It is time to do away with the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy

Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy incumbency chart 14 Jan 2022

Here we are on January 14, days away from the end of the first year of the Biden Administration, and there is still no nomination for the office of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. There were rumors of a forthcoming nomination around last autumn and recently I heard a nomination could be announced later this year. At this point, who would want a job that has been broadly neglected, often treated as an inconsequential sideshow, and whose authority, already slight, has been substantially reduced over the past couple of years? Considering the history of this post and this administration’s first year, if this administration does nominate someone for this job, they will likely be more Don Draper than Colin Powell, to borrow framing from the author known as Carrying the Gun, because that’s how the role is perceived and that’s the only person that would take it.

Nine months ago, Cole Livieratos and I tried to get an article published on the unrealized potential of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs as the government’s well-placed central international information officer for US foreign policy (which includes national security, though I sense some feel the two are distinctly separate). As Cole – an active duty US Army Major, trained strategist, Georgetown Ph.D., and currently teaching at West Point – tweeted this week about our earlier effort, “Can’t emphasize enough what that says about how unserious we are about global inform/influence efforts.” Our opening:

The United States harbors a fundamentally broken understanding of information’s role in the success of its foreign policies. Better messaging is not merely a magic combination words and pictures, whether in print or pixels, delivered more quickly than before. It is not pixie dust to be sprinkled to change the subject nor should it be considered a bolt-on to a policy. Policies, especially in today’s increasingly transparent and connected world, react to, rely on, and create perceptions. And yet calls to do better with information often furthers the separationist argument of shifting responsibilities to someone else. The defect that continues to partition the informational element of policy from strategy is conceptual, not structural. The problem starts with the senior-most leadership, starting with the White House and the National Security Council members and staff, who fail to set expectations and enforce accountability of agencies tasked with our nation’s foreign policies, policies that rely on the mutual dependency of actions and words for their success.

The fundamental concept behind the role of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, despite decades of misunderstanding (the office was established in 1999), was centralized leadership for the execution and coordination of government information and engagement programs abroad and at home. The history of this office is something else. With Congress directing the creation of a new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, the Clinton administration replied in December 1998 that it would establish a consolidated leadership position: the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Despite the title and organization chart, since the first under secretary was sworn in on 1 October 1999, the domestic public affairs activities were never subordinate to the under secretary. More to the point, this office has been left vacant approaching half the time since it was established and, when it was filled, the hiring criteria emphasized Don Draper’s slick selling and not leadership, integration, or accountability.

The willful blindness to appreciating the mutual dependency between information and foreign policy is astounding. Brian Carlson – retired Career Minister of the Foreign Service and former US ambassador – noted the odd detachment in appreciating foreign public opinion’s relationship to our foreign policy and national interests abroad, tweeting, “Ask any politician if they would enter an election campaign without someone working on polling, communication, advertising, interest groups?” Knowing there is some monitoring and reporting of reactions, sentiments, and beliefs abroad by the State Department and other agencies, Brian is addressing the lack of leadership, integration, and accountability. The absence of leadership – which is often the trigger for repeated, and often ignorant, calls to resurrect the United States Information Agency – relegates any knowledge gleaned, recommendations developed, or coordination to optimize resources and activities to happenstance, luck, or the trash bin. Cole and I framed a similar point this way:

It remains dumbfounding that democratic leaders elected on their ability to mobilize public opinion still believe disinformation can be combatted simply by publishing the truth or that the truth is self-evident and self-discovered. These leaders, and the people they appoint, continually fail to place information as coequal, or superior, to political, economic, and military activities that increasingly rely on the informational element for any measure of success.

The administration’s failure to prioritize foreign public opinion’s impact is evident in another agency. The US Agency for Global Media, formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, oversees the government’s international media operations such as the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcast Network, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, as well as substantial information freedom operations focused primarily on the internet. Aside from the long-standing fact the agency needs a dramatic organizational makeover, USAGM’s CEO, a Senate-confirmed Presidential appointment, is currently filled by an “acting” official. The Director of VOA, a non-career Senior Executive Service position that is not Senate confirmed but appointed by the Office of Personnel Management, is also an “acting” official.

Broadly Neglected

In the years since the first Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs was sworn in, nine people have been nominated and confirmed to the position. Four served in the two Bush administrations, three served in the two Obama administrations, and one each in the Clinton and Trump administrations. The median tenure of these nine is less than 16 months, while the average time in office is 17 months.

There are two outliers, notably Obama’s last public diplomacy “chief” who served 1029 days. It was known to many at the time that he intended to resign far earlier with departure timed to just pass the previous record in this office of 868 days. Regardless, it is important to separate effectiveness from time in office, especially regarding this office where qualitative analyses of the incumbent tenures are seemingly absent. At the other end is Trump’s under secretary who served precisely 100 days. This person was also remarkably irrelevant to the post, in part because of the lack of relevant experience with foreign policy and “public diplomacy” and because he was one of the few confirmed under secretaries causing him to be pulled into issues unrelated to this office. If we remove these two outliers, the seven remaining officials served an average of 504 days, or a few weeks beyond 16 months.

