Meeting of the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy

On Monday, March 15, 2010, the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy held a public meeting. The primary purpose was for the Commission to get a better handle on interagency collaboration on issues related to public diplomacy, specifically between the State Department and the Defense Department.

Presenting to the Commission and an audience of several dozen were Rosa Brooks of the Defense Department, Walter Douglas of the State Department, and myself as an independent observer. Rosa spoke on the Defense Department’s view of strategic communication and Walter on State’s new framework for public diplomacy. Considering the recently released Defense Department report to Congress on how DoD will reorganize and support strategic communication and Rosa presence to speak on the same, as well as the State Department’s (not just Judith Mchale’s) new framework on public diplomacy and Walter presence to speak on the same, I figured it was best not to speak on interagency issues.

My presentation focused instead on some of lesser / un- addressed challenges facing US public diplomacy and strategic communication. These issues are:

  • A new ‘informational’ geography. This includes what I call “Now Media”, the convergence of “old” and “new” that must focus on information not platforms. This world is characterized by professional and amateur “journalists”, immediate and persistent availability of information, participatory and visceral observational relationships with and to content, and the lack of expense to acquire, enhance, and disseminate information on a global basis.
  • A new “physical” geography characterized by a the dilution of nationalism, national identity, and a challenge to allegiances. I only implied in the briefing that “hyphenates” are being replaced by “commas” that result from decreased requirements to assimilate and increased ability to maintain, reestablish, or establish new connections to a ‘foreign’ cultures. The result is less “German-Americans” and, for example, more “German, American.” The US Census explicitly recognizes this with the option to select multiple identities. A recent scenario that demonstrated this was my seat mate on a flight from Frankfurt to the US commented that he was flying home in both directions. A German who lived in the US for over twenty years, he was flying home to his wife and kids in the US after flying home to see his parents in Germany. We see challenges with “Muslim, Americans”, “Iranian, Americans”, “Muslim, Afghan, Americans”, etc.
  • Of course I addressed Smith-Mundt and the purpose of the domestic dissemination prohibition and its modern impact on the quality and quantity of US global engagement. The modern effects I described included: preventing American awareness of global affairs, preventing awareness of public diplomacy & similar government engagement, preventing a constituency, preventing oversight, limiting activities, and surrendering US territory to influencers, foreign or domestic. On the latter point, recent cases of online radicalization were particularly timely. It is worthwhile noting that the Act does not prevent engaging Americans, but engaging on American territory, a particularly important distinction considering the rise of “Commas” over “Hyphenates.”
  • The impact of the State Department’s focus on countries over regions.
  • Congress, which I typically refer in my other presentations as another “interagency” partner.

My recommendations included challenging the Commission to do more, including increasing the frequency of appropriate reporting and using its position to instigate and support investigations and analysis of other groups into the subject area across Government. The Advisory Commission is not limited to the State Department’s activities it must do more than the minimum of a report every two years. When the Commission was established by the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, the Commission issued a report every six months.

My closing slide included a quote intended to remind the audience of the increasing power of ideas of individuals:

Relations between nations have constantly been broadened to include not merely governments but also peoples. The peoples of the world are exercising an ever larger influence upon decisions of foreign policy. That is as it should be. … The people themselves, as well as their ideas, are moving about the world farther and faster.

The quote was taken from the Congressional testimony of Assistant Secretary of State William Benton testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on October 15, 1945. The purpose was the introduction of the Bloom Bill, legislation requested by the State Department to make permanent its global engagement, including the Voice of America and similar radio programming as well as cultural and education exchanges. The Bloom Bill would pass the House in 1946 but blocked from going to the floor of the Senate by a single Senator. It was reintroduced in the 80th Congress, again at the request of the State Department, as the Smith-Mundt Bill.

I’ve been told a transcript of the meeting will be available on the Commission’s website. I don’t have an ETA.

If you were at the Commission meeting, share your comments on the presentations and the discussion that followed. As a reminder, this site does allow anonymous comments.

