Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at the 40th Anniversary Conference of the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy

September 16, 1987

It's an honor to be able to join you on this the 40th anniversary of the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. It also happens to be a pleasure, first, because looking out today I see so many good friends: George Shultz, Charlie Wick, Ed Feulner, Priscilla Buckley. I could go on and on, but then there's a second reason. You see, the way I look at it, this is sort of a professional get-together. Whether it's WORLDNET, Radio Marti, or, in my case, the Presidency itself, everyone in this room is in the same business: the business of making bully pulpits even bullier.

But thinking about what I'd say here today, I did a little reading on the topic of diplomacy. It turns out that diplomacy has produced a certain amount of humor, and I thought that—with George Shultz's permission—I might begin this morning by sharing with you an item that I especially enjoyed. It's an exchange that took place in the 1930's between Charles G. Dawes, American Ambassador to Great Britain, and Henry Prather Fletcher, at one time our Ambassador to Italy. Dawes said: "American diplomacy is easy on the brain but hell on the feet." [Laughter] And Fletcher said: "It depends on which you use." [Laughter]

Well, now, you'll notice that this exchange has to do with diplomacy, not public diplomacy. It conjures up the traditional system in which relations between countries had less to do with the people of those countries than with their governments, when small numbers of diplomats often settled matters of world importance among themselves. I suppose the most famous example of the old diplomatic system, of diplomacy proper, was the 1815 Congress of Vienna, when representatives of the ruling classes—Metternich, Castlereagh, Talleyrand, and others—gathered to divide the map of Europe. You know, whenever I picture those wily aristocrats double-crossing each other all day, then going to glittering balls in the evening, well, I'm reminded of an old piece of doggerel: "Diplomacy is to do and say the nastiest thing in the nicest way." [Laughter]

Diplomatic practices in the old days aside, it goes without saying that today trained diplomats remain of tremendous importance. Yet in this information age-this age of the mass media and the microchip, of telecommunications satellites above the planet and fiber optic cables underground—in this new age, traditional diplomacy alone is not enough. The United States must speak not just to foreign governments but to their people, engaging in public diplomacy with all the skill and resources that we can muster. Castlereagh spoke to Metternich, but leaders today must speak to the people of the world.

The advances our administration has made in public diplomacy budgeting, programs, and technology have been dramatic. To name only a few: Since 1980 the USIA [United States Information Agency] budget has nearly doubled. Exchange programs for students have doubled. WORLDNET has wedded satellite technology to public diplomacy. Radio Marti has begun broadcasting into Cuba. And it's a matter of no small historical importance that five times during these years a President of the United States has, by way of Voice of America, directly addressed the people of the Soviet Union.

All these accomplishments have been made possible by individual men and women, those unsung but utterly dedicated Foreign and Civil Service professionals who run our nation's public diplomacy. I understand that hundreds of our public diplomats will read these remarks or listen to them on tape, so let us take a moment now to express the Nation's gratitude. To you, our public diplomats, whether stationed here in Washington or in posts from Rome to Shanghai: In a difficult world, you tell America's story, and America gives you her thanks.

America's story—as I've said, during these 6 1/2 years we have dramatically improved our ability to tell America's story around the globe, but I would submit that we've done still more. I would submit that we've given the story itself new content, and on this, the very day before we celebrate the bicentennial of our Constitution, I would like you to join me in considering the renewed power, the renewed sense of hope, that America's story holds for all the world.

Begin, if you will, by casting your minds back to the 1970's. And as you do so, place yourself outside the United States, perhaps in a nation of the Third World or in the position of a dissident in the Soviet Union. When you look at the United States you see that it grants its people freedom. But in the 1970's this freedom might strike you as mere license, for the United States appears to be in decline. By 1979, indeed, the American economy is in disarray. America's military strength has been permitted to atrophy, while at the same time the United States has diminished in stature around the world. But what perhaps strikes you most is the way the American leaders talk about their country—in effect, America's public diplomacy. For all its troubles, the United States is still prosperous, still free; yet America's leaders speak of uncertainty, self-doubt, guilt, and that word "malaise."

