Let me tell you why you should care about the Smith-Mundt Act.
Huh? Bear with me here. Back in 1948, not long after the beginning of the Cold War, a short addition to the US Code was passed (the link is the amended version). Its purpose was to forbid the domestic dissemination of content created by the overseas information arms of the US government, such as the Voice of America and U. S. Information Agency (USIA) generally. Records of the time suggest a two fold logic for the Act. An apparent concern was the commercial media organizations' fear of government competition in the content domain. Larger was making sure that the government could not turn a propaganda apparatus on its own citizenry, which still retained a keen memory of the Nazi propaganda machine. Cynics then and since have suggested a third reason: to hide the devious machinations of America's own overseas propaganda from its citizens.
The Act has been maintained and enforced by the Executive ever since, even as it produced an increasing number of apparently foolish outcomes. As satellite TV and then the Internet made the attempt at artificial barriers between foreign and domestic dissemination increasingly ridiculous, still the government soldiered on, impelled by statute. Here, for instance, is a Naderite organization attempting to force open access to USIA archives under FOIA, and the defeat of the case by the Clinton administration. Issues have arisen as recently as the run up to the Iraq invasion.
Silly it may be, but it's a law, not some executive order changeable at the stroke of a pen. There have been amendments, most notably the section allowing news gathering organizations, among others, access to English transcripts on request and at their expense. Apparently holding that the 'on request' is the essence of this rule, the Voice of America (still subject to Smith-Mundt), has driven an entire English language news website through that loophole, the information flow now being indexed by Google and frequently cited at The Command Post, among others.
The purpose of this is not to call the dogs on the VOA, who are merely behaving sensibly, but to display an obvious example of the ossified state of US public diplomacy in a networked world. Here a little jargon is perhaps necessary. The regular sort of diplomacy is
Colin Powell Condi flying off to see Hosni Mubarak - state to state. Public affairs is the government talking to the media, domestic and international - think of Richard Boucher, State's spokesperson. Public diplomacy is the US government talking directly to foreign citizens, usually over the heads of their own government. Think Radio Marti, or Radio Free Europe for those of us of an age.
Public diplomacy was high profile, and rather successful, back in the Cold War days where the Voice of America was often the only source of reasonably credible news (and jazz and rock & roll) to citizens of communist countries with captive government media. Post the Cold War, the constituency for public diplomacy as an independent establishment dwindled, and it was reorg'ed into the State Department, where it was apparently a bit of a red-haired stepchild. Just in time, as with so many of our governmental institutions, to be wrong-footed by the eruption of war with Islamofascism, in which public perception is a major part of the struggle.
Meanwhile, the media world changed. From a scarcity of US derived content, many outside the borders went to a deluge of satellite-borne media, from Baywatch to CNN to Lion King (and some of them hated us for it). Then came the Internet, and any hope of controlling or segmenting the outflow of information ended. The distinction between public affairs and public diplomacy has collapsed; what is said in Washington goes around the world instantly, and any official acts overseas come here nearly as quickly. If you followed the last links, you'll note fixes that were talked of in terms of charters, org charts, budgets. But radical shift in the media environment makes this kind of marginal tweaking irrelevant. The issue is structural, at a whole systems level.
Along with the worldwide spread of satellite media came an adversary with propaganda skills more polished than the Soviets and a cultural sensitivity beyond that of US public diplomacy. Layer on top a domestic media that often seems to put more weight on playing gotcha games with our own government than on their effect on a deadly war. Public diplomacy, public affairs, strategic communications have all been scrambling to come from behind ever since.Now realize that thanks to citizens' media, thousands of Americans, Iranians, Chinese, Iraqis, Aussies and all the rest are now in direct contact with one another, for better or worse. Free to persuade, insult, cajole, inform, love and hate one another - totally out of control. For many in the outside world, the Americans on the Internet now matter a lot more than the anointed ambassador or CNN. For a growing number of Americans, first hand (virtual) encounters have more substance than official and media pronouncements. Consider this comment on the one year anniversary of Iraq the Model:
You have demystified Iraq for me. You have humanized for me, not only yourselves, not only Iraqis, but the whole arab world, the whole Islamic world. you have let me open up the formerly impenetrable case, the one that baffled us and frightened us all, so terribly, on sept 11th, and let me see my purported enemies, as well as my friends, with human eyes, instead of unknowing imaginings.... We are not different, we are alike.and with that, the contrived wall between Us and Them crumbles, and blows away in the wind, and guarantees the failure of all those who labor in vain to set us against each other. for them, it's the worst news possible: We all know each other now. There's nothing they can do, now, that can touch that. It's too late. We've made friends. And we did it just by being our natural selves. Heh. the ordinary is powerful! I bet they never thought they could be done in by the simple act of regular folks, just telling each other anecdotes of mundane everyday life!!!Poignant, corny, and loaded with implications for the future. The numbers involved are still small. There are plenty of trolls, nay sayers, and hate-mongers intermingled with the goodwill. There are language barriers on all sides. There are adversaries using the same medium to organize destruction. And this will not reach truly disconnected countries, from North Korea to Sudan.
Yet, every sign points in the direction of growth, from the increasing reach of the Internet, the spread of cheap mobile media devices, to the growing desire to bypass the legacy media and find out for ourselves. And people are starting to act based on their contacts, from influencing votes to mobilizing relief organizations such as Spirit of America.
Venture capitalists like myself keep an eye out for learning curves, things growing fast and out of control. The military looks for fast decision (OODA) loops, systems that adapt faster than their competitors. Citizens' diplomacy scores on both counts. That was the point of dragging in the Smith-Mundt Act and the Dept. of State: These are representative of the government's adaptation rate in the world of foreign affairs and media. There are folks in the DOD who recognize the problem (large PDF file) and are pushing for change. I wish them well, but bureaucratic history is not on their side.
So where do we go? The title gives it away - I think you're looking at the medium that will forge a large part of the outcome. We are all ambassadors now, Americans and others alike. Just as we're bypassing mainstream media, we've started to bypass mainstream diplomacy. What we do and say with one another may matter a great deal - just a small matter of war or peace (not to put on any pressure).