Judith McHale at CNAS: Public Diplomacy: A National Security Imperative

Below are Under Secretary Judith McHale’s prepared remarks she delivered at CNAS today. I found her speech to be good and full of promise but as several observers note, it was light on specifics. But, considering she’s been in for two weeks and in the bull pen for only a couple of months (most of which were at a distance from State in contrast to Jim Glassman’s extended, unfortunate, and unnecessary six month lead time during which he was far more engaged), she still needs to pick her battles. She’s a good public speaker, far better off the cuff than reading prepared notes (like many of us).

Some quick comments on the Under Secretary’s speech:

  • If I were to pick one key take-away from her speech, it would be this: “This is not a propaganda contest – it is a relationship race. And we have got to get back in the game.” Understanding this and the power and importance of information, trust, hope, credibility, as well as the destructive power of accidental misinformation and intention disinformation can be realized. Realizing this means we can operationalize public diplomacy (which, conveniently, was the title of my chapter in The Handbook of Public Diplomacy). Success depends on building up proxies, this is a struggle for minds and wills to empower others to fight what is often their fight to begin with.
  • In Q&A, McHale’s answer to a question from Mitzi (when did you leave CNA? been a while since we’ve talked) along the lines of “Why is Afghanistan Important?” gets at the problem of the quaint firewall put in place in the 1970’s and 1980’s that prevents America’s from seeing and hearing the What and Why of American foreign policy.
  • She discussed the “turf war” between State and Defense, but that may be easy compared to the “turf war” related to educating Americans.
  • Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication are not synonymous. SC includes Americans and the American media, public diplomacy does not (it should, but it does not, which is one reason “Global Engagement is a better term… and better than “public affairs” which is should have remained). But I accept Dennis Murphy’s observation (in his first Tweet ever), “lexicon gets in the way of definitions. Simpler is better for the uninitiated to convince value of info.”
  • McHale highlighted the importance of Information & Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) to public diplomacy. (link and PDF).
  • In mentioning the tremendous public diplomacy campaign supporting President Obama’s Cairo speech, she (understandably) failed to mention the text message subscription service was not global, but available only to cell numbers outside of the United States.
  • Some of her speech is a rehash of Jim Glassman’s talking points, but that doesn’t make them any less important. Unlike Jim, McHale has the very visible support of the Secretary, the President, and Congress.
  • The real proof will be what happens next.

Thank you, Kristin, for that generous introduction. I would also like to thank Dr. John Nagl and the Center for New American Security for inviting me to be part of this conversation. And thank you for sending us Kurt Campbell and Michele Flournoy. I met with Michele this week and I am looking forward to working closely with Kurt at State. In fact, I’ve quickly learned that Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon have become unofficial CNAS alumni clubhouses. I just hope someone teaches me the secret handshake while I’m here.

It is a privilege to share the program today with so many distinguished speakers, including General Petraeus, who continues to provide leadership and insight on the most complicated issues of the day.

Fortunately, he is not alone. Today we have a President and Secretaries of State and Defense who a re committed to renewing our engagement with the people of the world and restoring the kind of leadership that made the United States a force for global progress for so much of our history. The Obama Administration recognizes the central role of public diplomacy as a tool of smart power and an essential ingredient of 21st century statecraft.

Whether we are strengthening old alliances, forging new partnerships to meet complex global challenges, engaging with citizens and civil society, or charting new strategies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, our national interests depend on effective engagement and innovative public diplomacy. The stakes could not be higher. We must get this right.

Today I’d like to share some thoughts on what effective engagement looks like in a rapidly changing world and why it is so important to our foreign policy.

The starting point must be a recognition of how much the communications and information revo lution has transformed the world in which we live.

In today’s interconnected world, people everywhere and at all levels of society are bombarded with information and more engaged with the wider world than ever before. Young people especially see the world through new lenses that fuel both new aspirations and old resentments. The advance of democracy and open markets has empowered millions to demand more control over their own destinies. Even in autocratic societies, leaders must increasingly respond to the opinions and passions of their people.

