Not Afraid to Talk: our adversaries aren’t, why are we?

For an unabridged version of the below post, go here. Otherwise read on.

GWU professor Marc Lynch, perhaps more commonly known as Abu Aardvark, revealed the positions on public diplomacy of the current presidential candidates:

I came across something interesting while doing some research on public diplomacy for an unrelated project.  Since at least the 9/11 Commission Report, almost every foreign policy blueprint or platform has for better or for worse mentioned the need to fix American public diplomacy and to engage with the "war of ideas" in the Islamic world.   I expected all three remaining Presidential candidates to offer at least some boilerplate rhetoric on the theme.  What I found was different.

Marc highlighted the differences between the presidential candidates on what is arguably the most important and yet least understood element of our national security. At the end of his post, he challenged John Brown, Patricia Kushlis, and this blogger to offer our thoughts.  Patricia at Whirled View responded, as did John Brown and a few others. I suggest you read their responses.

The central theme underlying the candidates’ positions is, of course, the use of persuasion to shape desirable outcomes. The ability to influence has broad implications beyond physical security issues like terrorism. Economic security (think trade and tourism) and the effectiveness of traditional diplomacy are impacted as well. While, as Marc tells us, Clinton avoids the subject of public diplomacy (and apparently the concept as well), McCain and Obama focus too narrowly on the current struggle. The result is recommendations that are bound to fail.

To begin with, we must accept that the romantic days of the United States Information Agency are gone.  So many confuse the USIA and the other information services, such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, of recent decades with the USIA that was engaged in the active psychological struggle that largely ended with détente and the finalizing of the European partition.  It was only after this aggressive period ended was "public diplomacy" coined, twelve years after USIA was created.

Unlike half a century ago, the U.S. military has a clear voice and is arguably our dominant public diplomat. Therefore, simply resurrecting “USIA” without reorganizing our national information capabilities across civilian and military lines would turn it into just another voice struggling to be heard over America’s military commanders, spokespersons, and warfighters.

The candidates must look deeper than re-creating an agency and or re-establishing old outreach programs.  They must show strong leadership and have a bold vision to rally the government and country to adapt to a world that requires understanding the information effect of action, agile response capabilities, and above all, credibility and trust.

What needs to change?

First and foremost, we must revisit and discuss the purpose and intent of the prohibitions of Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. Debated and enacted to improve the quality of our responses to adversarial propaganda during the communications revolution of the 1940s, it was based on the communications market of the time.  It is now invoked to prevent any potential communication that might possibly be heard or seen by Americans.  This fear of being overheard in America has done more to neuter U.S. responses and to encourage the creation of new information functions than anything else.  We have created an information architecture that cares more about how a broadcast, flyer, or message will play in Iowa than in the primary center of gravity of the fight: the minds of the support base of our adversary.  The result is timid responses and artificial self-containment out of touch with the virtual geography of today’s psychological landscape.

Second, our information bureaucracies have become cylinders of excellence (or “stovepipes” for the less sarcastic) based not on effects but means and with limited to no interoperability or coordination.  The different working philosophies of the State Department and the Defense Department challenge the ability to create a cohesive U.S. narrative. The State Department’s Public Diplomacy, for example, is configured to influence over an extended period of years or decades.  Rarely is it intended to shift ideas and perceptions over months or even weeks. 

The Defense Department runs by a different clock. Defense Department groups, from Public Affairs and Information Operations and to Psychological Operations, work proactively and frequently as part of a multifaceted approach to shape outcomes both during and immediately after an event.  The extended Defense timeline includes State-like longue durée approaches, but it mostly operates in the “here and now” because of the need to respond to the current battlefield.

Third, we must better understand root causes of radicalization and disenfranchisement.  Responding to this requires more than words, but deeds.  As I wrote elsewhere, enduring change comes from systemic overhauls that stabilize unstable regions.  Security, humanitarian relief, governance, economic stabilization, and development are critical for democratization.  Failing to address grinding poverty and disillusionment in regions creates fertile breeding grounds for extremists, terrorists, and insurgents to attack the national interests of the United States.  These are the real propaganda of deeds.  Without competent and comprehensive action in these areas, tactical operations are simply a waste of time, money, and life.

Edward R. Murrow, the only chief of the United States Information Agency who regularly attended National Security Council meetings, famously stated that public diplomacy must not only be in on the “crash landings” but also at the take-offs.  This is true of any attempt to persuade or compel, which are the goals of both foreign policy and military operations.  It is essential that the information effects of what we do are considered from the outset, including the impact of information campaigns.

Sixty years ago, the elements of America’s national power – diplomacy, information, military, and economics, or DIME – were retooled to meet an emerging threat with the National Security Act of 1947 and the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948.  Then as it is today, the U.S. was engaged in a war of ideas and perceptions both globally and domestically, however the importance and impact of Smith-Mundt is ignored despite its influence, often negative, on every aspect of America’s informational arsenal.

