Senate Foreign Relations Committee Report on American public diplomacy centers and programs

The GPO will issue a report Monday (March 2, 2009) from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee titled “U.S. Public Diplomacy–Time to Get Back in the Game” (2.3mb PDF modified to be searchable, see below for a more useful version). It will be the latest in a series of events from the SFRC that includes a resolution recommending changes in security policies that pulled American “libraries”, now known as the by the sterile name “Information Resource Centers”, away from possible users, an op-ed by Senator Lugar at Foreign, and a hearing titled Engaging with Muslim Communities Around the World that included testimony from former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and former CENTCOM Commander Admiral William J. Fallon testifying, among others.
This is an interesting report with interesting and sensible recommendations. I have made, by permission of the report’s author, a “live” version of the report that is in color and includes clickable URL links. The GPO’s black and white version is a technological “marvel:” they clearly printed out the document then scanned it using a black and white scanner. They did not even make the report text searchable (tech-speak: it is an image-only PDF; will somebody tell the GPO to update their processes?). A “live” report with clickable URLs and color charts and pictures is available here (2.5mb PDF).

In his op-ed at Foreign, Senator Richard G. Lugar (R-IN) wrote:

America’s best players in public diplomacy have always been its people and its ideas. The United States should get them back into the game instead of standing on the sidelines.

The “game” is the global struggle for minds and wills, a struggle we are not fully committed to and holding back from. The excitement over the potential of American public diplomacy has been palpable with the fulfilled expectations of a President who “gets” the need to engage the world’s publics, but a full review of what and how we’re doing is required. This requires a reality and it requires leadership

Operationalizing America’s global engagement requires more than words from the President, but intelligent foreign policies and equally important are the “slow” communication of engagement programs in the “last three feet” that support local requirements.

This past week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee focused on issues surrounding and the need for direct engagement with foreign publics, specifically in Muslim regions. The substantially reduced access to American public diplomacy, education, and awareness in foreign lands in the wake of the 1998 embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya is a problem. As the Senator noted in his Foreign op-ed:

Those security upgrades were necessary, but the result has been less day-to-day interaction between U.S. diplomats and locals. Stripped-down outreach facilities, now called Information Resource Centers (IRCs), are often located within embassy compounds and open to the public by appointment only. State Department statistics show that IRCs within embassy walls in the Middle East received only one sixth as many visitors as those off-compound. Clearly, reaching a wider audience will require creative adjustments to the United States’ security approach, keeping in mind that the safety of U.S. personnel must be paramount.

The issue is, as the Senator continued, important for reasons many don’t realize: competition exists with an ideological adversary:

The United States should not abandon this part of the public diplomacy field to others. Iran, for instance, has opened some 60 Iranian cultural centers in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe that offer Persian language courses and extensive library resources–and a platform for anti-American propaganda.

The op-ed was synchronized with the introduction of a Senate resolution, S 49, recommending moving so-called Information Resource Centers from behind the fortress walls of our embassies and into places that can be used. IRC use drops substantially when hidden under protective layers. Public access to 11% (19 of 177) of the IRCs is prohibited!

The cornerstone of this push to correct America’s public diplomacy is the report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committe titled U.S. Public Diplomacy – Time to Get Back in the Game (2.3mb searchable PDF). A more useful version of the official report is this version created by permission of the report’s author. It includes clickable links and is in color (2.5mb PDF)

Recommendations in this report include, but are not restricted to:

  • Congressional support is needed for the Department of State to create more accessible Public Diplomacy platforms by pushing Information Resource Centers (IRCs) out of remote Embassy compounds and allowing them to be re-built as stand-alone American Centers in more centrally located areas. In order to accomplish this, the so-called “co-location requirement” should be re-visited to allow these new Centers to be established as well as to permit those few facilities still off-compound to remain as such, as long as appropriate security measures are in place.
  • The Department of State should engage in the teaching of English using American or American-trained teachers hired directly by the Embassy, not sub-contractors, and using standardized techs appropriate for each region/culture. This will ensure that the Department has full control over the content and quality of the education, and will go far to advancing our Public Diplomacy efforts.
  • American Corners are appropriate for remote locations that lack any other U.S. presence but should not be used as substitutes in capitals for American Centers, particularly as American Corners are run by local staffs who are neither employed nor managed by U.S. Embassy officials and thus represent a literal out-sourcing of American Public Diplomacy.
  • The State Department’s Arabic book translation program is crucial to providing information in local texts and should be strongly supported until free-market forces step in. The Department should examine potential cost savings by consolidating Cairo and Amman operations as long as both are able to continue to provide input into the translation selection process.
  • The term Information Resource Center is cumbersome and, for most foreigners, confusing. A return to the simpler “Library” seems appropriate for those IRCs that must remain on embassy compounds.
  • The disparity between the 11,000 graduates of Access Micro-scholarships targeting mainly under-served Muslim youth and the 300 slots available for the State Department’s YES exchange program means many fall through the cracks.
  • The State Department should re-engage with the U.S. Motion Picture Licensing Corporation to allow greater public awareness of Embassy-run American film series than permitted under the current, overly restrictive, Licensing Agreement negotiated between the two. Example:

