Matt Armstrong's blog on public diplomacy, international journalism, and the struggle against propaganda

SAGE: independent strategic communication for America

Public opinion has always had a major role in foreign policy, national security, and a strong economy.  And yet, there is little argument that the United States lags in its ability to effectively understand, inform, engage, and empower people in the conduct of foreign affairs.  The notable exception is domestic politics, but success in the global arena has typically been the product of a few smart people often working around the system.  Call it public diplomacy or strategic communication, the ability to communicate and empower is essential to diplomacy, development, and defense, all of which are the foundation for any country’s, or organization’s, physical and economic security.

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.

Yesterday, the business plan for SAGE was publicly released at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  Speaking were Jane Harmon, Paula Dobriansky, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Brad Minnick, and Goli Ameri.

Download the final plan at MountainRunner: SAGE: creating an independent strategic communication organization for America (PDF, 1.3mb).

SAGE’s mission:

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 the corporate sector ($4.5m), individual major donors ($2.0m), and private foundations ($3.5).

SAGE will 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.

As a member of the SAGE working group from the start, I was frequently asked to comment and edit drafts of the plan throughout 2011.  Draft language in the plan that left room for interpretation that SAGE would compete with the State Department, particularly the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, is gone.  Instead, the plan, as Dobriansky emphasized in her comments yesterday, 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.  (That these are not part of the portfolio of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs) is a separate matter.)  SAGE is positioned to extend these and other efforts, including those of the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs).

Goli surprised the crowd yesterday by announcing that SAGE would be located at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  The formal relationship with the Wilson Center at an end now that the business plan is done, the move to the West Coast makes sense to put SAGE in close proximity to California’s technology centers, entertainment industry, and outside the Washington Beltway.  This will further reduce the perception of competition for resources.

The relationship with USC is completely contingent on SAGE raising an unspecified amount of funding.  USC will provide a location, graduate students, and a name.  SAGE will provide the cash.

Few apparently knew about this surprise announcement made yesterday morning, 11:30a ET.  The USC Center for Public Diplomacy has not sent out an announcement or updated their website. Neither has the Annenberg Center.

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?

Download the plan here.

More to come on SAGE.  Your thoughts?

See also:

  • Amy Zalman says:

    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