REVIEW: Article

Public Diplomacy and the United States Information Agency, Yes!

In the latter part of the 1950s the phrase, “Missile Gap,” initially a political war cry, ultimately became accepted truth. It helped to unseat a political party, damaged not a few foreign affairs and defense establishment professionals and opened up a virtually endless treasure-trove of biting and sarcastic political cartoons.  Now we have the “public diplomacy gap” which translates for many perhaps into an over-simplified question, “Why does the world suddenly seem to hate the United States (US)?”

Public opinion polls conducted by respected organizations like Zogby and others have fine-tuned these negative attitudes. We now learn from these polls that it is not Americans who are hated, it is the policies of our government. This, of course, raises immediate questions: “Do these haters understand our policies?; Can polling data in non- democratic countries be accurate?; When one’s tongue will be cut off for expressing blasphemous thoughts can people speak freely and honestly?; and finally, with all of these negatives, how can there be such a disconnect between millions of people worldwide trying desperately to enter the US, legally or illegally, and these views that the world hates the US?” Carrying this hatred to the point of absurdity, maybe they hate the US because it’s the middle of our President’s last name: B-US-H. Who knows?

All of us living here in the United States would prefer to go to sleep at night with the comforting thought that those billions of “foreigners” do think the USA over the long haul has been a benefactor to most countries in the world. Was it not the US with the help and cooperation of our North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies in Europe who, together, helped bring on the implosion of the communist Soviet dictatorship? Does no one any longer remember something about how the US and Britain led the countries of the world in defeating the evil Axis of Germany and Japan? Then there was that thing called World War I and the small but special role we played there. One fears our (Western) historical memory is getting shorter by the year; not so amongst those peoples of Islam for whom the results of these wars and conflicts present themselves in an altogether different light. It is in our interest, perhaps our very survival, to know and understand our own history. With this understanding we will be better able to present our way of life with its emphasis on personal freedom and human rights.

Once upon a time in the United States there was an organization in Washington that was charged with the task of telling the truth, the whole truth, the un-propagandized truth about the US to the rest of the world. Some un-recognized “geniuses” like Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush using the presidency and a majority in Congress provided the money to create and keep alive the UNITED STATES INFORMATION AGENCY (USIA). The mission of the USIA was to communicate to the world’s populations the true benefits of an open society and the crucial nature of freedom of speech, the rule of law, freedom of religion and the benefit of free and independent labor unions to name just a few. The message was communicated in virtually every method known at the time: the short-wave radio Voice of America, a global TV network, English-language libraries with free and open access to books, magazines and newspapers, specialized media in many different languages to reach in every way possible those billions out there “yearning to breathe free.” During the Cold War, President Eisenhower said that peace was too important to be left solely in the hands of diplomats and the military—there must be “People-to-People” exchanges in addition to the more formal kinds of diplomacy. As a result, thousands of carefully selected future leaders came to this country as special guests of the US government.

In addition our ordinary tourists to foreign countries were supplemented by special experts, academics, sports heroes, jazz music greats, scientists, doctors, comedians, dancers, capitalists, clowns and college boys and girls. Way beyond the billions of dollars sent in Agency for International Development (AID) programs and by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the communication of the greatness of our country was achieved through movies of all kinds which showed not just our material wealth but the kinds of people in the US that did the everyday work, raised the families, fought the wars for freedom, followed the religions that they wished and generally despite the many differences in race, religion and ethnicity got along amazingly well.

Our major Achilles heel, the mistreatment of our African-American population began to be explored, faced up to and presented by the Hollywood of the 1950s and 1960s. For the first time, Hollywood moved away from stereotyping and faced up to the race problem in the US. However, the most important message communicated around the world was the passage of specific Civil Rights legislation by Congress and signed by the President in 1964-1965.

There was clear recognition from 1947 until 1993 that in addition to the nuclear threat posed by the Soviet Union we were facing an ideological war between communism and democracy. There was also clear recognition that it was a long-term effort with no deadline set for ending the program until our system of government “won,” to use an over-simplified term.

Today we and the West are facing another ideological challenge worldwide in nature, that of extremist, fanatical Moslem sects sponsoring terrorists and teaching hatred of the United States and almost everything associated with Western culture.

To some degree there is a parallel with the British Empire in its prime and the way the US is viewed in the world today: with hatred, fear, respect and some grudging admiration. The United States’ position of strength in the world today has created the same kinds of diverse emotions worldwide. There is, of course, one major difference and that is the British people were solidly behind their empire while in the United States there is a panoply of attitudes among our people ranging from generalized rage against just about everything America stands for to a self-satisfied glow about our uniqueness as a bastion of freedom.

There is also a real question if any action that our country takes to help make the world understand what the US really stands for is worth the effort. Can education end deep-seated hatred? Can an individual driven by a blood-feud tradition of revenge against past grievances change inside? Should we care so much about how foreign populations see this country? In the view of the most experienced practitioners in the study of foreign affairs, human psychology and public diplomacy, the answer is “yes” to all four questions.      

Perhaps the most important question is “Why is anti-Americanism so pervasive around the world and what can we do about it?”

