An opportunity to de-militarize public diplomacy

Last week, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) convened the third annual Writers Workshop. The workshop is a professional development course for new and established writers for AFRICOM’s Maghreb-centered news and information website, According to AFRICOM public affairs, the event “introduced new media tools and technologies while stressing the importance of sound journalistic principles for writing, blogging, and podcasting.”

The website was started in 2005 by U.S. European Command (EUCOM) to “reach out to a younger audience in the North Africa region with news, sports, entertainment, and current affairs about the Maghreb in English, French and Arabic.” It is similar to EUCOM’s other sponsored news and information website,, “the news and views of Southeast Europe.”

These news sites are established and maintained under the regional Combatant Commander’s theater security requirement. In other words, due to the absence of information outlets focused on the region (excluding tightly controlled local propaganda stations), the Defense Department created and maintained these sites to provide news, analysis, and commentary collected from international media and contributors paid by the Combatant Commands. Their purpose is to increase awareness of regional and global issues to mitigate security threats that may stem from a lack of information, misinformation, or disinformation by local populations.

The purpose of the sites and the training is laudable and required. The just-concluded professional development conference is a good concept in that it promotes an exchange of ideas, encourages proper journalistic practices, and explores the use of new technologies. However, this and the sites themselves should be conducted, guided, and managed by the State Department, primarily State’s public diplomacy professionals.

The problem, of course, is resources. The State Department lacks both the money, the headcount, and the skills to create and manage sites like and The Defense Department, specifically the Combatant Commands, has a valid requirement the State Department cannot support at this time resulting in the continued militarization of America’s engagement with global audiences.

The State Department, specifically the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, must be empowered and equipped (money and personnel) to take over these activities that support the requirements of the U.S. Government’s engagement around the world.

Establishing regional sites (and transferring existing sites) like Magharebia and SETimes is essential. These should not be brought under the umbrella of, which, with the passage of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010, should be split up, with parts merged with and other elements into regional sites.

These sites could continue to operate near the Government or become surrogate sites similar to RFE/RL.

These sites could move into State’s geographic bureaus, but these also do not have the skills, capabilities, or authorities necessary. State’s geographic bureaus are led by an Assistant Secretary, a rank that lacks the political power required and highlights State’s organizational focus on countries rather than regions. These Assistant Secretaries may often be regarded as bureaucratic equals to their Defense Department equivalents, though perhaps not functionally. 

The best model is to expand and empower State’s public diplomacy and public affairs office as a global communicator for both the enterprise and across the government, as the situation warrants. State would be a service provider, supporting requirements and providing guidance and integration. It should have been doing this for years, but State’s long-lasting focus on diplomacy, rather than public diplomacy, plus Congressional misunderstanding of the requirements of civilian-led communication and engagement, created a vacuum, which the Defense Department (often unwillingly, tentatively, and frequently clumsily) filled.

These websites should be a topic of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy as a case study in unmet requirements and the building of capabilities, capacities, and the addition of necessary authorities to demilitarize America’s public diplomacy (or government-sponsored communication for those who disagree VOA et al. are “public diplomacy”). This should also be a subject of inquiry by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as explored by the new Coordinator for the Bureau of International Information Programs.

What do you think?

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8 thoughts on “An opportunity to de-militarize public diplomacy

  1. Not sure here – if they should, then why have they not? I like the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” thought on this topic. To move will require huge amounts of resources consumed. Why doesn’t State do complementary efforts? – it is the information age, so the linear thinking of only one agency can use information is dated. All agencies should do it and there should be a board to make sure they don’t step on each other.

  2. Better yet, make it joint. and have midgrade military officers and diplomats work together on it, with a rotating director between State and DoD. Use the overlapping requirements to allow the DoD and State learn how to better work in concert.Though, I readily admit, at first read this really seems like something State should be doing, vice our Combatant Commanders.

  3. Matt, thanks for the insightful commentary. Someday, yes, State should do these types of things. It’s more than money (though State itself fails to argue for more PD resources on the Hill), and it’s more than organization (though you are correct about the country vs region focus which makes PD all the more problematic). I would also argue it’s State Dept culture. Fifty to Sixty year old senior FSOs are particularly NOT suited to addressing audiences that are likely to be swayed by extremist rhetoric (principally 15-30 year old males) and that are in need to information sources which speak to them and are about topics of interest to them (can you check regional soccer scores on I also cite the glossy publication for worldwide distribution that pointed out how “real” American teenagers aren’t like those on Gossip Girl. Huh? In the Department in which one might think the employees would most be able to put themselves in the place of other non-U.S. audiences and provide us with their perspective, it often seems just the opposite. I think this is because so many of the younger voices are drowned by the senior FSOs who’ve somehow lost this ability to think like those they wish to address (and, yes, influence).

