REVIEW: Article

America Needs a Voice Abroad

When President Bush visited Canada shortly after his re-election, thousands protested on the streets of Ottawa. In mocking reference to the fate of Saddam Hussein a year earlier, a statue-sized effigy of the President was hoisted to a rostrum above the crowd and then pulled down to loud cheers.

That such things should occur in the capital of a friendly neighbor, echoing as they did similar demonstrations in capitals around the world, reveals how deep-seated anti-Americanism has come to be.

Obviously, the United States (US) will not and should not shape policies to suit the preferences of other nations and peoples. But it can and should explain those policies directly and openly in ways calculated to promote better and more widespread appreciation of why we do what we do.

For nearly 50 years such a program was a top national priority for Presidents from Harry S. Truman to George H. W. Bush—all nine of them. Principally charged with carrying it out was the United States Information Agency (USIA), reporting directly to the President and liaising closely with the Secretary of State.

Throughout those years, USIA assigned a public affairs officer (PAO) experienced in journalism or public relations to nearly every US Embassy. Each officer was always a full member of the country team yet sufficiently independent to advise the Ambassador as an outside counsel might advise a corporate chief executive officer, rather than simply report to him as a subordinate.

The PAO’s chief duty was to recruit, train and supervise foreign service nationals (FSNs), natives of the host country with backgrounds in journalism or academia and pro-American views who would represent the US to their country’s opinion leaders and media representatives professionally, authoritatively, and (most important) in their own language.  In some countries, USIA also opened libraries in high-traffic locations where ordinary citizens could have access to American newspapers, books and magazines.

USIA was a creation of the Cold War, born of the conviction that success in the struggle with the Soviet Union would require not only effective armaments and strong alliances but also steady progress in winning and retaining worldwide support for the aims and ideals of American-style democracy.

In this USIA achieved remarkable success, as was demonstrated when the Cold War ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the freeing of its satellite states—an immense transformation that was welcomed almost everywhere. In the euphoria which followed, it was widely believed that the collapse of Communism would lead to the embrace of democracy almost everywhere. One influential book of the time even argued through its title that this trend could in time result in a world permanently at peace and thus “The End of History.”

As a consequence, official Washington soon came to believe that USIA was no longer needed. That view, combined with the ever-present pressure to trim the budgets of out-of-favor government departments, caused it to be absorbed by the State Department—which for years had argued that USIA really belonged there—and in 1999 to its formal shutdown.

For more than ten years now the highly qualified, largely autonomous PAOs, who once were carefully selected to make the United States case from Embassies around the world have been replaced by intermediate-level State Department employees appointed to “handle the media,” usually with limited experience and often with other duties as well.  The corps of FSNs who served America so well in the Cold War has been reduced to remnants. The free libraries have long been closed.

Meanwhile, history clearly has not ended, with the United States today facing long-range perils and problems hardly thought of a few years ago: radical Islam, spreading nuclear proliferation, estrangement from much of Europe, growing political and economic challenge from the world’s two largest countries, China and India.

That this gathering of storm clouds has coincided with an anti-Americanism more pervasive than we have ever known has evoked calls for corrective action from such diverse sources as the Council of American Ambassadors, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Government Accountability Office, the Heritage Foundation, the Brookings Institution and the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, among others.

Without exception, all of their reports and recommendations call for some form of governmental initiative that would promote global stability and counter the anti-American tide by persuading people of other countries and cultures that the United States is not just a sometimes overweening superpower, but a nation of high ideals, constructive ideas and intentions, and worthwhile goals.

Seen in retrospect from the anti-Americanism of today, shutting down USIA was a major mistake. Fortunately, the means of correcting it is still available. The United States Public Diplomacy Council (PDC), a nongovernmental organization based in Washington, includes among its members a broad array of former USIA officers, including many of its most successful past performers. Given the proper backing they could have a revived USIA up and functioning in key locations within a year.

For such an effort, the PDC can count on Congressional support from both Republicans and Democrats. If support by the Bush administration is also forthcoming, the mistake of the past can at last be corrected. And none too soon. With anti-Americanism on the march, we need the tested weapon of a United States Information Agency to combat it.*

* Editor’s Note: This article appeared in The Washington Post of February 26, 2005.

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Director, United States Information Agency, 1991-1993;
United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom, 1989-1997;
United States Ambassador to the United Nations European Office, 1976-1977;
Chief of Protocol, 1974-1976;
United States Ambassador to El Salvador, 1971-1973

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

Director, United States Information Agency, 1963-1968

Director, United States Information Agency, 1981-1988