Whither R: the office that’s been vacant two of every five days since 1999

There is a government position at the center of countless reports on countering foreign disinformation, correcting misinformation, and directly engaging foreign audiences that is rarely, if ever, mentioned in these very reports and recommendations. Whether due to ignorance, perceived irrelevance of the office, or both, the ghosting of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs reveals a fundamental defect in the analysis of how the United States has, does, and could organize in response to the role of public opinion in foreign policy and national security. Established in 1999 as a reinterpreted USIA Director, excepting the broadcast operations, the office has had a confirmed, not acting, Under Secretary only 60% of the time. Even if the counter stopped at the start of the Trump administration, which had one Under Secretary who served for only 100 days, the average officeholder’s tenure was one year and seven months with an average of more than six months between incumbents. The marginalization of this office, including the nearly complete disregard of its potential in the myriad of recommendations on “recreating” USIA or similar structure, should surprise no one.

I first looked into the tenures of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, referred to as “R” within the State Department, at the end of 2011 when I served as the Executive Director of the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. That report from almost exactly nine years ago, made possible because of the great team then in the commission’s office, can be found here. In January 2012, I expanded on that report in a post here that included a bit more information and questions intentionally excluded from the staff report. That post was updated in July 2016 and again in November 2017. Central to all of these was a table tracking the tenures and gaps of the Under Secretary position. The latest version, calculated through December 2, 2020, is below.

Incumbency chart for the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs as of 2 December 2020.

Some notes on this rudimentary spreadsheet. First, the office is never truly vacant due to the appointment of someone to be the Acting Under Secretary. The technical term is unencumbered, as in the absence of an incumbent confirmed to this office. For simplicity, the term “vacant” appears in the table and here.

Second, from the date the first Under Secretary was sworn in through to the end of the Bush Administration, the office was vacant over 37% of the days. During the Obama Administration, the vacancy dropped down to “only” one of every five days, influenced by the long tenure of Rick Stengel.

Third, this vacancy rate for this office is not normal, which should seem obvious. Stengel’s tenure was an extreme outlier for the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, but it was within the bounds of normality for other Under Secretaries in the State Department. See the table below from the previously mentioned December 11, 2011, report by the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. This table shows, for the same period of time, the tenures, vacancies, and gaps between terms of the public diplomacy Under Secretary, the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, and the then-named Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs, since renamed as the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. The differences are stark.

Comparing the tenures, and vacancies, of the Under Secretaries of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, of Global Affairs, and Political Affairs, as of December 2011.

Fourth, the gaps between resignation and swearing-in are noticeably large and, as shown in the primary table, unusual for the department (excepting the years of the Trump administration). The table could be enhanced by adding the additional data point of the date of nomination to reflect either a delay in nominating or Congressional (or White House) lethargy or other delays in confirming the candidate. For example, Charlotte Beers’s nomination languished until 9/11 sparked sudden action and James Glassman’s confirmation was delayed while two Senators argued over appointments to the Tennesse Valley Authority.

Fifth, beyond the data of dates, is an analysis of who was nominated to be the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and why and whether the person was adequately supported, held accountable by their boss(es), how they did or did not work with other government offices, and how they managed the people and offices directly led or indirectly influenced. Beers was hired to rebrand and raise the profile of the department to Americans. Karen Hughes was a domestic political operative that successfully planned and executed the Republican National Convention for George W. Bush. Steve Goldstein, Secretary Tillerson’s pick, was a corporate communication professional without foreign policy or government experience. And while Judith McHale successfully inserted the Under Secretary into the hiring of public affairs officers at key, not all, posts (a key yet forgotten difference between USIA and this Under Secretary is the public affairs operations abroad reported to the USIA Director while after USIA disappeared they became subordinate to the Ambassador and the regional bureaus). This “consultative hiring” was lost by her successor. While the political “cone” at the department has the Under Secretary for Political Affairs to be their champion, the public diplomacy Under Secretary has either been absent or outright failed to support the public diplomacy cone, (cf the “Cairo tweet” and the resulting actions by the Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs which, while notionally subordinate to the Under Secretary is often functionally a peer) which can have a cumulative, deleterious effect.

