Persuasive Politics: Revisit the Smith-Mundt Act

Persuasive politics: Revisit the Smith-Mundt Act by Matt Armstrong, 19 December 2008, in The Washington Times.

“Repairing America’s image” is a popular mantra these days, but discussions on revamping America’s public diplomacy are futile if the legislative foundation of what we are attempting to fix is ignored. A sixty year old law affects virtually all U.S. engagement with foreign audiences by putting constraints on what we say and how we say it. Perhaps more importantly, it limits the oversight by the American public, Congress, and the whole of government into what is said and done in America’s name abroad. The impact of this law, the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, must not be ignored if policymakers hope to improve how the United States communicates overseas. …

A brand new National Security Council directed the State Department to respond to the “coordinated psychological, political and economic measures designed to undermine non-Communist elements in all countries.” The psychological struggle of the Cold War is lost by those who remember only the military confrontation. The “predominant aspect of the new diplomacy,” wrote a young Henry Kissinger, “is its psychological dimension.” But by the late 1960’s, as the borders of the most important contested spaces were settled, the strategic value of this “new diplomacy” gave way to private, closed door diplomacy.

The result was the transformation of what is now known as public diplomacy from a national security imperative aggressively targeting foreign public opinion to something more resembling a passive “beauty contest.”

An example of Smith-Mundt protecting the people from the State Department

In 1947, as Congress weighed the fate of the Voice of America, then described as America’s “fast” engagement with the world, Secretary of State George C. Marshall said it was essential to make known what our motives are. It is, he continued, hard for us to understand how much we are misrepresented and not comprehended. It was well understood that policy was linked to perception and that everything we did reflected on who and what we were. Everything we do and say, and everything we fail to do or say, reflects upon as, as Eisenhower later said.
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Understanding Public Diplomacy

When talking about Public Diplomacy, what definition do you use? What’s your understanding of the concept of Public Diplomacy, or Strategic Communication while we’re thinking about this? While I’m still working on a concise phrase, here are some thoughts from others on Public Diplomacy.

The purpose of public diplomacy is to “promote the better understanding of the United States among the peoples of the world and to strengthen cooperative international relations.”

How you do this is by making “known what our motives are, what our actions have been and what we have done to assist peoples outside our borders.” It is important to do this because “it is very hard for us here at home to comprehend the degree with which we are not comprehended and the degree with which we are misrepresented.”

Why you do this is because “real security, in contrast to the relative security of armaments, could develop only from understanding and mutual comprehension.”

Perhaps a tactic is Under Secretary Jim Glassman’s concept of a “convener of discussions,” for example, because “truth can be a powerful weapon on behalf of peace.”

The goals for public diplomacy efforts could be

  • Tell the truth.
  • Explain the motives of the United States.
  • Bolster morale and extend hope.
  • Give a true and convincing picture of American life, methods and ideals.
  • Combat misrepresentation and distortion.
  • Aggressively interpret and support American foreign policy. 

Do these sound good? I think the quotes and list are spot on. We’re trying to rediscover how to interact with non-state actors, and to influence or even undermine state or non-state actors through people-centric engagement, when we’ve gone through this before. As the discussions heat up around undoing the “unilateral disarmament” of our “arsenal of persuasion,” it is important to know that at one time we had a Department of Non-State: it was called the United States Information Agency, which, incidentally, was created five years after the above were written or spoken and nearly two decades before ‘public diplomacy’ was coined.

The sources for the above, in order of appearance, are below the fold.

Continue reading “Understanding Public Diplomacy

Ashraf Fouad, Smith-Mundt and Al-Hurra

In Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion (see review here), Steve Tatham interviewed Middle East media consultant Ashraf Fouad in 2004 on the creation of Al-Hurra, the U.S.-sponsored television station:

If you look at it from the positive side it is much needed and it is long overdue. They should get involved in the debate. But if you look at it from the negative side then it is unacceptable. How dare you come and air a channel like this to try and brainwash my people, when your law in the U.S. bans you from airing something like this in the U.S.? It is against the Constitution to broadcast a government channel in the States. How dare you say that we are sheep, and that you can show us this, but you can’t show it to the American people? …

While it’s not in the Constitution, the Smith-Mundt Act certainly does prevent Al-Hurra from being broadcast to the American public. Among the various reasons for revisiting Smith-Mundt, the perception it creates of our overseas broadcasts and the lack of transparency of the same is not a myth, even if the modern understanding for the purpose for the prohibition is.

