Back Issues of PDAA Today

Back issues of PDAA Today, PDAA’s quarterly print newsletter are now online and available for download.

Understanding the 2020 Presidential Election: Implications for U.S. Public Diplomacy

PDAA sponsored its traditional post-election program on November 16, 2020. This year’s program was held via Zoom and cosponsored by PDC and USC. The event was moderated by former PDAA President Michael Schneider and featured comments by Michael Gerson and Michael McCurry.

To watch a replay of the program, go to the PDAA Vimeo channel by clicking here.

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A Tribute to Paul Blackburn

by Michael Schneider

Paul Blackburn’s JOT class, held in connection with the DOS junior officers. USIA officers are in capital letters. FIRST ROW: Dwight Mason; JOEL ROCHOW; Bruce Hirshorn; Edward Richards; Frederick Ashley; Gordon Streeb; Keith Smith; Joseph Lake; Arnold Nachmanoff; LEONARD BALDYGA; James Ragan.
SECOND ROW: Chester Beaman; Linda Irick; JOAN DICKIE; Lauren Jackson; MARY FATTU; Lois Matteson; MARY ANN RANEY; MARJORIE MARILLEY RANSOM; ANNE HENEHAN OMAN; Joan Thielbar; Sandra Gransow; Thomas Duffield.
THIRD ROW: BARRY BALLOW; Bruce Kinsey; John Kelley; Laurence Anderson; Godfrey Harris; CHARLES COURTNEY; LEON LEDERER; Robert Coe; Edward Kreuser; John Boritas.
FOURTH ROW: Arthur Plaxton; Robert W. Smith; ALBERT BALL; Wilfred Declercq; PAUL BLACKBURN; Harry Gilmore; Martin Rosenberg; Alexander Sleght; Arthur Klampert; DALE MORRISON; Leroy Debold; ROBERT MCLAUGHLIN; Robert Kohn; Thomas Rohlen; PETER WOLCOTT.
FIFTH ROW: KENNETH WIMMEL; William Humphrey; William Weingarten; Townsend Friedman; FRANK STARBUCK; John D. Coffman; Ralph Oman; HAROLD RADDAY; Duane Butcher; Lewis Macfarlane; Robert Morley; Richard Greene; TALBOTT HUEY; James Newcomer; ROBERT GEIS.

In almost 60 years since we met as JOTs, I never saw Paul Blackburn miss an opportunity to encounter new ideas, engage others in a discussion, or take on a creative project. He always looked forward through mastery of the traditions and languages of other cultures.

We met in October of ’62. Our class was sworn on the day JFK announced our military embargo on Cuba. Russian ships steamed toward Havana; the world held its breath in a nuclear standoff; and we all wondered what we had signed up for.

Paul and I both went to our first posts at about the same time; he to Bangkok and I to Calcutta. We next worked together in DC in 1968 when he was Special Assistant for Dan Oleksiw, Assistant Director for East Asia and the Pacific. I doubled up as media coordinator for the Vietnam Working Group and special projects officer for the region. Times were fraught – the Tet offensive fundamentally changed the winning-losing calculus in the eyes of publics.

“Big Dan” was a demanding boss and could be blunt, but he also valued and cared for his very talented staff in IAF – Policy officer Mort Smith, then Dave Hitchcock and Ike Izenberg, desk officers Jodie Lewinsohn, Stanton Jue, Len Robuck, Ted Liu, Sandy Marlow, and Otis Hays, Jim Richardson, David Hakim, Patsy Redding, Delores Brabham, and others such as Sandy Bruckner, who started her career in IAF. Paul helped smooth the way for Dan and for the rest of us. He had a whimsical sense of humor and an uncanny capacity to preclude conflict in that pressure cooker office.

There was rebellion across the nation over Vietnam; many in the foreign affairs community also protested an antiquated and rigid bureaucracy. State created the dissent channel; USIA Director Frank Shakespeare created a Young Officers’ Policy Panel in which Paul played a leading role. He always asked why – or why not – depending on the issue. In one instance, he persuaded the Agency leadership to allow us to review a $300,000 contract with Arthur D. Little (in FY ’70 dollars) to examine and propose the reorganization of USIA. Paul’s analysis led to the cancellation of the contract, which we thought would be a waste of precious funds.

