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to below, including the report of the event this post is about, probably include some ideas and analyses that are now outdated.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

The deficiency of “information”

Bio pic of Russ Burgo with the Cognitive Crucible logo inset

This post originally appeared at https://mountainrunner.substack.com/p/the-deficiency-of-information yesterday.

I recently listened to the Cognitive Crucible podcast with Professor Russ Burgos entitled “Information supply, demand, and effect.” Recorded two weeks ago, on 13 September, this was a terrific and timely discussion that had me rewinding and taking copious notes. [Full disclosure: I’m on the Board of Advisors of the Information Professionals Association, which hosts the Cognitive Crucible podcast.]

With the CC interview with Russ focused on the military, incidentally, this past Friday, 30 September, I participated in a Glasshouse video chat where I talked about national-level (and non-military issues) around what I prefer to call political warfare. I will repeat my near-mantra that I oppose the label “information warfare” because information is a munition and because the term evokes a narrow aperture, which Russ spoke to in his discussion on definitions. 

Continue reading “The deficiency of “information”

We don’t have an organizational problem, we have a leadership problem

This originally appeared at https://mountainrunner.substack.com/p/we-dont-have-an-organizational-problem on 21 September 2022.

Pointing fingers, turf fights, & dumb ops are products of absent leadership

Saying we have a leadership problem in international information activities – whether you call this public diplomacy, strategic communication, countering disinformation, correcting misinformation, or something else – is an old refrain. Too many, however, intentionally avoid the leadership issue; instead, they pretend that a certain organizational structure will magically unlock the leadership, cohesiveness, and efficiency that currently eludes the US. Leaving aside logic and common sense, time and time again, examples show that it is leadership and not organizational structures that matter. 

The latest example is a recent article by Bill Gertz in the Washington Times, “State Department watchdog gives failing grade to new counter-disinformation center.” Gertz writes: 

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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. 

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Into the gray zone

A note on my testimony before Congress on July 28, 2022

The below originally appeared at https://mountainrunner.substack.com/p/into-the-gray-zone on 26 August 2022 and is lightly edited to fix remedial grammar.

“Gray zone” is a popular label for various adversarial activities, specifically those activities “in the space between peace and war.” The term has been around for many years and is often considered to be—and is often used as—a replacement for the term political warfare. The problem with political warfare, of course, is the word warfare and the resulting reaction by some that “we don’t do ‘warfare’ and thus political warfare isn’t our job.” Political warfare was, however, more palatable than psychological warfare, which, for example, was in the draft report from a special joint Senate and House Smith-Mundt Committee’s delegation that toured 22 European countries in 1947 but disappeared from the final copy made public: “The United States Information Service is truly the voice of America and the means of clarifying opinion of the world concerning us. Its objective is fivefold… (5) be a ready instrument of psychological warfare when required.” 

Terms matter, and not just because they inherently have different meanings to different audiences at different times. Terms may also assign responsibilities just as they may be used to punt responsibilities to someone else. Public diplomacy, for example, has always been confusing because it was purposefully applied to the activities of an agency and not to specific methods or outcomes, which continues to cause confusion long after that agency disappeared. Hybrid warfare may be discussed in a similar way as it seems to be military-focused and intended to lay claim to an enhanced role for the military.

Continue reading “Into the gray zone

A Reminder that the position of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs actually exists

Since 2011, I have been tracking the ridiculously short tenures of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. By the way, the average tenure is 517 days, and the median tenure is 477 days. I also tracked how often the office was empty, which was equally if not more critical since senior positions can be stressful and some churn might be expected. For example, in December 2011 when my staff at the Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy and I first looked at the Under Secretary turnover, for the six Under Secretaries for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs since 1999, there had been five Under Secretaries for Political Affairs in the same period. However, as of December 2011, the political affairs office lacked a confirmed appointment to the office 5% of the time, a stark difference from the public diplomacy office being empty 30% of the time. What follows is far less commentary than, say, my June 2021 post reminding people the office was empty.

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Gross Misinformation: we have no idea what we’re doing or what we did

International Information Administration logo

In the saga of institutional misinformation, we have a new entry. The following article is set up as satire in the spirit of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which is fine, but the author’s invocation of history, specifically organizational history combined with implied current organizational portfolios is horribly wrong. The failure to understand our history is irrelevant to the article “Let’s Tweet, Grandma – Weaponizing the Social to Create Information Security” but it is relevant as yet another sad revelation of how poorly we understand our organizations, past and present. That the author of this piece is a Navy Commander, a graduate of the Naval War College, and presently at TRADOC reveals an unfortunate reality about what our institutions “know” about the past and present. (Incidentally, I am a casual collector of books by “Dean Swift,” my oldest is only from 1911 though. There was an older edition I had my eye on in an antique bookstore in London, but I never pulled the trigger.)

