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Adapting Public Diplomacy to a Changing Global Community

From the very beginning of our country, politicians have tried to influence public opinion abroad in order to advance U.S. foreign policies. Thomas Jefferson did not have a telephone, a fax machine, or an Internet computer service that allowed him to bounce ideas around with other retired diplomats on an electronic bulletin board from his home at Monticello, but he knew that the United States was suffering under bad press in Britain shortly after the War of 1812. Accordingly, Jefferson advanced the following idea in a letter to President James Monroe:

I hope that to preserve this weather gauge of public opinion, and to counteract the slanders and falsehoods disseminated by the British papers, the government will make it a standing instruction to their ministers at foreign courts to keep Europe truly informed of occurrences here, by publishing in their papers the naked truth always, whether favorable or unfavorable. For they will believe the good, if we candidly tell them the bad also.1

Subsequently, throughout most of the 19th century, the U.S. image abroad was projected by the traditional ceremonies of "diplomacy," a concept Webster's dictionary defines as "skill in handling affairs without arousing hostility: tact." However, the patenting of Marconi's wireless telegraph in 1896 irrevocably altered the practice of diplomacy.

This change in diplomacy has encountered considerable resistance. For example, U.S. State Department traditionalists have never fully accepted the notion of using the international media in the conduct of foreign affairs: government-to-government communication is tried and true; making an end-run to communicate directly with the masses could disrupt the political process, according to State Department purists. However, modern technology, with its ability to reach out instantly around the globe, has blurred the lines between private and public diplomacy.


During the darkest days of World War II, the State Department felt Hollywood was misrepresenting America to the world through such pictures as Tobacco Road, The Lost Weekend, and The Grapes of Wrath, which dramatized some of the country's most pressing social problems. "The motion picture industry is potentially the most valuable ally in the conduct of our foreign relations and conversely it is a first-class headache," wrote Assistant Secretary of State William Benton, who also developed a "muscular twist" after four days of non-stop meetings with Hollywood moguls.2 Because the State Department was especially averse to movies about gunslinging cowboys, it produced a documentary of its own, screened in Thailand, showing that American ranchers worked all the time just like Siamese sheepherders.3

As an outgrowth of President Truman's "Campaign of Truth" efforts to combat Soviet disinformation and because he felt that the United States deserved more credit for rebuilding Western Europe after the war, President Eisenhower established the USIA in 1953 to tell America's story abroad.4 During the Cold War, two additional U.S.-sponsored broadcast services were turned on, RFE and RL, which brought local news that their own governments dared not broadcast to listeners behind the Iron Curtain. RFE and RL were thus known as "surrogate" services, with domestically targeted RFE programs beamed to communist east and central Europe, and RL home broadcasts aimed at the Soviet Union.5 The VOA, on the other hand, was to tell America's story there and elsewhere around the world.

During the Kennedy years, then USIA Director Edward R. Murrow believed that the United States would be judged on what it did rather than what it said. Many of the problems of the 1960s, such as growing urban violence and the Vietnam war, were not adequately resolved and continue to tarnish the U.S. image abroad.

The Reagan administration made public diplomacy a staple of its foreign affairs effort by investing in shortwave radios, increasing funding for educational and cultural exchange programs, and establishing a global television system, WORLDNET, on which U.S. officials explain policies to opinion leaders abroad via live TV satellite. Television technology enabled spin masters to reach both the elites and the masses abroad as never before, using satellites 22,500 miles in space that transcend all national boundaries and censorship laws. In the 1980s, as former Reagan administration official Kenneth L. Adelman predicted, public diplomacy became "Washington's major growth industry."6

When the Iron Curtain collapsed, permitting the free flow of information into newly open societies, the future of shortwave radio broadcasting to those areas, especially that of "surrogates" RFE and RL, became problematic. At issue, too, was the redundancy of broadcasts by RFE, RL, and VOA. These issues have been considered against a backdrop of shrinking budgets, shifting political priorities, and remarkable advances in technology. Hard political issues have dominated the debate in Congress: what will survive and what will perish, and how will it all be reassembled? But nary a word has been uttered on the basic issues: what is the new mission of public diplomacy in the present world environment, and how can the new technologies complement this mission?


