Rebooting America’s image in the world

By Stefanie Garden
Master of Public Diplomacy student

Dean Ernest J. Wilson III (pictured) led a roundtable discussion on his recent experiences as a member of the Presidential Transition Team for the Obama administration at a Jan. 22 event at USC Annenberg.

Dean Wilson explained the purpose of a typical Presidential Transition Team is to select and stand up a new team of people, think about what policies need to be pursued, figure out what instruments are available to implement those policies, and recover from 24 months of campaigning.

This was, however, an unconventional transition for the United States for the following reasons:

  • It is fighting two conventional wars (in Iraq and in Afghanistan)
  • It is also engaged in an unconventional War on Terror
  • The country is in an economic free-fall
  • There is a generational transition
  • America’s global impact and standing are on the decline

    As part of his participation in the Presidential Transition Team, Dean Wilson was asked to lead the International Broadcasting team, under the auspices of the Agency Review Team division, based at the Voice of America headquarters. He was also asked to serve as an advisor on public diplomacy at the Department of State (DOS). Dean Wilson noted that some of the exciting ideas floating around the DOS included looking at innovative infrastructure to help boost the U.S. economy. From green technology to broadband infrastructure – there was definitely an atmosphere of progress and innovation blending with policy, “innovation was in the air” remarked Dean Wilson.

    In considering Public Diplomacy, Dean Wilson shared three conclusions he and his colleagues in Washington considered were necessary in order to move public diplomacy forward:
  • Get organized
  • Get out of Washington
  • Get digital

    Expanding on each of these points, Dean Wilson lamented the fact that the previous U.S. administration relied too heavily on the military for diplomacy. “There are more lawyers in the defense department than there are diplomats in the state department,” he noted while discussing discrepancies in the budget allotted to the Department of Defense vs. the State Department.

    To address his second point Dean Wilson reflected on civil society as the great strength of the United States. “We do it better than anyone in the world,” he remarked and therefore cultivating civil society should be the focus of the new administration’s public diplomacy policy.

    To his third point on going digital, in order to make use of the technology available to us today, Dean Wilson stated that we must reinvent the incentive structure and re-acculturate the State Department and its relationship to the White House.

    Addressing questions from the audience, Dean Wilson discussed Al-Hurra, the United States’ hotly contested Arabic language news program broadcast to the Middle East. He revealed that Al-Hurra was as criticized as much as, if not more than, the CIA in some cases, and opinions of the news channel were very low. Wilson noted that the new administration would have the opportunity to appoint four new members to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) who could make a real difference in both the approach and the amount of money spent on media as an instrument of public diplomacy.

    Dean Wilson seemed hopeful and optimistic regarding the new administration’s ability to close the gap in spending between defense and state department activity. Wilson has faith in the leadership of newly confirmed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who recently created a position on her staff for a full time budget and resource person. He stated, however, that only a politically astute campaign can make it happen.

    In response to questions regarding the role of the private sector in helping to elevate America’s image around the world, Dean Wilson said he hoped whomever would be appointed to serve as the new undersecretary of public diplomacy within the state department would in fact be someone from the private sector, with all the experiences and expertise private companies could lend. Wilson conveyed the importance of working in a “quad” system where non-profits, universities, and the private sector worked alongside the state department to create a grand coalition to push for effective public diplomacy policy.
Video (below)