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Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability: USIA, the Cold War, and Combating ISIS Propaganda — Part 1

Flags in State Department lobby


Bruce Byers

(30 January 2016). Editor’s note. In reply to an 8 January 2016 article in the Washington Post, “Obama administration plans shake-up in propaganda war against ISIS” Bruce Byers wrote an essay about the effectiveness of USIA in projecting American ideas and policies to foreign audiences during the Cold War. The text is written in three parts, mainly for readers who know little or nothing about USIA and its long record of achievements in international affairs. Here is part 1 of Byers’s essay on Links to parts 2 and 3 follow:

Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability — Part 2

Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability — Part 3

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I retired from the Foreign Service in the State Department in 2000 after nearly 30 years of service, mostly in the U.S. Information Agency. After retirement I returned to work in the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in the International Visitor Leadership Program from 2001 to 2009.  The following views I share with you reflect my experience in Washington and overseas as a cultural and press and information officer.

USIA building

USIA building, 4th and C Street SW, Washington, D.C.

One of the most effective weapons the U.S. government had for forty years in countering Soviet and other adversarial propaganda was the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), all but destroyed in 1999 thanks to Republican Senator Jesse Helms and his crusade to kill at least one foreign affairs agency. President Clinton’s USIA Director Joseph Duffy and his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright helped advance the demise of this “Cold War” institution at a time of U.S. foreign policy hubris. Today, in the face of spreading terrorist organizations and their sophisticated anti-American propaganda, we can regret their decisions and the loss of a once vital foreign policy institution.

The Department of State and the United States Information Agency cultures were very different. The State Department is our government’s oldest Cabinet-level department, dating from the foundation of our Republic. It has more than two centuries of tradition and history as the foundation for conducting our nation’s foreign affairs. USIA was born in 1953 as the Cold War was expanding and threatening many newly independent nations as well as our established allies in Europe and Asia. It is worth keeping this history in mind when asking why President Obama feels it necessary to shake up his administration’s propaganda campaign against terrorist organizations and, specifically, against ISIS.

It would not be an exaggeration to state that the differences between today’s State Department and yesterday’s USIA are one reason the public diplomacy (PD) instrument in State is struggling in its mission to confront al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram and al Shabab.  Whereas State’s culture is traditional, reactive, ponderous, and conservative, USIA was proactive, fast, and adaptable.  It took policy guidance from the White House and the State Department and ran with it in developing effective public information strategies to combat adversarial propaganda. It also maintained constructive relations with key committees in Congress and presented its strategies for combating foreign propaganda while building positive cultural and information programs abroad. It did not carry the “baggage” that the State Department carried in its frequent political tussles with senior members of Congress and White House staff.

During more than four decades of diplomatic work USIA often led on issues such as human rights, freedom of the press and speech, the struggle for civil rights in America, environmental research and climate change, more open international trade, development of alternative energy technology, advances in disease control and public health, and many other issues that required sustained communication and time to develop. With USIA Washington support, USIA’s diplomats overseas led in organizing seminars, conferences, international radio and, later, video dialogues, and other fora that enabled representatives of many different academic, scientific, economic, and political disciplines to come together and discuss complex issues with foreign audiences.

Where does public diplomacy fit in today’s State Department?

Since the development of its public diplomacy capability, the State Department has rigorously pursued initiatives to support the Secretary’s diplomatic efforts around the globe. Sometimes these initiatives have not meshed well with the Secretary’s work but for the most part they have implemented the policies that the President and the Secretary have set forth.

President Obama’s decision to engage Iran in nuclear negotiations and Secretary Kerry’s efforts to bring Iran’s diplomats to the negotiating table to talk about dismantling Iran’s nascent nuclear research and weapons programs have borne fruit. At the same time the President’s decision to open diplomatic relations with Cuba after half a century has won widespread support among the nations in Latin America and Europe. In support of these major presidential decisions State’s public diplomacy officers have worked to inform Iranians and Cubans and other audience groups in their respective geographic regions as well as in Europe, South Asia, East Asia, and Russia through a variety of information platforms about the changes in United States’ foreign policy towards these two states.

There have been audience polls that have tried to assess the effectiveness of public diplomacy efforts. These are not new. USIA did much the same thing during the Cold War, albeit without the kinds of Internet social platforms that are now commonly used. The biggest difference between the two foreign affairs institutions, however, was the independence that USIA had to shape and implement strategies for influencing foreign audiences and public opinion.

