Public Diplomacy is not an influence activity and the DOD can only use PSYOP to engage foreign audiences

A paper by Daniel Silverberg and COL Joseph Heimann in the current issue of the US Army War College’s superb quarterly Parameters discusses the legal authorities of the Defense Department’s activities in strategic communication, public affairs, and public diplomacy. In doing so, “An Ever-Expanding War: Legal Aspects of Online Strategic Communication” makes some startling statements on both the Defense Department’s and the State Department’s methods.

This paper is well-timed to coincide with current discussions in Congress on the role of DOD in engaging foreign audiences, particularly in the area of online communication. A key issue for the authors is whether interactive engagement of foreign audiences in the era of the social web by Combatant Commanders (eg. CENTCOM),

while critical to overall American strategic communication efforts, are properly characterized as “military missions,” that make use of DOD funding.

They do not blame the DOD for mission creep, with the understatement that DOD “is arguably filling a need where resource-strapped civilian agencies might be falling short.” (This statement assumes civilian agencies have the desire to fill the gap.)

Most troubling for me are the statements on which they base much of their analysis(emphasis is mine):

[O]nce the Department no longer labels its communication measures as PSYOP, it potentially subverts its own statutory authorities to conduct such programs. The Department has limited authorities to engage foreign audiences, and PSYOP are the principal authorized mechanism to do so. In legal terms, in order to justify the use of appropriated funds, DOD activities are required to support a DOD-specific mission and not conflict with the responsibility of another agency.8 Once DOD stops calling interactive communication activities PSYOP and undertakes functions similar to those of another department, the “military mission” becomes less defined.

Second, DOD may be encroaching upon the Department of State’s mission to engage foreign audiences. The two departments’ missions, while overlapping, are distinct. DOD’s mission is one of influence; the State Department’s mission is one of relationship-building and dialogue. The amalgamation of these tasks potentially undermines the State Department’s efforts. At a minimum, it forces one to ask exactly where does DOD’s mission end.

More on this from me later. What are you thoughts?

5 thoughts on “Public Diplomacy is not an influence activity and the DOD can only use PSYOP to engage foreign audiences

  1. Reference web 2.0 and DoD: the future is one in which influence is engagement. In a chat room or gaming room, one influences by being a part of the community. Even overt chats (one in which a participant identifies himself as DoD) means influence and two-way engagement.Legislation must catch up to reality if we decide that we want to play in the social networking arena.
    More importantly, DoD needs to catch up if it decides to play. Web 2.0 engagement needs to follow the military’s decision to drive tactics by “Commander’s Intent.” In other words, the days of word and message approval may have to give way to making sure that the 23 year old tattooed DoD chat room operator is clear on the messaging and the commander’s intent.
    Alternative: DoD decides NOT to play in this arena. And that may be OK too, but we will loose an opportunity to influence in some regions where chat and games rule.

  2. I found Silverberg and Heimann’s paper to be quite troubling on a number of levels. I suspect much of this has to do with the separation between law and the conversations that go on in the legal world and the kinds of conversations we have in the real world. I did not find the piece to be a helpful contribution to the ongoing strategic communication/public diplomacy/psychological operations/information operations/influence operations conversation.Their conclusions and the implications of those conclusions, though I’m sure quite sensible from a legal perspective and well founded in legalese, are quite inimical in actual practice.
    Over the last 8 years and often at great personal cost, an entire military cohort has learned that traditional kinetic superiority is insufficient to prevail in all military operations. If we accept Silverberg and Heimann’s reasoning, we should pull the rug out from under our military and restrict them from doing the things they have figured out they need to do to prevail, oh, except for the relatively small PSYOP community. Not tenable!
    Every action and utterance of every soldier, sailor, airman, and marine contributes to the information environment and has the potential to inform or influence, intentionally or no. This happens unavoidably and happens whether or not we call these actions and utterances PSYOP. If you constrain the ability of the DoD to participate in the information environment intentionally you leave only unintended participation; that’s a pale shadow given the participation of our adversaries in wholly unconstrained ways.
    Strategic communication includes the critical recognition that relationships with international publics require a “whole of government” approach. The notion that this undertaking is the sole provenance of the Department of State is very last century. State has its hands full dealing with traditional diplomatic requirements, and is years (and many many millions of dollars) away from a sufficiently robust public diplomacy and strategic communication apparatus to meet the United States’ (and the United States military’s) needs in this area.
    On behalf of all the men and women in uniform who are trying to support American public diplomacy and strategic communication, I reply to Silverberg and Heimann: “If not us, then who?”

  3. Thought that the whole premise of the article was kinda quaint — Legal Considerations of Online PSYOP. Haven’t they heard that per recent precedent, USG only needs a lackey staff attorney to craft a reliance memo declaring whatever you want to do to be legal. Stay within the four corners of the dodgy opinion and you are golden.

  4. This article is a great example of just how far we need to go if we want to compete in the marketplace of ideas. God, save us from lawyers!Are there still people out there who think “informing” someone is not “influencing” them? Does the average PAO, or for that matter – reporter, really just produce articles on any random issue that flashes before their eyes? Or do they selectively decide what they will write/blog about? What guides that selectivity, stating a case, highlighting a need, amplifying an action, supporting a cause? Hmm, if you narrow a debate or conversation to specific topics that you want to discuss, isn’t that a form of “influence”?

  5. I agree with Christopher and with PBC. Without a long winded discourse, my many years of experience in this area leave me with these conclusions.1. State has abrogated their responsibilities in Prop, Counter Prop and Influence among others. The discussion about why and how is too long, but in part it has to do with the kind of person who goes into State; talkers, not doers.
    2. DOD has filled the vaccum because they have the mission to win the war, and are not going to sit around and wait while soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines die. Doers and talkers.
    3. Laywers have far too much say so in operations today because every administration is so damn afraid of what might happen if all the legal niceties aren’t done…and what the ‘media’ and ‘the world’ will say.
    The bottom line in all this is that confusion reigns within DOD, State continues to piddle around and US policy drifts on the desert wind.

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