According to Douglas Wilson, Director of USIA's Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs and the administration's liaison with Congress on broadcast consolidation, "The argument was framed in fighting the last battle. The argument was about whether or not surrogate radios [RFE/RL] were going to continue and be effective in the post-Cold War world or whether they would survive when, in fact, there was almost no attention paid to the new technologies, to television . . . the fact that so much information is available to so many people."

Joseph D. Duffey, Director of USIA, agreed that it is time to step back and evaluate "how America presents itself to the rest of the world." He has found a longing for the past, for a less complicated time. "There is a real hunger for big ideas," he said. "The human psyche wants big ideas to make life simple, and certainly now in the strain that every foreign office around the world feels in trying to find our way in this new period, there is a wish that life were simpler. But the fact is, we are working out a new kind of international order or understanding, and it presents a rare opportunity."

Duffey saw a new role for contemporary public diplomacy in a world where emerging democracies have replaced the familiar enemy. "We are stumbling our way toward two goals," he said: "how to nurture and encourage human rights in other parts of the world for reasons that we believe are very much in our national interest and have to do with our most fundamental ideas about the future of the human species; and how to nurture and encourage democratic institutions. We are beginning to ask ourselves whether this can be conducted as a great international crusade to replace the Cold War. The dramatic changes that have taken place in terms of the technology and the opportunities that are available and the private sector involvement should give us some pause."

Richard W. Carlson, President and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and a former VOA director, envisioned an opportunity for an international partnership with the USIA on programming abroad. Like many organizations that depend on public and private funding, public television has felt the impact of the economic recession and cutbacks in government spending. Therefore, it is actively pursuing partnerships to share production and programming expenses and has encouraged local PBS stations to do likewise. Carlson noted that "more than one-third of the programming that ends up in the PBS national schedule has overseas funding," from co-productions and alliances in Asia, Europe, and Latin America; he believes a cooperative effort with USIA would be mutually beneficial.

Carlson also found it "ironic indeed that while we can now reach through satellites billions of people directly, the images and the voices and the ideas and the perceptions of America that those people receive are so unrepresentative of what this country is really like." For example, The Bold and the Beautiful and Baywatch, two American TV programs that are popular abroad, are not noticeably realistic or objective in their portrayal of American life.

Former VOA Director John Hughes agreed that an imperfect picture of America is being conveyed. "Even in the area of news, CNN . . . does a wonderful job," he said, "but it is much better at telling viewers in India or Indonesia the latest on the Tonya Harding story or the Los Angeles earthquake than it is in conveying the complexities of the debate over national health care in this country. So I think that is going to be a continuing area for these [government broadcasting] agencies."

Carlson suggested that an alliance between public television and the USIA's WORLDNET TV operation might address this problem. "Perhaps public television could provide a programming service . . . maybe a cable feed over the WORLDNET satellite, and USIA could have a separate channel for policy programs, a separate channel for interactives to bring the foreign policy positions of an administration to journalists and their audiences abroad. There is no good reason why we cannot cooperate for the public good, both for the United States and for audiences abroad." He saw a bright future for such a collaborative effort, because there are about 350 local PBS stations and "tens of thousands of hours of very good
programming sitting on the shelves in these
stations . . . [including] the very best children's and educational television programs that have ever been produced."

World public opinion of the United States is affected greatly by the reportage of the U.S. media, and foreign correspondents assigned to the United States are strongly influenced by what appears in American TV news broadcasts and in the newspapers. According to Duffey, there is no longer a dividing line between domestic and foreign policies. "The priorities that the American people now sense in terms of health and education and the development of children are important to our foreign policy . . . because they have to do with our success as a democratic society in the new state, as a self-governing society, and the next state of our own evolution, so they are very much a piece of how we present ourselves to the rest of the world."

