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.
- 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).