Clinton Needs USIA's Public Diplomacy

IN the new Richard Reeves book on President Kennedy there is some intriguing detail on the role in high presidential councils of Edward R. Murrow.

Mr. Murrow was the famous broadcaster who, in the Kennedy administration, was director of the United States Information Agency (USIA), the agency charged with furthering and explaining American foreign policy in countries abroad.

Murrow was among the small group of advisers offering the president counsel on such issues as the Berlin crisis, getting rid of Castro, Vietnam, civil rights problems at home, and the international consequences of resuming nuclear testing. Murrow was in on National Security Council meetings, making recommendations on foreign policy, sometimes expressing dissent and warning of likely negative reaction.

That's the proper role for the president's top adviser on what is now called ``public diplomacy,'' or the art of rallying public support abroad for American foreign policies. As someone in government information work once said: ``If you're going to be in on the landing, you've got to be in on the takeoff.''

It is a role that directors of USIA have not filled since the Kennedy administration. It is a role that President Clinton should revive. If it was important in Mr. Kennedy's day for the president to have the USIA director at his side, it is even more so today, when every foreign crisis is live on CNN and public reaction is instant worldwide.

``Public diplomacy'' is entering a new phase. New technology and the advent of the information age makes the communication of words and ideas more critical than ever. Economic realities require that this be done with fewer resources.

The world is no longer locked in cold- war confrontation, but it is faced with new and puzzling challenges.

As the United States seeks to contribute to the resolution of a wide variety of problems, its enemies still strive to thwart American purpose, to twist American motives and goals. While American military resolve must always be firm, it is much better to vanquish such foes with the persuasive and peaceful weapons of communication.

Mr. Clinton's USIA director, Joseph Duffey, is positioning his agency for its new role. With his budget cut, he must eliminate the magazines the agency so effectively published in a string of languages around the world. There will be no more of the big USIA-sponsored exhibitions abroad that displayed American life to many millions. There will be a shift away from the traditional overseas libraries.

In their place will come a new electronic network to send data down the unfolding information highway to computerized users the world over.

In this vision for the future there is inexpensive international teleconferencing among world leaders, and the press, as well as electronic classrooms and cultural exchanges.

Mr. Duffey, a former president of American University, has a particular interest in exchange programs - political, professional, scholarly, and artistic. One of the strengths of USIA is that it tells the American story dispassionately, regardless of who sits in the White House.

Duffey must avoid the temptation of some in the Reagan administration to politicize the exchange program. The Americans that the USIA sends abroad should represent the entire political spectrum - liberal, moderate, conservative.

Plans for reorganizing the agency seem more sophisticated than the reorganization of the last Democratic administration under President Carter. Some in the Carter administration seemed self-conscious almost to the point of embarrassment about America's role in the world. Thus, the USIA was renamed the International Communications Agency and embarked on a woolly exploration of foreign cultures which muddied the government's message. Cross-cultural sensitivity is fine, but recent history has shown that the ideals America promotes often work.

As a leaner USIA embraces new technologies and concepts to fulfill a mission of great significance, it deserves support and recognition from the highest levels of government.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.