We shared academic experience in the Ph.D. program at American University. Paul had a penchant for concepts and a wonderful ability to write quickly and effectively. I saw this skill daily as his colleague in the Agency’s office of policy guidance in the late 70s.

Paul spent most of his 40-year career in four East Asian posts – Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, and China. Bea Camp remembers a time in Paul’s tour as PAO Bangkok (1984-88):

Paul practically bounced into a room. He was outgoing, caring, knowledgeable; he embodied public diplomacy. When I worked for him in Bangkok, USIS Thailand was actively involved in issues ranging from narcotics to refugees, economic development, POW/MIAs, American studies, education, and cultural programs. Paul oversaw it all with verve; working with him was fun.

For all the big diplomatic events we were part of, it’s the off-beat ones that stick with me:

Paul was enthusiastic about USIA’s new WorldNet television channel; we put up a huge TVRO (television receive-only) dish on the USIS compound in Bangkok, with monks coming to bless the installation, and plunged into programs. The one that drew the most attention was a semi-finalist for Miss Universe, a Thai woman living in Los Angeles. Paul describes in his ADST history how this WorldNet program, which was viewed skeptically in Washington for its fluffy content, dominated all the Thai channels that night and the print media the next day, a public affairs coup. I mainly remember how we managed to disguise Miss Pui’s weak Thai language skills via an off-camera interpreter who helped her understand and respond to the questions. Thai audiences reacted very positively to this young woman who movingly described how she missed her homeland while expressing her love and appreciation for the United States.

On another occasion, we arranged a reception on the Chao Phraya River, realizing only after all the guests had boarded and the boat left the dock that there was no liquor on board. Quickly dubbed “the cruise without booze,” the evening was saved from disaster as Paul marshalled the staff to repair the situation. In less than 30 minutes, a fleet of small boats were pulling up to our craft delivering Johnny Walker and other necessities for a diplomatic reception in Thailand. He made things happen.

Long after our time in Bangkok, Paul and I remained connected, sharing an affinity for Thailand. One year, at a Loy Krathong party we hosted at our house in Arlington, Paul and another guest somehow discovered they had met five decades earlier when he was a young USIS officer and she a Thai high school student headed for an AFS year in Alabama. She remembered nervously asking him to show her on the map the small town where she was headed, and her consternation when he couldn’t find it. She later became a State Department interpreter while Paul went on to a long and distinguished diplomatic career.”

One of Paul’s initiatives as PAO in Japan from ’92 to ’96 had regional impact. According to Don Bishop, Paul’s Deputy in Beijing: “…. the Seminar on East Asian Security (SEAS, with a SNEAS sub-initiative) — lasted probably two decades, bringing together leading thinkers on national security from around the region, giving them an opportunity to visit neighboring countries. As the group traveled, visits to US forces in, say, Hawaii, Japan, and Korea, were combined with meetings with regional government people. While I was in Beijing, SEAS and SNEAS came to China, which in earlier years of the Seminar had been omitted from the schedule.”

Paul became Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs in Beijing from 1997 to 2000, three critical years in US-China bilateral relations. Among other challenges, he had to deal with the errant U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. He recalled in his oral history:

“….As the demonstration got under way that afternoon, I rode my bike to a street corner by the Embassy where I could watch what was going on – all the while trying to look like a harmless senior-citizen foreigner….” Weaving throughout the demonstrators, the city near the embassy a powder keg, Paul was able to gain a sense of the crowd for Embassy reports.

Don Bishop recalls,

After the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was bombed by a ‘NATO’ aircraft (a B-2 from Missouri) in 1999, there were furious demonstrations in front of the three American Embassy compounds each night for some days. Three ranks of Chinese police with interlocked arms at the chancery gate barely held them back. At the USIS compound, shattered glass filled our offices.

