tl;dr edition of “W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy”

Last week, I published “W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy,” a 2300-word discussion on the bipartisan failure to fill the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Below is a bulleted edition (with bonus arguments) for the tl;dr (too long, didn’t read) crowd.

The Numbers

  • There have been 9 under secretaries from October 1999 through June 2021.
  • These 9 served a median tenure of under 16 months.
  • Excluding the Trump years and the one under secretary that served that administration, the median tenure of the eight under secretaries that served the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations is 17 months.
  • Excluding the Trump years, the median gap between under secretaries is 7.5 months. Congressional calendars and reticence had only a marginal influence here with most of the blame on recruiting and, more importantly, a failure to prioritize the office.

Understanding the Numbers

  • The turnover and lack of consistency in the backgrounds and skills of the under secretaries indicates a severe lack of understanding of what this office can do or should do.
  • There was little indication the White House and the NSC had serious expectations of this office. This is evident by the sometimes mutually reinforcing lack of accountability of the office and the failure to support the office within the State Department bureaucracy and with other agencies.
  • Within the State Department, the absence of this under secretary removes a senior advocate and defender (and oversight) of the public side of foreign affairs. This absence is felt by inter-agency partners.
  • Some of the turnover and some of the lack of effectiveness could be expected by the incumbents’ backgrounds and cause for hire, which included successfully putting on a political convention, marketing consumer goods, running an international documentary and lifestyle media enterprise, and editing a magazine.
  • When combined with the fluid definition of “public diplomacy,” a term adopted in the mid-1960s for a public relations campaign to defend an agency (USIA) rather than to purposefully label a set of activities based on methods or outcomes (which for the previous two decades was simply under the umbrella of “public affairs”), it became a kind of parlor game to see how the new under secretary was going to redefine “public diplomacy.” This does not happen with other under secretaries. (Sen. Fulbright deserves responsibility and blame here as he willfully caused USIA material to be considered propaganda and thus unfit for Americans, the byproduct of which contributed to contortions around what “public diplomacy” meant at any given time.)
  • There is not another senior leadership position, at or below the under secretary level, in foreign policy, which includes national security, that suffers from the same benign neglect from the White House, reinforcing the point this is a marquee failure of leadership.
  • The vacancy is not a failure of design that requires establishing a new bureaucracy but a marquee failure of leadership to appreciate the role of public opinion in foreign affairs, including but well beyond the realm of “national security,” and to hire and provide support (across the interagency) accordingly.

Is it time to get rid of this office?

Maybe. This office has never been considered nor supported as the successor to the Assistant of State for Public Affairs as it existed in 1944-1953 (see W(h)ither R) or the USIA Director, even if many writers claim the under secretary received all the authorities of the director. This office has not been able to exercise the leadership required of it, nor have commentators seem to have realized the failure, or when they did, wrongly attributed the failure to organization. The failure is institutional, not organizational, and extends through the department and to the White House. That the latest budget proposal for the State Department apparently calls for 50 new public diplomacy positions is a good step and yet underwhelming.

In May 2015, I wrote but did not publish an article titled “Abolish Public Diplomacy” that put to words what I had been saying to people for a while at that point. In April 2016, I gave a presentation at DACOR in DC on this but chickened out and I changed the title to “Relaunching Public Diplomacy” (partly because I was then a Governor on the Broadcasting Board of Governors and suggesting the Secretary of State’s representative on the board should be out of a job may not have been taken well). It is time to return to this article, update it, and share it. Some of the arguments will be familiar to those who say my presentation earlier this year, Neglected History, Forgotten Lessons.

The “abolishing” of public diplomacy is in two parts. And no, this is not about creating a separate bureaucracy, which some use the shorthand of “a new USIA.” If we cannot adequately hire and support a well-positioned under secretary, why do we think we can do it for a brand new agency, with all the redundancies and guaranteed fights over resources, authorities, and leadership? Most people forget that USIA’s strength, a strength that is of marginal value now considering today’s information access in the contested places, was its staff on the ground around the globe. Those positions were moved into the State Department. Will they be returned to USIA? Doubtful. What about a principal’s committee? Tried and died, also due to inconsistent support from the Oval. The first part is the term, which is segregating by design, which was not helpful then and worse now, and the second is eliminating the office and doing some reorganization, which alters P and J (details will be forthcoming, including what “P” and “J” mean to those blissfully unaware).

3 thoughts on “tl;dr edition of “W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy”

  1. Beyond the numbers (for vacancy and tenure), are there any significant accomplishments that you might be able to add to the columns for any of these folks? There is clearly a failure of leadership to nominate and confirm candidates in the first place, but then there is also a question about whether getting people in the post is having any discernable impact. Getting people into the job is one hurdle, but then doing something appreciable is another (and is a lack of action a failure of leadership on their part, or a failure of the organization to change with the time).

