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The Decline and Fall of USIA
CoverReview by Mark Dillen

Nicholas Cull, The Decline and Fall of the United States Information Agency: American Public Diplomacy, 1989-2001, Palgrave MacMillan, 2012, ISBN-13: 978-0230440725, 376 pp., $58.00 hardcover.

Nicholas Cull’s second book on the history of the United States Information Agency (USIA) concludes his years of thorough research into what happened to America’s former foreign public diplomacy entity. In The Cold War and the United States Information Agency (Cambridge, 2008)*, Cull placed USIA squarely in the context of the Cold War, a creation of a U.S. government determined to fight a global threat from the USSR and its propaganda machine. Now, in The Decline and Fall of the United States Information Agency, Cull charts the relatively quick demise of USIA in the last decade of the twentieth century. The welcome new book is slim and small compared to the first; perhaps a reflection of the author’s judgment that what happened to USIA in the 1990s was a rapid denouement to the story of an agency that had already lost its way. Indeed, from today’s vantage point it may seem that, once deprived of its Cold War sense of purpose, USIA was destined to be shuttered. A quick victory lap waving Old Glory as the Hammer and Sickle was lowered from the Kremlin flagpole — what else remained for USIA to do? 

But, as Cull makes clear, the argument for USIA was always greater than just the manning of ramparts in the ideological struggle with Communism. “Telling America’s Story to the World,” the slogan etched below the Agency’s nameplate at its onetime headquarters at 1776 Pennsylvania Avenue, proclaimed a larger vision. Throughout its 46-year history, USIA conducted long-term exchange programs (such as the Fulbright educational exchanges) as well as immediate policy advocacy. Its staff in Washington and at embassies around the world promoted U.S. “culture” as well as “information.” Absent the USSR, the United States still needed (perhaps needed even more) to gain the understanding of publics around the world. With the end of the Cold War, there were dozens of countries and newly independent states pleading for Washington to conduct the kinds of cultural and educational exchanges with them that for decades Soviet hegemony had prevented. Individual offices at USIA and individual Public Affairs Officers in the field did excellent work to take advantage of these newly opened doors, but USIA as a whole was hesitant and ineffective. This is a frustrating story that Cull tells very well:

Few at the time praised the agency… US public diplomacy was up against the very market logic that it was selling in Eastern Europe. Its ideologically driven masters believed that increased US public diplomacy would be a short-term phase in Eastern Europe’s march to capitalism, rather than a long-term project to promote mutual understanding. An opportunity to link the USIA to a post-Cold War mission had been missed.

As a result of this thinking, and the post-9/11 emphasis on fortress-like security, several cultural centers and libraries that USIA opened in the early 90s in Central and East European capitals were closed down barely a decade later.

Where USIA was least effective — ironically — was in being its own advocate. The agency responsible for doing PR for the U.S. Government in foreign countries did a lousy job promoting its own interests at home in Washington. By the end of 1999, USIA was closed down and its reduced Washington staff transferred into the State Department, where a new Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs was given oversight for most of them. Field officers specializing in public diplomacy at US embassies reported directly to the State Department’s geographic bureaus. The Voice of America (VOA), nominally part of USIA, was spun off to enjoy the same quasi-independent status as other US Government-sponsored broadcast operations.

There is a debate Cull leaves unfinished about whether these changes were an entirely good idea and whether, if valid, they were properly executed. The plans for what came to be called “consolidation” were born partly from the idea of the Clinton Administration that money could be saved by carrying out USIA’s functions from within the State Department. Whatever one thinks about the quality of public diplomacy carried out under the aegis of the State Department, today there are fewer staff members — Americans and foreign service nationals — doing this work than when USIA was dissolved. The program budgets for educational exchanges remained flat for several years once the State Department took them over, and there was embarrassingly frequent turnover in the politically appointed position of Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

The best argument for USIA’s continued existence lies in seeing what was missing when USIA no longer was there. USIA came to an end less than two years before 9/11, and the United States struggled in the succeeding decade to define and fund its public diplomacy efforts. If the argument against USIA was so sound, why wasn’t public diplomacy after USIA’s demise more successful and its transfer to State less rancorous? Was there a bias against public diplomacy itself and not just the entity that conducted it? Cull notes that USIA had a “track record of innovation” in pursuing new approaches to public diplomacy, but that State “smothered” innovation once it took over USIA.  Now there are “real indications” that State has “caught up,” says Cull, but he doesn’t tell us what they are. He does, however, acknowledge that there are doubts whether public diplomats have been “given their due within the State Department structure.”

