Public diplomacy in the information age – Secretary Shultz’s address before the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy on September 15, 1987

Public diplomacy in the information age – Secretary Shultz’s address before the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy on September 15, 1987 – transcript

Public Diplomacy in the Information Age

Secretary Shultz’s address before the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy on September 15, 1987.(1)

I must say, as I found myself getting ready for the meetings with the Soviet Foreign Minister [Eduard Shevardnadze]–which I’ve been involved in all day long, starting at 8:00 this morning and just now pausing before we go on to our casual conversation over dinner–I thought to myself, “How did I get myself involved in so many things all at once?’ On the other hand, I think there’s a certain importance added by the fact of this meeting with the Soviet Foreign Minister, because it is, in many respects, our competition and our concerns with the Soviet Union that drive at least some–not all, but some–of our concerns about public diplomacy.

So let me say that this conference is about something of fundamental importance to our foreign relations, America’s voice in the world of the future. Secretaries of State are not blessed with the power of prophecy, but I’m an optimist about our future, for whatever that’s worth to you.

The future looks bright for America, because we are a vital and vibrant democracy. The openness of our system, the innovativeness of our people, the vast energies of our society, all these can help us meet the difficult challenges of a changing world.

But will we meet them, or will we shrink from and retreat into isolationism? Will we commit the resources necessary to conduct the kind of foreign policy that will play to our democratic strength? These are the hard questions we must ask ourselves tonight.

Democracy and Change in the Age of Information

If only we will let them, America’s democratic values can carry us boldly into the future as a global power, just as they carried us forward from the age of reason through the industrial era into what I think of as the age of information.

Freedom and intellectual curiosity are the wave of the future, not some foreordained vision of evolutionary stages driven by class conflict. Take a look at history. Contrary to Marxian prediction, the appeal of Western democracy was not extinguished by the harsh conditions of the factory and the sweat shop, nor could the power of democracy be destroyed by depression and two devastating World Wars.

On the contrary, the modern world that emerged from the despair and destruction of the first half of this century looked to the democratic ideals and respect for human rights as the best means of securing lasting peace and economic well-being in the postwar era.

In our own country in this century, Americans press for their rights, clinging tenaciously to the democratic ideals that promised a better future for their children. Individual liberty, private enterprise, equal opportunity in employment and education, civic activism to promote peaceful change, and, when dur democracy was threatened, the American people rose in its defense and prevailed.

In the end, their children and grandchildren did come to live in an America and in a world that was at once more prosperous and more secure than that of their fathers. The alliances and economic institutions designed by farsighted American policymakers at the close of World War II have brought to us and to the world unprecedented levels of economic growth, social progress, and security in the ensuing four decades.

In good part, by our example, democracy, a child of the age of reason, is transforming our modern world. From Spain and Portugal a decade ago, to a trend that now encompasses Latin America, from Argentina to El Salvador, from the Philippines to South Korea, the surge toward democracy is the most powerful political movement of our time.

The spread of democracy in this new era also means that conduct of U.S. foreign policy is becoming a truly public exercise, both at home and abroad. Throughout the world, higher levels of development and education have drawn more people into the political process, and advances in technology have given unprecedented reach to political views and public opinion.

As I had occasion to say last month before Congress, in our democratic politics, everybody wants to get into the act. The players are many. The roles they play are often competing, and the plot is becoming more and more complex. The same thing can be said for politics around the world.

The almost instant and global awareness of current events, as conveyed through electronic media, focuses public concern on foreign policy issues from human rights to trade sanctions to our Strategic Defense Initiative. Church activists, humanitarian groups, and individual Americans are involved in pressing their agendas abroad as well as at home, and foreign governments and their representatives gained ready and direct access to our domestic media and those of other countries, thus taking their views essentially unfiltered to larger audiences over the heads or under the seats of their own governments.

In short, the speed of communication and easy travel means that the Secretary of State and even the President cannot function as autonomous, unchallenged directors of policy. We have to work hard to provide leadership and cohesion and to marshal understanding and support for our policies, both at home and abroad. This is the new reality that must be taken into account if any U.S. foreign policy initiative is to be effective.

