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“Public Diplomacy”: An Old Art, A New Profession

ISSUE:  Summer 2001

With the beginning of the Federal Government’s Year 2000, the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), far better known abroad than at home, fell victim to a North Carolina senator’s inscrutable agenda and was “merged” into the Department of State. There was at least one reason why few Americans knew much about the USIA: at its founding in 1953, Congress made it a “stealth” organization uniquely prohibited from letting its products— periodicals, newspaper and magazine articles, broadcasts, films and the like—be seen or heard within the United States. Some legislators may have doubted the effectiveness of those products abroad, but they were determined to protect the American people from their dangerous power of persuasion at home.

The USIA’s bureaucratic death was a good match for its equally irrational birth 47 years earlier. In the immediate postwar years, the State Department had become fairly heavily involved in international information and cultural affairs. The vastly increased world-wide interests and responsibilities of the United States, together with the rapid development of the new media, as well as special challenges posed by the need to “re-educate” the people of the defeated, now occupied, countries to the ways of democracy had made this inevitable. This involvement in a field new to recent American experience—one currently called “public diplomacy”—gained in importance with the gradual onset of the Cold War. The democratic United States saw itself in a struggle “for the minds and hearts” of people in much of the world against the false ideology of communism. Thus the programs grew, with some of State’s traditionally trained diplomats viewing them, and the people hired to operate them at headquarters or in so-called USIS (United States Information Service) units in diplomatic and consular posts abroad, with suspicion, hostility, perhaps a touch of contempt. More significantly for the future of American public diplomacy, John Foster Dulles promised in the presidential election campaign of 1952 that a new Republican administration would radically reduce the size of the State Department—a popular prospect amid Senator Joseph McCarthy’s charges against that organization. When, in 1953, Dulles became secretary of state, he soon discovered that the only way in which he could fulfill his promise was by divestment, the removal of a large complex of programs, which information and cultural affairs had become, into a separate government agency. This is how the USIA was born. Educational exchange programs remained in the department for another 24 years, in deference to Senator Fulbright, their greatest champion, who was determined to keep them from being tainted by the new “propaganda agency.” Actually, since the officers qualified to operate the programs abroad had been transferred into the foreign service of the USIA, the State Department found it expedient to contract for their services in the field.

Born of political expedience, killed by political whim, the USIA in its 46-year history made a major contribution to developing the ancient art of information and cultural projection in the service of foreign policy into “public diplomacy,” something like a disciplined profession. Examples of the art can be found as far back as in the Old Testament. American practitioners like to invoke two of the Founding Fathers as their professional ancestors—Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Franklin clearly went over the head of the British court in pressing America’s cause in London, and he used his fame as a scientist and his “exotic” appeal, coonskin cap and all, to go beyond the French court in representing the colonies in Paris. Jefferson wrote his Notes on Virginia to inform literate Frenchmen about his country and was seen as a role model by some of the more moderate revolutionaries among them. Above all, even prior to his mission to Paris, he framed the very document declaring American independence as a bold act of public diplomacy motivated by “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”

Yet, for the better part of the ensuing two centuries, the leaders of the United States paid little heed to the opinions of mankind. With the exception of intermittent expressions of interest by some of them, the country’s image abroad was long dominated by tales of Native American “noble savages” presented by James Fenimore Cooper or Jack London; Wild West fantasies of the immensely popular German, Karl May, and a few brilliant analyses by an Alexis de Tocqueville or a Lord Bryce. The big change came in World War II, with the U.S. dragged into wars of ideas and words with Nazi, and later Communist dictators, who used propaganda as an essential instrument of power free of any constraints of moderation or truth. They thus gave it—a perfectly legitimate activity to spread philosophies, ideas, and even ideals, as in the case of the Vatican congregation “de propaganda fide” (for the propagation of faith)—a thoroughly bad name. Consequently, in the United States American efforts in the field of international information and cultural exchanges were only referred to as “propaganda” by those who opposed all or part of them.

