Sunday, January 31, 2016

CROSS-CULTURAL COMEDY: Whose Laugh Is It, Anyway?

via MHT by email; based by him on his Facebook entry

image from

CROSS-CULTURAL COMEDY: Whose Laugh Is It Anyway? / By Mark H. Teeter
Friends/Друзья (1994 – 2004)(Channel 2x2)
Scrubs/Клиника (2001 – 2010)(FOX et al.)

--> Of the various mirrors through which the frustrating and frustrated Russian-American relationship can be examined, our common interest in TV situation comedies is probably the funniest: it involves both funny ha-ha (they’re often good sitcoms) and funny-strange (there’s a curious “values gap” in the mix). What better moment to ponder this dual funniness than today, as Moscow's Channel 2X2 begins airing one of America’s all-time most popular entries of the ha-ha variety…a mere 24 hrs. after the United States was accused in Russia’s State Duma of starting the local flu epidemic and a banner designating President Obama "KILLER" was unfurled across from the US Embassy – a gesture which surely qualifies as pretty darn strange.

All told, the ha-ha part is far better good news than the most recent examples of state-ordered bizarro-prop are bad. The latter, which comprises a 2-year media campaign of Orwellian/Kafkaesque accusations against imaginary “traitors,” “5th columnists” and similar straw men foreign and domestic, is doomed by its ever-expanding absurdity to run out of targets eventually – and possibly fairly soon, as the proffered “Syrian Banderovites” clearly didn’t take off as hoped or expected. At the same time, broadcast TV here is beginning to run “Friends” – an unpretentiously engaging show about appealing young Americans and the way they live which is probably a better message-carrier re current Western values and lifestyles than anything the now-defunct US Information Agency or the insidious flu-spreading CIA could ever come up with.

Think about it. “Friends” was not created to this end, of course, but for a Russian audience the show is nothing if not extremely well-made American propaganda. New viewers here will likely see the characters the same way the vast majority of American viewers did and do: as genuinely decent young people in genuinely amusing situations, ingredients that together make you genuinely happy to spend time regularly with them -- to be their, well, friends.

This and other kinds of surrogate friendship are common to TV viewers and the Internet faithful everywhere, of course, and becoming more so by the month and gadget-generation. Whether this brave new version of human interaction constitutes a Good Thing is for you to judge; but in a Russian environment continuously poisoned by a very black version of televised propaganda, regular doses of a very white variety are hard not to see as good medicine.

Ah, but will it really "work"? There's evidence that it already has, actually. On the Western-oriented IMDb movie/TV fan site (, “Friends” scores extremely high, as you’d expect: 9.0/10 (based on 400K + votes); yet on the analogous Russian-language site KinoPoisk (, the same “Friends” -- long available here via Internet and DVD -- scores a marginally *higher* 9.023/10 (on 135K +). Even if some % of these Russian-language voters are CIA-duped Ukrainians and/or insufficiently-indoctrinated non-RF post-Soviets, the popularity numbers are still likely to be comparable.

Which is also true for “Scrubs,” another v. successful American youth sitcom that was both edgier and less conventional than “Friends” (and probably funnier, all told: your call, but ask your kids). At IMDb “Scrubs” comes in at a v. impressive 8.4/10 – while on KinoPoisk it approaches 8.7, which is *significantly higher*. For what it’s worth, “Scrubs” has been run on a number of different TV outlets here and even spawned a serviceable Russian imitation (“Интерны,” 2010- 2016; TNT) – a cross-cultural transition that has worked at least as well as the original US-RF sitcom transplant, in which “Everybody Loves Raymond” was turned into Moscow’s mega-popular “Воронины” (and an American documentary then made about the process: "Exporting Raymond," 2010: and Moscow News, no.74, 2011 Sept 27, p.5(1) (ISSN: 0027-1306).
But transplants are another issue. What is suggested by the success of tonight's on-air debuting “Friends,” by “Scrubs” and by the other shown-in-the-"original American" sitcoms is something the current State Duma/Power Vertical/CrimeaCrazy people surely do not want to hear, much less contemplate. Correct: the punch line of the current Russian-American sitcom relationship is that Russians not only like these pleasantly-imagined surrogate Americans, they may well like them even more than Americans do.

Put otherwise, millions of younger-generation Russian viewers have been friending up with a sanitized, idealized brand of American peers whom they can empathize with. And probably a lot. Selling these Russians on the intrinsic evil of such friends/"Friends" – and on a set of Sovereign/Russian World-y values to counter and replace theirs – is a long-term task that will demand a lot more than hanging banners in front of an embassy. And the long-term taskees now available for the job are not likely, it would seem, to have a long term in which to do it.

