January 24, 2007 | Executive Memorandum on Democracy and Human Rights
Seven years after the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) was dissolved, America's international communications efforts still lack coordination and a guiding strategy. Instead of one agency speaking to the world, various entities including the Department of Defense, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) compete, and public diplomacy functions are spread across many bureaus in the U.S. Department of State.
In October 2006, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen P. Hughes circulated a draft National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication for interagency review. If the final plan skips the lofty rhetoric and vague tasking typical of broad policy analysis, such a strategy could improve U.S. public diplomacy by simply:
Conducted piecemeal throughout the federal foreign affairs bureaucracy, America's public diplomacy (PD) has become reactive and narrowly focused. The Bush Administration was in office a scant nine months when faced with a major terrorist attack. Foreign communication functions were still in disarray when the White House announced a global war on terrorism. Slow action at the State Department prompted the Pentagon and USAID to develop competing efforts. Coordination at the White House level focused on getting senior Administration officials to use approved messages in remarks to the press.
At State, Charlotte Beers, the Administration's first Public Diplomacy Under Secretary, tried making television commercials to polish America's image among Arab Muslims. Her successor, Margaret Tutwiler, stayed six months-just long enough to begin expanding foreign exchanges from a historic low of 29,000 per year. Karen Hughes arrived in 2005 and conducted overseas listening tours and press encounters. She also strengthened internal PD coordination by creating positions for public diplomacy deputy assistant secretaries in key departmental bureaus.
Still, public diplomacy at State is a far cry from PD at the USIA. Proactive operations languish. A once-useful book translation program has no central home and lacks leadership. Congress cut off assistance to U.S. storefront libraries in foreign countries in the 1990s. Internet-based outreaches such as eDiplomacy and State Department kiosks in foreign university libraries cater to elites, while contact with poor and uneducated majorities is infrequent and inconsistent. Meanwhile, the BBG has gutted the Voice of America to fund targeted broadcasting of popular culture to the Middle East, and the Pentagon's strategic communications blend psychological operations with overseas public relations, sometimes clashing with State's PD efforts.
Toward a Coherent Strategy
To restore America's voice, Hughes and fellow government communicators must understand that public diplomacy is a long-term program to promote dialogue with foreign audiences, nurture institutional relationships, help educate young democrats and prospective friends, and share ideas. Without this foundation, advocacy for current policies will have little resonance. A model strategy should therefore:
Developing a national public diplomacy and strategic communication strategy is an essential first step, but for it to do any good, the strategy must look beyond short-term needs, assign clear authorities and responsibilities, and establish sensible processes to aid PD research, planning, clearing, and assessment. Congress can nudge this process along by reauthorizing funds for the now-defunct U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, which can provide outside input to keep involved agencies from just serving themselves.
Helle C. Dale is Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.