Concepts and visions of what the USIA was to do and how it was to go about it varied from the start. It was clearly expected to inform and influence public opinion abroad to the long-term and, perhaps, the short-term benefit of the U.S. Its modest slogan of the early years, “Telling America’s story to the world,” suggested no attempt to change anybody’s thinking on any subject, though it left open the possibility of some very selective story-telling. So soon after a war in which both sides had engaged in psychological warfare, the idea of manipulating public opinion abroad, while it repelled some, also had a certain appeal for others. A good many of the Agency’s supporters and most of its critics—as well as a fair sampling of its employees— did see the USIA as a “propaganda agency” whose function was to debate, excoriate, or mislead the (by then mostly Communist) adversaries and make points at whatever cost. Few went as far as a high Agency officer of the Nixon years who declared at a meeting of officers stationed in Europe: “Your task is to create respect for and instill fear of the United States, nothing else.”

At the other end of the spectrum, there were a good many, especially on university campuses, capable of visualizing a political establishment that would generously fund large international cultural and educational programs with nary a thought about the political interests of the nation. Goethe’s line, “Politisch Lied, garstig Lied” (Political song, foul song) might have been their slogan.

When John F. Kennedy eventually issued a Presidential Statement of Mission for the USIA—a document probably drafted by the Agency’s illustrious director of the time, the legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow—it made no bone about the USIA’s purpose: “to help achieve United States foreign policy objectives.” It was to accomplish this both by influencing public attitudes abroad and by advising the president, his ambassadors, and all executive departments “on the implications of foreign opinion” for existing or contemplated U.S. policies and programs. In testimony before Congressional committees and many public speeches, Murrow formulated his broader vision of the Agency’s role. He wanted specific efforts in specific places and situations “to do the things that diplomacy and force alone cannot: to change the minds of men—in their best interests and ours.” But he also saw beyond foreign policy skirmishes, even beyond the contest with communism. Even then, “. . .this Agency would continue to be charged with a great responsibility. We would still have the mission of combatting ignorance and fear, suspicion and prejudice.” Like his predecessors and a few of his successors, he was aware that this struggle could not be quickly won; that the USIA’s task was inevitably a long-term one.

Throughout their half century of history, the Agency and its antecedents faced the problem of proving to Congress and others that public diplomacy could be effective. As we capriciously pick a few examples from 50 years of American public diplomacy programming around the world—examples perhaps characteristic of some type of effort or outcome or simply ones that come to this writer’s mind because he happened to witness them at close range—we may also note patterns of success or failure, even if the evidence is anecdotal or speculative. Our primary purpose at this juncture in our reflections must be to give readers, uninformed by act of Congress, an idea of the range of initiatives and activities that made up this half century of a new attempt to influence the thinking of people beyond our borders.

One must probably begin with the Voice of America (VOA), one of the first entries of the United States into the world of international information. It has been broadcasting in 45 languages or more mostly over shortwave transmitters on four continents, to audiences estimated at 100 million. At its best, it was a fine, reliable source of news and comment, earning the trust of tens of millions who could not trust the news sources in their own countries. It was also the home station of the world’s most beloved disc jockey, Willis Conover, who taught an enormous international audience to love American music, especially jazz. VOA, like its closest rival, the overseas service of Britain’s BBC, eventually lost some of its luster, partly because financial constraints forced it to reduce broadcasting to the industrial world and concentrate on the myriad newly independent and developing countries and their many languages—a plan somehow more “salable” on Capitol Hill. The will of VOA management to resist political interference—to keep it from broadcasting what displeased some group, or to hurl invectives at regimes perceived to be evil, or to broadcast “tough” policy pieces introduced by a fanfare as “reflecting the official views of the U.S. Government”—was at best uneven. On the other hand, VOA has had major successes, as, for instance, in attracting huge audiences in China.

