HR 2410: Public Diplomacy requires Leadership, Training, Access, and Oversight

Yesterday, the House passed HR 2410, the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for FY 2010-2011, on a vote of 235-187. This bill is potentially the most important Foreign Relations Authorization bill in decades. Congressman Howard Berman (D-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, gets it:

The State Department and our other civilian foreign affairs agencies have a critical role to play in protecting U.S. national security. Diplomacy, development and defense are the three key pillars of our national security. By wisely investing resources to strengthen our diplomatic capabilities, we can help prevent conflicts before they start, and head off the conditions that lead to failed states. This approach is much more cost-effective than providing massive amounts of humanitarian aid, funding peacekeeping operations, or — in the most extreme circumstances — putting U.S. boots on the ground.

This prepares the Government toward the present reality of “global persistent engagement” rather than “persistent conflict”. As it should, public diplomacy figures prominently in this bill. The bill would would: 

Each of the bullets deserve their own post. Two already do (Senator Lugar’s effort on America’s Libraries and Resource Centers & Nina Keim’s guest post on documentary programs). Many will write on the long overdue expansion of the Foreign Service, long overdue efforts to make the Foreign Service more expeditionary, and long overdue emphasis on training and education of those currently serving.

Few will probably associate the documentary exchange program legislation with the Informational Media Guarantee (22 USC 1442), an amendment to the Smith-Mundt Act passed with the Marshall Plan. As some ponder the state of US media and the need for US Government media to step up and fill the gap of coverage, analysis, and context left by the retreat and collapse of private media, we should consider reactivating the abandoned Informational Media Guarantee. 

State Department Leads Public Diplomacy / Strategic Communication

Many will comment on the concentration of public diplomacy and strategic communication responsibilities in the State Department, which is significant and in my view essential to keep the Department relevant in global affairs. Unclear is how this view by the Legislative Branch will be reconciled with the recent decision by the Executive Branch to establish the Global Engagement Directive within the National Security Council.

The legislation establishes a lead role for the Secretary of State

in coordinating the inter-agency process in public diplomacy/strategic communications and establishes a mechanism for coordination, subject to the will of the President. In recent years, U.S. outreach efforts to publics overseas have suffered from a lack of coordination among federal government entities, each with its own public affairs mission abroad.  The problem of duplication is especially acute with respect to the Defense Department, which conducts strategic communications projects that include polling, community programs and Web sites that are not labeled as initiatives of the U.S. military. U.S. Government agencies operating public opinion outreach programs abroad need to coordinate more closely to ensure that their efforts are not duplicative or in conflict with one another.

This is a necessary and, as I wrote above, required concentration but will responsibilities really follow? The possibly-to-be-legislated quarterly meetings chaired by the Secretary of State (vice-chair rotates each meeting to participating agencies, their effect on the agenda is of course TBD) will be presumably similar to previous coordinating committee meetings but the higher level will be a notable change and likely do more to herd cats who already show a willingness, even a desire, to be herded. Interestingly, each participating agency will be required to submit an annual report on their activities to the President, with the exception of SOCOM. It is not clear whether these reports will be public.

This is a good first step to establish the State Department as the leader in America’s global engagement. To be effective, the Department must also become the Department of Non-State as it more aggressively – and with more agility – preempt and counter adversarial information and actions outside the bounds of traditional and comfortable state-to-state activities. The role of countering threats, beyond bullets and bombs and even to health and environmental, is a role the Defense Department, for all intents and purposes, currently owns. This must be one step in many to come.

Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy

One of the most important sections in this bill is about the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. Originally established as the Advisory Commission on Information, it was an essential public ombudsman for America’s international broadcasting Congress required sixty years ago. The Commission’s job was to issue a public report that was a critical analysis of what was being done overseas in America’s name and with taxpayer money. The Commission initially included the vice president of CBS, a university president, the president of Time, Inc., advertising executives, and newspaper editors and publishers.

Today, however, with the exception of the recent superb report on the human resource aspect of public diplomacy, little serious and critical analysis has been done by the Commission in many decades. The historic failure of the Commission to provide the necessary oversight over America’s public diplomacy has led to a blindspot for the American public and Congress on how we are doing and more importantly why.

Two major issues were left untouched. One is the necessary, and also long overdue, revamping of the dysfunctional Broadcasting Board of Governors.

The other ignored issue is addressing the Smith-Mundt firewall and the resulting bureaucratic bifurcation of public affairs and public diplomacy. The “only” change necessary and, in fact, the only change that should be done is striking 22 USC 1461-1a, removing “abroad” and paragraph (b) should be replaced, if necessary, any language to provide for the storage and immediate and future retrieval by the media, Congress, academia, and the general public. In combination with §1461-1a, prevents true global engagement in an age of Google, YouTube, blogs, etc. But, as they say, baby steps.

This legislation is necessary and long overdue. However, let’s see what comes out after the politics of a bicameral legislature is done with it.