Telling America’s Story

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One of USIA’s most effective programs brought young foreign leaders to the United States for a brief but intense exposure to American life and ideas. These tours usually lasted about a month, with each participant choosing whatever he or she wanted to see. Most wanted to visit with their professional counterparts throughout the country, but for years California’s Disneyland was very high on their lists of destinations. The International Visitor program’s success depended on the predictive ability of USIA officers. Some grantees returned home and faded into the background, but an impressive number rose to high positions in their countries, and more than 200 of them became heads of government or chiefs of state: Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, Anwar al-Sadat, Julius Nyerere, Indira Gandhi, and Afghanistan’s current leader, Hamid Karzai, who was a little-known Kabul journalist when he participated in the program in 1987.

How effective was it? Murrow often pointed out that no cash register rang whenever USIA’s efforts changed someone’s mind.

White House and congressional support for exchange programs and other USIA activities faded during the 1990s, largely because of an assumption that with the end of the Cold War, the agency’s mission was completed. Funds for overseas exchange programs were cut back by a third, Voice of America programming in the Middle East was reduced, and five agency centers in Pakistan were either closed or downsized. Finally, USIA itself was abolished altogether, mainly as a result of pressure from Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who headed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and had been a longtime critic of the agency. The remaining shards were transferred to the State Department with little indication that they would receive much attention there.

Official indifference toward what is now called public diplomacy ended on September 11, 2001. The Bush White House, with congressional support, expanded its activities dramatically, with programs specially directed toward Muslim audiences in the Middle East and Asia. The results so far have been mixed. The administration’s early attempts drew heavily on marketing techniques aimed at selling an “American brand” in foreign policy. Many of these bumptious efforts fell flat, and more recently the administration’s public diplomacy programs have adopted less aggressive approaches. This shift in emphasis draws heavily on lessons learned from USIA’s Cold War experience.

Although public diplomacy must articulate a clear message on current political issues, the USIA record suggests that it is most effective when it promotes more distant and, perhaps, deeper American purposes. In a rapidly changing global environment, presenting America’s many voices, both public and private, remains a great and challenging task—one suggested by F. Scott Fitzgerald early in the last century when he wrote, “France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter.”