The Future of Public Diplomacy

The world increasingly operates on perceptions created by the “Now Media” environment. Governments must fully take into account these perceptions in the forming and conducting of foreign policy. From the perspective of the United States, the simple and essential fact is that everything we say and do both at home and abroad, as well as everything we fail to say and do, has an impact in other lands. This isn’t a new idea but an observation originally made by a certain general running for president in 1952.

Just a few short months ago, the election of Barack Obama generated a lot of enthusiasm at the promise of the return of smart foreign policies based on understanding global publics. Call it public diplomacy, strategic communication, or simply global engagement, the President has already shown an innate appreciation and aptitude for connecting directly with people around the world. From his television interview with Al-Arabiya to his “YouTube Diplomacy” with Iran, he clearly “gets it.”

The same can be said for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Between her recent trips to Asia and Europe and her expansion of so-called “e-diplomacy” initiatives using Web 2.0 technologies and practice, Clinton shows that she too could be a force for mobilizing individuals and groups.

However, public diplomacy does not have an auto-pilot. Leaving the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs unoccupied creates a government-wide leadership vacuum at a critical time. As we approach the 100-day mark since the President’s inauguration, there has been little, if any, substantial progress by the Government in the areas of public diplomacy and strategic communication, even as many have touted its resurgence. This is troubling considering the broad and global struggle the United States is engaged in against terrorism, insurgency, poverty, deprivation, and disease.

The combined personal diplomacy of the President and the Secretary of State will only go so far in a global information environment where ideas and news are subjected to accidental misinformation as well as intentional lies and distortions by our adversaries. If it were as simple as having a President or a Secretary of State who is effective at public engagement in the global struggle for minds and wills, then there would never have been a need for cultural and educational exchange programs, government broadcast facilities, or the United States Information Agency.

Where is public diplomacy today? Although Judith McHale, the former CEO of Discovery, was Clinton’s #1 pick for Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (one of four Under Secretary openings that remain unfilled) since about Clinton’s nomination hearings before inauguration, the Secretary of State has yet to nominate her.

Three conclusions can be drawn from the lengthy delay in moving forward with public diplomacy. The first is that the State Department’s role in public diplomacy is being questioned. Arguments abound that the Department is irreparably broken and some responsibilities, including public diplomacy, should be removed. This “let it bleed to death” scenario is dangerous and wastes talented human and technical resources. This scenario usually includes empowering the National Security Council to do some of what had been previously done by the United States Information Agency.

The second conclusion is Ms. McHale is not viewed as the optimal candidate. But this is unlikely because after two months of vetting, the word on the street is that her nomination is “imminent.” 

The third conclusion is public diplomacy is not a priority. Sadly, this is the most likely case because if the President and the Secretary of State fully appreciated the value of global engagement as a means to support foreign policy, there would have been substantial action in this area to leverage and expand upon their personal outreach. Without invigorating and empowering America’s public diplomacy, the leadership and the charisma of the President and the Secretary of State will be wasted.

The first and third conclusions lead to severe consequences. If the Secretary of State fails to acknowledge her Department’s leadership responsibility in engaging global populations, she will continue the trend of ceding power and authority to the Defense Department, the only vertically integrated element of the Government that can provide the services necessary in a world of state and non-state actors. The Defense Department will, by default, become the hub of government engagement with the world. We have already seen the Secretary of Defense make policy statements that arguably should come from the Secretary of State. America’s public diplomacy must not continue to wear combat boots.

To be relevant in the modern struggle of minds and wills, the Secretary of State must have an empowered Under Secretary coordinating America’s public diplomacy and global engagement. Failure to act risks not only the future of the State Department but America’s national security in general.

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4 thoughts on “The Future of Public Diplomacy

  1. This is particularly important since the basic “personality” of the DoD is to act, and if it perceives inaction where action is needed it will fill that void. I’m not suggesting that the DoD will intentionally or overtly act harmfully or negatively, but if the basic perception of foreign populations becomes that when we say “public diplomacy” we really mean “more military involvement with you”, that takes us in a direction we do not want to go. The way to fix this is for State to “cowboy up” to its responsibilities and get moving.

  2. And maybe a fourth factor, noted on netroots blogs: Pay to play. Hale is the $100,000 woman, a living example of what it really takes to get the title of Under Secretary of State. The specter of Chicago politics haunts this administration, and Hale would be a throbbing message to the world of the real force in American diplomacy: money directed into the pockets of the Clinton campaign.

  3. I know that the Secretary of State is aware of the vacancy. But has anyone discussed the importance and urgency of the position? It seems to me that someone must advise her on this issue. May be send her this article.

  4. I think the approach of the administration has been to assume that if they get the policies “right,” there will be little need for public diplomacy. Sensible policies set through sensible (and traditional) diplomacy will “sell themselves.” I fear it will take a year or so for the administration to figure out that what may seem a “right” and “sensible” policy to us will not seem that way to foreign audiences – whether rivals or friends.

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