This funereal op-ed is so fundamentally flawed that it is more like a drive-by shooting. Shooting USIA in the back is an unfortunate metaphor for the context of public diplomacy since many of us who engage in public diplomacy think of it in terms of ballots over bullets and swords into ploughshares. Even those who don’t like this tender-hearted approach view it in the tougher-minded context of political campaign strategies. October 1, 1999 is not a day that should live in public diplomacy infamy, as much as I wax nostalgic for my former employer. (I worked at USIA in the 1990s.) Many of us are more active in the field of public diplomacy than ever, USIA’s “death” notwithstanding. I’ve taught courses in public diplomacy from Beijing, China and Tel Aviv, Israel to Tokyo, Japan. I’m now living in Tokyo as an Abe Fellow conducting research on Japan’s image in the world since 3/11. I have seen many of my students find successful work in the field, not only in Washington but also in the nongovernmental sector. These are social change agents deeply committed to using public diplomacy for the common good. Their efforts shouldn’t be made light of by an op-ed mired down in inside-the-beltway politics of the 1990s. It’s like evaluating Bill Clinton by his Lewinsky days and never by the Clinton Global Initiative.
There are more talented people engaged in public diplomacy than ever. There is recognition of public diplomacy in the academy with graduate programs and courses proliferating (USC, Syracuse, George Washington, American University to name a handful). There are titled careerists in public diplomacy that weren’t around in the 1990s. (Schadler identifies himself as a senior fellow in public diplomacy.) To bemoan a talent loss from the demise of the United States Information Agency’s dismantling under Bill Clinton is specious. In sheer numbers and recognition, public diplomacy is flourishing.
Whatever you think of their politics, Bill and Hillary Clinton represent the more formal faces of public diplomacy, but there are as many unsung public diplomats in the 21st century as there are non-traditional journalists blogging and tweeting their information and influence.
The whole spirit of this article reminds me of those Beatles fans who never got over the band’s breakup in 1970. USIA was dismantled in 1999, but what the agency was all about then in centralizing the process of public diplomacy is a global social network of activity today. The whole world is buzzing with public diplomacy in this age of decentralization where a visit by Lady Gaga to Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011 garnered media attention historically reserved for a visiting head of state. Yes, Russia, the People’s Republic of China and jihadi radicals are all “in the game” of effective public diplomacy, but so are Japan, South Korea, the European Union, among many others. Japan’s Cabinet just set September 18, 2013 as the effective date of the establishment of the Japan Brand Fund, a nation branding initiative that comes on the heels of Japan’s winning bid to host the 2020 Olympics.
In the 21st Century, we all are public diplomats. It is no longer the precious reserve of a few. It’s better to have more “in the game” than fewer if one wants to challenge the narrative of those organizations and individuals who are using public diplomacy as a tool for more harm than good.