Nearly a year after failing to win reauthorization from Congress, the U.S Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy has been reauthorized as of January 3rd. This was included as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which also passed the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act.
The P.D. Advisory Commission was created more than sixty years ago – in 1948 – and in 2011 had to put a halt to its activities for the first time in its history. It reports directly to the President and the Secretary of State, being the sole independent official body to provide oversight on American public diplomacy efforts. Its small yearly budget of only $135,000 did not prevent it from being cut by Congress from the budget of FY2012.
Officially, its purpose is “appraising U.S. Government activities intended to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics and to increase the understanding of and support for these same activities.” They do so by producing reports, white papers, initiating inquiries on specific programs and organizing symposiums to connect PD practitioners across the government and discuss efforts. Its seven members are nominated by the President and must be confirmed by Congress, serving 3-year terms.
The Smith-Mundt Act originally established it as the U.S. Advisory Commission on Information, which was later merged with the U.S. Advisory Commission on Educational Exchanges, thus gaining its current name and structure. Their reports, dating back to 1948, are available here. The main role of the Commission is to advise the President, Congress and the Secretary of State on how to effectively tell America’s story and pursue public diplomacy by engaging foreign publics. In recent years it had been on the verge of losing funding. Furthermore, as the government did not provide nominations, positions went vacant for long periods of time.
Although it has contributed important research on the state of PD in the US, the commission’s relevance – especially due to its broad access to lawmakers and the executive branch – is still not fully understood. This may be a reflection on the approach many policymakers have to public diplomacy as a practice. Underscoring this is the fact that two very important pieces of legislation to PD, both the Modernization Act and the reauthorization, were included in the NDAA.
After taking his oath of office on Monday, one of the nominations signed by President Barack Obama was that of Freddy (Alfredo) Balsera as the commission’s newest member. Balsera runs a PR firm based in Florida and worked in the Obama ’08 campaign crafting a national media strategy specific to the Hispanic population. During Obama’s transition period, he participated as an advisor in the review process conducted on the Federal Communications Commission.
The Commission will reopen its doors, but without a more effective approach than before, that may not be enough to draw the substantial support public diplomacy needs in order to be taken seriously by policymakers.