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A Call to Action on Public Diplomacy

By Morris “Bud” Jacobs

The mission of public diplomacy is generally described as seeking to “understand, engage, inform and influence” foreign publics and elites in support of national policy objectives. Public diplomacy has been practiced, in one form or another, for a long time – think Benjamin Franklin in France, charming the nobility to garner support for the American colonies in their struggle for independence. Its modern origins include the first broadcast of the Voice of America in February 1942 (VOA celebrates its 70th anniversary this spring) and the establishment of the Office of War Information in June of that year.

In 1953 President Eisenhower and the Congress established the U.S. Information Agency to conduct public diplomacy. USIA enjoyed considerable success during the Cold War – Edward R. Murrow was one of its early leaders – but in 1999 it was abolished and its functions folded into the Department of State. The office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs was set up at that time, charged with the responsibility to lead U.S. efforts to communicate with audiences around the world.

In 1994, Congress passed legislation to establish the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors. Today the BBG operates not only the flagship Voice of America, but also Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Marti), and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television).

It is self evident that effective public diplomacy demands leadership and continuity to ensure that planning and resource decisions are consistent and in line with the President’s priorities. Since 9/11 numerous reviews of public diplomacy have been published by the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service, the Defense Science Board, private research outfits, universities, think tanks, and others, have stressed this point.

Recommendations have varied in terms of quality and relevance, but officials at the Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors have attempted to implement the more important ones. For example, during her tenure, Under Secretary Judith McHale put in place a strategic framework for public diplomacy and pushed for its implementation, especially on the all-important questions of personnel and budgets. For its part, the Broadcasting Board of Governors recently issued a new strategy which includes a substantial reorganization of U.S. international broadcasting and very ambitious goals for audience expansion.

At State, Tara Sonenshine – currently executive vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace — has been nominated to succeed McHale. Unfortunately, her nomination is caught up in the ongoing political struggle between the White House and the Senate, and it has languished on the Hill for months. Senate staffers have been at pains to stress that this is not a reflection of Sonenshine’s qualifications – indeed, she is generally viewed as an outstanding candidate for the job – but this is little comfort.

Secretary of State Clinton did what she could to fill the gap, first designating Ann Stock, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, to exercise certain of the under secretary’s authorities, and then, after several months, naming Ambassador Kathleen Stevens as “acting” under secretary, apparently in the expectation that Sonenshine’s nomination was not going anywhere any time soon.

Stock, who has been a strong assistant secretary, did not actively seek the designation and made no secret of her desire to return to her bureau, which faces a number of important challenges, including alleged abuses of the J Visa program by organizations sponsoring exchange visitors. Stevens, a career Foreign Service officer just returned from Seoul, where she served as the highly-regarded American ambassador, is an excellent choice. She “gets” public diplomacy, as they say in the corridors at State, and she is an effective leader. However, as good as she is, in a bureaucracy like State’s, she cannot be completely successful as a stand-in.

Over at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Chairman Walter Isaacson – author of the critically acclaimed biography of Steve Jobs – has resigned, leaving another important leadership position vacant. What this may mean for implementation of the Board’s proposed reorganization of international broadcasting is not clear. The good news is that the White House is looking for a candidate to replace Isaacson. One hopes that the Administration is also seeking qualified candidates to fill the positions of the other BBG governors, most of whose terms of office have ended. Of course, whether any nominations will be acted upon in the current toxic political atmosphere is uncertain.

I am not optimistic, given the fate of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. The Commission’s legislative charter empowers it to appraise “U.S. Government activities intended to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics,” and to provide assessments and recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and the Congress. Lamentably, it was not reauthorized in the fiscal year 2012 appropriation process. This short sighted action — the act of one senator looking for budget cuts — killed the Commission just at the moment it could have done some good. Savings achieved amounted to around $150,000, probably less than the senator pays his own chief-of-staff.

State apparently was silent about the fate of the Commission; no executive branch agency welcomes independent oversight. While State may not have been an enthusiastic supporter, the Department of Defense took the Commission seriously enough to assign a first rate U.S. Marine Corps officer to its staff. He would have played a key role in providing information about U.S. military strategic communications programs, as well as “reach back” to the Department of Defense and Joint Staff when needed. Since the demise of the Commission, that officer has been reassigned to State’s Bureau of International Information Programs.

The Advisory Commission’s performance over the past decade or so has not been sterling. However, under the leadership of its new executive director Matt Armstrong and Chairman Bill Hybl, it was poised to undertake a series of important assessments of public diplomacy and strategic communication, not just at State, but also at USAID, Defense and elsewhere. The Commission’s seven-member bipartisan board was nominated by the President and confirmed by the United States Senate. As is the case with the BBG, the Commission had several members serving on lapsed appointments.

Many recall a storied time when partisanship on foreign policy stopped “at the water’s edge.” While I’m not convinced that this was ever actually the case, the notion is an attractive one. However, there should be a serious and vigorous discussion of such issues as U.S. policy toward Iran, North Korea, and Russia, China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, to name only a few.

But on some questions, at least, it ought to be possible to move forward. In that spirit, there are several modest steps the Executive and Congress should take immediately to help ensure that we are able to conduct an effective and robust public diplomacy. None of these actions are particularly controversial or difficult.

· The full Senate should vote on Tara Sonenshine’s nomination.

· In addition to recruiting a qualified candidate to serve as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the White House should replace (or reappoint) BBG members currently serving on lapsed appointments. These nominations should be considered and acted upon by the Senate as quickly as possible. In fact, the Senate could follow the spirit of the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011, which it passed with a large majority in June 2011, and act upon these nominations without hearings. This bill, which is awaiting action in the House of Representatives, reduces the number of including officials below the assistant secretary level and members of boards, commissions and other advisory bodies.

· The Congress should re-authorize the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, and the White House should take steps to reinvigorate it by recruiting qualified individuals to serve. Former military leaders and civilian officials, experts in private industry, the nonprofit world, universities and think tanks offer deep and broad expertise that could and should be brought to bear in assessing how the U.S. is conducting its communication with world publics.

Since 9/11, senior officials at the White House, State, and Defense, and members of Congress have repeatedly stressed that they view public diplomacy as an important instrument of national security policy. Now would be a good time to act on that belief.

This article originally appeared at American Diplomacy and republished here by permission. 

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Jacobs is the current president of the Public Diplomacy Council, a nonprofit organization committed to the academic study, professional practice, and responsible advocacy of public diplomacy. During his government career, he served in Moscow, Colombia, Panama, and Washington, DC. He served in Iraq in 2005 in support of that nation’s constitutional referendum, and he was an advisor to the 2007 Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors, do not necessarily reflect the opinion of MountainRunner.us, and are published here to further the discourse on activities that understand, inform, and influence.

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