School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers


Statement of David Abshire to House Appropriations Committee

Statement of: Ambassador David Abshire
Committee on Appropriations
"Public Diplomacy Programs"
February, 04 2004

The Honorable David M. Abshire

President of the Center for the Study of the Presidency

Testimony before the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies of the House Appropriations Committee

February 4, 2004

Mr. Chairman:

I begin by commending this Subcommittee for initiating the Advisory Group, and by praising especially Ambassador Ed Djerejian for his leadership of that Group. Of the five government commissions, boards, or panels on which I have served, this Advisory Group was the best in assembling members with diverse experiences and outstanding expertise. Under Ed's leadership, it reached sharp conclusions and defined specific steps to turn the tide of anti-Americanism and initiate a new strategy for "changing minds and winning peace," to quote the title of the Advisory Group's report.

While the focus of the report is on the Muslim and Arab worlds, its findings relate to the global communications challenge. I will focus specifically on two of the Advisory Group's recommendations: (1) the formation of a new strategic architecture in the White House for global communications; and (2) the creation of a new organization, whether it be a corporation, endowment, or foundation (I prefer foundation) that can marshal the resources and creativity of the private sector to export the "best of America."

Before addressing these two issues, I note that this official report has special significance because it follows and builds upon important preceding reports from private institutions, most notably the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the Heritage Foundation, and from my own Center for the Study of the Presidency (CSP). Each of these reports expressed deep concern that we are losing the struggle for ideas and perceptions around the world and that our strategies and weapons for engaging in this struggle are woefully inadequate.

In my earlier career, I saw first-hand how we can win the battle for public perceptions overseas. In 1974, as the first chairman of the Board for International Broadcasting, I witnessed the enormous power of Radio Free Europe, which reached a wide audience behind the Iron Curtain (including 80% of adults in Poland). Even the Communist leadership listened to Radio Free Europe to learn the truth about their countries' economic performance.

Ten years later, as Ambassador to NATO, I saw a well-executed communications strategy change attitudes at a critical phase in history. In the early 1980s, strong popular opposition in three NATO countries threatened to derail our plans to deploy Pershing and cruise missiles in order to counter Soviet SS-20s, which were deployed as part of a Soviet strategy of nuclear blackmail designed to split the alliance. We turned the tide of public opinion with a communications strategy and vigorous diplomacy, supported by the White House and the Congress, and executed through the extraordinary machinery of the United States Information Agency. This campaign helped us turn the corner and start down the road toward the end of the Cold War.

Mr. Chairman, we have no comparable successes today. This is unacceptable at a time when an extremist minority is twisting the teachings of Islam to pose what columnist Tom Friedman called "the third great totalitarian challenge [after Fascism and Communism] to open societies in the last 100 years." Anti-Americanism is rampant across the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, including among some of our most important allies. When I fought in Korea 50 years ago, virtually the entire population in the south was pro-American. Today in South Korea, a nation that could not have survived without American protection, the youth are vocally and sometimes violently against us.

When the Advisory Group was first formed, my fellow members and I were enormously inspired by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who joined us to say in his blunt manner "Ladies and gentlemen, if you don't shake us up, you've failed." Mr. Chairman, the Advisory Group's recommendations were aimed at shaking things up, but I fear the response has focused on seeking improvements at the margins, rather than on the strategic transformation we need to meet today's global communications challenge.

I think part of the problem is the term "public diplomacy," which implies something carried out by diplomats and does not adequately signify the strategic role global communications play in advancing and maintaining our national security. Our public diplomacy strategy must be recognized as equal in importance to our military and diplomatic strategies. President Eisenhower, the only five star general to become President, was a true grand strategist when he created USIA and announced that the battle of ideas was the ultimate contest. Similarly, the commanding general of the 101st Airborne in Iraq said recently, "You don't defeat an insurgency solely with military forces. You win by getting the people to believe they have a stake in the success of the new Iraq."

