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Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability: USIA, the Cold War, and Combating ISIS Propaganda — Part 2

Jennifer Galt on Web chat

Jennifer Galt conducting Web chat over social media (U.S. Consulate General Guangzhou)

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 2 of Byers’s essay on Links to parts 1 and 3 follow:

Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability — Part 1

Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability — Part 3

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Since October 1999 State Department leaders have struggled to find the right place for the remnants of USIA in its hierarchical bureaucracy. While its public diplomacy officers have continued the valiant work of reaching out to foreign audiences, bureaucratic inertia and lack of leadership have sometimes been a drag on their effectiveness.

Today’s public diplomacy officers, stationed at embassies and consulates around the world, work with the latest information technology, but in recent years their Washington support has seen a frequent turnover of leaders and many political appointees who stayed only months or a year or two at best. A number of them with backgrounds in corporate management did not understand public diplomacy and dealt with it as though they were dealing with public relations and  product “branding”. This has resulted at times in poor leadership and half-hearted, half-started public diplomacy initiatives.

Public diplomacy officers have frequently had to contend with the ever present State Department bureaucracy that limits their flexibility. They lack the rapidity with which USIA was able to confront sudden international developments and foreign propaganda initiatives and launch effective responses. The result has been a series of failed efforts to grapple with ISIS propaganda against us and our allies. It may be this that has moved President Obama and his White House advisors to launch a “shake-up” in public diplomacy efforts to counter ISIS and other anti-American propaganda. However, this will take more than a superficial tweaking of existing bureaucracy within the State Department.

A call for a new information agency

What could be done to change the current the situation and restore a fast reaction ability in our government to counter propaganda initiatives? How could public diplomacy programs and officers be enabled to provide more effective and swifter responses in countering foreign propaganda?
Congress could create through legislation an independent Information Agency, similar to USIA that would take advantage of the latest information technology to reach foreign audiences on a targeted basis. Its director would report directly to the President. This agency would take policy guidance from the White House and the State Department as USIA did throughout its history. It would have the autonomy and resources to build on credible, established international relationships and act quickly to counter anti-American propaganda.

It would also be able to conduct its own programs to influence and change public attitudes overseas. And it could offer foreign journalists and opinion makers, once again, access to senior U.S. government officials to discuss pressing international issues and U.S. government policies. Current public diplomacy offices in the State Department pursue some of these initiatives and reach out to foreign audiences and opinion leaders. Yet, intermittent leadership has stymied sustained program initiatives.

The biggest difference between the current set-up in State and a new Information Agency is that appointed office directors in State’s PD bureaucracy become sandwiched into State’s bureaucracy and have to compete for resources and attention in the spectrum of policy issues that State leaders pursue. The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs does not report directly to the President as USIA directors did but rather to the Secretary of State. In a new Information Agency this would not happen. There would be a different decision making process targeted at influencing foreign publics with more direct White House input.

A new information agency director would report to the President

The director of such an agency would once again advise the President and the Secretary of State and other Cabinet officers directly about foreign public perceptions and attitudes towards the U.S. There would be fewer policy and bureaucratic filters for such reporting. As a presidential appointee, the director would address the nature of international propaganda directed against the U.S. He or she would advise senior U.S. government officials about the changing international communication environments across the globe and inform them of the effectiveness of U.S. information strategies directed at changing foreign public opinion.

We here in America tend to discount the effectiveness of U.S. information efforts directed at foreign audiences, especially in today’s world of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. We also tend to downplay the effectiveness of U.S. public diplomacy in influencing foreign publics about the authenticity of our government’s policies and diplomacy. At the same time we tend to exaggerate the effectiveness of anti-American propaganda like that which ISIS and like organizations have been spewing out on countless websites over the past several years.

One historic reason for this is that the United States government has never had an official ministry of information that attempted to influence domestic public opinion. Under our Constitution, we enjoy freedom of speech and of the press, unlike people in many other countries. We are more focused on domestic political and economic developments than on what is happening in the rest of the world. For these and other reasons public diplomacy does not loom large in our American consciousness.

While millions of people love to chat on social media, many foreign audiences are misinformed about the United States, our values, our cultural diversity, and our political and economic policies. A new U.S. Information Agency would better be able to use some of the myriad social platforms and other outlets to counter anti-American propaganda point for point and disseminate official information as well as a broad array of public information about our country and our society without outside media filters.

Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability — Part 1

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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