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How to fix the US public diplomacy deficit: Restore USIA

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The United States has an image problem. Foreign publics have historically low approval of U.S. leadership and take a dim view of how the U.S. has handled the challenges of recent years — from the 2003 invasion of Iraq to the horrifically incompetent response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Such unforced errors suggest that well before Trump, “soft power,” the appeal of America that has been a secret of our post-World War II success, was eroding. The image the U.S. has developed is in many ways well-earned. Four years of a demagogic reality star presidency, along with longer-term deterioration of the political system, a series of catastrophic interventionist failures, and deepening sense of malaise at home are not easily hidden by mere proclamations of America’s return.

The U.S. needs to mend its torn social fabric end political dysfunction. But it also needs to remedy its public diplomacy deficit, and re-engage globally both to better tell America’s story and expand people-to-people, art and cultural exchanges. One cause of this deficit was the demise of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), an independent agency, moving its broadcasting functions to a separate body and melding its non-broadcast functions with the State Department. The result was a reduction of its capacity, expertise and loss of focus.

In practical terms, the dissolution of USIA has meant the absence of a central clearinghouse to coordinate messaging so State, the Defense Department and the White House are not at cross-purposes. USIA’s other important functions – people-to-people exchanges and showcasing America art and culture – dwindled, competing for resources with other State Department priorities. USIA libraries were hugely popular hangouts from Cairo to Beijing, offering otherwise unavailable works in authoritarian societies. These libraries could be resuscitated, with a focus on digitalizing and distributing culturally and historically important texts. Highlighting our culture and diversity of views has been key to our soft power. Most famously, sending leading musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie – the “Jazz Ambassadors” – touring the East bloc during the 1950s was a huge boost to the U.S. Cold War image. These programs should be re-imagined for the digital age, broadcasting concerts of globally popular U.S. artists around the world and coordinated tours to places the artists would otherwise be unlikely to perform.

The lack of coordinated messaging has also prevented the U.S. from leveraging its foreign spending to its benefit. The U.S. provided more than $500 million in aid to Pakistan in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake that ravaged the country, which included $100 million in private contributions from Americans. But rather than utilize such a large program to support closer diplomatic ties going forward, the aid program was treated in isolation and the relationship between the two countries was not improved. This is a persistent problem. The $400 million in emergency aid provided to Indonesia after its horrible 2005 tsunami, or the $700 million in food aid distributed to North Korea during its famine, were not successfully showcased to present an accurate picture of U.S. foreign policy in action to help shape foreign opinions and bolster U.S. relations with beneficiary nations.

A well-funded public diplomacy mission does not just offer the ability to communicate U.S. policy to the world; done right, it would also allow the American people to better understand the world. One of the critiques of the past iteration of USIA was that it did not meet, “its critically important second mandate to explain the rest of the world to the American public.” A revamped USIA should be tasked with both sending U.S. climate scientists, national security thinkers, local officials and academics to communicate policy to foreign publics — and with bringing foreign experts, journalists, and officials to the heartland to communicate to the U.S. public how and why they admire or are critical of America. This informational exchange should include student and cultural exchanges as well. Not only would this inform Americans about important global viewpoints. It would also help to communicate what U.S. foreign policy is and how and why it is being pursued.

While some argue that the concept of USIA is anachronistic, the two decades since the agency was broken apart have seen public diplomacy atrophy and valuable information assets previously under its control badly mismanaged and politicized. One of the first actions Joe Biden took as president was to remove Michael Pack from his position as executive of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which is the body that governs U.S.-funded broadcasters such as Voice of America. These networks have hundreds of millions of listeners and viewers in 54 languages, because they have told America’s story – warts and all. Pack had sought to turn VOA, Radio Free Asia and other broadcasting agencies into uncritical promoters of the Trump agenda, which caused serious internal issues and led to personnel quitting. Bringing back USIA, placing the broadcasters back under its purview, removing the executive position Pack occupied and guaranteeing editorial independence would allow for far more effective media strategies to be implemented. Radio and television may not be the future, but USAGM still oversees valuable outlets that can be utilized and transformed to succeed in forthcoming informational environments.

A robust USIA with a modern approach to information ecosystems would be a valuable asset for combatting disinformation. The U.S. faces a global landscape saturated with disinformation, much of which is aimed at undermining U.S. policies and weakening the U.S. political system. There are a multitude of geopolitically important complex media environments into which information from credible U.S. authorities does not penetrate. USIA could help formulate and implement a strategy to credibly communicate U.S. policy and counter false narratives through the widespread dissemination of factual, well-sourced information. By coordinating projects like the Open Technology Fund, the Global Engagement Center and modern digital media strategies to best communicate U.S. policy, the U.S. would be less susceptible to falling behind false narratives that form rapidly entrenched public opinions.

Better communication and clearer messaging are not a panacea for transforming foreign views of the U.S. Rebuilding trust and moral authority for U.S. global leadership will take time and effort to demonstrate that U.S. policy is adapting to a multipolar world. 

But for that process to have a chance to succeed, the U.S. must be able to communicate to foreign publics what it is doing and why it is doing it and understand foreign perceptions as well. That is a harder task than ever before thanks to modern media ecosystems. Re-establishing USIA and equipping it for this challenge would be a step in the right direction. 

Evan Cooper is an associate director of the New American Engagement Initiative in the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He was a senior counselor to the under-secretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.

Tags Cultural Diplomacy democracy promotion International relations Joe Biden Michael Pack Propaganda in the United States Public Diplomacy State Department Voice of America Voice of America
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