Sunday, July 25, 2010

FSO Karen Walker on the Smith-Mundt Act (Public Diplomacy)

Ms. Karen Walker on the Smith-Mundt Act; from a Facebook SC discussion group; posted here with Ms. Walker's kind permission:

M. Karen Walker • Because Smith-Mundt may be a relatively esoteric topic allow me to add some background context for the common good and to encourage others in our group to weigh in.

The Smith-Mundt Act is the informal title referring to the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, designed as "an act to promote the better understanding of the United States among the peoples of the world and to strengthen cooperative international relations." [Tuch, Hans N. Communicating with the World: U.S. Diplomacy Overseas. NY: St. Martin's, 1990, p. 17]

Smith-Mundt became the operating legislation for the USIA at its founding in 1953.

The Act made clear that the programs it authorized, including if not most especially the Voice of America (VOA), were to operate overseas. Subsequent legal interpretations of Smith-Mundt would lead to a ban on any materials created under its auspices (meaning, by USIA). Quoting Cull, "It was the information equivalent of posse comitatus, the law forbidding domestic deployment of the U.S. military." In the early 1960s the act was interpreted as meaning that films produced by USIA required an act of Congress before they could be shown within the U.S. And from 1972 onward, the act underwent a series of revisions to make this ban explicit. [Cull, Nicholas J. The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propoganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945-1989. NY: Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 40]

The Zorinsky Amendment of 1985 reaffirmed that no appropr[ia]ted funds shall be used to influence domestic public opinion in the United States, and no program material prepared by the USIA shall be distributed in the United States. These provisions carried over to the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act that enfolded USIA into the Department of State. [Waller, J. Michael. The Public Diplomacy Reader. Washington, DC: The Institute of World Politics Press, 2007, pp.491-492.]

The Thornberry-Smith legislation is informed by a December 2009 Congressional Research Service report authored by Kennon Nakamura and Matthew Weed, titled "U.S. Public Diplomacy: Background and Current Issues." The report acknowledges that Smith-Mundt provisions are seen as anachronisms in the current global communications environment, and notes that use of new communications technologies and techniques may be curtailed to avoid the risk of inadvertently propagandizing the American public. The report adds the DoD has interpreted the provisions as applicable to its communications efforts as well, and that Congress has asked DoD to review this interpretation to determine whether it is justified.

The CRS report cautions that repealing the Smith-Mundt provisions could result in US public diplomacy efforts becoming preoccupied with "communicating to the American public for political effect, to the detriment of creating effecive, targeted communications to specific foreign populations" (p. 56).

With this background now in place, what do I think? If public diplomacy programs continue to be Embassy and Mission-directed, with overseas public diplomacy specialists setting priorities, feeding requests to Washington-based program managers, and taking point in managing the programs' implementation, then public diplomacy will continue to support country-level and regional strategies based on a deep cultural understanding and approaches effective in local contexts.

If the repeal makes clear that programs can be implemented even if the diffusion effects expose Americans to the programming, it would remove constraints on public diplomacy officers in employing web based tools and social media, and could lead to more effective engagement of U.S.-based Diaspora communities in American diplomacy.