Comments and Recollections on the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy

This originally appeared at https://mountainrunner.substack.com/p/about-the-advisory-commission-on on 16 September 2022 and is lightly edited to fix remedial grammar.

Masthead of ACPD newsletter to Commissioners
Masthead of the ACPD newsletter developed for and sent to Commissioners

The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy was established in 1948 through the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. I posted this forgotten fact on the commission’s website back in 2011 when I served as the commission’s executive director, and, fortunately, it remains there. The reason was two-fold. First, to show the maligned Smith-Mundt Act wasn’t the “anti-US propaganda” law it had come to be known through pervasive disinformation, misinformation, and, I’d argue, having done the research, academic malpractice. The second reason was to show the commission had a long and once important role. The updating of why the commission existed was partly to reframe the commission from being merely a baton wielded at the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, as was the view by some at the time, but an entity dual-hatted to provide advocacy and oversight over a broader portfolio and, equally important, to recall that the “clients” of the commission were Congress, the Secretary of State, and the President, and not the public diplomacy under secretary or even academia. 

As part of that effort, I had my staff find and upload to the commission’s website every report by the commission. Here is the current website, and here is an earlier archived version (which the former ultimately points to) created during my tenure. (A note: I had my staff scan and upload my copy of the 1945 MacMahon report, “Memorandum on the Postwar International Information Program of the United States,” the Dec 1945 edition, not the July 1945 edition, but someone subsequently removed that from the website. Good luck finding a copy of this report, which is highly relevant to public diplomacy then and today.) When a past report was only available in hard copy, they scanned, and OCR’d the report to make a searchable PDF, which was then uploaded to the site. Around 1974 and 1984, the reports could only be found on microfilm or -fiche, but with no workable readers at the archives, there is a corresponding gap in the report list at the website. [The inability to access the antiquated storage technology and the resulting knowledge gap is a separate conversation.]

I should pause here and comment on the staffing situation at the commission. I was authorized a single admin person, who I inherited (and whose position description dated from, I kid you not, 1999), and an FSO assigned to the commission on a Y Tour. The same legislation that shuttered USIA also put a statutory limit on the commission’s staff. I tried to get a retiring FSO – Elizabeth “Liz” Colton – on board via a Y Tour, but the bureaucracy objected and delayed until the window to detail her to the commission closed. I did manage to get two interns, the terrific Irina Karmanova and Brittaney Miller. I also managed to get a USMC Lt.Col. detailed to the commission from the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, specifically from the office of the retiring Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Cliff Gilmore. The under secretary’s office initially objected to this, despite the written support of the Vice Chairman and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Doug Wilson (formerly of USIA and a friend), on the grounds the under secretary’s office had recently removed a DOD liaison. I clarified that Cliff would not be a mere liaison but would do actual work. He came on, and I had a full office with squeezed-in desks in a small suite over at the then-SA-44 (301 4th St SW) in the former USIA offices, a location I was able to move us to and greatly preferred over the previous co-location with public diplomacy folks at the Main State complex (specifically within SA-5 and among the then IIP bureau) due to our work. 

However, I did not merely have staff capture the documents but summarize them, list the commissioners, and provide key statements found in the report. I felt this was critically important to the public diplomacy community by bringing them some life by drawing attention to them with even just a brief overview. Originally, and through 1977 when they were merged under the present name, there were two commissions. The one we focused on was the Advisory Commission on Information. The second was the Advisory Commission on Educational Exchange. An example of the summary was the following for the first report of the information commission, published in March 1949, about 13 months after the commission was established with Truman’s signature on the Smith-Mundt Act on January 27, 1948: 

Commission Members

Erwin D. Canham, acting chair
Philip D. Reed
Justin Miller
Mark May

Summary

This report outlined existing worldwide programming and made recommendations to the Secretary of State and Congress. The Commission observed that the implementation of Public Law 402 is off to a good start. So far, excellent contacts have been established—although disseminating information to a larger audience requires a larger US Government operating budget and staff. The report praised American libraries abroad as well as the activities of VOA and encouraged an expansion of these programs. The report also emphasized that the ultimate purpose of international information efforts is to create public opinion based on accurate information.