Since 1990, more than 12 major presidential and other government commissions have studied what to do with the Cold War U.S. radio services. Two extensive studies on international broadcasting were conducted during the Bush administration, but the White House failed to take a position. In February 1993 the Clinton administration's budget called for RFE/RL to be phased out by 1996 at a savings of some $210 million per year. By June 1993, however, after an intensive bipartisan lobbying campaign on behalf of the surrogate radios, the administration had modified its plan: RFE/RL would be preserved, with all other non-military U.S. international broadcasting operations, under an independent board. The modification would help to avoid duplication of language services, and it would combine technical and administrative services. Although the compromise seemed acceptable to a powerful conservative lobby intent on preserving RFE/RL, Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) insisted that employees of the surrogate stations retain their status as "grantees" of the government, permitting them to be paid with federal dollars but to remain quasi-independent. Senator Biden also insisted, under threat of filibuster, that Radio Free Asia be established "on whatever post-Cold War model is determined for RFE/RL." Thus, as RFE/RL winds down in Europe and Russia, it is to begin a new service to Asia. Under the congressionally approved plan, up to $30 million per year may be spent for a new Asian shortwave service that will parallel existing VOA broadcasts to that area.

Daniel A. Mica, Chairman of the Board for International Broadcasting, parent organization of RFE/RL, cited the past to prove that surrogate radios can meet their objectives. "I have talked with Yeltsin, Havel, Walesa, people in the streets who would come up and tell me that they huddled in closets for 40 years to listen to our broadcasts. It helped make possible, I think, what we see today . . . the fall of the Berlin Wall, the new and emerging democracies. Is surrogate radio, VOA, necessary any longer? Do you believe that everything is going to be fine in Russia, in some of the bloc countries that are going through elections, that are electing some of the very people who were just toppled a few years ago? Any knowledgeable person knows that is not the case. As a baby being born, you cannot abandon it. As a new nation being structured, we cannot abandon it." Mica, former Chairman of the International Operations Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, stressed that everyone is now competing for a shrinking amount of government funding and warned fellow international broadcasters that if backbiting over turf persists, "the money . . . will go elsewhere."

Historically, the USIA has been slow to understand the potential of TV satellite technology for promoting its mission abroad. In 1972 the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy suggested that the USIA take a leading role in encouraging the international use of space satellites to promote the free flow of information among nations, and asked the USIA to solicit support from countries that shared this concept. In 1973, however, the commission complained that the USIA had not responded to the suggestion.

In fiscal year 1994, 5.9 percent of the U.S. government's international broadcasting operations budget was devoted to its worldwide television activities with the remaining 94.1 percent committed to radio.7

As the debate over the future of U.S. radio simmers, the worldwide information landscape, increasingly interconnected electronically, continues its shift toward interactive visual technology. Irving Goldstein heads INTELSAT, a consortium of more than 135 countries that owns and operates some 20 satellites providing telecommunications services to virtually the entire world. Goldstein predicted that information will be for the 21st century "what oil and gas were for the beginning of the 20th century. It will fuel economic and political power and give people everywhere more freedom and momentum than the fastest automobile or supersonic jet. Information is no longer the province of the privileged few, nations or individuals, or the economic or power elite. It is the fare of the masses, shaping how they view their lives, their governments, and the world around them. . . . Information will be transmitted in every form we've known and in forms we cannot yet even imagine."

Duffey concurred, adding that the information revolution already poses new challenges to government leaders at home and overseas. "Expert pronouncements by foreign policy moguls are being questioned by people who have more information and are more skeptical of authority. There's a much more difficult situation for governance, but I think probably in the long run a healthier one. . . . We are not going to be able . . . to get by as much with unchallenged assertion as we have in the past."

Ambassador Diana Lady Dougan expressed her belief that the "unfinished job" of U.S. international broadcasters is education and training, "instead of . . . the future of the radios." Shelly Weinstein of the National Education Telecom-munications Organization agreed, "We are rich in educational resources--in teaching, in learning, in all forms. We know from marketing research and surveys that there is an enormous world demand for information on the American English language, American culture and history, and education and training." Weinstein urged the U.S. government to promote these national commodities globally in the telecommunications age.

With the delivery system in place, the question continues to be: what do you put on it? "The engineering problems of bringing education, literacy, improved hygiene, and agricultural techniques to every human being on this planet have now been solved," wrote renowned British scientist and author Sir Arthur Clark, who first envisioned the geo-stationary satellite that maintains a fixed position by rotating with the earth. "But of course the technical problem is the easy one. Do we have the imagination and statesmanship to use this new tool for the benefit of mankind?"