USIA developed long-term relations among its many different international audiences. It also scored short-term media successes when necessity and opportunity demanded. In the decades before the Internet its programs and publications served as links between people in different countries who looked to American leadership as a force for hope in uniting otherwise disparate interest groups. USIA officers were able to do this because they were not tied down by the limitations and exigencies of ongoing and often secret diplomatic negotiations in the State Department. Instead, they were able to work openly across many disciplines and with people who might otherwise never have come together. Through countless programs USIA advanced U.S. foreign policy initiatives and fostered greater understanding of ways to cooperate across political, cultural, ethnic, and national hurdles.

Today’s public diplomacy offices in the State Department have never quite fit into the traditional State structure. One reason is that those elements from USIA that were transferred to State were more horizontally structured across different disciplines and programs. The State Department has traditionally been more parochial. Its organization is one of competing bureaus with more vertical structures. Competition among them for resources, funding, and implementation of different agendas has meant that the new public diplomacy offices had to be grafted onto existing structures that were very different from those of USIA.

In the State Department culture there has often been a lack of flexible autonomy that USIA once had in meeting its international objectives and dealing with foreign propaganda challenges. Since the 1999 integration, many senior State Department officers and policy makers have had difficulty understanding the role of public diplomacy in America’s global affairs. Many of them do not consider public diplomacy to be real diplomacy. Some others have thought that public diplomacy is little more than public relations designed to make ambassadors look good. However, those ambassadors who came to know the effectiveness USIA’s programs within their mission plans, appreciated their impact and influence on many different audiences and government contacts. The same holds true for today’s ambassadors where they allow their public diplomacy officers the latitude they need to develop and expand outreach programs in host countries.

There is another critical factor in the role of public diplomacy in today’s State Department: sufficient Foreign Service officers trained in the art of public diplomacy. Just as FSOs in the other professional “cones” (consular, political, economic, and management affairs) receive professional training, public diplomacy coned officers need extensive training, including language training. However, almost all new Foreign Service officers in public diplomacy must first fulfill non-PD assignments, primarily in consular affairs, during their initial overseas assignments. It can take 18 months to two years before these FSOs receive PD assignments. This is due in large part to the “needs of the service”. It also reflects a parochial attitude in State’s senior management ranks that public diplomacy is not a priority for training and assignments.

There are, apparently, a declining number of new Foreign Service officers entering the PD cone. One reason may be that the number of PD positions overseas has remained static or is declining. In a competitive career where all Foreign Service officers must compete annually for promotions, lack of enough PD assignments will eventually cause some PD officers to move to other cones to maintain their competitive edge.

If there were an independent information agency such as USIA, Foreign Service officers in that agency would not have to compete for assignments and promotions with officers in other cones as is the case in the State Department today. In such an independent agency all PD FSOs would receive assignments from the beginning of their careers in public diplomacy. This is not the case today.

During USIA’s decades of foreign activities many ambassadors were able to observe how an independent agency operated in a foreign environment where there were many kinds of target audiences. They could also see that public perceptions and attitudes towards the United States could be influenced in positive ways through USIA’s programs and resources. This kind of diplomacy was wide-ranging and not confined to the more formal modes of diplomatic communication that are innate to the State Department. And the local USIS cultural centers and libraries, often located near universities, were not immediately or necessarily identified with the American embassy.

Through cultural programming USIA officers were often able to reach people within governments that were not always accessible to our ambassadors and their staffs. Put another way, formal diplomatic protocol and the frequent rigidity of diplomatic practices between U.S. embassy representatives and members of host country governments sometimes limited or even prohibited contact between the two. USIA programs, on the other hand, provided venues at which embassy and host country officials could meet informally and exchange important information.

Since the demise of USIA and its independent USIS centers overseas, public diplomacy officers have been unavoidably based in their embassies. While this may not have deterred them from reaching out to host country audiences, the institutional distance between American cultural centers and U.S. embassies has been lost. On the other hand, using a variety of information platforms, PD officers today can operate in a virtual environment not immediately linked to a local U.S. embassy. Of course, public diplomacy officers strive for transparency and identify themselves as U.S. government representatives in their interactions with people in other countries.

President Roosevelt initiated public diplomacy

Early in World War II President Roosevelt began the build-up of a new public diplomacy outreach capability in reaction to the lack of foreign understanding of U.S. political, social, and cultural values. His administration initiated an international leadership program to bring foreign government officials and other professionals to the U.S. for short-term orientation tours where they could meet U.S. officials and Americans in many walks of life. Their itineraries enabled them to travel around the country and experience geographical and cultural differences and learn more about American history and politics.

