Over the years, the United States government has targeted a string of foreign individuals destined for greatness and brought them to America to be steeped in the culture and ways of Americans, and be exposed to the strengths and weaknesses of the American political system. They came on an international visitor programme and though they may not have necessarily agreed with the policies of any particular administration, they generally left with warm memories of individual Americans and respect for American institutions.

The list includes people such as the late Anwar Sadat, prime minister Margaret Thatcher and later prime minister Tony Blair, Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and German chancellor Gerhard Schröder. It is tempting to speculate whether Saddam Hussein, had he visited the US on this programme, might have taken a different tack in his relationship with the US.

Most of these visits were orchestrated by the United States Information Agency (USIA) as part of its public diplomacy mission — engaging in dialogue with the publics of other nations, and spreading understanding of US principles and values.

With the demise of the Cold War, public diplomacy ceased to be a priority and funding for it declined sharply. The US cultural centres, libraries, and information offices abroad were closed. Finally, in 1999, USIA was abolished, its remnants located in the State Department. Today the budget for educational and cultural programmes is about 4 per cent of the overall State Department budget and about three-tenths of one per cent of the Pentagon’s annual budget.

The private sector continues with some of the former programmes. Journalistic organisations, for example, bring key editors to the US to study American media organisations in all their strengths and weaknesses. Similarly, teachers and doctors and writers are hosted by various professional groups, but resources for such programmes are generally leaner than even those available through government programmes.

Since 9/11 and the thrusting of the US into a new war, this time against terrorism, the value of a public diplomacy programme in addition to military operations has become evident. Influencing public opinion in lands where Al Qaeda and its satellite groups are seeking dominance is an imperative.

It is also a long-term project. In Iraq, for instance, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has suggested American involvement may require “a generational commitment.” Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has warned that of even greater concern than today’s terrorists, may be the mind-set of a coming generation throughout the Islamic world which has long been subjected to the angry teachings in the madrassahs, or Islamist schools, of the region.

President Bush has installed Karen Hughes, his closest media strategist, as undersecretary for public diplomacy at the State Department. She and Secretary Rice have the president’s ear. On their desks last month was deposited the intriguing report of an advisory committee on cult-ural diplomacy made up of distinguished American citizens.

They argue that alongside radio and TV broadcasting to foreign countries, and all the other media programmes designed to explain and further political policies, cultural diplomacy “reveals the soul of a nation.” American art, dance, film, jazz, and literature continue to inspire people the world over despite our political differences. Cultural diplomacy, say the advisory committee members, “demonstrates our values, and our interest in values, and combats the popular notion that Americans are shallow, violent, and godless.”

The group has specific recommendations. Predictably, they want more funding for the training of foreign-service officers responsible for public and cultural diplomacy. But there are other ideas such as a major project to translate into foreign languages thousands of the best American books in many fields for placing in libraries, universities, and study centres in other countries.

The committee wants visa issues streamlined for international students, many of whom have been avoiding American universities since 9/11. They want access to the US improved for international exchange visitors. They want more Arab and Muslim artists, performers, and writers invited to the US, with their US counterparts encouraged to go to the Islamic world. They want world affairs councils in American cities to seek more public-private partnerships for international visitors. They want a government unit dedicated to acquiring selected private sector US film and television properties for showing overseas. The committee echoes the report of the 9/11 commission: “If the US does not act aggressively to define itself in the Islamic world, the extremists will gladly do the job for us.” That should be a warning for Ms Hughes and Dr Rice to press with great validity at the White House. — The Christian Science Monitor