Isolated Overseas: Diplomatic Security Creates Challenges for American Public Diplomacy

Guest Post By Mitchell Polman, originally posted at Understanding Government

When Congress voted to abolish the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) in 1999, America's public image abroad suffered a significant blow. This decision - inspired by the desire to shrink government and the predominant belief that USIA was an ineffective bureaucracy - closed many USIA-run American libraries and cultural centers around the world that were helping to promote better understanding of American culture and society. These gathering places - located in embassy buildings or in libraries and cultural buildings of host countries - were an important tool for U.S. public diplomacy. They organized English language classes, discussions about American society and politics, films, and other cultural events. Local residents had safe and accessible places to read American books and periodicals, find out about educational exchanges, take U.S. college entrance and language exams, and interact with American citizens.

But beyond the loss of a special department devoted to public diplomacy, America's international image and outreach have been hurt by changes in diplomatic security standards following embassy bombings in the 1990s and the tragic events of September 11. New security requirements, designed to keep our diplomats and their families safe, often put American cultural resources out of sight and out of reach for foreign citizens with a healthy interest in American affairs. As a result, we are losing what legendary journalist and one-time USIA director Edward R. Murrow called "the last three feet" in our country's "communication chain."

Recent legislation in Congress is aimed at undoing some of this damage. Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) in February submitted a resolution (S. Res. 49) that calls for a reassessment of safety concerns surrounding American Centers in major foreign cities, and urges the State Department to "consider placing United States public diplomacy facilities at locations conducive to maximizing their use."  Lugar's resolution seeks a reevaluation of security requirements for America's public diplomacy sites abroad so that more of them can open up to the outside world - making up for lost time and lost interaction with foreign publics.

New security approaches are needed, but they won't fix the larger institutional problems that emerged from the ashes of the U.S. Information Agency. A hodgepodge system of "Information Resource Centers," or IRCs, located in U.S. embassies, and "American Corners," created with foreign partner organizations (usually public libraries), has arisen in its place.  (The IRCs are often referred to simply as "American Centers.")

A few new venues have proved popular, such as the Information Resource Center in Alexandria, Egypt located in a former consular building, and the American Centers in Japan are quite popular.  But the centers tend to suffer from the lack of a central management authority for the programs within the State Department. USIA had a Centers Management Office that coordinated the efforts of USIA libraries, but the Department of State does not have a similar office coordinating the activities of the IRCs and American Corners. Instead, IRCs and American Corners are administered by embassy public affairs offices which already face major demands on their resources. Public diplomacy officers who oversee the Information Resource Centers and maintain contact with the American Corners have to divide their time between such public diplomacy outreach efforts and their demanding work as embassy press officers.

You Can't Get There from Here

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear during her confirmation hearings, the Obama administration sees public diplomacy as a priority.  Clinton called for "restoring the strength and vision of the State Department's public diplomacy mission."

This may mean an increase in the number of American Centers, particularly in the Middle East, where the Obama Administration has proposed creating something called "America Houses" (another "center"?) across the Arab world.

But for now, security concerns continue to trump initiatives aimed at expanding U.S. cultural outreach. Critics of the State Department say that many of the current American IRC's are located in embassy buildings that are difficult for members of the general public to access. Patricia Kushlis, a retired Foreign Service Officer who worked out of the American Center in Helsinki, Finland from 1988-1991 and as an embassy public affairs advisor in 1992, said that when the American Center in Helsinki was closed,

the collection - and three librarians - were moved into . . . bottom floor rooms of the University of Helsinki Library, and the remaining USIS (U.S. Information Service) officers and FSNs (Foreign Service Nationals) moved into the Embassy compound that is sealed off from the public tighter than a drum.

Kushlis commented that this super-tight security was built up  "in a country with excellent police protection [that] has never seen an act of terrorism - unless you want to count the murder of the Russian Governor General around 1906 by Finnish nationalists" when Finland was part of the Russian empire.
Former diplomats, concerned citizens, foreign policy bloggers, and members of Congress are concerned about this gradual disappearance of America's public face abroad. Staff members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for example, have visited American Centers, IRCs, and American Corners in different regions of the world, and the committee, led by Sen. John Kerry, has issued a detailed report describing the problems of America's public diplomacy efforts.  Sen. Lugar's resolution, noted earlier, explains just how hard it is for foreign citizens to actually visit many American cultural centers abroad. Of the 177 Information Resource Centers operating in February 2009, 87 of them, or 49 percent, actually operate on an appointment-only basis. Astoundingly, 18 IRCs, or 11 percent, do not permit any public access at all, responding only to phone and e-mail requests.

