The last three feet

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams speaks about the American healthcare system at Meridian.


“The real crucial link in international exchange is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact, one person talking to another.”

-Edward R. Murrow

While renowned American broadcaster Edward R. Murrow reminds us the most important work of diplomacy occurs across “the last three feet” between individuals, the threat of COVID-19 puts this fundamental principle into question at the time when we need international cooperation the most.

As Meridian celebrates its 60th anniversary year, we do so immersed in one of the worst medical crises to ever affect the world. The transnational nature of COVID-19 underscores the vital role that international exchange can play and serves as a reminder of the importance of our mission to strengthen engagement between the United States and the world through diplomacy, global leadership and culture.

One might think that in this time of restrictive travel and social distancing the idea of a face-to-face exchange sounds irresponsible. In the short term it may be as we seek to flatten the curve and use virtual communications to connect. In the longer term, such exchanges demonstrate the value of leaders sharing information and collaborating. It may be less about opening doors and more about opening minds.

While no one could have predicted the scale of this crisis, Meridian has been working for 60 years to lay the foundation for the international cooperation needed to respond to global challenges like the one we face today. We have facilitated countless public-private sector partnerships and equipped thousands of leaders around the world with a diversity of resources, ideas and connections to help them think like diplomats, navigate our complex world and design solutions that advance the secure and prosperous shared future we envision for all people and nations.

At its core, Meridian provides a platform for government, business and diplomatic leaders to gain insight, exchange ideas and collaborate on issues like the coronavirus and all aspects of its impact from global health to disinformation in the media and economic resiliency. It will take leadership from all three groups to succeed in this current quest, and our work has helped build this understanding.

Just last year, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams – a now-familiar face on cable news – came to Meridian House to discuss the rising opioid crisis, complexities within the U.S. healthcare system, and economic disparities resulting from the variance in health policies from state to state. He emphasized to an assembly of diplomats the importance of better health through better public partnerships. It was a prescient message with today’s news.

Similarly, we partnered with the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) to host the China Healthcare Executive Leadership Training Program. Eleven delegates, drawn from China’s National Healthcare Security Administration and provincial medical insurance bureaus, learned about U.S. policies, technologies, standards, and industry best practices in healthcare and hospital administration. In return, our businesses, universities, and hospitals learned about opportunities in China itself. It will be critical for the world’s two leading economies to share knowledge with each other about confronting the coronavirus and future pandemics, and to collaborate on future policies to ensure a global recovery from the damaging business effects.

Looking ahead, Ambassador John E. Lange, a senior fellow for Global Health Diplomacy at the United Nations Foundation, will join me tomorrow for a video conference entitled, “Pandemic Preparedness and Response: Global Perspectives on COVID-19.” It will focus on how countries around the world are responding to the crisis, lessons learned and mistakes to avoid repeating.

While we would normally convene discussions like this in person at the historic Meridian House, the experience of nations around the world and the recommendations of our own government urge that we convene this important discussion – and others to follow – virtually. Virtual convening capabilities and the low financial barriers to high-quality communication can revolutionize exchanges, transforming them into a continuum versus an episodic experience. Communities of interests from different countries and regions can collaborate and innovate before, during and after an exchange program.

Meridian is taking this disruption very seriously but also looking beyond it to strengthen our mission and how we carry it out. We will emerge from this crisis with better capabilities to blend the tried and true – “the last three feet”, as Edward Murrow said – with the new and imaginative.

Ambassador Stuart Holliday is President and CEO of Meridian International Center, a leading non-partisan, nonprofit diplomacy center that strengthens engagement between the United States and the world through global leadership, culture and collaboration to solve shared global challenges.