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

Congress, the State Department, and “communistic, fascistic, and other alien influences”

The current debate on the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act is filled with misinformation about the history of Smith-Mundt, some of it verging on blatant propaganda, making the overall discussion rich in irony. In 1947, the bipartisan and bicameral Congressional committee assembled to give its recommendation on the Smith-Mundt Act declared that it was a necessary response to the danger posed “by the weapons of false propaganda and misinformation and the inability on the part of the United States to deal adequately with those weapons.” Today, it is the Smith-Mundt Act that is victim to “false propaganda” and “misinformation” that are shaping the perceptions of the the Modernization Act as a whole and its parts.

Many of the negative narratives swirling around the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act are based on assumptions and myths that, like true propaganda, have an anchor in reality but stray from the facts to support false conclusions. These fabrications include the false assertion the Act ever applied to the whole of Government, often specifically the Defense Department (there is a separate “no propaganda” law for the Defense Department), as well the more broad and fundamental confusion, and lack of knowledge, of the nature and content of America’s public diplomacy with foreign audiences.

An honest appraisal of the Modernization Act requires an honest representation of the original Smith-Mundt Act, especially it’s so-called “firewall.” Drawing on my forthcoming book on the history of the Smith-Mundt Act, below is a brief account on the primary cause behind the Congress legislating that the State Department shall “disseminate abroad information about the U.S., the American people, and the policies promulgated by the Congress, the President, the Secretary of State and other responsible officials of Government having to do with matters affecting foreign affairs.”

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Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 introduced in the House

Last week, Representatives Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Adam Smith (D-WA) introduced a bill to amend the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 to “authorize the domestic dissemination of information and material about the United States intended primarily for foreign audiences, and for other purposes.” The bill, H.R.5736 — Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 (Introduced in House – IH), removes the prohibition on public diplomacy material from being available to people within the United States and thus eliminates an artificial handicap to U.S. global engagement while creating domestic awareness of international affairs and oversight and accountability of the same. This bill also specifies Smith-Mundt only applies to the Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, eliminating an ambiguity creatively imagined sometime over the three decades.

(see the FAQ on Smith-Mundt and the Modernization Act here)

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Challenge of Change – 1961 Bell Labs film on communication

Looking into the future from the past is often fascinating. A Bell Labs film from 1961 on the changing communication environment predicts the future information age as it projects its technology into the future. This includes machine to machine communication, online ordering, e-commerce, and cellular phones, is no different. The underlying purpose is preparing the audience for change.

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A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment

North Korea is one of the few remaining places where barriers to informing and engaging remain strong. While it remains unlikely Kim Jong Un will reduce the state’s control over the communication environment, a new report indicates access to unsanctioned foreign media is expanding inside the country. The impact of access to alternative news could have interesting consequences inside the country.

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Public Diplomacy Achievement Awards 2012

(L-R) Larry Schwartz, Jean Manes, Heather Eaton, Rob Nevitt, Lynn Roche. Jean Manes and Heather Eaton are 2012 achievement award winners. Lynne Roche, of State Department's Africa bureau, accepted the award for Sharon Hudson-Dean. Frank Schwartz nominated Jean Manes. Rob Nevitt chairs the PDAA awards committee. (Photo: A. Kotok)

2012 PDAA Awards Recognize Public Diplomacy Excellence

The Public Diplomacy Alumni Association, formerly the USIA Alumni Association, gave its 2012 achievement awards to U.S. public diplomacy professionals working in Zimbabwe, Okinawa, and Washington, DC. The announcement is below.

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Debating China’s Global Reputation – a conference in Beijing May 19

Public Diplomacy ForumThe first major international conference on public diplomacy and China’s reputation in the world will take place in Beijing later this month. The event is co-sponsored by the Charhar Institute, China’s foremost public diplomacy think tank, the Clingendael Institute of the Netherlands, the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Netherlands Embassy in Beijing, and the China-Europe Academic Network (CEAN). The theme is “Geo-cultural Perspectives on Public Diplomacy – Trialogue among Chinese, European, and American Scholars.”

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A Foreign Office for a World Power

There are certain challenges to having an effective global policy. We may often look toward the environment and other actors, usually adversaries, but often ignored is that interpretation of and responses to events are shaped by our institutions. These organizations greatly affect policy options and the execution of policy. A smart strategy, supported by well articulated missions and objectives, support the people and the bureaucracy to be more effective.

Recent articles and blog posts on the structural and personnel challenges in the State Department reminded me of a journal article I came across while researching my book on the history of the Smith-Mundt Act. The article, “The Reorganization of the Department of State,” was published in The American Political Science Review, Vol 38, No 2, in April 1944. The authors, Walter H. C. Laves and Francis O. Wilcox, were described as on leave from the Bureau of the Budget, the predecessor to today’s Office of Management and Budget, within the Executive Office of the President. However, both were diplomats and arguably public diplomats. Laves worked in the Office of Inter-American Affairs, a Presidential office intended to counter German influence in the Western Hemisphere, later the Deputy Director at UNESCO (1947-1950), and a professor of political science. Wilcox joined the State Department in 1942 and was the first chief of staff to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (1947-1951), and later the Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs (1955-1961).

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Neuroscience and Social Conflict: Identifying New Approaches for the 21st Century

What if you put neuroscientists, social scientists, conflict resolution experts, and diplomats together in a room? Is there something to the “human dimension” of conflict that the science of the brain can inform the art of conflict resolution and mitigation? The Project on Justice in Times of Transition, in partnership with the SaxeLab at MIT, launched the initiative “Neuroscience and Social Conflict: Identifying New Approaches for the 21st Century” to find out.

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Visual Propaganda: a cross-disciplinary conference on the influence of images

It has long been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but what words to which people? The pixels or streaks of paint of an image is the only commonality shared by different audiences. The context in which they are received and interpreted matters. Beyond the intended framing, including words or other images, personal and shared history, language, current or developing narratives, and other inputs, both direct and indirect, all matter in the impact of a picture.

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