The Return of Publicly Accessible American Centers?

“America’s best players in public diplomacy have always been its people and its ideas. The United States should get them back into the game instead of standing on the sidelines.” That’s Senator Lugar blogging in Foreign Policy back in February (To win hearts and minds, get back in the game │ Thu, 02/26/2009 – 8:36pm).

On February 13, 2009, Senator Lugar introduced S. Res. 49, expressing the sense of the Senate regarding the importance of public diplomacy. He has also released a report on public diplomacy prepared by the minority staff of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee .

It points out that that Government of the United Kingdom, of France, and of Germany run stand-alone public diplomacy facilities throughout the world, which are known as the British Council, the Alliance Francaise, and the Goethe Institute, respectively; that these government-run facilities teach the national languages of their respective countries, offer libraries, newspapers, and periodicals, sponsor public lecture and film series that engage local audiences in dialogues that foster better understandings between these countries and create an environment promoting greater trust and openness.

I did not realize it until I read this – but Iran apparently has many cultural centers, and has increased the number of Iranian Cultural Centers, to about 60 throughout the world.

The United States has historically operated similar facilities, known as American Centers under USIA but following the end of the Cold War and the attacks on United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, budgetary and security pressures resulted in the drastic downsizing or closure of most of the American Centers. In Senator Lugar’s assessment, “The unintended result is that in the global contest for ideas, the United States is playing short-handed.”

In the beginning of 1999, American Centers began to be renamed Information Resource Centers and relocated primarily inside United States embassy compounds. 177 Information Resource Centers are in operation as of February 2009 but 87, or 49% operate on a ‘‘By Appointment Only’’ basis and 18, or 11%, do not permit any public access.

Yesterday, the Senate agreed to S. Res. 49, to express the sense of the Senate regarding the importance of public diplomacy.

Resolved, That—

(1) the Secretary of State should initiate a reexamination of the public diplomacy platform strategy of the United States with a goal of reestablishing publicly accessible American Centers;

(2) after taking into account relevant security considerations, the Secretary of State should consider placing United States public diplomacy facilities at locations conducive to maximizing their use, consistent with the authority given to the Secretary under section 606(a)(2)(B) of the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999 (22 U.S.C. 4865(a)(2)(B)) to waive certain requirements of that Act.

See the full text here (pdf).

On a related note, Judith McHale, the administration’s nominee to be Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy has just been cleared by the Senate panel and is now awaiting for confirmation vote of the full Senate. Click here to read the transcript of her opening statement at the confirmation hearing last week. Excerpts on related issues below:

“The Iranian public diplomacy network in the Middle East and beyond includes satellite television and radio networks in several languages, more than 100 newspapers and magazines, and thousands of web sites and blogs.”
I will look to this Committee for advice and guidance every step of the way if I am fortunate enough to be confirmed. From rebuilding our network of American Centers and strengthening our cultural diplomacy, to ensuring a public diplomacy structure with clear lines of authority and accountability…”

Related Items:

  • U.S. Public Diplomacy: Time to Get Back in the Game
    111th Congress, February 13, 2009 │ PDF

  • Opening Statement of Judith McHale
    SFRC Confirmation Hearing, May 13, 2009 Link