American public diplomacy has been the subject of many reports and much discussion over the past few years. But one rarely examined element is the true impact of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which for all practical purposes labels U.S. public diplomacy and government broadcasting as propaganda. The law imposes a geographic segregation of audiences between those inside the U.S. and those outside it, based on the fear that content aimed at audiences abroad might "spill over" into the U.S. This not only shows a lack of confidence and understanding of U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting, it also ignores the ways in which information and people now move across porous, often non-existent borders with incredible speed and ease, to both create and empower dynamic diasporas.
The impact of the "firewall" created by Smith-Mundt between domestic and foreign audiences is profound and often ignored. Ask a citizen of any other democracy what they think about this firewall and you're likely to get a blank, confused stare: Why -- and how -- would such a thing exist? No other country, except perhaps North Korea and China, prevents its own people from knowing what is said and done in their name.
But in hiding from the public, Congress, and even the rest of the government what the U.S. government says and does abroad, this imaginary separation between foreign and domestic audiences reduces awareness of the State Department's effectiveness (as well as that of USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation), increases the cost of engagement while decreasing overall effectiveness, and limits accountability. Its negative impact on the State Department, in particular, helped propel the militarization of U.S. public diplomacy, as the Defense Department stepped in, clumsily, to fill gaps left by ineffectual or absent civilian efforts. Overall, Smith-Mundt is a lose-lose scenario for the American public and people around the world.