See also:

More on the Media’s bias toward money not informing

Briefly, Paul Fahri writing at the Washington Post nails NBC News for its in depth coverage of the Olympics:

"SportsCenter" had a bit of news about the Olympics, but only a bit. …

"Nightly News," by contrast, was all over the Olympics. Man, were they all over them. First, Ann Curry gave the opening "billboards" for the top stories, which included a couple of Olympics-related features. Then, on came the Olympic news like the parade at the Opening Ceremonies. Curry mentioned Bolt, the medal count, and the news that an athlete from Afghanistan had won his country’s first medal ever. … Oh, yeah: Curry managed to squeeze in a story about the Spanish plane crash and a new presidential poll (I don’t think either mentioned the Olympics).

In other words, "Nightly News," which rarely cares about sports, was out-reporting "SportsCenter," the leading sports-news broadcast on TV, about the Olympics. High-fives, NBC News!

But hold on a second.

What I was really witnessing was a little lesson in media economics. The contrasting priorities of "SportsCenter" and NBC tell you loads about how money can drive the TV news agenda.

NBC has a massive investment in the Olympics (parent General Electric shelled out $894 million in rights fees alone), and has made an equally massive commitment to showcasing the Games on "the networks of NBC." Said networks (CNBC, MSNBC, etc.) are devoting a record 3,400 hours, on the air and online, to the Big Show this time around.

But all those decisions were made on the corporate side of NBC, not in the news division. Call me old school, but in the journalism textbooks, it says the news division is supposed to make up its own mind about what to cover without being too mindful of what the bosses in corporate are pushing. In other words, GE’s need for a return on its investment in the Olympics isn’t supposed to be NBC News’ problem.

Yet for the past two weeks, the line between NBC News and NBC’s corporate priorities has seemed awfully blurry. Since the Olympics began, "Nightly News" (emanating live from Beijing) has been larded with the kind of soft-focus/feel-good Olympic stories that are a staple of the soft-focus/feel-good stuff that’s appearing on NBC in primetime.

NBC responded to Fahri with a list of “hard hitting” news stories on China beginning just over a week before the Opening Ceremonies. While Fahri notes NBC’s coverage was still fluff, he misses the point that NBC’s network news was not covering the world but, in the week prior to the Games, priming its audience for China. Since the games started, all news coverage, and even the quasi-news show “Today” as Fahri points out, focuses almost entirely on the Olympics with barely a mention of global events.

It’s worthwhile to note that while, according to Fahri, the Spanair crash received coverage on NBC, on Al Jazeera English my interview was delayed nearly twenty minutes and my segment was squeezed from ten minutes to one because of Spanair and other pressing international news.

Who’s more focused on the news?

See also:

A new voice in the Smith-Mundt discussion

Briefly, if you are at all interested in the Smith-Mundt discussion with Sharon Weinberger, I recommend you check out two posts by Craig Hayden on the subject. First, Fearing a world without Smith-Mundt?

… Weinberger’s argument about propaganda is logically a slippery slope fallacy. There are no obvious reasons why a domestic information ministry would spring to existence after Smith-Mundt is scrapped. Why should it? As research has shown for decades, the U.S. press has shown little inclination to represent the rest of the world from a perspective other than U.S. policy-makers (this is supported by Bennett’s well-known “Indexing Hypothesis“). In fact, as Dan Hallin has shown, critical coverage only tends to arise when there is disagreement among policy-makers (see Piers Robinson’s piece on media and politics for a summary). We don’t have to be closet fans of Herman and Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent” to realize that the U.S. news media rarely strays from the government line. So what is there to fear from abandoning Smith-Mundt? …

Second, After Smith-Mundt: What next?

… I think what Matt is getting at is more than just exposing U.S. message strategy to academics and policy wonks. It’s about involvement in a larger process of policy awareness, feedback, and input with synergistic effects on outflow of U.S. messages to the rest of the world. Implicit in Matt’s rethinking of Smith-Mundt is an invitation for Americans into the process of crafting, conducting, and implementing public diplomacy. It’s putting the public back into public diplomacy. (Ok, that was cheesy).

