The US must restore diplomacy and leadership for a safer world

The US must restore diplomacy and leadership for a safer world
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The U.S. must do a better job at getting the message out that our nation continues to care about international security and the well-being of the estimated 7.5 billion people in the world.  When it comes to issues such as pandemics, human rights, terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime, religious freedom and other crimes against humanity, the United States takes the lead and works with other governments and international institutions to defeat the perpetrators of these vile and criminal acts.

In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower established the U.S. Information Agency (USIA). Its mission: “To understand, inform and influence foreign publics in the promotion of the national interest.” We as a nation did this well, through the following decades, in line with Presidents John F. Kennedy’s and Ronald Reagan’s reminders that the U.S. was “a shining city on a hill.” In 1999, 10 years after the Soviet Union imploded and the Cold War ended, USIA was disbanded, with its non-broadcasting mission given to State Department.  

Having lived abroad during portions of this period, I was witness to the positive impact USIA had on the people living in these countries. Our cultural centers in these countries were a magnet for the young and old to frequent, for access to international news and the myriad of cultural and academic exchange programs available to foreign nationals. 

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What got me thinking about USIA and the importance of public diplomacy was my shock and concern with the negative comments made by allies and others at a number of international conferences I recently attended. Very few talked about the work of U.S. government agencies and non-governmental organizations and the resources they expend in working with foreign counterparts on issues dealing with security, public health and other humanitarian issues. 

Their focus was on the glare of media coverage and not the sustained effort to work on issues dealing with the common good. How quick and convenient it was for some of these critics to forget what the U.S. had done since 1945 and the end of World War II. The Marshall Plan and other international initiatives were pursued with the goal of helping countries, especially those who were defeated in the war, to regain economic and social stability.  

Yes, there were some mistakes during this 75-year period, but the thrust of U.S. efforts was to defeat an international communist movement that was a threat to Europe and other regions, while providing international leadership on those socioeconomic issues that affected all nations. This, indeed, is what Reagan meant in his Jan. 11, 1989, farewell speech when he again spoke of the U.S. as “a shining city upon a hill.”

The world continues to look to the U.S. for international leadership. There is a reservoir of enormous goodwill towards the United States, given its decades of selfless work to protect free and independent countries and to help others in pursuit of democracy and the rule of law. These are just some of the values that made the U.S. a model for other countries.

It is time for the United States to better focus on public diplomacy, to make it clear to all nations that we, working with our allies and partners, will continue to provide global leadership on issues affecting international security and universal rights for all people. The work USIA did until 1999 was impressive, so let’s reconstitute some of those successful programs that brought students, scholars, athletes and others to the U.S. to share in the experience. 

Conversely, let’s encourage programs such as the Peace Corps to send Americans abroad to contribute to international programs dealing with health, security and cultural exchanges.  Hopefully, some of these issues will be discussed during the 2020 presidential campaign.

Ambassador Joseph R. DeTrani was the State Department’s special envoy for negotiations with North Korea from 2003 to 2006. He directed the National Counterproliferation Center in 2010 and was associate director of national intelligence. He served more than two decades with the CIA and as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service. The views are the author’s and not those of any government department or agency.