Moscow, 28 January 2016

Mark H. Teeter served as opinion page editor and columnist for both The Moscow Times (2005-2009) and The Moscow News (2009-2014), contributing the television column TeleMost at the latter. He now edits the Moscow TV Tonite page on Facebook, where this note originally appeared.

Mutunga's dubious legacy that he now cannot erase

John Onyando,

Mutunga image from article
Just as Chief Justice Willy Mutunga seemed to be enjoying a honeymoon with the public ahead of his retirement, a new scandal has erupted in the judiciary that has once again brought his leadership under scrutiny.
Last Sunday’s report by NTV alleging that Supreme Court Justice Philip Tunoi was given $2 million (Sh204 million) to influence the ruling in a gubernatorial election petition has shaken the little confidence that was still left in the judiciary, of which Mutunga himself has sounded alarm in recent weeks. ...
The reality that corruption persists in the judiciary, despite reforms under the new constitution, is well recognised. ...
Once Kenya’s great hope, Mutunga has succumbed to political pressure at every stage. There is no doubt Mutunga is a nice man at heart. He takes extreme ideologically reformist positions in his public diplomacy. But his positions amount to nothing if they can’t influence societal transformation. While Kenyans wanted a CJ who could shake up the system, Mutunga was scared to death by the entrenched interests, and he lacked the organisational dexterity to manage dynamics of power. ...

Denmark's Harsh New Immigration Law Will End Badly for Everyone

Rasmus Alenius Boserup,

Image from, with caption: A boat cruise along Copenhagen's harborfront provides views of the city — and of the iconic "Little Mermaid" statue.

Prior to the cartoon crisis of 2005-6, which arose after a Danish newspaper published a handful of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, Denmark did not have strong national brand recognition in the Middle East and North Africa. During numerous research trips to the region before the crisis I often heard questions along the lines of, "Denmark? Isn't that the capital of Oslo?"
Egyptians, for instance, jokingly used to refer to Denmark as "the country of cheese" (balad al-gibna), a reference to Danish dairy products exported to the region. Or they would take amusement from referring to a popular slapstick comedy starring a prominent Egyptian actor, Adel Imam, in which the plot is built around a Danish blonde in skimpy clothes. And there were soccer fans (quite a lot) who could name more famous Danish or Arab soccer players than I even knew. Beyond that, everything turned a bit hazy.
The cartoon crisis changed that. It instantly hurled Denmark into the Arab and Middle Eastern collective consciousness and tarnished Denmark with a reputation as a frontrunner in European xenophobia and Islamophobia.
Whether we find it fair or not, the dominant narrative about Denmark in the Middle East remains forcefully impacted by this experience. Danish businessmen know that and so do the Danish intelligence and foreign services. Over the past 10 years each has worked to repair and rebuild what Denmark's image lost in 2006. In the foreign service, for instance, the newly established regional reform program that I headed in Cairo from 2008 through 2011 had to scale down its reform agenda and instead focus on public diplomacy and "dialogue" activities.
The cartoon crisis not only created a branding challenge for Denmark in the Middle East; it also made the country weaker in the eyes of countries it normally compares itself with. The association with European xenophobia and Islamophobia had grave consequences for Denmark's capacity for international diplomacy and its exposure to international terrorism. Every incoming Danish government since 2006 has been forced to handle this structural weakness through the diplomatic, trade and security agencies.
But the current government has utterly failed to do this. Out of an eagerness to dissuade Syrian and other refugees to seek asylum in Denmark, the government, since it came to power about seven months ago, deliberately and proactively built an image of Denmark as a leader in European anti-immigration policies. ...

Proud moment re-visited

image from
Airlift has evidently won the hearts and minds of cine-goers, having made the most of the Republic Day patriotic fervor. But many are asking: To what extent is the film, which depicts the large-scale war-time evacuation of 1.70 lakh Indians from Kuwait in 1990, an accurate reflection of the event? The Ministry of External Affairs has put out an official statement saying that the film has been poorly researched and doesn't do justice to the Herculean effort that South Block put in to carry out what remains till date the largest civilian evacuation effort. Former diplomats have also reiterated this view, and even some civilians, who were part of the evacuation process, have shared their opinion on how the film strays from the reality that they had experienced. ...
Airlift deserves full credit for at least starting the conversation about this evacuation effort, which happened only two decades ago but had already been forgotten. Perhaps, the MEA's Public Diplomacy department should use this opportunity to commission a documentary on the episode, and indeed the many other evacuations that India has carried out over the years and across continents. Similarly, other film-makers too can follow suit and pick up the other stories that are waiting to be told from these operations — be they of Indian Government officials, evacuees or even foreign diplomats and leaders who may be involved.