This has far-reaching implications for our foreign policy and national security. Governments inclined to support U.S. policies will back away if their populations do not trust us. But if we do this right, if we develop relationships with people around the world, if they trust us as a partner, this dynamic will be reversed. Less cooperative regimes will be forced to moderate their positions under popular pressure . To the extent that we succeed, threats we face today will diminish and new partnerships will be possible.

That is why Secretary Clinton has put people-to-people diplomacy at the heart of smart power and has underscored our need to, “build new partnerships from the bottom up, and to use every tool at our disposal.”

Today, traditional government-to-government diplomacy is just not enough. Our ability to build and sustain the kind of partnerships we need to address the challenges of this century – and seize its opportunities – will depend on bolstering our credibility with the people of the world and forging an ethic of common purpose.

Secretary Gates has argued that, “much of our national security strategy depends upon securing the cooperation of other nations, which will depend heavily on the extent to which our efforts abroad are viewed as legitimate by their publics.” The key, he says, is “the steady accumulation of actions and results that build trust and credibility over time.”

We are not the only ones who see the significance of increased engagement. Friends, competitors, and adversaries alike are moving quickly. The Chinese are building infrastructure and cultural centers across the world, developing long-term relationships in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. The Iranian public diplomacy network in the Middle East and beyond includes satellite television and radio networks in several languages, more than 100 newspapers and magazines, and thousands of web sites and blogs. And of course al-Qaeda and other extremists continue to engage aggressively using a range of new and old media.

This is not a propaganda contest – it is a relationship race. And we have got to get back in the game.

So how do we rebuild our national credibility and renew our engagement with the people of the world?

We need to develop a multi-dimensional, results-oriented approach that combines traditional outreach with cutting-edge technology to engage with people at all levels of society.

Broadly speaking, public diplomacy operates on two levels:

First, communication. This is the air game, the radio and TV broadcasts, the websites and media outreach that all seek to explain and provide context for U.S. policies and actions; and

Second, engagement, the ground game of direct people-to-people exchanges, speakers, and embassy-sponsored cultural events that build personal relationships.

It is imperative that we improve on both levels, that we get smarter about how we communicate and more ambitious in how we engage.

As we communicate with people around the world, we must move beyond messaging. We need to listen more and lecture less. We have to learn how people listen to us, how our words and deeds are actually heard and seen. And we need to explain our positions and policies upfront and not after the fact when opinions have already hardened. The more languages and venues we communicate in, the more respect we show for our audience, the more effective we will be.

And in our on-the-ground engagement, we need to build on the historic success of exchange programs such as Fulbright and reach wider and deeper into societies. In a world of billions of people, we need to find ways to scale up our programs and engage on a much broader level.

Advances in technology are providing new tools to do just that. They are enhancing both our communications and our engagement, and providing unprecedented opportunities to develop new relationships. They allow us to move from an old model in which our government speaks as one-to-many, to a powerful new model of engaging interactively and collaboratively as many-to-many.

Our efforts to support President Obama’s recent Cairo speech sugg est the breadth and depth of these new possibilities. The President’s words were almost instantly translated into 14 languages, posted on websites and blogs around the world, transmitted by text message to mobile phones in more than 170 countries, and discussed on social networks that span the globe. State Department officers texted, blogged and chatted about the speech in dozens of languages.

We paired these unprecedented high-tech communications efforts with traditional person-to-person outreach. Staff at more than 100 embassies and consulates hosted speech-watching gatherings, sponsored post-speech public debates and discussions, conducted hundreds of media interviews, and visited universities, mosques and madrassas – putting a local face on the President’s promise of a New Beginning.

The goal of this kind of person-to-person engagement has always been to form lasting relationships. This is now a foundation of our communications s trategy as well. In a crowded media environment, relationships offer a way to break through the clutter.
I learned this lesson while leading the expansion of Discovery Communications into 170 countries and 35 languages. We knew that developing relationships with people across countries and cultures required understanding how they saw the world and offering them information they valued.

