Meeting of the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy

On Monday, March 15, 2010, the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy held a public meeting. The primary purpose was for the Commission to get a better handle on interagency collaboration on issues related to public diplomacy, specifically between the State Department and the Defense Department.

Presenting to the Commission and an audience of several dozen were Rosa Brooks of the Defense Department, Walter Douglas of the State Department, and myself as an independent observer. Rosa spoke on the Defense Department’s view of strategic communication and Walter on State’s new framework for public diplomacy. Considering the recently released Defense Department report to Congress on how DoD will reorganize and support strategic communication and Rosa presence to speak on the same, as well as the State Department’s (not just Judith Mchale’s) new framework on public diplomacy and Walter presence to speak on the same, I figured it was best not to speak on interagency issues.

My presentation focused instead on some of lesser / un- addressed challenges facing US public diplomacy and strategic communication. These issues are:

  • A new ‘informational’ geography. This includes what I call “Now Media”, the convergence of “old” and “new” that must focus on information not platforms. This world is characterized by professional and amateur “journalists”, immediate and persistent availability of information, participatory and visceral observational relationships with and to content, and the lack of expense to acquire, enhance, and disseminate information on a global basis.
  • A new “physical” geography characterized by a the dilution of nationalism, national identity, and a challenge to allegiances. I only implied in the briefing that “hyphenates” are being replaced by “commas” that result from decreased requirements to assimilate and increased ability to maintain, reestablish, or establish new connections to a ‘foreign’ cultures. The result is less “German-Americans” and, for example, more “German, American.” The US Census explicitly recognizes this with the option to select multiple identities. A recent scenario that demonstrated this was my seat mate on a flight from Frankfurt to the US commented that he was flying home in both directions. A German who lived in the US for over twenty years, he was flying home to his wife and kids in the US after flying home to see his parents in Germany. We see challenges with “Muslim, Americans”, “Iranian, Americans”, “Muslim, Afghan, Americans”, etc.
  • Of course I addressed Smith-Mundt and the purpose of the domestic dissemination prohibition and its modern impact on the quality and quantity of US global engagement. The modern effects I described included: preventing American awareness of global affairs, preventing awareness of public diplomacy & similar government engagement, preventing a constituency, preventing oversight, limiting activities, and surrendering US territory to influencers, foreign or domestic. On the latter point, recent cases of online radicalization were particularly timely. It is worthwhile noting that the Act does not prevent engaging Americans, but engaging on American territory, a particularly important distinction considering the rise of “Commas” over “Hyphenates.”
  • The impact of the State Department’s focus on countries over regions.
  • Congress, which I typically refer in my other presentations as another “interagency” partner.

My recommendations included challenging the Commission to do more, including increasing the frequency of appropriate reporting and using its position to instigate and support investigations and analysis of other groups into the subject area across Government. The Advisory Commission is not limited to the State Department’s activities it must do more than the minimum of a report every two years. When the Commission was established by the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, the Commission issued a report every six months.

My closing slide included a quote intended to remind the audience of the increasing power of ideas of individuals:

Relations between nations have constantly been broadened to include not merely governments but also peoples. The peoples of the world are exercising an ever larger influence upon decisions of foreign policy. That is as it should be. … The people themselves, as well as their ideas, are moving about the world farther and faster.

The quote was taken from the Congressional testimony of Assistant Secretary of State William Benton testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on October 15, 1945. The purpose was the introduction of the Bloom Bill, legislation requested by the State Department to make permanent its global engagement, including the Voice of America and similar radio programming as well as cultural and education exchanges. The Bloom Bill would pass the House in 1946 but blocked from going to the floor of the Senate by a single Senator. It was reintroduced in the 80th Congress, again at the request of the State Department, as the Smith-Mundt Bill.

I’ve been told a transcript of the meeting will be available on the Commission’s website. I don’t have an ETA.

If you were at the Commission meeting, share your comments on the presentations and the discussion that followed. As a reminder, this site does allow anonymous comments.