In January of this year Dr. John Brademas, member of Congress for 22 years from Indiana, addressed the Royal Academy of the Kingdom of Morocco. His subject: “Education and Culture - Forces for Peace in a Troubled World.” As President Emeritus of New York University, which today has 4,400 students from countries around the world on its campus (in the heart of New York City), he speaks with authority on this subject. In his address he endorses the position of his colleague, Joseph Nye, Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, namely, to invest more in “soft power.” Dr. Nye’s stated position is that US military power is essential to global stability and is a critical part of the response to terrorism; beyond that “soft power” rises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideas and policies.

The “masters” of soft power throughout the Cold War were the men and women in the United States and in virtually every country of the world who manned the United States Information Agency. Both US citizens and the thousands of foreign nationals, who represented us locally, were the unsung heroes of the ideological victory of democracy over communism.

Since 2001 with “The Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Managed Information Dissemination” there has been a flood of studies and recommenda­tions on this general subject. It includes blue ribbon organizations such as: the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy; the Council on Foreign Relations; the General Accounting Office; the Center for the Study of the Presidency; the Heritage Foundation book by Johnson and Dale; the Brookings Institution study by Graham Fuller and in October 2003 the scholarly work of Ambassador Djerejian called “Changing Minds, Winning Peace.”

All of the above, one way or the other, agree with Congressman Frank Wolf’s “tentative” conclusion reported in The New York Times of February 4, 2003: “Maybe we made a mistake in closing down the United States Information Agency.” Each of the above named reports has a new, modified, re-organized, re-jiggered approach to doing what the USIA did so well, not perfectly, not without a glitch or two along the way, but well enough to have played a crucial role in fending off or bringing down communism in the USSR, Eastern Europe and in countless countries around the world.

For much of the Cold War, the Voice of America was an important part of our public diplomacy effort. While it generally received high marks for “telling America’s story” to that part of the world under the heel of Soviet communism, from time to time it came under political attack for acts of both omission and commission. It is now a part of the overall broadcasting effort of the US and that is where it should remain. It needs more financial support and more technical upgrading to bring it into the 21st century but basically it worked well. However, the rest of what constituted the USIA (or as it was known overseas, the United States Information Service, [USIS]) should be brought back to life in tact. It should be removed from its current second-rate citizen status under the State Department. There is hardly one element of what proved so helpful for so many years that needs major overhauling. Starting with its basic organization, the Director held a Sub-Cabinet appointment and reported directly to the President and to the Secretary of State. In organization terms this means a straight line to the President and a dotted line to the Secretary of State. In our political system this kind of individual was almost always readily available.

There is no question that Peter Drucker was right when he advised senior executives to avoid splitting their responsibilities. His dictum was simply “Put half a man on a job and you’ll get half a job.” The State Department focuses on many subjects: foreign politics, foreign economics, foreign military matters to name just a few and fundamentally is charged with executing the President’s foreign policy. Nothing can stand in the way of getting that job done. When the foreign country’s media deal with State Department representatives they know they are receiving the official message from a diplomat. When the USIA was in operation, the local newspaper contacts knew that they were dealing with an information specialist from an agency that reported to the US President, not to the Secretary of State. That small but crucial difference made it possible for USIA officers to develop close personal connections with the media men and women who influence the local population. This was even more true at the academic and cultural level where we clearly have major challenges today in both the Islamic and non-Islamic world.

In the world of business and generally wherever there are many possible courses of action and methods of organizing, it has often been shown that it is prudent to test an approach before using it globally to guard against unforeseen problems. In marketing there is a whole industry devoted to what is known as “test marketing.” All of the many proposals referred to above on how to deal with our country’s image overseas involve interesting and innovative changes from the established USIA experience with barely a reference to why the change was needed. It’s almost as if they were written without full knowledge of the USIA’s history.

There currently exists a nongovernmental organization in Washington, DC called the US Public Diplomacy Council (PDC), which has as its pro-bono members a broad array of the highest performing former USIA officers and Private Sector Specialists. Making a decision and getting the job started quickly is crucial. This organization which will unquestionably have the support of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress could help to put the USIA back together quickly so that it conceivably could be functioning powerfully by the end of this year at the latest. As of today, the Council’s goals are to support awareness of public diplomacy’s central importance to the nation’s foreign policy and serve as an activist clearing house. By offering information to the press, the public and on the Hill and elsewhere, the PDC can play a key role in helping to rebuild the structures and skills that are so essential. The Council’s Web site offers timely insights into the challenges facing our public diplomacy; and its daily electronic news file is the best source anywhere of media reporting on public diplomacy (PD) issues across the country and the world.

This is not to imply that the USIA back in action will be some kind of “quick fix.” Because our relationships around the world almost always involve the local publics’ attitude toward the US and just about everything encompassed by our democratic system, we must gear up for a long, sustained effort just as we did in the Cold War. The rainbow at the end of this journey is a world as diverse as New York City with its 250 languages and its mix of religious and ethnic groups that goes along and gets along every day of the week.

Let’s face the issue honestly and frankly. Everyone made a mistake in closing down the USIA in 1999 and for once, let’s admit that mistake, get over it and get back on track.

Issue Date


Director, United States Information Agency, 1989-1991;
United States Ambassador to Belgium, 1991-1993