Public diplomacy has never been the favorite child of U.S. foreign policy. More often it is considered a poor relation, faintly disreputable, with no particular merits in the past and of doubtful relevance in the present, not to be discarded altogether but kept at a safe distance. However, during the last year the attitudes of influential congressmen have turned from indifference to hostility. Some important United States Information Agency (USIA) programs have been discontinued, others radically scaled down. When the Congress returns from its recess, further cuts can be expected. The attitude of the Clinton administration has been generally apathetic; one of its first initiatives was to phase out the Munich-based radio stations Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Recently a substantial group of freshman lawmakers spent hours on the House and the Senate floors attempting to kill the National Endowment for Democracy, a small but very effective organization that helps democratic forces in formerly undemocratic countries, the total budget of which ($35 million) is less than the cost of a F-18 jet fighter. The decline in public diplomacy efforts has taken place over a long time; 12,600 people were employed by USIA in 1967; the number now is 8,500 and falling. The number of those stationed abroad has been halved. The agency's budget in real terms is less than it was in 1970. What made legislators accustomed to swallowing camels strain at gnats?


There are several explanations, but none of them is entirely convincing, and to some extent the issue remains shrouded in mystery. America, the home of Madison Avenue, pioneered public relations. Advertising, in the widest sense, has always been appreciated in the United States, which spends more for this purpose than any other country. Yet, while America spends huge amounts selling cigarettes and soft drinks, it is not selling America. A single company, Philip Morris, spent more in one year on advertising, $2 billion in 1990, than the combined budgets of all U.S. agencies, official and semiofficial, engaged in public diplomacy.

Nor can it seriously be argued, as some have, that these tools of U.S. foreign policy are no longer needed now that the Cold War is over and America no longer faces major threats. There was a brief moment of euphoria following the collapse of the Soviet empire. But no specialized expertise is needed to realize that, far from being on the verge of a new order, the world has entered a period of great disorder. This refers to all kind of regional conflicts as well as to the proliferation of the means of mass destruction, all of which makes nuclear war in the not-too-distant future a distinct possibility. It also refers to a potential second coming of fascism and communism and anti-Western onslaughts by other forces. In facing these new dangers, a reexamination of old priorities is needed. Cultural diplomacy, in the widest sense, has increased in importance, whereas traditional diplomacy and military power (especially of the high-technology variety) are of limited use in coping with most of these dangers.

Why is it so difficult to accept these unpleasant realities? Extreme, outspoken isolationism is not the cause; it has become rare. Even senators and congressmen who wish to end public diplomacy introduce their legislation with a statement to the effect that they are not in principle averse to such activities. But the popular (and indisputable) saying that America "cannot solve all the world's problems" sometimes serves as an excuse for arguing that it cannot solve any, or hardly any. The undoubted fact that long-neglected domestic problems ought to be given high priority is used to suggest that in its present condition America has little time, resources, or energy to deal with foreign problems, as if a great power were incapable of dealing with more than one problem at a time.

Underlying the reluctance to accept the increasing importance of public diplomacy is the tacit belief that such activities are a luxury, not really in America's self-interest but in the interests of other countries and that "we are doing them a favor." Seen from this perspective, the bells may be tolling, but they are not tolling for America. This view, however, betrays a profound misjudgment concerning the relevance of events outside America to the security and well-being of this country.

Some who disparage public diplomacy seem to believe that the advantages of the American way of life, values, and institutions are so self-evident that they do not need special promotion. They also appear to think that the future of democratic institutions worldwide is so secure that no particular effort is needed to bolster them.1

Some critics consider public diplomacy a peculiarly American aberration that other, more sensible countries do not share. In this respect there is a great deal of ignorance. Travelers abroad know that the BBC World Service is more widely listened to and respected than American-sponsored radio stations. But even Margaret Thatcher never suggested that the private sector should take over the BBC. It is less widely known that on a per capita basis France and many other countries, including, of late, Spain, with its Cervantes Houses, spend much more on public diplomacy than does the United States, that there is no U.S. equivalent of the foreign presence and activities of the German political party foundations, and that Iran has more powerful radio stations than the Voice of America. These facts may fail to impress those who believe that America's standing in the world is not a high priority, but it is clearly wrong to assert that their indifference is shared by other nations.


