Foreign Policy Blogs

Once More On USIA

It is natural, at a time of low approval ratings for the United States overseas, to ask again whether it made sense in 1999 to dismantle the U.S. Information Agency and move parts of it into the State Department. As Melinda points out in her post (below), John McCain has weighed in on the subject, saying he regrets having supported the measure. Madeleine Albright, who pushed the idea to its fruition, now waffles when asked whether it was the right thing to do.
Like many other “veterans” of USIA, I recall that questions about the Agency's organization and status were always being raised, throughout the USIA's history, both in and outside the Agency, and in and outside Government. Most of us at USIA wanted some independence from the State Department bureaucracy, but we also wanted State to pay attention to our recommendations. Some believed that if we could just get the organization right, our public diplomacy problems would be over, and foreign public opinion would reliably support the United States. Tinkering with structure and lines of authority was a way of sidestepping the awkward truth that, without good policies, even the best public diplomacy organization is ineffective.

Lately U.S. government public diplomacy has taken a beating — due to its message, not its media. Having said that, recent coverage of the US Government's TV broadcasts to the Middle East shows that even when the USG has a good story to tell, it's easy for Washington to stumble as it tries to get the word out.

Better policies, and better public diplomats with more funding, is the way forward. Don't look for this to be an election issue, but it would be nice to see a McCain or Obama transition team take the matter seriously.



Mark Dillen

Mark Dillen heads Dillen Associates LLC, an international public affairs consultancy based in San Francisco and Croatia. A former Senior Foreign Service Officer with the US State Department, Mark managed political, media and cultural relations for US embassies in Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Sofia and Belgrade, then moved to the private sector. He has degrees from Columbia and Michigan and was a Diplomat-in-Residence at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins. Mark has also worked for USAID as a media and political advisor and twice served as election observer and organizer for OSCE in Eastern Europe.

Areas of Focus:
US Government; Europe; Diplomacy