Several months ago, I mounted a major public affairs event here in Tokyo, an afternoon seminar on the Kyoto Protocol, to explain the Bush administration’s policy. The program brought together speakers from the Japanese business community who advise the government on greenhouse-gas issues, a young and articulate advocate from the environmental NGO community, an ecology writer and journalist, and a high-ranking State Department colleague. The entire session was conducted in Japanese.
Afterward, I complimented my embassy colleague, noting that it is sometimes difficult to get my State colleagues to speak publicly for the embassy, and said I especially appreciated his daring willingness to do so in Japanese.
“What can they do, fire me?” he replied.
Now, this was an odd rejoinder. Why should a veteran U.S. diplomat, with a long and distinguished career, express even joking concern that his advocacy would be somehow frowned on, even grounds for disciplinary action, by State management? How in the world did it come to pass that skilled and experienced FSOs should get the feeling that public speaking on policy issues is not welcome?
I ask these questions as a former U. S. Information Agency officer who has experienced first-hand the chilling effect of remarks made by high-level State colleagues. I’ve heard, for example, that our embassies do not need to mount public affairs campaigns at all. Or indeed, since the issues are nuanced and shifting, some officials maintain that it is best to leave public diplomacy out of the picture altogether. Similarly, some of my colleagues have raised questions about my choice of unofficial speakers (once known as “AmParts” and “American Speakers”) and sought to draw boundaries marking how far I should be permitted to go in engaging academics and other experts whose public views might not dovetail with State policy, and would therefore run counter to U.S. government goals.
I recently posed these concerns to a State Department colleague with many years of experience with speaker programs and public diplomacy. Regarding State policy on how far “off the reservation” we could go in inviting U.S. speakers, he said, “nothing is written down.” This is what I suspected, and it is why I think this article is necessary. For in the vacuum formed by the unwillingness to address the boundaries, there is a pall cast by our more timid colleagues, who would have us offer speaker programs suitable for a Cold War-era people’s republic. But I am not a commissar for a moribund, ideological dictatorship. Rather, I want us to fashion an approach to public diplomacy worthy of a confident, democratic superpower.
“I want us to fashion an approach to public diplomacy worthy of a confident, democratic superpower.”
Or consider a less inflammatory topic. I witnessed several years of so-called trade friction in bilateral relations with Japan as a press officer here in the early 1990s. During that contentious era, U.S. negotiators engaged in pitched closed-door talks while we in USIA’s Tokyo office fought battles for public opinion in sector-specific areas as diverse as rice, cars and car parts, and semiconductors. It was not difficult to find American academics and journalists who decried the Clinton administration’s insistence on setting “numerical indicators” in bilateral trade agreements, which many of them condemned as “managed trade.”
In that atmosphere, I did not feel it would have been responsible to invite a speaker, even a prominent one, who would take such a position at the same time that our negotiators were in town trying to sell the opposite view. Had we sponsored such individuals, the Japanese press, already hostile to our position, would have had a field day highlighting yet another American who belittled our stance, deeply embarrassing us.
On the other hand, during my first tour with USIA in Budapest, when Hungary was still part of the Soviet bloc, I often hosted speakers who publicly disagreed with various aspects of U.S. foreign policy. But these were moderate individuals who understood and appreciated the official view, even as they articulated positions more or less at variance with it.
At home, the public platform given by the First Amendment to such disparate opinions helps us better understand and refine our policies. That approach can work overseas, too—within the limits sketched out above. For example, members of Congress from the political party not holding the White House accept the traditional restraint on criticism of the president when they travel overseas. This is not merely a matter of patriotism. The rationale for free speech at home is that it sharpens public debate, which helps refine and improve public policy. But foreigners do not necessarily contribute to domestic public policy discussions, so the value of free speech overseas should properly be balanced with the national interest of building support for U.S. foreign policies.
Such a balance will certainly work to our long-term diplomatic advantage. In the communist bloc, I received no end of compliments—often expressed in a tone of amazement—that the U.S. government would sponsor and host the voices that criticize it. And I am sure that is still the case when we send our “dissidents” to China today. Both through what the speakers say, and also through the very nature and scope of our public diplomacy programs, which should welcome a diversity of views, we set a valuable example for such regimes. In any country, moreover, this diversity of speakers also provides invaluable credibility to our work.
I suspect that some readers of this article will claim that I’ve set up a straw man, and would argue that State leadership has never formally tried to muzzle dissident views in speaker programs, nor discouraged FSOs from publicly advocating U.S. government policies. But it is undeniable that the State Department allows very few officials to speak on the record overseas (or back in the department, for that matter). As a result, FSOs are naturally reluctant to do public speaking even away from the media, even though they’re supporting official policy, which obviously diminishes the value of trained and knowledgeable public diplomacy officers. Soon after we’re minted as FSOs, we begin to develop an appreciation of the strict limits on our initiative when we read our first embassy press guidelines and discover how few people are permitted to speak on the record for the embassy. We also hear examples of colleagues who thought they were speaking either off the record or in an area free of reporters, but whose comments somehow got into the media and caused them problems—even if what was said was in line with policy. Or perhaps we have even been burned that way ourselves.
As for speaker programs, the proclivity toward conformity of opinion stems largely from the very absence of clear policy regarding this subject. This results in just enough pressure in the form of “suggestions”—”Don’t you think you ought to reconsider that speaker proposal?” or, “Do you really believe that Washington (or the ambassador, the political section, etc.) would accept that individual?”—to discourage us from hosting the speakers we really need. Since USIA’s consolidation with State in 1999, many of my colleagues have seen the writing on the wall and opined that the days of independent voices are over. (By contrast, before the merger, State officers rarely interfered with the speaker programs of their USIA colleagues.) My political section colleagues have occasionally reminded me that “you work for State now,” and told me directly and indirectly that I will have to accept their political guidance to win approval of my public diplomacy programs. Political correctness—by which I mean the pressure to sponsor only the staunchest advocates of current administration policy—now seems to be the watchword. Several colleagues have, in fact, discouraged me from writing this article, suggesting that it won’t help my career. But I think the discussion I’ve outlined would actually be healthy for the Foreign Service as an institution.
Besides, after all, what can they do—fire me?
Republished by permission from the Foreign Service Journal, January 2003.