Like the Voice of America, government educational exchange and other cultural programs also had their modest origins during World War II—the latter in Nelson Rockefeller’s office of co-ordinator of inter-American affairs, designed to keep our neighbors to the south in the Allied fold. They were vastly expanded thanks to Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas, a former Rhodes scholar and university president, who conceived the idea of financing student and scholar exchanges from the receipts of the sale of surplus U.S. military property left overseas on all continents. The Congress, always relatively generous in voting for expenditures which involve no “new” money, embraced the idea—and the Fulbright scholarships soon acquired both prestige and a constituency, assuring their funding once appropriations became necessary. In time, other countries took on more and more of the financial burden, so that the program, whose alumni number some 60,000 Americans and 200,000 foreigners, can be regarded as a permanent part of U.S. relations with the rest of the world. These alumni were, indeed, among the best and the brightest of each cohort and each country and had a major impact on those with whom they studied and worked. Beyond that, most of them were agents of change in their own countries, affecting higher education and many other endeavors throughout their careers.

Under another exchange program, over the years tens of thousands of leading political, economic, and cultural figures selected by American embassies in each country have been invited for study tours of a month or more in the United States to meet colleagues and pursue their professional interests. An astonishing proportion of foreign chiefs of state, prime ministers, cabinet members, and leaders in all areas have been “graduates” of this or the Fulbright program. The invitation itself could be a political act. In a West European country, an embassy counselor conveyed such an invitation to a young member of parliament, who acted flustered and almost embarrassed responding to it. He explained that his colleagues viewed such an American invitation as a sure sign of a career ready to take off, and that he had not been aware of having reached that point.

Individual lives, as well as the texture of relations between the United States and countries around the globe were transformed by these experiences. No exchange program had a more profound effect than those for high-school juniors and seniors who spent a school year abroad in a family with teen-age children of its own—programs operated by AFS (originally the American Field Service) Youth for Understanding, and other organizations and also often supported by the USIA. The “family” relationships they establish tend to be maintained through life.

Many of the whole panoply of public diplomacy techniques were developed for occupied territories. Their use spread from there to most capitals and many major cities everywhere. They included a large network of American libraries and cultural centers. In the postwar years, especially in Europe and Asia, these were important institutions permitting scholars, politicians, professional people, as well as the general public, to be brought up to date on developments in their fields after years of intellectual isolation. They brought the concept of open-shelf libraries with reference librarians trained to help in research to societies that had never before seen them. They hosted expert American speakers on just about any field of the humanities and social sciences and brought them together with colleagues at local institutions in seminars or informal settings. They presented American musicians and artists. They became vital community resources, so that, for instance in Germany, when budgetary constraints eventually forced the closing of most of them, many municipalities contrived to finance them and keep them open. In a small, some would say backward, place which Marrakech in Morocco was in the 50’s, the opening of “Dar America” in a modest Moorish house in a street no wider than a camel could negotiate, was a true sensation. Young people lined up to register as members; many came to town from the foothills of the Atlas mountains riding crowded busses to change their library books every week; and they filled the romantic inner court of the house, even hanging off balcony railings, to listen with awe as a local story teller read Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in Arabic, Marrakech dialect.

The USIA also used films, often to good effect, as in bringing the excitement of the early space program to the people of the world, much of which was not yet able to receive live television from the U.S. As technology and funding permitted, TV became a growing factor in programs as well. Much might also be said about the role of exhibits—especially about what the large U.S. exhibitions in Moscow showing the latest products of American technology and capitalist luxury, accompanied by platoons of attractive young Russianspeaking American guides did to stir the imaginations of hundreds of thousands of Soviet visitors. Or, of the effect of great performing ensembles from the Philadelphia Orchestra to the Louis Armstrong band touring different continents under State Department or USIA auspices. The excitement of the one-week stand of the splendid Porgy and Bess revival with William Warfield, Leontyne Price, and Cab Calloway in postwar Vienna’s rich but staid musical life represented more than a one-time electric charge and affected more than music and the stage.

