Reprinted with permission from Foreign Service Journal, July-August 2001

Celebrating the merger of the United States Information Agency into the Department of State in October 1999, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright welcomed USIA?s employees as ?co-architects in building a vigorous and far-sighted American foreign policy, with public diplomacy at its core; a policy that will lead our nation and the world into a new era.?

Nearly two years after the Foreign Affairs Restructuring and Reform Act was implemented, these claims have yet to be realized. The time has come to transform this rhetoric into reality.

A Match Made in Heaven?

Ever since its establishment in 1953, USIA has used public outreach and cultural and educational programs to advance America?s values and interests and foster dialogue around the world. But while USIA?s 46 years as an independent agency allowed it to develop creative programs, including educational exchanges, jazz tours, and art shows, its bureaucratic isolation removed it from the policy process centered at the Department of State.

The State Department, on the other hand, knew a lot about policy but understood less about interacting with non-diplomatic or non-elite populations, and was having a difficult time reorienting itself to face a decentralizing world. Although the U.S. rightly criticized government information monopolies in many parts of the world, these monopolies actually made the diplomat?s job simpler. Foreign government positions were often echoed in their domestic media, and so dealing with government officials and a relatively small number of local elites could have significant reverberations throughout these societies.

Now that the Internet and global and regional satellite television broadcasts transcend borders and challenge government information monopolies, populations are more free to develop, and act upon, their own ideas in all but the most isolated states. The Al-Jazirah satellite television network run out of tiny Qatar in the Persian Gulf, for example, provides Arab populations with interpretations of news events which challenge local leaders and promote popular debate.

Globalization and the proliferation of information technology have also empowered non-state actors like non-governmental organizations and corporations to play a greater role in foreign affairs, often encroaching on traditional government functions. Effective NGO coordination to support a global ban on landmines and to promote the International Criminal Court, and private sector involvement in the Tokyo G-8 Summit and in the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, an Internet domain name regulatory body, are among the most prominent examples of this transformation. In this new environment, states must learn to interact with other entities as equals.

Meanwhile, the sources of geopolitical power are also changing. Military might and economic largesse ? attributes on which the State Department has traditionally focused ? are still critical, of course. But what political scientists Joseph Nye and Robert Keohane call ?soft power? ? the broad-based ability to encourage other societies to share a common vision of the future ? is becoming increasingly central to America?s global position.

In light of these global trends, the 1999 merger seemed a match made in heaven. USIA would trade its independence for greater policy relevance and the State Department would inherit badly needed new perspectives. Because USIA?s mission has always recognized the importance of building and presenting a credible narrative to explain our country?s actions, its professionals were well suited to help their State colleagues adjust to the new reality.

In the nearly two years since reorganization, however, no new vision has been put forward for American diplomacy, and not nearly enough has been done to bring State?s mission into the information age. No long-term strategic plan has been adopted that would allow public diplomacy experts to project future flash points or nascent major issues and begin the necessary proactive public diplomacy efforts to stem potential future crises. Although a Clinton administration presidential directive, PDD-68, ordered greater interagency coordination, not enough has been done to bring together the international information programs of the various U.S. agencies maintaining overseas presences. No public diplomacy framework has been established for more systematically reaching out to NGOs and other non-state actors.

Most importantly, little has been done to transform the insular and secretive culture of the State Department. Instead, the public diplomacy professionals of the former USIA are being slowly swallowed up by a State Department culture that rewards those immersed in current crises more than those preempting future ones. Unfortunately for American diplomacy, the more proactive culture of the former USIA is slowly merging into the more reactive culture of the Department of State.

Realizing the Vision

It is not too late to make the merger a success. Indeed, the anticipated confirmation of Charlotte Beers as the new under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs will provide another opportunity to realize the critical goals of reorganization and reinvigorate the Department of State.

The new under secretary will need to take the lead in developing a coordinated national information strategy that will complement the president?s national security strategy and lay out global and regional public diplomacy goals and objectives.

Furthermore, regional public diplomacy interagency coordination bodies, as called for in PDD-68, must be established and empowered to identify the most important future challenges and begin using public diplomacy and other tools to build bridges to governments, international institutions, and NGOs to address them.

In these efforts, a revitalized public diplomacy must promote global cultural pluralism and meaningful sharing and exchange across geographic, cultural, and technological boundaries. Because foreign perceptions of alleged American hegemonic designs undermine America?s effectiveness and leadership overseas, significant money and effort must go into promoting international dialogue.

Enhancing global connectivity to the Internet is one of the major human rights challenges of our generation because this technology can empower underprivileged populations to take a much more active role in solving their own problems. Recognizing this, the U.S. under the Clinton administration made a modest commitment at the 2000 G-8 summit to bridging the global digital divide. This commitment is now flagging and needs to be revived. It is clearly in our national interest to help local communities around the world gain the information and access that are necessary preconditions for empowerment, sustainable development and democratization.

To prevent this connectivity from being perceived abroad as a tool for greater American cultural dominance, however, the U.S. should also help the poorest countries and communities put their own cultural materials on line and facilitate the building of virtual bridges between museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions around the world. America?s young people should be encouraged to share their technical expertise with others in the developing world. The Peace Corps has made important strides in this direction through its new information technology initiatives. The network hardware company Cisco Systems has also set up Internet training academies in almost a hundred countries. These types of public and private efforts must be strongly supported.

America?s respect for foreign populations could also be demonstrated by appointing State Department spokespeople to give weekly foreign affairs briefings in Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic, making such briefings highly usable (and less distortable) by powerful regional satellite television networks. Sociologists and pollsters should do extensive analysis of how people around the world receive and process their news to help America?s spokespeople communicate in ways target audiences are most likely to hear.

In addition to presenting our views in a culturally appropriate and respectful manner and fostering dialogue, however, the United States government and partner NGOs must work to empower voices of moderation around the world. Communities tend to rely on local news sources before foreign ones in most situations. While the United States must not attempt to manipulate the content of these local media outlets, we should work with international NGOs, international institutions like the World Bank, and others to support the development of reliable, independent media outlets across the globe, even those critical of U.S. policy. Although some of this is already being done, particularly by USAID and NGOs like the Open Society Institute, it must be expanded to a much larger scale. A reinvigorated State Department should take the lead in these efforts.

Ultimately, however, what is needed is nothing short of a complete transformation of the State Department into a more open and accessible organization that engages new and old players in international affairs while speaking the language and utilizing the tools of the information age. The merger of USIA into State still provides a spark for this transformation. The State Department must now decide whether it will let this ember rise from the ashes and light a fire of badly needed change, or whether it will extinguish it as another casualty of ?business as usual.?

Jamie F. Metzl (JamieMetzl@aol.com) was the National Security Council's director for multilateral and humanitarian affairs (1997-1998) and the State Department's senior coordinator for international public information (1998-2000). He is currently a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an international affairs fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations.