The Seven Habits of Highly Successful Under Secretaries

By Brian Carlson
The following originally appeared at the Public Diplomacy Council and is republished here with permission.  

Tara Sonenshine was confirmed Thursday night by the Senate, and she will probably take office officially early this week.  (She can be sworn in privately by some current official and begin work, even as a more formal ceremony is planned for a few weeks hence.)

It is a new beginning down at Foggy Bottom.  Tara becomes only the seventh Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs since the job was created upon the merger of USIA into the Department in 1999.

It is a propitious time to consider what habits lead to  success at the State Department, as well as what experience teaches about being the nation’s Olympic spear-catcher when they think we’re being out-communicated by some guy in a cave.  Here are a few suggestions for how to succeed at this job, all gathered from my time working directly with five of the six previous Under Secretaries.  (I had no contact with Margaret Tutwiler.)

Habit One:  Remember that it is all about “the field.” Public diplomacy gets done out there at the embassies and consulates, not here in Washington.   Darned little of what gets talked about and produced by IIP, ECA and PA makes much real difference to the actual success or failure of American public diplomacy.  Even VOA just delivers information; it’s not real two-way communication.

Public diplomacy is essentially America’s dialogue (or “engagement,” to use the current jargon) with the foreign publics that matter, and the foreigners are not here in Washington.  Many Washington appointees, and even many FSO’s temporarily assigned to Washington, seem to forget this rule and fall into the habit of swelling with self-importance about the meetings they go to, the memos to the Secretary they write, and the working groups they create.  Much ado about nothing.

Habit Two:  The most important thing the Under Secretary can do for the field is – are you ready? can you guess? – “send money.”  Well, to be accurate, “send resources.”  That is, the field post at every embassy is always hungry for more local staff, more exchange program slots, more travel funds, more American officers, more representation funds, more time to get things done, more flexible funding to buy the quality goods and services that enable us to engage foreign audiences.  Being a public diplomacy officer is about managing scarcity.

Several years ago, when I was about to become USIA’s director for European affairs, an older and much wiser senior officer counseled me.  “In your new position,” he said sternly, “don’t think you’re in charge of European affairs. Your job simply is to keep the money in the field posts, and the USIA Director in Washington.”  (For the uninitiated, let’s just say that visits to posts by senior Washington bureaucrats tend to subtract from American public diplomacy, not add to it.)

Habit Three: The next most important thing the Under Secretary can do for the field, and therefore for public diplomacy, is to restrain Washington.  It is important for the Under Secretary to be a major hurdle to the bureaucracy’s impulse to place more demands on the field.  Many plans and projects that come to the Under Secretary’s desk for approval will task the field posts for more reports, for more data and statistics, for writing papers, and for keeping more records.  You will be able to count on one hand the very few proposals that come you with a suggestion we decrease demands  on the field officers’ time.  Yes, yes, Washington has an incredible appetite for information from the field about operations, plans and accomplishments.  The trouble is that, without your active resistance, Washington will have the field officers glued to their computer screens 12 hours per day, leaving no time for field officers to talk to foreigners.

A true story: one day while I was serving as ambassador, a young officer accompanied me to the parliament.  He wanted to go because the news media promised us a lively debate on an issue of vital interest to the USG.  Well, the debate got cancelled because of some procedural maneuver.  While we were able to chat with a few politicians as we made our way out of the legislature building, the session was pretty much a bust.

As we waited for the embassy car to pick us up, the young officer said, “Well, I guess I should have stayed in the office and answered all the overnight email.”  I whirled around and replied firmly, “Wrong!”  I explained that while maybe we didn’t accomplish much that morning, we showed up, we showed American interest, and maybe we even learned a little bit.  “But,” I said, “if the Foreign Service wanted you to sit in front of a computer screen all day, they could assign you to Rosslyn!”  FSO’s are posted abroad because that’s where the foreigners are, not because that’s where the email arrives.

Habit Four: The Under Secretary’s target audience is at the other end of Constitution Avenue.  That is, on Capitol Hill.  Those congressmen and Senators up there are the key to money, influence and success in Washington.  If you as Under Secretary catch their attention, seize their imagination, and move even a few of them to support your personal vision of public diplomacy, no one in State or OMB will stand in your way.  In fact, you will be surprised how quickly many of them become your best friends and supporters.

No question, you do want to shore up your relationships with the Seventh Floor at State, and you should be polite to the folks at OMB.  But you would do that anyway, wouldn’t you?  Many remember clearly how Charlie Wick, USIA director in the Reagan Administration cut through the green eyeshades and the OMB objections with a simple phone call when believed his agency’s important requests were being nibbled to death by the mattress mice.  Wick was a master of theatrics, and he also knew that nothing travels faster in this town than a tale of chutzpah.  And, the next time, you won’t even have to make the phone call.

