Increasing Awareness and Modernization in American Leadership

June 13, 2012 By Nicholas Rogacki

As Congress once again weighs competing House and Senate budget proposals, the introduction to the House floor of a new amendment aimed at ending long-standing restrictions to public diplomacy has placed a spotlight on American’s awareness of the International Affairs Budget.  As experts like Stewart Patrick have pointed out, “For decades now, U.S. citizens have overestimated U.S. foreign aid spending by several orders of magnitude.”  Recent poll numbers from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation again backs up this finding, showing a sizable gap between what the United actually spends and what the public thinks we spend.

The Kaiser Family Foundation’s annual Role of Global Health survey questions echo previous polls, which showed the American public’s misperception of the International Affairs Budget.  Of note, however, are respondent’s answers which show the potential for education to dramatically change the general public’s support for U.S. foreign engagement.

According to the Kaiser poll, the average American believes that 27 percent of the federal budget is devoted to foreign assistance, a startling statistic when one considers that the actual number is slightly more than one percent.  On this basis, over half of Americans polled also believed the amount allocated for the International Affairs Budget was too high.   But when participants were told the actual figure on foreign assistance, the number of respondents who thought the U.S. spends too much dropped by more than half, from 54 percent to 24 percent.  If public support for the International Affairs Budget is simply a matter of providing accurate information domestically, then policymakers have their work cut out for them, but should be able to make the case.

Yet, under current statutes, the State Department is legally restricted from providing U.S. citizens access to most of its public diplomacy material initially distributed internationally under the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948.  The act, initially created to prevent propaganda, has been become problematic in current times as the State Department has evolved and with the rise of the internet and mobile communication.  For instance, current standards mandate that any material the State Department deems important for domestic dissemination must be either cleared through the public affairs office or undergo a 12-year waiting period.

The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 hopes to address this issue.  The bill, recently introduced in the House, would remove the prohibition of public diplomacy material from being available to people within the United States.  The legislation would “authorize the domestic dissemination of information and material about the United States intended primarily for foreign audiences,” thus providing  greater transparency of State’s diplomatic and humanitarian operations and serving to help promote awareness and support for U.S. programs abroad.

By expanding the State Department’s audience while increasing domestic awareness the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act will surely elicit healthy debate in Congress.  It has the potential to change the way the world perceives American leadership by not only informing Americans about their nation’s contributions abroad, but by helping create a better foundation for diplomacy in the age of internet and satellite communication.