Foreign Policy Blogs

USIA Resurrected?

Senator John McCain has stated that if he were elected President, he would re-establish the US Information Agency as an independent office. The merging of the US Information Agency into the State Department is a sore subject for many public diplomacy watchers. The efficacy of the merge, which took place under the Clinton administration, to is hotly contested to this day.

A long-standing member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator McCain has weighed in on this issue before he begun his presidential campaign. Now that he is bidding for the White House, here's what Senator McCain has to say about USIA in a 2007 op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel:

“Although there are many facets in the struggle of ideas against violent Islamic extremism, there is one critical step we can take right now to improve our position. If elected president, I would establish a single, independent agency responsible for all of America's public diplomacy. And that agency would report directly to the president.

During the Cold War, the United States Information Agency, or USIA, was responsible for providing citizens across the globe with accurate information about what America stood for and enabling first-hand exposure to all things American. In 1999, I supported a plan to integrate USIA into the State Department. In theory, this reform was supposed to ensure the coordination of our public diplomacy with our government-to-government relationships. In practice, it made public diplomacy an orphan.

Dismantling an agency dedicated to promoting America and Americans amounted to unilateral disarmament in the struggle of ideas. Communicating our government's views on day-to-day issues is what the State Department does. But communicating the idea of America, our purpose, our past and our future is a different task. We need an independent agency with the sole purpose of getting America's message out in a factual and persuasive manner: managing radio and TV broadcasts to those in need of objective news; establishing American libraries with Internet access throughout the world; sending Americans overseas and sponsoring foreigners’ visits to America for educational and cultural exchanges; and creating a professional corps of public-diplomacy experts who speak the local language and whose careers are spent promoting American values, ideas, culture and education. And it should recruit the best and brightest not just from the ranks of the Foreign Service but from business, academia and the media.”

This subject was recently breached in an interview with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on the Global Wire, the US Center for Global Engagement's new web-based show which interviews policy makers about the US role in the world.

The show's host asked Albright to give the incoming President advice on which bureaucratic structure best suits the US's public diplomacy operations for the 21st century. Here's how the discussion went:

“Host: The U.S. Information Agency, when you were at the State Department, which you oversaw this process, it was merged‚ the U.S. Information Agency was merged into State. Senator McCain wants to recreate USIA, and your advice to him on that would be?

Albright: Well, I think, I know there's been a lot of criticism about what we did on this. I think we'd have to make sure about what its mandate was. It was very connected with the Cold War. I think it's not so much whether it is a separate agency or not, but whether in addition to delivering a message abroad, it is also listening to what the people on the ground are saying. Otherwise, one of the issues that I've always argued about, what is the difference between public diplomacy and propaganda, and public diplomacy is actually the listening part as well as the telling part of the message.

I don't think that we have the cadre or the group of people that fully understand enough what's happening, let's say, among Muslim communities. And so there has to be a group of people that understand the cultural and religious aspect of societies, then bring them in and have them be capable of talking about it in language that makes sense to the people listening to it. Part of the problem when this administration first took over, they started making movies about Muslims in America that just were, I think, insulting to Muslims that don't live in the United States.



Melinda Brouwer

Melinda Brower holds a Masters degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She received her bachelor's degree in Political Science and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a graduate diploma in International Relations from the University of Chile during her tenure as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has worked on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, for Foreign Policy magazine and the American Academy of Diplomacy. She presently works for an internationally focused non-profit research organization in Washington, DC.