Cull tells the story of USIA’s “decline and fall” with a historian’s care but without a pronounced view on whether USIA deserved to die. He advocates for government public diplomacy itself, particularly the kind that favors dialogue and exchange of views on an individual level.

Cull tries to be sympathetic toward nearly all the protagonists in the struggle over USIA’s future. “No USIA director entered office with better motives than [President George H.W. Bush appointee] Bruce Gelb,” writes Cull, and then notes that, after a turbulent tenure at USIA, “[Gelb] shone in the role of Ambassador to Belgium.” He was succeeded by Henry Catto, “who did much to restore things” after a period of  “feudings and shenanigans.” Joe Duffey, a Clinton appointee who became the last USIA Director in 1993, “loved ideas and debate” and was “passionate about international exchanges and international understanding.” He shared with his deputy, Penn Kemble, “a sense of the need to reform the USIA.” After USIA was finally consolidated into the State Department, Evelyn Lieberman, the head of what remained of USG public diplomacy, continued to “work hard to prepare US public diplomacy for the post-Cold War world.”  

Yet after all was said and written, Cull concludes that there was “a weakness at the top” of USIA. Indeed, that conclusion is inescapable. As a USIA foreign service officer at that time, I recall how astonished and dismayed I and my FSO colleagues were when Duffey responded to calls from White House staff for budget cuts by offering significantly deeper cuts in budget and personnel that what was requested. While other foreign affairs agencies, such as USAID, were struggling mightily to defend their turf, USIA’s final leaders gave up without much of a fight.

The one turf battle most USIA’s leaders did engage in was over control of VOA. Cull describes incisively the ultimately self-defeating efforts to keep VOA within the agency. Those at the top of USIA believed that having “control” over VOA made USIA a more important player in Washington even though exercising control was not in the interests of USIA or US public diplomacy. For example, as recounted by Cull, when the Tiananmen Square protests developed in China, the VOA Chinese Service became an important source of truthful information for the Chinese people. The U.S. Government, unable to stop the PRC crackdown on dissent, was content to have VOA cover it. Later, however, when the Clinton Administration wanted to improve US-Chinese official relations, VOA’s forthright reporting on human rights in China was unwelcome in Washington, where USIA was expected to keep VOA in line (despite the VOA’s Charter supposedly guaranteeing editorial independence). Efforts to censor VOA hurt the broadcaster’s credibility and deepened the schism between the two major parts of America’s public diplomacy organization. The best way for USG broadcasters to serve the interests of taxpayers at home and audiences abroad is to report truthfully and accurately. Sadly, an aspect of the USIA/VOA dysfunction persists today the mismanagement and neglect of all USG foreign broadcasting by the Broadcast Board of Governors, as detailed in a recent USG inquiry.  Cull’s book gives a valuable lesson on the pitfalls that government-funded broadcasting should avoid.

Ultimately, USIA’s demise was not quite the lengthy “decline and fall” suggested by Cull’s title, with barbarians attacking and pillaging (although many an embassy admin officer quickly grabbed the goods — silverware, crystal and china — that PAOs had been supplied with by USIA for their representational work). The end of USIA resembled more a cabal followed by bureaucratic assassination. Despite the laws of inertia and resistance in Washington (how many Federal agencies have actually been eliminated?), USIA was cleanly and definitively ended, thrown overboard by politicos and bureaucrats more concerned about their own agendas than how public diplomacy ought best be conducted.bluestar 

*For a review of the first volume of Professor Cull’s chronicles of USIA see: http://www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/item/2009/1012/book/book_schneider_cw.html
[Contributing Editor]

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

AuthorMark Dillen is an international public affairs consultant. As a member of the Senior Foreign Service, he served as Political Minister Counselor at the US Embassy in Rome in 1999, when talks about a Loya Jirga were underway in Rome with Zahir Shah. Mark recently returned from Kabul, where for one year he was Communications Director for USAID and Executive Secretary for the USAID Mission.

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