    …rather than encourage the widest possible broadcast of such showings to the largest audience possible, the Licensing Agreement recently negotiated between the State Department and the Motion Picture Licensing Corporation suggests otherwise. Paragraph 20 of the State Department’s message regarding the MOU to Embassies worldwide expressly notes the following were agreed to:

    “The films many be screened for audiences of up to 100 people per screening.

    They may not be screened for larger audiences.”

    “No advertising is permitted. No specific titles or characters from such titles or producers’ names may be advertised or publicized to the general public.”

    Embassy officials report they have been contacted by the MPLC when films are announced on the Internet. To avoid this, many now simply post movie showings on a bulletin board in their facilities – a perfectly painful example of how, in the age of text messaging, our government is forced to operate in methods no different from the 19th century.

This report is required reading for Congress, the State Department, non-governmental organizations, and academia to understand issue affecting public diplomacy “over there.” Sheer numbers of IRC’s mean little when the resources
are under utilized just as high volumes of kids run through cultural and skills programs mean little when there is no follow through and they are simply dumped out at the end of their knowledge acquisition with little means to use or incentive to keep the new skills.

See also:

4 thoughts on “Senate Foreign Relations Committee Report on American public diplomacy centers and programs

  1. I was glad to see the comments on the Motion Picture Licensing Agreement. Too many people think that the State Department is omnipotent in matters of public diplomacy. They don’t realize that private sector entities such as the MPLA are not always cooperative with State. The private sector frequently hamstrings public diplomacy efforts. This is why I am always a tad skeptical when I hear people say that the private sector is eager to get involved in public diplomacy.

  2. Matt: Thanks for making this Congressional report accessible. It’s certainly not the be all or end all of the debate but it’s good to see that the Senate would like the administration do something about reestablishing America Centers as Obama promised during the campaign.

  3. The Committee’s report and Senator Lugar’s statements about the need to reinvigorate U.S. public diplomacy efforts are very important. In the past this committee, under Sen. Lugar’s chairmanship, has also focused constructively on a related issue that has received less attention recently but needs to be addressed. This week’s New York Times article about foreign scientists, and the Washington Post op-ed “Muslim Sent Home,” have put the spotlight back on visa policy and port-of-entry issues that can hurt our public diplomacy efforts. When we turn away legitimate visitors, and foreign students and scholars choose other academic destinations because the delays and hassles involved in coming to the U.S. are too great, we send an unwelcoming message to the international community and hamper educational exchanges. See NAFSA’s recommendations on visa reform and immigration policy here.

  4. I worked at the British Council in Cairo during 2003-4, before and during OEF, and the aftermath. Though teaching English classes, I found myself to all intents and purposes as the single legitimate British source of information for approximately 100 adult students, to explain explicitly why my country, Britain, was going to fight in Iraq. Students were not necessarily angry, but they were insistent that, at every single class, I answered their questions – mostly on what was my position at the time, what did I think about it all.. I remember thinking whether my role as an English teacher or that of my FCO officer counterparts sat behind the Embassy walls was doing more to engage with Egyptian popular opinion.Of course, the US does have the American Universities – AUC, AUB, etc. which are doing some good things. However, the problem with these is that they are elitist and economically prohibitive for 99.5% of the population, which in itself can be a source of frustration and possible resentment – i.e. America only opens its doors to the rich kids… compounding the already chronic socioeconomic disenfranchisement in the region, and all the ensuing arguments that go with it, ref spread of extremism etc…
    Cultural centers like the British Council and French Cultural Institute are far more inclusive of a middle / lower middle class, who can at least use them as social gathering places, without taking formal language classes, for a relatively affordable membership fee.
    Sen Lugar’s comments and the Committee’s report are therefore not before time.
    However, the security question remains: in a city like Cairo, or Amman (or someday Damascus, hey guys..?), where do you locate a Center that provides the necessary access for ‘ordinary citizens’ to feel they can use it and engage with its activities in a welcoming and open environment, and reconcile that with the inevitable security considerations.. The Brits and Europeans have tightened up their policy profoundly in the last few years, but I wonder how freely US DoS wil allow its American Center doors to swing open?

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