Manuscripts/Mixed Material Interview with Albert E. Hemsing
HEMSING: For somebody who came up, obviously, on the information side of USIA, it may surprise some—probably not you, Bob—that I think the more important part of the Agency's work is not information, but the cultural side: exchange of persons, lectures, seminars, libraries, and so on. I used to hotly defend the idea of USIA as a separate agency, and that was right in the period that it needed to establish itself and to carve out a sphere for itself in the foreign affairs community. I am not yet sure that we have convinced all our colleagues in the State Department, fully convinced them, that we are co-equal workers in the vineyard of foreign affairs.
But the fact is that in the last ten or fifteen years one speaks more and more of public diplomacy. That indicates to me that the world has come to recognize that public diplomacy is an important component of diplomacy. Not “open covenants, openly arrived at”—negotiation requires shelter—but, what do we say in the Declaration of Independence—”A decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” That's really what public diplomacy is all about. As the world moves toward popular government and modern communications bring more and more information to the common man, America has to explain itself to the world—out of a decent respect for others. That means not only explaining and defending our foreign policy, but also explaining the context of our foreign policy—our society and the way our political processes operate. That is important. “Contexting” is what the so-called “cultural” side of USIA is all about.
Where am I at today? While I don't think the world would come to an end if USIA were broken up, I would be dead against reducing the totality of the effort. Obviously, though, the Voice of America could function as a separate entity under the Board for International Broadcasting. The press/information function, in direct support of U.S. foreign policy, could be carried by press attach�s in the field, back-stopped by the State Department in Washington.
That would leave all the rest, and the rest is what I consider most important. That work might be undertaken by something like an “American Council”. The effort would have to be closely tied in with our academic, cultural and arts communities and institutions at home. It would have to be decidedly more vigorous than the British Council, and far better funded.
On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with the way USIA is now, if some of the layers of Washington bureaucracy could be dissolved away, and if the cultural effort could be better shielded from the passing political whims of changing administrations.
One must take one's hat off to Director Charles Wick's ability to generate extra funds for USIA, and for up-grading and modernizing USIA's and VOA's technical facilities, something long overdue.
But I wonder whether those costly satellite TV transmissions he favors, Worldnet and all that, is worth the cost of putting some of America's best minds together with their opposite numbers abroad, on a face-to-face basis.