Culture Posts: A New Frame – The U.S. Public Diplomacy Act of 2014

February 9, 2013 § 1 Comment

It is the summer of 2012 and America is debating whether to modernize a piece of 1948 legislation on U.S. public diplomacy called the Smith-Mundt Act. At a time when American officials are racing to keep pace with the new communication technologies and trying to “out-communicate” the terrorists, not just other nations, the whole debate is mind-boggling. Ultimately, the debate is about much more than the legislation and speaks volumes about America understanding of communication in a global era. To get up to speed, U.S. public diplomacy needs the U.S. public, and both need a U.S. Public Diplomacy Act as soon as possible.

A Potentially Dead-In Debate

Yesterday’s analysis of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Actrevealed a battle between two iconic American values. In one corner: “modernization” and the appeal of the future. In the corner: “propaganda” and the threat to individual freedom. So long as these two values remain pitted against each other, the legislation floating on the surface will continue to draw fire from across the political spectrum. At stake are treasured American values. U.S. public diplomacy is caught in cross fire.

The longer the debate continues, the more likely the two competing frames will become entrenched. Already, the battle has moved to the social media, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. As mentioned in a previous post, and quoting Alec Ross, “the social media reward the extremes.”

Unfortunately, or fortunately, any reference to “Smith-Mundt” is likely to trigger a repeat of the propaganda-public diplomacy debate. Not surprisingly, two years ago there was such an attempt and it didn’t get far. What’s needed is a fresh start in how the public, officials, and policy makers think about U.S. public diplomacy – which is a good thing.

New Tools: Media Literacy

Many have suggested the Smith-Mundt battle is generational. Actually, it may be more a matter of education and training. What the younger bloggers share with some of the beyond twenty-something bloggers trying to put propaganda in perspective, is formal study of persuasive tactics and media literacy. Learning how to read, analyze and create media content has become as critical as learning grammar. It begins in elementary school now.

The fear of propaganda harkens back to an era when persuasion was a new field of study. Mass media was the “new” media. Both were little understood and perceived as all powerful. Over the years, persuasion strategies have grown increasingly sophisticated. Compared with advanced stealth tactics, propaganda’s one-way “information dissemination” mode probably ranks a 2.4 out of 10 on Richter scale of persuasion. While persuasion strategies today are more sophisticated, so too is the audience. Media literacy and constant exposure to persuasion have made the public, especially the youth, not only savvy consumers of persuasion but producers as well. From the Arab Spring to Anonymous, the communication tables are turning between publics and governments. It’s not just social media. It’s media literacy.

New Mindset, New Frame

If one thing has become increasingly clear from the debate it is the lack of understanding about the critical role of U.S. public diplomacy – and the role of the U.S. public in U.S. public diplomacy. U.S. public diplomacy needs not just a new amendment, it needs a new mindset. With that mindset lays the promises of a new U.S. Public Diplomacy Act.

1. Think Global Communication: Global technology & Global publics

The first feature of the new mindset and goal of the U.S. Public Diplomacy Act is to think globally. Currently, on several levels, U.S. public diplomacy is defined in national and even inter-national terms. Perhaps a short decade ago, it was possible to think about communication in those terms. With today’s advanced communication technologies, there is no longer a domestic public or even truly foreign publics; but rather one global public. What one hears; they all hear albeit differently. The challenge is not how to separate the two; but how to speak to so many simultaneously. Remember also, that global public is constantly on the move. Global migration means thinking of audiences in terms of media platforms rather national territories.

2. Think Monitoring and Transparency

A second feature of the new mindset and goal of the U.S. Public Diplomacy Act is monitoring and transparency. Not only is the communication environment global, it is highly competitive. U.S. public diplomacy may be the leader in the field, but it is not the only player. Numerous countries have established television programming and cultural programs specifically for the U.S. public. There is Qatar’s Al-Jazeera, BBC’s UK-USA and Russia’s Russia Today. If China’s CCTV has not been as successful, its Confucius Institutes are. Where is U.S. public diplomacy in this line up?

Rather than keeping the U.S. public in the dark about official U.S. communication activities, U.S. public diplomacy needs more exposure and transparency. First, for those who worry about U.S. government takeover of the American people, unfettered access to U.S. public diplomacy is exactly what’s needed to monitor it and make sure it doesn’t get out of control. Helle Dale of the Heritage Foundation picked up on this point early. It needs underscoring. Second, U.S. public diplomacy could benefit from domestic feedback, especially from one as ethnically diverse as the American public. Other countries have been quick to appreciate the importance of not only their domestic public but their diaspora in the global communication equation.

