Developing a National Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy Strategy

And so the push to make the Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Bill of 2009 a vehicle to fix America’s communication with the world continues.  Today, Representative Adam Smith (D-Wash) was to introduce an amendment (38k PDF) instructing the President to

develop and submit to Congress a comprehensive interagency strategy for strategic communication and public diplomacy by December 31, 2009 [and] requires the President to submit a report describing the current roles and activities of the Departments of Defense and State in those areas, as well as to assess and report on a key recommendation by the Defense Science Board, by June 30, 2009.

Taking its lead from last year’s U.S. National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication, the Smith Amendment instructs the U.S. Government to put public diplomacy and strategic communication in direct support of foreign policy objectives, specifically in the areas of counter-terrorism and countering ideological support for terrorism (CIST).  The amendment requires consolidating USG’s communication leadership and the consideration that one or more positions at the National Security Council be created. 

Today, I spoke with Rep. Smith about this amendment.  We talked about State’s capacity — he acknowledged the universal truth that State is under-resourced — and the de-professionalization of the public diplomacy corps as a result of the merger —  he agreed and said the same occurred in the development sector.  The Congressman said it was his intention to empower the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (which should be Jim Glassman as Senator Coburn is no longer blocking his confirmation).  The Congressman worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee to craft the language and does not seem to favor any specific recommendation.  (Rep. Smith and Representative Mac Thornberry (R-TX) are behind the NDAA section on the Strategic Communication Management Board.)

The amendment is mute on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) if for no other reason than Rep. Smith has not looked into their area of operations.  Similarly, the distinction between domestic and foreign audiences is ignored and is not seen as an issue. 

Well-intentioned, it is purposefully broad to guide rather than dictate.  The amendment’s lists of products and means to conduct public diplomacy and strategic communication are not, according to Rep. Smith, exclusive.  However, the omissions are almost as important as the commissions as what is written will provide important guidance.  This is particularly important considering the amendment reference to the roundly-criticized strategy in its opening paragraph. 

The amendment does not provide any funding as it only calls for a strategy and a coordination of current activities and capabilities. 

In addition to calling for yet another report, perhaps the most noteworthy distinction of this amendment is the effort to know who is saying what on our side (which is assumed to be only elements of State and Defense).  A key first step in describing, analyzing and acting on how media, both traditional and new, can fit into USG priorities and responsibilities is to find out the “lay of the land”.  Almost any conversation on the subject yields new “discoveries” of USG actors presently active or soon to be active in this space.  Who is saying what, even just in Defense, is an unknown.  This isn’t as big of a problem in State which has few public “touch points” or ambassadors in the last three feet.  This is the best part of the amendment, and a project already in the works by at least two groups that I know of. 

Although it’s too late, below are my top three recommendations to improve the amendment. 

First, U.S. strategic communication and public diplomacy are not the exclusive realm of State and Defense, but the responsibility of the whole of government and the American public.  Remove the language that makes it appear State and Defense own SC/PD. 

Second, de-emphasize tactical solutions and operational specifics and focus more on strategic foundations that build the trust, credibility, and legitimacy required to win a war of ideas.  This includes cultural and educational exchanges.  Drop the Western-style market measurements.  As we focus on our competition as well as our audience success will not be measured in market surveys but in the actions of our competitors and our shared audiences.  There is “no needle that moves or computer that clicks” in this struggle.  

Third, return Smith-Mundt to its purpose and remove the artificial and false prophylactic placed on Defense and State conversations with both the world and the American public.  The Defense Department, and most of State, was never intended to be covered by Smith-Mundt.  State does not need to be reminded of this, but Defense does.  This third proviso would have a significant trickle-down effect and would hopefully erase the troublesome belief that one can “inform without influence”.  (A longer paper on this point is coming.)

America’s ability to proactively engage in the “war of ideology that is fight unto death” is not be enhanced enough by this amendment.  It simply does not go far enough and must be an effort not of the Armed Services Committee but of the Foreign Affairs (or even Homeland Security) committee which must exercise its role as a critical element of our national defense.  This is short of what is required and ignores the “architectural” problems of our information and engagement activities.   

No word on the House Armed Services Committee’s view or when and if similar language will appear in the the Senate Armed Services Committee version. 