This implicit expansion of the policy community, however, would be a fundamental shift in how policy is crafted and implemented in this country. Unlike domestic policy, the constituents for foreign policy (let alone public diplomacy) are less than obvious. Sure, we know generally that public opinion does matter to policy leaders, and that interest networks can shape policy construction. But foreign policy shaped by public opinion doesn’t necessarily make it democratic. And an open-sourced public diplomacy goes against historical trends in the domestic sources of U.S. foreign policy. …

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American Public Diplomacy Wears Combat Boots, it’s wrong but it’s true

Last week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing with the subject Defining the Military’s Role Towards Foreign Policy. The purpose was to explore, in Senator Joseph Biden’s (D-Del) words, “an important trend affecting this country…the expanding role of the military in U.S. foreign policy.” He went to say that “there has been a migration of functions and authorities from U.S. civilian agencies to the Department of Defense.”

Today, American public diplomacy, its international communications with the world, wears combat boots. The Secretaries of Defense have used their podium to communicate not only to the American public but to the world far more effectively than the Secretaries of State since 9/11. At a time when fewer Americans know someone in uniform, it is increasingly the U.S. military that is in the critical “last three feet” of engagement with foreign publics in the most unstable lands. Around the world, images of combat boots and “digicams” (the new “digital camouflage”) lead while cameras don’t seem to find the civilians. Maybe it’s because there are so few there.

Continue reading “American Public Diplomacy Wears Combat Boots, it’s wrong but it’s true

A book for the aspiring architect of USIA 2.0

OverseasInformation “Brookings Report Sees Flaws in U.S. Information Service” was the page 2 headline in the Washington Post on December 13, 1948. The report, Overseas Information Service of the United States Government by Charles Thomson, looked at the information activities during World War II and more importantly, immediately after. It was published shy of eleven months after the Smith-Mundt Act was passed. In reflecting on the “unprecedented instruments of world propaganda” created by the U.S. Government for the war, Thomson notes the “machinery” was not new, but the scale of peacetime engagement was new.

The Declaration of Independence was issued out of a decent respect for the opinion of mankind, as a means of explaining and justifying the historic step then taken. Benjamin Franklin was our first cultural ambassador, and our diplomatic service has traditionally dealt with the problem of representing America fairly to influential persons and groups in other countries.

A change, he notes, is the increased importance of engaging a larger segment of the population instead of the “influential persons” in and near government. In line with this, he suggests the information service should be “closely related to foreign policy and foreign relations.” It is also to be an “instrument of national interest and national strategy, although not confined to short-run operations or effects.”

Thomson explored many of the models currently under discussion today by the many groups looking at creating “USIA 2.0.” The range of possibilities start from a wholly government agency to a public corporation. For each, he explores the shift from one to another from capabilities to capital costs.

He also makes several recommendations to be addressed at the time. These included some of the following amendments to the Smith-Mundt Act:

  • “The authority to disseminate information abroad should be broadened to include the distribution of any information, whether about the United States or not, which furthers the purpose of the act.”
  • “The policies governing release of material used in the information service should be broadened to authorize release to the general public at any time after use. What is safe for foreign audiences to get should be safe for our own people.”
  • The “two Advisory Commissions [one was for information activities and the other for exchanges of persons, these were later combined into the single U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy] should be abolished and replaced by a larger single commission, able to give the Secretary of State comprehensive advice covering the whole problem of how to run information and cultural relations activities in the interest of the country.”
  • Eliminate the emphasis of the U.S. role in the United Nations. “This is the sort of decision which must be left to current considerations. For example, our United States role in Palestine policy is hardly one to be proud of; our information service should not be required to overemphasize vacillation and weaknesses.”

Thomson also recommended a Board of Visitors, a joint subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to be the main liaison point between Congress and an “information program liable to lose domestic perspective in its concentration on foreign objectives.” This Board would analyze on behalf of Congress the reports of the Advisory Commissions and the Secretary of State.

