Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Facebook comment on USIA Public Diplomacy: Its Limitations and Achievements

Saturday Question: In 1999 the Clinton administration merged the U.S. Information Agency into the State Department. At the time Elaine Kamarck, VP Gore's senior policy adviser, said that USIA’s I Bureau, which "has received a lot of kudos for bringing information into the electronic age will be preserved, brought into the State Department, and we hope will enhance the State Department's capacity to communicate to foreign publics." Has this hope proven true? ... [One of many answers to this question below:]

John Brown It is quite fashionable to be nostalgic about the "old" USIA, not only among those who served in it, but also among certain think tanks in Washington that essentially mistrust the State Department for its lack of ideological fervor -- and that long for a "hart-hitting" informational agency (the adjective propaganda is usually not used to describe it) that will win the "war of ideas" against terrorism in our "[clash]-of-civilizations" new century. Having had the privilege of being a USIA officer (most of my time in my twenty-year career was spent overseas, primarily in Eastern Europe during the Cold and early post-Cold War era), I was very much aware that USIA (known as USIS abroad) did seem "useless" to some State functionaries more concerned with "serious" negotiations and cable-writing to Washington [see] than "frivolous" communications with local publics. Well, USIA was by no means perfect, and had its share of bureaucratic idiocies; but it was a relatively small independent agency and thus, in the field, was operationally far more nimble than Foggy Bottom's endless layers of "responsibility"; it got important things done quickly, from arranging key press conferences to organizing major cultural event that had a great impact on host country audiences. (Many would agree that "hard-hitting" propaganda [contrast it with the respectful exchange of ideas] was not an effective tool of persuasion, despite the contention of certain USA think tanks today). Also, in the field -- in an era when FSOs abroad had not yet become "always available at a moment's notice" to Washington "headquarters" because (in part) of their not being easily accessible/controllable via the internet, cell-phones, etc. -- USIS officers had a tremendous amount of independence (the smaller the post, the greater the independence) and could truly -- and, equally important, humanly -- represent their country on a person-to-person, face-to-face (I won't say facebook-to-facebook) basis with best and the brightest, and where they served not by making decisions by diktats ("talking points") from Washington, but by their analysis of the local situation and of the views of their non-American interlocutors. Sure, USIS FSOs followed guiding principles of U.S. foreign policy, and explained them as best they could, but they were not "micromanaged" by Washington (hear "don't fence me in," my mother's favorite song:'t+Fence+Me+In). That perhaps is the greatest "foreign affairs" legacy of USIA/USIS, for all its faults: Its employees (at least from my personal experience overseas) felt they were trusted; their judgement was valued; and they could make their on-the-ground decisions without worrying about "clearing" every one of their steps with Washington.

Watch the video or listen to Ella Fitzgerald – Don't Fence...

1 comment:

Ben Ziff said...

John: As someobod who also served in USIA for 11 years pre-merger (and as a USIS brat who remembers the "moon rock" exhibits, too!) I agree with you as to the joy of independence. I believe, however, that the same could be said about other cones who now spend so much time responding to blackberry taskings from myriad stakeholds. The independence and judgment of our political and econ colleauges has also been sharply curtailed due to the technology. I do not lament the passing of USIA in that it was a boutique agency set up to mirror a specific - Soviet - counterpart, and did so very well. When that counterpart went the way of all things, USIA lost a raison d'etre and could never make itself relevant to the newer challenges - you were around as was I watching us scramble to address the issue of the day, no resources, no was a mess. Post-merger, the State Department has done a creditable job in getting broader ownership of the PA function (Assistant Secretaries now tweet regularly, folks know about social media, etc.) but, alas, I think there is still a lack of appreciation for PD - the cultural side of the house. Having been a PAO thrice, I think it is too easy to blame our colleagues for their shortsightedness when we PD types have done a lousy job communicating why PD is relevant to the rest of the country team. Too often we work in a kind of "walled garden" where we speak to each other, our contacts, R who already understand why what we do is important, yet neglect framing our issues in ways that speak to, say, the Pol Counselor. How many Country Team meetings have I sat through where a PD colleague will go on at length about program X that is very cool and innovative yet is discussed as if the merits were self-evident - of course bringing the volleyball coach to help the disadvantaged kids is a great idea, but exactly how does it relate to the upcoming elections? It certainly can be framed as relevant if we, PD officers, take the time and trouble to make those links explicit. Unfortunately, on far too many occasions, we don't take the trouble.