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Opinion: Biden’s facing a diplomacy deficit going back decades

Yet within weeks of Pack’s arrival at the USAGM last year, heads of the separate broadcast services were ousted from their positions, with no explanation provided for their removals. Their departures were followed by appointments of questionably qualified replacements and dismissals of governing boards which were charged with protecting the hard-earned editorial integrity of the various networks. (USAGM officials have consistently declined to comment on these staffing changes.)

Biden’s early action in addressing the turmoil at USAGM indicated his concern for the dilapidated state of US public diplomacy. Let’s hope he invests similar energy in breathing new life into those media entities, whose journalism has been essential for decades and which have been bruised and besieged by partisan warfare for far too long.

Of course, rebuilding confidence in US international broadcasting will take more than Pack’s removal.

Similarly, while world leaders will likely note with satisfaction Biden’s public rescinding of some of former President Donald Trump’s more controversial policies on his first day in office, rebuilding international trust in the United States will also take a great deal more than a single day of symbolic gestures. It will require a vigorous and creative campaign of soft power, and the strengthening of the people and programs that sustain it.
To do this, the Biden administration needs to boost the US’s public diplomacy apparatus, from the broadcasting networks of the USAGM to the diplomats who facilitate educational and cultural exchanges in the State Department and American embassies abroad with shrinking staffs and diminished resources. Though they are struggling now, these broadcasters and diplomats have a long history of success in advancing American values, foreign policy and democracy.
According to Gallup in December 2020, the United States’ standing in the world has been seriously eroded. Of 29 countries surveyed, the median approval for the US was only 18% in 2020. The images of mob violence in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, did not help matters.
The world was aghast, and the reaction of the foreign press has been brutal. Allies and foes alike expressed their shock, revealing a deep skepticism about the stability of America’s global leadership. And this is only the first of what will be a long line of public diplomacy challenges facing the Biden administration.
Global approval of the United States has been slipping for years. This didn’t happen all at once, and it certainly didn’t begin with the Trump administration. The decision to invade Iraq in 2003, and the ineptitude and recklessness revealed by the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, further divided a world already exhausted by years of American lectures on armed conflicts and fiscal prudence.
During the George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Trump administrations, repeated drone attacks on terrorists in countries with which the US is not at war was evidence of an alarming American unwillingness to be constrained by international norms. And demonstrations of persistent and deadly racial injustice, along with the alarmingly botched response to Covid-19, have undermined confidence in US competence to manage its own affairs.

Given that many of these issues preceded the Trump presidency, his exit from the White House alone will not restore America’s reputation. Indeed, in many world capitals, Trump’s election was seen as a manifestation of the isolationist strain often present in America’s political life Ironically, notwithstanding his great personal wealth, he was also viewed as a beneficiary of the abiding sense of class and racial grievance which have become more pronounced as the country reckons with its history of inequality.

At the same time he was also seen as a quintessential American populist. Trump’s political instincts were not unlike other populist leaders who were propelled into power by their citizens’ frustration with globalization and anger at those they saw as cosmopolitan elites.”

While social media has been a pernicious force multiplier of the challenges we now face, Facebook and Twitter alone did not create this situation. They had help from the accelerated decline in US public diplomacy that began in 1998 with the Clinton administration’s dismantling of the United States Information Agency (USIA), which managed overseas press operations for our embassies as well as cultural programs and US government-supported educational exchanges.
The justification for dismantling USIA started with a zeal to cash in a “peace dividend” at the end of the Cold War, in which spending on functions like public diplomacy could be cut or redirected to domestic priorities, but its impact has been far-reaching. By dismantling USIA, burying some public diplomacy functions like educational exchanges and embassy public affairs offices in the State Department and creating an unwieldy new agency, first known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors and now as USAGM, to manage international broadcasting, the country fractured political support for public diplomacy at home. It also seemed to signal to the rest of the world that the US was no longer interested in the sustained dialogue with other nations’ publics, which the USIA had helped to foster.
The Biden administration can reverse this immediately, starting with the appointment of strong, credible leadership at the State Department, where the top public diplomacy position has been vacant since early 2018, and the USAGM, which has been in a state of near-constant upheaval since it was created in 1999 to consolidate the management of what had been a patchwork of US global broadcasting agencies.

America’s influence following World War II derived only in part from respect for the country’s military victory over the Axis powers. Arguably, the unprecedented US efforts to underwrite world recovery, including rebuilding the economies of our defeated enemies, were even more important.

American soft power became critically important in the long campaign to contain the Soviet Union. Indeed, in many respects, much of the Cold War was waged most effectively with soft power. The United States brought to the fight a potent combination of a values-based aspirational foreign policy, a rich and diverse culture, and a record of economic progress and political stability at home.

Of course, the US has worked with unsavory partners — and wound up in unpopular regional conflicts like Vietnam — as it worked to contain the Soviet Union’s global ambitions. Agonizing interludes like the red-baiting Joe McCarthy era and the assassinations of political leaders, as well as the racial tension and anti-war demonstrations that characterized the late 1960s and early 1970s, understandably sowed doubt about America’s version of its own narrative.

Through the turmoil, though, the US consistently reached out to foreign publics and emerging leaders, believing that an understanding of American society with all of its flaws would ultimately help the country play a positive role in the world. The Jazz Ambassadors programs, for instance, brought America’s home-grown musical genre to the world.
We do far less of that now. And to much of the world, it seems the old demons of isolationism, xenophobia and racism have resurfaced with renewed intensity. As a consequence, the country’s ability to influence events abroad without resorting to coercive diplomacy, sanctions or force has shrunk dramatically. This deeply worries many of America’s allies and should worry Americans of all political persuasions.
As Biden begins his term, our economy is still the largest in the world. Our military is the most capable. Our science and technology is ascendant. And our universities are among the best in the world.
Yet, the US faces serious challenges from an emboldened Russia, from a surging China, as well as from hostile regional powers like Iran and North Korea. We need to work with global partners that share our values and our ambitions for peace and prosperity. This is the work of public diplomacy, and it is a foreign policy portfolio we have undervalued for years. We can no longer afford to do so.

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