American Public Diplomacy Wears Combat Boots, it’s wrong but it’s true

Last week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing with the subject Defining the Military’s Role Towards Foreign Policy. The purpose was to explore, in Senator Joseph Biden’s (D-Del) words, “an important trend affecting this country…the expanding role of the military in U.S. foreign policy.” He went to say that “there has been a migration of functions and authorities from U.S. civilian agencies to the Department of Defense.”

Today, American public diplomacy, its international communications with the world, wears combat boots. The Secretaries of Defense have used their podium to communicate not only to the American public but to the world far more effectively than the Secretaries of State since 9/11. At a time when fewer Americans know someone in uniform, it is increasingly the U.S. military that is in the critical “last three feet” of engagement with foreign publics in the most unstable lands. Around the world, images of combat boots and “digicams” (the new “digital camouflage”) lead while cameras don’t seem to find the civilians. Maybe it’s because there are so few there.

The White House encourages this as it has off-loaded responsibility for the conflict to the “commanders on the ground.” When General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker went to Congress for their first testimony after “The Surge,” the White House made a point to back off and let the General speak. The focus of the media and the White House was not on the top man from State, but the General.

We must ask, at the operational level, who is engaged in the struggle for minds and wills (it is not about “hearts and minds“)? In the early years, it certainly was not the Defense Department if simply because they rejected the need. There was little appreciation for persuasion outside of immediate military goals. In Iraq, for example, while there was a psychological preparation of the battlefield through PSYOP, nothing done to manage expectations of the larger public or even set the stage for the end of major combat operations, the so-called Phase IV part of the conflict. Of course we know the Defense Department blocked the State Department from initial participation, but is that an excuse over five years later?

The Defense Department did little to no encroachment into the domain of international engagement that was solidly a State Department function after the abolishing of the United States Information Agency. The Defense Department really did not do anything that might be considered competition (the Office of Strategic Influence would have been an informational activity that would have been public diplomacy-like, but the Defense Department’s public affairs killed it).

The State Department, however, did exercise its responsibility to engage and inform. The results were at best mixed, but generally not good. The “Shared Values” campaign that was allegedly a Madison Avenue approach neglected the crucial requirement of understanding the target audience. Ironically, understanding and adjusting for the target audience is what made Madison Avenue, as well as Karl Rove, the master of micro-targeting. What followed was, at best, incrementally better. If the Secretaries of State since 9/11 grasped the requirements of engaging foreign audiences, they failed to show it.

Reports and books, “too many” according to a recent Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy in 2007, complained about the lack of attention, resources, and focus of America’s public diplomacy. More importantly, they decried the lack of synchronicity between policy and words. Lost was the realization that, as presidential candidate Eisenhower noted, “as a nation, everything we do and everything we fail to say or do will have its impact in other lands.” The Defense Department would come to call this the “say-do gap.”

The void left by the largely (but not entirely) ineffective or non-existent engagement of foreign publics (let alone the U.S. public) needed to be filled. The defense community started talking about “strategic communication.” They started exploring how to “lob ideas and not missiles.” Sitting with Information Operations professionals, I heard frequently heard them unintentionally (and unknowingly) channel Edward R. Murrow’s request to be on the take-offs and not just the crash landings as the realization that information effects increasingly takes precedence over violent coercion.

The military has, by its own admission, been a reluctant participant in the global information environment. Even with their large in-house educational system (National Defense University, the Army War College, Marine Corps University, Command and Staff College, Air University, the Naval War College, and on and on) and their substantial “float” that permits professional education in the “in-house” system or through public colleges and university, they are still slow to enter the world of information. The result is the revision of doctrine through lessons learned and intense discussions involving not just the military but civilians from other parts of the government as well as outside the government. Several concepts are emerging from this that relate to the global information environment. One is an adoptive stance toward New Media and the other is to first consider the informational effects of “traditional” military engagement and plan operations accordingly (information plans with operational annexes versus operational plans with information annexes).

The State Department, with its lone Foreign Service Institute and virtually no budget or capacity to allow for extensive training, is mired in the mud. It has not time to develop doctrine. It has little time or money to explore lessons learned. And it has little time or money or, until recently, enlightened leadership to position itself as the appropriate civilian agency to lead. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as well as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have both said they want the State Department to step up.

As the recent report from the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy highlighted, the State Department does not task its public diplomats with public diplomacy. Is it really feasible to think Fulbrighters can fill this gap? I don’t think so. On the language front, seven years into the so-called (and poorly named) Global War on Terror, is the State Department providing incentives for 4/4 language skills? Is the State Department on anything close to a war footing? Not too long ago, foreign service officers were protesting going to Iraq. It is hard to blame them if you consider they were operating under the impression they aren’t involved in a war.

In lieu of the State Department filling the void it created, the Defense Department will and must act. The Minerva Research Initiative is one such endeavor. Should this be led by the Defense Department? Before answering, answer this: who else can and will do it?

This is not about the military-industrial complex (or the military-industrial-Congressional complex as Eisenhower originally intended to say). This is about alternatives and options right now. The State Department is not handicapped by an overaggressive Defense Department. It is handicapped by its own leadership and vision.

But this is also not just about the State Department. This is also about Congress and its view that persuasion and influence is something disgusting and apparently un-American. The broad Smith-Mundt Act was passed by a Congress that was not, to put it mildly, fully supportive of the President. And yet it got done and it does not mention the primary adversary that created the requirement. The era was one in which many people understood the power of propaganda, influence, persuasion, and international information activities. The era would continue for about two decades, until private diplomacy returned, necessitating the toning down of the rhetoric. Efforts to kill international broadcasting would be later interpreted as Congressional intent to protect sensitive American eyes and ears. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, international information activities were (with exceptions, such as in response to downing of KAL 007) largely passive or highly localized. Congress, as well as the experts who advised them, forgot about the active and aggressive “public diplomacy” of the first twenty years of the Cold War. Senior political leadership in the Administration and Congress, for example, thought the Marshall Plan was simply about reconstruction and forgot about its information aspects (and they certainly forgot the intense response by the Communists that gave the final nudge needed to push through Smith-Mundt).

While the “War of Ideas” label may not be the best, it conveys and resurrects the necessary aggression in the struggle for the minds and wills in the global information environment. The new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, Jim Glassman, is doing what he must as he re-asserts his office’s position as the hub of U.S. informational activities. He “gets” the requirements and knows the essence of the struggle isn’t to win a popularity or beauty contest. This is a struggle for the minds of people to influence their will to act. This is not a bad thing and is essential to our national security, both economically and militarily.

This is not an easy task. In contrast to the 80th Congress that passed Smith-Mundt, the 110th has no champions in the House or Senate or in the State Department for the sweeping changes necessary. The couple of bills being floated now to deal with fixing America’s informational activities are narrowly focused and heavily laden with references to a specific enemy and out of touch with real requirements of today and the future. Thus, his phrasing is required.

American public diplomacy wears combat boots. It is unfortunate, but it does. The military doesn’t like it but where is the State Department?

Violent and coercive force is no way to succeed overseas. The triumph of justice and truth, the foundations of our nation and (ostensibly) of our overseas adventures, is impeded by naked force. The military is realizing this and overcoming both this image and this approach. However, it is a military institution. We can lament that the State Department has a minor role, but let’s stay grounded and understand there’s a void to be filled and unless the State Department, or the “State and Non-State Department,” steps up, it’s going to be the Defense Department leading the way.

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