When the danger eased and American and Chinese staff gathered for the first time in our conference room, Paul showed the Chinese copies of the front pages of People’s Daily and the Washington Post, pointing out how different the reporting was. Our local staff, staying at home during the disturbances, were on edge because they had only seen angry Chinese media reports. He told us all that the different coverage showed the distance between nations that we had to bridge with our Public Diplomacy programs. It was effective. That afternoon, he outlined a plan for an immediate series of small conferences with Beijing’s many government, Party, and university institutes, many associated with ministries, all now hesitating over the future of US-China relations. A Foreign Ministry official later told me that it was Paul’s initiative that restored dialog and began easing the tensions.

[Paul believed that] ….working in China was tremendously stimulating. The energy and excitement of the place were palpable. Though it retains many of the unpleasant characteristics of a totalitarian dictatorship, the country is changing so fast and in so many ways that its future directions are one of the great stories of our age, a fact that accounts for the presence of legions of foreign correspondents there. Every day I would wake up expecting – and unusually finding – some mind-blowing and major change occurring right under my nose….

….{I]n USIS, we pushed the envelope in many ways. For instance, with ‘rule of law’ being a priority of the Chinese leadership, our post, our speakers, and Fulbright Lecturers organized conferences on such topics as… legal education in America and the relationship of law and the media….

A recent note from a junior FSO, Chaniqua Nelson, represents Paul’s impact on so many younger professionals:

I had the honor and privilege of working with Dr. Paul Blackburn at the U.S. Department of State in the FOIA office. One thing that was so awesome about Dr. Blackburn was that although he was extremely accomplished, he was so kind, nice, and not pretentious at all. He had a way of making anyone he talked to feel valued, heard, and respected from the interns to the Secretary of State.

During my time in the FOIA office, I would always seek out Dr. Blackburn to be the reviewer in my case because he was such a joy to work with and he always told the best stories. I remember when I found out I was a finalist for the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Graduate Fellowship, he made sure I knew what the dimensions of the Foreign Service were and I went into the interview more confident than I was before our conversation. Although I didn’t receive the fellowship at that time, I applied a couple of years later and was awarded the fellowship. I am so sad that I wasn’t able to tell him that I ultimately received the fellowship and became a Public Diplomacy-coned Foreign Service Officer. Dr. Blackburn will sorely be missed.

Paul pushed the professional envelope wherever he worked. If anyone wants to follow the evolution of a master public diplomat, go online to the ADST Oral Histories and click on Paul’s name. Savor the honest, thoughtful summary of a career well-lived, and consider Paul’s ideas for the future of public diplomacy, still important in 2020. Cherish his delight in working with others and his care for their well-being. And for another dash of whimsy, picture Paul in one of his wardrobe of colorful shirts – a true son of Honolulu.¤

Michael Schneider is former President of PDAA.

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The Ballad of The Lost Agency Ramblers

by Bob Holden

The Lost Agency Ramblers formed in the mid-90s as a vehicle for song parodies at USIA holiday parties. In the flaky days of the reinvented I Bureau, we made up names for each appearance, like “Bob & Barry’s Unnatural Act” and “Dr. Fulton’s Keep Your Day Job Band.”

In 1997, rumors of a merger with the State Department gave us focus – and a new mission. The 1997 I Bureau Holiday party featured the first song I ever wrote from scratch. It opened with this dubious sentiment:

I believe in America and the story that we tell.
And I believe when we merge with State, we’ll manage pretty well.
Yes, I believe it’ll be all right; we serve a common cause.
And I believe in Santa Claus.

