The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs: an updated incumbency chart and some background

A newer version of this topic, published 3 December 2020, may be found here.

The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs was created in 1999 to lead the State Department’s existing public affairs operations and the reintegration of most of the global public affairs activities previously based in the department. These global activities had been removed in 1953 and rebranded in the late 1960s as “public diplomacy.” (Edmund Gullion is often credited with this rebranding, but proper attribution should go to Rep. Dante Fascell (D-FL), but that’s for another post.)

Since the office was established and the first Under Secretary was sworn-in on October 1, 1999, the office has been vacant 36% of the time. To be more precise, the office has been “unencumbered” with a confirmed Under Secretary for 35.8% of the days since October 1, 1999, with an average gap between appointments of 289 days (over 9.5 months). In December 2011, the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy released a report about this vacancy issue (at the time, I served as the Executive Director of the commission) and the next month I published a less restrained commentary on the topic, R we there yet? A look at the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs). Above is an updated chart showing the tenure and vacancies of the office as of August 26, 2019.

It is worth mentioning here that Congress intended the White House establish an “Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy” at the State Department. It is unclear how this separate-but-equal proposal would have fit with the public affairs leadership already in the department in 1999. The Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs was established in December 1944 to handle the department’s global public affairs. A similar, though less broad office was established in January of that year but placed under the Bureau of Administration. Fortunately, the Secretary of State realized that global public affairs was not merely an administrative burden.

The original description of the then-new Assistant Secretary in 1944, then of “Public and Cultural Relations,” was to “further the steps taken during the year to develop a program designed to provide American citizens with more information concerning their country’s foreign policy and to promote closer understanding with the peoples of foreign countries.” The New York Times explained the global public affairs role succinctly as “(1) to direct information policies, and (2) to direct the exchange with other countries of scientific, artistic and professional knowledge.”

In 1999, the Clinton Administration response to the Congress’s instruction was to combine the “public affairs” and “public diplomacy” mission by establishing an Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. That “public diplomacy” was referred to as “public affairs” for twenty years prior to Edmund Gullion discussing “public diplomacy” with regard to the Murrow Center in 1965, and that public diplomacy officers and offices abroad kept the public affairs label and were never renamed, is to be ignored.

What should not be ignored is “public diplomacy” was appropriated in the 1960s from describing the Russian habit of speaking to the press, and thus the public, to frame diplomatic maneuvers, knowing that their counterparts, American diplomats, would take no such step. The reason for the appropriation was to assert the separate but equal nature of a bureaucracy and its staff, of USIA and its information officers.

This segregation was enhanced with Senator J. William Fulbright’s (D-AR) attacks on USIA that resulted in amending the Smith-Mundt Act in an attempt to shutter USIA. (Perhaps “segregation” is a good fit considering Fulbright’s views on race. During a Senate hearing in July 1973, a witness commented, “Looking at the voting record of the junior Senator from Arkansas on the Negro rights, I wonder why nobody refers to him as a ‘relic of the Second Zulu War.'” This was a play on an earlier statement by Fulbright that the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty “should take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics.”)

Senator Edward Zorinsky’s (D-NE) continuation of Fulbright’s efforts in 1985 led to the ironic recasting of the Smith-Mundt Act from the basic authorization to counter foreign propaganda to a law protecting Americans from propaganda from their government.

At the end of the 1990’s, abolishing USIA was paired with the establishment in the law of a new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. This position was described in a June 1998 amendment to the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998, which was rolled into the Omnibus spending bill for 1999 (as another example of the repeated failure of Congress to pass stand-alone authorization bills for the State Department, which is in stark contrast to the oversight exercised by the rite of passage of the National Defense Authorization Act).

[The Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy] shall have primary responsibility to assist the Secretary and the Deputy Secretary in the formation and implementation of United States public diplomacy policies and activities, including international educational and cultural exchange programs, information, and international broadcasting.

Section 1313 of the Omnibus bill (HR 4328), available at

There were concerns among to-be former USIA staff, USIA supporters, and others that the foreign-facing function of USIA would be reduced once inside the State Department. There were concerns, stoked by State Department officials among others, of an interest “in using the resources associated with USIA programs to boost the public affairs functions of the State Department.”

The Congress extended the ideas of Fulbright, and Zorinsky, in implicitly labeling public diplomacy programs as unfit for the American audience to see.

[funds] shall not be used to influence public opinion in the United States, and no program material prepared using such funds shall be distributed or disseminated in the United States.

Section 1333(c) of PL 105-277

This is despite the original intent of the “by request” clause to access, review, and even reuse material authorized by the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 was to reduce the financial burden of immediately translating, filing, and retrieving the massive amount of foreign language content produced daily. There were many discussions on this at the time as Congress believed swift and convenient access to materials produced under the Smith-Mundt Act provided an additional oversight mechanism for the authorized information programs. See, for example, this exchange from July 1947:

(image capture of a transcript segment from a Senate hearing on July 2, 1947)
U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1947: hearings before the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Eightieth Congress, first session, on July 2, 3, 5, 1947, p82.

Now, consider a recent report that the Deputy Secretary has “taking responsibility for finance; public diplomacy and public affairs; and civilian security, democracy and human rights.” Also consider that the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs has been vacant for 531 days this administration (all but precisely 100 days), why keep the office?

Intentionally left out of the above quantitative discussion is the qualitative side: what attributes and skillsets have been hired for the job? It was a veritable whipsaw with each new Under Secretary as it became a parlor game waiting to learn how the new appointee redefined “public diplomacy.” Why not just merge all the functions into one global public affairs position? It appears the department is on that track already but through a piecemeal approach by merging the already decimated shadow-of-its-former-self Bureau of International Information Programs, which at one time was the largest rump of USIA (when excluding capital expenses associated with then-BBG’s broadcast operations). That, too, is for a separate discussion.

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