4 thoughts on “Meeting of the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy

  1. Once upon a time, there was a public session of a presidentially appointed board, called the Advisory Commission on Political Affairs. Anybody — even foreigners — could attend to listen in, if they knew about it. The law required it, you see, and it was thus announced to all the world, as was the practice, in an official government publication that few people other than lawyers and grants specialists actually read, the Federal Register. Fortunately, in that world, few secrets stayed secret, and the word got out that the Commission was going to appear in flesh.The Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs decided that he couldn’t or wouldn’t partake of the option to speak, so he designated a Designated Spokesman in his stead, a bemedaled career officer of the highest order. Now, despite the failure of the general population to consult the Federal Register in search of useful information, dozens of human beings showed up, largely those private souls who are dedicated to their own activism or as part of a non-state organization. They came from such citizen groups and non-state actors as the American Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC), the National Association of Arab-Americans, National Association of Evangelicals, and the American Petroleum Institute, among others. They were all anxious to glimpse into the mysterious workings of the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and his many charges.
    They came. They listened. And they were finally permitted a modest question and answer segment (with the rules of engagement firmly explained). Though frustrated and confused by the strict limitations of the format, several of these citizens peppered the Designated Spokesman with concerns about communicating with and influencing his realm. Increasingly flustered by the direction of the discussion, the Designated Spokesman spoke movingly about plans to re-arrange titles to improve the processing of paper. Pushed again by the audience about how these little ole non-state actors might communicate with State, the flustered Designated Spokesman uttered the ultimate talking point for all inquiries: “TAKE THE FOREIGN SERVICE EXAM!” In other words, the audience heard him say in essence that you’re only worth talking with if you’re one of us. Meeting ended, but you have a few minutes to come up front and personally discuss your concerns with the speakers, far away from reporters’ notes and microphones.
    Within minutes of the forced ending of the session, word of the words of the Designated Spokesman shot around the world,thanks to bloggers and their friends. Yes, word was out that to communicate with the Department of State, you had to take the Foreign Service Exam, and presumably pass it, too, meaning it wasn’t enough just to take it as the Designated Spokesman implied (because not to pass would mean that you’re inferior and thus not worth paying attention to). And then you’d have to demonstrate the correct character and lifestyle choices over a ten-year period to get security and medical clearances. Ouch!
    Not to be outdone by mere bloggers, the next morning the page 2 columnist for the Washington Post, Dana Milbank, titled his piece, “Got a Question? Take the Foreign Service Exam. Otherwise, Stuff It.” Milbank, who normally uncovers inanities in the mouths of politicians without having to resort to fiction, couldn’t resist this one. He finally suggested that our Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs might resolve the problem of communication with the rest of the world by establishing a new position in his office and giving it the title of Designated Spokesman for the Designated Spokesman. “That would mean finding someone who was well-versed in spokesmanship and political affairs (whatever that might be) and capable of explaining it to non-bureaucrats.”
    Milbank suggested a few useful changes at the State Department. Have all the Under Secretaries add a Designated Spokesman. “Let’s say, the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. You know, the people who are supposed to communicate with the world of non-bureaucrats. How about a Designated Spokesman for the Designated Spokesman for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, a kind of uber PAO (Public Affairs Officer) for the PAOs? You know, someone who really knows public diplomacy and public affairs (whatever they are) enough to communicate with the billions of people who can’t or don’t want to take the Foreign Service Exam. And maybe some, too, who passed and then passed on the chance to get inside State and have the privilege of finally learning about public diplomacy and public affairs.”
    (Apologies to Dana Milbank, who doesn’t need to change the names to tell the story.)

  2. Can anyone explain the spokeman–designated or otherwise–was from the Political Affairs secretariat instead of the Public Diplomacy/Public Affairs secretariat? It wasn’t a meeting of the advisory commission for political affairs, after all!

  3. I found it strange that the Commissioners closed the meeting with well over 10 minutes left on the schedule. It was unsettling to see the reaction from attendees – with one in particular publicly confronting the Commissioners on the decision. Clearly, some felt it displayed poor judgment to conclude a meeting on such an important topic when there were outstanding questions/comments.

  4. The Commission should be commended for taking on such a challenging issue as interagency collaboration. In the absence of a multi-agency organization, this is an important issue for the future of public diplomacy. As raised by those attending the meeting, any meaningful conversation on the topic will need to extend the conversation to all pertinent actors – not just DoD and State. (Other actors include DHS, USAID, USIP, Commerce, and those organizations affiliated with cultural relations.) It is my hope that the Commission will seek to engage these actors, alongside DoD and State, as the Commission seeks to further assess current opportunities and challenges for interagency public diplomacy collaboration.

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