In this age of change, America’s open, democratic system will remain our greatest asset. The information age is our age. Indeed, most of the change accelerating around us today is driven by the scientific and technological advances that are the fundamental product of our democratic way of life. Current trends are going our way. It is already clear that knowledge, communications, and information and the ability to use them effectively are profoundly transforming global economic, political, and security relationships. Countries such as ours that are full participants in the global flow of ideas–people and information–will be in the best position to meet the future’s challenges and to reap its rewards.

In corners of the globe as far flung as Africa and China, we have seen an encouraging trend toward free marketoriented solutions to the problems of economic growth. Nations burdened with authoritarian, if not totalitarian, political systems are beginning to see that economic advance in our age requires openness to information and ideas, and slowly they are placing a great emphasis on individual creativity, entrepreneurship, and decentralization of responsibility–even the Soviet Union, finally facing up to the need for openness, economic restructuring, and, at least by their likes, democratization.

Conveying Our Democratic Message

As Secretary of State, I have found that the most persuasive case I can make for the American position in dealing with other governments is the idealism and strength projected by our democratic society. More than ever, the United States must promote foreign policies that reflect our democratic values. We must conduct a style of public diplomacy that is capable of conveying our democratic message to a varied and even more vast world audience.

Today our foreign affairs agenda is crowded with complex issues we would not have contemplated even a generation ago. The world is not just at our doorstep; it is already in our living rooms, and we’re in their living rooms. It is a world to which we must stay tuned, in which we must keep actively involved, and with which we must stay in constant dialogue. We cannot tune out, even if we wanted to, given the global reach of our relationships and commitments. The spotlight is on us, and the microphones are always open. It is up to us to use our platform well and project America’s domestic message clearly, consistently, and effectively.

And what is that emerging world to which we must convey our democratic message? A world where the dispersion of scientific and technological know-how is causing a wider distribution of economic, military, and political capabilities. A world of heightened economic, technological, and political competitiveness. a world that is ever more interdependent economically as information systems create global financial and trading markets–a fascinating thing going on in the area of trade, as I see it. It isn’t simply that we think of some products that are made here, some products that are made somewhere else, and we trade in those products and compete in those products. That’s not the case.

If you take an automobile, or a refrigerator, or a wiring board for a computer, or any almost typical product, what you find is that it’s made up of components from many different places. So if we were to say, let us lay down a barrier between ourselves and the rest of the world, as many who believe in protection seem to want to do, what we would be saying is, let us restructure the whole way in which we go about producing a product. It would be devastating. That’s something different than we’ve seen before, and it is something that has happened as we have moved more and more in this age of information.

Our democratic message must reach a world community in which pressures for political and social change have accelerated and contact among contrasting cultures is pervasive and ever more intense. Our voice must be heard and understood by a world audience that is still widely differentiated in terms of development. We must speak to a world that is still driven by age-old ethnic, religious, and regional strife even as the availability of sophisticated weapons makes these conflicts more deadly. We must appeal to a concerned world public about dangers to the environment and about the misuse of modern weaponry by terrorists and drug traffickers even as we apply new technologies in a cooperative international effort to eradicate these modernday scourges.

But America’s voice is not the only voice the world hears. I do not have to remind you here tonight that the potential of advanced communications technologies and the importance of world public opinion has not been lost on the Soviet Union.

The new leadership, under Mikhail Gorbachev, has been adept at employing public diplomacy to convey its message of glasnost and perestroyka. America always stands ready to encourage a freer flow of ideas, people, and information as is called for in the Helsinki Final Act, and we welcome any genuine advances that promise to bring our peoples closer together.

While America’s very freedom and enterprising spirit give us a natural advantage in the information age, we cannot afford to be complacent, particularly in the field of public diplomacy. In the short run, we can be vulnerable to those who would exploit our very openness and who would manipulate communications technologies for purely propagandistic purposes.

We estimate that Radio Moscow transmits well over 2,000 hours per week, while the Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts just over 1,000, by comparison. We must not forget that the single voice of state propaganda does not compete with any chorus of domestic opinion. It admits no interplay of ideas, interests, and issues, and it sounds forth insistently, day in and day out. When the world listens to America’s voice, it hears an entire chorus, at times a cacophony. It hears the rich, varied, and sometimes confusing sounds of a vital, democratic society.

