Reclaiming America's Voice Overseas

Report Defense

Reclaiming America's Voice Overseas

May 14, 2003 4 min read

Authors: Stephen Johnson and Helle Dale

Note: The authors outline specific recommendations for the Administration and Congress in their related Backgrounder, How to Reinvigorate U.S. Public Diplomacy.


The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and opposition to U.S. actions in Iraq have shown that America's image abroad is in serious trouble, particularly in the Middle East where U.S. policies, culture, and values are poorly understood. For more than two years, Congress and the White House have struggled to reclaim America's international public relations capability with minimal success.


Part of the problem is that public diplomacy, as it is known, has been suffering from declining budgets ever since the end of the Cold War. And in 1999, Congress merged the independent United States Information Agency (USIA)-once in charge of government public relations overseas-into the State Department to save money. While USIA was lean, action-oriented, and well managed, State is overgrown and plagued by poor organization, scarce resources, and a culture of slow, secretive deliberation.


Until now, no U.S. administration nor Congress has been willing to invest the time and effort needed to bring this 200-year-old amoeba into the 20th century, let alone 21st. But unless public diplomacy-as overseas public relations efforts are called-is adequately reorganized and protected within State's creaky hierarchy, it will rust into oblivion until the far-off day that the Department itself gets an overhaul.


The other issue is that foreign broadcasting, cast free from USIA in the 1999 reorganization, has lapsed into a jumble of duplicative efforts, some effective-some not, led by a part-time Board of Governors euphemistically called a "collective CEO." Each of its eight voting members can make personnel decisions and meddle directly in daily operations.


This octopus sits on top of the venerable Voice of America (VOA) that countered enemy propaganda from World War II through the Cold War as well as the Office of Cuban Broadcasting and grantees Radios Free Europe, Free Liberty, and Free Asia. While VOA transmits worldwide, its obsolete short-wave transmitters and program content have been neglected while new broadcasting efforts such as Radios Sawa and Farda that beam music and some news to youthful audiences in the Middle East have proliferated in a confusing array.


Arriving in office in 2001, the Bush Administration sought to address this complicated problem. A Department of Defense task force on foreign information programs found U.S. public diplomacy programs understaffed and poorly coordinated. The Administration even created an Office of Global Communications at the White House, but it served only to ensure that senior leaders repeated the same messages as the President.


Congress has tried too. Chairman Henry Hyde of the House International Relations Committee sponsored the Freedom Promotion Act of 2002, but it died last year in the Senate. This year, much of that initiative is contained in foreign operations and State Department appropriations bills. Yet, as much as these measures seek to revitalize public diplomacy with better training for personnel and enhanced budgets, they would create new bureaucracies such as an office to promote free media overseas that duplicates existing functions in State and the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy as well as charge the independent Broadcasting Board of Governors with halting foreign jamming of U.S. government internet sites, even though the Department of Defense already has such a mission.


To be effective, any effort to reinvigorate U.S. public diplomacy and foreign broadcasting should be guided by simplicity, common sense, and an appreciation for what already exists. Here's what the White House and Congress should do:


Restore public diplomacy's integral reporting channels and budgets.  Much of USIA was dismembered and distributed piecemeal within the Department of State in 1999. Although there is an Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, that office has no authority. Assistant secretaries who do not understand or support the public diplomacy mission can be prevented from misusing funds and personnel if separate control over budgets and personnel is established from the Under Secretary down to public diplomacy sections in each U.S. embassy.


Boost academic exchange programs and U.S.-supported libraries. Cut in the 1990s, these programs once provided personal contact with rising leaders in foreign countries. Arms-length foreign broadcasting cannot create such relationships nor should it be the only channel used to influence foreign publics.


Reorganize foreign broadcasting to streamline a confused management system and eliminate waste.  The Broadcasting Board should not compromise its independence by taking on missions performed by other U.S. agencies. Moreover, it should serve in an advisory capacity, leaving daily management and personnel decisions to a directorate in charge of all broadcasting operations. Complementing recommendations of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, the Board should point out where broadcasting should be cut and where new initiatives should be undertaken based on in-depth research. Congress should give foreign broadcasting a new, more flexible personnel system so it can expand and contract more easily, saving money that could be better spent on new technology.


Enhance public diplomacy and public affairs career training at the Department of State.  Public diplomacy officers were once recruited on the basis of previous experience in communications. Today, any Foreign Service officer can serve in a public diplomacy position. Therefore, public diplomacy training should compensate for lack of experience. State Department domestic public affairs officers who have never been offered training should be educated as well. U.S. military public affairs training which is extensive and continues throughout an officer's career should be a model.


Improve inter-agency coordination through the White House Office of Global Communications. This entity should do more than keep senior political leaders on message. It should ensure that the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and foreign broadcasting cooperate in mutual efforts to win the hearts and minds of foreign publics. At present, there is no institutional inter-agency mechanism.


Lastly, effective public diplomacy practices should be enshrined in a doctrine that emphasizes consistent efforts and the employment of varied discrete and mass communications channels. While foreign support for U.S. policies may not always be possible, or expected, understanding should be a constant goal.


Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America and Helle Dale is Deputy Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.  The authors outline specific recommendations for the Administration and Congress in their related Backgrounder, How to Reinvigorate U.S. Public Diplomacy.


Stephen Johnson

Former Senior Policy Analyst

Helle C. Dale
Helle Dale

Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy