Glassman on “Strategic Public Diplomacy”

The world is in turmoil – so to is America’s public diplomacy, strategic communication, or if you will, global engagement. How – and even why – the United States shapes and supports foreign policy with words, deeds, and understanding remains elusive in a vacuum of leadership. This is particularly ironic given that we are over a year into the Obama Administration, an administration that was elected in large part because it grasped the power of engaging and empowering individuals.

Tomorrow, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reasserts itself in the turmoil of equipping – at least doctrinally – the State Department so that it might become an effective leader in America’s foreign policy. Senator Ted Kaufman (D-DE), a former member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, will chair a hearing with current Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale and three of her predecessors: James K. Glassman, Karen P. Hughes, and Evelyn S. Lieberman.

In an advance reading of Jim Glassman’s testimony, Jim describes the purpose of the hearing and asserts the importance and centrality of public diplomacy, as well as its uncertain future.

This hearing asks four of us who have served or are serving in the latter post to address the future of public diplomacy. That future, in my view, is in doubt.

[H]ere is the problem with public diplomacy: It is not today being taken seriously as a tool of national security by policymakers. Will it be in the future? Perhaps only in a desperate response to a terrible crisis. Such delay is unacceptable.

Jim argues Public diplomacy must be aggressive, “sharp, not flaccid.”

It needs to focus on key foreign policy problems, not merely on vague, feel-good improvements in the far-off future. It needs to be primarily an activity of national security, not of public relations. It needs to be mobilized and sent into battle to win the ideological conflicts of our time.

There is much to be said about being an attractive draw, but there has been too much focus on the “hearts” to the detriment of the need to influence the mind to affect the will to act. Creating likability in America fosters the division between the people and the policies, a solution derived from the late-Cold War mindset. We can no longer afford this division, Jim suggests, and instead focus on the purpose: national security.

[T]he default position in U.S. public diplomacy – getting people to like us better – has irresistible inertia. When in doubt, policymakers and practitioners turn to brand-burnishing. But the unresolved question is whether a better-liked America is one that can more easily achieve its national security goals.

Jim argues too much of contemporary engagement is about the US. This is true as we continue to allow our adversary to establish the playing field and set the terms of engagement. The product has, in part, resulted in our whining that our adversary is not held accountable for his actions as if we live in a quaint world of adjudicated conflict. The reality is our passivity equates to surrendering the facts and narrative and intentions of us, our allies, and our adversaries. For example, Jim highlights the creation of an Afghan-led media center in Kabul, established with “the most meager resources.” 

In October 2008, the Taliban stopped a bus at Maiwand, pulled off 50 passengers and beheaded 30 of them. The media center’s leaders immediately brought together 300 Afghan religious leaders who issued a statement condemning the action and calling it anti-Islamic. The effort led to widespread anti-Taliban protests.

This tactical solution is only a means toward achieving strategic goals, however. Success requires a broader strategic objective driven by specific organizational principles. One of these principles is a narrative. Jim draws on a narrative he pushed when he was Under Secretary that focuses on “them” and not us.

A New Narrative: The most pernicious idea in Muslim societies is that the United States wants to destroy Islam and replace it with Christianity. Vast majorities in many countries believe this narrative, and it is the prism through which they view almost all U.S. activities.

But to try to refute this narrative head-on is not easy. A better approach is to promote a different narrative – one that reflects the truth. The State Department’s new strategic plan for public diplomacy lists “Shape the narrative” as one of five strategic objectives. That’s encouraging, but the narrative that the plan has in mind appears, from the document, to be U.S.-centric and difficult to convey and sustain. The objective appears to be to explain American policies better and to “counter misinformation and disinformation.” Certainly, those activities must be part of any public diplomacy strategy, but the more valuable narrative to spread is not about the U.S. at all.

The indispensable narrative is the real story of what is happening in Muslim societies. It is a narrative of three conflicts that are within Muslim societies. Yes, the U.S. is deeply affected by them, but they are intra-Muslim conflicts and need to be understood that way.

Jim also addressed the still moribund Broadcasting Board of Governors. While a new slate was nominated, the new board has yet to be confirmed.

The BBG is no ordinary board; its governors serve as a collective chief executive officer for this critical organization. Imagine a CEO who serves with barely half of his or her intellectual and physical strength, and you’ll get an idea of the status of the BBG today. I urge the Senate to confirm a full slate of governors immediately. The lack of action over the past few years on confirmations of governors is a sad manifestation of the overall standing of public diplomacy among too many policymakers. We can’t wait.

Jim concludes with six specific recommendations for a “more effective public diplomacy.” These recommendations focus on operational challenges of public diplomacy that both shape and are shaped by tactics and strategy, using Iran as an example. Implied is the imperative of leadership that, in its absence, inhibits or retards requests for increased resources and authorities.

1. Make public diplomacy a top priority. The entire government should know that the President sees public diplomacy as a critical part of America’s overall national security strategy.

2. Make a distinction between what I call Strategic Public Diplomacy – that is, PD with clear objectives that can be achieved in a definable period, such as war-of-ideas goals – and long-term ongoing public diplomacy, which may be shaped strategically (with emphasis on exchanges with Muslim-majority nations, for example) but which is more general in its effects.

3. Institute a strong interagency structure and process with the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in the lead and the NSC as an instigator and supporter.

4. Launch an inter-agency program quickly to show that public diplomacy can achieve national security goals. Iran should be the immediate focus.

5. Promote the successes and enhance the understanding of the function and purpose of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Confirm the new slate of governors. The BBG is a precious asset that must not be ignored or denigrated.

6. Expand Public Diplomacy 2.0, using technology to facilitate and convene a broad and deep global conversation in which we can more effectively influence and inform. At the same time, put teeth into Secretary Clinton’s affirmation that the U.S. supports open global communications. One step would be to challenge Iranian jamming of satellite broadcasts.

On the last point, it is noteworthy that in the case or Iran, the Senate Armed Services Committee has already authorized $30 million to increase America’s non-military broadcasting capabilities into Iran, as well as increasing Iranians ability to evade and break through censorship by their government. This is the VOICE Act.

The Wednesday hearing could become a pivot in America’s public diplomacy, strategic communication, or if you will, global engagement. I expect Judith McHale to unveil and tout her new “strategic approach for the 21st century”.