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State Department Works To Reclaim Its Foreign Policy Power


In the first year of the Trump administration, the State Department did not always have too much to say. Our next guest was hired to change that. Steve Goldstein was confirmed to a job working for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He's now undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. He's overseeing efforts to make sure the United States is selling itself effectively in a world flooded with disinformation.

Rex Tillerson had been criticized for rarely talking to the media and leaving key jobs unfilled. Steve Goldstein insists that image is not correct.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: What we're trying to do is bring foreign policy back to the Department of State.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by bringing foreign policy back to the State Department?

GOLDSTEIN: That we control the foreign policy of the United States - that we're responsible for it and working with the president of the United States and with the Trump administration, in this particular case, trying to determine where we stand with each nation.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about that...


INSKEEP: ...Because, as people may know, the Pentagon is extremely powerful in foreign policy.


INSKEEP: The Pentagon has the money...


INSKEEP: ...Far more money than the State Department, far more personnel. And in some parts of the world, four-star generals can be more powerful than ambassadors, I should think. Would you argue that there is some place in the world where the State Department is reclaiming power, reclaiming primacy that it had lost over the years?

GOLDSTEIN: Last week, I spoke out quite forcefully about the fact that we wanted President Rouhani and Iran to open up Internet access. We think the Internet and social media is a legitimate form of communication. We were not pleased that Instagram and telegram and other - Twitter had been blocked. We are pleased that the president - Rouhani opened up Instagram last week and did acknowledge that there shouldn't be a permanent shutdown. So when we see things that we think are not in the benefit of the people for that country as it relates to certain freedoms, we're not afraid to mention that.

INSKEEP: When you speak out against the crackdown on protests in Iran...


INSKEEP: ...Effectively speaking up for freedom in Iran...

GOLDSTEIN: Yes, we are.

INSKEEP: ...Are those statements part of any larger strategy in trying to spread democracy, spread personal freedoms or anything else around the globe?

GOLDSTEIN: Absolutely. We believe that people should be free. They should have the right to dissent, to speak openly to their government about concerns that they might have. And we're not shy about talking about that. But we don't go into a country and try to create regime change. Just as we told North Korea, our interest was not in creating regime change. It was in creating a more open society and denuclearizing that whole area.

INSKEEP: Is that message of promoting freedom and democracy undermined when you have a president who has insisted that America's self-interest comes first to a greater degree, perhaps, than other presidents have said, has been friendly with authoritarians like Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping of China and who denounces his own domestic critics as fake news?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, I think - look, in the end, the president sets the policy. And so our job is to work with the president to explain what we think that policy should be. If the president believes that the policy should be somewhat different - and that has not been the case so far...

INSKEEP: But your job is public diplomacy. And what the president has is a giant megaphone - a way bigger megaphone than the State Department.

GOLDSTEIN: Exactly. But remember, we're one the...

INSKEEP: Does he overwhelm you?

GOLDSTEIN: Well - but it doesn't really because we're on the ground in every country. And we have people throughout who do public diplomacy. Public diplomacy can take a while. It can take an ongoing program for several years.

INSKEEP: We had Ben Cardin, senator of Maryland, on the program yesterday.

GOLDSTEIN: Yes, sir.

INSKEEP: And he was talking about a report that Senate Democrats have put out about Vladimir Putin of Russia, arguing that the Russian president essentially has a global strategy to undermine democratic institutions around the world.


INSKEEP: First, do you accept that that is happening?

GOLDSTEIN: I do accept that that could be happening. And we do accept the fact that there is disinformation that goes out on a daily basis. I have been working with the technology companies. I met with Google a couple of weeks ago. I'm meeting with them again next week. I'm going - talking to Facebook either Friday or Saturday. We've reached out to others. I mean, we believe that there has to be a multipronged approach to resolving the disinformation component and also the interdiction component and that the technology companies can play a large part in that.

INSKEEP: Steve Goldstein, thanks for coming by.

GOLDSTEIN: Thank you. It was my pleasure.

INSKEEP: He's the new undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.