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Correcting Misinformation around the Smith-Mundt Act Seventy-Seven Years after it was Introduced

On January 24, 1945, Congressman Karl Earl Mundt, Republican from South Dakota, introduced a bill “to transmit knowledge and understanding to the greatest number of people” across the Pan American Union. The method would be exchanging elementary and high school teachers in training. Put another way, the Mundt bill was a scholarship program for student-teachers in their junior year of college, provided they were in good standing with the American Association of Teachers Colleges. Before he was elected to the House in 1938, Mundt had been a schoolteacher, school superintendent, a college instructor, a co-founder of the National Forensic League (since renamed the National Speech and Debate Association), and both he and his wife were active with the South Dakota Poetry Society. Karl Mundt appreciated the value of words and ideas. The bill he introduced seventy-seven years ago today would go through several iterations before being signed into law three years and three days later by President Truman as the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. Originally intended to create and foster common understanding between peoples, to preemptively as well as reactively counter misinformation and disinformation, today its purpose and evolution are clouded by an ironic combination of misinformation and disinformation.

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It is time to do away with the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy

Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy incumbency chart 14 Jan 2022

Here we are on January 14, days away from the end of the first year of the Biden Administration, and there is still no nomination for the office of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. There were rumors of a forthcoming nomination around last autumn and recently I heard a nomination could be announced later this year. At this point, who would want a job that has been broadly neglected, often treated as an inconsequential sideshow, and whose authority, already slight, has been substantially reduced over the past couple of years? Considering the history of this post and this administration’s first year, if this administration does nominate someone for this job, they will likely be more Don Draper than Colin Powell, to borrow framing from the author known as Carrying the Gun, because that’s how the role is perceived and that’s the only person that would take it.

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Sweden’s Psychological Defense Agency

Sweden's Psychological Defence Agency

At the start of this year, Sweden officially launched the Psychological Defense Agency. The purpose of the agency, as the agency’s website explains, “is to safeguard our open and democratic society, the free formation of opinion and Sweden’s freedom and independence.” The website further explains the need for, the scope of, and imperative to be proactive for psychological defense.

Psychological defence must be able to identify, analyse, meet and prevent undue information influence and other misleading information that is directed at Sweden or Swedish interests both nationally and internationally. It can be disinformation aimed at weakening the country’s resilience and the population’s will to defend itself or unduly influencing people’s perceptions, behaviours and decision making.

Psychological defence must also strengthen the population’s ability to detect and resist influence campaigns and disinformation. Psychological defence contributes to creating resistance and willingness to defend among our population and in society as a whole.

The agency’s deputy director, Magnus Hjort, explained to The Washington Post why now: “The security situation in our near European environment has deteriorated for some time now and therefore we need to rebuild our total defence.” Note the use of “rebuild” and how the framing aligns as the flipside of the offensive means of political warfare. The latter is for another time, with the former (“rebuild”) the topic of this post.

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The Irony of Misinformation and USIA

A clear absence of research, making arguments incongruent with history and facts, and unsubstantiated if-then statements are the kind of malpractice that at some point is more than mere accidental misinformation. With the rare exception, modern calls to reincarnate the United States Information Agency skirt beyond malpractice and misinformation and into the realm of disinformation. Calls to “bring back USIA” are prevalent enough to be a genre of its own. And this genre, while well-intentioned, is a Pavlovian reaction based almost entirely on demonstrably false mythologies.

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How Important is Public Diplomacy? A brief look at the Fulbright Board

President Truman, with Sen Fulbright and Assistant Secretary Benton, signs the Surplus Property Act into law

This is the first of an occasional, and limited, run of posts comparing the present with the past to suggest – though perhaps reveal is a better word – how far into the margins “public diplomacy” is today. The subject of this post is the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, formerly known as the Board of Foreign Scholarships.

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The Incompleteness of the Fulbright Paradox

In the recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Charles King wrote on the competing realities of the legacy of Senator J. William Fulbright. However, as good I think King’s “The Fulbright Paradox – Race and the Road to a New American Internationalism” is in correcting some of the fallacies, problems, and inflationary tales around the Fulbright legacy, he repeats a myth that is central to the Fulbright story. Inexplicably, King also fails to convey Fulbright’s rejection that Russia and communism pose a threat to US national security. While King goes a good way to correct the selective biographical stories of Fulbright that should generally get the label of hagiography (or even cult-like) for their selective telling in elevating Fulbright to deity, King’s essay requires a few corrections, clarifications, and filling in of omissions. That said, King’s essay should be required alongside the number of biographies of Fulbright.

