W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy

Whither /ˈ(h)wiT͟Hər/ what is the likely future of? 
Wither /ˈwiT͟Hər/ fall into decay or decline.

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In December 1944, the State Department formally, and finally, acknowledged the important role of public opinion to U.S. foreign policy by establishing the Assistant Secretary of State for Public and Cultural Relations. Renamed to the Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs just over a year later, the assistant secretary was charged with expanding both the department’s domestic and foreign engagement programs “to provide American citizens with more information concerning their country’s foreign policy and to promote closer understanding with the peoples of foreign countries.” This integrated approach, given expansive global legislative authority by the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, was later shredded because ivy league diplomats at the department wanted the foreign cultural and information programs to conform to their “own long-established conventions [rather] than carrying out the congressional intention of [the Smith-Mundt Act].” This meant removing the public side to foreign affairs and creating the United States Information Agency in 1953 and institutionalizing the segregation of information from policy and the foreign from the domestic. In 1997, when Congress set upon shuttering USIA and reintegrating the bulk of its operations into the State Department, they directed the executive branch to establish a new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. Instead, the White House established an Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Notionally akin to the integrated portfolio of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs as it existed from 1944-1953. The reality was different and the segregation continued. The fact this office has been vacant four of ten days since the autumn of 1999 reveals the intentional marginalization of the informational component of foreign affairs continues even as many assert the U.S. is engaged in some kind of “information war.”

For nearly a decade, continuing the work of retired ambassador Brian Carlson, I have published a table revealing the ongoing, bipartisan failure to fill the office of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. The first publication of the data was in December 2011 under my direction when I was the executive director of the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. An addendum appeared on this blog the following month, January 2012, which was revised in November 2017. Another update appeared here in August 2019, followed by another in December 2020. This is the sixth public edition.


Known in the State Department’s organizational vernacular as “R,” the data is noteworthy for more than simply the absence of a confirmed under secretary. (Technically, the office is not vacant as some is appointed to serve in an “acting” capacity.) The absence of a Senate-confirmed Presidential-appointment to R when the informational side of foreign affairs is increasingly, if belatedly, recognized as critical is probably best understood through the lens of defining “public diplomacy.” Those who paid attention to this office over the years will recall the parlor game of waiting to see how each new under secretary would redefine “public diplomacy.” This was expected as the term “public diplomacy” was malleable, its relationship to foreign policy (making and operations) marginal, and its institutional support negligible. This is not entirely surprising considering Senator J. William Fulbright’s willful perversion of the Smith-Mundt Act in 1972 as part of his years-long effort to shutter USIA, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and Voice of America. Fulbright believed these organizations increased friction with Russia, a country he asserted posed no inherent threat to the United States. USIA’s problems predate Fulbright’s attacks (which included changing USIA’s authorization to be one year), at least somewhat. From 1957 and about every other year after, a new report would come out detailing the substantial changes needed at USIA and if those changes were not implemented (the main theme being integrating USIA with US foreign policy) the agency should be reintegrated with the State Department. To buffer those attacks, the term “public diplomacy” was co-opted as part of a public relations campaign of willful segregation to defend an agency on the chopping block. In 1985, “loopholes” in Fulbright’s amendment were later tightened by Senator Edward Zorinsky, isolating understanding of US public diplomacy operations and labeling them as dangerous propaganda. While Zorinsky’s amendment led a federal court to rule USIA material was exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests because of the stigma of “propaganda,” at nearly the same time, and in a completely unrelated action, Congress watered down the Foreign Agent Registration Act to remove the stigma of propaganda from foreign government information products entering the US. What then was public diplomacy? Was it marketing? Public relations? Propaganda? Whatever it was, it was most commonly associated with crafting combinations of nouns and verbs for some medium, a far narrower understanding of the informational effects from a broad array of engagements.

