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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 103

U.S. Public Diplomacy and Smith-Mundt Act

Daya Gamage – Presentation of US Bureau Asian Tribune

Washington, D.C. 16 November ( Sixty years ago, the elements of America’s national power – diplomacy, information, military, and economics – were retooled to meet an emerging threat. The National Security Act of 1947 and the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 were a direct response to a global ideological and military challenge posed by Communism.

As is the case today, the U.S. was faced by opponents who considered winning "hearts and minds" an essential task in their war against America. Smith-Mundt was a largely successful bipartisan effort that established the foundation for the information and cultural and educational engagement that would become known as "public diplomacy."

The Act’s passage responded to a perceived need in Congress to counter aggressive Communist propaganda campaigns against the United States. Six decades later, in an era of violent extremism marked by anti-Americanism, it is still the law setting the parameters of U.S. public diplomacy in its efforts to engage, inform, and influence key international audiences.

While the Act contributed to ending the Cold War in America’s favor, it leaves much to be desired as a guide to U.S. public diplomacy today. Congressional intent and the purpose of the Act has been lost, reinterpreted and transformed into not the information and counter-misinformation tool it was intended to be but as a censor and filter that inhibits global engagement and discourse by the United States. Even when not invoked by name, the Act is felt in bureaucratic structures and conceptions of information as a national security resource.

Sixty years after it was signed into law, the Act remains the anchoring legislation for U.S. "public diplomacy." However, the Congressional intent has been lost and what had been a minor provision has been reinterpreted and transformed into the purpose of the law. Today, it is perceived by the few who know about it as a law to prevent the government from propagandizing its own people. Even when the Act itself is not invoked, the spirit is.

These were not the views expressed in the 1940s, 1950s, or early 1960s. Intended to cover only some of the activities of the U.S. State Department and the Voice of America, and later the United States Information Agency, it is seen by some as including the Department of Defense and other foreign-affairs agencies.

Smith-Mundt has been distorted to institutionalize a "firewall" between foreign and domestic information dissemination that is uniquely American. No other industrialized democracy, including the U.K. and France, makes a similar distinction. While the Voice of America (VOA) can only be directed to foreign audiences, the BBC broadcasts its programs both at home and abroad.

The Smith-Mundt Act is particularly relevant today at a time when the U.S. finds itself committed to a global struggle for minds and wills as it was in the early years of the Cold War. Scholars and practitioners of public diplomacy argue about the need to update or modify the Smith-Mundt Act in the New Media environment, where virtual geography displaced the physical. New Media collapses traditional concepts of time and space as information moves around the world in an instant. Websites, blogs, text messaging, and search engines provide instant access to persistent information not seen in traditional media.

The world has changed dramatically during the past sixty years. Domestically, two of the primary reasons for the dissemination prohibition in the Act are gone. No longer is Congress concerned about the loyalty of members of the State Department as it once was and it is no longer reasonable to think a government news service will put private media out of business.

- Asian Tribune -

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