During the past seven decades many foreign heads of state and leaders in government had their first American experiences through this program. In December 2015 the International Visitor Leadership Program celebrated its 75th anniversary in active public diplomacy. Since 1999 it has been managed by State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Another public diplomacy initiative begun during World War II was shortwave radio broadcasts from Washington to inform foreign audiences about developments in the U.S. and around the world. We know this as the Voice of America. At one time part of USIA, today an autonomous VOA still reaches millions of people including those trapped in autocratic states with news reports, topical features, and American music. Its programs in many languages inform listeners about events in their regions of the world. Its news programs are based upon well-established journalistic practices that require multiple sources for verification of news items prior to their broadcast.

President Eisenhower founded the U.S. Information Agency

In 1953 President Eisenhower established the U.S. Information Agency. Its mission was to understand, inform, and influence foreign audiences in promotion of U.S. national interests. It was also given the task of enabling Americans and U.S. institutions to establish contact and dialogue with counterparts in other countries and through this to expand international understanding. USIA was established to streamline our government’s international information programs and make them more effective. USIA directors served as advisors to the President and Cabinet officers about public attitudes and cultural influences in other countries relevant to U.S. policies and values.

During President Kennedy’s administration renowned broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow took over the leadership of USIA and expanded its capabilities and international reach to promote the President’s efforts to engage the world and build bulwarks against Communist propaganda. Murrow transformed USIA and its international mission.

USISBaghdadUSIA launched Cold War information initiatives

During the Cold War USIA mounted repeated initiatives to inform audiences behind the Iron Curtain and in other totalitarian states about U.S. policies, values, and freedoms. Hundreds of millions of people in the Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact nations, China, North Korea, non-aligned nations, and different Islamic countries turned to USIA publications, films, and the daily “Wireless File” for accurate information about U.S. policies and their impact on world events. USIA’s outreach efforts together with VOA broadcasts enabled millions of people to learn about life in the United States through Americans across our nation.

The “Wireless File” was put together by professionals at USIA in Washington and distributed to USIA posts worldwide by wireless radio signal five days a week. It featured a compendium of statements by the President, Secretaries of State and Defense, and other high-level government officials and other information foreign audiences could not get anywhere else. USIA’s publications division issued scores of different monthly, quarterly, and semi-annual publications addressing specific topics and regions of the world. One of the most well-known among these was the monthly Problems of Communism. Another bi-monthly journal, Economic Impact, featured articles by leading American and international experts across a wide range of economic topics.

USIA’s film and television division produced hundreds of short and feature documentary films that were distributed to USIS posts around the world. One of the most famous of these was “John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Days of Drums”. Completed under the leadership of Hollywood producer George Stevens Jr. and USIA writer-director Bruce Herschensohn in 1964, it was released by USIA overseas in 1965 and after an act of Congress, won general release in U.S. movie theaters in 1966. It also won an Oscar for best documentary feature film.

In the early 1980s USIA launched Worldnet, a first-of-its-kind live interactive dialogue via satellite under the leadership of USIA Director Charles Z. Wick. These twice-weekly “interactives” enabled Europeans and, later, participants in other regions of the world to speak directly to Washington policy makers, including Cabinet officers, about current issues affecting their specific countries or regions. Worldnet interactive dialogues were instituted to counter growing Soviet influence in European and Asian media. These “on-the-record” dialogues were spontaneous and afforded many journalists who otherwise would have had little chance to interview senior U.S. government officials the opportunity to pose questions to them about ongoing policy developments.

The first Worldnet dialogue featured U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jean Kirkpatrick who dealt with the Soviet downing of Korean Airlines flight 007 on September 1, 1983 that took the lives of Georgia Congressman Larry McDonald and all the other passengers and crew onboard. Ambassador Kirkpatrick opened the program  with the radio transmission between the Soviet pilot and his ground controllers prior to his firing on the unarmed Korean airliner. After a brief statement she opened the dialogue to questions from journalists in five different European countries. Needless to say, Worldnet became an instant hit and over time afforded hundreds of journalists, foreign policy experts, intellectuals, economists, and others the opportunity to conduct live dialogues with leading Americans in many different policy fields.

At the same time USIA developed a rapid response capability to counter disinformation campaigns by foreign governments, sometimes operating under bogus academic and other guises. I was assigned to USIA’s Office of Policy in the late 1980s and worked with a team to counter Soviet and other foreign propaganda that spread false information about our government and about the American political system and American values.

Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability — Part 2

Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability — Part 3

About the author: Bruce Byers is a retired Foreign Service officer. He spent most of his career in the U.S. Information Agency. He served on assignments in Iran, India, Austria, Germany, Poland, the Philippines, and in Washington. Following his retirement in 2000 he worked in the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Exchanges in the International Visitor Leadership Program Office. He has published analytical articles about specific foreign affairs issues in different journals and on-line websites including the American Diplomacy website.

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