Snapchat: Geofilters for City Diplomacy

image from entry
Jan 30, 2016
Snapchat is a mobile application that allows people to take and share pictures and videos instantly, which can be tagged by location. This geofilter aspect can function as a tool for city diplomacy, especially since many of the filters are created by local artists to express the character of their environment. Snapchat also acts as a medium for cultural diplomacy by sharing crowdsourced stories to its users about happenings around the world, from kite festivals in Gujarat, India, to Australia Day.
For the latest updates on webjournalism tools and apps, visit USC School of Journalism professor Robert Hernandez's website
Photo by Meena Kadri / CC by-SA 2.0

Analysis The Nightmare Scenario That Has Worried Israel for Months

Amos Harel,

Image from article, with caption: Palestinian police loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas dressed in riot gear, show their skills during an exercise in the West Bank town of Jericho, Feb. 12, 2008.

Sunday’s attack by a Palestinian Authority security service officer on 3 Israeli soldiers underscores the ongoing failure by the IDF and Shin Bet to stop lone-wolf attacks before they happen.

It’s still not certain that a new trend is emerging, although the assailant’s identity is likely to serve as fodder for Israeli public diplomacy in its attacks on the PA and its demands that PA President Mahmoud Abbas stop the terror. In practice, all the relevant Israeli defense agencies – the defense minister, senior IDF officers, the Shin Bet security service and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories – constantly stress the need to preserve the excellent security coordination with the PA and the efforts the PA security services have made in recent weeks, especially against Hamas terrorist cells in the West Bank. ... 

January Blog Roundup: The Top 5

Jan 31, 2016
The CPD Blog is off to a strong start in 2016! Check out which posts were most popular in January. 
5) Playing a Trump Card in Global Politics by Markos Kounalakis. What does the world think of Donald Trump? 
4) Looking Ahead: Predictions for PD in 2016 by Sohaela Amiri. PD experts weigh in on what's in store for 2016.
3) Giving New Life to America's Voice with Conviction by Alex Belida. How to save U.S. international broadcasting.
2) Digital Diplomacy in Africa: A Research Agenda by Ilan Manor. How to incorporate social media into African diplomacy. 
1) Is Resistance Futile? Maximizing the Impact of Public Diplomacy on Social Media by Corneliu Bjola. How degree centrality and social media impact public diplomacy. 
From top to bottom: 
Photo by MissMessie ,Photo by Ninian Reid | CC BY 2.0, Photo/istock, Photo by Saint-Aniol | CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons, Photo by IICD | CC BY 2.0, Photo by Jamie Howie/CC by-SA 2.0

Quotable: Alberto Fernandez on “jihadist domination in the public diplomacy realm”

Fernandez image from

Saturday, January 30th 2016
“Although [Ambassador Alberto] Fernandez said that he hoped for the emergence of a more tolerant and humanistic Islam, he warned that the process could take decades.”  This opened an article by Andrew Harrod, “The Long War of Islam,” which summarized Ambassador Fernandez’s remarks at the October 14, 2015, conference sponsored by The Westminster Institute in McLean, Virginia.  Here are some bullets from Harrod’s report on the website:

  • “We need to crush the Islamic State as fully and as completely as is possible,” he argued. “The longer it is around, the longer it will metastasize; the longer it will sink its roots deeply into the psyche of the region.” He called ISIS a “half puffer fish, half shark – an entity that blows itself up to make itself look bigger than it is and must keep moving to survive in the form of continual victories.”

  • Beyond the battlefield, the Islamic State media machine is a juggernaut that produces a daily average of 46,000 pro-ISIS Twitter accounts and 100,000 tweets in a “cyber-Salafism” Internet subculture. While Fernandez said that groups like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al-Shabaab in East Africa pioneered English-language jihadist media, “they did not do it on the industrial level that ISIS did. Given how their message is incendiary and powerful, the interesting thing is how few people have joined them. Nobody does it the way the bad guys do it.”

  • Fernandez described the jihadist domination in the public diplomacy realm. “Entities that put out poison dominate Muslim social media. Throughout the Middle Eastern publishing landscape, you can find the Islamic radical doggerel everywhere – but little is available from thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson.” While liberal initiatives in the Middle East are often haphazard and poorly financed, a Syrian friend told Fernandez that “you can always get 50 grand for another kind of embossed version of the Quran in the Gulf States.”

  • In criticizing various American public diplomacy efforts for the Arab world, Fernandez said that Alhurra TV was “very early on captured by vested interests like a Lebanese mafia and Shia mafia.” And Alhurra’s Iraq section put out pro-Shia Islamic party propaganda during the Iraq war. The channel’s companion radio station, Radio Sawa – although it appears to be a success – merely “plays pop music and gives a little bit of news,” something Al Jazeera already does in the region, but with various anti-American spins. “We need to reimagine the whole thing. Make it more pointed, make it more ideological,” Fernandez said.