More snark ensued over the next year and a half until we realized that “Consolidation” was inevitable. On October 1, 1999, while Madeleine Albright was out in front of USIA Headquarters welcoming us to the Mothership, we were out back on the plaza with a songbook that would literally put us in a history book. The moment was neatly captured by Nicholas J. Cull in his 2013 book, The Decline and Fall of the United States Information Agency: American Public Diplomacy, 1989-2001. On page 163, he wrote: “Two staffers—Bob Holden and Barry Fitzgerald, who styled themselves ‘The Lost Agency Ramblers’— composed a number of songs satirizing the merger. They adapted Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ into ‘The Day That USIA Died,’ with the chorus:

Why, why must USIA die?
Why did Jesse think it messy to let sleeping dogs lie?
We’ll go down to State and will give it a try,
Before they slice us like American pie…’”

Truth be told, not much changed with start of consolidation. IIP had minor irritants like being called an “office” instead of a bureau, but we stayed in our building and ended up playing for a lot of retirement parties. One of my favorites was a song we did to the tune of “Venus” by Shocking Blue for Howard Cincotta’s send-off:

Cincotta, he’s Howard Cincotta!
A propagandist! Like no other!
He sell your mother!

The frequency of our gatherings changed dramatically in 2001 with the arrival of Air Force veteran and HR officer Bill Goodwin. Bill was a drummer and guitar player who told us that he staged weekly jam sessions with colleagues at bases all over the world. He pitched it as a good way to ease stress and learn to play better. In November 2001, we established a weekly jam session that continued uninterrupted until the pandemic of 2020. We’ve since tried to carry on virtually:

People drifted in and out of the jam over the years. FSOs serving in DC would join and then recommend it to others when they went back to the field. We played songs from memory, switched to loose-leaf binders full of songs, before finally putting the songs online and projecting them onto walls of rooms where we play. The Lost Agency Ramblers has always a pick-up band. Whoever showed up got to play, even if it meant too many guitar players. Large numbers usually showed up for annual holiday parties and picnics for IIP and ECA, and, starting in 2003, for Daniel Pearl World Music Days. Subsets of the group played for special occasions like ECA programs in the Thomas Jefferson Room.

The most amazing run for the group was from 2016 to 2017, when other bureaus discovered us. We played nearly a dozen engagements and printed a t-shirt to commemorate the “tour.” Perhaps the height of our notoriety came in March 2017 when we played at a send-off party for Department Spokesman Mark Toner, who also played with us on occasion. CNN Correspondent Michelle Kosinski tweeted out a picture of the band with the caption: “Turns out the State Dept. has a band – and it’s incredible! Impressed!”

Linked-In congratulated me a few weeks ago for reaching 21 years with the State Department. I served 15 years with USIA. While the agency remains “lost,” the people who gave it heart play on. The band was started by Barry Fitzgerald, Bob Holden, Peggy Hu, and René Soudée. Bill Goodwin’s jam brought in Steve Kaufman, Mark Jacobs, Dave Hawk, and Chas Hausheer. People who joined over the years include Dorothy Mora, Bruce Wharton, Jeremy Curtin, Dan Sreebny, Julianne Paunescu, Lynne Weil, John Alan Connerley, Shai Korman, Rick Taylor, Peter Eisenhauer, Barbara Silberstein, Alicia Pelton, Paul Magadia, Aaron Steers-Smith, Jim Bullock, Shenandoah Sampson, Rebecca Ernest, Nick Geisinger, Yvette St. André, Robert Ogburn, Jason Evans, Carol Brey, and Kate Bentley. I’m sure I’ve missed a few, but I’m also sure that there will be more.¤

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Hans N. “Tom” Tuch

by Leonard J. Baldyga

Hans N. (Tom) Tuch, an early and persistent advocate of public diplomacy as an indispensable element in the conduct of U.S. foreign affairs, died on September 7, 2020, at his residence in Bethesda, MD. He was 95. The cause of death were complications following a recent fall. His seminal book, Communicating with the World: U.S. Public Diplomacy Overseas, published in collaboration with Georgetown University in 1989, was the first major treatise on the subject written by a practicing public diplomat.

Four America House directors gathered in Wiesbaden with Paul G. Lutzeier, Coordinator of U.S. Information Centers, Hesse, to discuss the most effective presentation of art exhibitions. From left to right: Ned Burford, Darmstadt; Bela Zempleny, Kassel; Hans N. Tuch, Wiesbaden; Lutzeier; and Gibson Morrisey, Frankfurt. The America Houses were libraries and cultural centers that brought American perspectives to German citizens. The United States operated these cultural centers until about 2006. Photo and caption courtesy of Hans Tuch.

