Blogger Roundtable with Under Secretary Glassman (Updated with links and transcript)

The Blogger Roundtable with Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs James Glassman concluded a short time ago. Before getting to the roundtable, I have to say it is nice to have an Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy that actually does what he promotes. From op-eds to intense interviews, this Under Secretary is not afraid of the media or of public engagement. With any luck, future Secretaries of State and Under Secretaries of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (or whatever it becomes transformed into it touched) will have the same realization that the Department of State must also be the Department of Non-State and put energy and resources into public engagement.

First the general particulars. There were some 13 callers to start, but one dropped early and another was just monitoring. The group was an impressive group, including Steve Corman, Sharon Weinberger and Noah Shachtman, John Brown, a reporter from CNN International (does he blog?), Pat Kushlis, Alex Belida, and others.

I'll post a link to the transcript when it's available. Presumably (hopefully, hint hint) it will be available on DipNote or America.gov, two new media outlets the Under Secretary's overseas. Otherwise I'll just post it on the blog. Unfortunately, the audio missed the Under Secretary's opening comments, which focused on the Digital Outreach Team's online exchange with Iranian President Ahmadinejad's media advisor, Ali Akbar Javanfekr and a new Democracy Videos contest.

Before I get to my question, John Brown asked about the Democracy Videos and whether they would be distributed domestically. The Under Secretary said yes, adding later that perhaps it would be done through private entities. Not willing able to let that slide, it seems clear to me that this dissemination is without question illegal based on perversions to the Smith-Mundt Act in 1972 and 1985.

Contrary to modern (from the 1970's) belief, an original purpose of the Act was to permit, even encourage, private dissemination of content produced for overseas audiences. At the time the Act was passed in January 1948, a significant amount of the content was produced by private industry for the State Department. Not only was the intent and desire to prioritize the use of private resources in the Act, but the Secretaries of State spanning the Smith-Mundt debates and Assistant Secretary of State William Benton repeatedly argued for the same. This was in part to alleviate concerns that the Government was getting into the media business. For details, see Rethinking Smith-Mundt (interim version).

In 1972, Senator Fulbright tried to kill USIA and international broadcasting. Wanting the Radio's to "take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics", they were saved from Fulbright's axe when they were moved under the Board for International Broadcasting, which was supported by a Congressional grant. Blocked, he focused on the United States Information Agency. In response to Fulbright's attacks on the USIA, a U.S. Senator from New York showed a USIA-paid film to his constituents in support of the Agency. Fulbright tried to stop the screening by invoking Smith-Mundt. It may not have been just the film that upset him, but comments describing Fulbright as "naive and stupid" from a USIA employee, Bruce Herschensohn, certainly did. However, the acting U.S. Attorney General declined to intervene, despite Fulbright's request, saying the language and "apparent purpose" of the section in the Smith-Mundt Act that prohibited the State Department from domestic dissemination "was to make USIA materials available to the American public through the press and members of Congress." Fulbright did manage to close the "loop-hole," but at the cost of his career and as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee. The 1985 Zorinsky Amendment, based in part on the Fulbright interpretation, "sealed" the loop hole.

While I'm not a lawyer, based on the present construction of the Act, and the recent arguments supporting the modern interpretation, it seems clear that it is illegal to disseminate the Democracy Videos within the United States, regardless of whether private individuals or commercial enterprise, if the Under Secretary's department touches or funds them.

That said, I'm in complete support of the Democracy Videos project and see Smith-Mundt as an unintended barrier for domestic distribution. Hence, my interest in revisiting Smith-Mundt and having a symposium (old agenda here) that may still happen (details hopefully to be announced sooner than later).