Other arguments against public diplomacy vented in Congress include assertions of widespread corruption, waste, and duplication. Such transgressions should be investigated and if need be punished, but this is clearly another case of straining at gnats. Given the small size of the public diplomacy budget, less than $1.4 billion, almost all of which is earmarked, there could not be much corruption and waste, even if public diplomacy had somehow been taken over by the criminal underworld, using the most fiendishly clever devices to defraud the American taxpayer. How little pork, how minute a barrel! It is, of course, annoying that keeping a lowly second secretary at the Tokyo embassy costs the United States more than the salary of a U.S. senator. This is not the fault, however, of the second secretary but of the high cost of living in Japan and in many other countries. And since no country can afford to let its representatives sleep in the streets or starve, such outlays have to be made, however grudgingly. Nonetheless, the second secretary with all his allowances will probably still be worse off than he would be in a job of comparable standing at home.

The criticism of public diplomacy's overlapping roles and audiences also does not withstand serious examination. Those complaining would hardly suggest that the American customer's choice should be limited to one sort of car, toothpaste, perfume, or painkiller. Foreign customers, too, have a variety of tastes and ought to be approached on various levels of sophistication. U.S. radio stations and foundations have a variety of purposes. Some are mouthpieces of the U.S. government, others need more freedom to be effective. Part of the U.S. effort should be directed to those on the political left, part to those right of center. Some should reach unions, some churches, others the academic world, or chambers of commerce. For all this, a variety of public diplomacy instruments is needed, and if there is some overlap, it should be welcomed as conducive to competition and improvement.


It is difficult to find any merit in the arguments mentioned so far. The basic weakness of public diplomacy is the fact that it has no powerful domestic constituency. Even the most militant anti-defense legislators will fight like lions if threatened with the closure of military installations in their congressional districts. Public diplomacy has no such base. During the Cold War there was a consensus among officials, elected and appointed, that some expenditure along these lines was inevitable. But for a variety of reasons this consensus did not survive the Cold War, even though the need is now greater than before.

Furthermore, there has always been resentment on the extremes of the political spectrum that more money was not allocated for their ideological allies abroad. The right has complained that the United States has no business supporting free trade unions (or even Social Democrats!) abroad against their foes, even if the sums involved are laughable. On the extreme left there have been parallel complaints: Why assist those who do not qualify according to the canons of political correctness? Still others have been dissatisfied because their friends abroad were neglected. And since each year there are thousands of applications for grants and only hundreds can be supported, the army of the discontented greatly outstrips those who get help. Thus there is a bond between those who are disgruntled for personal or ideological reasons and populists opposed to the enterprise by conviction.

Some skeptics consider public diplomacy a two-edged sword likely to cause more harm than good. If America has no foreign political strategy or if its leaders waffle or make egregious mistakes, why broadcast (and thus magnify) the fact? But this is a narrow view of the purpose of public diplomacy, which is not only concerned with daily affairs and putting the best gloss on current U.S. policies. Its main purpose is to project an image of American life and values quite irrespective of the events of the day. Public diplomacy's perspective is not measured in weeks or months. To be effective it has to be evaluated in longer time frames. The bureaucratic queries about tangible achievement that can be measured at the end of the budgetary year simply do not apply.


There is another, weightier objection concerning the quality of U.S. public diplomacy. It is unfortunately true that its performance has not always been outstanding and that the self-congratulatory statements in the annual reports of public diplomacy agencies are sometimes unfounded. Several committees have looked into performance issues, but they have concentrated mainly on technology and the choice of communications vehicles rather than on substance. The quality of American television and radio programming in general is not, to put it cautiously, very good compared with that of many other countries. This is true not just with regard to high- and middle-brow programs; even on the level of soap operas America has been losing out in the former Soviet Union to Mexico and Brazil, which have produced and sold more attractive products.

America did have two excellent and effective radio stations in Munich: Radio Free Europe, which targets East European nations, and Radio Liberty, which targets Russia and former Soviet territories. Collectively, the stations broadcast independent journalists' news articles, political analysis, and explanatory reports on economic and international issues in over 20 languages in am, fm, and shortwave frequencies. These stations, as attested to by those in the know, including the present heads of governments in Eastern Europe, played an important part in ending the Cold War. But it was precisely their success that made many enemies for them.

Under the Clinton administration plan to consolidate these programs, some services have been discontinued, others will cease operations in three to four years. The staff is being cut from 1,600 to 400. The research department of Radio Free Europe, the world's best source of information on events in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, is being liquidated. All this is occurring on the assumption that the battle for democracy in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has been won. The administration may now have realized that the decision to phase out the Munich radios was rash and unwise. But the damage cannot be undone, and one can only hope that learning from this mistake it will resist with vigor the efforts of some misguided lawmakers to make even deeper cuts.