Mr. Tuch’s interest in and involvement with public diplomacy started at his first post as a State Department foreign service officer in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1949 where he was director of the Amerika Haus (U.S. Information and Cultural Center), contributing to U.S. efforts to reintegrate Germany into the community of western democratic nations.

He next was assigned to implement President Eisenhower’s international “Atoms for Peace” initiative by building Atoms-for-Peace exhibits in Germany, Japan, and India. This public diplomacy effort resulted in his first book (with Henry Dunlap), Atoms At Your Service, published by Harper & Brothers in 1957. It was translated into seven languages.

Mr. Tuch next served from 1958 to 1961 as the first post-war Press and Cultural Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, where he participated in the implementation of the first U.S.-Soviet Cultural Agreement that marked an initial thaw in the Cold War by opening the Soviet Union to exchanges of students, academics, and specialists in the sciences, as well as American exhibitions, American publications, and the performing arts. Thus, he was the U.S. embassy’s focal point at the 1959 U.S. National Exhibition in Moscow and witness at the famed Nixon-Khrushchev Kitchen Debate. He was consequently inducted into Vice President Richard Nixon’s “Kitchen Cabinet.” He also managed the first tour to the Soviet Union of the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein and the visits of American performing artists Isaac Stern, Roberta Peters, Van Cliburn, and Byron Janis, as well as the American composers Roger Sessions, Roy Harris, Peter Mennin, Ulysses Kay, Aaron Copland, and Lucas Foss.

Upon return from Moscow in 1961, he served under Edward R. Murrow’s directorship of the U.S. Information Agency as Assistant Director for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. When the Soviets violated the Nuclear Test Ban treaty in 1963, Murrow, at Tuch’s suggestion, ordered the massing of all VOA transmitters to blast the Soviet Union for endangering the world.

From 1965 to 1967, Mr. Tuch served as Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d’Affaires ad interim of the U.S. embassy in Sofia, followed by three years as public affairs officer at the U.S. Mission in Berlin.

American playwright Thornton Wilder agreed to participate in program events for the America House in Frankfurt during his trip to Germany in 1954. His lecture filled two adjoining lecture halls at Frankfurt University, where Tuch reports “Wilder’s German was fairly fluent but somewhat ungrammatical.” Wilder (l) and Tuch (r) became friends during several days together. Photo courtesy of Hans (Tom) Tuch

After Portuguese language training in Washington, Mr. Tuch was assigned to Brazil, where he served as the Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs from 1971 to 1973 and as Acting Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d’Affaires ad interim from 1973 to 1975.

He was named the Edward R. Murrow Fellow at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1975, and from 1976 to 1981 he served as Deputy and Acting Director of the Voice of America. On the day the American diplomats in Tehran were taken hostage on November 4, 1979, he ordered the creation of a VOA Farsi language service which went on the air within 10 days.

At his last post, as Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs in Bonn from 1981 to 1985, he participated in the creation of the U.S. Congress – German Bundestag Youth Exchange Program. This exchange program is still going strong today, approximately 23,000 American and German students having participated in it over the last nearly 30-plus years. Upon leaving Germany in 1985, the President of the Federal Republic awarded him its Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. Mr. Tuch’s service in Germany with Ambassador Arthur Burns resulted in  another book, Arthur Burns and the Successor Generation, published in 1988.

Mr. Tuch retired from the Foreign Service in 1985 as a Career Minister. He subsequently taught public diplomacy and intercultural communication as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.

His final book was Arias, Cabalettas and Foreign Affairs: A Public Diplomat’s Quasi-Musical Memoir published in 2008, reflecting his life-long love of classical music, specifically opera. He and his wife became active supporters of the Wolf Trap Opera Company in Vienna, VA. For Wolf Trap’s new Center for Education, Mr. Tuch in 2004 donated a collection of some 3,000 programs of opera, theater, concerts, and recitals, all of which he attended over the years, with the earliest dating back to 1938.

