be self-evident. Particularly relevant is Chang's (2009) study of debate participation in Taiwanese schools. Chang studied Taiwanese high school students participating in the 2007 Taipei Cicero English Debate Tournament and found that participants gained presentation skills through debate in a manner similar to (or even exceeding) the presentation skill development of their U.S. counterparts. As the course's FSN audience is exclusively non-U.S., validation of debate as an internationally appropriate method for improving presentation skills is especially compelling.

Relationship building was also a key requirement for the State Department's proposed course...

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