Page 67 - Foreign Service Journal - May 2013

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MAY 2013
USIA: Gone but
Not Forgotten
Te Decline and Fall of the
United States Information Agency:
American Public Diplomacy,
Nicholas J. Cull, Palgrave Macmillan,
2012, $85, hardcover, 257 pages.
Reviewed by Allen C. Hansen
Near the end of his magisterial
Cold War and the U.S. Information
Agency: American Propaganda
and Public Diplomacy, 1945-1989,
the precursor to this work (see
my review in the July-August
Foreign Service Journal
), Nicho-
las J. Cull observes:
“U.S. public diplomacy had been an
important tool for minimizing disasters
like Watergate, managing relationships
with allies, blocking the enemy’s ability
to win, and holding the imagination of
the developing and nonaligned world
until the American system had decisively
passed the Soviet.”
Yet as this companion volume docu-
ments, just a few years after that victory
USIA was no more. Equally remarkable,
it departed the scene essentially unno-
ticed and unmourned.
Te story Cull tells in
Te Decline
and Fall of the United States Infor-
mation Agency: American Public
Diplomacy, 1989-2001
will already
be painfully familiar to many read-
ers of the
, no doubt. But as we
enter another era of tightening federal
budgets and the continued absence of
a constituency for diplomacy, it is well
worth revisiting that dismal decade in
these pages.
Cull, a professor of public diplomacy
at the University of Southern Califor-
nia, frames the book by presenting, in
chronological order, the major interna-
tional and domestic events that called
for U.S. public diplomacy treat-
ment during the
to assess
how USIA
of those
he presents
what public
call “evidence
of efective-
ness,” drawing on statistical data. For
instance, regarding the agency’s Inter-
national Visitors Program, he notes that
as of last year, 37 countries around the
world, including some major powers,
were led by IV program veterans.
Although his account centers on
the agency’s headquarters, the input
of Foreign Service ofcers in the feld
is well represented. As part of his
prodigious research, he is generous in
crediting the many books USIA veterans
have produced over the years, such as
Alan Heil’s
Voice of America: A History
(Columbia University Press, 2003).
Te VOA certainly receives its due
in Cull’s book, by the way. Unlike their
colleagues, many Voice of America
employees actually celebrated their
emancipation from USIA in 1999.
Unfortunately, as Cull wryly comments,
“No one seemed concerned that the
VOA might have traded an old set of
shackles for a new set marked BBG”
(Broadcasting Board of Governors)—
until it was too late.
Appropriately, Cull dedicates the
book to Bernie Kamenske, who was
chief of the VOA news division from
1973 to 1981. All who knew Bernie still
recall his dedication to accurate, objec-
tive and comprehensive newscasts,
and his defense of the high standards
laid down in the VOA Charter. Despite
periodic attempts by some ambassadors
and ofcials to seek a less-than-objec-
tive view in Voice newscasts, he was
adamant that the place for advocacy
was in editorials or in clearly identif-
able sources. Dedicating this book to
him is a welcome tribute.
Refecting on the handling of what
many at USIA viewed as a “hostile take-
over” by State, Cull joins many others in
lamenting the cutbacks in spending for
libraries, publications and research that
followed the 1999 merger.
He rightly observes: “Part of the trag-
edy of the consolidation is that USIA’s
approach so often included the sort of
innovative approach that is essential
in the new era but was smothered at
the Department of State. By 2012, the
department was showing real indica-
tions that it had caught up, but half
a generation had been lost while it
learned on the job things that USIA had
known all along.”
Still, Cull cautions: “Te lesson from
the fnal years of USIA for America’s cur-
rent foreign policy is not that a separate
agency should be constructed. …Te
cultural function—which even within
USIA was typically neglected by succes-
sive administrations, only to be acknowl-
edged at the eleventh hour—might do
As in his frst volume,
Cull documents the major
contributions America’s
public diplomats have made
to U.S. foreign policy.