  4. Matt,I think this begs the larger question of whether DoD should be involved in the inform, influence and persuade business of foreign populations during peacetime (or steadystate as DoD now refers to it) at all—or should this be solely a DoS realm?
    If the answer is “DoS-only” then obviously a lot of changes should take place in DoD—besides the rebalancing of inform and influence assets. For one, DoD could drastically reduce their forward footprint in several locations around the world since much of the mission in steady state is to influence and persuade the foreign populations in order to shape the environment and meet the goals and objectives of that particular Theater Campaign Plan and ultimately the National Security Plan. Additionally DoD would need to change their doctrine across the board. For a very specific example, the Joint PSYOP Pub (JP 3-53) defines PSYOP (now MISO) as:
    “planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator’s objectives.”
    The doctine makes allowance for both peacetime and times of war.
    Personally, I don’t think the answer is “DoS only” but there should be a whole of government approach to informing, influencing and persuading foreign audiences. Hasn’t the policy of the USG always been to leverage all instruments of national power to achieve her goals and in the execution of foreign policy? If it is okay for the USG to use DoD to influence or persuade foreign audiences by parking a battleship off of a coast somewhere, is it not okay t have DoD communicate to a foreign audience directly with words? Where is the line drawn?
    It is clear though that there must be some line of delineation and definite synchronization and deconfliction of these efforts.
    One can easily see the overlap between the above definition of MISO and the mission statement of the still, relatively new, public diplomacy strategic framework–which is intended to be a roadmap for DoS Public Diplomacy. That mission statement reads:
    “To support the achievement of U.S. foreign policy goals and objectives, advance national interests, and enhance national security by informing and influencing foreign publics and by expanding and strengthening the relationship between the people and government of the United States and citizens of the rest of the world.”
    While both MISO and DoS call on their organizations to communication and influence foreign publics and both organizations are working to meet the goals and objectives set out in the National Security Strategy, I think there is enough difference in what they do to warrant the involvement of both. For example, part of the PD mission above is to expand and strengthen relationships between the US and foreign populations. This often involves explaining US policies and getting foreign populations to “like” us. More often than not DoD IO or MISO objectives don’t stray into this arena. For example, DoD may not care whether foreign populations are fond of the US or understand US policy. They may just be trying to keep two ethnic groups in a single country from killing each other; hoping to make sure that local crisis do not turn in regional conflict, or nudging a region towards rule of law.
    No doubt that the DoS—specifically U/S PD & PA need more money, more people and training; however the space is big enough and the mission set diverse enough for more than one USG agency to be involved in the influence, inform and persuade business.
    I’m interested in hearing other thoughts on this.

  5. Many of the comments mention how there is this over-lapping in strategic communication with the world between DoD and DoS. Here, in Afghanistan, I keep hearing that ‘there is no military solution’ to our challenges in AFG. Let alone the challenges off the coast of Somalia, Kosovo and any other area that teeters on the verge of chaos. It is more than an over-lapping, in many instances it is how the military understands what victory looks like. Especially Somalia with the FIFTH Fleet Commander actually saying there is no military solution; and with Iran our CJCS stating there are ‘no good military solutions’.I keep hearing this ‘total government’ approach at blogs like these. I agree with them. But, far too often, ideas like this are kept at senior levels. You end up with senior GS’s and O-5s and 6s starting to work together for the first time. At least that’s how it seems from my level (E-5).
    Get the military NCOs and JOs and the DoS junior FCOs together. Get the mutual understanding started there. Two-ish Administrations later you’ll start seeing the self-organization come together.

  6. Lots of great points made in the comments previously. But I think the key point I’d like to emphasize is the lack of a regional focus at State. Ambassadors are the President’s personal representatives in a sovereign nation. They certainly understand regional activities and challenges and certainly talk to other embassies in the region, but their focus is rightly on their nation. The regional bureaus don’t have personnel or directive authority over ambassadors. DOD has the regional focus and so fills a void. Nothing wrong with that if coordinated.On the other hand, SECSTATE has publicly advocated for open access to the internet in pursuit of truth. These sorts of websites certainly seem to be congruent with her intent and would be a perfect manifestation of her stated vision in that regard.

  7. I constantly hear that the solution set is in a whole of government approach, yet I have not seen it often enough in practice. Political campaign strategists approach a target audience with redundancy of message in mind–different messengers, various platforms for conversation–but the more times you are able to touch the target audience meaningfully with your message the more likely they will migrate their point of view. Seems to me that at a minimum, it will take current DoD and State efforts to impact an audience. Frankly, I think the conversation would be more productive if it turned to what State is doing to complement the websites rather than run them.

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