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Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability: USIA, the Cold War, and Combating ISIS Propaganda — Part 3

Emily Green at a workshop

Emily Green, center, at a workshop she organized for Guinean health communicators at the height of the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak (Kimberly Phelan-Royston)

(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 1 and 2 follow:

Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability — Part 1

Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability — Part 2

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Although hundreds of American diplomats are engaged daily in public diplomacy activities abroad and hundreds more in Washington, they are often hamstrung by rigid hierarchies in the State Department. Its traditional diplomatic mission is significantly different from that of public diplomacy.

In the December 2015 issue of the Foreign Service Journal an article entitled “The Usefulness of Cookie-Pushing” details the ways in which our diplomats pursue initiatives. It quotes excerpts from Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent R.C. Longworth’s 1977 book Primer for Diplomats. He described how the slow, often quiet work of State Department diplomats led to breakthroughs in otherwise intransigent international stalemates. Longworth wrote, “Diplomacy is the way countries get along with each other and adjust their national rivalries without going to war. When diplomacy fails, it fails noisily. When it succeeds, it does so quietly and in private, and is likely to be ignored.”

Longworth’s primer did not focus on the rapid response capabilities of diplomats trained in the arts of cultural and information affairs. It did not delve into the often arcane efforts of public diplomacy professionals to size up foreign audiences, attitudes, and environments and shape initiatives to influence political elites as well as the people “in the street” towards U.S. policies and political and cultural values.

An information agency creates new opportunities

USIA once had a thriving exhibits division that introduced worldwide audiences to the best and newest innovations in America. If we reflect on then-Vice President Nixon’s 1959 debate with Nikita Khrushchev at a USIA Moscow exhibit of contemporary American household products – the so-called “kitchen debate” – we learn that the exhibit and its USIA officers shaped an environment in which the two global leaders were able to spontaneously debate political differences in front of many journalists and a worldwide audience. This is one of countless examples in which USIA exhibits changed the course of American diplomacy. With the 1999 demise of USIA, its exhibits division was lost. Exhibits and the environments they created in other countries opened many opportunities for international dialogue. This can happen again. It would take congressional action; it would be worth the effort.

Public diplomacy officers engage many different audiences

There are countless examples of how USIA Foreign Service officers made a difference that influenced and often changed public attitudes towards the United States. Here are a few examples.

When USIA Information Officer Eddie Deerfield began his assignment in 1966 in Madras, (Chennai) India he took the initiative to travel to four different Indian states in the consular district. He gave speeches, met dignitaries and journalists, and participated in public events. He made book presentations at Rotary and Lions clubs, opened a basketball tournament, and moderated a panel discussion on small businesses in India. His ground work with many different people brought him into contact with editors and journalists of Indian newspapers in a country where freedom of the press is as prized as it is in the U.S. Deerfield arranged an International Visitor Leadership grant for the editor of a pro-communist newspaper that had long been critical of the United States. The editor was able to meet with U.S. officials in Washington and travel to different parts of the country to meet journalists and editors. When he returned to Madras, his paper’s editorials became far more reasonable and less critical of the United States.

A year after Eddie’s arrival in Madras a Soviet TASS news agency report sent to many news outlets accused him of being the CIA “station chief” in South India. It labeled him a “master spy”. Because of his ground work among leading journalists, editors, and opinion makers, the TASS story failed to work. His Indian contacts knew him as an American diplomat working to improve bilateral understanding on the ground. He had gained their trust.

Today’s public diplomacy officers continue to do this kind of outreach work, often under very trying and dangerous circumstances and with fewer resources than was the case when an independent USIA backstopped its Foreign Service officers abroad. Given security considerations, today’s public diplomacy officers often have to work from bunker-like embassies rather than in more open and centrally located USIS cultural centers and libraries. Make no mistake, some of USIA’s centers were bombed during the Cold War years but they were more welcoming of local visitors seeking information and contact with Americans.

USIS libraries, once important centers where thousands of people from different walks of life and religious and political persuasions met, are all but gone. Those young students, journalists, playwrights, and politicians who might never have met under other circumstances, were able to meet and exchange ideas under USIS auspices. And they could borrow books that were often banned from sale in their countries.

Today in countries like Afghanistan “American Corners” operate with locally hired directors to make available Internet access and official U.S. government policy information to their visitors. They are meeting places for people seeking alternative information not only about the United States but about their own countries and regions and how they fit into global political and economic developments.

These small centers of dialogue also enable women who otherwise might be kept from access to vital information to learn about international and regional events and developments in their own backyards. However, the American Corners effort is still feeble and relies upon local support rather more than on the kinds of resources that USIA once put into its many libraries.

In the 1970s during my assignment in Bombay (Mumbai), I traveled extensively throughout Western India, often escorting American academics, authors, film directors, and others to meet with Indian contacts. Our face-to-face work enabled us to expand understanding of American institutions and culture in a country nearly saturated with pro-Soviet information in various forms. USIA book donations during these visits left tangible proof of our work and sincerity.

The National Film and Television Institute in Pune was one of our most important stops. There, I was able to introduce a leading American film historian to the faculty and students of the institute. He had active Hollywood contacts and brought to his presentations contemporary anecdotes about ongoing projects. During his programs he showed several kinds of American films that provided the basis for detailed discussions of cinema arts and American values among the hundreds of people at the Institute. We also donated a small collection of American films and videotapes as well as books to the Institute’s library.

