By Patricia H. Kushlis
Over the January 31-February 1 weekend, the Howard Gilman Foundation and Meridian International cosponsored a conference at the White Oak Conference Center as one of a series of off-site conferences on elements of recreating America's "smart power." The conference was based on widely held views that America's public diplomacy apparatus - a major key to the implementation of "smart power" as it is now configured does not work.
The result was a one and one-half page document entitled “The White Oak Recommendations on Public Diplomacy” which has just been released to the media. The press release was preceded by an on-the-record Bloggers Roundtable in which I was privileged to participate. The Roundtable was chaired by Doug Wilson, member of the board of the Gilman Foundation, former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs and former Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs Director, USIA, and Robert Coonrod, President of the Public Diplomacy Council and former CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Both the recommendations and the names of the 67 individuals from different segments of the US public and private sectors that participated in the conference and who publicly endorsed the recommendations in their individual capacities have been posted on Matt Armstrong’s blog Mountain Runner. The recommendations and the list of endorsers are well worth reading and reflecting upon.
First Steps First
If I’ve got it right, the overarching conference goal was to create a consensus that would provide a coherent and concise road-map – as opposed to the innumerable piece-meal recommendations and 30 plus lengthy reports representing various views and interests - for presentation to Congress and the new administration. What resulted from White Oak is a short, readable document that highlights significant fundamental problems that need to be dealt with if the US is to again restore – or reinvent – a sustained institutional approach to restoring America’s image abroad. It also recommends ways to begin to deal with them.
Documents drafted by committees – ipso facto – reflect the least common denominator of the participants. As a consequence, these recommendations should be seen in that light. What makes them important, however, is that they are common sense, they are holistic, and they should be short enough to draw the attention of people in both the administration and the Congress who will be making the decisions on how to improve America’s “smart power” over the coming years.
Furthermore, as Wilson and Coonrod both stressed in the Roundtable, the White Oak recommendations carry the weight of consensus. This is particularly significant because over the past several years especially since the dissolution of the US Information Agency, the public diplomacy community has fragmented badly in its demands and its recommendations thereby making it far less effective than what once was a coherent whole. If nothing more this attempt to apply centripetal force is a crucial first step.