Finally, a National Strategy on Public Diplomacy

I finally had a chance to go through the so-called “US National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication.” I’m not impressed. It might be better than nothing, but not much. Whatever Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes has been doing over the last several months; it certainly can’t be described as intelligent leadership over American public diplomacy and public affairs. This “new” plan reinforces this sad fact.

Holding on tight to her “Diplomacy of Deeds” and “empowerment of women” without acknowledging the inconvenient reality of the former (and punishing those who do) and the far from near-term impact of the latter, Ms. Hughes continues to focus on second-tier goals without initiative or apparent understanding of the power of information in today’s environment. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud her efforts at empowering women, girls, and educating the youth, but they are not the number two strategic audience ahead of the “mass audiences” that support and feed and join the enemy.

While it’s good Ms. Hughes wants to reach out to lots of people, the catch-all “mass audience” is comical in its definition. I wonder if Ms. Hughes read the dozens of recommendations she mocked less than two years ago. This is how she defines “mass audiences”:

With increasing numbers of people across the world getting their news and information primarily from television, America must expand its presence on international broadcasts. USG broadcasting entities of the Broadcasting Board of Governors provide direct channels to mass audiences worldwide through television, radio and VOA’s web site. We are rapidly developing improved capabilities to employ the power of Internet and other new technologies. USG officials in Washington and abroad are engaging more actively than ever with foreign media, including television and radio as well as print. Outreach through foreign media should be considered a basic work requirement for USG officials to the greatest extent possible. With mass audiences worldwide now receiving much of their news via television, all USG officials should make appearances on television news and information shows a special priority.

There is one nugget she gets right in this: “Outreach through foreign media should be considered a basic work requirement for USG officials to the greatest extent possible.” Very good, but let’s look again at the attempt to address the “mass audience.”

This six sentence description mentions television five times and the Internet once (or twice if you count the “VOA web site.” Emphasizing that this plan belonged in 2001, or even 1991, her department is still developing the capability to “employ the power of [the] Internet and other new technologies.” The lowered priority of the Internet for outreach and communication makes me wonder if she thinks it may be a series of tubes. Maybe she’s grown beyond “four or five” bloggers in her office since March, or maybe not.

The emphasis on television over the blogosphere and other online media severely discounts the need to foster deeper relationships with alienated peoples in friendly territories, such as Europe (think Hamburg, 7/7, Madrid). This attention on a geographic group is narrow at best and reactive at worse. Perhaps Ms. Hughes should inform the intelligence community not to reduce their online monitoring because not much happens there. Ms. Hughes feels insurgent and terrorist propaganda on the Internet, such as the Nick Berg beheading or any successful IED attack, is useless to counter or is playing to an unreachable audience.

The plan sets the misunderstood goal of “amplifying mainstream Muslim voices.” Instead, she should be embracing Islamic moderates to “explore tension and misunderstanding,” as CSIS points out. But she’s in a dilemma because she refuses to accept the existence of tension. Instead, the “strategic” plan emphasizes a need to “actively nurture common interests and values.” 

Does she think that the people who provide the financial, social, moral, and physical support, not to mention recruiting pools, spend more time in front of the television? What about the London bombing? Madrid? The Hamburg cell? The list goes on, including why we can’t take wine on the plane for a house warming anymore.

If Ms. Hughes were a leader, she would not only lay out real priorities and define real objectives, but she would be demanding more money to engage and counter foreign propaganda. Instead, she takes a back seat and keeps her head in the sand, at best reacting to the challenges of the information war we’re engaged in today. 

But she isn’t a leader. Ms. Hughes continues to focus her department on “communicating America’s views, values and policies in effective ways to audiences across the world” because, as we all know, if they merely understood us better, we’d all get along.

Some advice for Ms. Hughes: get out on a full court press on Capitol Hill, the talk show circuit, both domestically and overseas, and get the message of the value of the public diplomacy (and public affairs) mission out there, as well as the need to consolidate the two and dump the artificial and antiquated Smith-Mundt restrictions. Focus on the realities of modern information warfare.

While Senator Hillary Clinton successfully earmarks $24 million to fight rust, Ms. Hughes seems pleased with her FY2007 supplemental of $50 million. Is Ms. Hughes doing anything to get more money, like leveraging your relationship as one of the President’s trusted advisors? Is she doing anything to pressure her boss, one of the President’s famous work wives, to get more money? I seem to recall that nearly all of the  “too many” reports that Ms. Hughes complained about when she came into office said something about getting more money, generally doubling to quadrupling the budget. Perhaps Ms. Hughes can’t because neither her boss nor she can stand up to the DoD and get an hour’s worth of operating in Iraq to fund your fundamental role.

And if Ms. Hughes feels so strongly about exchanges, what is she doing about passports so Americans can go overseas? Is she doing anything to help foreign visitors come to the US? What about concrete assistance abroad that people see (sorry, that link directed you to Chinese public diplomacy, try this one instead)? Has she been thinking about the times when countries like Iran have taken credit for our aid (such as airlift in Pakistan) or infrastructure projects (as they did in Iraq)? How is she empowering her organization to counter those failures to own the message and follow up when they get hijacked? 

This strategy does nothing to correct the failure to understand the diverse relationships in areas increasingly the source of threats to American physical and economic security. As Kathleen Meilahn wrote a few months back

Due to [US Government] failure to respect, implement or integrate cultural understanding as a war fighting tool (other than rhetorically), wehave entered a world of shadows…it is imperative that the U.S. Government understand those cultures and their cultural context in order to effectively promote and achieve peace…

The [US] will not succeed in Iraq until policy, strategy, plans, and operations are informed by understanding of the cultural context in Iraq, the multi-faceted groups and individuals with varied goals who are both stabilizing and destabilizing influences, and the people whose hearts and minds must be won over in order to gain support and remove support for irregular threat elements.

Once upon a time, there was a rumor that Hughes was in the “take-offs” of American foreign policy. Not only has there been no evidence to suggest this is true but this “new” plan accepts her lack of participation in strategic policy formulation. There is lip service to the interagency committee that looks at a tactic (Counterterrorism Communications Center), but a fundamental lack of understanding the depth of conversations (as in two-way, not just a one-way talking to) that she has the requirement to promote.

Get out and lead, Ms. Hughes, and fight for the necessary tools you need in the information war. Or, perhaps you’re not doing this because you don’t understand the world today.

One thought on “Finally, a National Strategy on Public Diplomacy

  1. “…dump the artificial and antiquated Smith-Mundt restrictions.”Amen, brother.

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