Habit Five:  …that discussion of chutzpah and being proactive leads to a mini-analysis of the State Department’s organizational culture.  The Department is like a giant sponge.  If you press on it, it will give, and it will assume the shape you want.  And, the moment you stop pressing, it will return to its original shape.  Decide on what you want, and keep pressing for it in every forum and opportunity.  Be relentless.  You will get what you need, as long as you don’t stop pushing.   Push hard.

Remember also that HST is a building where no decision is final, where there is always another meeting to review the issue once more, and where there is always another stakeholder who can be asked “to clear” on the idea.  The State Department may be the only federal agency with a special, formal telegraphic channel for those in Washington or abroad who don’t like U.S. policy.  My military friends at the Pentagon always express astonishment when I tell them about “dissent telegrams.”

Habit Six:  Mention of the military reminds that the State Department does not own “public diplomacy.” However, State (meaning you) can lead it. Foreign audiences take their understanding of American values, actions and policies from a vast array of sources — the impact of American business, media, tourists and travelers, sports, exported entertainment products, the academic community, and inventions, to name a just a few.  The Under Secretary can generally do little about those, but she can offer leadership to the parts of the U.S. Government that work in the public diplomacy sphere.  Many of them, especially the military, call it something else such as strategic communication or information operations.  But, at bottom, all those departments and agencies are engaging with foreign audiences in order to influence perceptions and behaviors.  They do it with their own funds. And they do it to accomplish their own missions.  Most of it supports U.S. national interests. But, all that cacophony can be very confusing to the foreign recipient.

So it behooves the Under Secretary to engage with those other departments, especially the U.S. military. We all wish the federal budget process gave more resources to State.  But, until that rebalancing occurs, the best thing State public diplomacy can do is to collaborate and cooperate with Defense and other agencies.  America needs for the “whole of government” communication effort, as seen by the foreign audience, to be a coherent one.  No one else but you will make it coherent.

Habit Seven:  Lastly, in the inter-agency, you can lead, but you cannot direct. Neither the Department of State, nor the Under Secretary, can direct the actions and expenditures of other cabinet agencies, departments and military units.  Even when previous administrations explicitly delegated strategic communication authority to the Under Secretary, it was clear that neither the Constitution, the Hill committees, or the institutional structure of other agencies would permit the Under Secretary to orderthings done.  But, a couple of your predecessors did understand that the Under Secretary can lead in the interagency arena.  If it is clear that you, as Under Secretary, are in synch with the President and the Secretary, and if you clearly have their confidence, then you can pull the other agencies along. You  lift and carry the flag; they will follow.

In fact, this is just about as important as Habit Two on resources, because these are the only two things the Under Secretary can do during her tenure that will be remembered years from now.  There is no other job in Washington with the moral authority, in combination with the clear legislative and executive authority, to lead America’s communication with foreign publics.  Yours is the only appropriation in the U.S. federal budget explicitly and solely for influencing foreign audiences.

As Under Secretary, Ms. Sonenshine, you have two unique opportunities: you can go get the much needed resources for public diplomacy, and you can take the currently vacant lead on U.S. government public diplomacy and strategic communication.

A lot of people who care about public diplomacy want you to succeed. Good luck.


Ambassador Carlson was the State Department’s liaison with the Department of Defense on strategic communication and public diplomacy. Under the direction of three Under Secretaries of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs – Karen Hughes, James K. Glassman and Judith McHale – he engineered closer cooperation between diplomats and military officers. Carlson served 36 years in the Foreign Service, including as the Ambassador to the Republic of Latvia 2001-2005. Other postings abroad took him to Spain, England, Norway, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Venezuela.

4 thoughts on “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful Under Secretaries

  1. Nicely put Brian. One comment on resources for overseas posts, however. I would add that the single most important pd resource an Embassy can have is qualified and experienced pd staff.
    I really think that Sonenshine should be focused on ensuring that the US and LES positions are filled and with people who actually know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and how to do it. Then the resources will be used wisely not tossed around helter-skelter.

    All the $ and programs in the world will not solve that fundamental problem. Kind of like being given a computer with no prior experience or an adequate instruction manual and being told to become an instant blogger.

  2. I second all of Brian’s comments and especially those about the Pentagon (where I sit on my perch). The military strongly believes in active well-resourced PD. What we do is in support of military objectives but we should be working hand-in-hand whenever possible to achieve USG objectives.

  3. Very wise comments from someone with the experience that matters. I certainly second the hope that U/S Sonenshine takes this advice to heart.

  4. Very nice piece by Brian, with a very sound caveat from Pat. A few years ago, when the Commission released a report on human resources, I suggested an easy and zero-cost boost: State should direct every one of its personnel being sent to a war or command/staff college for a year’s education that if there is a course in PD or Strat Comm or Influence or whatever there, they MUST take it. It would cost nothing and would boost overall understanding and capability across the board. I was almost hissed for speaking such heresy!

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