All these examples are no more than vignettes of a few of the vast array of activities in 150 different countries by many hundreds of “public diplomats” and their thousands of foreign USIS colleagues over half a century. Murrow remarked once that the most important distance in communications was not a stretch of five or ten thousand miles, but the last three feet from speaker to listener. Much of the work of the USIA officers abroad had to do with this kind of hurdle. In very sophisticated countries, newspaper editors and broadcast commentators are often befriended by USIA officers and come to rely on their advice or opinions—on occasion to check up on their own U.S. correspondents. The range and depth of contacts between USIA’s cultural attaches and the educational institutions of the country in which they serve can be close and productive. I recall the palpable excitement of a week-end seminar meeting between university presidents and topnotch American colleagues brought together by a USIS cultural attache in Western Europe to discuss their shared problem of maintaining educational quality in the face of growing pressure for the admission of ever more students to higher education. I recall the discreet but often successful USIS efforts to buttress academic freedoms in another country, where the government—worse, a government friendly to the U.S.—threatened them at the time. And, there were countries which had only official media and few institutions of any kind, and where personal contact bridging “the last three feet” to politicians, writers, educators (who were not free but may have had yearnings for freedom in their hearts) could do much toward realizing U.S. goals and building a future. I was in Guinea, West Africa, at the time of the assassination of President Kennedy. Guinea’s founder and leader regarded him as a friend and immediately ordered the country’s radio “The Voice of the Revolution,” to devote all of its program time for the next 72 hours to the memory of the fallen President. The radio director, a friend, came to me in despair: he had neither recorded material, nor background, talent, or staff to do this. We were not necessarily much better off, but our minuscule staff and I had to improvise as we, in effect, took over “The Voice of the Revolution” for three days. Meanwhile the editor of the newspaper, a weekly tabloid, another friend, came by as well. He had to put out a special edition entirely devoted to JFK—a task that also devolved onto our small, bereaved, and sleepless crew.

We now inevitably come to the question whether any of this really mattered. What contribution has public diplomacy made to the conduct of American foreign policy in the past and what is its role in view of the end of the Cold War and the explosion of global communications—CNN, SKY, the Internet, and whatever other international media the future may spawn.

The ever quotable Ed Murrow pointed to the difficulty of assessing the accomplishments or successes of public diplomacy by saying that “No cash register rings when somebody changes his mind.” This was ever a problem and is now as we try to deal with the history of these programs. There is no shortage of anecdotal evidence, such as testimony from leaders like Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, that broadcasts from the West had kept the spirit of hope and democracy alive in the dark days of oppressive communism in his country. There has been a good deal of speculation about the precise share of credit which broadcasts from the free world, including USIA’s West Berlin station, RIAS, which was trusted and popular in East Germany, deserve for the fall of the Berlin wall. There are countless episodes, not so momentous in their implications, from other times and places. In 1950, the USIS radio network in Austria, RWR, was the broadly trusted instrument by which the Austrian government foiled a general strike called by Communist trade unions and promoted by the country’s Soviet-controlled national radio. Had the strike been effective, it could have triggered a Soviet take-over of Vienna and a major East-West conflict.

A USIS film documenting the state visit of King Mohammed V of Morocco in the United States and his friendly reception by President Eisenhower, seen perhaps by a million Moroccans in all parts of the country was the probable explanation for Ike’s unexpected popularity that manifested itself by large and enthusiastic crowds during his return visit to Casablanca. This, in turn, led to the sudden signing by Morocco of the long deadlocked draft agreement giving the United States the right to five vital airbases. The Chinese student movement culminating in the 1989 events on Tiananmen Square with a replica of the Statue of Liberty at their symbolic center bore the marks of the kind of American inspiration that could have only come about as a result of decades of VOA broadcasts and educational exchanges. The VOA’s reporting from there and about it after the massacre was itself a truly proud achievement.

What all of these episodes, and a legion more like them, had in common was that they showed responses not too dramatic and manipulative ploys or campaigns. They all had to do with accurate information of interest to a given audience, in most cases provided cumulatively over a long period of time, often suggesting an image of the United States, and over media whose credibility had been established and carefully nurtured. These media had to have been consistently truthful and to have presented America “with warts and all.” In the euphoria of the immediate aftermath of the victorious Second World War, we were not always aware of the warts ourselves, and, for instance, the USIS films distributed at that time reflected this. Thirty years later, a leading Austrian TV executive recounted to me how, in those grim Vienna winters of his high school years, he used to trudge down to the USIS theatre, which showed these films all day long, and how he came to visualize an ideal country free of unmanagable problems and evil passions. When, later, he could not help becoming conscious of racial crimes, riots and assassinations, he reacted with resentment for having been deceived and with antagonism against the U.S. He did not recover his balance until he undertook a long (and long-postponed) study trip in America some decades later.

