14 Years of Undermining Public Diplomacy

In 1999, the U.S. made a grave public diplomacy error that is still being felt today.

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After they day’s chore is over, the self defense force men enjoy a movie on their TV set on Hokkaido, northern Japan on Sept. 5, 1961. The TV set was purchased from their own savings.

There have been plenty of bad days in U.S. history. But Oct. 1st should be higher on the list than most people think.

On that date in 1999, President Bill Clinton formally abolished the U.S. Information Agency, spinning off its broadcasting element into an independent agency and merging most of the rest into the Department of State. The effort was the product of a curious bipartisan alliance between conservative Sen. Jesse Helms and liberal Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and its effects were far reaching – shooting U.S. public diplomacy in the back with some six bullets.

The first bullet was the dismantling of an organization with talented people knowledgeable and devoted to public diplomacy – i.e., informing key foreign "publics" about the United States. Personal exchanges, fellowships, magazines, film, radio, TV and later the Internet were all among the means and media used.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

The second bullet was the placement of some of these functions in the Department of State. State's role is diplomacy – working with officials in foreign governments and multilateral organizations. That is rather different from engaging artists, journalists, religious leaders, politicians, students and professors about either the basics or subtleties of the U.S. and its people. The head of USIA was responsible for personnel, policy and budget matters. All of these key elements are jumbled and diminished in State's aptly-named corner of D.C., which is called Foggy Bottom.

Bullet three was placing radio and television broadcasting under a part-time board that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (herself a member of the board at the time) called "dysfunctional," with board members fixated on "audience size" and some even denying that public diplomacy was part of their mission.

The fourth bullet was a lack of adult supervision. The post of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy is currently vacant (a nominee has just been announced), as it has been for much of the past decade. Imagine fighting a war (of ideas or any other kind) lacking top leadership.

But the rot goes deeper: Key lieutenants responsible for a variety of public diplomacy functions are also notably "vacant" or "acting." These include, according to State's own website, the Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs (vacant), the Acting Coordinator for International Information Programs, the Acting Principal Deputy Coordinator for International Information Programs, the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Digital Strategy and the post of Director of the Office of Policy Planning and Resources (vacant).

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

The next fatal wound to effective public diplomacy has been organizational in nature. To wit, the State Department's Office of the Inspector General issued two damning reports earlier this year. The first was a scathing indictment of the Board of Broadcasting Governors, which oversees the government's official radio and TV public diplomacy. The whole report is revealing, but among its key judgments were that the Board's "dysfunction … impeded normal management functions," and that it was plagued by "chronic vacancies and absences." The second IG report, of the critically important Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), is also not for the faint of heart. "IIP leadership failed to convey its strategic vision," the study found, and "created an atmosphere of secrecy, suspicion and uncertainty."

The sixth and final bullet, touched on above, is the worst of all: no strategic vision about what the U.S. government should be doing to inform (and perhaps even influence) key foreign publics. After all, great energy and hard work can't replace knowing what you're trying to accomplish.

The repercussions are still being felt today. Vladimir Putin's Russia, the People's Republic of China and assorted jihadi radicals are all "in the game" of effective public diplomacy – explaining what they think of the USA. Both the U.S. and the world at large deserve an effective counterweight. But that would require bipartisan leadership, and the political will to undo the harm done fourteen years ago by reconstituting an effective, independent public diplomacy agency. Sadly, neither is in evidence.

Robert A. Schadler is Senior Fellow in Public Diplomacy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

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