    1. Kevin,
      There are several points of failure here. That leadership has failed to nominated and confirm candidates is just part of the problem. Leadership has failed to appreciate the value of this job and subsequently failed to identify the necessary experience and skills as well as failed to support the role and fail to hold the department and interagency bureaucracies accountable to the job at hand. That last point is understandable because generally the wrong people were appointed, with the wrong skills, tasked with incomplete or inconsequential responsibilities, not supported, nor held accountable for their inability to support the intra-department and interagency partners. The right person must be appointed and charged with an appropriate mission. Put another way, the office has generally, with rare exception, been setup for failure if you envision the office as a central international information office (where information a lot more than simply words and pictures in print or pixels) in support of foreign policy and thus also national security.

      The two decade track record of this office, which is by any reasonable measure generally poor, does not bode well for recruiting. How candidates have been selected, and what “qualified” them, reflects the wrong-headed stance on recruiting for this office. In the longer version of this post,, I point out the qualifying criteria of some of these under secretaries, each of which reveal a fundamental defect in understanding the potential and necessary role of this post. This does not get into the institutional resistance to this post and its mission, but it opens that conversation.

      The institution of the State Department by and large did not “get” the mission of directly engaging foreign publics. By my analysis, which I raise in a presentation I gave earlier this year ( and which is discussed in my chapter Operationalizing Public Diplomacy (see and is discussed in greater detail in my forthcoming book, the only time the State Department accepted the mission of directly engaging foreign publics was late 1944 (indicated by the creation of the Assistant Secretary of State for Public and Cultural Relations, renamed in 1946 as the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs) through to around 1949 or 1950, which soon resulted in the establishment of the International Information Administration, a quasi-independent global public affairs operations encompassing all the program management and execution authorized by the Smith-Mundt. This failed and USIA was established a year later, 1953, an operation that actually had less comprehensive authority than the IIA director or the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs before but significant more authorities and significantly more control over vastly more personnel and budgets than this under secretary today. (As far as the Global Engagement Center is concerned, though I’ve written before that GEC was Congress’s attempt to “recreate” USIA without establishing a new independent bureaucracy, the real parallel is IIA, though GEC has a fraction of the authorities, budget, personnel, and touch points with foreign audiences and domestic partners IIA had.) The State Department objected to and even interfered with directly engaging foreign audiences in 1917-1918. In the inter-war years, they dragged their feet. Within a few years of the passage of the Smith-Mundt Act, the “anti-bodies” at State won the day with the result of IIA and then USIA. (See in my references above a statement by Dean Acheson on how State muffed this role.) In 1999, State still rejected the mission and marginalized the “public diplomacy” function, though this time there was a serious assist from USIA alumni who invoked the “firewall” of Fulbright’s amendment to the Smith-Mundt Act, an amendment that isolated and sought to shutter USIA, to protect “public diplomacy” by furthering the isolation within the department, which the institution was seemingly happy to oblige with. Recall the arguments that “only State does public diplomacy,” which was really “only the former USIA elements in State do public diplomacy,” which all fed the isolation and increased the marginalization. I have seen no indication of leadership at any time seriously attempt to break this down, then or today.

      As far as significant accomplishments by the under secretaries, yes, several have notable accomplishments. In discussions with public diplomacy officers over the past decade plus, I would say many of these accomplishments are really reflections of the low expectation of this office. Getting public diplomacy officers to various “tables” or creating a public diplomacy office at each of the geographic bureaus. Another example is one I highlighted in the longer version of this post: consultative hiring authority. As I noted in that longer post, the perceived impact of USIA was primarily from its field operations, which most pundits calling for the “resurrection” (or recreation) of USIA ignore or simply don’t know. With the elimination of USIA and reintegration of the public affairs operations at posts back into the State Department (remember, they had been there under the Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs before 1953), the under secretary had no real authority over this posts. The line from the under secretary to the public affairs sections was dotted as the sections reported to the chief of mission and to the geographic bureau. The consultative hiring authority came after the Arab Spring launched. The department’s institutional defenses hindered placing appropriately qualified public affairs officers at key posts (one excuse was “but x is retiring soon, replacing them would look bad” with the similar sentiment expressed when the replacement would instead be a partner sitting alongside the senior officer). The under secretary was given a voice on the selection of public affairs officers in select key posts (I recall the number was eleven, but I could be wrong). This was an accomplishment but that under secretary’s successor failed to continue the responsibility and lost it so that the subsequent successor had no idea what I was talking about when I asked whether they still exercised that authority.

      I hope that helps answer the question.

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