3. Think Collaborative Diplomacy and Citizen Diplomacy

A third feature of the new mindset and goal of the U.S. Public Diplomacy Act is moving from the old public diplomacy to the new public diplomacy. Once upon a time it was enough to craft messages and shoot them into stationary target audiences. It worked once. It doesn’t now. Governments are no longer the only players competing against each other. And radical activists rarely play by the rules. Soft power is transforming into what Anne Marie Slaughter called “collaborative power.” Public diplomacy is becoming more networked, more collaborative public diplomacy.

To be effective or even stand a chance in such a dynamic communication arena U.S. public diplomacy needs an expanded vision beyond its official itself. The U.S. public needs a voice in the conversation that is U.S. public diplomacy.

Already, the U.S. public is trying to be more involved. Witness the thrivingcitizen diplomacy and public-private partnerships. They are mushrooming across the nation. In one of her first statements, the new Under Secretary of State Tara Sonenshine spoke of the link between people, policy and U.S. public diplomacy. Citizen diplomacy along with collaborative public diplomacy exemplifies the new vision of U.S. public diplomacy.

More than ever, the U.S. public needs effective U.S. public diplomacy. And, more than ever, U.S. public diplomacy needs the U.S. public. Rather than competing against each other, both can embrace the challenge of change and innovation in a new U.S. Public Diplomacy Act of 2014. That is, if it can be achieved sooner.

FROM Culture Post Series:

Zaharna, R. S. (June 7, 2012). “Culture Posts: A New Frame – The U.S. Public Diplomacy Act of 2014,” in USC Center on Public Diplomacy, Blog Series



Culture Posts: Exposing The Battle of US Values in the Smith-Mundt Debate

February 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

Greetings from Washington. Along with the warmer temperatures and afternoon summer thunderstorms, a firestorm has erupted over a Congressional amendment related to U.S. public diplomacy. I put this post under Culture Posts, because the ferocity of the debate has had little to do with the technical aspects or merits of the legislation itself. At stake, and what the argument was really about, were iconic American values. The debate also reveals a surprising lack of understanding about just what is public diplomacy in the modern era of global communication. Indeed, rather than amending an old law, U.S. public diplomacy needs a new mindset.

At first the amendment seemed like a no-brainer update from the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 to the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012. As the foundation of contemporary U.S. public diplomacy, there is a ton of background available on the original Smith-Mundt. A good running start is at The original legislation established the U.S. Information Agency with the mission of “informing and influencing foreign publics.” While the USIA has since been dissolved, the implicit understanding that public diplomacy targets “foreign publics”—not the domestic public—has remained a cornerstone assumption in U.S. public diplomacy practice and scholarship. Interestingly enough, numerous other countries assume the opposite—effective public diplomacy begins with the domestic public.

The reason the bill seemed like a no-brainer was because the Internet had made the distinction between foreign and domestic publics irrelevant and the bill effectively obsolete. Legally and philosophically, however … and this is where the debate takes off …

Anatomy of the Smith-Mundt Debate 2012

As is often the case when debates take on an outsized proportion there is usually buried symbolism. The raging battle on the surface is often a cover for issues that have deeper emotional significance. Trying to douse emotional flames with intellectual reason often only further fans the fire while submerging the original emotional triggers even deeper. Indeed, how the commentators spoke about the Amendment or tried to frame the issues only fueled the debate.

I decided to look take a closer look at the anatomy of the debate.

The debate grew exponentially in terms of quantity and intensity. On May 15, Representative Thornberry issued an 836-word press releaseannouncing the amendment (HR 5736). The first news article went out within hours. The battle of the blogs started on May 18 after a posting on with the headline, “Congressmen Seek to Lift Propaganda Ban,” The post not only changed the language from the original press release from public diplomacy to “propaganda,” but made it sound as if the reporter had obtained a news scoop rather than a press release—A sure tactic for generating interest among a wider audience.

