A Reminder that the position of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs actually exists

Since 2011, I have been tracking the ridiculously short tenures of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. By the way, the average tenure is 517 days, and the median tenure is 477 days. I also tracked how often the office was empty, which was equally if not more critical since senior positions can be stressful and some churn might be expected. For example, in December 2011 when my staff at the Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy and I first looked at the Under Secretary turnover, for the six Under Secretaries for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs since 1999, there had been five Under Secretaries for Political Affairs in the same period. However, as of December 2011, the political affairs office lacked a confirmed appointment to the office 5% of the time, a stark difference from the public diplomacy office being empty 30% of the time. What follows is far less commentary than, say, my June 2021 post reminding people the office was empty.

Today, there has not been a confirmed appointment to the position of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs over 44% of the days since the position was first occupied in October 1999. Imagine in the corporate world if a division president was absent nearly seven months of every year. I’ll leave aside that each new Under Secretary brings a new concept of how the office should be run, which led to a now largely forgotten (because fewer now care?) parlor game of wondering how the new Under Secretary would redefine “public diplomacy.”

Below is a current snapshot of my Excel spreadsheet for this office:

Another measure of importance is how soon the position was filled. This is not an absolute measure, of course, but it is suggestive. In the Bush Administration, 254 days before the first Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs was confirmed. There were four Under Secretaries during the eight years of the administration and an overall vacancy rate of 37%. In the Obama Administration, the first confirmed appointment happened 124 days in. The Obama Administration had three Under Secretaries and a vacancy rate of 22%. Distorting things is the Trump Administration, which did appoint an Under Secretary 316 days in, though he only lasted 100 days, resulting in a 93% vacancy rate for that administration.

The Biden Administration has yet to nominate an Under Secretary, though considering the consolidation of the (absent) Under Secretaries operational elements to create the Bureau of Global Public Affairs, I’m personally at a loss to understand what substantive role the Under Secretary would have should one get appointed. I heard a rumor a long time ago that someone would “soon” be announced, but I’m not sure who would want this job. Surely they would put significant criteria as they hopefully would learn from the shortcomings and handicapping of past Under Secretaries.

One could argue this office is no longer necessary, but I have not seen one discussion around the need to continue or discontinue this office, substantive or otherwise. One would think the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, whose very job is to provide oversight and advocacy over “public diplomacy” might opine on this topic. It might at least raise a flag of concern or a nod of support, but as far as I have seen, they have nearly assiduously avoided this glaringly obvious situation. (There are three current members of the commission: one was appointed in 2011 and whose term expired in 2013; another was appointed in 2011, reappointed in 2015, and whose term expired in 2018; and the third was first appointed well before 2011, was reappointed, and whose term also expired in 2018.)

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