Born in Berlin, Germany, on October 15, 1924, Mr. Tuch emigrated to the United States in 1938. From a prominent Jewish family in Berlin, he said his father kept telling him: “Don’t worry. This does not concern you. Never will. I was a front-line soldier, a French POW. I was decorated with the Iron Cross, so this does not concern you.” Mr. Tuch said his father kept maintaining this position until his early death in 1936 and, if he had not died, his mother and he would have succumbed in the Holocaust because they would not have got out until it was too late. He said his mother, intelligent and cognizant of what was going on, sent him to relatives in Kansas City in 1938. She got out of Germany at the last minute in 1940, primarily, she claimed, because she was a widow with close relatives in the U.S.

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor in 1985, Elizabeth Pond wrote: “When ‘Tom’ Tuch retired recently, a whole generation retired with him. He is one of the last of those Europeans who fled to America as refugees from Hitler—then paid back their debt with a lifetime of service to their adopted country.”

He attended Southwest high school in Kansas City, graduating in 1942. He received his B.A. degree from the University of Kansas City in 1947 and an M.A. degree from the School of Advanced International Studies of John Hopkins University in 1948. He also was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Missouri in 1986.

During World War II, Mr. Tuch served as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division in Europe and jumped on D-Day in Normandy and at Eindhoven, Holland, during Operation Market Garden. He was awarded a Bronze Star and Combat Infantry Badge. He was present at the Battle of Bastogne as an interpreter for the headquarters unit and was the GI who translated General Anthony McAulliffe’s “nuts” response to the German surrender ultimatum as “go to hell.” His commanding officer present, a colonel, took credit for the translation.

Mr. Tuch was the recipient of the Presidential Distinguished Service Award, USIA’s Distinguished Honor Award, and the Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Public Diplomacy. He was past-president of the USIA Alumni Association (now the Public Diplomacy Association of America), and was a founding and emeritus member of the board of the Public Diplomacy Council. He served as a member of the Board of Trustees of Youth For Understanding from 1985 to1991 and was an Editorial Board member of the Foreign Service Journal from 1991 to 1994, contributing over 15 articles to the Journal. Until recently, he was still writing letters to the editor and contributing articles. His published articles appeared in a number of journals, including the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Philadelphia Inquirer.

One of Mr. Tuch’s most cherished activities was his 17 years of volunteer work as manager of the St. Alban’s Opportunity Shop in Washington, D.C., an organization that served some 40 charities in the area.

He was predeceased by his wife, Ruth (Mimi) Lord Tuch, whom he met while they were students at SAIS. They were married in Wiesbaden in 1949.

Mr. Tuch is survived by his son David and his daughter-in-law Helena of São Paulo, Brazil, his daughter Andrea and his son-in-law Patrick Lannan of Santa Fe, NM, and his loyal friend and companion Sylvia Weiss of Bethesda, MD. His family also expresses its sincerest thanks to Zeni Manuzone for the tender care and affectionate attention she provided Mr. Tuch in the last difficult moments of his life.

A memorial celebration will be arranged at a later date. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Wolf Trap Opera, 1645 Trap Road, Vienna VA 22182.


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“Perception Hacking” and “Information Laundering” Discussed at First Monday Forum

by Joe B. Johnson

Participants in the July 6, 2020, First Monday Forum heard from Bret Schaefer (upper right), of the German Marshall Fund, discuss “perception hacking” by China, Russia and Iran. Dr. Sherry Mueller (lower left) and Joel Fischman (lower right) represented the Public Diplomacy Council and the Public Diplomacy Association of America. Mike McCurry (upper left) moderated.

Attendees at First Monday Forum got a data-drawn picture of the extent to which the world is being assaulted by disinformation and propaganda, with the United States in the bullseye. What is public diplomacy’s role?

