Opinion

The key to a better U.S. image

USIA helped world views of the US before the cold war; let's revive it.

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Both presidential candidates recognize the need to galvanize public diplomacy to improve the image of the United States abroad.

Congress is also seized of the issue. A House subcommittee has held a series of hearings that affirm a "precipitous decline in favorability" toward the US and its foreign policy in recent years.

At the urging of Congress, the Department of State, current home of the government's public diplomacy efforts, has commissioned a study to review the instruments and techniques needed to burnish the US image. Three interested organizations, the Brookings Institution, the Business for Diplomatic Action group, and the Washington-based Public Diplomacy Council, will also conduct hearings in July to assess the views of interested parties.

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Key to the debate is whether the government's public diplomacy, or "soft power" effort, should remain based in the State Department or should become a separate institution. Republican candidate John McCain has already pronounced his choice. In "Foreign Affairs," he wrote:

"The Clinton administration and Congress mistakenly agreed to abolish the US Information Agency and move its public diplomacy functions to the State Department. This amounted to unilateral disarmament in the war of ideas. I will work with Congress to create a new independent agency with the sole purpose of getting America's message to the world – a critical element in combating Islamic extremism and restoring the positive image of our country abroad."

With the end of the cold war, adopting the happy view that America's foes were now few, Congress opted to make public diplomacy a lower priority. USIA programs were cut back, and the remnants eventually subsumed under the State Department, whose professional diplomats are schooled not in public relations, but the art of close-to-the-chest government-to-government negotiations.

Public diplomacy has thus been deprived of a separate agency whose sole mission is to amplify the American story around the world, using the latest communications technology, and the skills of practitioners who live and breathe the mission.

While the Bush administration has admirably championed democracy, it has not restored the ability to engage doubters and those whose anti-US prejudices defy reason.

When Karen Hughes, President Bush's media guru, was appointed the State Department's Under-Secretary for Public Diplomacy, many supporters of public diplomacy hoped her political heft could persuade the president to restore or replicate USIA. But within the confines of the department, she was only able to shift chairs around on deck, rather than launch a new ship.

Meanwhile, as the US faltered on public diplomacy, the forces of terrorism mastered it, becoming increasingly sophisticated in content and technology.

As Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's henchman, wrote to the now-deceased Al Qaeda chieftain in Iraq: "More than half the battle is taking place on the battlefield of the media. We are in a media race… for hearts and minds."

In its heyday, USIA used many resources to reach out to international audiences. Seasoned public affairs officers stationed in foreign capitals, speaking the local language, cultivated local newspaper editors, TV news directors, and other thought leaders.

USIA libraries offered books and visual materials for students to learn about America. Powerful short-wave radio broadcasts from the Voice of America found audiences in nations whose governments were less accommodating.

Sometimes a government that might balk at a politically suspect program would be amenable to a visiting American cultural or sports or entertainment group, as with North Korea's recent acceptance of a visit by the New York Philharmonic, or as then-reclusive China's welcome to American ping-pong players.

We are not soon likely to see Iran's President Ahmadinejad sipping tea with a President McCain (or even Obama, for that matter) in the White House. But we could one day see an American musical group performing to cheers from an audience in Tehran.

A House foreign affairs subcommittee found that "contact with America and Americans reduces anti-Americanism … visitors, particularly students … have more positive views about America than nonvisitors by 10 percentage points." USIA actively promoted such visits and exchanges involving journalists, teachers, and artists. One program targeted up-and-coming politicians likely to achieve high office. Such visitors included Anwar Sadat, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Hamid Karzai, and Gerhard Schroeder.

What a new president and Congress should do is revive the best of these past USIA programs, meld them with the newest technology, and create a new and even better USIA. The times demand it.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served in the Reagan administration as associate director of USIA; director of the Voice of America, and assistant secretary of state for public affairs.

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