So if we want to forge relationships with people around the gl
obe – and this is absolutely critical to our national strategic objectives – we need to understand people’s interests and aspirations, and form partnerships to provide them with information and services they value. That is the key to an enduring relationship.
In a world where information is often the most valuable currency, we can link our unmatched national data resources with new communications technologies to create Information Age tools that expand opportunity and improve lives . We can provide crop pricing data to cotton farmers in Uganda, financial literacy tools to shopkeepers in India, and online organizing training to activists in Colombia. Local voices and local aspirations must drive these efforts, and it is crucial that we work in a spirit of partnership, not patronage.

One of our most effective tools of relationship-building is English language training. Even in the most difficult of settings, we find that people value these skills and see them as building blocks to a better life. Through the English Access Micro-scholarship Program, created in 2004, the State Department has provided language skills to approximately 44,000 low-income high school students in more than 55 countries, including many in the Middle East. Evaluations have found that 87 percent of students in the Access program reported a more favorable view of the American people.
If we do this right, we can forge relationships that become part of people&rs quo;s daily lives and endure long after the latest sound bites have faded away. With young people in particular, who are connected to the wider world in ways that their parents and grandparents never dreamed possible, we can lay a foundation of trust that will last a lifetime.

And when our interests diverge, as they inevitably will from time to time, these bonds of trust and common purpose will help us to debate as friends rather than clash as enemies. They will provide powerful counterarguments against the extremists who seek to spread anti-Americanism and will bolster those who see America as a source of good in the world.

The national security implications of engagement have not been lost on our colleagues at the Department of Defense, which has become heavily involved in what we call public diplomacy and they call strategic communications.

This influx of resources and personnel has bolstered our public diplomacy efforts. In Nigeria, for example, where high rates of HIV and AIDS among its soldiers has hampered the Nigerian military’s ability to participate in peace-keeping missions, the State Department organized a partnership with DoD and the Nigerian Ministry of Defense to create a program of testing, training, and education aimed at Nigerian military families. As of last month, more than 77,000 Nigerians had received HIV counseling and testing. Civilians at State took the lead, but they could not have implemented this program without the resources and assistance of their DoD counterparts.

Stories like this are encouraging. But we cannot ignore the legitimate concern that American public diplomacy should not be seen in any part of the world only as wearing combat boots. There needs to be a civilian face as well. Secretary Gates himself has said that, “when it comes to America’s engagement with the rest of the world, it is important the military is – and is clearly seen t o be – in a supporting role to civilian agencies.”

But, as Secretary Gates also notes, we cannot build the civilian capacity needed to assume an appropriate leadership role without adequate resources. And at the State Department, we don’t have them. This is a problem that I am committed to addressing.

I also recognize that our civilian efforts need more than just resources. Our military colleagues have grasped both the significance and the urgency of the public diplomacy mission and have responded accordingly. They recognize that the stakes are literally life and death and that their approach must be strategic and global in scope.

One of my top priorities at the State Department is to instill a renewed sense of urgency and a strong emphasis on achieving real results. I am in this for the long haul and with the support of Secretary Clinton, I will tackle this challenge head-on.
At the top of my list is integratin g public diplomacy into the policy process at every level, from formulation through implementation. Our policy decisions must be informed upfront by sound research and perspectives on possible impacts.

We also must create a culture of risk-taking and innovation that can adapt quickly in a changing world, nurture good ideas, and capitalize on new technologies. I plan on supporting numerous pilot programs to see which initiatives we should operationalize and scale up and which are better left on the shelf.

As someone with experience leading a large international business, I have a deep appreciation for strategic planning and results-oriented management. At the State Department, we can do a better job of thinking and planning strategically, with a clear mission and a steady eye on long-term global goals, accompanied by careful assessment of programs, personnel and expenditures.

The bottom line is that results matter. I will work to develop met hods for tracking outcomes on a consistent basis so that we have reliable ways of spotting trends and are better positioned to respond to shifting circumstances. And we will put a greater emphasis on considering and quantifying expected outcomes throughout the planning process.

I am confident that we can build a responsive and effective infrastructure that will support the kind of public diplomacy we need to achieve our national strategic objectives in today’s world.

Nowhere is this imperative more pressing than in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Enhanced public diplomacy is a key component of the President’s new strategy in the region. When he announced his plan in March, the President said that, “a campaign against extremism will not succeed with bullets or bombs alone.” He stressed the need to provide the people of the region with alternatives to extremism and to, “demonstrate through deeds as well as words a commitment that is enduring.”

