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

Wilson + State = CPI

Robert Lansing

U.S. public diplomacy has a surprising history, as a recent blog post and interview noted. That brief discussion, however, gave the expected superficial treatment that left out key details such as a deeply entrenched cultural resistance and the influence of highly filtered information flows.

The story of Mrs. Vira Whitehouse, referred to in the recent blog post, is a useful case study to discuss some ‘surprises’ that break with conventional wisdom about the Creel Committee, formally known as the Committee for Public Information, the State Department, the beginning of the United States Information Service, and U.S. Government-sponsored exchanges.

Below is an abridged and modified excerpt from my book (a work long in progress but nearing completion). I am sharing it here partly in response to the recent discussion, partly to frame an anniversary discussion on public diplomacy (more on that later), and to invite comments. Footnotes and citations have been removed; passages have been altered for brevity or removed and saved for the book.

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Kennan’s Draft on Information Policy on Relations with Russia

George Kennan:

“It is a pity that our press plays up our diplomatic relations like a ball game, stressing victories and defeats. Good diplomacy results in satisfaction for both sides as far as possible; if one side really feels defeated, they try to make up for it later, and thus relations deteriorate. In general the daily press and commentators dramatize short-term conflicts at the expense of long-term prospects for achieving a stable balance.”

From ‘Draft on Information Policy on Relations with Russia’ by George Kennan, July 22, 1946.

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The basic right upon which freedom rests

Archibald MacLeish:

The right to a free press — the right of the people to read and to hear and therefore to think as they please — is, I deeply believe, the basic right upon which freedom rests. Freedom of exchange of information between the peoples of the world is the extension into international relations of the basic democratic right of freedom of the press. Belief in the freedom of exchange of information rests upon the conviction that if the peoples of the world know the facts about each other, peace will be maintained, since peace is the common hope and the common cause of the people everywhere.

Source: Department of State, Bulletin, December 10, 1944, p693. (Bulletin was State’s in-house publication.) Continue reading

FDR on working with the State Department

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

Dealing with the State Department is like watching an elephant become pregnant. Everything’s done on a very high level, there’s a lot of commotion, and it takes twenty-two months for anything to happen.

Source: Cary Reich, The life of Nelson A. Rockefeller: worlds to conquer, 1908-1958, 1st ed. (New York: Doubleday). 182.

Public Diplomacy as an Instrument of Counterterrorism: A Progress Report

In this recent speech, the founding Coordinator of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications traces the origins of the organization, its main initial activities, and the challenges it faced.  Among his recommendations is development of specialized communications teams with skill levels equaling SEAL teams to counter terrorist propaganda and reduce the flow of new recruits to terror.

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When do we start the honest debate over the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act?

Read my post this morning at the Public Diplomacy Council website about the lack of serious debate over the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act.

What is it about U.S. public diplomacy that we must hide it from Americans? Is it so abhorrent that it would embarrass the taxpayer, upset the Congress (which has surprisingly little additional insight on the details of public diplomacy), or upend our democracy? Of our international broadcasting, such as the Voice of America, do we fear the content to be so persuasive and compelling that we dare not permit the American media, academia, nor the Congress, let alone the mere layperson, to have the right over oversight to hold accountable their government? [Read the rest here]

Also, be sure to see Josh Rogin’s Much ado about State Department ‘propaganda’.

If you are attending the event at the Heritage Foundation today, “Understanding the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act,” at 3p ET (apparently it will be webcast), and you’re on the fence or opposed to the availability of State Department public diplomacy material domestically, would you be so kind as to provide examples from the field of what Americans should not know about?

And, if you are attending that Heritage event today, do read my post at the Public Diplomacy Council website, particularly the paragraph about the difference between access and dissemination, existing language in the law to promote the free flow of information outside Government control, and whether State should have separate coverage from the BBG.

See also:

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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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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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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