Public Diplomacy at Risk: Protecting Open Access for American Centers

May 5, 2015


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ACPD is concerned about the potential closure of 21 (of 32) American Centers in the next 10 years due to the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999 (SECCA), which requires all U.S. agencies in country be co-located on the embassy, consular and annex compounds. The hardening of our posts through SECCA was a logical and pragmatic response to a host of devastating attacks against U.S. embassy spaces in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet we are concerned that SECCA may be automatically and asymmetrically applied to U.S.-controlled public diplomacy platforms, American Centers and Information Resource Centers (IRCs), regardless of the characteristics of individual cases.

The 21 Centers at risk are located in such urban power centers as New Delhi, Shanghai, Jerusalem and Mexico City. Our lack of public outreach in these spaces weakens our ability to fully understand and shape developments impacting U.S. national security and the international system. Of the current 715 American Spaces worldwide, just 17 percent are U.S.-controlled spaces: American Centers (32) and Information Resource Centers (87). The remaining 83 percent of them are partner spaces: Binational Centers (117) and American Corners (479). The space for maximum engagement is the free-standing, U.S.-controlled American Center. Once the American Centers move to these compounds, they transform into less accessible Information Resource Centers (IRCs). IRCs are located in more remote locations, present more restrictive environments, and attract six times fewer visitors than American Centers. While partner spaces have been important alternatives to American Centers and IRCs, their success hinges on the reliability of partners and the willingness of a host institution to publicly associate themselves with U.S. foreign policy goals.

ACPD believes it is imperative that we reconsider how the relocation of free-standing American Centers to U.S. embassy, consulate and annex compounds can complicate the essential goals of public diplomacy to understand, inform and engage foreign audiences to advance U.S. foreign policy. In the past 10 years, eight American Centers have shuttered. We are concerned that the closing of American Centers is now accelerating and we emphasize the need for the selective and flexible application, on a case-by-case basis, of security standards. Of course, in extreme cases where an evaluation by the State Department and the embassy determines that the threat landscape cannot support a public diplomacy space, closing them must be considered. But to keep American Centers standing and IRCs open and accessible, wherever possible, ACPD makes four core recommendations:

  • Congress: Enact aSense of Congress” to Keep American Centers Open and Information Resource Centers Accessible. The presumption that public diplomacy platforms should automatically be co-located within compounds, based on SECCA, should be reversed. We advise the creation of a “Sense of the Congress” in future State Department Authorization bills that clearly indicates that the Secretary of State should give favorable consideration to requests for American Centers to remain in urban locations and exercise his/her waiver authority under section 606(a)(2)(B) of the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999 (22 U.S.C. 4865(a)(2)(B)) in order to permit American Centers to remain separate from U.S. embassies abroad and ensure that IRCs on U.S. embassy, consulate and annex compounds remain open and accessible. This would help to simplify co-location waiver requests at the State Department and emphasize the need for a flexible, case by case approach that takes into consideration the centrality of public diplomacy to fulfilling U.S. missions.
  • State Department: Aim to Make Existing IRCs Open and Accessible Through a New Policy. IRCs, especially in countries that are pivotal to U.S. national security, must become more engaging to attract audiences. A worldwide policy for open access to IRCs that applies to all posts is necessary. This would lift “by appointment only” restrictions where they exist; create a separate security screening from the main chancery; permit unescorted access; and allow use of personal electronic devices and wireless internet access. Wherever possible, U.S. employees should have offices in the IRCs so they can regularly interact with visitors. American Centers that transform into IRCs should particularly adhere to these principles to retain relationships and networks.
  • State Department: Conduct a Study of the Impact of American Centers, IRCs, Binational Centers and American Corners. As a result of the 2010 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on American Spaces, the State Department has conducted two major studies that have supported the improved management of these Spaces: a 2014 study on the user experience of American Centers and a 2015 study on the value of “by appointment only” IRCs. We also recommend a third study on the impact and value of these spaces -- American Centers, IRCs, Binational Centers and American Corners -- for U.S. foreign policy goals, especially in the IIP-determined “top tier” spaces. The appraisals should link their efforts to mission goals and develop a research-based strategic plan for each space, identifying key publics and the public diplomacy impact objectives for each key public.
  • State Department: Continue Dialogue Between Public Diplomacy, Bureau of Overseas Building Operations and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security Leadership. We are encouraged that Diplomatic Security and the Overseas Building Operations Bureaus have already created a working group with public diplomacy leadership to address several policy, planning and funding concerns with the remaining free-standing American Centers and the IRCs. We hope that these conversations will continue to be constructive and tackle the accessibility of these spaces on a case-by-case basis.