School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers


Rice can get our message to the world by Guy W Farmer

Rice can get our message to the world
Guy W. Farmer
Nevada Appeal, January 30, 2005

During her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month, our incoming Secretary of State, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, said that so-called public diplomacy - overseas information and cultural programs - would be a high priority during her tenure at the State Department.

That's good news to those of us who fault the Bush administration for failing to explain American foreign policy to overseas audiences in a coherent and understandable way.

"We need to do much more to confront hateful propaganda, dispel dangerous myths and get out the truth," Dr. Rice told senators. "If I am confirmed, public diplomacy will be a top priority for me and for the professionals I lead."

As someone who worked in that field for nearly 30 years, I welcome her good intentions. But she faces a difficult challenge in converting those encouraging words into concrete actions that help foreign audiences understand our country and its policies. Because, after all is said and done, our overseas PR is only as good, or bad, as our policies, and some of our policies (think Iraq) are highly unpopular in other countries.

Currently, American public diplomacy is in disarray, and both presidents Clinton and Bush share blame for this sorry state of affairs. It was ex-President Bill Clinton who approved the cynical 1999 deal between then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and ultra-right-wing Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., that abolished the U.S. Information Agency - which successfully managed American public diplomacy for nearly 50 years - and exiled what was left of it to the basement of the sprawling State Department.

And then, in 2001, President Bush named Madison Avenue advertising executive Charlotte Beers as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. Her U.S. "branding" exercise failed miserably, and public diplomacy never recovered.

As Dr. Rice observed in her Senate testimony, "Americans should make a serious effort to understand other cultures and learn foreign languages. Our interaction with the rest of the world must be a conversation, not a monologue," which Ms. Beers never understood.

For example, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she produced paid TV spots designed to show American Muslims living happily in the U.S. This was a misguided and counterproductive ad campaign because USIA had never paid for foreign media placement and was a perfect example of what Dr. Rice means by "monologues" with other cultures.

Between 1967 and 1995, I worked on information and cultural programs in seven countries, managing embassy press and media relations, and cultural projects ranging from the Fulbright educational exchange program to American libraries and English-teaching centers. These programs helped foreigners to better understand us, our culture and our policies. In fact, many of the Fulbright scholars and international visitors that I sent to the United States over the years are now in positions of authority in their respective countries. For example, a brilliant young Peruvian economist I sent to the U.S. in the mid-1980s, Alejandro Toledo, is now president of that country.

I cite this personal example only to argue that public diplomacy provides a cost-effective way of "telling America's story to the world," which was the slogan emblazoned over the entrance to the USIA building in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, however, public diplomacy has always been an afterthought at the State Department, where it now resides, and although politicians like to pay lip service to cultural and educational exchanges, they rarely back up their words with adequate budgets.

Public diplomacy budgets and personnel authorizations were cut in half during the Clinton years, and they've remained low priority items under President Bush. Since the clueless Ms. Beers resigned for "health reasons" a couple of years ago, U.S. public diplomacy has been managed by a series of no-name bureaucrats.

But in order to be effective, public diplomacy must be spearheaded by political heavy-hitters like legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow, who was President Kennedy's USIA director, or President Reagan's eccentric but effective USIA Director Charles Z. Wick, who was the president's close personal friend long before Reagan went to Washington. I hope President Bush and Secretary Rice will see the light and appoint someone of that stature to direct the State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy.

Another major mistake perpetrated by the 1999 Albright-Helms pact was to break official radio stations like the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe away from State Department policy guidance and turn them over to a quasi-independent International Broadcasting Board dominated by commercial radio network owners. The result was that our taxpayer-funded government radio stations began to court mass audiences with pop music instead of aiming at so-called "target" audiences of influential foreign officials and policy-makers. In international radio broadcasting, audience quality is far more important than quantity, something the IBB ignores at its peril.

So when it comes to public diplomacy, Dr. Rice has her work cut out for her. As she struggles to wrest control of U.S. foreign policy - especially in Iraq - away from the Defense Department, public diplomacy could be a useful weapon in her arsenal.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City

© Copyright Leeds 2014