Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Beacon No. 22: "We Have Unilaterally Disarmed."


David M. Abshire, president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, visited USC's Center on Public Diplomacy last Thursday and a breakfast audience of about 40 got the benefit of his roughly six decades in public life.

Much of that life has been spent thinking big thoughts; in 1962, for instance, he co-founded the Center for Strategic and International Studies and remains on its board. He's been a resume god ever since his teens: West Point '51, platoon leader in Korea, Georgetown history Ph.D. in '59, Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Relations '70-'73, chairman of the U.S. Board for International Broadcasting, member of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, ambassador to NATO, author of at least nine books, and so on into the present.

Dr. Abshire was on campus to talk about public diplomacy and worries about the current state of U.S. soft power, saying that by shutting down the U.S. Information Agency "we have unilaterally disarmed" in the global war of ideas. He would seem to be very much on the side of those calling for a restoration of the USIA, as he thinks the USIA's journalistic culture clashed with the culture taught to Foreign Service officers.

My apologies for devoting so little space to Dr. Abshire's roughly 75-minute discussion.

ON THE NEW ADMINISTRATION: Condoleezza Rice may lead the way for the State Department to get back to being the lead agency in foreign policy. Abshire is encouraged by the president's stated willingness to listen to ideas on Social Security reform, as expressed in the State of the Union address, and thinks the president is basically a "person of tolerance" who will learn from previous foreign-policy mistakes.

ON THE PRESIDENT'S INAUGURAL ADDRESS: Great ideas, but we don't have the machinery to carry them out right now. U.S. language proficiency is "atrocious," knowledge of other countries and cultures is poor, and our translation programs "need to be completely rebuilt."

RADIO SAWA AND AL-HURRA: "A step forward."

DR. ABSHIRE'S BIG IDEA: With former ambassador to Syria and Israel Ed Djerejian, Abshire is contemplating a 501(c)(3) Corps for Public Diplomacy that would include both public- and private-sector leaders interested in helping U.S. cultural exports find their way overseas. Hardly an unabashed fan of U.S. entertainment—he says "what we convey is not the best of America" and finds "much that would bother me for my grandchildren growing up as well as an observant Muslim"—Abshire nonetheless eyes the success of U.S. exports of video games, books and Sesame Street as role models for the future.

PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER ONE: The American tendency toward exceptionalism. This thought that America is special or destined or above it all tends to make the U.S. hated abroad, and humility would be a big help to U.S. soft power.

QUOTES HE LIKES: "History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes," which he attributes to Twain. Napoleon, on how psychological factors are three times as important as armies in war. FDR on how "the way to gain a friend is to be a friend."

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