Each candidate in the presidential election has recognized the need, once in office, to galvanize public diplomacy to improve the image of the United States abroad.
Congress is also seized of the issue. A House subcommittee has held a series of hearings that affirm in recent years a "precipitous decline in favorability" toward the United States and its foreign policy.
At the urging of Congress, the Department of State, current home of the government's public diplomacy efforts, has commissioned a study to review the instruments and techniques needed to burnish the U.S. image. Three interested organizations, the Brookings Institution, the Business for Diplomatic Action group and the Washington-based Public Diplomacy Council, will conduct hearings in Washington, New York and Los Angeles in July to assess the views of interested parties.
Key to the debate is whether the government's public diplomacy, or "soft-power" effort, should remain based in the State Department or should become a separate institution. Republican candidate John McCain has already pronounced on his choice if he becomes president. In Foreign Affairs, he wrote: "In 1998 the Clinton administration and Congress mistakenly agreed to abolish the U.S. Information Agency and move its public diplomacy functions to the State Department. This amounted to unilateral disarmament in the war of ideas. I will work with Congress to create a new independent agency with the sole purpose of getting America's message to the world a critical element in combating Islamic extremism and restoring the positive image of our country abroad."
With the end of the Cold War, adopting the happy view that America's foes were now few, Congress opted to make public diplomacy a lower priority. USIA programs were cut back, and the remnants and lingering personnel of the agency eventually subsumed under the State Department, whose professional diplomats are schooled not in public relations, but the art of close-to-the-chest, government-to-government negotiations. Public diplomacy has thus been deprived of a separate agency whose sole reason for being is to amplify the American story to publics around the world, using the latest communications technology and the skills of practitioners who live, breathe and dream the mission.
While the Bush administration has admirably championed democracy around the globe, it has not restored the infrastructure to engage doubters and those whose anti-U.S. prejudices defy reason. When Karen Hughes, President Bush's media guru, was appointed the State Department's undersecretary for public diplomacy, many supporters of public diplomacy hoped her political heft could persuade the president to do what must be done restore or replicate USIA. But within the confines of the department, she was only able to shift chairs around on a deck, rather than launch a new ship.
Meanwhile, as the United States faltered on public diplomacy, the forces of terrorism mastered it, becoming increasingly sophisticated in content and technology. As Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's henchman, wrote to the now-deceased al-Qaida chieftain in Iraq: "More than half the battle is taking place on the battlefield of the media. We are in a media race ... for hearts and minds."
In its heyday, USIA used many resources to reach out to international audiences.
Seasoned public affairs officers stationed in foreign capitals, speaking the local language, cultivated local newspaper editors and editorial page directors, TV news directors and other thought leaders. USIA libraries offered books and visual materials for students eager to learn about America. Powerful shortwave radio broadcasts from the Voice of America found audiences in nations whose governments were less accommodating.
Sometimes a government that might balk at a politically suspect program would be amenable to a visiting American cultural or sports or entertainment group, such as North Korea's recent acceptance of a visit by a distinguished American symphony orchestra, or a then-reclusive China's welcome to American ping-pong players. We are not soon likely to see Iran's President Ahmadinejad sipping tea with President McCain in the White House (nor even, for that matter, with President Obama, despite the senator's musings about person-to-person diplomacy). But we could one day see an American musical group performing to cheers from a youthful audience in Tehran.
A House foreign affairs subcommittee found that "contact with America and Americans reduces anti-Americanism ... visitors, particularly students ... have more positive views about America than nonvisitors by 10 percentage points." USIA actively promoted such visits and exchanges, involving journalists, teachers, artists and others at all levels. One program targeted up-and-coming politicians likely to achieve high office. Such visitors included Anwar Sadat, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Hamid Karzai and Gerhard Schroeder.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Deseret News, served consecutively in the Reagan administration as associate director of USIA; director of the Voice of America, and assistant secretary of state for public affairs. His column is syndicated by the Christian Science Monitor.