Absent Leadership in Public Diplomacy

From the President to the Secretaries of State and Defense, we have frequently heard how public diplomacy is key to America’s national security. While Congress debates the encroachment of the military into areas traditionally occupied, lead, and resourced by civilian agencies, there remains too much darkness when it comes to understanding the dysfunction in the structures of America’s public diplomacy, let alone at the State Department as a whole. Whether it is absent leadership at USAID, empty Undersecretary and Assistant Secretary positions across State, including the Assistant Secretary positions at International Information Programs.

Such absence of leadership leads to meandering efforts and poor use of resources. This is a core issue behind the Congressional examination into Defense strategic communication activities – a warranted development considering the lack of leadership, as noted in this report from earlier this year.

The absence of leadership – even if the seat is being warmed – can lead to other agencies taking a piece of your pie. In the case of State, the void left by inaction and poor action by State in global engagement led to the often clumsy buildup by Defense. Today, USAID may suffer: the US Department of Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, has asked the Secretaries of State and Defense to reallocate $170 million from DOD, DOS, and USAID to USDA for work in Afghanistan. In IIP’s America.gov (a site I used to tout) there’s a clear shift from informing and engaging through news to engaging through social media for the sake of engagement (apparently under the what-I-thought-was the outdated rubric of “to know me is to love me”). It’s perhaps a bit ironic that the same failure of leadership led to the disestablishment (abolishment to be blunt) of USIA ten years ago.

This week, ProPublica’s Dafna Linzer tells us Al Hurra is being investigated inspected by State’s Inspector General. (Side question: does the fact that State’s IG can investigate, or in this case a routine inspection, bother those who say USG’s International Broadcasting is not public diplomacy or part of State?) Regardless of the problems – and there are some – would you expect much else when there has been little real leadership of America’s international broadcasting?

The Broadcasting Board of Governors is in charge of the US Government’s non-military broadcasting. There are supposed to be eight governors plus the Secretary of State. Since February 2006, there have been less than eight and since December 2008, the Secretary has been required for a quorum. The Chairman’s seat has been empty since Jim Glassman vacated it to become the Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

As it’s been a couple of months since Al Kamen shared a rumor that a new chairman of the BBG will be named by Administration – Walter Isaacson, by the way – I figured it was time to update the table on the absence of leadership for America’s primary means of engaging the world – international broadcasting. However, as a colleague points out, how much can really be done when the Chairmanship is a part-time job? Where’s the attention on the details from the Administration?

In a world of CCTV, PressTV, Russia Today, other government broadcasters, the ease of propagating lies and distortions, combined with a dearth of news in “twilight” regions around the world, if we are to be effective in global struggle for minds and wills in matters ranging from development to disease to terrorism and insurgency, we need effective leadership to create, support, and expand effective programs (as well as fixing or terminating ineffective programs).


Update: Late October 2009 and the Assistant Secretary leadership positions of State’s “fast” engagement arm (International Information Programs) and “slow” engaging arm (Educational and Cultural Affairs) remain empty. 

See also:

2 thoughts on “Absent Leadership in Public Diplomacy

  1. As a former employee at one of the organizations that falls under the BBG, I completely agree with you. The lack of leadership in the BBG poses a huge problem for international broadcasting. I believe it’s one of the reasons why the culture of fire-fighting instead of developing a long-term communication strategy prevailed. Also, the attitude inside the organization was that the BBG was out of touch and was more an organization to look good for in the hopes of getting extra funds instead of looking to for leadership and strategic guidance.Having extensively traveled through Central Asia, I can also confirm that the Russian media is much more successful in getting its message out than RFE/RL and VOA.

Comments are closed.