“Perception Hacking: How Russia, China, and Iran Use (and Abuse) Western Information Platforms” was the title. Bret Schaefer, Media and Disinformation Fellow of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, spoke at First Monday Forum on July 6, 2020.  You can view the entire program on YouTube at

Schaefer drew on the Alliance’s Hamilton 2.0 dashboard to trace the growth of content from often-deceptive digital media sponsored by the United States’ biggest adversaries. The Hamilton 2.0 Dashboard  tracks official statements and state-funded media output “to increase our understanding of the focus and spread of state-backed government messaging across various information mediums.”

Both Russia and China fund large global media networks. For example, Russia’s RT television service in Spanish is very successful throughout Latin America. Official social media accounts for their embassies as well as legions of fake social media accounts (detectable in Schaefer’s charts) are well known.

Schaefer presented charts showing the volume of comment from these sources over recent years, comparing all three countries, showing when comment rose and fell, and measuring how much attention was devoted to various topics.  The data tell how digital media connects to foreign policy for these rival powers.

  • Iran’s Twitter posts spiked when the United States pulled out of the The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
  • China’s official output surged during the Hong Kong riots.
  • Russian and Chinese content on the covid-19 virus covered the United States more than with other nations.
  • Mostly, Russian output about the U.S. seeks to cause or increase division and conflict, while China tries to show the superiority of its system and promote its narratives on world affairs.

Information Laundering by “perception hackers” illustrated. Screen shot c/o Bret Schaefer, German Marshall Fund.

Schaefer coined a term that was new to me: information laundering. Online propagandists aim to introduce half-truths and falsehoods into mainstream news media in the same way that illegal drug cartels launder money: by moving it to and fro to hide its origin. They put out the stories on their own digital or social media, and then repeat and amplify those stories until they find their way into, say, a news aggregator from some third country. After some time, the bogus article or photo gets picked up by search engines.  In some cases, it will be cited by a reputable news publication as a claim or rumor.

Schaefer noted: “A lot of what Russia does well is not the message; it’s the distribution.” Russian programmers use Twitter robots to retweet media stories they like, posting those stories in multiple places and platforms, and filling “data voids” — search terms for which relevant data is not available. For example, internet searches for White Helmets, Nord Stream II, Sergei Skripal or Ukraine, which don’t get much Western coverage, are likely to turn up mostly results sourced to Russia.

Playing Defense

How can public diplomacy organizations oppose these campaigns? Fighting fire with fire would destroy our very concept of public diplomacy. We are vulnerable on defense.

Schaefer called for aggressive policing of social media platforms to minimize bots and fake accounts, and ventured that organizations could take legal action against sponsors of false information. For example, all platforms now ban impersonation; a suit against state entities that set them up might work. The social media giants still fall short on self-policing, he said.  Facebook has condemned “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” but Twitter has shared publicly much more information about the phenomenon. Schaefer called for more transparency about false accounts by the social media including Google, and said that a “fusion center” to “monitor bad actors” would be helpful.

PD on the Offense

The United States’ public diplomacy also possesses powerful offensive resources. Here are some that come to my mind.

  • The Global Engagement Center, State’s inter-agency team that has the lead mandate on countering false narratives. The GEC does not share much publicly about what it’s doing – probably for good reason.
  • Independent USG-owned news media starting with the Voice of America. Their traditional independence from government has made them more successful than Chinese or Russian media. That’s why so many are watching the new CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media with concern.  (See Alan Heil’s recent post.)
  • Long-standing allies. Schaefer pointed out that British and Baltic diplomats in particular are faster to respond to and correct false stories than the large, process-oriented State Department. Schaefer’s sponsor, the German Marshall Fund, is an example of the relationships built over 75 years by U.S. public diplomacy.
  • Nearly 200 U.S. missions and consulates, which operate their own websites and social media accounts tailored to the interests of their host countries. All fully attributed and identified, those digital media magnify themes and messaging from the Department of State.

What’s Really at Stake?

Afterward, considering Schaefer’s presentation, I asked myself: which is scarier? The deterioration of the United States’ image and damage to foreign policy goals under attack by China, Russia and Iran? Or the corrosion of American society and political norms? With the advent of our national elections in the middle of a pandemic, racial tensions, and political hostilities, I’m personally a lot more worried about the latter.

