Persuasive Politics: Revisit the Smith-Mundt Act

Persuasive politics: Revisit the Smith-Mundt Act by Matt Armstrong, 19 December 2008, in The Washington Times.

“Repairing America’s image” is a popular mantra these days, but discussions on revamping America’s public diplomacy are futile if the legislative foundation of what we are attempting to fix is ignored. A sixty year old law affects virtually all U.S. engagement with foreign audiences by putting constraints on what we say and how we say it. Perhaps more importantly, it limits the oversight by the American public, Congress, and the whole of government into what is said and done in America’s name abroad. The impact of this law, the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, must not be ignored if policymakers hope to improve how the United States communicates overseas. …

A brand new National Security Council directed the State Department to respond to the “coordinated psychological, political and economic measures designed to undermine non-Communist elements in all countries.” The psychological struggle of the Cold War is lost by those who remember only the military confrontation. The “predominant aspect of the new diplomacy,” wrote a young Henry Kissinger, “is its psychological dimension.” But by the late 1960’s, as the borders of the most important contested spaces were settled, the strategic value of this “new diplomacy” gave way to private, closed door diplomacy.

The result was the transformation of what is now known as public diplomacy from a national security imperative aggressively targeting foreign public opinion to something more resembling a passive “beauty contest.”