Smith-Mundt Modernization Act: What is it?

In 1948, the US Information and Educational Exchange Act was passed, placing limits on how the U.S. government conducts public diplomacy. This act, also known as the Smith-Mundt Act, prevented materials meant for foreign audiences to be distributed in the United States. Now, 65 years later, Smith-Mundt is being modernized to fit in with 21st century standards.


The Smith-Mundt modernization act has no meaning for many U.S. citizens but for those who practice public diplomacy it is a step in the right direction. The media atmosphere was very different in 1948 than in 2013. There was no Internet, or cell phones. The world was not as interconnected as it is now.


Beginning July 2, 2013, public diplomacy practitioners will be able to disseminate certain public diplomacy material within the United States, its territories or possessions, if requested of them.  The modernization act allows program material to be made available within the United States under limited circumstances:  upon request; in English; at the Department; following release abroad; for examination only by representatives of U.S. press associations, newspapers, magazines, research students and scholars and, upon request, for examination only to Members of Congress. This new rule only covers those materials produced after July 2. The act is not retroactive – older publications will not be covered.


The amendments eliminate the outright ban on domestic dissemination of program material, but the ability to distribute program material without a request remains quite limited. It might also not be as flexible in allowing materials to be shared with other U.S. government entities who focus mainly in communications with a domestic audience.


As the world becomes more interconnected, the Smith-Mundt Act will probably continue to be revisited. Governments can no longer afford to lag behind. With growing diaspora populations and worldly youth, the U.S. government needs to keep their domestic audiences informed in the same way as their foreign audiences in order to meet their policy goals.


Social Media: Holding Governments Accountable

Social media has proved to be great for engagement with foreign audiences. It allows for two-way conversations and the possibility to engage on a variety of topics. However, it also has its limitations. Some public diplomacy practitioners see social media platforms as dumping grounds for information. They believe Facebook and Twitter are there as information holders. This is not an effective use of social media. Social media requires a strategy. Yes, it might be an instant form of communication, but in order to make an impact and engage with your audience, a plan is needed. I think that before social media, people put more thought into their campaigns. This care and attention to detail also needs to be applied to social media.

Another limitation is the overload of information that now exists on the Internet. Audiences are spending less time reading materials online and less time exploring webpages. This allows people to pick and choose what they want to read. When print materials were more popular, people read everything from front to back. However, now you decide which Tweet you will read and which one you will ignore. I think this makes it harder for public diplomacy practitioners to spread their message. They are in competition with Lady Gaga and Britney Spears. Governments need to get more creative and innovative in order to hold their audiences’ attention.

I do not think that critiques outweigh the advantages. Today’s audiences are used to receiving their information directly from the source and not from secondary sources. People want the ability to go on Twitter and see what the U.S. government has to say about a certain issue. This direct engagement allows governments to be in control of their message by controlling which images are shown and what content they place on their sites. Social media also holds governments accountable. People are free to express their thoughts – good or bad –and governments are expected to engage back. Social media has in many ways brought government back to the people.

No Need for Distinction

I don’t think we should distinguish cultural diplomacy from public diplomacy. In her article, Cynthia P. Schneider (2009) reiterates that Milton C. Cummings defined cultural diplomacy as “the exchange of ideas, information, art and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples to foster mutual understanding.”  It’s about winning hearts and minds by involving emotion and empathy. This sounds very familiar to the objectives of public diplomacy. Bruce Gregory (2008) defines public diplomacy as “the means by which states, associates of states, and non-state actors understand culture, attitudes, and behavior; build and manage relationships, and influence opinions and actions to advance their interests and values.” Both definitions emphasize the need for engagement and mutual understanding. Cultural diplomacy is a means to engagement and mutual understanding of societies and values. This can be done through art exhibits, speaker programs, music exchanges, sports programs, social media campaigns, etc.

All these programs strive to create mutual understanding and spark conversations/engagement. Conversations are fluid, which is why different offices are needed to execute public diplomacy. For example, the Bureaus of International Information Programs and Educational and Cultural Affairs carry out different programs in cultural, sports, and culinary diplomacy, among others. In the end, the goal of cultural and public diplomacy is the same – create mutual understanding. We cannot go about winning hearts and minds with rigid programs, which is why we should not distinguish cultural diplomacy from public diplomacy. If all efforts work towards the same goal, why distinguish.