Sharing America

The abrupt resignation this week of Charlotte Beers, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, should shine a spotlight on just what the US is doing to polish its image abroad.

While public diplomacy was a high priority during the cold war, it afterward fell into eclipse - until the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The question, "Why do they hate us?" inspired new efforts to explain American values, especially to those cultures from which the terrorists emerged.

The US is paying the price for Congress's cavalier dismantling of the United States Information Agency (USIA) a few years ago. That organization for several decades had the job of "telling America's story to the world." It oversaw the Voice of America shortwave radio broadcasts; sponsored sophisticated exhibits about American life; ran American libraries and cultural centers; sent US scholars and artists overseas; and reached local elites with the facts about US government, politics, and culture.

USIA had its faults, of course. The agency fell on hard times after the cold war ended, when, in a shortsighted cost-cutting move, almost every USIA library and cultural center in Western Europe was closed down. This left European publics dependent for information about the US on Europe's America-bashing mass media.

In 1999 US public diplomacy took an even bigger hit, from which it has yet to recover. USIA was thrown overboard as the price Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, then Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, exacted for agreeing to pay overdue US bills at the United Nations. Senator Helms believed the US had too many foreign-policy agencies and employees.

Some of USIA's activities and personnel now reside in the State Department; the Voice of America is run by the International Broadcasting Bureau. But State's strength is conducting diplomacy with foreign governments, not communicating with overseas publics. Ms. Beers's reliance on US advertising agencies instead of a corps of public-diplomacy experts experienced in foreign cultures wasn't getting the desired results.

Given these changes, it's instructive that after the events of Sept. 11, the White House found it had to create a special Office of Global Communications to help get the message out overseas.

It wouldn't be surprising if someone soon suggested that what this country needs is a full agency devoted to doing that. They would be right.

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