You're well aware of the world struggle-the struggle of ideas, economic vitality, and military strength. As you look ahead to the next decade, the decade of the eighties, you are less than optimistic about the United States. Yet now that the decade of the eighties is here, now that the decade of the nineties, indeed, is nearly upon us, the' American situation has changed dramatically, and with it the nature of our public diplomacy.

In a moment I'll return to our vantage point as a Soviet dissident or a citizen in the Third World, but permit me to speak first about what has happened here at home. Tax cuts, the rebuilding of our defenses, a cutback in government regulations, a determined, continuous effort to hold down the expansion of government spending—these are the policies that have been instrumental in all that we have accomplished, the proximate causes, if you will, of our renewed economic vitality and renewed strength in the foreign policy arena.

Yet I speak deliberately when I refer to these policies as instrumental, for they've merely served as the instruments of ideas, ideas like limited government and individual initiative, ideas like the view that America has a mission to stand up in the world for human freedom. Our administration has spoken out for these ideas again and again. The American people have responded. And government policy and the very scope and shape of government itself has been changed.

This connection began [between] speaking out and the formation of policy may seem obvious, but it has enormous significance for a conference concerning itself with public diplomacy. For what it means is this: Not by force, not by coercion, but by speaking out, we have changed the course of history. Disraeli said: "With words we govern men." Of course, it's less our intention in the United States to govern than to serve. But in all the long American story, words have indeed proven fundamental. The basic act of the American Revolution was not the call to arms but the Declaration of Independence, an act that in effect called the Nation into being and the act that has sustained our Republic for two centuries now. Providing the rule of law for our fathers—as it does for us, as it will for our children and grandchildren—was the writing of the Constitution—several thousand words, mere words, on four sheets of parchment, but what power.

This brings me back to our public diplomacy. For just as by speaking out we've changed the course of American history, I believe that our public diplomacy represents a powerful force, perhaps the most powerful force at our disposal, for shaping the history of the world. In this administration, our public diplomacy has been marked, first, by shaking off the malaise of years past. That malaise and self-doubt had never been in accord with an objective assessment of America's world position, had never been in accord, in short, with the facts. So it is that in speaking to the people of other nations, we have chosen to reassert the record: It is not the democracies that have backward economies. It is not the Western World in which average life expectancy is actually falling. It was not the democracies that invaded Afghanistan or suppressed Solidarity.

But second, we've gone beyond a mere statement of the facts, beyond reminding the world of the actual historical record, vital though that is. We've dared in our public diplomacy to articulate a vision, dared not just to defend the status quo but to speak of a new age of liberty. Consider this year alone. In April we asked that a date be set for the rapid and complete withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. In Berlin this June, we called for tearing down the Wall. This July we urged the Soviets to rescind the Brezhnev doctrine and establish genuine self-determination in Eastern Europe. As I said last month in Los Angeles, containment is not enough. Our goal has been to break the deadlock of the past, to seek a forward strategy—a forward strategy for world freedom.

There's a third element in our public diplomacy, one that bears directly upon issues that are being raised at this conference. Permit me to call this, if you will, the moral element. You see, even as the 1970's were marked by talk about national malaise, they were marked, as well, by talk about some sort of moral equivalency between the United States and the Soviet Union. One version of this view saw both nations simply as military and economic units struggling to determine which would become the greater power. Another version admitted that the Soviet Union had its moral shortcomings but pointed out that so did the United States, after all.

Well, yes, our country has its shortcomings, but there's no moral equivalency between democracy and totalitarianism. There's no moral equivalency between turning the proud nations of Eastern Europe into satellites and joining the nations of Western Europe in the defense of their freedom. And, my friends, there's no moral equivalency between propaganda and the truth.

As I said, this touches upon issues being raised at this conference. We all know of the tremendous progress we're seeing in communications, a virtual riot of new technology. But we know, as well, that the Soviets are serious about using these new technologies for their own purposes. Already, to name just one example, Soviet television can be received in Western Europe, North and Central America, Southeast Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. The Soviet message, even if it is propaganda, now reaches around the globe.

