SAGE: independent strategic communication for America

Public opinion has always had a major role in foreign policy and global affairs. Information flows, which help shape public opinion, are critical to the power of diplomacy, the ability of the military persuade and dissuade, and to the health of the economy, including trade. There is little argument that the United States Government lags in its ability to effectively understand, inform, engage, and empower people in the conduct of foreign affairs and across global affairs.  The notable exception is domestic politics, but the role of public opinion appears to end at the water’s edge.  

Strengthening America’s Global Engagement, or SAGE, is intended to provide America a “flexible, entrepreneurial, and tech-savvy partner” that can work in situations and other partners that the U.S. Government cannot or should not to “collaborate, support, and enhance initiatives” of engagement.

The business plan for SAGE was publicly released yesterday at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  Speaking were Jane Harmon, Paula Dobriansky, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Brad Minnick, and Goli Ameri.  The plan can be downloaded here: SAGE: creating an independent strategic communication organization for America (PDF, 1.3mb).  The mission statement is:

To foster engagement between U.S. society and the rest of the world with a view to promoting shared values and common interests, increasing mutual understanding and respect and enhancing America’s standing in the world.

SAGE will be primarily, but not exclusively, a grant-making organization to promote American ideals above American policy. It will leverage the power of the private sector — where the bulk of American ingenuity, creativity, technological innovation and resources rest — to strengthen communications with foreign publics, in support of U.S. national interests.

SAGE will be a 501(c)3 non-profit with an anticipated budget of up to $10 million, 85% of which will be devoted to programming.  SAGE will seek start-up funds from corporations (targeting $4.5m), individual major donors ($2.0m), and private foundations ($3.5).

SAGE intends to focus on the following: 1) promote moderate voices to counter violent extremism and ideologies; 2) promote innovative ways to build ties between Americans and the rest of the world; 3) promote sustainable independent media entities in the developing world; 4) promote the application of new technology for public diplomacy purpose; and 5) promote public-private partnerships and the free exchange of Ideas and information between public & private sectors.

In the interest of disclosure, I was a member of the SAGE working group from the start.  This offered me frequent opportunities to comment and edit drafts of the plan throughout 2011.  Early language in these drafts that suggested SAGE would compete with the State Department for resources has been removed. As Dobriansky emphasized in her comments yesterday, SAGE will support the many public diplomacy actors at State, including the special advisors for Global Youth Issues, Global Partnerships, Civil Societies and Emerging Democracies, and others.  The astute reader will recognize that none of these are not part of the portfolio of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs).  However, SAGE intends to also support the efforts of the Under Secretary, including the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. 

Goli surprised the crowd yesterday by announcing that SAGE would be located at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles.  With the formal relationship with the Wilson Center now at an end with the completion of the business plan, a move to the West Coast makes sense.  This will take SAGE out of the Beltway and put SAGE in proximity to California’s technology centers and entertainment industry.  In conversations, this is an attempt to reduce the perception that SAGE will compete for taxpayer resources.

However, the relationship with USC is contingent on SAGE raising an unspecified amount of funding.  USC will provide a location, graduate students for labor, and a name, while SAGE will provide the cash to pay for all of this.  The surprise announcement has not been followed up by an acknowledgement by either Annenberg or the USC Center for Public Diplomacy. 

It is noteworthy that SAGE is described as a “strategic communication organization” and not a “public diplomacy organization.”  Is this because “public diplomacy” is seen as a bureaucracy more than a practice or a concept and thus “strategic communication” was used to minimize the appearance SAGE would compete with State?

While a noble effort, this is an interesting plan to bridge the private and public sector.  But fundamentally, it is yet another workaround for the diffuse, and internally competitive and poorly aligned, efforts in State and across the Government to engage foreign public opinion.  

One Reply to “SAGE: independent strategic communication for America”

  1. By way of comparison, there is an article in this morning’s New York Times about how Brazil structures and finances its cultural and arts diplomacy through a private non-profit. Like activities in the U.S., it was propelled largely by mid-century fears of Communism. Funds are raised partly through national payroll taxes, and funds go not only to the arts but to complexes that incorporate theaters and sports facilities. I can only imagine what might happen here if we were asked to dedicate our own income not only to support our physical wellness but the arts!
    Interestingly, Brazil does not appear to suffer angst about the fact that activities are directed both outward (as public diplomacy) and inward (for domestic consumption) at the same time.

    The article is at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/27/arts/brazils-leading-arts-financing-group-shares-the-wealth.html?hp

Comments are closed.