Slow Out of the Gate on Public Diplomacy Reform?

by Steven R. Corman

Yesterday Walter Pincus at WaPo published an article entitled Clinton’s Goals Detailed that contains the first news I’ve seen about how the Obama administration intends to fix U.S. public diplomacy.  The second paragraph says:

In the battle of ideas, she said, the United States would go on the offensive implementing President-elect Barack Obama’s pledges to open “America Houses” in cities across the Arab world. These facilities, fashioned after a Cold War-era program, would have Internet libraries, English lessons and stories about Muslims in America. An initiative labeled “America’s Voice Corps” would recruit young Americans with language and public diplomacy skills to speak with and listen to people in the area. Completing the package would be a Global Education Fund to provide $2 billion for primary education around the world. But, she said, there would not be a return of the independent U.S. Information Agency.

The “Cold War-era program” referred to in the article is the USIA American Reading Rooms.  I am unable to find any hard data on the effectiveness of these centers.  Maybe a USIA refugee among the readers of this post can share some via a comment.  In any case, as Johnson & Dale said in a Heritage Backgounder in 2003, in the late 90s the effort was gutted:

Many binational cultural centers with accessible downtown store-front libraries either were abandoned or became “information resource centers” stuck in spare rooms of fortress-like embassies.

In a footnote they explain that this happened because of a mix of declining need (owing to the end of the Cold War) availability of the same information on the Internet, and the deteriorating security situation at the existing libraries. The need situation has certainly changed, but the Internet is more of a resource than it ever was, and the security situation is such that it’s hard to imagine street-corner reading rooms in Damascus, Cairo, and Riyadh. Are these reading rooms to be anything more than an Internet terminal and classroom in the basement of an embassy?

As for the “Voice Corps,” we here at CSC are in favor of listening.  But for that strategy to work, the listeners must channel information back into policy circuits where it could make a difference.  Otherwise we risk maintaining the listen-do gap that has characterized the last eight years.

If the USIA is not to be reconstituted, then how will the problems cited by the various calls to do so (for example, here, here and here) be addressed?  There is general agreement that the (Bill) Clinton-era dismantling of the USIA has not served us well, leaving our public diplomacy efforts with low priority and poor coordination.  After multiple Bush administration false-starts on fixing the coordination problems (2002 Office of Global Communications, 2002 Strategic Communication Policy Coordinating Committee, 2004 Interagency Strategic Communication Fusion Team) I would like to hear about some out-of-the-box organizational changes designed to address them, and more about if and how the PD function is going to be bumped in priority.

Granted this is one brief report at the very start of the Obama administration, and we don’t have the details behind these plans.  Nonetheless, I (and, I suspect, many readers of this blog) had hoped to see a more robust reform package for public diplomacy coming out of the gate.

UPDATE January 22, 8:50 MST

A couple of update items on this post. A reader sent me a link to a recent article: Long, S. R. J. (2008).  Winning hearts and minds: U.S. psychological warfare operations in Singapore, 1055-1961.  Diplomatic History, 32(5), 899-930.  It has extensive information on one library effort:

The USIS-Singapore Library opened in downtown Singapore in 1950, two years after the Smith-Mundt Act authorized the expansion of U.S. library services overseas. Singapore’s first free public library attracted huge crowds.  Within six months of its opening, it had 124,536 visitors, with 39,791 publications loaned out to locals.93 Stocking some 7,500 books and
numerous pamphlets on American history, literary classics, and scientific papers, the library was popular with pedagogues, students, and opinion makers, and remained so into the Eisenhower years.

The article contains a lot more than that about the library, so interested readers may want to get a copy.

Also Patricia at Whirled View did a post exposing some embellishments of Clinton’s statement by Pincus in the WaPo article.  He added some details about her announced programs that weren’t actually presented in her statement to Congress.  Where did those come from, Walter?  Clinton also said: “If confirmed, I look forward to a full assessment of public diplomacy at the State Department,” so thankfully she is thinking in terms of more than just libraries and listening corps, and will apparently get around to the organizational problems mentioned above in due time.

2 Responses to “Slow Out of the Gate on Public Diplomacy Reform?”

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  1. PHK says:

    Thanks for the link and the quote. The statistics you’re looking for would have been filed monthly by each post with a library, program center and/or English Teaching Program (binational centers). At least they were when I was with USIA and the facilities still existed. The data should have been kept in USIA archives where ever they are now stored.

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