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tl;dr edition of “W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy”

Last week, I published “W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy,” a 2300-word discussion on the bipartisan failure to fill the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Below is a bulleted edition (with bonus arguments) for the tl;dr (too long, didn’t read) crowd.

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W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy

Whither /ˈ(h)wiT͟Hər/ what is the likely future of? 
Wither /ˈwiT͟Hər/ fall into decay or decline.

Skip the text and jump to the table below

In December 1944, the State Department formally, and finally, acknowledged the important role of public opinion to U.S. foreign policy by establishing the Assistant Secretary of State for Public and Cultural Relations. Renamed to the Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs just over a year later, the assistant secretary was charged with expanding both the department’s domestic and foreign engagement programs “to provide American citizens with more information concerning their country’s foreign policy and to promote closer understanding with the peoples of foreign countries.” This integrated approach, given expansive global legislative authority by the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, was later shredded because ivy league diplomats at the department wanted the foreign cultural and information programs to conform to their “own long-established conventions [rather] than carrying out the congressional intention of [the Smith-Mundt Act].” This meant removing the public side to foreign affairs and creating the United States Information Agency in 1953 and institutionalizing the segregation of information from policy and the foreign from the domestic. In 1997, when Congress set upon shuttering USIA and reintegrating the bulk of its operations into the State Department, they directed the executive branch to establish a new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. Instead, the White House established an Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Notionally akin to the integrated portfolio of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs as it existed from 1944-1953. The reality was different and the segregation continued. The fact this office has been vacant four of ten days since the autumn of 1999 reveals the intentional marginalization of the informational component of foreign affairs continues even as many assert the U.S. is engaged in some kind of “information war.”

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Neglected History, Forgotten Lessons: a presentation and a discussion

In discussions about how the United States needs to structure its bureaucracies as the nation — and democratic principles in general — is pummeled by propaganda and political warfare, historical precedents are often cited. These examples may be used to show how something worked before or as warnings. For the latter, it is easy to find a reference to the Committee for Public Information as a government domestic propaganda machine. For the former, it is increasingly common to read how the United States Information Agency provides a model to be emulated today. Both are bad takes based on common narratives that are ahistorical and easily debunked, and yet no one has seemed to do so.

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Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #105

February 8, 2021 

Intended for teachers of public diplomacy and related courses, here is an update on resources that may be of general interest. Suggestions for future updates are welcome. 

Bruce Gregory
Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication
George Washington University
BGregory@gwu.edu
http://ipdgc.gwu.edu/bruce-gregorys-resources-diplomacys-public-dimension

Continue reading “Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #105

Whither R: the office that’s been vacant two of every five days since 1999

There is a government position at the center of countless reports on countering foreign disinformation, correcting misinformation, and directly engaging foreign audiences that is rarely, if ever, mentioned in these very reports and recommendations. Whether due to ignorance, perceived irrelevance of the office, or both, the ghosting of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs reveals a fundamental defect in the analysis of how the United States has, does, and could organize in response to the role of public opinion in foreign policy and national security. Established in 1999 as a reinterpreted USIA Director, excepting the broadcast operations, the office has had a confirmed, not acting, Under Secretary only 60% of the time. Even if the counter stopped at the start of the Trump administration, which had one Under Secretary who served for only 100 days, the average officeholder’s tenure was one year and seven months with an average of more than six months between incumbents. The marginalization of this office, including the nearly complete disregard of its potential in the myriad of recommendations on “recreating” USIA or similar structure, should surprise no one.

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Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #102

August 2, 2020

Intended for teachers of public diplomacy and related courses, here is an update on resources that may be of general interest. Suggestions for future updates are welcome. 

Bruce Gregory
Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication
George Washington University
BGregory@gwu.edu
http://ipdgc.gwu.edu/bruce-gregorys-resources-diplomacys-public-dimension

Continue reading “Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #102

Quote: There was a time…

There was a time we could afford—or thought we could afford —to be unconcerned about what other people thought of us… That time is past. We shall be making decisions, within the U.N. and independently, that will have repercussions affecting the lives of ordinary people all over the globe. Our attitude and our actions—and rumors thereof—will be matters of concern everywhere.

Secretary of State James F. Byrnes in April 14, 1947

This is a quote from the past on the need to directly reach people abroad in the interest of US foreign policy. Today, we may call this public diplomacy, but then it was simply “public affairs.” The term “public diplomacy” would not be adopted for another two decades for the purpose of defending the independence of a bureaucracy.