Afghanistan and Pakistan are, of course, large and diverse countries and we will carefully tailor our approach accordingly, valley by valley, village by village.

To achieve the President’s aims, we are launching a multi-faceted strategy to provide platforms for local moderate voices, support democratic institutions and civil society, and position the United States as a long-term partner working to create opportunity and enable the people of the region to chart the futures of their own countries.

We are responding to requests from the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to help meet the needs of their people. Secretary Clinton recently announced more than $100 million in humanitarian support for the people of Pakistan. And Ambassador Holbrooke just announced $200 million more. Since 2002, the United States has provided a total of more than $3.4 billion to alleviate suffering and promote econ omic growth, education, health and good governance in Pakistan.

Yet we have a credibility gap with many in the region — some have called it a “trust deficit.” So part of our task is reassuring the people that our aim in the region is to support their own aspirations. We need to do a better job of getting the word out about what we are doing to help Pakistan and Afghanistan become more stable and prosperous, both through the local media and by communicating directly with people.

There are 8 million Afghan mobile phone subscribers today and new towers and phones will provide more and more people with unprecedented access to information. Cell phone penetration in most parts of Pakistan has expanded even more rapidly. We are already exploring using text messaging to help internal refugees in Pakistan fin
d much needed relief supplies and services.

We also need to lay the groundwork for long-term engagement. That is why we are expanding our English language programs in the region and launching efforts to engage teachers and students at madrassas. And we are putting new emphasis on proven public diplomacy programs. More students from Pakistan are studying for advanced degrees on Fulbright scholarships than from any other country.

Both Afghanistan and Pakistan face entrenched and brutal insurgencies. One great insight of the counterinsurgency strategy pioneered by General Petraeus is that without lasting relationships with local people and the trust of local communities, success will prove fleeting. Of course, though hard learned, this is not really a new lesson.

A few days after I started at the State Department, I moved into George Marshall’s old office. General Marshall saw a world beyond our shores devastated by war and reeling from economic crisis. He knew that our fates and our fortunes were intertwined and that America had to engage with the world to ensure our future . So he launched one of the most far-reaching engagement efforts in history. And today we are still reaping the rewards of that investment in mutual prosperity and security.

From Cairo to Kabul, from quiet villages to crowded cities, America is once again reaching out a hand of friendship and seeking new relationships. We know it is the right thing to do and we know, like General Marshall did, that our future depends on it.

Thank you.

Your thoughts?

See also:

2 thoughts on “Judith McHale at CNAS: Public Diplomacy: A National Security Imperative