Later, in a different program in Bombay, we hosted a retrospective of classic American films and invited internationally renowned Indian film director Satyajit Ray to introduce them and our American guests. Our cultural center in downtown Bombay was packed for every presentation throughout the week of the program. Our library featured books and periodicals about American film and film history. This kind of contact work cannot be replicated by relying on today’s virtual information platforms.

Responding to propaganda

Today, public diplomacy officers rely much more on electronic media to reach their audiences. This may be due to smaller budgets and fewer PD officers. On-line chats and blogs have attracted significant groups as well as countless, anonymous, self-selecting audiences. Still, the most effective distance in any communication between our diplomats and members of a host country society is the last three feet. And a warm handshake. This was a given in USIA. It remains one of the fundamental tenets of today’s diplomats. Secretary Kerry has certainly demonstrated this during the years of negotiations with Iran’s foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Currently, the missing dimension in many of our diplomatic efforts, especially with regard to ISIS propaganda, is a more robust public diplomacy strategy unfettered by State’s multi-layered bureaucracy. Putting this aside, it is important to emphasize that today’s public diplomacy officers and their initiatives across different bureaus in the State Department have led to developing and implementing many successful programs overseas. A few examples illustrate this.

At its 2015 awards ceremony the Public Diplomacy Alumni Association (PDAA) recognized projects ranging from information campaigns in West Africa about ways to limit and contain the spread of the Ebola virus to efforts to recognize and support educational and health initiatives for women and girls in Afghanistan. PDAA also recognized a successful public diplomacy initiative in China to gain access to local social media platforms that enabled Chinese on-line visitors to learn more about American political, economic, business, and cultural initiatives within and towards China. These and many other public diplomacy initiatives are conducted in the languages of the host countries where they take place, making communication and understanding easier and more authentic.

Mal Whitfield

Mal Whitfield (Veterans Administration Medical Center, Washington, DC)

Revamping U.S. propaganda strategies

President Obama has called for revamping the U.S. anti-ISIS propaganda strategy. It is obvious that he is unhappy with the results in the State Department so far. Yet, there have been ambiguous directives from the White House that could have contributed to the lack of a decisive media strategy against ISIS and related propaganda. It is a classic case of tension between the National Security Council and the State Department that extends at least as far back as the Nixon White House. It remains to be seen how senior State Department officials will respond to the President’s order and devote more resources to increasing our public diplomacy efforts against ISIS and other nefarious propaganda. State’s bureaucracy and its defensive traditions vis a vis the White House could be one reason for the uneven deployment of more intense counter propaganda when time is of the essence.

Our government has a long history of successfully responding to overt and hidden propaganda attacks by adversarial governments and organizations. For 46 years USIA rose to the challenge and countered foreign propaganda while also stirring the hearts and minds of millions of people who yearned for more freedom and access to genuine information about the United States. Much of this was lost when USIA was dissolved in 1999. It took a decade to build up a new public diplomacy bureaucracy in the State Department. At the same time so many of USIA’s proven capabilities were discarded. Slowly, some of them have been reconstructed on a smaller scale.

As part of its ongoing efforts to introduce foreign audiences to the diversity in American culture during the Cold War USIA sent well known jazz musicians behind the Iron Curtain to engage audiences who otherwise would never have had contact with leading Americans. For forty years almost every major and many lesser jazz musicians and groups visited communist Poland and held workshops and concerts for Polish musicians. As a result of this long endeavor, American jazz is one of the most popular forms of music in Poland and every year there are jazz festivals featuring leading American and Polish musicians.

In the early 1990s, during my three years as cultural affairs officer in Warsaw, I participated in several jazz festivals that brought Americans and Poles together in a new, free, democratic nation. Once considered decadent by Communist officials, jazz has long been a language that everyone could understand and enjoy. It opened up contacts, spanned languages and cultural divides, and gave people trapped in Communist nations hope and access to outside cultural influences.

American sports diplomats have also played an important role, especially in African and Asian countries. Today, the Sports United office in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs carries on a long-standing USIA tradition of sending American athletes to hold clinics, open sports competitions, and participate in international games that bring together athletes from different countries and ethnic groups within countries.

One of the most famous of USIA’s sports diplomats was Malvin Whitfield, a Gold Medal winner in the 1948 and 1952 Olympic Games. Mal, as I knew him, passed away in November 2015 at age 93. He had served our country as a Tuskegee Airman and had flown combat missions in Korea before joining USIA. I first met him in Somalia in 1980 and later in Kenya. As an Olympic champion and a Foreign Service officer, Mal helped train young African men and women and very likely inspired some of them to go on to win international and Olympic marathons and long-distance races. He symbolized the best in American sports and fair play and was often the guest of heads of state in countries where he conducted basketball and track and field workshops and competitions.

I mention Mal and the many American jazz musicians as examples of what our public diplomacy resources were able to achieve that traditional diplomacy could not. USIA was set up to recruit outstanding representatives of American sports, music, fine arts, literary traditions, and many other areas of our culture. I could also mention the thousands of American writers, musicians, artists, playwrights, movie directors, actors, and many others who traveled abroad under USIA’s auspices to represent the best in our society, but this would require another long essay. I have come to the end of this essay.

Something must be done to strengthen our public diplomacy outreach. Congress has the opportunity to enable our government to meet the growing challenges of anti-American propaganda and do so much more. It is long past time for our congressional representatives to respond to the current challenges and restore America’s once proud U.S. Information Agency as the most capable diplomatic tool a future president can rely on to inform foreign audiences and tell America’s story to the world once more.

Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability — Part 1

Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability — Part 2

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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