Within a week, Technorati listed nearly 30 blog entries. had more than 60 entries on the topic. John Brown’s Public Diplomacy Review and Blog, perhaps the meeting ground for the debate, grew from one entry in third position on May 18, to more than 11 entries in a single day, to 54 entries totaling 16,642 words. And that was the first week. The original post had gone viral with close to 200,000 views.

The debate grew in intensity. Bloggers on the right as well as the left attacked the amendment. Perhaps another indication that the debate was deeper than ideological differences was that opposition to it crossed the political spectrum. The emotionally charged language was similarly indicative. There was talk of “sock puppets” and “brain washing.” One prominent Progressive blogger warned of “the creeping fascism of American politics” that “would allow the Department of Defense to subject the U.S. domestic public to propaganda.” Suddenly, the military was included, which was not a far stretch but nevertheless inaccurate.

Adding to the debate were those trying to figure out what the fuss over “propaganda” was about. The word “propaganda” appeared to evoke a visceral response in older commentators, some who spoke from “personal experience.” For many younger commentators propaganda just seemed like another form of persuasion, which was reflected in their blog titles: “Propoganda? So What?” “Much ado about State Department ‘propaganda’“; “Dial back the outrage.” Again this happened from the liberal Mother Jones to the conservative The Blaze. The Blaze, which features a promo for the Tea Party movement on its video, actually switched its feelings about the amendment from “Disconcerting and Dangerous” to a roundtable history lesson by a panel of young commentators. They all had to read from their research notes and struggled to keep a straight face. (Video here)

To foreign observers, the Smith-Mundt debate may have looked rather confusing, if not odd. Public diplomacy scholar Robin Brown at Leeds University tweeted as much:

Robin Brown ‏@rcmb: From outside the US Smith-Mundt domestic dissemination ban looks a bit odd. But apparently if you lift it US is doomed (May 20)

The intensity and speed with which the debate was spiraling suggested that the underlying, deeper issues at stake were significant. Indeed, the debate pitted two iconic American values against each other.

Appeal of the Future: Innovation & Opportunity

The very name of the bill – the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 – resonates strongly and positively with future orientation that has long been a prized American value. Anthropologists have documented it. American politicians have catered to it. And, American immigrants who left the “old country” behind have embraced it. As a young nation, vision meant looking forward to the quest for the new, the improved, the opportunity for change, or the challenge of innovation. While there may be the tinge for nostalgia here and there, the appeal for Change and Hope (of the future) tend to triumph.

So, in the one corner, there is the appeal of future orientation. This explains the “history lessons” about Smith-Mundt as well as the references to “modern”, “advanced” communication technologies and the need to “update” or “modernize” the “obsolete” or “outdated” “decades-old” 1948 bill.

American Individualism

In the other corner is an even stronger American value orientation: individual freedom. If one peels back the language about “propaganda” it is about the fear of a loss of individual freedom and autonomy. The government will “take control,” the public will be “vulnerable” or “fall prey” to “brain washing” and other powerful forms of control.










If one looks closely, propaganda is often linked to an authoritarian or totalitarian regime, as was the case of the Thornberry press release. The anti-authoritarian appeal goes back to the American colonists and their rebellion against the King. Propaganda is also associated with deception, or more bluntly, lying by the authorities. Deliberate deception on the part of the government? Heaven forbid. America’s Founding Fathers built “checks and balances” into the foundation of the U.S. government structure. And lest the government forget its place, there are “the people” and of course, the “watch dog” press. While U.S. public diplomacy may be okay for “foreign” publics – including specifically targeting the youth of other countries, to expose the U.S. public to U.S. public diplomacy is a call to arms.

The images echo these iconic American values. There is the appeal to the modern, represented by technology. The image below was featured by the Mother Jones piece mocking the new “brainwashing” law.

Pitted against the fear of loss of individual freedom, are the images, albeit dated, of government “propaganda.”


The Smith-Mundt debate Illustrates how unexplored historical and cultural dynamics can have direct policy implications in public diplomacy. So long as the debate remains framed as a battle against two iconic cultural values – the appeal of the future versus the threat to individualism – the legislation may struggle.

Tomorrow, stay tuned for suggestions for cultural appeals that can reframe the debate for a new U.S. Public Diplomacy Act.

Blog from Culture Posts Series:

Zaharna, R. S. (June 6, 2012). “Culture Posts: Exposing The Battle of U.S. Values in the Smith-Mundt Debate,” in USC Center on Public Diplomacy, Blog Series

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