The Need for Budgetary Support

In this era of accelerating change, more than ever, the United States will require a style of public diplomacy that gives full expression to our abiding democratic message. None are more aware of this than the Advisory Commission [on Public Diplomacy] and the United States Information Agency. It is a credit to the leadership of many of you in this room that one of the major foreign policy achievements of this Administration is the reinvigorative role in enhanced technical capabilities for public diplomacy. Pragmatic funding and careful planning in the recent past have permitted us to draw upon a wealth of electronic and other communications resources to project our policies, convey our interests, and bring our democratic message to an everbroader audience.

Without a dedicated effort during President Reagan’s Administration to rebuild and consolidate our information and cultural programs, many of our foreign policy goals would have gone unrealized, and they may still be imperiled if we cannot provide the necessary resources due to severe constraints on our foreign affairs budget imposed by Congress. The draconian cuts Congress has made on the foreign affairs budget over the past 3 years now threaten the lifeblood of our entire foreign policy effort, including our public diplomacy programs.

The need for instantaneous, reliable communications links around the globe is perhaps the most obvious and immediate demand we must continue to meet. We cannot continue to compete successfully in the arena of world public opinion when VOA has been forced to cut its broadcast hours by 10% in fiscal year (FY) 1987; when 12 overseas USIS [United States Information Service] mission posts and centers have been closed; and when international visitor, youth, and book programs have been slashed. It doesn’t make any sense from the standpoint of our interests.

With the cuts Congress is proposing in the FY 1988 foreign affairs budget, these downward trends can only get worse. Public diplomacy, the projection of our views and lifestyle abroad, has no true domestic constituency, much less a national consensus upon which to forge budgets in Congress that do justice to the needs of America’s international public diplomacy. We must do more to convince the public and their congressional representatives of the importance of meeting those needs.

Now is certainly not the time to be shortsighted about the importance of public diplomacy. In a world where no one country can dictate economic, political, or military events, the need for international cooperation, for coalition-forging and confidence-building, becomes ever more apparent.

It is just as important for us to understand and to shape public attitudes abroad and at home as it is to receive and interpret the latest computer-generated statistics or esoteric intelligence reports. People-to-people programs are more important than ever. We should do more to encourage the work of groups such as the National Endowment for Democracy and the Asia Foundation.

I have no doubt that America’s democratic message will prevail, provided we allocate the resources we need to compete. The dramatic worldwide trend toward democratic government is our most meaningful basis for optimism. The visionary American decisionmakers of the postwar era set in motion global trends that have shaped our present and are moving us toward an even more promising future.

It is now for us to be as creative as they were, as we address the challenges of a world of fast pace and tranformational change.


Only yesterday I addressed a workshop organized by the National Academy of Sciences on the information and communications revolution and U.S. foreign policy. I asked the National Academy of Sciences workshop participants, from academic and business circles, to think boldly and systematically about the consequences of the technological and scientific advances of the information age for our conduct of foreign affairs.

The workshop discussion was lively and useful. Although diverse views on many issues were expressed, the participants unanimously agreed that we are entering an era when things will be qualitatively different.

We are entering a future that can bring unprecedented prosperity and security at home and abroad. At the same time, America will face enormous challenges across the entire spectrum of our economic, social, and political relationships. Yet, in all the changes that will come, one thing is certain: America’s traditional values of individual liberty, democratic institutions, free enterprise, and human ingenuity will be central in establishing a better world for ourselves and for the world community. That is the essence of America’s democratic message, the message that we must convey through our public diplomacy.

I thank you for letting me start this meeting out, and I hope that you’ll dig into some of the ins and outs of the age of information, as I see it, and come to grips with its vast implications for us. I think you will wind up agreeing with me that as we grapple in what should be our world, our kind of change, the role of public diplomacy must be a central one. And it is so much in our interest to apply the resources and the effort as represented by the people in this room, to see that we do our job to make our views clear and to prevail in seeing to it that the better world that’s there for us actually does materialize.

1 Press release 185 of Sept. 16, 1987.

COPYRIGHT 1987 U.S. Government Printing Office

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