“Repairing America’s image” is a popular mantra these days, but discussions on revamping America’s public diplomacy are futile if the legislative foundation of what we are attempting to fix is ignored. A sixty year old law affects virtually all U.S. engagement with foreign audiences by putting constraints on what we say and how we say it. Perhaps more importantly, it limits the oversight by the American public, Congress, and the whole of government into what is said and done in America’s name abroad. The impact of this law, the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, must not be ignored if policymakers hope to improve how the United States communicates overseas.
In the early years of the Cold War, the threat to the United States was not military invasion but subversion capitalizing on economic and social unrest in Europe and elsewhere. In 1947, America’s ambassador to Russia said the most important “fact in the field of foreign policy today … is the fact the Russians have declared psychological war on the United States, all over the world.” It was, he continued, “a war of ideology and a fight unto the death.” Bullets and bombs were secondary to the power of information and persuasion in the global struggle for the minds and wills of people.
Public Law 402, the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, commonly called the Smith-Mundt Act, passed with bipartisan support in the House and Senate — with opposition primarily from the Midwest — and was signed into law by President Harry S. Truman on January 27, 1948. It was a collaborative effort by the State Department and Congress with significant and broad support from the media and academia. The final push to pass the law was swift and caused by the Communist reaction to the mother of all reconstruction and stabilization programs: the Marshall Plan. Like development programs today, the enemy hated it. Despite America’s role in liberating Europe, the increased volume and tempo of enemy propaganda meant “knowledge of the United States [was] being systematically blotted out.” Denying ideological and physical sanctuary to our enemy required more than deeds.
A brand new National Security Council directed the State Department to respond to the “coordinated psychological, political and economic measures designed to undermine non-Communist elements in all countries.” The psychological struggle of the Cold War is lost by those who remember only the military confrontation. The “predominant aspect of the new diplomacy,” wrote a young Henry Kissinger, “is its psychological dimension.” But by the late 1960’s, as the borders of the most important contested spaces were settled, the strategic value of this “new diplomacy” gave way to private, closed door diplomacy.
The result was the transformation of what is now known as public diplomacy from a national security imperative aggressively targeting foreign public opinion to something more resembling a passive “beauty contest.” While Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs James Glassman has been effective in resurrecting public diplomacy, more must be done. Sixty years after the Act was passed, rumor and disinformation play an even greater role in today’s 24/7 global information environment. First impressions matter more than ever and perceptions make or break confidence in everything from financial markets to issues of global health. The wealth of information is surpassed only by the poverty of attention to digest it. If the media is the oxygen of the terrorist, it is also the oxygen of the counterterrorist.
The result of over a year of public debates, hearings, and amendments, the Act was and is the foundation of America’s arsenal of persuasion. The Act’s principles are timeless and are echoed in modern recommendations on reforming America’s public diplomacy: tell the truth; explain the motives of the United States; bolster morale and extend hope; give a true and convincing picture of American life, methods and ideals; combat misrepresentation and distortion; and aggressively interpret and support American foreign policy. The purpose of the Act was to “promote the better understanding of the United States among the peoples of the world and to strengthen cooperative international relations.” But today, nearly everything about the Act has been forgotten. What had been a relatively minor clause intended to prevent the State Department from undermining the government - a fear held by both Congress and the FBI - and to protect the commercial interests of private media is now believed to be the sole purpose of the Act.
Rebuilding America’s arsenal of persuasion requires re-examining the law that affects how the government engages the world. Clouded today by misinformation in the irony of ironies, it is time to revisit Smith-Mundt and strip away years of distortions and understand its intended purposes.
Matt Armstrong is a principal at Armstrong Strategic Insights Group.