(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 a 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.
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.
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 as 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 entry’s 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 the 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.