My question was far less interesting and in hindsight, shouldn't have been asked. To paraphrase my question (and probably making it better than when I asked it), we've seen a militarization of public diplomacy in the absence of leadership and action from State. terms like "Strategic Communication", which is more ill-defined than Public Diplomacy, emerged in the void left by an inactive or ineffectual State Department in the last several years. While the Defense Department realizes that its people are public diplomats in the "last three feet" in a population-centric engagement, and is actively exploring how to empower, educate, equip, and encourage its people from "strategic corporals" to general officers for online and offline encounters, the State Department is just now, in the person of the present Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, coming to grips with the requirements of today. In contrast, the recent U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy report noted that those within State charged with conducting public diplomacy in the State Department are not trained on, reviewed on, or tasked with conduct of public diplomacy. The result is a militarization of public diplomacy in which the Defense Department is the dominant actor in our foreign engagement, dominating media appearances and seemingly adapting more quickly [not mentioned was how the military's actions dominate interviews with the Under Secretary's, which is not surprising considering the circumstances]. The Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff want State to step up. Mr. Under Secretary, do you agree public diplomacy has been militarized? If not, why not, and if so, what are your recommendations to change this?

The answer was not surprising and in hindsight I should have gone with the backup question. First, the Under Secretary defended his predecessors, which is his character. Second, he holds his future plans close to the chest until they're active. Accepting those two points, there's really not much room in my question for an answer.

The others asked some really good questions, that I'll link to here as I see the them pop up.

Overall, it was good to have the Under Secretary practice the engagement he promotes and encourages, especially in the New Media space. The Under Secretary wants to have a third roundtable in three weeks.

Transcript of the call is here. Audio Recording of the call is here.

Other Posts on the Roundtable:

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  • Glassman: America Branding Alive and Well: Steve Corman asked whether the U.S. National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication (NSPDSC) is still in force.
  • DipNote posts on the roundtable and gives a link to the audio of the call.
  • How Can Public Diplomacy Fix This?: Melinda Brouwer continues to argue that public diplomacy is a beauty contest while confusing credibility with likability. Citing a definition of public diplomacy from the USC CPD wiki that is drawn from the 2003 Djerejian Report, she might have a better appreciation for not-so-unique approach of the Under Secretary if she looked further into the five year old report and caught, for example, a USIA definition that adds "broadening dialogue". It is also worthwhile to recall that an absolute fundamental in public diplomacy is that it is not just Government to people, but people to people, which includes indigenous people who are trusted and influential. Based on trust and truth, public diplomacy imposes accountability and requires transparency as disconnecting what you say and what you do (the say-do gap) becomes ammunition for the adversary. Further, Public Diplomacy is, almost by definition if not by historical practice going back centuries and millennia, about creating proxies to carry your message, thematic or specific, to another side. It is to spread the message, generate trust and legitimacy not through direct contact, but 'force multipliers' that is the product of working by, with, and through local (socially, culturally or geographically) to persuade support for one cause while dissuading against the adversaries. Public Diplomacy is also an intelligence effort to create bilateral awareness. Without the bilateral attribute, then its "simply" sociology, anthropology, Human Terrain Mapping, or a beauty contestant walking the catwalk hoping for a rose, business card, or room key to be thrown onstage. To be sure, to be successful, a beauty contestant does need to know what the target audience wants and thus conforms to their needs.
  • State's Trolls 'Push Back' Against Anti-U.S. Bloggers: David Axe briefly comments on State’s “eight professional Internet ‘trolls’ whose job it is to log onto blogs in unfriendly countries and ‘push back’ against what Glassman says is misinformation about the U.S.”
  • Bloggers’ Tele-Conference with Glassman: Blogging Diplomacy with Iran: Alex Belida posts the excerpt of VOA’s part of the call with the Under Secretary.
  • Public Diplomacy: Danger Of Protesting Too Much: Jerry Loftus, the Avuncular American who couldn’t attend the call, says “Important as public diplomacy is, of "being a facilitator, bringing people together," it's hard when your country is not a neutral party.  Good offices, shuttle diplomacy, sharing, caring - all the touchy feely sounding accouterments of soft power - come up against the hard steel of the US image in the world.”