Reforming Smith-Mundt: Making American Public Diplomacy Safe for Americans

Reforming Smith-Mundt: Making American Public Diplomacy Safe for Americans by Matt Armstrong, 2 August 2010, at World Politics Review.

American public diplomacy has been the subject of many reports and much discussion over the past few years. But one rarely examined element is the true impact of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which for all practical purposes labels U.S. public diplomacy and government broadcasting as propaganda. The law imposes a geographic segregation of audiences between those inside the U.S. and those outside it, based on the fear that content aimed at audiences abroad might “spill over” into the U.S. This not only shows a lack of confidence and understanding of U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting, it also ignores the ways in which information and people now move across porous, often non-existent borders with incredible speed and ease, to both create and empower dynamic diasporas.

The impact of the “firewall” created by Smith-Mundt between domestic and foreign audiences is profound and often ignored. Ask a citizen of any other democracy what they think about this firewall and you’re likely to get a blank, confused stare: Why — and how — would such a thing exist? No other country, except perhaps North Korea and China, prevents its own people from knowing what is said and done in their name. …

The 1948 language also gave the media and academics, in addition to Congress, some say in determining what elements of public diplomacy being directed abroad were also fit for American consumption. But in 1985, Sen. Edward Zorinsky declared that even this was too much: Failing to shield Americans from the United States Information Agency would make the U.S. no different than the Soviet Union, “where domestic propaganda is a principal government activity.” U.S. public diplomacy was so “dangerous” that it was exempted from the Freedom of Information Act that enforced transparency in government. Congress became the sole arbiter of what the taxpayer could see.

Today, any public diplomacy product from the State Department or the Broadcasting Board of Governors may only be made available within the U.S. by an act of Congress. Naturally, these acts take time. For example, requests by NATO, Johns Hopkins and Harvard, among others, to show a 2008 Voice of America documentary film on Afghanistan’s poppy harvest were denied because of Smith-Mundt. The process for congressional approval began in early 2009, and as of today, it is still pending. Meanwhile, the video has been available on YouTube since 2008.

Congress has no similar concerns when it comes to content produced by foreign governments and their official news agencies. Congress decided in 1994 that “political propaganda” by foreign governments was safe for Americans. ..