"The genius of Charlie Wick lies in his ability to recognize how changing information technology, especially satellite communications, has transformed the international political landscape. He understands the need for the United States to convey its message to the people of the world if we're to succeed internationally."
Ronald Reagan offered these remarks at a dinner honoring Charles Wick, the director of the United States Information Agency, in the fall of 1988. Reagan knew better than most the extent to which Wick's leadership of the U.S.I.A. contributed to the cause of freedom during the Cold War. He knew Wick's efforts led to the creation of WORLDNET, the first global satellite television network; the birth of Radio Marti, an anti-communist radio station; and the transformation of the Voice of America. Reagan also knew of the open access Wick had to the Oval Office. Indeed, one former Reagan staffer told me recently that Wick's access was nearly on par with that of the secretary of state.
What Reagan didn't know was that by 1999 the U.S.I.A. would be disbanded, folded into the State Department, and stripped of much of its resources and clout. This swift change led one diplomacy expert to say that the U.S.I.A had been reduced to "a shadow on the periphery of foreign policy."
Eight years later, public diplomacy remains such a shadow in American foreign policy. As the threat of radical Islam grows by the day, we remain woefully unprepared to carry our message of freedom, equality and tolerance to the world. Into this void step the enemies of freedom, who seek to falsely define America as imperialistic, intolerant and morally bankrupt.
We cannot allow this to happen. We must define ourselves to the world. This process should begin with a fresh commitment to a robust public diplomacy operation with long-term vision and the autonomy necessary for success.
In the same way businesses often look first to public relations to cut costs in lean times, governments often look first to public diplomacy. In some ways this makes perfect sense: both public relations and public diplomacy are difficult to quantify and therefore difficult to defend when deciding how to allocate limited resources. But trust builds slowly-whether it's between a company and its customers or between nations.
Public diplomacy combats this reality by establishing and nurturing long-term relationships with other countries. These relationships turn on an axis of open, consistent communication both with national leaders and the general population.
One promising strategy formerly supported by the U.S.I.A. led to the creation of U.S.-supported libraries and cultural centers that provided foreigners with an opportunity to learn about American government and culture. These centers served a role similar to that of WORLDNET broadcasts, but in a more personal fashion that equipped journalists, students and community leaders with the information necessary to develop informed-and hopefully favorable-opinions about America.
Unfortunately, as Helle Dale and Stephen Johnson of the Heritage Foundation have noted, from 1995 to 2001 many of these "cultural centers with accessible downtown store-front libraries either were abandoned or became 'information resource centers' stuck in spare rooms of fortress-like embassies." Once separated from the public they sought to reach, U.S. representatives had little chance to build relationships and share information about our country.
The U.S. should reverse this trend and revive libraries and cultural centers, especially in poor and developing nations where domestic information resources remain limited. This strategy may prove most effective in Muslim nations, as the U.S. seeks to win the hearts and minds of the next generation of Islamic leaders. And while it may not bear immediate fruit, Washington must commit to devoting the resources and recruiting the talent necessary to ensure that it does in the long-term.
Washington must also reorganize public diplomacy operations to grant more autonomy to public diplomacy officers. When the U.S.I.A. was an independent agency, it had the autonomy to adapt rapidly to cultural and regional circumstances. But now that public diplomacy falls under the purview of the State Department, the operation faces considerable bureaucratic red tape.
For example, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes came under fire last year for micromanaging diplomats' interactions with the press. In fact, a disgruntled diplomat leaked Hughes' memo explaining her various press policies to the Washington Post-a sign of frustration in the ranks.
But as William P. Kiehl of the U.S. Army War College has observed, the blame doesn't rest entirely on senior State Department officials. Rather, the problem is structural. Said Kiehl: "There are at least five different public diplomacies (one for each region) rather than unity of command and a coherent and single public diplomacy adapted to local condition as needed."
Therefore, Kiehl continued, the "Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs has full responsibility for the conduct of public diplomacy worldwide but lacks the authority over that worldwide public diplomacy. It is a recipe for failure."
The U.S. government must combat this "recipe for failure" by reestablishing the U.S.I.A. as an independent agency. This will accomplish three crucial objectives. First, it will provide the autonomy necessary for the U.S.I.A. to respond quickly to changing circumstances; second, it will increase the agency's influence in Washington; third, it will help the agency recruit talented public servants who might otherwise avoid information- and communications-related careers due to their second-class status within the State Department.
Reviving cultural centers and reestablishing the U.S.I.A. as an independent agency-will go a long way toward revitalizing American public diplomacy. After all, there's a reason these strategies were employed during the Cold War-they work.