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel Will Travel to Rome, Italy, and Berlin, Germany, from January 31 through February 5

Media Note
Office of the Spokesperson, [U.S. Department of State]
Washington, DC
January 29, 2016

image (not from entry) from

In Rome, the Under Secretary will participate in a meeting of co-leads of all the Counter-ISIL Coalition Working Groups and accompany Sec. John F. Kerry at the Counter-ISIL Coalition Ministerial. He will visit the Community of Sant’Egidio, where he will meet with refugees and non-governmental organizations providing relief to migrants.

In Berlin, Under Secretary Stengel will moderate a panel discussion presented by Zocalo Public Square on the topic “What Does Muslim Integration Look Like?” The event will be recorded and rebroadcast by NPR Berlin. He will also meet with civil society leaders and refugees and highlight U.S. support for Germany’s efforts to integrate and assist new immigrants.

For updates on the trip, please follow Under Secretary Stengel on Twitter at @stengel. For more information about the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, please visit here.

Meet the Author: Eric Bennett

uncaptioned image from entry

Jan 30, 2016
Eric Bennett is a novelist and Associate Professor of English at Providence College. A graduate of the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, Bennett's most recent book is titled Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War (2015). Other publications include Creative Writing and the Cold War University (2013) and Ernest Hemingway & the Discipline of Creative Writing, or, Shark Liver Oil (2010). 
Why is Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War crucial reading for students of cultural diplomacy?
In contrast to the Soviet Union, the United States depended on private citizens to foster cultural exchange and export national values during the Cold War. Yet Washington often tipped the scales by funding do-it-yourself cold warriors, sometimes with the awareness and complicity of those recipients, sometimes not. Paul Engle, promoting international literary activity in Iowa City throughout the 1950s and 1960s, lived these tensions, subterfuges, and contradictions. His story itself is gripping. And the chapters that contextualize his remarkable life should be useful to those making a wider study of the period.
What major works of creative fiction emerged from the Cold War-era university programs that readers today might be surprised to learn had their roots in an anti-communist political ideology?
Richard E. Kim’s The Martyred, a bestseller in the spring of 1964, emerged from the nexus of philanthropic funding, Paul Engle’s hustling, and Philip Roth’s teaching at Iowa. It became Engle’s calling card at the State Department and is an easy title to point to, not to mention still a good book. Less directly, but more significantly, the American minimalist fiction of the 1970s and 1980s (think Raymond Carver) bespeaks a new national literature shaped by teachers and students heavily influenced by the anti-ideological tenor of the 1950s—the literary generation raised in the shadow of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. And, Flannery O’Connor’s work wasn’t especially influenced by the trends I describe, I don’t think, but her level of acclaim certainly was.
The Iowa Workshop is known around the world. What role did it play in facilitating intellectual exchanges between the U.S. and the rest of the world during the Cold War? Do you see former director Paul Engle's creative and political imprint on the work that comes out of the program today?
Starting in the late 1940s, Engle took great pride in importing foreign writers to Iowa. Throughout the 1950s he raised money for Iowa by underscoring to conservative donors the role that fellowships for poets and novelists from abroad could play in nurturing pro-American sentiment in third-party states. In the 1960s, he himself recruited talent abroad, collaborated with the State Department, and even received a little CIA money for his initiatives. When he was ousted as director from the Writers’ Workshop in the mid-1960s, he founded the separate International Writing Program, which purified the propagandistic logic of the domestic workshop. All of this matters, for sure, to later permutations of the Workshop. As for Engle’s contemporary influence, that remains a matter for further study.
What was the most unexpected fact you uncovered in researching Workshops of Empire?
That the director of our premier creative writing program sustained an intimate friendship with an international statesman and that the foundation for that friendship lay in diplomatic machinations. Engle was quite close to [Ambassador to the Soviet Union and the UK during the 1940s] W. Averell Harriman, and their bond gives the Engle story an additional, quite sexy, layer of interest.
Photo courtesy of Eric Bennett

Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability: USIA, the Cold War, and Combating ISIS Propaganda — Part 1

image from
Bruce Byers
(30 January 2016). Editor’s note. In reply to an 8 January 2016 article in the Washington Post, “Obama administration plans shake-up in propaganda war against ISIS” Bruce Byers wrote an essay about the effectiveness of USIA in projecting American ideas and policies to foreign audiences during the Cold War. The text is written in three parts, mainly for readers who know little or nothing about USIA and its long record of achievements in international affairs. Here is part 1 of Byers’s essay on Links to parts 2 and 3 are at the end of the text.
*     *     *
I retired from the Foreign Service in the State Department in 2000 after nearly 30 years of service, mostly in the U.S. Information Agency. After retirement I returned to work in the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in the International Visitor Leadership Program from 2001 to 2009.  The following views I share with you reflect my experience in Washington and overseas as a cultural and press and information officer. 
One of the most effective weapons the U.S. government had for forty years in countering Soviet and other adversarial propaganda was the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), all but destroyed in 1999 thanks to Republican Senator Jesse Helms and his crusade to kill at least one foreign affairs agency. President Clinton’s USIA Director Joseph Duffy and his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright helped advance the demise of this “Cold War” institution at a time of U.S. foreign policy hubris. Today, in the face of spreading terrorist organizations and their sophisticated anti-American propaganda, we can regret their decisions and the loss of a once vital foreign policy institution.
The Department of State and the United States Information Agency cultures were very different. The State Department is our government’s oldest Cabinet-level department, dating from the foundation of our Republic. It has more than two centuries of tradition and history as the foundation for conducting our nation’s foreign affairs. USIA was born in 1953 as the Cold War was expanding and threatening many newly independent nations as well as our established allies in Europe and Asia. It is worth keeping this history in mind when asking why President Obama feels it necessary to shake up his administration’s propaganda campaign against terrorist organizations and, specifically, against ISIS.
It would not be an exaggeration to state that the differences between today’s State Department and yesterday’s USIA are one reason the public diplomacy (PD) instrument in State is struggling in its mission to confront al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram and al Shabab.  Whereas State’s culture is traditional, reactive, ponderous, and conservative, USIA was proactive, fast, and adaptable.  It took policy guidance from the White House and the State Department and ran with it in developing effective public information strategies to combat adversarial propaganda. It also maintained constructive relations with key committees in Congress and presented its strategies for combating foreign propaganda while building positive cultural and information programs abroad. It did not carry the “baggage” that the State Department carried in its frequent political tussles with senior members of Congress and White House staff.
During more than four decades of diplomatic work USIA often led on issues such as human rights, freedom of the press and speech, the struggle for civil rights in America, environmental research and climate change, more open international trade, development of alternative energy technology, advances in disease control and public health, and many other issues that required sustained communication and time to develop. With USIA Washington support, USIA’s diplomats overseas led in organizing seminars, conferences, international radio and, later, video dialogues, and other fora that enabled representatives of many different academic, scientific, economic, and political disciplines to come together and discuss complex issues with foreign audiences.
Where does public diplomacy fit in today’s State Department?
Since the development of its public diplomacy capability, the State Department has rigorously pursued initiatives to support the Secretary’s diplomatic efforts around the globe. Sometimes these initiatives have not meshed well with the Secretary’s work but for the most part they have implemented the policies that the President and the Secretary have set forth.
President Obama’s decision to engage Iran in nuclear negotiations and Secretary Kerry’s efforts to bring Iran’s diplomats to the negotiating table to talk about dismantling Iran’s nascent nuclear research and weapons programs have borne fruit. At the same time the President’s decision to open diplomatic relations with Cuba after half a century has won widespread support among the nations in Latin America and Europe. In support of these major presidential decisions State’s public diplomacy officers have worked to inform Iranians and Cubans and other audience groups in their respective geographic regions as well as in Europe, South Asia, East Asia, and Russia through a variety of information platforms about the changes in United States’ foreign policy towards these two states.
There have been audience polls that have tried to assess the effectiveness of public diplomacy efforts. These are not new. USIA did much the same thing during the Cold War, albeit without the kinds of Internet social platforms that are now commonly used. The biggest difference between the two foreign affairs institutions, however, was the independence that USIA had to shape and implement strategies for influencing foreign audiences and public opinion.
USIA developed long-term relations among its many different international audiences. It also scored short-term media successes when necessity and opportunity demanded. In the decades before the Internet its programs and publications served as links between people in different countries who looked to American leadership as a force for hope in uniting otherwise disparate interest groups. USIA officers were able to do this because they were not tied down by the limitations and exigencies of ongoing and often secret diplomatic negotiations in the State Department. Instead, they were able to work openly across many disciplines and with people who might otherwise never have come together. Through countless programs USIA advanced U.S. foreign policy initiatives and fostered greater understanding of ways to cooperate across political, cultural, ethnic, and national hurdles.
