Voices of America: U.S. Public Diplomacy for the 21st Century

Kristin M. Lord
Kristin Lord
Kristin M. Lord President and CEO - IREX, Former Brookings Expert

November 25, 2008


For generations, America’s standing in the world has been a source of strength, security, prosperity, and legitimacy. That standing is now in peril, according to a wide range of studies that span the political spectrum. America’s tarnished international reputation carries a price. Whether the United States seeks to draw more allied troops to Afghanistan, win votes in international organizations, or undermine support for terrorists, anti- American attitudes obstruct the achievement of national interests. Winning support is harder; our enemies’ missions are easier.

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Though America increasingly must engage, persuade, and attract the cooperation of foreign publics in order to achieve national interests, our country must do so in a world that has changed markedly since our public diplomacy institutions were created. Public opinion holds more sway than any previous time in history. Information and communication technologies are cheap and ubiquitous. A dense network of private companies, non-governmental organizations, and social movements exert ever more influence relative to governments. Vicious ideologies sustain violence that puts Americans and our allies in jeopardy both at home and around the globe. In this environment, our country needs new strategies, stronger institutions, and innovative methods.

There is cause for optimism. Our government is built on sound and appealing principles that are widely admired even when our policies are not. We have risen to challenges before, through adaptation, ingenuity, and effort. Our nation has abundant assets. American businesses, universities, media, philanthropy, and technologies touch every part of the world. We lead the world in innovation, communication, education, and research. Our civil servants are capable and dedicated.

Americans themselves are talented and compassionate. America, in short, is well equipped to meet the complex challenges of today and the future. But to do so, we must rediscover and marshal existing strengths, both inside and outside our government.

This report presents concrete steps to strengthen America’s efforts to engage, persuade, and attract the support of foreign publics. As part of a comprehensive plan to enhance our government’s public diplomacy, it urges the creation of a nimble and entrepreneurial new non-profit organization, the USA-World Trust, to complement and support U.S. government efforts. The USA-World Trust will draw on the enormous goodwill, creativity, knowledge, and talent of the American people and likeminded partners overseas to

  • present a more accurate and nuanced vision of America to counterbalance the one-sided views sometimes promulgated by popular culture and foreign media
  • contribute to an environment of mutual trust, respect, and understanding in which cooperation is more feasible
  • promote shared values and their champions
  • inform and support our government’s public diplomacy efforts through the sharing of knowledge regarding communication, public opinion, foreign cultures, and technology.

To do this, the USA-World Trust will engage in five sets of activities. First, it will conduct research and analysis, drawing on the knowledge of experts and conveyed in a form useful to public diplomacy practitioners. Second, it will tap the vast potential of the private sector and engage companies,non-governmental organizations, universities, and others to work on innovative new initiatives. Third, it will provide grants and venture capital to endeavors that advance the USA-World Trust’s objectives. Fourth, it will identify, cultivate, and experiment with new technologies and media products that support U.S. public diplomacy and strategic communication. Fifth, it will bring together practitioners from the U.S. government, scholars, and talented visitors from the private and non-profit sectors to address public diplomacy and strategic communication challenges. In all these efforts, the Trust will engage new voices and talent, serve as a resource to government and private groups that wish to improve America’s image, strengthen America’s relations with foreign populations, and combat anti-American ideologies.

Interviews with hundreds of experts emphasized that this new organization will not fulfill its potential if it is not part of a comprehensive effort to strengthen our government’s efforts to engage the world. Thus, this report also recommends

  • an intensified commitment to public diplomacy and strategic communication, at all stages of policy making and at all levels of government
  • a major new investment in public diplomacy and strategic communication
  • strong leadership, clear lines of authority, and stronger mechanisms to ensure coordination between government agencies
  • expanded capacity for public diplomacy within the State Department, including the creation of interagency “hubs” for public diplomacy and strategic communication in major world regions; deputy assistant secretaries for public diplomacy in every regional and most functional bureaus of the State Department; more and better trained staff, especially foreign service officers in the field; more training and educational opportunities for public diplomacy professionals; and programs to draw outside experts into government
  • streamlined policies to facilitate government partnerships with the private sector
  • a review of international broadcasting strategy and operations
  • a frank discussion of how covert information operations should fit into our government’s national security and public diplomacy strategy
  • policies and practices that more effectively balance security and engagement at our borders, in immigration and visa policies, and at our embassies overseas.

At this moment in history, America has the opportunity to build the capabilities it needs now and for the future. This report recommends practical steps to achieve that goal. These recommendations will not resolve America’s public diplomacy challenges once and for all. However, they represent a first and hopefully important step towards building stronger relations with foreign societies in order to serve American interests.

The underlying philosophy of these recommendations is that Americans themselves are our greatest national asset. Educating, engaging and empowering our own citizens at home and abroad, will do much to underscore the diligent efforts of our government, regain a climate of mutual trust and respect, and rebuild America’s image in the eyes of the world.