How We Almost Killed Public Diplomacy

We speak with awe or scorn about spin. But ask yourself this. If spin is so effective, how come you and (almost everybody else) can see it? There is much more to public affairs than information or even persuasion. Public affairs is relationships. Relationships are what we stupidly threw away during the 1990s. We fell into a type of historical amnesia during the 1990s. It we chased a dream, a chimera. The fall of communism made most people in the west think that we had finished – and won – a hard race. Now we could rest. All those soldiers could come home. It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, just a little late.   Harmony and understanding would certainly follow.

I need to digress. Americans have always been interested in public opinion. Our Declaration of Independence talks about a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, but we learned the importance of information policy in the modern sense in the time before WWII. The Nazis were good at persuasion. (Many of the anti-free market, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitic themes are still used today.) In the 1930s, they were making significant public affairs gains in Latin America by exploiting latent anti-Americanism and taking advantage of ethnic loyalties and spreading money around. (Hugo Chavez is following the precedent.) Many 1930s era public buildings in Latin America originally had plaques expressing gratitude to the 3rd Reich because they paid for the construction.The U.S. responded with its own public diplomacy. On the ground, that meant establishing libraries and bi-national centers that taught English and carried American culture, encouraging exchanges and making cartoons. Yes. Look at the Disney Classic the  Three Caballeros. Donald Duck was the most popular American south of the border.

During the war, we made more movies and worked hard to win the war of ideas. I will not go into details. Suffice to say, we won.  It certainly didn’t hurt that allied forces occupied Germany & Japan, however.   Winning hearts and minds often follows the practical victory, not precedes it. The golden age of public diplomacy came during the Cold War. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were effective alternative media for those countries trapped behind the Iron Curtain. The government also created the United States Information Agency (USIA) to carry out a broad range of information programs. Republican and Democratic Administrations supported this. USIA’s most famous director was Edward R. Murrow. Murrow knew the power of radio and television, but he also understood the need for relationships. He said that we can beam information hundreds of miles, but to get the message across we needed to get that last three feet and that took personal contact.

The Reagan era represented the last bright flash for U.S. public diplomacy. Reagan understood the need and various programs were well funded. Reagan himself was a great spokesman. His policies were initially unpopular. The ultimate success of his policies is partially a tribute to the power of public affairs. Reagan called on the Soviets to tear down the Berlin Wall and it resonated.
The struggle against communism culminated with the fall of Wall in 1989. Soon the benighted communist regimes were gone like the snows of last winter. And we drew the wrong lesson. Many people thought it just happened, that history had ended and the world would now be a generally safe place. Our problems were how to fairly divide the prosperity. We cut our defense budget and spent the “peace dividend.” Life seemed good.

We also cut public affairs. The will to cut went beyond the desire to save money. Some people considered this a moral decision. What right did the U.S. have to try to influence others? Did we think we were so good that we could tell others what to think?From 1993-1999, the USIA hired almost no public diplomats and attrition reduced their numbers by around half by the end of the decade.   Morale was terrible, promotions rare.   The USIA director was ineffective. Overseas posts were closed. Budgets were cut. Libraries disappeared. The equipment of American centers decayed. (BTW – a similar process was at work in our intelligence community with similar consequences.) The 1999 Department of State/USIA Anschluss indicated the attitude toward independent public affairs.

When 9/11 happened, we saw that the world was not as safe as we thought. We tried to fire up the public affairs machine, but we found that we no longer had enough wing tips on the ground overseas and a decade of neglect had allowed our network of contacts to atrophy. I do not want to overstate the case, but just do the math. You can only do less with more for so long.   When you lose half your strength, you probably cannot do as much heavy lifting.

Rebuilding American diplomatic capacity began soon after 9/11. Colin Powell spearheaded a diplomatic readiness initiative to help compensate for the damage done during the 1990s Results are starting to show but rebuilding networks will take a while longer.   U.S. diplomacy has a very peculiar age structure because of the nineties neglect. There are many new employees (>10  years experience) and many old employees (20 > years experience), but not many in the middle.  This will be a challenge in the next five years, as much of the experience will go out the door through retirements. (Career diplomats can retire after 20 years.) It will be a good time to look for a job in the Foreign Service, but our government will be paying for mistakes of the 1990s for the next ten years. You cannot turn these things on and off like a lightbulb. Think of public affairs like a forest. Things take time.  The trees you plant today determine the forest years from now and you cannot expect to walk in the shade of your trees you didn’t plant 15 years ago.