Quotations

“The audience reached here are available. The Voice is heard. And it is effective. It is effective partly because it tells the people the truth about what is going on in the world outside: and in their own countries.”

“Our broadcasts are reaching the masses of those peoples and are keeping them informed of the truth and of the American position.”

“Our aim should not be to sell ourselves particularly but to prevent the Soviets from selling us short by default on our part.”

“In every instance the press, radio, library, and film work should be expanded beyond present narrow limitations.”

It should be noted that for the first several years, the commission was obligated to produce two reports a year, and it did so without computers, email, Zoom, etc. Further, the commissioners were no slouches. Above, Erwin Canham, serving as acting chair, was a distinguished reporter and chief editor of the Christian Science Monitor; Philip Reed was the president and CEO of General Electric; Justin Miller had been an Associate Justice on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and was then the president of the National Association of Broadcasters; and Mark A. May was a noted psychologist, director of Yale’s Institute of Human Relations, and had advised the War Department during the war on matters related to psychological warfare. Later that year, before the publication of the commission’s second report in September, Mark Ethridge came on a chairman. Ethridge was a journalist, serving as editor and publisher of the Louisville, Kentucky, Courier-Journal and Times, previously the president of the National Association of Broadcasters, and had been studying the postwar situation in the Balkans for the State Department, served as a US delegate to a UN commission investigating Greek border and again for the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine in 1949. 

One of my go-to discussion events on the subject of public diplomacy’s trajectory is a lively debate during a Senate hearing between Senator Fulbright in 1967 with the chairman of the Advisory Commission on Information. The conversation was noteworthy because it signaled Fulbright’s later amending of the Smith-Mundt Act in 1972 as part of his broader effort to shut down USIA, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty. For the purpose of this note, however, the hearing is relevant to point out the perceived (and actual) importance of the commission. The commission chairman at the time was Frank Stanton, then the head of CBS formerly, until the week before the hearing, the head of RAND Corporation. 

This walkthrough history, both personal and institutional, is intended to show the commission can provide real and substantial advice and be strictly a convener of conversations between others. In looking back at my files for the commission, I thought it might be interesting to share some thoughts and suggestions from that time. 


From the start of my tenure, I wanted to know what the relevant communities thought were the priorities lacking attention and insights around the broad tent of “public diplomacy” issues. I had meetings with senior leaders around the State Department, including with more than one under secretary, many assistant secretaries, and many others, including career public diplomacy officers. I met with every Member or their staff that had expressed an interest in some public diplomacy program or an issue (or geography) related to public diplomacy but wasn’t overtly “public diplomacy,” I met with Defense Department folks, and I met with others outside of government. My basic question was: what are the top 3 issues related to this broad concept of “public diplomacy” that you want more information on? I wanted to know their issues rather than impose my ideas and provide a list of ranked and relevant topics to the commissioners for their decision on how to proceed; after all, I was just staff. 

In June 2011, below was the preliminary list we were working off to create the agenda for inquiries, possibly reports, and also be a useful source of information for stakeholders across the government (or at least be a kind of central operator to connect those needing information to those with the information). 

Issue: what is the impact of uncertain budgets on public diplomacy

How does uncertainty and anticipated shutdowns effect planning and execution of public diplomacy?

What is the impact on America’s image?

Issue: thinking about Public Diplomacy in broad terms

Is PD a luxury or a core component of FP?

Are sufficient resources available?

Should it do / include CVE [countering violent extremism]?

Is it more or less necessary in a world of falling boundaries of geography, language, and technology that permit and create not only information flows but also allow for new diasporas and tribes?

Issue: the Smith-Mundt Act

Does the prohibition on domestic access hinder PD in today’s global human and information environment?

Would removing the ‘firewall’ result in a shift in priorities at State for domestic engagement over engagement abroad?

Would the removal increase accountability and transparency of US public diplomacy? Would it also foster a constituency?

What is ‘propagandizing U.S. citizens’ and how does it relate here?

Issue: Training the Public Diplomacy FSO

Do public diplomats get enough training?

When they get training, how does it compare to military information training, such as NDU, DINFOS, etc.?

Compare with the training – initial and continuing – of MIST/MISO/IO.