Politicians and other dilettantes of public diplomacy have confused it with advertising (Secretary Colin Powell recently put an advertising executive in charge who would “market” and “brand” U.S. foreign policy). They tend to believe in the effectiveness of manipulated news and facts. If only an unfavorable fact were omitted from a broadcast or an article or a pejorative adjective inserted before the name of a current adversary, the audience could be persuaded to see things the U.S. way. The Agency’s guidance staff tried at times of sensitivity or pressure to go as far as it could, within USIA’s basic charter favoring the truth, to prescribe in detail how events should be treated. The near-futility of such efforts has survived in a five-word instruction, authentic or apocryphal: “Stress but do not emphasize. . . .” In war, credibility could often be sacrificed to a short-term tactical end; but I do not know of any peacetime instance when what has come to be called “spin” was effective in public diplomacy.

What was effective was the projection of America as a society of enormous intellectual resources, a great reservoir of good will and, though imperfect, probably more successful than any other— whether this projection occurred through helpful libraries or the consistent professionalism and integrity of a world-wide broadcasting service, or, above all the direct experiences of people visiting the United States under educational exchange programs or contact with Americans able to discuss their country competently and honestly. This society has more dealings with other peoples than ever before. The better it is understood by foreign interlocutors, the easier these dealings become. The question whether “the only superpower” is viewed with approval is less important than whether it is judged on the basis of sufficient and accurate information.

It has been said that technological advances and economic globalization get the information around without help from the U.S. government; that there are huge numbers of students from abroad at American universities at their families’ or governments’ expense, so that Fulbright scholarships are no longer needed; that tourist travel to and in the United States has become relatively inexpensive and that business brings large numbers of people here on their own every year; that CNN and other networks provide 24-hour “real-time” news everywhere. All of this is true as far as it goes. It is too early to judge the long-term effect of the Internet on international communications. Having watched the news networks’ European editions, I suspect that all these electronic organizations (and some others yet to be invented) will, in different forms continue to convey messages, true or not, from indeterminate sources “to the world.” They will have no regard for the needs of the recipient. They will only talk English at him, whether he knows English or not, and they will inundate him with cacophonies of facts and factoids of purported interest to everybody, hence nobody. Little understanding will result, and no possibility of bridging the gap of “the last three feet.” As for the exchange of scholars and others, a thorough study of the comparative effects of different programs and unprogrammed activities on international understanding would be most welcome. Without such a study, one can only confirm the remarkable effectiveness of USIA’s past approach and guess at the reasons for it. Thus, it is good to recall that Americans could always study at Oxford on their own, but that the Rhodes scholarships have had a recognizable impact on British-American relations. The explanation probably has to do, in both cases, with selection, motivation, and purpose. As for business and tourist travel, it has nothing in common with carefully wrought individual programs for selected guests of the United States to establish contact between them and their American colleagues and to expose them to new developments in their fields of interest. There are millions of tourists of all nationalities who have survived in another country for ten days without having had a conversation with a single “native.” And there are able businessmen and technicians who concentrate on their tasks when they are abroad in order to be able to return home as soon as possible. Not much effect on international understanding needs to ensue.

The “public diplomats” of the future will have to keep track of all these and other rapid developments and adjust their way of functioning accordingly—but it is not likely that they will become superfluous.

In 1953, when those of us working in the field of information and culture in the Department of State were transferred to the new USIA, I do not believe that many of us saw much sense in the change. As things turned out, there were many “unintended consequences” that were very positive.