But there is, as I suggested, that moral point, that crucial distinction between what is true and what is not. Describing his experience in a prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War, Laurens van der Post writes that, in reading official propaganda sheets, he and his fellow prisoners evolved a technique for telling the true from the false. This was possible, van der Post writes, because "every thought, every articulation of meaning, from painting to music, carries within it evidence of its correspondence to the truth by the impact it makes on our senses and imaginations." The truth—the truth will make itself known. Permit me to close now by telling you two stories that show this to be true, and in doing so, return to our vantage points in the Third World and the Soviet Union.

First, the Third World—imagine now the situation of a man of integrity and dignity in Cuba. His name is Ricardo Bofill. As an academic, he became a professor of Marxist philosophy. During the 1960's he was a leading member of the Communist Party. Yet today he knows that Castro has betrayed every ideal the revolution seemed to espouse, and at the cost of constant threats and harassment, Ricardo Bofill serves as president of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights.

Like all Cubans, Ricardo Bofill is bombarded day in and day out by the Castro regime's propaganda. Even so, he and thousands of others recognize without hesitation the one news source that tells the truth. Bofill recently wrote: "It seems to me that there will arrive a moment concerning the situation of Cuba when it will be necessary to speak of the time before and after the broadcast of Radio Marti. The ability to answer the monolog that Fidel Castro has sustained for nearly 26 years has finally evolved." Well, to all those involved with Radio Marti, you will never receive higher praise than the words of that brave man.

Now imagine yourself in the position of a Jewish dissident in the Soviet Union. For speaking out on human rights, you're imprisoned in labor camps, where you spend nearly 9 years. Then one day you are marched across a bridge in Berlin—to freedom. Your name is Natan Shcharanskiy. And when you meet the President of the United States, you say this: "Thank you for telling the truth in your speeches. They were smuggled into the gulag."

I have a letter that testifies to that at home. It came to me by way of USIA—that was smuggled out of the gulag. The letter is only about 2 or 3 inches long—in width, I should say, of paper. It is only about three quarters of an inch in length. And yet there is a message on there of thanking us for maintaining freedom and keeping it alive in the world. And it is signed by 11 women prisoners, all on that tiny piece of paper. I don't know how they wrote it, but I know you cannot see the words without a magnifying glass.

There are some of the things that come up. I, as some people here at the head table know, have become a collector of stories that the citizens of the Soviet Union tell among themselves, revealing they have a great sense of humor, but also a cynicism about their system. And just yesterday I added a new one to the collection.

A man just back from Europe, riding in a taxicab—the taxicab driver said to him, "There is the tallest building in Moscow." And he looked out, and he said, "Well, where? Where is it?" He said, "There, that building." And this American said, "That two-story building is the tallest building in Moscow?" He says, "Yes, from there, you can see all the way to Siberia. It's the KGB headquarters." [Laughter]

Well, they gave us hope, the people said, in the gulag there. Surely, this, is your mission as public diplomats, and surely, this is our mission as a nation: to stand for freedom and to give hope. On the day in Berlin that I faced the Wall and speaking to a very large audience on the west side, in West Berlin, advocated the tearing down of the Wall, I could see rows of East German military police fully 100 to 200 yards from the Wall, with their backs to the Wall and me speaking. They were there to keep any East Berliners from approaching the Wall, where they might be able to hear through the loudspeakers what I was saying.

Yes, public diplomacy and all of you do give hope to more people in the world than perhaps you even realize. So, I guess all I really wanted to say is thank you all, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 11:13 a.m. in the Loy Henderson Conference Room at the Department of State. In his opening remarks, he referred to Secretary of State George R Shultz; Charles Z. Wick, Director of the United States Information Agency; Edwin J. Feulner, Jr., Chairman of the Commission; and Priscilla Buckley, a member of the Commission.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the 40th Anniversary Conference of the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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