Absent Leadership in Public Diplomacy

From the President to the Secretaries of State and Defense, we have frequently heard how public diplomacy is key to America’s national security. While Congress debates the encroachment of the military into areas traditionally occupied, lead, and resourced by civilian agencies, there remains too much darkness when it comes to understanding the dysfunction in the structures of America’s public diplomacy, let alone at the State Department as a whole. Whether it is absent leadership at USAID, empty Undersecretary and Assistant Secretary positions across State, including the Assistant Secretary positions at International Information Programs.

Such absence of leadership leads to meandering efforts and poor use of resources. This is a core issue behind the Congressional examination into Defense strategic communication activities – a warranted development considering the lack of leadership, as noted in this report from earlier this year.

The absence of leadership – even if the seat is being warmed – can lead to other agencies taking a piece of your pie. In the case of State, the void left by inaction and poor action by State in global engagement led to the often clumsy buildup by Defense. Today, USAID may suffer: the US Department of Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, has asked the Secretaries of State and Defense to reallocate $170 million from DOD, DOS, and USAID to USDA for work in Afghanistan. In IIP’s America.gov (a site I used to tout) there’s a clear shift from informing and engaging through news to engaging through social media for the sake of engagement (apparently under the what-I-thought-was the outdated rubric of “to know me is to love me”). It’s perhaps a bit ironic that the same failure of leadership led to the disestablishment (abolishment to be blunt) of USIA ten years ago.

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News or Propaganda?

If the Government has a duty to get its viewpoint before the world, is it enough merely to send abroad the texts of state papers, speeches by and against the Administration? Particularly in the world’s twilight areas…, where private news agencies would lose money operating–should the State Department send full news broadcasts of its own? …

Last week the A.P. shut off the State Department’s principal free supply of news. U.P. announced that it would follow suit. …

Said the A.P.’s board: “. . . Government cannot engage in newscasting without creating the fear of propaganda, which necessarily would reflect upon the objectivity of the news services. . . .” …

Shrewdly, Benton reminded A.P. that Britain, Russia and other nations get and pass on U.S. news from the A.P.’s report. If the use of A.P. news by BBC and Tass does not hurt the A.P. reputation for objectivity, how could U.S. broadcasts reflect on A.P.? …

Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution: “The attitude of the A.P. might make a silent giant of this country when every other giant and pigmy in the world is broadcasting its own interpretation of American news events and policies.” …

From “The Press: News or Propaganda?” published in Time, January 28, 1946.

More on my Foreign Policy article about Smith-Mundt: Censoring the VOA

My article at Foreign Policy, Censoring the Voice of America (with additional information here), on the dated restrictions in the Smith-Mundt Act that prevents access to America’s international broadcasting elicited two reactions at ForeignPolicy.com. Both of the comments were expected and both are dated and ill-informed. Shawn Powers added his voice in a must-read comment at FP:

… Mr. CKWEBBIT, the idea that the status quo protects Americans from government propaganda is an utter joke. The war in Iraq is a terrific example of how, if the government wants, it can spin the US media any which way it likes. Let us, for once and for all, move past the idea that Americans (or anyone) need protection from particular media (be it Americans being protected from VOA or Arabs from Al Jazeera) and begin a conversation about the importance of integrating media literacy into the curriculum at a young age. … propaganda is already all over our satellite systems, from China’s CCTV to Russia’s Russia Today (RT). Press TV, Iran’s English language broadcaster is even available throughout the US via Livestation. If you want to argue for protection against propaganda, I suggest you refocus your criticism.

Mr. RLHOTCHKISS: … there are many ways to know when any news media is being deceitful — you compare it to other, credible sources. As an important example, the VOA corrected the mainstream media last month regarding a poll in Honduras after the coup. Let me restate: the CSM, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Reuters got it wrong and VOA got it right. You also state: "If you want to provide objective news in different languages do like the BBC and pay for it." We DO PAY FOR IT. With taxes. $700 million a year. But you can’t read/view it due to the Smith Mundt Act, so who knows if your taxes are being spent well.

See also:

Defense Department Plan on Strategic Communication and Science and Technology

A newly released report from the Department of Defense may be the first to specifically consider the role of science and technology (S&T) efforts supporting the broad range of Strategic Communication (SC) activities across the whole of government. The Strategic Communication Science and Technology Plan, April 2009, (PDF) produced by the Rapid Reaction Technology Office (RRTO) within the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Director, Defense Research Engineering (DDRE), responds to direction in the Fiscal Year 2009 National Defense Authorization Act, which calls for the Department to leverage these efforts to designate an “S&T thrust area for strategic communication and focus on critical S&T opportunities.” Congress and RRTO authorized publication of this report on MountainRunner.us.

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