R we there yet? A look at the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs)

US Department of State

(This article was updated on 20 November ’17 with a new chart that reflects incumbent tenures through 1 July ’16 and some other edits.) 

What is the role of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs?  That has been an enduring question of the State Department, the Defense Department, National Security Staff, the Congress and the many others interested in America’s efforts to understand, inform, and influence global audiences.  Established thirteen years ago to manage many of the activities formerly run by the abolished United States Information Agency (USIA), its role within State and with other agencies across Government has been subject to reinterpretation nearly every time there was a new Under Secretary. The last report of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy looked at the turnover in the position of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.  The Commission found that the position has been unfilled for over 30% of the time since it was established.  Moreover, the average tenure of the six Under Secretaries since 1999 was about 500 days, or less than 17 months.  Indeed today, the office remains unencumbered since June 30, 2011, while Tara Sonenshine awaits confirmation by the Senate.  Technically, the office is never “vacant” as there is always someone in an “acting” capacity.  Today, Assistant Secretary Ann Stock runs the office in lieu of a confirmed Under Secretary.

The Commission compared the tenure of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs with two peers: the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs (on January 1, 2012, this office became known as the Under Secretary for Civil Security, Democracy, and Human Rights) and the Under Secretary for Political Affairs.  As shown in the table below, the differences in tenure and gaps in incumbency are stark.

Data from state.gov & wikipedia and compiled by the author in January 2012.
Data from state.gov & Wikipedia and compiled in December 2011 and originally published in a report by the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy the same month.

As Sonenshine is unlikely to be confirmed before February due to the Senate’s calendar, the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs will be unfilled for an aggregate of more than 1,400 days, or nearly 1 out every 3 days over the past thirteen years. Below is a chart showing how long confirmed Under Secretaries served, and equally if not more important, how long the office was not filled by a confirmed appointee.

Data from Wikipedia & State.gov through 1 July 2016.

The above chart does not, of course, reflect how the Under Secretary perceived “public diplomacy,” how they worked with (or didn’t) the Department, from the 7th Floor to other Under Secretaries to the field (namely, but not limited to, the public affairs sections the Under Secretary is notionally connected), other agency partners, or the private sector and civil society. Nor does the chart indicate consistency in vision or leadership by the incumbent, or the degree of support by the Secretary or the White House of that vision or leadership. Nor does the chart indicate how well, if at all, the Under Secretary helped, protected, or promoted the public diplomacy “cone” (State’s label for career track), sought input from the field, or empowered the field. Nor does the chart indicate how the Under Secretary provided leadership, direction, or held accountable those offices directly within the office’s remit, such as the Bureau of International Information Programs and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, or indirectly, such as the Bureau of Public Affairs, the Global Engagement Center (formerly the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication), and the Public Affairs Sections at embassies and consulates worldwide.

At the time of this writing, the website of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (known inside State as “R”) states both the purpose of public diplomacy the role of the office succinctly:

The mission of American public diplomacy is 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.

The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs leads America’s public diplomacy…

But does this office continue to sit in a leadership position?  In addition to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (a bureau of understated impact and potential), R has the Bureau of International Information Programming (IIP), which is the Department’s “public diplomacy communications bureau,” and the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC).

Not public when the report was published last month was the elevation of the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism (S/CT) to a bureau under the Under Secretary for Civil Security, Democracy, and Human Rights (or “J”), the office formerly known as the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs (or “G”).  The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) called for the elevation of S/CT to the Bureau of Counter-Terrorism (now “J/CT” to reflect its position under J). The QDDR suggested a close connection with R: “the Bureau will play a key role in State a€™s efforts to counter violent extremism, working closely with the Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and the new Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications” (p.45).  Reportedly, the Bureau was placed within J, capably led by Under Secretary Maria Otero, because of that office’s role in “transnational issues.”  Is R then limited to “communication”?

The Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (PA) is independently expanding his office’s social media presence independent of, and bypassing, the Under Secretary’s office. This is, according to many inside of State, to increase the A/S for PA influence over posts, which is a natural direction when the Assistant Secretary is charged with communicating with audiences in the U.S. and abroad.  It is worth noting that the real relationship of PA to the Under Secretary is more peer than subordinate.  (To reflect this relationship, one of the few entries in this blog’s style guide is writing the full title for R as “Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs)”.

