Diplomacy: First Lady Edition

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Written by Caitlin Cruz

Edited by Issa Napon

When I initially saw the topic of diplomacy, I will admit, I was a bit stumped. Frankly, diplomacy, like what happened at the Yalta Conference, seems like an outdated concept. Maybe because diplomacy was something that happened to assuage great world conflicts. We have pictures of President Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill.

An NPR story brought to light a kind of subtle diplomacy I had never thought of before – diplomacy by the first lady. A weeklong trip took Michelle Obama to China (along with daughters Sasha and Malia) to focus on issues of youth and education. According to NPR, Obama spoke at the Beijing University, visited an elite high school in Beijing with robotics classes and played ping pong with a gym teacher. And, of course, pandas.

Bai Yun, a 22-year-old panda, eats bamboo at the San Diego Zoo. (Photo by Caitlin Cruz)
Bai Yun, a 22-year-old panda, eats bamboo at the San Diego Zoo. (Photo by Caitlin Cruz)

I mention pandas for two reasons. First, Michelle and her daughters did see pandas, but second, because of the long-held practice of called “panda diplomacy,” in which China gave giant pandas as gifts in order to win positive favor in other arenas. It’s a more subtle way to gain favor than the Potsdam Conference.

Michelle’s trip to China is not the first of its kind for her. Her first international trip as the sole representative of her husband’s administration was to Mexico City for three days in 2010, according to the Washington Post. While there she spoke to university students and saw cultural mainstays like the Museo Nacional de Antropología.

The first lady traveling abroad alone has been a key diplomatic move for decades.

In 1995, Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to China to speak at the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women. Her trip made much more a splash. There, she delivered her famous words on women’s rights: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, it is that human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.”

Eleanor Roosevelt went to England to see the damage of German carpet bombing for herself and the South Pacific to see the state of the troops. While in Prague in 2002, Laura Bush gave a 13-minute address in favor of women’s rights in Afghanistan. “Before the Taliban, women were elected representatives in Afghanistan’s parliament and women were a vital part of Afghanistan’s life. I hope you will be again, because a society can only achieve its full potential when all of its members participate.” In 2005, she actually visited the country itself, seeing a teacher training institute.

I think the art of diplomacy practiced by the first ladies is much more subtle than the days of World War II and much more interesting.

One Comment on “Diplomacy: First Lady Edition”

  1. Caitlin,
    Great post! I really liked how you offered a very different take on the same subject I wrote about for my post this week. Also, I think you are drawing attention to a very important type of diplomacy which often goes unmentioned. The diplomacy of the First Lady clearly plays a role in international relations. You offer several great examples of times when the First Lady represented the country on trips abroad in order to promote positive relations. After doing my own post of Michelle Obama’s trip to China I would agree that the diplomacy of the First Lady can often be more interesting than diplomacy in its traditional sense.

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