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U.S.I.A. Redux?

In an op ed for the Orlando Sentinel, Senator John McCain floated the idea of establishing an independent agency to conduct public diplomacy on behalf of the U.S.  Mccain The senator drew a distinction between advocating the American position on day-to-day issues, which is theoretically what the State Department does, and the longer term task of communicating the country's values, what he calls "the idea of America." The latter, he says, would best be done by an independent agency reporting directly to the president.

"We need an independent agency with the sole purpose of getting America's message out in a factual and persuasive manner: managing radio and TV broadcasts to those in need of objective news; establishing American libraries with Internet access throughout the world; sending Americans overseas and sponsoring foreigners' visits to America for educational and cultural exchanges; and creating a professional corps of public-diplomacy experts who speak the local language and whose careers are spent promoting American values, ideas, culture and education. And it should recruit the best and brightest not just from the ranks of the Foreign Service but from business, academia and the media."

McCain admits that he voted to integrate the United States Information Agency into the State Department in 1999 on the theory that it would improve coordination between public and government to government diplomacy. That didn't work, he says. Instead, public diplomacy became an "orphan."

McCain may be the first presidential candidate to raise the issue of America's public diplomacy in the campaign. Too bad he used a relatively small Florida newspaper to do it. But now it's out there and, with luck, it will stimulate discussion.  I just hope McCain doesn't think the USIA can just pick up where it left off in 1999.  The world has changed too much in the meanwhile.

The Economist: U.S. Is A "Buy"

The United States is "Still No. 1" declares the cover of The Economist's June 30 issue. If the accompanying illustration shows Uncle Sam in something less than triumphant pose, that's kind of the point.Economist_june_30_2007

The U.S. may be "wounded, tetchy and less effective than it should be," the editors say but "America us still the power that counts."

("Tetchy" is apparently the Queen's English for "irritable" or "peevish" and probably comes from Middle English tecche, "a bad habit," from Old French tache, teche, "a spot or stain," or from close observation of our president's news conferences.) In fact, The Economist admits that the U.S. has been weakened globally since President Bush arrived in office thanks to  a range of missteps from bumbling diplomacy, to strategic blunders in Iraq, the embarrassment of Abu Ghraib, and slowness to tackle climate change.

But the magazine is also quick to point out that Bush's impact on America's reputation has been exaggerated. "America did not enjoy untrammelled influence abroad before he arrived," it points out. "The country that won the cold war also endured several grievous reverses, notably Vietnam (where 58,000 Americans were killed—16 times the figure for Iraq). Iran has been defying America since Jimmy Carter's presidency, and North Korea for a generation before that. As for soft power, France has been complaining about Coca-Cola and Hollywood for nearly a century."

But a superpower's strength "lies as much in what it can prevent from happening as in what it can achieve," says The Economist. "In all sorts of areas—be it the fight against global warming or the quest for an Arab-Israeli peace—America is quite simply indispensable."

That's where The Economist may have gone off the the track a bit -- maybe these problems can't be solved without America, but America can't solve them alone either.  The biggest problems we face -- terrorism, nuclear proliferation, avian flu, counterfeiting, you name it -- all require the cooperation of other nations. Our hard, military power demonstrably can't win their help. Only our soft power can. And that is what we have lost in recent years.   

That said, The Economist's bottom line is appropriately optimistic: "If America were a stock, it would be a 'buy': an undervalued market leader, in need of new management. But that points to its last great strength. More than any rival, America corrects itself. Under pressure from voters, Mr Bush has already rediscovered some of the charms of multilateralism; he is talking about climate change; a Middle East peace initiative is possible. Next year's presidential election offers a chance for renewal. Such corrections are not automatic: something (a misadventure in Iran?) may yet compound the misery of Iraq in the same way Watergate followed Vietnam. But America recovered from the 1970s. It will bounce back stronger again."

Department of Half A Loaf

It looks like efforts to block full-scale reform of immigration policy succeeded. The bill's opponents had all the subtlety of a Quentin Tarantino movie, but their "Kill the Bill" message registered with  senators leery of getting on the wrong side of an ill-informed but emotional constituency -- including two Republicans who sponsored it in the first place. The Senate failed to close debate on the bill, which effectively means it will never come to vote. Shamnestykill

But on the theory that half a loaf is better than none, some of the immigration bill's sponsors should consider folding some of their proposals into new legislation recently proposed by Sen. Byron Dorgan, the North Dakota Democrat who, along with Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, proposed the Travel Promotion Act of 2007.