See also:

3 thoughts on “Developing a National Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy Strategy

  1. Our need for a national communication strategy has never been greater. The audiences we need to reach and influence are vastly different and far less receptive than were those of the Cold War, yet one could argue that our understanding of this situation is fundamentally flawed by a “messaging” approach. We seem to believe that if we somehow craft and perfect better “themes and messages” our strategic communications will solve the problem, yet we ignore the basic fact that simply “listening and understanding” would be an enormously powerful message itself. Even larger than a communication strategy, however, is the need for an inclusive national information strategy that would seek to create new capabilities to employ information power–our ability to create and share information–to create economic, political, and military advantages in support of national security. No one has yet laid out a conceptual approach for information power, and until that is done, efforts to improve subsets of it–such as strategic communication–will be imperfect at best.

  2. The recent legislation proposed by the Chairman Smith and Ranking Member Thornberry on strategic communication oversight and coordination is a well intentioned effort to fix problems associated with our nation’s attempts to counter violent extremism. However, it is also ironic, since the single most important element needed to repair the lack of coordination and develop coherent strategic direction is simply to have in place effective leadership in the office of the Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at State, which the White House has designated as the lead for these efforts. While the recent Senate “hold” placed on the current nominee to this critical position has been lifted, the Senate nonetheless failed to act before leaving town for the Memorial Day recess, leaving the position vacant, so far, for over 160 days.But that is not the whole story, and reflects an ongoing problem with the nomination and confirmation process. Since USIA was consolidated with State in 1999, this position has been unfilled for 34 per cent of the time (1069 of 3153 days). The Bush Administration has done even worse in this regard; the position has been vacant 40 per cent of the time (1069 of 2676 days).
    At the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the Voice of America, RFE/RL, Radio Free Asia, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and Middle East Broadcasting, the situation is also troubling. Of the nine positions on the bipartisan Board, two are vacant (and have been for some time), and six Governors continue to serve under expired appointments (as called for under BBG’s legislation), one of which ended in 2004 and two in 2005. This comes at a time when broadcasting has become an even more important component of our overall communication efforts, especially in such places as Somalia, North Korea, Iran, and Darfur.
    Without effective leadership at State there is a risk that any effort to improve the current situation, including this draft bill, is going to stall. You cannot improve coordination problems, develop an intellectual framework for dealing with violent extremism, or do much else to advance the cause if there is no center of gravity for managing public diplomacy and strategic communication at State, let alone in the interagency. I hope that when the Senate returns next week it will quickly confirm our nominee, so that he can use the time remaining to this Administration to put in place his plan, get something accomplished, and set the stage for 2009. One also hopes that the next administration will make filling this position (and the BBG) a priority. And that the Senate will act quickly and fairly on those nominations.

  3. Dan, you’re absolutely right regarding your point about “themes and messages”. More importantly, the USG has been, and still is, obsessed with the delivery of output rather than outcome and has failed to realize what the key means of influence are on the ground. The USG sees bought-media (posters, stickers, TV/Radio adverts, etc.) as the key to influence (I only presume this based on the enormous amounts of money spent in this area) and places little to no emphasis on earned-media and outreach campaigns (“the last three-feet”). The ability of local leaders, especially the central and provincial governments of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, to communicate effectively is crucial to influencing opinions with regards to state strength, human security, national identity and ultimately US policy.The use of first-party media by the USG is not fooling anyone, especially the target audience in the Middle East and elsewhere. The Al-Hurra’s and Radio Sawa’s look nice when presented on Power Point to a Congressional committee, however they lack the credibility and legitimacy needed to effectively influence – just see some of the market studies conducted. The comprehensive interagency strategy for strategic communication and public diplomacy should not try and reinvent the wheel of media in the Middle East/South West Asia. Trust of a media organization takes years if not decades. We don’t have decades to turn this ship around. USG-backed media outlets in these regions have been and continue to fail in winning the trust of its audience. The new strategy should aim to utilize the trusted sources of media already established and likewise, support the agencies and organizations that are able to influence (ultimately, “earn the media”) these agents. Similar emphasis should be given to the local (provincial and district) level influencers who should support and eventually replace our public diplomats in combat boots. This requires an emphasis on training and coordination with local actors rather than a complete reliance on product-based influence campaigns. This of course requires much more time is much more difficult then paid-media campaigns and certainly cannot be measured neatly by the number of posters and TV adverts disseminated – a number that contracting officers and CODELS are obsessed with.

Comments are closed.