In addition to the short tenures, most of the appointments were Don Drapers, all but one had no experience working with or in government, let alone an understanding of how foreign policy “sausage” is made and interagency relations work. Recent appointments were drawn from the media world, reflecting enduring short-sighted belief the central problem is getting the word out and not the lack of integration, failure to consider the informational effects of foreign policy, adversarial influence activities, and so on. The “image problem” is a symptom of the problem, it is not the whole problem.

Turnover is just one way to look at how unimportant this office is to successive administrations. When I first ran the numbers on this position in 2011 (see also this and this), I compared this office to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. Between 1999 and 2011, there had been six officials confirmed to the public diplomacy position and five confirmed to the political affairs office. Six and five seem at first to be fairly similar, but then there is the time between appointments. The short tenures of the public diplomacy “chief” give away the punchline here: between 1999 and the end of 2011, the Under Secretary for Political Affairs position was vacant 5% of the time while the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs was vacant 30% of the time. Today, the public diplomacy office has been vacant 42.6% of the days since the first official was sworn in back in 1999. Whether you work in the private sector or in government, an extended absence of a confirmed boss is detrimental to operations, especially in a competitive, demanding, and necessarily collaborative environment.

Another angle to see priority given to this position by administrations is the time to confirm the first incumbent. In the Bush administration, the first under secretary was sworn in 254 days into the first administration. The nomination had been made months earlier but lingered in Congress until it was suddenly accelerated due to 9/11. The Obama administration’s first under secretary was sworn in 124 days into the administration, and the Trump administration had its under secretary sworn in at 316 days. Today, we are 358 days into the Biden administration without even a nomination.


If the lack of attention to appointing someone to the office is not enough evidence of neglect and disinterest in the office, consider the times when there was an under secretary in office. For most of this century, it was a parlor game in academia to wonder how each new under secretary would define “public diplomacy.” This is not the same as wondering how each leader would interpret their mission, after all, each new Under Secretary for Political Affairs came in with a different approach. The latter, however, would not have interested parties – whether staff, partners, or outside observers – wondering how they would redefine “political affairs.” To be fair, part of the confusion over “public diplomacy” owes to the reason the term was adopted: to defend an agency – USIA – rather than to apply to means and outcomes.

This office has not been held accountable with failures and problems treated as inconsequential. Take the hot mess that was the Bureau of International Information Programs during the first Obama administration, as detailed in an extensive Office of Inspector General report. The bureau was allowed to fester under toxic leadership across two under secretaries. IIP is important, or rather was, because it was the largest rump of USIA. Returning to the under secretary, the office came to exist outside of the Secretary’s inner circle with incumbents either intentionally withdrawing from interagency collaboration or variously unwilling or unable to follow up on requests and commitments resulting in a lack of confidence across the board, including the national security council and other departments.

The absence of accountability is its own measure of importance by leadership. In the case of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, the need for the Defense Department to step into the “strategic communication” realm reflects not just a failure of the under secretary, but acquiescence by the Secretary of State and the White House of the marginal role of the under secretary. We can also see disregard for the office in the Obama administration’s failure to follow through on its “comprehensive interagency strategy on public diplomacy and strategic communication” and the creation of the Global Engagement Center, and its predecessor agency. There were also countless times where the under secretary failed to support, either directly or a direct-report failed to support, national security council requests, interagency partner requests, and the State Department’s own needs abroad. These acts further marginalized the office at the operational level.

Reduced Authority

In 2019, the State Department picked over the decimated and demoralized IIP, selectively moving some elements into the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs as it inserted “global” before public affairs in its title. It might be better to think of the revised operation as the Bureau of Greater Public Affairs as a better reflection of the revised bureau despite stated interest in shuttering of IIP and reassigning its assets.

In addition to the under secretary no longer having control of the global operation of IIP that directly engaged foreign publics and directly supported State Department posts abroad (sometimes questionably owing wholly to variously bad and narrow-minded leadership at IIP), the under secretary lost its other big subordinate. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs did not provide the under secretary substantial opportunities as much of ECA’s budget was non-discretionary owing, in large part, to Congressional interests, but it was still part of the under secretary’s portfolio. However, during the Obama administration, this bureau rejected that it was subordinate to the under secretary, which the State Department, notably the Secretary, did little to nothing to correct.

The under secretary is nominally a leader – I hesitate to write “in charge of” – the Global Engagement Center, but in reality this is a stretch. GEC, and its predecessor, is arguably the result of successive under secretaries failing to exercise the potential of their office – of their high position, of IIP, etc – by first the White House (which established GEC and its predecessor through executive order) and then Congress (who hurriedly pushed legislation to authorize GEC, and to expand its mission, through legislation before the Trump administration came in).