This year the Defense Department will look into how the National Security Act of 1947 should be modified to adapt to 21st Century conflict.  The candidates should be bold and argue for a more holistic self-analysis.

Our information systems suffer from inflexibility and internal resistance rooted in a misunderstanding of Smith-Mundt that requires updating to conform to a reality that makes separating audiences by geography both impractical and undesirable.  This will not be a conflict over hearts and passions, but a psychological struggle over minds and wills.  We must stop telling foreign publics what we want our own people to hear.  Unless we get our information house in order, the United States will remain virtually unarmed in the battles that shape our future.

Now is the time to retool for the current and future fight.  Our economic and physical security depends on it. 

See also:

3 thoughts on “Not Afraid to Talk: our adversaries aren’t, why are we?

  1. Sir,I’m somewhat confused. Would you like the candidates to specifically address the rest of the world in their speeches? Or would you like them to address how they will implement their own diplomatic efforts? If you think that they should specifically address the rest of the world, I might ask you why they should do that obviously will not assist them in getting votes.
    Further, Do you think that it is best to focus your efforts on trying to define your own goals, before you attempt to disseminate your message abroad? It is only through self-investigation and self-improvement exercises (notice the word “self”) that one improves your actions and your agile response capabilities.
    Going further along that line of thinking, do you think that the rest of the world will watch you and learn from your example as opposed to exerting your strength through “diplomacy”?
    David D.
    Arlington, VA

  2. David D,No, I’m not interested in the candidates speaking to the rest of the world, but in formulating their foreign policy planks they should think about how their Administration and the whole Executive Branch will engage the rest of the world.
    I’m not convinced that formulating our message first is as required as it might seem. This isn’t a chicken or egg issue. Assuming it is means other people really want to buy what we have to sell. If we cut the crap and look at the motivation of conflict and the enemy propaganda that brings recruits and ideological and logistical support for terrorism, the solution isn’t better packaging of our values. Do you really think they care how we live? They care how we impact them.
    To think we’re up against a monolithic Muslim state/nation/caliphate is folly and a fantasy based more on mirroring our enemy than fact. Aggregating the enemy has served up propaganda victory after propaganda victory to a disparate enemy (who are tripping over themselves competing for support… because they are at odds with each and not unified) while short-circuiting our ability to respond.
    My posts are looking at shaping the process in which appropriate messages are funneled through. Yes, it is process, but shifting the process will do more to shift the understanding of a coherent message than jamming a coherent message down screwed up pipes/fiefdoms/etc. The essential point is the culture of persuasion – for economic as well as military means, all of which are essential to foreign policy peaceful or not – depends on understanding you communicate when you act and when you talk, and even when you don’t do either.
    This focus on the process is really about shaping the culture of information management. Repair, fix, or simply shift that and we’re more likely to get a coherent message from bow to stern, at least a lot more than now when hand-offs are incomplete and at cross purposes because different silos perceive the same thing differently.
    I don’t accept that we must focus on Muslim issues. They figure in, but we need to step back and realize that Sam Huntington over-simplified reality and that nuances matter. There are socio-economic realities and fissures in adversarial propaganda that can be exploited, but only if we act properly, say the right things, and put the right information on target. Here’s my quick list of how we should focus our attention to meet and defeat enemy narratives, subject to revision:
    1. Identify the audiences, start with the “swing voters” our key adversaries are after; acknowledge this group may not be limited to a geographic region
    2. Identify their concerns, grievances, etc. What about the adversarial message is attractive whether based on lies or truth.
    3. Use grammar (nouns and verbs) tightly coupled with actions to undermine the adversarial message; this includes using appropriate speakers; in other words, once we’ve identified the audience and issue, act and communicate in such a way as to dispel the misconception or to remove the friction (see my post on reconstruction and stabilization for one example)
    4. Repeat the loop with allies, then repeat with the adversarial base (some are not hard core, those that are, well I like this expression: go after the hearts and minds, if you can’t get them, put two in the heart and one in the mind)
    The point is: it isn’t just about Islam. To focus on religion a) plays into the adversaries (AQAM, etc) playbook, and b) ignores the real motivation of so many others participants. Too often insurgents and terrorists are cloaking their actions in Islam, but they don’t know Islam. Or they are criminals, opportunists, etc. Teaching Islam etc will factor into #2 above, but it cannot be the launch point.
    The idea that we must have something to sell is again based on the wrong-headed myopic view that somebody wants to buy whatever it is from us. As I noted in my list and in my post on the reconstruction and stabilization and our discussion on the motivational factor of poverty (you don’t care if your improvised if you don’t know you are and nobody telling you to blame somebody else and giving you the means to do so) there are local factors. The gentleman thinks we matter more than we do.
    The solution lay in close examination of the root causes of conflict and the motivations behind so many terrorists and insurgents.

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