Make Knowledge about America Accessible: Move the Libraries Outside the Walls (Updated)

Public diplomacy is a contact sport. Everything we say and everything we do takes place in am arena with virtually no boundaries thanks to the Internet and global transportation. This is a competitive space in which ideas and agendas struggle to shape perceptions for attention and dominance (and sometimes parity) from an increasing number of state and non-state actors. We are, as we have been, in a global struggle for minds affecting the will to act.

America’s attention, the focus of our global engagement, a better and functionally more accurate title than public diplomacy, must expand beyond countering violent extremism, the ball on which so many eyes are glued. Between the Chinese in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere, the Russians and now the Iranians, we must return to global engagement.

Edward R. Murrow argued “the really crucial link in the international communication chain is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact, one person talking to another.” But budgets and a lack of appreciation for grassroots engagement, education, and empowerment means America’s connection in the “last three feet” went more virtual than it should as America retreated behind blast walls and into fortresses. But our pull back from “contested spaces”, where Internet access is poor, and from friendly countries where a “transformational” agenda disregarded diasporas often outside of the larger society (Hamburg, Madrid, x2 in UK: Glasgow, London…), was amplified by the limited funding, training, and agility by those who were left to engage local populations.

Between budget cutbacks and failure to grasp the importance of engaging foreign publics, the United States retreated from allied and contested spaces alike. The chart below shows use of American Centers, now Information Resource Centers, or IRC, drops substantially when hidden under protective layers. Public access to 11% (19 of 177) of the IRCs is not even permitted.

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image Contact with foreign audiences cannot make up for bad policies, but it can keep channels of discourse open. Eliminating opportunities to engage creates opportunities for our adversaries to move in.

Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) understands the need to change the status quo to fully and properly re-engage global populations. This week he introduced a Sense of the Senate resolution recommending (and provide political cover for) waiving requirements of the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999 that made the Centers far less effective in today’s struggle for minds and wills.

It is important the Administration take the opportunity to move the IRCs back into the “open” so they are accessible. We must reverse the retreat successfully spurred by terrorists that tried to limit our access to local populations and vic versa.

It is absolutely true that public diplomacy is only effective when in support a foreign policy that is, on its own, agreeable by relevant target audiences. But public diplomacy does not operate in a vacuum.

The Chinese and the Iranians have been moving aggressively to further their own interests. While China is working what some consider the mercantilist approach, the Iranians are a little more classic. Iran is aggressively opening cultural centers, especially in African-Arab cities. image

This is more relevant on the heels of President’s Day, when USIA / USIS libraries overseas would take the opportunity to reach out and create an enhanced learning environment. Today, we have VOA’s Making of a Nation series for President’s Day, but this is not enough.

As Senator Lugar’s resolution notes, the IRCs formerly

offered classes in English, extensive libraries housing collections of American literature, history, economics, business, and social studies, and reading rooms offering the latest American newspapers, periodicals, and academic journals;

The purpose of the libraries, the American Centers, or the Information Resource Centers was to foster an environment for knowledge acquisition. Senator Lugar understands this but I am not sure many others see public diplomacy as having this mission today, including some who follow and practice public diplomacy.

(It should be noted that the “fathers” of American public diplomacy, Rep. Karl Mundt (R-SD) and Assistant Secretary of State William Benton, two chief proponents of the Smith-Mundt Act, were both knowledge peddlers themselves: Mundt was a former school teacher and Benton owned the Encyclodpaedia Britannica and helped push the Great Books project.)

While it is not binding, the Sense of the Senate can re-empower an important and significant point of contact between Americans and foreign publics. I hope Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Administration takes the suggestion of the Indiana Senator (who will probably be joined on the resolution by a certain Massachusetts Senator) and acts quickly.

Read the whole resolution here.

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