Yet we have neither integrated public diplomacy into our foreign policy formulation nor provided the resources needed to have a truly effective global communications strategy. The classic military strategist Napoleon believed that the battle of perceptions was ultimately three times more important than his armies. By contrast, the amount we spent last year on efforts to change minds and attitudes abroad (including the Middle East Partnership Initiative to promote free societies in the region) was only three-tenths of one percent (0.3%) of our defense budget. To turn the tide in the struggle of ideas, we must close the resource gap that handicaps our public diplomacy and fully incorporate global communications into our national security strategy.

Let me emphasize that my criticism of our failure to meet the global communications challenge is not meant to denigrate the efforts of the State Department, the BBG, and other agencies, which have initiated innovative efforts such as the American Corners program, Radio Sawa, and the Middle East Partnership Initiative. But we must greatly strengthen the strategic focus and coordination of our public diplomacy while more effectively marshalling the creativity of America's private sector, the world leader in the communication revolution and entertainment business.

First, regarding the Advisory Group's proposal for a new White House architecture, U.S. global communications must have greater strategic direction and coordination. The State Department is the lead agency for U.S. public diplomacy, but the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy - and we have a very able one in Margaret Tutwiler - cannot direct other Departments and Agencies, as we saw recently when the Defense Department contracted a defense firm to lead media operations in the Iraq reconstruction effort. Many other government entities communicate directly with foreign publics, including the Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and many others.

Indeed, the President is undoubtedly the most important U.S. communicator to audiences abroad. That is why President Kennedy brought in Ed Murrow as his advisor and director of USIA. He understood that even a good initiative, if poorly explained, can cause a public relations disaster. For example, it was wise to reconsider the Kyoto Treaty, but our abrupt withdrawal from the treaty was poorly explained and turned European countries against us on this issue.

We currently have neither a grand strategy nor a coordinating mechanism to assure the quality of our international communications, to measure the effectiveness of the messages we send, or to ensure that the many government agencies involved in public diplomacy speak persuasively with one voice. Consequently, many of the most important components of U.S. public diplomacy remain isolated, unaccountable, and sometimes contradictory. As the Advisory Group report points out:

The lack of a strategic focus for communicating foreign policy stands in stark contrast to the focus for communicating domestic policy. When the White House decides [to advocate a domestic policy] a sophisticated, long-range plan to achieve that goal is promulgated; a broad array of government agencies and private-sector supporters is mobilized, a media plan is set, polling and other forms of public-opinion measurement are deployed, potential pitfalls are assessed, and mid-course adjustments are made. Public diplomacy requires at least as much serious attention.

To address this lack of strategic direction and coordination, the Advisory Group calls for a Cabinet-level Special Counselor to the President, supported by a Board of Experts drawn from the private sector. The Special Counselor would be someone who has the President's ear and who has the professional experience and expertise to do four things:

· Advise the President on the U.S. government's global communications, including messages communicated by the President himself;

· Develop a strategic blueprint that integrates the public diplomacy activities of the many government actors that communicate with audiences overseas;

· Break down the "stovepipes" that characterize our current global communications to develop synergies across all government agencies that interact with audience

· Participate in NSC deliberations to ensure that the question of how to best present America's message abroad is a fundamental part of our foreign policy formulation.

Arguments have been made for this position to be set up by Executive Order to ensure that the individual who fills it truly has the President's ear. On the other hand, there are contrary arguments for having this done by an act of Congress to maintain continuity and nonpartisanship from Administration to Administration.

In the Advisory Group proposal, a Board of Experts, chaired by the Special Counselor, would conduct regular assessments of our global communications, with an eye toward eliminating compartmentalization and promoting synergies. The President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) performs a similar function as it evaluates the quality of intelligence throughout the intelligence community. The Board of Experts would consist of outside experts drawn from the private sector. For example, the Board might include Senior VPs from corporations with substantial overseas experience, information and communications specialists, outstanding experts on Islamic religion and culture, and former ambassadors with knowledge about specific regions. Members could serve on short-term assignments, instead of fixed terms, to allow the White House maximum flexibility in changing the expert mix as needed. The Board would also meet twice a year with the President, as does PFIAB. Let me give you an illustration of the advantages of such private sector participation: When the Djerejian Group visited Cairo, the focus group assembled by Procter & Gamble was far superior to the one put together by the U.S. embassy, largely because Procter & Gamble is much closer to the people on the street who buy its products.