In discussing the U.S. information space, he reminds the reader of the propaganda environment within the U.S. but he is one of the few that reminds us of the Congressional response to these activities: Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938. He was fully aware foreign information services (“other propagandas”) were active within our borders. He sought to temper the concerns of many, including those in Congress, that they must “compete with the information activities established in this country, which possesses a press and motion picture industry second to none.”

Many of the questions being asked today are, as I’ve noted before, are similar to those of the past. The only difference today is that over the last several decades we’ve forgotten the importance of engaging people in favor of governments. In the 1940s, the reality of the “war among the people” was acute.

The dust jacket notes the book presents “a detailed history of the operations of the information services of the U.S. Government, the volume is invaluable to librarians, radio specialists, publicists and to every serious student of the subject.” I agree. The cover scan above is from my copy.

Rethinking Smith-Mundt

Rethinking Smith-Mundt by Matt Armstrong, 28 July 2008, at Small Wars Journal.

Sixty years ago, the elements of America’s national power – diplomacy, information, military, and economics – were retooled with the National Security Act of 1947 and the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. The former has received significant attention over the years and is currently the subject of an intense project to recommend updates. In contrast, the latter, a direct response to the global ideological threat posed by Communist propaganda, has been variously ignored, glossed over, or been subject to revisionism. Smith-Mundt was a largely successful bipartisan effort, establishing the foundation for the informational and cultural and educational engagement that became known as “public diplomacy.”

While today is unlike yesterday, it is worthwhile to look back on the purpose of Smith-Mundt and the debates surrounding the dissemination prohibition that has taken on mythical proportions. The modern interpretation of Smith-Mundt has given rise to an imaginary information environment bifurcated by a uniquely American “iron fence” separating the American media environment from the rest of the world.

Who engages and informs the American public on foreign affairs?

imageimageWho engages and informs the American public on foreign affairs.  It isn’t the media.

This shows Lara Logan’s lament about television’s cutback is a reality in print. 

Read the New York Times article, the Pew Research Center website, and the site (including this page).  If you don’t want to read them all, read the last link:

The survey used three different measures to probe the question. It asked about space devoted to a range of topics. It asked about the amount of reporting resources assigned to cover each topic. And it asked how essential editors thought each topic was to their paper’s identity.

By all three measures, international news is rapidly losing ground at rates greater than any other topic area. Roughly two-thirds (64%) of newsroom executives said the space devoted to foreign news in their newspaper had dropped over the past three years. Nearly half (46%) say they have reduced the resources devoted to covering the topic-also the highest percentage recording a drop. Only 10% said they considered foreign coverage “very essential.”

This decline in foreign news occurs as U.S. armed forces confront stubborn insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Administration talks of a global war on terrorism and international trade increasingly impacts the everyday lives of Americans.

Is domestic broadcast media picking up the slack?  Kim shares a report that CNN might be with (only?) one show: Fareed Zakaria’s GPS:

“‘Fareed Zakaria GPS’ (GPS stands for ‘Global Public Square’) … is, in effect, an international version of “Meet The Press,” with prominent newsmakers answering his tough, well-researched questions. … In an era in which Americans are demanding — and thus getting — less international news, Zakaria’s ‘GPS’ is an auspicious event indeed. Only ‘BBC World News’ has been offering this kind of responsible global perspective and news to U.S. view." Bill Mann, Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), 20 July 2008.

Obviously the first story has Smith-Mundt implications – who tells the story of what’s happening overseas if it isn’t the media?  Telling “America’s story to the world”?  What about telling it at home?  At one time, the major media, print and broadcast, and the government had a cooperative relationship.  At one time, the products of US information activities were to be easily available to academics, Congress, and the media and were not to be under any limit on domestic redistribution.  Things have changed.  Today, the American public knows little about what is said and done in its name overseas.  Today, the American public is subject to the “inform but not influence” mentality of press releases and sound bites designed not to educate, engage, and truly inform but to pierce the media’s filter. 

Once upon a time, the government subsidized the overseas purchase of US news, books, and film to the tune of $15m in 1948.  The Informational Media Guarantee program was put (buried) into the European Recover Act, aka the Marshall Plan.  Think we should do that again?  Makes you think.

Unrelated, congratulations to Chris Albon and his journey with SOUTHCOM on the USS Kearsarge

That’s it for now.