When USIA was abolished in 1999, agency alumni ardently fought for continued separation and segregation within the State Department, pointing to the Fulbright-Zorinsky amended Smith-Mundt Act as a defense. I am confident these people had no idea they were pointing to amendments crafted to isolate and punish USIA. (Personal note: more than once a USIA alumnus yelled at me, literally and not figuratively, that my efforts to revise Smith-Mundt was going to kill public diplomacy as the Fulbright-Zorinsky prohibition was the only thing forcing the State Department to directly engage foreign audiences. Think about that for a moment.) The marginalization and segregation of “public diplomacy” from policy – there were exceptions, and these proved the rule – continually reinforced derogatory views of PD as “cocktail” programs. This often meant public diplomacy staff were in a catch-22 of being dinged in their performance reviews: when reviewed by PD professionals, they were dinged for not doing enough “public diplomacy” because they were tasked with non-PD activities and, conversely, when reviewed by non-PD professionals they were dinged for doing “PD” activities the reviewers did not understand. At a higher level, this translated into a generational misunderstanding of the role and potential of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, enabling the continuing parsing of “PD” within the department, failure to empower and hold accountable leaders around “PD,” and is ultimately manifest in the attributes of the appointments to R.

This office had and continues to have limited authority – perhaps better described as “negligible influence” – over many of the operations that formerly resided under the USIA Director. The office wields even less authority over personnel and budgets and is more distant from policymaking and execution than the original assistant secretary for public affairs as it existed 1944-1953. Today, R has influence but not authority over the public affairs sections abroad nor exercised actual authority over the notionally subordinate Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, the “and Public Affairs” part of the title. (One R was able to gain “consultative hiring authority” over the appointment of public affairs officers at select, critical posts. In other words, the under secretary had a word in the selection process for some missions. This, however, was lost by their successor. The subsequent–to the successor–appointment had no idea what I was talking about when I asked whether they still wielded this authority.)

The Table

Note that “acting” officials are ignored and left off the table. While acting officials are selected and approved by the White House and the Secretary of State, this person does not carry the same weight nor authority of the purposefully appointed under secretary. Further, the acting official does not necessarily reflect the intent and objectives of the White House and Secretary.

Some key take-aways from the table:

  • As of 4 June 2021, the office has been vacant 41% of the days since the first R was sworn in on 1 October 1999.
  • Admittedly, this 41% rate is skewed by Trump administration whose lone appointment who served for a mere 100 days. Stopping the clock on 20 January 2017, the vacancy is still 27.8%.
  • Also through 20 January 2017, an average of over 7 months passed between incumbents.
  • The short tenures of these under secretaries should get equal billing with the vacancy rate: the average tenure (pre-Trump) was 19 months with a median tenure (also pre-Trump) of 17 months.

Back in December 2011, my staff at the advisory commission compared the tenures of three under secretaries at the department: the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (“Public Diplomacy” in the below table), the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs (“Global Affairs” in the below table; this office has since been renamed the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights), and the Under Secretary for Political Affairs (“Political Affairs”). (That most if not all of the activities of the second under secretary in this list arguably fall within the conceptual, if not practical, definition and intent of “public diplomacy” is for a separate discussion.)

This data, now nearly a decade old, shows that turnover itself is not necessarily a problem. While I do not follow the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, I doubt watchers of this office waited to see how the new incumbent would redefine “political affairs” or wonder how, or if, the under secretary would support the foreign service officers in the cone (departmental-speak for “career track”), those in the civil service and any locally engaged staff supporting the mission, how, or if, the under secretary would work with inter-agency partners, or wonder why if Congress will seek out the under secretary for expert advice.

Look beyond the vacancy rate and consider how incredibly short the tenures have been for the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. With an average tenure of 19 months (excluding the Trump administration), it is no wonder the office has little traction within the department and beyond. The appointments were often setup to fail. Often this was because of a defective view of “public diplomacy” as merely some kind of marketing, public relations pixie dust, a domestic political operative, or the idea the person must be a media executive because they know how traditional broadcast or internet operations work. The product has been the continued marginalization of “public diplomacy” that has gone from segregation to segmentation, with the somewhat recent declaration by the Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs declaring itself not subordinate to R.