I asked Schaefer what he thought Russia would do between now and November. He couldn’t offer a crystal ball, but laid the ultimate responsibility for an orderly and fair election season on American voters and the general public.  He’s right. Public diplomacy cannot cover up the flaws in our society. But it must be preserved and not distorted if it is to defend U.S. interests and values abroad.

Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service.  He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy. Read More.

Reprinted by permission of the Public Diplomacy Council.

First Monday forums are cosponsored by PDAA, PDC, and USC’s Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.

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John Matel recollection by Christopher Datta

by Christopher Datta

John Matel

I am writing to mourn a friend, John Matel, who passed away unexpectedly.

John and I are both retired Foreign Service Officers. We were not close friends, but I enjoyed working with him in the State Department, and he often came to my annual Fourth of July party, which, of course, I cannot hold this year.

John loved to talk about politics, and on Facebook we often disagreed with each other. But the debate was always civil and reasoned, so rare to find today.  And, about 80% of the time, we found we could reach an accommodation we both thought we could live with. Sometimes, he actually changed my mind, and sometimes I changed his.  How often does that happen?  Not that the nation’s political leadership was listening to us.  Sadly.

John was a conservative, and I’m a progressive. But John was a conservative in the conservation sense of the word. He loved nature, and he had a tree farm. He was dedicated to the support of renewable resources, most especially when it came to wood, and building with wood. He was an advocate for the replanting of native wood species, which is what he dedicated his tree farm to accomplishing.

John went to Iraq in an attempt to make our policy work in that country. I was opposed to the war, but respected John’s commitment to put his own safety on the line and to do his best to try to help the people of Iraq build a better life for themselves. John never shirked his duties as an American diplomat, even when it would have been easier to have done that.

John loved beer, and he often posted pictures of himself on Facebook enjoying a mug. I love beer, as well, so that was another thing we shared. I know we both agreed with Ben Franklin when he so famously said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

John was an avid bicyclist. He knew all the bike paths, and although he lived some distance from me, he always rode his bike to my July 4th parties. He was certainly in better shape than I.

John was kind, thoughtful, a hard worker, and a dedicated public servant and husband. We need more like him today, and I will miss him. Rest in peace, my friend.

—Christopher Datta

John Anthony Matel, age 65, of Vienna, VA, passed away on June 22, 2020. He was born in Milwaukee, WI, to the late John Matel, Sr., and Virginia Haase Matel. He is survived by his wife, Christine M. Johnson; his daughter, Mariza Matel (Brendan Williams); his sons, Alex and Espen Matel; and his sister, Christine Matel Milewski (Greg Milewski) of Oak Creek, WI. After serving 32 years as a diplomat with the U.S. Department of State, John became a self-professed “Gentleman of Leisure…a sometime diplomat, conservationist & seeker of insights.” John purchased his first forest land in 2005 near Lawrenceville, VA, and as a landowner, certified tree farmer & naturalist, managed nearly 500 acres of Virginia forest for timber, wildlife and water quality. He actively served on boards for Virginia Tree Farm Foundation and the Forest History Society, and promoted southern pine ecology and working landscapes. John led by example, and worked to restore longleaf and shortleaf ecosystems on dedicated parcels of his land, a promise for the future and a beauty today. John’s diplomatic posts with the U.S. Department of State in Brazil, Norway, Poland, Iraq, and the U.S. let him do what he loved: working to understand societies, information, and behaviors, and shape strategies to engage networked publics. His proudest accomplishments included working with Iraqis to rebuild their communities after ousting al-Qaeda in Anbar Province, and sending over 26,000 Brazilian students to study STEM fields in top American universities. His career in diplomacy included broadening experiences as President of the Fulbright Commission in Brazil, Senior International advisor at the Smithsonian Institution, and State Department Fellow at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. A memorial celebration will be held at a later date. Memorial contributions may be made to The Nature Conservancy, Directed Gifts. Online condolences may be made at

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