Does the level of training or perceived level of training and capabilities influence the choice of team in the field (i.e. selecting MIST over PD)?

How to educate, equip, encourage and empower the 21st Century foreign service officer?

Issue: Engaging Audiences

Balancing between online & offline, elites v youth v everybody, mass v key audiences

Social Media: too much reliance? Is social media the answer to everything but the answer to nothing?

Issue: ECA programs

Are there too many ‘boutique’ or niche programs? Too much engagement of ‘youth’? What is youth? (How would US react to French programs in US?)

Issue: Religion and Minority Engagement

What constraints is US PD under when engaging on the basis of religion or minority status?

Issue: Center for Strategic Counterterrorsm Communication

Is it a smart idea? Is it solving an otherwise solvable probem?

Does it have the resources and authorities it requires?

Is it too focused on CVE?

Issue: Citizen Diplomacy (& Corporate Social Responsibility)

What advantages & pitfalls should be considered? What about the Logan Act?

Issue: @America

What works, what doesn’t, and, if it should be done again, how should it look or operate?

Issue: Relationship of State to the BBG?

How do the global priorities of State / WH and BBG sync? How does BBG (including surrogates) synchronize with FP requirements?

Issue: Is Research properly resourced?

Examine in-house & outsourced research. Look at INR, IIP, BBG, OSC, etc options

Issue: Public Diplomacy in Post-Quake Japan

Are there lessons in DOD PD by USN in Japan?

Issue: Congressional Silos

How to better inform and empower Congress to make smart decisions to support smart power?

Blended requirements require blended authorities and appropriations

Issue: Revisit the HR report (“No one in PD does PD”)

Where are we now? Revisit the concerns and recommendations in the report. Revise or reemphasize them.

Issue: Review US Government social media policies

Virtually all virtual engagement is public diplomacy…

Issue: Foreign Aid, Humanitarian Relief and Disaster Recovery

Are they properly conceived as public diplomacy?

Are they properly supported to effectively conduct public diplomacy?

Are they effectively integrated into larger public diplomacy efforts?

Issue: Review capabilities, capacities and requirements for US libraries and resource centers

Requirement in HR 2410; follow up on Lugar report on Libraries

Issue: Review and compare public diplomacy programs of other countries and significant non-state actors

In November 2011, proposals for the commission’s 2012 agenda had been refined to include the following: 

TOPICS FOR INQUIRY / LINES OF EFFORT IN 2012:

• [Impact of] Increasing deployment of MIST to support Embassy / USG engagement

• Impact of uncertain budgets on public diplomacy

• Role of public diplomacy in foreign policy / what is ‘public diplomacy’

• Branding USA and USG programs

• Hiring and supporting PD professionals / Revisit the Commission’s HR report, role of AFSA in supporting or hindering PD, U/S as champion of PD cone

• Internet Freedom and Information Freedom

• Engaging religion-based groups and minorities

• Review and compare the public diplomacy of other countries and relevant non-state actors

• Compare training of State and Defense information officers, including schoolhouse options, and career benefits or penalties

• Build and maintain a list of candidate public diplomacy / strategic communication thought leaders, both inside and outside the government

• USAID and influencing foreign publics / public diplomacy of foreign aid, humanitarian relief and disaster recovery

• Rise of new identities, challenges to nationalism, borderless “tribes” to public diplomacy

• Inventory Public Diplomacy efforts

SUGGESTED PAGES FOR THE WEBSITE:

1. What is public diplomacy, strategic communication

2. Why do we need PD/SC now?

3. What are the origins of the terms PD / SC?

4. Is PD / SC something just the US does?

5. Is PD / SC just something governments do?

6. Why don’t more people know about PD / SC?

At over a decade old, the above lists seem evergreen while also suggesting missed opportunities for the commission. I wonder how the above would change if the legislative and executive communities were asked for their top 3 priorities today?


Returning to my quest to get a public diplomacy FSO onto the commission, in my July 2011 plea to the Director General of the Foreign Service to place Liz Colton with the commission on a Y Tour, I listed the following areas where she would provide specific and valuable expertise: 

• Examine the impact and value of the “consultative staffing” process implemented at the request of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs;

• Revisit the findings, recommendations, and other items related to the Commission’s 2008 report entitled “Getting the People Part Right”; 

•Examine and compare how State and Defense information officers are trained and supported; and,

•Examine how the Department prepared for and/or responded to specific events, such as “Arab Spring” and the death of Osama bin Laden, and identify any lessons learned or changes that should be considered to make the Department more effective and efficient in the future.

