Salon.com critical of State PD; McHale responds

In the wake of the WikiLeaks release of confidential U.S. diplomatic cables and other communication, Salon.com published an article earlier this week critical of the Department of State’s public diplomacy efforts around the world. The author, Benjamin Barber, wrote that “idle and unsubstantiated rumor-mongering by U.S. diplomats has shattered the brittle façade of official smiles we have dubbed ‘Public Diplomacy’ -- a euphemism for public affairs that some also call ‘propaganda.’” Barber went on to argue:

“The abolition of the USIA has caused great harm to America’s ability to tell its story to the world. To save money and consolidate U.S. international affairs under the State Department, the 2,000-strong independent agency was abolished in 1999. Its staff was now under the control of State Department bureaucrats, forced to rein in the open, informal style of their contacts with the international and U.S. media. "Public diplomacy" was thusly born.

“Some -- including the conservative Heritage Foundation -- say that the lack of a quasi-independent public affairs office that knows how to speak to the international media without resorting to deliberately confusing "State speak" has crippled efforts to reach Muslims who are subject to a global barrage of anti-American Islamist propaganda.”

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale issued a response to Barber’s article, quoted in full below:

I regret that Salon.Com readers have been presented with an inaccurate perspective on public diplomacy in Ben Barber's December 4, 2010 Salon.Com commentary.

American public diplomacy's mission is to support the achievement of U.S. foreign policy goals and objectives, advance national interests and enhance national security by informing and influencing foreign publics and by expanding and strengthening the relationship between the people and government of the United States and citizens of the rest of the world. This is being done in ways that build on the foundation established by Edward R. Murrow and the U.S. Information Agency, but also meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

American public diplomacy today involves the active and accurate communication of U.S. policies and actions to foreign media and contacts, using current technologies while holding true to the credible, consistent “warts and all” approach to communication established by Murrow. But it also includes academic, professional, and youth exchange programs; arts, cultural, and sports initiatives; English-teaching and student advising; and serious engagement with foreign counterparts on a daily basis.

I share Mr. Barber's positive memories of American Libraries and Centers, and I was therefore proud to participate in the launch last week of a new, publicly accessible, high-tech center -- @america -- in Jakarta, Indonesia. @america is just the latest proof of the Department of State's commitment to public diplomacy which seriously and truly engages with foreign communities and audiences on the basis established by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, of mutual respect and mutual interests.

Sincerely,

Judith A. McHale
Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs

Former U.S. Foreign Service Officer and public diplomacy commenter John Brown also responded to Barber’s article, noting that, contrary to Barber’s assertion, public diplomacy was “not a post-Cold War fabrication.”