Perhaps the most important consequence was the development of an organizational culture keenly aware of the diversity of the world. This manifested itself in the leeway given to Public Affairs Officers (PAOs), the heads of the Agency’s posts in each country, to design their own programs and eventually to decide how much or how little of Washington-produced media material they chose to include. It was also the basis of greater emphasis on foreign language training of personnel and insistence of key posts abroad being filled by officers at least reasonably fluent in the language of the country of assignment. The institutional understanding that each country was different also permitted highly unconventional moves that would have been difficult to implement in a more traditional and cautious organization—such as recruiting an American Jesuit priest to serve as Fulbright professor at a Muslim school of theology; or the financing of major TV documentaries on the United States produced by and for foreign national networks with the express stipulation that the USIA would not have a right to influence the contents of the programs; or engaging in fundraising campaigns for local charities or for the rehabilitation of the large building of a cultural center originally financed by the Marshall Plan.

There were other advantages that the independent agency status conferred on USIA officers. Being first-class citizens in their own agency rather than second-class ones in the Department’s foreign service, they could concentrate on their task of communicating with their foreign audiences rather than maneuver for political or economics officer assignments which their colleagues in State regarded as more prestigious. A PAO controlled his own budget and could protect it from the pressures of other needs and priorities of the diplomatic mission, as special status, including the desire of an ambassador to make USIS his personal public relations office. The PAO’s head of an independent agency post—unlike other members of a typical Country Team, authorized to sign his own telegrams to Washington—gave him a tiny edge over his fellow counselors, which he could use to get the ambassador to accord the proper weight to public affairs considerations in making his political decisions.

It is fair to say that public diplomacy would not have come as far as it has in its American practice or accomplished as much for U.S. foreign policy had it not been lodged in a separate Agency. What will happen to it now?

I know of no group of comparable size whose overall level of talent, ability, and commitment would come near to that of the U.S. Foreign Service which I came to know over three decades of working with its members. This was equally true of those who served the Department of State all along and those who were “merged” with them on Oct.1, 1999. While it will not be easy to integrate the gains registered by the Agency in its 46-year history into the larger organization, it may be possible, and both groups of officers may benefit from yet closer association, interchangeability, and competition. The key, however, will be a major shift in the culture of the Department. Its officers traditionally trained to listen, report, and analyze, will have to learn to discuss, to relate to others on a personal level, and to persuade. That is a big leap for any man, woman, or organization. It will not do to leave this second approach to a corps of specialists in public diplomacy and continue business as usual in the rest of the Department. The game will have to be played by all, lest there be once again a group of second-class citizens looked down upon by haughtier colleagues and left out of decision making whenever possible.

An even greater change in the culture of the State Department’s “original” foreign service may be beyond the organization’s capacity to accomplish. Reporting and analysis, even negotiating along pre-determined lines are fairly safe—bureaucratically safe—activities. Careers have been made by able and well-trained officers doing them well and making no mistakes. Public diplomacy is often a high-risk undertaking. Some of us in USIA may have occasionally taken foolish risks. Others were not ready to take necessary risks, perhaps out of cowardice or laziness. But, in this business, great caution tends to be synonymous with paralysis. There have been Department officers who understood this and even practiced brilliant public diplomacy; but theirs was not the culture of their guild. At periods of tension between the United States and another country the instinct of the Department’s typical officers tends to be lying low and speaking about the weather. There were times when I was the only one on the Country Team who advised the ambassador that the best way to deal with a small but troublesome crisis in relations with the host country was to lance the boil by bringing the problem out into the open in a benign but forthright way. Ambassadors who had come up in the service usually agreed with their staffs from State and rejected the idea. In at least two cases that I remember, ambassadors who were political appointees overruled the counsels of caution and delivered the speech I had written for them (one a speech which his predecessor, a very senior career ambassador, had rejected in horror some months earlier) and accomplished exactly what they had wished by clearing the air for a constructive discussion of shared problems. It is a question whether a PAO, in his slightly diminished status, will be encouraged or able to offer counsels of risk-taking when that is appropriate.

If public diplomacy has to give up its hard-won culture and is made to adopt that of the Department of State, it will languish until someday a new political accident again lodges it in a separate entity. Americans of good will who spent most of their lives learning and creating this new profession must hope that it will not come to that.


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