The announcement that the State Department may merge the Bureau of Public Affairs and the calls to mind George Santayana’s warning that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Let’s master the information needs of the twenty-first century without forgetting the lessons of the twentieth.
Efforts to co-mingle foreign and domestic information programs have left U.S. government propaganda with a checkered history. Congress has repeatedly denied the executive branch consolidated control over messaging and separated domestic public affairs and international propaganda via the Smith-Mundt Act and the creation of the U.S. Information Agency, precisely because the executive branch demonstrated a ready willingness to cross the line and propagandize the American public.
Those firewalls between public affairs and international information programs do complicate synchronizing global communications. In a democracy, however, efficiency is not always the highest priority. Some laws and regulations exist precisely to make it difficult to do things that should not be done. Most public diplomats, foreign service officers, and government officials can recall at least one incident when someone said “my job would be much easier if I didn’t have to obey these laws and regulations.” Yes, and that’s precisely why those laws and regulations exist.
PA and IIP may use similar tools, but saying they do the same job fundamentally misunderstands both history and governance. They have different objectives and publics. They follow different rules about the strategies and tactics that may be used to communicate with those publics. Some applications of shared tools are permissible in public diplomacy, but off the table in public affairs, for historical, political, and ethical reasons. Public affairs flows from the constitutional right of the American people to know, candidly and completely, what their government does in their name (and with their tax dollars). The American public cannot make the political decisions that a robust democracy requires without transparent information.
Foreign publics are not entitled to that prerogative. My own view is that the world of instant communication makes it effectively impossible to tell foreign publics a different tale, but, at least in principle, information programs directed at foreigners may contextualize, persuade, argue the government’s point of view, and – yes – propagandize. Merging public affairs and propaganda because of a similarity of tools is akin to attempting to solve the problems of a weak surgical practice by merging it with a successful restaurant, simply because both use knives.
We clearly need to analyze and re-evaluate the work of PA and IIP and create the strongest platforms for success. IIP, in particular, has suffered from poor leadership and reorganization fatigue since the abolition of USIA. It has been pulled in multiple directions by political appointees who see the bureau as a playground for message wars or social media campaigns, but who lack understanding of, and historical perspective on, U.S. government international information operations.
Both bureaus, and the State Department as a whole, must investigate the latest technology, ensure that our communicators are well-equipped and well-trained, and sharpen the saw of our expertise. The best way to achieve that is to invest in the tools and training that our communicators need to succeed. We should hold ourselves as public diplomats to no less a standard than the best private sector communications organizations, and give officers the support they need to meet that standard.
Finally, we should invest heavily in the technology and tools that government communicators require to be well-informed, consistent, accurate and authoritative; to avoid contradicting themselves; and to communicate with confidence.
What we must not do is allow the allure of technology or the obsession with tools that often bedevils public diplomacy to obscure purpose and principle. By all means, solve the technological and management problems, but never forget that the firewall against propagandizing our own people exists for many reasons. Our political values insist that it is the right thing to do, and history tells us that the power of persuasion can be abused like any other.
Steven L. Pike is Assistant Professor of Public Relations and Public Diplomacy at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University. He retired from the foreign service in 2016 after 23 years as a public diplomacy practitioner with USIA and the Department of State.