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  • Foreign Affairs, Anyone? Department of State Reaches Out to Americans

    In its never-ending efforts to be hip, the U.S. State Department last week launched a new Web site called “Discover Diplomacy.” It has video clips, it has audio tracks, it has interactive maps and images—it has it all.

    The site is the work of the U.S. Diplomacy Center, an office in the Bureau of Public Affairs. But instead of being aimed at foreigners, it targets U.S. high school and college students as well as their professors, for whom the site is billed as a teaching tool.

    Possibly due to the difficulty of getting foreigners to listen these days—even friendly governments nod and smile and ignore American policy—the State Department has decided to reach out to its domestic constituency. But wait: The State Department does not actually have a domestic constituency!

    In fact, the State Department is prohibited by law from directing its communications to the American people, the law being the Smith–Mundt Act of 1948. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was hand-picked by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton to be President Clinton’s Secretary of State, undertook a similar educational campaign (though without the aid of interactive Web sites) and was stopped in her tracks by Congress. There is a real question here: Does Smith–Mundt permit the State Department to proselytize among American students via the Internet?

    Much has been written about the Smith–Mundt Act, which is unique in the world. With the possible exception of Japan, no other country has a law prohibiting their foreign relations departments from addressing their own people at home, and indeed some foreign diplomats find it bizarre.

    Yet, as much as Smith–Mundt hampers the work of State Department officials and sometimes Pentagon officials, and much as it annoys the directors of U.S. International Broadcasting, whose products cannot be shown domestically, it is still the law of the land. Many believe it is time for its repeal, yet the legislation has yet to be written to make it happen.

    Meanwhile, the Discover Diplomacy site is a mixed bag. Its headline banner suggests that touring basketball teams and American jazz (both solid components of U.S. public diplomacy) have done as much for the world as NATO summits or ceasefire negotiations with North Korea. And the site’s interactive map, which highlights “people, places and issues” seems random. It appears, for instance that we have no issues in the Middle East or North Africa and that the only issue we have with China is “fisheries.”

    As indicated elsewhere on the map, though, American diplomats delve into such topics as women’s rights, food security, water security, Internet freedom, religious freedom, counterterrorism, counter-narcotics, intellectual propriety rights, and human trafficking. This is not your father’s State Department.

    Also, among the notable diplomats highlighted on the global map, out of eight, four are African-American. If the idea here is to celebrate diversity, the State Department has failed impressively. Indeed, no other minority group is represented. Have there been no U.S. ambassadors of Asian, Hispanic, or Jewish origin?

    Meanwhile, the sections on the functions of embassies, consulates, diplomats, “Who Practices Diplomacy?,” etc., are fairly informative and written at roughly high school level, and they could be considered suitable teaching tools. And video clips of U.S. diplomats giving speeches about their fields are not without interest—if you like to watch officials giving speeches.

    But beyond questions of the content, which could be improved, the questions have to be asked: Is this what the State Department should be doing with its resources? And does the law allow it?

    Posted in Security [slideshow_deploy]

    5 Responses to Foreign Affairs, Anyone? Department of State Reaches Out to Americans

    1. MaryJ says:

      The State Department, like other U.S. departments and agencies, has always had a Public Affairs office aimed at domestic as well as foreign audiences, which is why U.S. newspapers have reporters at State's daily press briefing, etc. This new website clearly falls under the same public affairs umbrella — because there's certainly no law aimed at preventing Americans from knowing what their State Department does. It is quite different from the public diplomacy activities governed by Smith-Mundt, which are aimed at "understanding, informing, and persuading" foreign publics about policy issues.

    2. john brown says:

      Helle — My reading of the Smith-Mundt Act is that the State Department is prohibited to disseminate domestically information products intended for foreign audiences, which however does not forbid it from communicating with the American people. Indeed, if we follow your interpretation of the Act, should not US journalists be prevented from attending press conferences at Foggy Bottom? Best, John

    3. Matt Armstrong says:

      I concur with Mary J and John. The statement above that "the State Department is prohibited by law from directing its communications to the American people" is quite simply and bluntly wrong. The State Department is not prohibited from directing communication to people within the borders of the U.S., regardless of citizenship. The language in 22 USC 1461 and 1461-1a are strictly limited to the functions of USIA. After the merger, the existing Office of Public Affairs (the office incidentally the functions of understanding, informing, and influence foreign publics resided in, including VOA, until the establishment of USIA) was not brought under the Smith-Mundt umbrella. This means that the Bureau of Public Affairs is not covered, the Office of the Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism is not covered, the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan is not covered, and arguably, the regional bureaus, which predate USIA, are not covered. Neither is the Office of the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs, nor any other office in the State Department, except for a portion of the Office of the Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Specifically: the Bureau of International Information Programs. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is explicitly excluded from the prohibition of 1461-1a and thus free to engage the public within the U.S. (otherwise how would one do exchanges and training?).

      The activities of the Broadcasting Board of Governors is, of course, covered by the dissemination and access prohibition.

      One might argue the Smith-Mundt prohibition on dissemination and availability — not access, in other words retrieving and using the content is not a violation — applies to USIA positions that were distributed within State and outside the Bureau of International Information Programs and the Broadcasting Board of Governors after the merger, but that would be a real stretch, in my opinion, and I doubt one could find a Member of Congress who would stand up and state that was the intent of Congress.

      One could justifiably argue that not only are the geographic bureaus not covered but the public affairs officers at the posts are also not covered as they are no longer within the bureaucracy that replaced USIA. Such is the poor wording of the current legislation, not to mention the incongruity with the modern human and information environment and, lastly, the basis of the prohibition is based on distrust of the State Department and not the Executive Branch. Do we still really believe State is infested with 'drones, loafers, and incompetents' and 'men of strong Soviet leaning'? Or that IIP or BBG are would be similar to a Soviet propaganda agency, as Senator Zorinsky stated at the same time he said "The American taxpayer certainly does not need or want his tax dollars used to support U.S. Government propaganda directed at him or her", if we were to allow their products to be available to people within our borders?

      Likely, the initiative you highlight was done by the Bureau of Public Affairs intentionally to get around the confused and often incorrect reading of the Smith-Mundt legislation.


    4. Juliana_Pilon says:

      We all know that the S-M provision, patently obsolete, ends up mainly as one more excuse for DOS not to take public diplomacy (by whatever name!) seriously – otherwise, public diplomats would not be relegated to jobs that are bureaucratically least desirable for purposes of promotion. Helle is right to emphasize that the spirit of S-M, whatever its misleading letter, is being circumvented (in Matt's words, "intentionally [gotten] around") by BPA. But Helle's main point is that the content is pathetic and deplorable. If this is the best DOS can do, it's a sad comment that only reinforces DOS's sagging reputation.

    5. Juliana_Pilon says:

      However one chooses to interpret of this risibly obsolete piece of legislation (and surely what matters, in politics, is how it is applied, rather than its Platonic "real" meaning – Helle is absolutely right to point out that the spirit of Smith-Mundt has been breached by this program. Matt obviously agrees, when he notes that the project was "done by the Bureau of Public Affairs intentionally to get around" S-M. But Helle's most important point is that the product is lousy. And how can it be otherwise? No one believes that State is infested with drones, loafers and incompetents any more than any other agency. Yet everyone – especially State employees – will heartily agree that public diplomacy continues to be under-appreciated. Why else would this "cone" continue to be a professional dead-end? Why do PA officers end up doing what is surely one of the most vital functions of American foreign policy? Helle is sounding a welcome note of concern, for which we all thank you.

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