The Dorgan bill - S. 1661 - would create a new travel promotion campaign funded equally by a fee on overseas travelers and contributions from the U.S. travel industry. The campaign would be run by an independent, non-profit corporation. In addition to promoting the United States as a travel destination, it would explain U.S. security policies and improve visa/entry practices.

The Travel Promotion Act was approced by the the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation yesterday. It includes provisions that would:

  • authorize the State Department to explore visa interviews by videoconference where appropriate;
  • authorize the State Department to explore mobile visa operations where appropriate and secure;
  • require the State Department to report what it needs to meet the 30-day standard for visa interview wait times;
  • authorize a "Model Ports" program at the nation’s top 20 international arrival airports;
  • authorize 200 more Customs and Border Protection officers at these top 20 airports; and
  • authorize the creation of an international registered traveler program to expedite the secure screening of arriving travelers.

The proposed act is gathering broad bi-partisan support. A call to your senator would help. 

Confucius Institute

China plans to establish 500 "Confucius Institutes" around the world.Confucious_institute They already have 12 institutes at U.S. universities and have even established one in the Chicago public school system. The institutes appear to be modeled after l'Alliance Francaise, the Cervantes Institute, the British Council, the Goethe Institute, etc. with language-training as their lead offering. But the Confucius Institute's charter is even broader, including access to Chinese movies and media, meetings with Chinese officials, organized tours, etc. Wired magazine did a story on the initiative last year.  

It's interesting that the Chinese named their new public diplomacy effort after the ancient philosopher since that country has been trying to squelch Confucianism since the time of Mao. Their research probably told them that Confucius is widely known and respected outside China and has no overt political connotations.

Wouldn't it make sense for the U.S. to establish similar institute's around the world, funded by the State Department and run by local partners such as universities or other civic entities? Taking a lead from the Chinese (and Spanish), they could be called Franklin Centers.   After all, Benjamin Franklin was the American equivalent of Confucius, known and respected around the world.  He even produced his own book of aphorisms.

Golden Coverage

Uncle_sam_sells Sometimes there's a reporter in the audience when I promote one of my books. That was the case when I spoke in Boston recently. The resulting column by Peter Golden in the  Waltham, Ma., Daily News Tribune, may have gone a little overboard in suggesting a job for me in the next presidential administration, but I appreciate the thought.  The illustration, reprinted here, deftly depicts the impact of America's declining reputation.  I may use it in future presentations myself.  You can read the column itself here.

Foreign Students in U.S.

I've been traveling quite a bit, both for pleasure and to promote Rebuilding Brand America, which is also a pleasure but not as much fun as trekking through Cornwall.  Book_pile

Anyway, today I did a webcast for the American Management Association with my friend Keith Reinhard, president of Business for Diplomatic Action. (View the whole webcast at the AMA's website .)  In the Q&A period, one of the attendees took us to task for comparing the growth rate of foreign enrollments in U.S. colleges (about 9 percent over the last five years) to that in places like the U.K., France and Germany (much higher).  What we ignored, our caller said, was that the U.S. has so many more foreign students. It's much harder to grow a big number than a small number, he quite reasonably said.

I let Keith handle the question, which he did quite ably, apologizing for not using absolute numbers and skillfully segueing to the larger issue of  how anti-Americanism is of growing concern to university presidents.

But it got me thinking. So when I got home I did a little additional research.  Here's what I found out.

The U.S. attracts about 22% of all foreign students, followed by the U.K. (12%), France and Germany (each 10%).  The absolute number of foreign students in the U.S. is about 500,000; the U.K., France and Germany have about 200,000 each.  Taking the three non-U.S. countries as a whole would give them slightly more foreign students than the U.S., but their growth rate would still be dramatically higher at about 52%.

Further, the U.S. also has the largest system of higher education, with 15 million students, compared to the U.K., France and Germany, which have about 2 million students each.

So on a comparable basis, only 4% of U.S. college students come from foreign countries, whereas the percentages for the U.K., France and Germany are respectively 15%, 11% and 13%.

You can check out the data for yourself at the Atlas of Student Mobility.

As someone who worked for a company that went from 95% market share to about 35% in just 13 years, I know what can happen when your competitors are growing at dramatically higher rates than you are.  I think our original point was correct, but I'd like to know what you think.