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America Needs a Voice Abroad

By Leonard H. Marks, Charles Z. Wick, Bruce Gelb and Henry E. Catto
Saturday, February 26, 2005; Page A19

When President Bush visited Canada shortly after his reelection, thousands protested on the streets of Ottawa. In mocking reference to the fate of Saddam Hussein a year earlier, a statue-sized effigy of the president was hoisted to a rostrum above the crowd and then pulled down to loud cheers. That such things should occur in the capital of a friendly neighbor, echoing similar demonstration in capitals around the world, reveals how deep-seated anti-Americanism has come to be.

Obviously the United States will not and should not shape its policies to suit the preferences of other nations and peoples. But it can and should explain those policies directly and openly in ways calculated to promote better and more widespread appreciation of why we do what we do.

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For nearly 50 years such a program was a priority for presidents from Harry S. Truman to George H.W. Bush -- all nine of them. Principally charged with carrying it out was the United States Information Agency, an arm of the White House responsible directly to the president. Throughout those years the USIA assigned a public affairs officer experienced in journalism or public relations to nearly every U.S. embassy. He -- occasionally she -- was always a full member of the country team yet sufficiently independent to advise the ambassador as an outside counsel might advise, rather than simply report to, a corporate chief executive.

A major duty of the public affairs officer was to recruit, train and supervise foreign service nationals, natives of the host country with backgrounds in journalism or academia and pro-American views who would represent the United States to their country's opinion leaders and media representatives -- professionally, authoritatively and (most important) in their own language. In many countries the USIA also opened libraries in high-traffic locations where ordinary citizens could have access to American newspapers, books and magazines.

The USIA was a creation of the Cold War, born of the conviction that success in the struggle with the Soviet Union would require not only effective armaments and strong alliances but also steady progress in winning and retaining worldwide support for the aims and ideals of American-style liberal democracy. In this the USIA achieved remarkable success, as was demonstrated when the Cold War ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the freeing of its satellite states -- an immense transformation that was welcomed almost everywhere. In the euphoria that followed, it was widely believed that the collapse of communism would lead to the embrace of liberal democracy almost everywhere. One influential book of the time even argued through its title that this trend could in time result in a world permanently at peace and thus in "The End of History."

As a consequence, official Washington soon came to believe that the USIA was no longer needed. That view, combined with the ever-present pressure to trim the budgets of out-of-favor government departments, led to its being absorbed by the State Department -- which had argued for years that the USIA really belonged there -- and, in 1999, to its formal shutdown.

Since then the public diplomacy function has become one more "cone" within the State Department structure. In the face of severe staff reductions, blurred lines of support from Washington and shrunken budgets, public affairs officers continue to carry out their roles as spokesmen for our embassies. Many of our overseas libraries have been shut down. Our foreign service nationals, who have served as a vital bridge to their own societies, are fewer. America's voice abroad is muffled and often indistinct.

Meanwhile, history clearly has not ended, with the United States today facing long-range perils and problems hardly thought of a few years ago: radical Islam, spreading nuclear proliferation, estrangement from much of Europe, and growing political and economic challenges from the world's two most-populous countries, China and India.

The fact that this gathering of storm clouds has coincided with anti-Americanism more pervasive than we've ever known has evoked calls for action from such diverse sources as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Government Accountability Office, the Heritage Foundation, the Brookings Institution and the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, among others.

Without exception, all of their reports and recommendations call for some form of governmental initiative that would promote global stability and counter the anti-American tide by convincing people of other countries and cultures that the United States is not just a sometimes overweening superpower but a nation of high ideals, constructive ideas and intentions, and worthwhile goals.

Shutting down the USIA was a major mistake. The re-creation of an effective instrument of public diplomacy has been urged by many in Congress and across the political spectrum. A new proposal just put forward by the Public Diplomacy Council in Washington holds much promise. The council, a private group that includes many experienced public diplomats, calls urgently for the creation of a U.S. Agency for Public Diplomacy, linked to the State Department but with an autonomous structure and budget.

Insistent calls for rebuilding America's public diplomacy have come from both sides of the aisle in Congress. The new secretary of state has said this is high on the administration's agenda. The time for action is now.

The writers are former directors of the United States Information Agency.


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