I appreciate Sharon Weinberger’s thoughtful three-part response at Wired’s Danger Room (Part I, Part II, Part III) to my interim paper “Rethinking Smith-Mundt” over at Small Wars Journal. Several points in her impassioned response deserve attention. However, to begin, it is important to understand that researching and writing “Rethinking Smith-Mundt” was more than an “esoteric” pursuit. Derisively labeling our adversaries exploitation of information as “asymmetric conflict” as if it was something unfair, we clung to our guns as it were as we continued to imagine a bureaucratically controlled global environment (more on asymmetry here). However, even as the Russians roll into Ossetia and Sarkozy recreates the part of Chamberlain, the Russians have not neglected the power of information to affect foreign public opinion. They have used cyber-warfare to block access to Georgian information while actively propagating Russian messages and images.
The fact of the matter is we have just begun to realize that the comfortable world we, as Americans, grew accustomed to since the late-1960’s and early 1970’s, is gone. The global information environment, with its satellite communications, 24/7 news, text messaging, and immediate access to video and images has substantially reduced the autonomy of leaders provided by the raw, supreme power of militaries provided over the last four decades. With few exceptions, war is no longer war among leaders but among the people and between the people. Small groups now have an amplified voice and strategic reach to run the show. Increased communications skills of our adversaries better leverage the digital age, as well as the analog age’s culturally attuned rumors, has changed the objective of war. Whether restricting access to information through cyber-warfare, inserting distortions into the information ecosystem with distortions, the purpose of conflict has become not to destroy the enemy while preserving oneself, but a contest “in spirit, will, and intelligence on a silent battlefield.” Conflict through bullets or economies is transformed as “attitude warfare” or “perception warfare.” It is now organized processes of persuasion.
The U.S. Government, consultancies, and the presidential candidates are all finally realizing the tremendous value of information and the informational effects of policy and actions. While bureaucratic inertia has prevented systemic changes for years, this may be changing. There are several major reports, and a couple of pieces of draft bills, that look to revamp America’s architecture of engagement (think variations on USIA 2.0). Virtually any discussion on restructuring America’s informational engagement with the world includes at least one (almost always) erroneous statement on Smith-Mundt. “Rethinking Smith-Mundt” was written with this in mind.
As described in “Rethinking Smith-Mundt,” the Act was written and debated during a time when “hot war” was unlikely between the major powers, a time before “Us” and “Them” were firmly established. But this was not the Cold War so many invoke today (it was not 1968) with massive military power at the ready and missiles aimed at the other’s capitals. Economies were not substantially linked and the key threat was not invasion but subversion. As our Ambassador to Russia said in 1946, the most important “fact in the field of foreign policy today…is the fact the Russians have declared psychological war on the United States, all over the world.” It was, he continued, “a war of ideology and a fight unto the death.” The struggle for authority and relevance had shifted from the arena of power to the arena of ideas and international persuasion.
However, Sharon’s impassioned critiques of my recommendations are based not on the lessons learned from the past, of a holistic approach to informational activities based on truth. Her comments are based on a selective, band-aid approach to the modern beauty contest known as public diplomacy today. I know we both agree that what is called “public diplomacy” today is broken. Many believe the term itself has become so burdened to be nearly as radioactive as “propaganda.” Even the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy rebuked the State Department for not tasking its public diplomacy officers with “public diplomacy.” Sharon experienced this and the failure of the bureaucracy to even comprehend “public diplomacy” during her brief stint as a Foreign Service Officer.
For a high-level thematic response to Sharon’s posts, see Steve Corman’s Real vs. False Distinctions in Rethinking Smith-Mundt. As Steve notes, Sharon is concerned about an “anything goes atmosphere.” I share this concern, which is why I want oversight and transparency, two elements previously central to the Act (related: 1948 Brookings report). TO be honest, “Rethinking Smith-Mundt” was less about modern recommendations than about dispelling myths about the Act. It was more about finding (surprising) common ground with history for today’s policy makers and report writers. The similarities between past and present were implicit as I didn’t want to bang the reader on the head in an already long and dense read. With that, below I go into more detail to respond to two of Sharon’s more significant of assertions.