  1. I was less impressed with the new Under Secretary McHale’s prepared and unprepared remarks. She seems very competent and understands complex communications and engagement challenges globally from her previous experience, but that did not shine through yesterday. Defining the key themes and messages for the office of Public Diplomacy will be essential to prevent comments such as lack of knowledge stemming from only two weeks on the job. President Obama did not get away with that answer and neither should she. Perhaps an approach similar to General Petreaus would be valuable where 100 leading representatives of government, non-profit, and commercial expertise come together to help shape policy over 100 days. Public health NGO’s in Africa, to international media, .COM leaders, military IO and Public Affairs representatives and more could be a potential pool of interested subject matter experts that can make a difference. President Obama used similar groups of expertise in his digital outreach strategy leading to a powerful grassroots movement. This kind of strategic review is both valuable for future plans and seizing the momentum of being new in the office so people perceive the office to at least have a plan and commitment. The following observations are only highlighted to hopefully improve the effectiveness of this critical office.The take-away for me that was substantive and should have been the cornerstone of her remarks was the recent engagement strategy surrounding the President’s recent speech in Cairo. It appears successful and may demonstrate her new approach to this office rather than saying she has only been on the job two weeks. Audiences respect details and substance and this incredible case study has both. A visual, or at least a more detailed, presentation on the fully integrated communications approach to the speech sounds incredible, but was poorly explained. The number of countries, languages, traditional and new media outlets broadcasting the message, coordination to host “watching parties” with debates on site, and anecdotal feedback should be codified for such a presentation. An estimated total reach or audience of the speech compared to typical U.S. President speeches would help add a comparative analysis. Otherwise, why do we think this was successful? Compared to what and to what end? From what I understand, this was a success for engagement and communications, potentially serving as a compelling case study, answer the questions about her approach/philosophy, and maybe even help secure increased congressional funding. Without a disciplined approach and review of such communications efforts, I am not surprised with the limited funding for this office.
    Media training takes practice and is worth the investment. A few thoughts:
    – Review your own tape and keep it for your records
    – Avoid useless quantifiers such as “so”, “totally”, “great”, “a lot of time”, etc.
    – Reinforce what is important for your office and mission. Answers like “I don’t know and I am just two weeks on the job.” cannot possibly help in this effort and represent missed opportunities to repeat what is important. Your message.
    – Answering a question about what worries her the most in this new job with a list of examples ranging from measuring results to resources and coordination challenges, she replied “they all do”. There are no priorities if everything is a priority. You should know your opportunities and challenges now with the flexibility to refine them in the future.
    – For the question of “Why are we in Afghanistan? And How are you going to explain it to Afghans?”, she could not or chose not to answer it. The President has made it clear and is a good reference point on how to answer this question in the future. Keeping consistent messages throughout our government is the real question here and deserves a careful review by this office. The lack of message consistency is almost as damaging as drone attacks on civilian populations to our credibility. She answered slightly how she plans to engage communities through listening and direct interaction, but no comment on the greater communication effort behind that or any details.
    – She simply does not know the difference with Strategic Communications and Public Diplomacy. She admits that she “has not looked up the definition of either term”. She can learn it, but it does say something to not have an answer. Your comments are gracious, but the audio record is unavoidable for those not present (www.state.gov/video/?videoid=26110211001 Q&A starting at 20 minute mark). She answered that they were very similar with “a lot of overlap” on one of the most fundamental questions for the office. Are we still confused on why Congress does not appropriate significant funds to this office?
    – Speaking of funding, her comment about “not being offered $5 billion in this economy last time she checked” is unfortunate. You better know what you want in this town and don’t be surprised if you don’t get support without a clear answer. A review underway is answer for now, but you could begin to shape expectations for the future with some highlights or even a comparison to other government agency spending on similar work.
    – Regarding the question referring to the previous communications strategic plans by your predecessors, answer with 1-2 specific highlights that you are focusing your review on of personal concern rather than repeated platitudes. If you have not read this important document in your first 2 weeks, read them now.
    – A critical task for the office in the first 3 months should be to answer the question of funding and resources to achieve what specific results. In such a short time in the office, stakeholders want to understand her process and plan to make an impact and that would suffice for now.
    – If you can’t answer a question and promise follow up then put your assistant in touch with them so people think it is sincere and not just avoiding a question. Even better, post the answers after finding them on your website showing your commitment to get reliable truthful information to interested audiences.
    – With 1,400 attendees, you can expect some bizarre questions. President Obama brilliantly absorbs and deflects such questions to reinforce his positions. The accusation (reference to the bizarre question) against our visa experience in India should not be contested or made fun of in public forum, but rather re-emphasize the importance visa and education programs have in the engagement component of your office.
    The overall initial perception is more than concerning. The prepared remarks read like a safe, conservative, bureaucrat. The un-prepared remarks are even worse. Make your priorities, develop your strategy, execute, and refine. Please let us not define successful communications or engagement by how many Muslims we meet, Web 2.0 tools we explore, or messages we translate. This office must define what impact it can have abroad through more relevant metrics.

  2. I agree with the previous comment. McHale’s comments were poorly delivered, lacked clarity and definition of thought, show someone who is surprised by the lack of depth and ability in her organization, and gave me nothing to feel comfortable about. The constant patter about DoD’s role in public diplomacy makes me wonder how much effort is spent both officially and unofficially teeth gnashing and hair pulling over another USG agency, when the real work demands focus on both the American tax-paying public and foreign publics.I was immensely disappointed. Thank goodness she was not recently appointed as part of the military.

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