More broadly, the Officer will provide subject matter expertise in the areas of staffing, training, and execution of public diplomacy activities by the Department on the ground. The Officer will lead inquiries and investigations, advise the Commission, and author reports in the areas described above, as well as provide input and advice into other relevant topic areas of the Commission. 


This commission was and is potentially of great value partly because it is not subject to restraints by legislative affairs or interagency rivalries. It can provide unvarnished views of the problems while advocating advancement. It can be, should be, and was supposed to be a neutral party provided both necessary, professional, informed, expert, and timely oversight and advocacy, combined to become necessary advice. This advice is sorely needed by Members and staff in Congress, senior leadership at the State Department, the National Security Council, and the White House, as well as others across the executive branch. 

Today, the commission’s “inventory” project appears to consume it. Though it may provide some use, it is not clear to me that it is an appropriate use of the commission, its limited resources, its special access, or its special mandate. (I helped write and advised on the text that created this requirement, so I have a sense of the original intent, which does not match the outcome.) In looking through my files to write this note, I came across this comment by John Brown, one of public diplomacy’s valued voices from the past, from June 2011, about the topic of an inventory for public diplomacy programs from an inquiry by Senate staffer Paul Foldi:

Thanks so much for getting back on this [compiling a inventory of State Department Public Diplomacy Programs], about which I feel rather strongly [see below]. Why not hire, at minimal cost to the USG, say five grad students from “Public Diplomacy” programs — USC, Syracuse, Tufts, NYU — to work on such a project. It would cost little to the taxpayer and be most instructive to lawmakers and the American public.

John’s idea was good. My use of interns at the time suggested a viable path. Today, however, the inventory consumes the commission, apparently leaving it no real ability to do anything else other than convening conversations between others, meetings to which its own commissioners and staff appear to add nothing based on the transcripts.

Looking at the conversation thread that included John’s comment was this interesting statement by public diplomacy alumni and still essential hub of information Len Baldyga: 

There once was the old statistic that 33% of the exchanges were carried out by USAID and only 13% by USIA/State Dept.


After years of the commission producing an annual inventory, is the need for executive and legislative for actionable, timely, relevant, and digestible oversight and advice being satisifed? I recently had a conversation with a senior public diplomacy Foreign Service Officer who relayed a problem they encountered. I suggested the issue was directly up the commission’s lane if it operated as it should. This FSO had never heard of the commission, let alone considered it a resource. 

When was the last time, do you suppose, that a commissioner was asked to provide informed and expert advice to Congress or the executive branch on the subject of public diplomacy, its organization, support for, integration with foreign policy, staffing, leadership, or its relevance to US national security? In my testimony before a House subcommittee in July, I told the committee, though absent, should be a resource for them to ask and answer serious questions, like whether the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs is still needed.

There appears to be no interest or appetite in the commission presently or the White House to want, support, or enable the creativity and desire to produce necessary, professional, informed, expert, and timely oversight and advocacy in the interest of US national security. We are a long way from fully accepting the recommendations of the MacMahon report mentioned above, as completed in July 1945: 

The adequacy with which the United States as a society is portrayed to the other peoples of the world is a matter of concern to the American people and their government. Specifically, it concerns the Department of State. Modern international relations lie between peoples, not merely governments. Statements on foreign policy are intelligible abroad in the spirit in which they are intended only when other peoples understand their context of national tradition and character which is essential to the meaning of any statement… International information activities are integral to the conduct of foreign policy. The object of such activities is, first, to see that the context of knowledge among other peoples about the United States is full and fair, not meager and distorted and, second, to see that the policies which directly affect other peoples are presented abroad with enough detail as well as background to make them understandable.

Arguably, the above sentiment (from the opening of a 241-page report completed in six months) is more true today, and yet operationally and conceptually, we are farther removed from this truth than then. The commission, despite its mandate, is nowhere in sight to help.

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