Today’s public diplomacy offices in the State Department have never quite fit into the traditional State structure. One reason is that those elements from USIA that were transferred to State were more horizontally structured across different disciplines and programs. The State Department has traditionally been more parochial. Its organization is one of competing bureaus with more vertical structures. Competition among them for resources, funding, and implementation of different agendas has meant that the new public diplomacy offices had to be grafted onto existing structures that were very different from those of USIA.
In the State Department culture there has often been a lack of flexible autonomy that USIA once had in meeting its international objectives and dealing with foreign propaganda challenges. Since the 1999 integration, many senior State Department officers and policy makers have had difficulty understanding the role of public diplomacy in America’s global affairs. Many of them do not consider public diplomacy to be real diplomacy. Some others have thought that public diplomacy is little more than public relations designed to make ambassadors look good. However, those ambassadors who came to know the effectiveness USIA’s programs within their mission plans, appreciated their impact and influence on many different audiences and government contacts. The same holds true for today’s ambassadors where they allow their public diplomacy officers the latitude they need to develop and expand outreach programs in host countries.
There is another critical factor in the role of public diplomacy in today’s State Department: sufficient Foreign Service officers trained in the art of public diplomacy. Just as FSOs in the other professional “cones” (consular, political, economic, and management affairs) receive professional training, public diplomacy coned officers need extensive training, including language training. However, almost all new Foreign Service officers in public diplomacy must first fulfill non-PD assignments, primarily in consular affairs, during their initial overseas assignments. It can take 18 months to two years before these FSOs receive PD assignments. This is due in large part to the “needs of the service”. It also reflects a parochial attitude in State’s senior management ranks that public diplomacy is not a priority for training and assignments.
There are, apparently, a declining number of new Foreign Service officers entering the PD cone. One reason may be that the number of PD positions overseas has remained static or is declining. In a competitive career where all Foreign Service officers must compete annually for promotions, lack of enough PD assignments will eventually cause some PD officers to move to other cones to maintain their competitive edge.
If there were an independent information agency such as USIA, Foreign Service officers in that agency would not have to compete for assignments and promotions with officers in other cones as is the case in the State Department today. In such an independent agency all PD FSOs would receive assignments from the beginning of their careers in public diplomacy. This is not the case today.
During USIA’s decades of foreign activities many ambassadors were able to observe how an independent agency operated in a foreign environment where there were many kinds of target audiences. They could also see that public perceptions and attitudes towards the United States could be influenced in positive ways through USIA’s programs and resources. This kind of diplomacy was wide-ranging and not confined to the more formal modes of diplomatic communication that are innate to the State Department. And the local USIS cultural centers and libraries, often located near universities, were not immediately or necessarily identified with the American embassy.
Through cultural programming USIA officers were often able to reach people within governments that were not always accessible to our ambassadors and their staffs. Put another way, formal diplomatic protocol and the frequent rigidity of diplomatic practices between U.S. embassy representatives and members of host country governments sometimes limited or even prohibited contact between the two. USIA programs, on the other hand, provided venues at which embassy and host country officials could meet informally and exchange important information.
Since the demise of USIA and its independent USIS centers overseas, public diplomacy officers have been unavoidably based in their embassies. While this may not have deterred them from reaching out to host country audiences, the institutional distance between American cultural centers and U.S. embassies has been lost. On the other hand, using a variety of information platforms, PD officers today can operate in a virtual environment not immediately linked to a local U.S. embassy. Of course, public diplomacy officers strive for transparency and identify themselves as U.S. government representatives in their interactions with people in other countries.
President Roosevelt initiated public diplomacy
Early in World War II President Roosevelt began the build-up of a new public diplomacy outreach capability in reaction to the lack of foreign understanding of U.S. political, social, and cultural values. His administration initiated an international leadership program to bring foreign government officials and other professionals to the U.S. for short-term orientation tours where they could meet U.S. officials and Americans in many walks of life. Their itineraries enabled them to travel around the country and experience geographical and cultural differences and learn more about American history and politics.
During the past seven decades many foreign heads of state and leaders in government had their first American experiences through this program. In December 2015 the International Visitor Leadership Program celebrated its 75th anniversary in active public diplomacy. Since 1999 it has been managed by State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Another public diplomacy initiative begun during World War II was shortwave radio broadcasts from Washington to inform foreign audiences about developments in the U.S. and around the world. We know this as the Voice of America. At one time part of USIA, today an autonomous VOA still reaches millions of people including those trapped in autocratic states with news reports, topical features, and American music. Its programs in many languages inform listeners about events in their regions of the world. Its news programs are based upon well-established journalistic practices that require multiple sources for verification of news items prior to their broadcast.
President Eisenhower founded the U.S. Information Agency
In 1953 President Eisenhower established the U.S. Information Agency. Its mission was to understand, inform, and influence foreign audiences in promotion of U.S. national interests. It was also given the task of enabling Americans and U.S. institutions to establish contact and dialogue with counterparts in other countries and through this to expand international understanding. USIA was established to streamline our government’s international information programs and make them more effective. USIA directors served as advisors to the President and Cabinet officers about public attitudes and cultural influences in other countries relevant to U.S. policies and values.
During President Kennedy’s administration renowned broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow took over the leadership of USIA and expanded its capabilities and international reach to promote the President’s efforts to engage the world and build bulwarks against Communist propaganda. Murrow transformed USIA and its international mission.
USIA launched Cold War information initiatives
During the Cold War USIA mounted repeated initiatives to inform audiences behind the Iron Curtain and in other totalitarian states about U.S. policies, values, and freedoms. Hundreds of millions of people in the Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact nations, China, North Korea, non-aligned nations, and different Islamic countries turned to USIA publications, films, and the daily “Wireless File” for accurate information about U.S. policies and their impact on world events. USIA’s outreach efforts together with VOA broadcasts enabled millions of people to learn about life in the United States through Americans across our nation.
The “Wireless File” was put together by professionals at USIA in Washington and distributed to USIA posts worldwide by wireless radio signal five days a week. It featured a compendium of statements by the President, Secretaries of State and Defense, and other high-level government officials and other information foreign audiences could not get anywhere else. USIA’s publications division issued scores of different monthly, quarterly, and semi-annual publications addressing specific topics and regions of the world. One of the most well-known among these was the monthly Problems of Communism. Another bi-monthly journal, Economic Impact, featured articles by leading American and international experts across a wide range of economic topics.
USIA’s film and television division produced hundreds of short and feature documentary films that were distributed to USIS posts around the world. One of the most famous of these was “John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Days of Drums”. Completed under the leadership of Hollywood producer George Stevens Jr. and USIA writer-director Bruce Herschensohn in 1964, it was released by USIA overseas in 1965 and after an act of Congress, won general release in U.S. movie theaters in 1966. It also won an Oscar for best documentary feature film.
In the early 1980s USIA launched Worldnet, a first-of-its-kind live interactive dialogue via satellite under the leadership of USIA Director Charles Z. Wick. These twice-weekly “interactives” enabled Europeans and, later, participants in other regions of the world to speak directly to Washington policy makers, including Cabinet officers, about current issues affecting their specific countries or regions. Worldnet interactive dialogues were instituted to counter growing Soviet influence in European and Asian media. These “on-the-record” dialogues were spontaneous and afforded many journalists who otherwise would have had little chance to interview senior U.S. government officials the opportunity to pose questions to them about ongoing policy developments.
The first Worldnet dialogue featured U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jean Kirkpatrick who dealt with the Soviet downing of Korean Airlines flight 007 on September 1, 1983 that took the lives of Georgia Congressman Larry McDonald and all the other passengers and crew onboard. Ambassador Kirkpatrick opened the program  with the radio transmission between the Soviet pilot and his ground controllers prior to his firing on the unarmed Korean airliner. After a brief statement she opened the dialogue to questions from journalists in five different European countries. Needless to say, Worldnet became an instant hit and over time afforded hundreds of journalists, foreign policy experts, intellectuals, economists, and others the opportunity to conduct live dialogues with leading Americans in many different policy fields.
At the same time USIA developed a rapid response capability to counter disinformation campaigns by foreign governments, sometimes operating under bogus academic and other guises. I was assigned to USIA’s Office of Policy in the late 1980s and worked with a team to counter Soviet and other foreign propaganda that spread false information about our government and about the American political system and American values.
Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability — Part 2
Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability — Part 3
About the author: Bruce Byers is a retired Foreign Service officer. He spent most of his career in the U.S. Information Agency. He served on assignments in Iran, India, Austria, Germany, Poland, the Philippines, and in Washington. Following his retirement in 2000 he worked in the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Exchanges in the International Visitor Leadership Program Office. He has published analytical articles about specific foreign affairs issues in different journals and on-line websites including the American Diplomacy website.
*     *     *

2 comments to Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability: USIA, the Cold War, and Combating ISIS Propaganda — Part 1

Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability: USIA, the Cold War, and Combating ISIS Propaganda — Part 2

Image from article, with caption: Jennifer Galt conducting Web chat over social media (U.S. Consulate General Guangzhou)

Bruce Byers
(30 January 2016). Editor’s note. In reply to an 8 January 2016 article in the Washington Post, “Obama administration plans shake-up in propaganda war against ISIS” Bruce Byers wrote an essay about the effectiveness of USIA in projecting American ideas and policies to foreign audiences during the Cold War. The text is written in three parts, mainly for readers who know little or nothing about USIA and its long record of achievements in international affairs. Here is part 2 of Byers’s essay on Links to parts 1 and 3 are at the end of the text.
*     *     *
Since October 1999 State Department leaders have struggled to find the right place for the remnants of USIA in its hierarchical bureaucracy. While its public diplomacy officers have continued the valiant work of reaching out to foreign audiences, bureaucratic inertia and lack of leadership have sometimes been a drag on their effectiveness.
Today’s public diplomacy officers, stationed at embassies and consulates around the world, work with the latest information technology, but in recent years their Washington support has seen a frequent turnover of leaders and many political appointees who stayed only months or a year or two at best. A number of them with backgrounds in corporate management did not understand public diplomacy and dealt with it as though they were dealing with public relations and  product “branding”. This has resulted at times in poor leadership and half-hearted, half-started public diplomacy initiatives.
Public diplomacy officers have frequently had to contend with the ever present State Department bureaucracy that limits their flexibility. They lack the rapidity with which USIA was able to confront sudden international developments and foreign propaganda initiatives and launch effective responses. The result has been a series of failed efforts to grapple with ISIS propaganda against us and our allies. It may be this that has moved President Obama and his White House advisors to launch a “shake-up” in public diplomacy efforts to counter ISIS and other anti-American propaganda. However, this will take more than a superficial tweaking of existing bureaucracy within the State Department.
A call for a new information agency
What could be done to change the current the situation and restore a fast reaction ability in our government to counter propaganda initiatives? How could public diplomacy programs and officers be enabled to provide more effective and swifter responses in countering foreign propaganda?
Congress could create through legislation an independent Information Agency, similar to USIA that would take advantage of the latest information technology to reach foreign audiences on a targeted basis. Its director would report directly to the President. This agency would take policy guidance from the White House and the State Department as USIA did throughout its history. It would have the autonomy and resources to build on credible, established international relationships and act quickly to counter anti-American propaganda.
It would also be able to conduct its own programs to influence and change public attitudes overseas. And it could offer foreign journalists and opinion makers, once again, access to senior U.S. government officials to discuss pressing international issues and U.S. government policies. Current public diplomacy offices in the State Department pursue some of these initiatives and reach out to foreign audiences and opinion leaders. Yet, intermittent leadership has stymied sustained program initiatives.
The biggest difference between the current set-up in State and a new Information Agency is that appointed office directors in State’s PD bureaucracy become sandwiched into State’s bureaucracy and have to compete for resources and attention in the spectrum of policy issues that State leaders pursue. The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs does not report directly to the President as USIA directors did but rather to the Secretary of State. In a new Information Agency this would not happen. There would be a different decision making process targeted at influencing foreign publics with more direct White House input.
A new information agency director would report to the President
The director of such an agency would once again advise the President and the Secretary of State and other Cabinet officers directly about foreign public perceptions and attitudes towards the U.S. There would be fewer policy and bureaucratic filters for such reporting. As a presidential appointee, the director would address the nature of international propaganda directed against the U.S. He or she would advise senior U.S. government officials about the changing international communication environments across the globe and inform them of the effectiveness of U.S. information strategies directed at changing foreign public opinion.
We here in America tend to discount the effectiveness of U.S. information efforts directed at foreign audiences, especially in today’s world of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. We also tend to downplay the effectiveness of U.S. public diplomacy in influencing foreign publics about the authenticity of our government’s policies and diplomacy. At the same time we tend to exaggerate the effectiveness of anti-American propaganda like that which ISIS and like organizations have been spewing out on countless websites over the past several years.
One historic reason for this is that the United States government has never had an official ministry of information that attempted to influence domestic public opinion. Under our Constitution, we enjoy freedom of speech and of the press, unlike people in many other countries. We are more focused on domestic political and economic developments than on what is happening in the rest of the world. For these and other reasons public diplomacy does not loom large in our American consciousness.
While millions of people love to chat on social media, many foreign audiences are misinformed about the United States, our values, our cultural diversity, and our political and economic policies. A new U.S. Information Agency would better be able to use some of the myriad social platforms and other outlets to counter anti-American propaganda point for point and disseminate official information as well as a broad array of public information about our country and our society without outside media filters.
Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability — Part 1
Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability — Part 3
About the author: Bruce Byers is a retired Foreign Service officer. He spent most of his career in the U.S. Information Agency. He served on assignments in Iran, India, Austria, Germany, Poland, the Philippines, and in Washington. Following his retirement in 2000 he worked in the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Exchanges in the International Visitor Leadership Program Office. He has published analytical articles about specific foreign affairs issues in different journals and on-line websites including the American Diplomacy website.
*     *     *
Be Sociable, Share!

2 comments to Strengthening America’s Public Diplomacy Capability: USIA, the Cold War, and Combating ISIS Propaganda — Part 2