(The merger of the Bureau of International Information Programs with Public Affairs to create Global Public Affairs is a good step in the right direction if R truly leads the global portfolio as R must and both the department and the government require. The absence of this integration should be a red flag for anyone considering taking the nomination as R, the already meager authority of the office is diminished further.)

Selecting R

The selection criteria have not seemingly included experience with US foreign policy operations, from intradepartmental politics to inter-agency relations to integrated activities in the field which go well beyond nouns, verbs, or pictures in print or pixels. Few appointees have been adequately tasked or supported by their leadership in acquiring, maintaining, and using resources and leadership authority to accomplish the mission. Whether this is because of a myopic view of the office is an inherited view of the decades of foreign policy academia and practice, or reinforced by institutional prejudice (a prejudice that history indicates is over a century old and was only temporarily overcome for about 5 years, from late 1944 through around 1949), or both is worth debating. Whatever the reason, the results have been clear in the lack of support of the office and the professionals under it, both in the U.S. and in the field, and the head-scratching absence of calls for better leadership or more public diplomacy officers who are the nation’s real “front-line” in the modern perception-driven world.

In my opinion, the right person for the job is a leader, manager, facilitator, and integrator with experience in government and at least practical awareness of the realities of foreign policy on the ground abroad. A focus on platforms – an expert in social or broadcast media, for example – is wrong, not just because every “market” is different but because there are professionals within the department (the number of which must increase) and agency partners, in addition to ready access to the private sector, to advise or handle the specifics of how to engage. Technology will change. Not everyone is on a social media platform and not all platforms are the same. As Murrow said: hurling electrons across huge distances is the easy part, getting into the last three feet is the hard part (yes, I paraphrased the first part, but that was exactly his meaning). This isn’t just about what the ideal combination of nouns and verbs might be, but how libraries, training programs, speaker events, exchanges (whether educational, technical, scientific, or other), local funding of various projects, and more may undermine adversarial narratives, propaganda against US policies and interests, and support US objectives. There are a lot of “bank shots” involved here, not just direct messaging. The diverse portfolio means the best pick will be a leader and manager that will hire, support, and hold accountable a diversity of experts. This leader will backstop them when challenged by the department and interagency partners, go to bat for them in the National Security Council and the White House, and have the necessary respect to be included in the discussions. I don’t think this person is a unicorn, but I do know we have been looking in the wrong places and it is unlikely this person will be a bundler. A good manager and leader will learn quickly, adapt, and hire and attract the right people to support the mission.

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.” The senior-most leadership has failed to recognize the potential of this position and failed to empower, support, and hold accountable the officeholders. There are exceptions, but these prove the rule. The negligent marginalization of information in US foreign policy is best represented not by the efforts to work around this office with the establishment of the Global Engagement Center or calls to recreate USIA but by bipartisan inaction that has left this office on the sidelines and vacant 40% of the time since it was established twenty-two years ago.

State Department organization as of December 1944
The organizational chart of the State Department following Departmental Order 1301 of December 20, 1944.

2 thoughts on “W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy

  1. Reading Matt’s updates to the chart has become a yearly ritual, and one I am damn tired of. One would think that with all of the work needed to repair the damage to the US image abroad after the Trump Administration, there would be an outcry within State and the foreign affairs community for a robust public diplomacy effort led by an able under secretary. This should not be that difficult, but apparently it is, because our leaders in Congress, State, the White House and NSC either don’t care or perhaps don’t know enough to care. The only support for a strengthened US public diplomacy that I am aware of over the past few years has come from the Pentagon. The Pentagon! How is it that our military leaders understand the importance of public diplomacy to US national interests, and our civilian leadership does not?

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