A second proposal of the Advisory Group concerns radio and television programming. Currently, we lack the means to marshal the resources and creativity of the private sector to export the best of America. Although the Discovery Channel and other quality stations have operations abroad, too many of America's commercial media exports are low-quality products, such as reruns of Dallas and even pornography, because they are inexpensive and readily available. Through government-supported international broadcasting, the BBG performs an essential role in countering this trend with its first-rate radio and television programs. But the BBG alone cannot "crowd out" the high volume of low-quality American media exports. Alongside our government-supported international broadcasting, we need a mechanism that can: (1) reach into the private sector and provide incentives for producers to upgrade American media exports and (2) make superior programming affordable to broadcasters in other countries.

To provide such a mechanism, the Advisory Group report calls for the creation of a grant-making organization that would fund the production and export of quality television and radio programs created by private producers. The CFR report originally proposed such an entity and suggested that it be called the Corporation for Public Diplomacy. The Advisory Group carried this name over in its final report. I personally believe a more dynamic name that better describes the organization's function, such as the American International Communications Foundation, might be more appropriate. The creation of such an instrument would allow us to compete effectively with Al-Jazeera and other regional networks through a dual strategy consisting of the BBG's government-supported broadcasts and independently produced programs funded by the newly proposed organization and broadcast by indigenous stations.

To be clear, the mission of the proposed organization would be to inspire the private sector to produce programming that reveals the better side of America and to ensure that these programs are affordable to indigenous broadcasters abroad. This organization would provide grants to producers and, through matching grants, help them gain additional funding from private sources. By definition, it would not be a broadcasting organization. It would not have a news bureau and, thus, would not compete with newscasters such as the BBG, the BBC, or our own private networks.

The proposed organization would use Congressionally appropriated seed money to leverage funding from private foundations, corporations, and individual contributors. These funds would then be used, through the organization's grant-making authority, to mobilize and inspire creative professionals from the private sector to counter the worst American exports with high-quality productions that more accurately reflect America. Layalina Productions, set up by Ambassadors Richard Fairbanks and Marc Ginsberg in 2002, illustrates the creative potential that America's private sector can bring to bear on this challenge. Attracting the best talent from Hollywood, Layalina produces informational and entertaining Arabic-language television programming for licensing to satellite and cable TV networks throughout the Middle East.

The advantages of this and other such private sector initiatives are pointed out in the CFR report, which states, "Private media often communicate American family values, religious commitments, and the merits of democracy more effectively than do government officials." The CFR report further points out that this organization could attract media and personalities potentially less willing to work directly with the U.S. government and could support indigenous stations through joint ventures and other innovative endeavors.

Public broadcasting in the United States provides an excellent example of how federal funds can be used to mobilize far greater funding from private sources to attract outstanding talent and creativity. Our public broadcasting system, which provides some of the best programming in the United States, relies on Congressionally provided funds (distributed through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) for only 15 percent of its revenue.

I became convinced of the advantages of such an entity to support the production and export of quality programming during a meeting I had with producers in Los Angeles arranged by the USC Annenberg School for Communication. They explained to me that America often exports the worst of its culture because that is what is affordable to broadcasters abroad. The private sector, with its bottom-line constraints, needs incentives to become involved.

I propose that the Congress initiate a more detailed outside four-month study on this concept. Included in the study process should be more extensive consultations with the donor community of foundations and corporations, as well as with potential producers. This would enable the Congress to act decisively in this area as part of a larger strategy to reverse the tide of anti-Americanism around the world. It can be done and it must be done.

In sum, I am concerned that some of the responses to the Advisory Group's report, some quite good, aim at marginal improvements. We must think boldly and strategically to meet the global communications challenge we face today. With 50 percent of the population in the Muslim world under the age of 17, the importance of healthy and constructive communications will only increase. The seeds of trust and understanding take time and care to grow and become strong. It is time we recognize the urgency of this task and devote the necessary resources and institutions for a strategic transformation of our global communications strategy. I believe a new White House structure for global communications and a new catalyst to mobilize the best of America for export are critical to this effort, as well as to strengthen our global leadership.

© Copyright Leeds 2014