It's no surprise, as the Lugar resolution states, that Information Resource Centers located outside United States embassy compounds receive significantly more visitors than those inside embassy walls. Twice the number of visitors in Africa, 6 times more visitors in the Middle East, and 22 times more visitors in Asia come to IRCs located in city neighborhoods than in embassy compounds. One Foreign Relations committee staffer committee staffer said that it was "ridiculous" for visitors to have to make appointments to visit the centers, saying that people's ability to visit American cultural centers spontaneously is vital to their success. In comparison to the overseas cultural centers of most countries, U.S.-sponsored venues are open fewer days per week (five instead of six), located further from city centers, and lack auditoriums and other space that can be used for film and discussion programs. The IRCs are generally in cramped embassy buildings that can not spare such valuable space.

American Corners:  Outsourcing for Better and for Worse

American Corners, a scaled-down version of the so-called "Centers," contain some of the resources previously made available by USIA libraries.  They are hosted by local entities - most often public libraries -- and operated by foreign nationals.  While such cooperation may be a good thing, and the centers certainly have their defenders, the American Corners are neither paid nor overseen by American embassy officials - so they can hardly be called an instrument of U.S. foreign policy.  The Foreign Relations committee report on public diplomacy skeptically describes the American Corners programs as an "outsourcing of American public diplomacy". The Corners have generally been successful at bringing American culture to audiences in regional population centers, but they still do not have the cachet of a visible cultural center in a country's capital or largest city.  Still, there are over 400 American Corners operating out of public and university libraries, bi-national cultural centers, and other private institutions.

It's an impressive number, but Senate committee staff found the quality of American Corners to be erratic, commenting that "some Corners are vital hubs of information, others dusty relics that offered little more than a photo-op for an ambassador at their opening". In some places, staff report, the American Corner is popular primarily for its Internet connection. The Foreign Relations committee report emphasizes that American Corners should not be viewed as the "flagship" of American public diplomacy overseas. 

Sizing up the Competition - Cultural Centers of America's Allies . . . and Adversaries

USIA used to offer English language classes in nearly all of its libraries. Now only about twenty American Centers do so.  In the February 2009 edition of Foreign Policy, Senator Lugar writes that foreigners have very few ways to learn English with Americans, whereas other countries have a much more vigorous presence.  Foreign citizens can learn English through the British Councils (233 locations worldwide), French through Alliance Française (1040 centers around the world), or German through the Goethe Institute (147 locations). There are Russian Cultural Centers in 62 countries, and Iran has 55 cultural centers. The larger issue, however, is not so much one of numbers as it is one of access. The Senate report pointed out that in over half of the locations where Iran has cultural centers, the U.S. has IRCs that are by appointment only or are in fact closed to the public altogether.   This problem is one key reason behind Sen. Lugar's resolution.

There are American diplomats doing breakthrough work with the existing Centers.  The American Center in Rangoon, Burma, for example, has been a vital spot for young people seeking information about the outside world, but information about this kind of success is scarce, and security concerns are a key reason for America's isolation abroad.

One possible route to rebuilding America's public face abroad is to re-establish more formal ties with bi-national centers that now operate many of the American Corners. The "BNCs" were started by USIA, but are now operated by local boards, and are found mostly in the Latin American region. Many of them are located in buildings that were constructed with American tax dollars that the U.S. gave up title to after USIA was dismantled, which may complicate the ability of the State Department to re-establish authority over them.

Reinvigorating America's cultural presence overseas is going to require increased funding and a re-thinking of security issues that have plagued America's ability to conduct public diplomacy in recent decades. Senator Lugar seems committed to keeping a spotlight on this issue, and Secretary of State Clinton has made her views fairly clear.  But overcoming security concerns requires creativity, flexibility, and new ideas. The fate of Senate Resolution 49 may be an important signal as to whether America is serious about reshaping its public diplomacy strategy.

Mitchell Polman is a contractor on public diplomacy programs for the Department of State, and a contributing writer for the Center for Public Diplomacy blog produced at the University of Southern California.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and published here to further the discourse on America's global engagement and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of MountainRunner.