Opponents of public diplomacy frequently argue that the private sector should shoulder this responsibility, a proposal that is about as sensible or practical as suggesting that the private sector should be responsible for U.S. defense, health, education, and street cleaning. Even if private foundations had the funds to engage in those activities, their interest in operations abroad, with one or two notable exceptions, is now much less than it was in the 1950s and 1960s. Some corporations may be willing to invest in regions of special interest to them, but no help will be forthcoming in areas where the needs are greatest.

Fifty or even 30 years ago, radio, especially shortwave, broadcasting was one of the main vehicles of public diplomacy. It is still important even though the importance of television has grown enormously. There has been great excitement about the multitude of channels that will be accessible, at least in theory, to a global audience. But closer examination shows that such excitement is misplaced or at least premature. As shortwave radio broadcasts are phased out, they are not replaced by a worldwide TV network. Instead, we have Worldnet (Voice of America), which is best at satellite teleconferencing, a kind of international press conference or seminar that usually reaches only a handful of people. This is not the stuff likely to be rebroadcast at prime time by foreign television stations, least of all in countries opposed to the United States and its policies.

Neither U.S. commercial channels nor public television now produce enough programs suitable for broadcasting overseas. Under such circumstances, the United States would have to produce its own programs for foreign consumption. The talent to do so exists, and with a little luck sufficient editorial freedom may be given. But the funds for such a venture are not available; outlays for television are only about five percent of the shrinking USIA budget. Many USIA services have been discontinued, including exhibitions, global and regional magazines, book fairs, and book exchange funds. And the fee for giving a lecture in a distant country is sufficient for people of leisure and independent means, but hardly enough to attract those best qualified to appear.

These facts give a rough idea of the importance attributed to public diplomacy by Congress and the administration. Currently USIA is not even represented on the National Security Council. It is pointless to raise the issue of quality, crucial as it is, as long as the budget is so minimal. Everyone agrees on the importance of television, and everyone discusses new satellite and digital technologies and the information highway. But in the competition for a global audience the United States is a nonstarter. England, France, and Germany have been more active and allocated more money. Even countries such as Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia have more astutely realized the importance of beaming television channels to neighboring countries. In Washington such activities are not even envisaged. All U.S. public diplomacy now aspires to is the production of programs that will be transmitted by satellite to foreign stations in friendly countries, which may or may not use them.


To remedy the present dismal state of affairs, the budgets of the various agencies engaging in public diplomacy should be roughly three to four times higher than they are now. These agencies should be given greater freedom of action and the ability to attract the best talent available. Given recent budget cuts and the present mood in Congress, such suggestions are of course entirely unrealistic.

There is always the possibility that a major international crisis will have a salutary effect, doing away with delusions about the state of the world, generating greater awareness of the dangers facing America, and putting an end to lethargy and indifference. But such a crisis might be years off, and in the meantime some words of warning are appropriate. The international agenda tends to ignore the concerns of Washington legislators, just as they tend to ignore events outside their bailiwicks. Various clocks are ticking away, irrespective of whether people want to listen to them. The proliferation clock is an obvious example, and its consequences are predictable.

Similarly, it is only a question of time until it is accepted that the United States got its priorities wrong in the conduct of its foreign policies and the choice of its instruments. There will always be room for diplomacy, but in its present form it is largely an eighteenth-century relic that badly needs rethinking and refashioning. The limits of military and economic power have become all too obvious of late. To dismantle the remaining instruments of U.S. foreign policy at this time seems more than a little foolish. Perhaps in the future, those who failed to accept the importance of public diplomacy will think of various excuses to justify their misjudgment. But this will be of little help, for in this field there is no room for rush programs to make good the neglect of many years. A price will have to be paid: races that were run, will not be rerun, because at the time too many people in Washington overslept.


1 Radio and TV Mart' have not been discontinued but were threatened with closure since TV Mart' cannot be watched in Cuba except in the early morning hours. But this is a technical problem that could be overcome if more money was available. Given the Cuban uncertainties, present and future, the need for a U.S. channel to reach the Cuban people seems obvious.

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  • Walter Laqueur is a historian and the Chairman of the Research Council for the Center for Strategic and International Affairs. He is co-editor of the Journal of Contemporary History and author of several dozen books, including most recently The Dream that Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union.
  • More By Walter Laqueur