Posted in: Interviews

Getting the Word Out

By | May 11, 2010

Changing the Way America Communicates with the World

M.C. Andrews was Special Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Global Communications from 2003 to 2005. Prior to that, Andrews was the Director for Democracy on the National Security Council. She is currently a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

HPR: What’s wrong with the way that America communicates with the world, and how should we go about fixing it?

M.C. Andrews: The infrastructure of our communications efforts dates back to the Cold War. From the 1950s up until 1999, there was an agency that dealt with developing our communications called the United States Information Agency. The 1990s congress got rid of USIA. It was a cost-saving measure. Nobody believed we needed it anymore because it was the end of the Cold War and there was no war of ideology.

In getting rid of USIA, the most important functions were given over to the State Department, the budgets were dramatically decreased, foreign service officers lost their USIA identity. There are a lot of legislative constraints that are keeping us from being able to modernize our apparatus. This largely goes back to the 1950s when Congress wanted to make certain that the American government didn’t propagandize their citizens. They put up this firewall called the Smith-Mundt Act. The law remains on the books, and today, technically this means that the State Department can’t legally use the Internet for communicating with foreign audiences. There’s a tacit agreement to circumvent this law from the media. That’s the fundamental problem here: that there are a lot of laws and a lot of traditions in the world of public diplomacy. That’s why we need to whack it all down and start over again.

HPR: As Special Assistant to the President for Global Communications, what changes did you see being implemented? Were there efforts to move towards new media?

MCA: There were incremental changes, some in new media, they were tinkering around the edges with money especially after 9/11. Some went to exchange programs, or to setting up resource centers in other countries. The activities are necessary but completely insufficient to be able to change the way that we communicate with the world. It’s going to take a lot of political will to ultimately change. It is completely impossible to make the kind of legislative changes, funding changes, and people changes that need to be made incrementally. I am convinced of that. I was convinced of that while I was still at the White House. I’ve watched another generation of people go through the Department of State trying to modernize public diplomacy, and another generation of people going through the broadcasting world and trying to modernize that. It will not happen without presidential leadership.

HPR: Could you give us a few more examples of the incremental changes that you mentioned?

MCA: I mentioned the American resource center in some libraries around the world, increased money for exchanges with Muslim countries, there were new websites and even the attempt by the State Department to create a blog. There was the creation of a magazine that lasted for six months called Hi! Magazine, there was the creation of the Arabic language television and radio stations, al Hurra and al Sawa. Every one is necessary, but none are sufficient to change America’s image in the world.

HPR: The responsibilities of the Special Assistant to the President for Global Communications have been taken over by the State Department. How do you think that will work out?

MCA: I believe there are certain things that need to be done at the White House under the auspices of my former position. There was a decision to take a number of the functions, although not all of the functions, over to the State Department. What most people don’t know or understand about the White House is that you don’t have budgets, and you don’t have enough people to make huge changes in policy. The White House coordinates policy in the interest of the President. There’s a lot of paperwork and hours of negotiations to try to get the other agencies to take actions in concert with the President’s agenda. Giving the State Department these responsibilities didn’t work. And I even hear from international journalists that they have no access at the White House. I am somewhat sympathetic to trying to give the State Department the prominence to coordinate public diplomacy, but that isn’t working either. It is time to do something new.

HPR: If say, there was a legislative push to change the Smith-Mundt Act, what do you think the most effective way of doing that would be?

MCA: There won’t be. There are too many interests dedicated to keeping the Smith-Mundt Act in place. Presidential leadership is the only thing that will lead to real, meaningful change.

HPR: How do you think the President could go about changing things?

MCA: There is a great model for what needs to be done. The model that works is the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy. In 1983, President Reagan went to London and gave a major speech saying that it was going to become American policy to actively and openly support democratic regimes around the world. Prior to that, all sorts of money going to pro-democratic groups, going to underground groups in the Soviet Union, were mostly through the CIA. President Reagan said, we’re going to stop doing this in secret. This is an American value that we would openly support.

Today, I believe that President Obama needs to make a similar speech and give a mandate to a commission to study and determine how we should change public diplomacy. Put prominent leaders like [Harvard’s] own professor, Joseph Nye, on the commission, and have this group of wise leaders make recommendations on a new organization for American public diplomacy.

Adan Acevedo ’13 is a Contributing Writer. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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