Are these challenges reflective in how much “communication” R actually oversees? And is R’s domain eroding?

Back to the Commission report, it offered several questions for further research:

1.  What do the long gaps between appointments of Under Secretaries for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs indicate about views on the role and skills necessary for the position, or the importance of public diplomacy and the role of the State Department in leading and coordinating Government activities that intend to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics?

2. What do the short tenures indicate about the challenges of the position?

3. Does the Under Secretary adequately support the careers of public diplomacy officers in light of leadership turnover and frequent and long periods when the position was unencumbered?

I’ll add to that list additional, more blunt, questions:

  • How does the office stay in the game and not get circumvented, or bypassed, and its resources and missions not get poached without an Under Secretary at the helm?
  • Has the Under Secretary’s role with other federal agencies, let alone within the Department, diminished due to uncertainties and shifting priorities resulting from the turnover and short tenures?

Certainly, Tara Sonenshine will have her hands full when she is confirmed after the Senate again takes up her nomination later this month.

This might be a good time for Congress, the State Department, and the White House to have a board of experts look into how the Government organizes and conducts activities intended to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics.


10 thoughts on “R we there yet? A look at the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs)

  1. This is an informed and thoughtful post Matt. Glad MountainRunner is back.
    Bruce Gregory

  2. Sad but not unexpected. This is the kind of report an Advisory Commission should be making – if there were one. A board of experts – if there were one – should be tasked with doing a lot more than just looking at how the US image abroad is being implemented – or not.

  3. Nice post Matt. Troubling too. Ironic that despite the myriad internal and external calls for “better coordination of strategic comm over the last ten years, Congress looks at this as a low priority. I thought about digging up a list of silly things the Senate has done since the nomination was made, but that would be demonstrating the self-evident.
    I would add to your list of questions: What it is about the job that leads people to become frustrated and leave after such short stays?

    1. Bruce, Pat, and James – thanks for the comments.
      Steve, thanks too. The frustration factor is certainly something to consider and one that was to be inferred in the Commission’s questions for further research.

      With regard to the Senate and the Under Secretary, it is not my understanding that the Senate has stood in the way of nominations here in a substantial manner. Senator Coburn’s hold on Jim Glassman is notable, but it was an attempt to influence the BBG (the Persian News Network, to be precise). Even when Coburn released his hold on Glassman, Jim didn’t move forward because two other Senators were holding up all nominations over a disagreement over the Tennessee Valley Authority (giving proof to the maxim all politics are local). Any other holds were not directed at the nominee, as far as I’m aware. The issue is the Administration, Bush and now Obama, and the delays in finding, vetting, and nominating qualified candidates.

      Critical to this discussion are the criteria each Administration has used to find a candidate. But equally so is the hard question I intentionally left off the post, but one that must be asked: why are qualified candidates so hard to find? Part of the answer is likely the wrong criteria and good candidates are ignored and time is spent vetting unqualified or uninterested candidates. Why not, for example, an ambassador FSO with terrific public diplomacy experience and reputation? I believe the situation depicted in my article hits at the reason and suggests it will be more difficult to find qualified candidates in the future (depending of course on the impact Tara can make and the next Secretary, and so on).

  4. This office is known in less polite circles as the “United States Minister Of Propaganda”. It is supposed to sell America to foreign populations, especially those who don’t much like us at all. It has been sorely needed most especially since 9/11, particularly throughout the Muslim world, in places where US soldiers have been routinely dying for the past ten years. The office of “Minister” is usually filled with political appointee women who have impressive backgrounds in “marketing”, mostly those expert at selling stuff (or people) to Americans that Americans don’t really need. Unfortunately, “marketing” requires a very thorough knowledge of the target population, as well as access to effective ways to reach and impact that population. In lieu of these two critical things, mostly what the office does is monitor what’s going on in the Muslim world – pretty much duplicating what at least a dozen other entities do on behalf of the US Government, at significant cost. In view of its total ineffectiveness ever since it was established, the office serves best as a place for women influential in political circles to quickly get a very impressive-looking line added to their résumés at almost no effort, or accountability. Redundant, unnecessary and ineffective, it should just be abolished.

