The Smith-Mundt Symposium of 2009: a discourse about America’s discourse

This post first appeared at mountainrunner.substack.com on 20 December 2022. It appears here with minor edits. Be sure to check there for comments on the article and subscribe to my substack for timely follow-ups and new posts through the substack app, through email, and to participate in chats. It’s free!

This post is a step back in time to 2007-2009. The materials I link to below, including the report of the event this post is about, probably include some ideas and analyses that are now outdated. I can review that later. Here’s a chance to resurrect a unique and popular event. 

In 2007, a colleague and I developed a proposal for an academic conference to promote and discuss new scholarly research on public diplomacy, specifically linked to the Smith-Mundt Act and aimed to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of the legislation in 2008. There were no takers, so we shifted gears and reconfigured the proposal for a symposium. This meant a shorter lead time required for speakers to prepare, papers were no longer required to be submitted and reviewed, etc. 

Despite substantial interest from a broad community that expressed interest in attending such an event, and that most of the panels were tentatively filled, we could not find an organization to fund our modest — the February 2008 symposium proposal asked for $7,100 — effort. Academic institutions said their calendars were already full, including those with faculty interested in participating in the event, or this was outside of their interest. Some think tanks expressed interest and offered conference space, but not money. We considered and dismissed approaching the Defense Department but figured that would taint the discussion before the welcome message was even composed. 

In April 2008, we gave up, and I posted the dead proposal on my blog, mountainrunner.us, to see what discussion followed. Almost immediately, I was approached by a foundation (my erstwhile partner in the effort had bowed out). The contact (who has since moved on and whose name will be recognized by many readers here) saw the relevance and potential. Though she was interested, she couldn’t get approval from the foundation. The decision-makers did not see how the Smith-Mundt Act was relevant to the “war on information” or public diplomacy, as its “core function” (my words, their sentiment) was simply preventing such information from being seen in the US, and that wasn’t an issue. One of the foundation’s decision-makers asked, “Has Matt even read the Smith-Mundt Act?” 

At about the same time, another funder approached me. The identity of this organization was initially public, but then internal politics happened. The office I was in discussions with for the money, to be provided with the absolute requirement they would have no role in developing the agenda, selecting panelists, topics, or any relationship other than giving me the money to host the conversation, was part of a much larger government organization and the internal politics meant they needed their role kept quiet to save their own hide, so to speak. 

I wanted the symposium to happen before the end of the Bush administration in January 2009. Many urged me to hold it later, after the start of the Obama administration. Still, we’d only get aspirational statements, if any, considering the time to get people in office and know where their desks are, develop a plan, get a glimpse of the priorities (let alone set priorities), etc. 

The symposium was held at the Reserve Officers Association. I picked this venue (a great space, by the way) because of its location between the House and Senate office buildings on the Hill to make it easy for Congressional staff and Members to attend, a key group of stakeholders often left out of these conversations. 

There were two keynotes. The then-currently serving Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs gave the morning keynote. The second keynote, given during the provided lunch, was by the then-recently serving Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Support to Public Diplomacy. 

There were four ninety-minute panels, each with four participants plus a moderator. The ninety-minute window is a sweet spot for me, with one hour often too short to dig in and two hours tedious for the audience and panelists alike. The first three were largely structured as: “what we did,” “what we are doing,” and “what should do.” However, this was only the starting point for the panel chairs, with the moderators and panelists free to go wherever they wanted. Then it was essentially a full stop and shift to Congress to get their perspective on this. Originally, three Representatives signed up with one Senator who gave a tentative acceptance. The Senator bowed out, and one Congressman did as well, stating he had just changed committees, so he said this no longer seemed to be in his wheelhouse. (I disagreed, and his relationship with the Smith-Mundt Act a few years later proved my point.) 

The event generated significant interest. I had to create a waitlist because of the demand. Subsequently, I monitored registrations to ensure no office or agency had so many attendees to prevent another group from attending. In one case, someone from the National Counterterrorism Center signed up, but I told them there were already four people from NCTC registered, and I could not let in a fifth. This led to the quick de-registration of one of the earlier NCTC sign-ups to allow this leader’s attendance. In the end, it was well-attended. Over 260 registered for 180 seats. Some left during the 8.5-hour event (from the opening comment to the closing message) because they had other appointments but many of those returned (i.e., there were remarkably few empty seats at the end of the day). A year before, it was hard to imagine 50 people would be interested in a discussion centered around the Smith-Mundt Act. Whether more than 50 people want to have a similar conversation is debatable, but I think (hope?) more people have realized its relevance. 

The event was recorded (audio-only), professionally produced transcripts, and a report written. You can check out the report here (or at Scribd) and see the transcripts, agenda, and speakers’ biographies (at the time of the event) at https://mountainrunner.us/symposium/


For your convenience, here is the agenda, with contemporaneous titles for the speakers: 

Welcome Message by Matt Armstrong

Morning Keynote by Amb. James Glassman, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. 

Panel 1: History of Smith-Mundt
Len Baldyga
, moderator, former Director of the Office of European Affairs at the U.S. Information Agency
Richard Arndt, USIA alumni, author of  The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century 
Barry Zorthian, retired Senior Foreign Service Officer, retired Colonel in the U.S.Marine Corps Reserve, former VOA program manager
Mike Schneider, Director of the Syracuse-Maxwell International Program
Matt Armstrong

Panel 2: America’s Bifurcated Engagement
Marc Lynch, moderator, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs George Washington University
David Jackson, former VOA Director, Senior Advisor for the Communications Bureau of European & Eurasian Affairs at the Department of State
Karen DeYoung, Associate Editor, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent at The Washington Post
Jeff Grieco, Assistant Administrator, Legislative and Public Affairs U.S. Agency for International Development
Rear Admiral Greg Smith, Director of Communication at United States Central Command

Lunchtime Keynote by Mike Doran, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Support to Public Diplomacy

Panel 3: Rebuilding the Arsenal of Persuasion 
Kristin Lord, moderator, Fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program and Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution
Ted Tzavellas, former Senior Information Policy and Strategy Advisor to the Department of Defense, Joint Staff Deputy Director of Global Operations, Information Operations
Nancy Snow, Associate Professor of Public Diplomacy Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University
Colleen Graffy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs 
Bill Kiehl, former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Resources of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Department of State, and former USIA Acting Deputy Associate Director for Educational and Cultural Affairs

Panel 4: The View from the Hill
Doug Wilson, moderator, former Senior Advisor to the Director of USIA, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs
Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.)
Rep. Paul Hodes (D-NH)
Lynne Weil, Communications Director for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs

Closing Comments by Matt Armstrong

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.