There was a time, when the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, first established in December 1944 back when the department had only one Under Secretary who served as the Acting Secretary in the Secretary’s absence, owned the global, including US, information operations portfolio. When the department rejected the idea of directly engaging foreign publics as a distraction to its mission of “traditional diplomacy,” USIA was created. When Congress set about abolishing USIA, after decades of trying with the White House considering reconsolidation with the State Department as early as 1957, it told the executive branch to establish an Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. And while the Clinton White House added the “and Public Affairs,” it did not consolidate operations, though this and subsequent separation of domestic and foreign is arguably a direct result of Senator Fulbright’s perversion of the Smith-Mundt Act in 1972 in his years-long bid to shutter USIA, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty. (For more on this history and how the rise of the very term “public diplomacy” to selectively replace “public affairs” reflects bureaucratic battles in DC, see my chapter “Operationalizing Public Diplomacy” in the 2nd edition of the Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy (2020).)

Any such discussion should recognize the organizational, and not just leadership, defects that hamper this office and led to workarounds, notably the former-Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) which was reorganized and renamed as the Global Engagement Center. Arguably, the Congressional effort to create statutory authority for GEC, replacing the existence through an Executive Order, was an attempt to recreate USIA. Too often, if not always, the myriad recommendations that appear like mushrooms responding to certain conditions, including quadrennial cycles, and argue for a new directorate for US government information activities, including ill-informed and ahistorical arguments to “recreate” USIA, fail to consider let alone learn from the problems of filling, supporting, and holding accountable the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Hopefully, this will change and we shall see a properly skilled and experienced nominee for this office, properly supported by the Secretary, as well as held accountable for a job that spans well beyond the department.

Dean Acheson’s words in his autobiography, lines that seem to be completely ignored by historians and pundits alike, should be considered here. While addressing how the department “muffed” (his word) its intelligence role, he adds in the department’s failure with “information and public affairs,” roles he, along with Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Bill Benton, had championed the department to take on. By the start of the 1950s, the department’s rejection was clearly leading to the separation and in 1953 the USIA was established.

In 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency was proposed as part of the armed services unification bill, the State Department had abdicated not only leadership in this field but any serious position. Information and public affairs had a better chance and were well served by several devoted assistant secretaries. Eventually they succumbed to the fate of so many operating agencies with which the State Department has had a go, including economic warfare, lend-lease, foreign aid, and technical assistance.

In all these cases, either the Department was not imaginative enough to see its opportunity or administratively competent enough to seize it, or the effort became entangled in red tape and stifled by bureaucratic elephantiasis, or conflict with enemies in Congress absorbed all the Department’s energies.

Dean Acheson’s Present at the Creation (1969), p157.

History is not on the department’s side. Acheson’s observation of how the department first took on the global public affairs mission in 1945 only to willfully and eagerly eject it into USIA in 1953 is just one of several examples over the past century. In 1916, when the War and Navy Departments established their first public affairs offices, the State Department assigned press and Congressional relations to the department’s head of counterintelligence. In 1940, the department’s slow-walking of FDR’s policies based on public engagement in Latin America directly contributed to Nelson Rockefeller’s plan, drawn up with Benton and others, that became the Coordinator for Inter-American Affairs, an independent agency FDR set up outside of the department. And then there is the already mentioned example of USIA along with the failed integration of USIA back into the department in 1999.

The Under Secretary is well-positioned, if not best-positioned, to fulfill the government’s requirements for a chief information operations officer. However, if it fails again to properly fill and support this role, not only will it continue to be an ignored side-show but there should be serious consideration on abolishing the office and merging most of the responsibilities with the Under Secretary for Political Affairs. (The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Exchanges should find a new home, as well, and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and the Bureau of International Organizations should be colocated with the public diplomacy operation, just to scratch the surface.)

We shall see what happens.

3 thoughts on “Whither R: the office that’s been vacant two of every five days since 1999

  1. A mistake some past under secretaries have made is to assume the role of spokesperson, at least with regard to foreign engagement. This has diluted the managerial and leadership roles this important position should have. Perhaps, as Matt suggests, the better course would be to abolish the undertaking altogether, placing the information side of things in the Bureau of Public Affairs, under an assistant secretary, and moving the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Exchanges, with its assistant secretary, into the Democracy, Human Rights and Labor portfolio. If the latter option is pursued, Congress should strengthen the “firewall” around the ECA appropriations and maintain the Bureau’s programmatic independence, at least as much as is practicable, to avoid future stupid pet tricks with respect to exchanges.

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