    1. By Soldier’s silly logic, the Secretary of State position which has been occupied by three women in a succession broken only by Colin Powell should also be abolished. Peculiar reasoning and unworthy of a serious issue raised ably by Matt. Perhaps, the problem as he suggests is structural and that structure follows from an ill conceived idea of the function to be performed. It seems pretty clear to me that the capable women who have held the position have pretty quickly sized up the power deficit inherent in the position and moved on.
      Welcome back Matt. Like the new look of the website.

  5. Good job, Matt! Mixed emotions – glad you’re back but I wish it weren’t under these circumstances.
    What you’ve said here needs to be made public – loud and often.

    @Soldier, I’m not sure what your perspective is (tactical, operational or strategic), but their mission is to inform foreign audiences to the truth of what America really is, what we stand for and how we can work together. Where a government controls the media, their view of us is often grossly distorted and sometimes just wrong. They think our soldiers all have three heads and are all baby killers – well, they don’t, but only because we continue presenting them with the truth. I’m retired Army, so I most likely know where you’re coming from.

    True dat, about pumping up some resumes. Sad, but that’s Washington.

  6. I just happened to stumble on the post, dropped a few lines and moved on. Please don’t talk down to me. I’ve been rolling around out there, almost all overseas, for over forty years, living with silly presumptions made by arrogant twits all my life. (Soldier guys use “silly” logic, but civilian women invent their own kind of self-serving “logic”. Etc.) I never mentioned the Office of Secretary of State, but perhaps I should have. I happen to firmly believe that someone whom I knew all the way back in Saigon, a guy named Holbrooke, could have done a much better job; and, like Powell, he had actually earned the position.
    Nevertheless, I stand by my statements, on this particular position and office.

    When Defense lost almost a million spaces at the end of the “Cold” War, State and other agencies, including CIA, were provided extra spaces and money to do some of the work, some of the mission, that previously had been done by military professionals in tough environments. (Admittedly, the end of the Draft had made it increasingly more difficult for Defense to bring in and retain the necessary professional level expertise in uniform, and Congress decided that there was no longer a need for the US military to be in the “nation-building” business anyway. Hence Rumsfeld’s later much misunderstood and derided statement that, “You go to war with the Army you have.” The Regular Army had retained almost all “teeth” and very little “tail”, including a credible human intelligence capability.)

    That post-“Cold” War funded and manned mission for State included planning and preparing for contingencies and executing whatever was necessary, especially during periods of anticipated or actual hostilities, including in an area that had previously come under the name of “psychological operations” with foreign populations in turmoil. The intention was to aggressively counter foreign propaganda and indigenous popular misperceptions and perhaps reduce US military and indigenous deaths. It hasn’t worked. As far as I can see, it was a flawed assumption and a lot of wasted money. All I ever see is a bunch of people hunkered down in billion-dollar bunkers and a bunch of other people in DC sitting around looking at walls of monitors and watching al Jazeera. Some of State show-and-tell efforts at embassies with “the public” are just ridiculously asinine, and counter-productive. Now we have an even bigger, and ineffective, monstrosity in the “contractor” arena.

    The most critical prerequisite for this office is an extremely in-depth knowledge of target populations – which none of the women occupants of the position have had.

    So, I repeat: Redundant, unnecessary and ineffective, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and its office, is a complete sham and should just be abolished. That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it. Silly as it is, of course.

  7. The idea of “correcting misperceptions” in and of itself is wrong. Doesn’t sound like Soldier has ever worked in PR. The idea that you have a homogeneous target population that’s standing around waiting to agree with you if you just convince them enough is great for the theory books, but doesn’t work in reality.
    Sure, in some places State is for all intent and purposes invisible where they really do need to be out there. Other places, though, they’re visible and doing interesting things. Taking a wide brush to everything in order to simplify it overlooks the complexity that you can find even within one country, let alone 196 of them.

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