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A Blog on Understanding, Informing, Empowering, and Influencing Global Publics, published by Matt Armstrong

Smith-Mundt Act: Facts, Myths and Recommendations

The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 is the authorizing legislation for America’s public diplomacy and strategic communication. This three-page information sheet addresses confusion surrounding the Act and makes recommendations that are fundamental to any improvement to US public diplomacy and strategic communication. It is ironic that legislation intended to counter misinformation is itself subject to misinformation to the point few know the Act’s purpose and true application.

The following is a short three page overview written at the request of and for a (pro bono) client who is neither the State Department nor the Defense Department. Download here or read below or at Scribd.

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Pushing Humpty Dumpty: the rebuilding of State

There are few that would question that the US State Department is a dysfunctional organization. The structure, fiefdoms, and bureaucratic knots have many knowledgeable analysts whether it is possible to bring State into the 20th century, let alone the 21st century. I believe it is possible, indeed absolutely essential but doing so requires major Congressional intervention as State cannot or will not revamp itself, regardless of the leadership of the Secretary of State or of her Under Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries (many of these critical leadership positions, by the way, remain empty).

Yesterday I asked whether the State Department is so full of problems today that it must be rebuilt from scratch if there is to be effective civilian leadership of America’s foreign affairs? The question was came out of my latest conversation with a colleague who, like many others, wants to break apart the State Department because of the because the impression the present structure is incapable of change. Different constituencies want different things, but the general idea is to break it into smaller pieces, like pushing Humpty Dumpty and don’t him back together again: create an independent USAID, independent USIA-like entity, remove or dramatically revise INR and so on.

Spencer Ackerman (a fine judge of intellect, by the way) is rightly concerned whether there is a constituency or motivation to rebuild State in Congress or elsewhere. 

There is no congressional constituency in Congress for destroying the State Department to create some fantastical super-totally-capable-New State Department. If there’s a constituency at all for destroying the State Department, it’s a constituency that wants to weaken diplomacy as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. See, for instance, Newt Gingrich’s long-forgotten 2003 rant about the State Department representing a fifth column within the Bush administration. … My suspicion is that overhauling the State Department will miss the point in the same way that the post-Vietnam era military purge of counterinsurgency capabilities missed the point or the period calls to abolish the CIA miss the point.

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Question: is it time to rebuild the State Department from scratch?

Is the State Department so full of problems today that it requires rebuilding from scratch if there is to be effective civilian leadership of America’s foreign affairs? From the recent report on the dysfunction within the Africa Bureau (which ignored the failure of intra-agency integration), the militarization of foreign aid and situation with USAID, to the continuing problem of the militarization of public diplomacy and strategic communication underlying the question of who represents America to the world, are we seeing more of the iceberg?

If change is necessary, are the Secretary of State’s authorities and leadership enough to push the necessary changes without creating a paralyzing backlash from within? Must change come from Congress in a modern (and more sweeping) version of the Goldwater-Nichols Act (which would beg the question of who would be the modern Goldwater)?

What are your thoughts?

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