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The Heritage Foundation in late April published a report on how to mend what’s broken in U.S. Public Diplomacy. The full report (with graphics) is available online at NationalSecurity/bg1645.cfm The introductory section, recommendations, and conclusion follow. —Ed.

How to Reinvigorate U.S. Public Diplomacy
by Stephen Johnson and Helle Dale

The United States government is losing its voice before foreign audiences and needs to get it back. The U.S. Information Agency (USIA) and international broadcasting efforts such as the Voice of America (VOA)—influential in articulating U.S. positions and providing a basis for cross-cultural understanding for the past fifty years—have been neglected since the end of the Cold War. While most Americans may not know the term public diplomacy, the events of September 11 have made them aware that Uncle Sam’s global image is in serious trouble.

To reverse America’s declining image abroad, both public diplomacy and related international broadcasting agencies need a clear chain of command as well as adequate personnel and financial resources. In addition, public diplomacy programs that once helped nurture positive long-term relations with foreign publics and opinion leaders must be restored.

The 1999 reorganization that placed the previously independent USIA within the U.S. Department of State and cut loose international broadcasting efforts has not been effective in addressing this challenge. Sensing the problem, the White House established its own Office of Global Communications in 2001 to formulate and coordinate messages to foreign audiences. The Department of Defense (DOD) unsuccessfully tried to merge public affairs and information warfare capabilities to rapidly shape international public opinion. Last year, House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-IL) introduced the Freedom Promotion Act of 2002 to revitalize USIA within the State Department and reform foreign broadcasting, but his bill died in the Senate.

While Chairman Hyde’s intentions of strengthening public diplomacy and reorganizing foreign broadcasting are a good start, reforms should go farther, both to strengthen the White House role in coordinating messages for international audiences and to provide a context for DOD wartime communications. These measures will not add much to the $1 billion annual budget spent on public diplomacy, and savings can be achieved by eliminating duplicate and ineffective services. To reform the disjointed system, use tax dollars effectively, and draw on the talents of gifted communicators, the Bush Administration and Congress should:

  • Recognize that public diplomacy is a long-term effort that requires consistent application;
  • Restore public diplomacy’s independent reporting and budget channels that were lost in the USIA-State Department merger, allowing public diplomacy officers to accomplish their unique overseas mission more easily;
  • Return public diplomacy units currently dispersed among other State Department bureaus to the public diplomacy hierarchy;
  • Strengthen exchange programs and revive worthwhile programs such as U.S. government-supported libraries that serve important audiences;
  • Reorganize foreign broadcasting to streamline management, eliminate duplicate and ineffective services, and improve programming;
  • Enhance public diplomacy career training and increase the number of experienced foreign service personnel in State Department public affairs;
  • Strengthen inter-agency coordination through the White House and define DOD communications efforts for use on the battlefield; and
  • Modify outdated legislation, such as provisions in the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act that place irrelevant restrictions on public diplomacy activities.

In the information age, it is remarkable that the United States government has been hesitant to embrace and effectively implement mass communication to support America’s defense and foreign policy goals. In recent times, only the Reagan Administration consistently factored communication strategies into meeting its domestic and international political challenges. Now, when Washington wants public diplomacy to come to the rescue, it seems to expect public diplomacy to deliver goodwill instantly among foreign publics without first establishing the necessary foundation of mutual trust and understanding.

Instead, reflex should become habit. Public diplomacy is effective only when it builds on long-term relationships that identify common interests between people and capitalize on them. It must be strategic, consistent, and flexible in its use of channels and, above all, must encourage two-way communication.

In 1999, after years of decline, the bulk of public diplomacy was folded haphazardly into the State Department, with international broadcasting remaining independent. To its credit, this “reinvention” finally integrates traditional and public diplomacy at the most basic level. Now the resulting structures must be adjusted to make them work. Both public diplomacy and foreign broadcasting should be strengthened and made more efficient. Some programs, like exchanges that were cut, should be restored; others that have fulfilled their purpose, like some broadcasting operations, should be phased out.

Public diplomacy is an important leadership tool. Its mission flowered during the great international conflicts of the twentieth century, but its philosophical roots go back to America’s founding. In his farewell address, President George Washington counseled, “as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion be enlightened.” The same could be said of U.S. diplomacy and foreign views of America.

April 23, 2003

Republished by permission of the authors, who express their appreciation to The Heritage Foundation.


The authors hold senior positions in policy analysis and international affairs with The Heritage Foundation. Helle Dale, formerly an editor with The Washington Times, holds degrees from the University of Copenhagen and Tufts University. Steve Johnson had prior service with the U. S. departments of State and the Air Force; he is a graduate of the University of Wyoming and Georgetown University.


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