With regard to the State Department’s own operations, the under secretary has a dotted line of authority, at best, to the department’s posts abroad. Substantially greater authority over these posts, with solid lines on the org chart, comes from the chief of mission and the geographic bureaus.

It Is Time

The trend of reducing the authority of the chief international information officer has been consistently downward since the State Department first established the Assistant Secretary for Public and Cultural Relations in December 1944. That first office was charged with both foreign and domestic information and engagement activities of the department as well as supervising the department’s “relations with other Government agencies on all matters involving public information policy.” Perversely, despite the increasing importance of public opinion to our foreign policy, including national security, the importance of information to successive administrations seems to be virtually nil, save for the occasional call for more pixie dust.

I have long argued, as Cole and I argued in our unwanted and unpublished draft, in the importance of integrating information with, and not beside or outside of, our foreign policy design, development, and execution. This means integrating the informational function within the State Department. As Cole and I wrote:

Rearranging organizational diagrams will not replace leadership just as strategy is just a word without leadership and accountability. Centralizing information functions into one bureaucracy will exacerbate the worst tendencies of the foreign policy and national security agencies to ignore the informational element of policy altogether. Properly employing the information element of national power is more than reacting to disinformation, anticipating adversarial actions, or exploitable opportunities. It requires integration from the identification of objectives across the policymaking process of our political, military, and economic agencies and through the execution and support of these policies. The United States needs strong leadership to demand this integration from the White House and National Security Council down through the cabinet departments and other agencies to succeed in foreign policy and enhance America’s national security.

We lack the leadership to make the necessary changes. Perhaps the solution is to give up on the central international information operations officer that is the under secretary and abolish the position, distribute what little is left of the authorities and the mandate, and reconceptualize leadership here. No, this does not mean recreating USIA which would have the negative effect of segregating information from policy and reinforcing the “not my job” approach to the informational effects of policies. I recommend the Under Secretary for Political Affairs gain the majority of the remaining authorities, including the Bureau of Global Public Affairs, to integrate the informational function with the regional bureaus and posts. While some will lament the dilution of “public diplomacy,” in reality, this is closer to the model that worked before the State Department once again rejected direct contact with foreign publics, which led first to the International Information Administration in 1952 and then subsequently to USIA so the Secretary, he claimed, could “focus” on his core mission of diplomacy. We could also do away with the artificial “public diplomacy” label and replace it with “global public affairs,” either as an interim or long-term solution. Most do not realize “public diplomacy” was adopted after two decades of “public affairs” in a public relations gambit to support the independence of USIA in the face of calls for better coordination with the State Department or be reintegrated with the department. Besides being at the heart of department’s activities in DC and the field, and having the respect of interagency partners, recent Under Secretaries for Political Affairs grasp the importance of global public affairs to foreign policy.

I can see no reason to keep the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs position any longer other than to serve as a plum to reward political supporters. This was clearly the pool from which candidates were picked in four of the six recent appointments.

The lack of interest and respect for this position leads me to close with two statements from the 1960s. The first I used to end an article (and later a book chapter based on the article, “Politics of Information Warfare in the US“). The second is perpetually pinned to my Twitter profile, which I retweet every now and then as a reminder of the dysfunction represented by the debacle discussed above.

Someday this nation will recognize that global non-military conflict must be pursued with the same intensity and preparation as global military conflicts.

The Orlando Committee, 1963, in a letter to Congress on the demise. The day they hoped for has yet to come.

So long as we remain amateurs in the critical field of political warfare, the billions of dollars we annually spend on defense and foreign aid will provide us with a diminishing measure of protection.

Senator Thomas J. Dodd, 1961


4 thoughts on “It is time to do away with the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy

  1. DME/I. Hasn’t change a lick since I’ve found myself involved in the field. Good for academics to debate…bad for the Nation.

  2. High time, indeed. One can pick nits with portions of Matt’s analysis, but the central thrust of his argument seems indisputable. Let’s abolish R, realign the remaining PD assets were they’ll likely be most effective (perhaps in P?), and get on with it.

  3. I do this work for a living and it’s hard to argue with Matt’s analysis. The current structure of the U.S. public diplomacy world is a frankenstein monster that is a product of budget cuts and bureaucratic turf wars, rather than strategic vision. No one starting from scratch would ever have built it this way. Info operations should be under P, with GPA assets at the regional bureau level. At the country level, same story: put the press and comms people right in with the Political chief, directly under the Ambassador. The PAO would then be freed to focus more on relationship-building with publics through promotion of values, education, and culture (ideally at a well-equipped American culture center or library). This is the model the French, Brits, and Germans have, and no one has ever convincingly explained to me why ours is better

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