July 18, 2003

July 18, 2003 | Commentary on Political Thought

Forgotten Freedom

Sometimes, I just wish I could transport some of America's many critics around the world to our local congregation in Madison, Va. Madison is a modest rural town, surrounded by spectacular scenery in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, some 90 miles from Washington. It is hardly possible to imagine anything further from the caricature of the United States as an arrogant, ignorant bully that has unfortunately taken root abroad, than the kind and friendly folks we meet here on Sunday morning. 


What would a group of foreign students or journalists think of being brought to such a place? If only the quiet grace of small-town America could be conveyed to them, and its stories told, it might help repair this wonderful country's tattered international image. The U.S. government used to arrange exchanges that made such visits possible, as part of international public diplomacy, the Young Leaders and the Fulbright scholars being two such programs. 


The means for telling the story of the United States to foreign audiences, however, have been disastrously curtailed over the past decade. Cutbacks in international exchange programs, storefront U.S. libraries abroad, international broadcasting and the whole field of "public diplomacy" were considered part of the peace dividend after the Cold War. International exchanges for instance, have dropped from 45,000 in 1995 to 29,000 today. Another 2,500 slots are to be cut next year. To anyone who doubts the value of these programs, consider this -- most of the current Polish government has been to the United States on international exchanges. May this not have something to do with staunch Polish support for the United States today? 


Decisions such as the move to fold the U.S. Information Agency into the State Department in 1999 now look terribly shortsighted. In effect, its personnel was absorbed into the embassies and its funding into State. Meanwhile, U.S. international broadcasting (i.e. the Voice of America and the proliferating surrogate radio services) was given editorial independence from political meddling through the supervision of an appointed Broadcasting Board of Governors.


Unfortunately, this board now has become part of the problem with its members attempting to run the radio services on a day-to-day basis, making this one of the most dysfunctional services of the U.S. government. 


Something needs to be done, and last week, The Heritage Foundation convened a conference on the subject of "Regaining America's Voice Overseas" to explore the ways we can communicate with the foreign public and reinvigorate the important field of U.S. public diplomacy. Everyone agreed we have a problem. Solutions, though, are harder to come by. For a variety of reasons, ranging from political entrenchment to turf wars to ideological passions and labor union control, the discussion over public diplomacy very quickly gets bogged down. 


The damage is extensive. According to a study of America's image abroad conducted by the Pew Center for the People and the Press, in Britain, our best ally, the favorable view of the United States has declined from 83 percent three years ago to 48 percent today. In Italy and Spain, which also supported the United States in Iraq, the U.S. favorable rating has come down to 34 percent and 14 percent, respectively. In Turkey, which disrupted plans for the war by denying the United States permission to open a northern front into Iraq, just 12 percent of the public holds a favorable impression of America. In Egypt, one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, only 6 percent of the population has a favorable view of the United States. 


The silver lining is that people have started to pay attention. Last year, House International Relations Chairman Henry Hyde introduced the Freedom Promotion Act to revitalize public diplomacy within the State department and reform foreign broadcasting. This is now part of the State Department authorization bill. Sen. Richard Lugar, Mr. Hyde's counterpart, is planning hearings on public diplomacy in the fall, but so far the Senate has no measure equivalent to Mr. Hyde's legislation. The State Department and the White House are also actively considering improvements. This spring saw the resignation of the disastrous choice for Undersecretary for Public Affairs Charlotte Beers, a necessary first step. She may be replaced by Margaret Tutwiler, former State Department spokeswoman. Additionally, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy is producing its own set of recommendations. 


Now, with the unrivaled position of the United States on the world scene, resentment of that power will be inevitable. Yet, how that power is used depends on the history, the political institutions and cultural traditions of the United States. Overwhelmingly, American power has been used in the cause of freedom around the world. That's the message we have to get out.


Helle Dale is deputy director of the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom