Deep in the bowels of the sprawling State Department is where you’ll find the Office of Public Diplomacy, what’s left of my alma mater, the once-proud U.S. Information Agency (USIA), which played a little-known but significant role in President Reagan’s Cold War victory over the Soviet Union.
In USIA our mission was to “tell America’s story to the world” by managing a panoply of overseas cultural and information programs, ranging from the highly successful Fulbright educational exchange program to the Voice of America (VOA), created during WWII to counter Axis propaganda. USIA thrived when it had competent, high-profile directors like legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow during the Kennedy administration and eccentric but effective Hollywood movie producer Charles Z. Wick during the Reagan administration.
Both Murrow and Reagan’s close personal friend, Wick, had seats on the all-important National Security Council (NSC) because, as Murrow said, if USIA was expected to explain foreign policy crash landings (think Bay of Pigs), it also had to be in on the takeoffs. And further, he knew the most important element of public diplomacy was “the last three feet” — face-to-face communication, and that’s as true now as it was then despite the proliferation of social media.
Unfortunately, what I call the “odd couple” — the late ultra-conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, and President Clinton’s misguided Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright — teamed-up in 1999 to merge USIA into the State Department. That’s when things went downhill . . . fast. So I wince every time Ms. Albright speaks or writes about public diplomacy.
For the most part public diplomacy was an after-thought during the presidency of Barack Obama, mostly out of sight and out of mind down there in the State Department basement. Every now and then they’d announce a new undersecretary of State for public diplomacy who would proceed to disappear from public view. That’s what happened to Time magazine Editor-in-Chief Richard Stengel after being named to that position by President Obama in 2014. I have no idea what, if anything, Stengel accomplished at the State Department.
What Stengel and his predecessors should have been doing was to aggressively counter a steady stream of hateful public and online propaganda produced by ISIS, which uses the Internet to recruit radical Islamic terrorists (we can finally identify the enemy) overseas and here in the U.S. During the Cold War USIA had a small but effective office charged with countering Soviet disinformation and misinformation. An example of that office’s effectiveness was when we convinced post-Franco Spain to join NATO to stop Soviet expansionism in Europe. After we pointed out Soviet ICBM missiles could reach Madrid, Spain joined NATO partly because policy-makers read our Spanish-language translation of an annual Defense Department publication titled “Soviet Military Power,” which USIA also distributed in Latin America.
One of President Obama’s short-term undersecretaries of State for public diplomacy, Tara Sonenshine, now a “senior career coach” at George Washington University, recently wrote a column for “The Hill” arguing President Trump’s refugee travel ban “fails Public Diplomacy 101.” Well maybe, but banning potential terrorists from our shores is a valid foreign policy goal even though, as Ms. Sonenshine wrote, Trump botched the public rollout of his new “extreme vetting” policy.
The president should bring some activist, experienced public diplomacy professionals into the White House and State Department to counter ISIS propaganda and online recruiting efforts. He doesn’t need to reinvent USIA but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should revitalize State’s moribund Public Diplomacy Office by naming a dedicated, dynamic media professional who will be a full member of the president’s new national security team.
Appeal political columnist Guy W. Farmer is a retired USIA officer.