Knowing why is far more important learning how

The issue is not that the US forgot how to “tell its story to the world,” but why

Since mid-2022, my primary outlet has been The site will continue to exist, and I will occasionally repost articles from my substack here. However, these reposts, like the one you are about to read, will be neither timely nor include all of my substack work. In other words, if you want to follow my writing, I suggest you subscribe to my substack where this post first appeared on 24 April 2023. The substack version of this article includes substantial footnotes that were not copied to the version below.  

It is not a new reality that the success of United States foreign policies rely, in no small part, on awareness, perceptions, and attitudes about the US and what it is actually doing abroad and why. Social media and other technologies that reduce the cost and time to move information and people reflect only the latest iterations of Dr. F.C. Bartlett’s 1940 statement that, “People, the elements of culture, the media of economic existence, ideas—all these can move with a freedom never before matched in history.”

In this interconnected world, if you do not tell your story, someone else will, and they may not have your best interests in mind when they do. Communications supporting foreign relations should not be regarded as an afterthought, something to avoid, or reserved for adversarial situations. International engagement is essential whether relations between nations are at peace, at war, or in the “twilight zone” between war and peace (the “twilight zone” reference was how the US Army War College described the “gray zone” in 1915). Such is true across commercial, economic, political, societal, and other security interests. Such was the argument of the political scientist Dr. Arthur MacMahon in his report for the State Department in July 1945 on the need for a peacetime post-war information program as a matter of course before any sense of the then-upcoming “contest” of the cold war: 

The adequacy with which the United States as a society is portrayed to the other peoples of the world is a matter of concern to the American people and their Government… Modern international relations lie between peoples, not merely governments… International information activities are integral to the conduct of foreign policy.

Arthur MacMahon, Memorandum on the Postwar International Information Program of the United States (July 5, 1945) (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1945), pSummary-1.

In a Washington Post essay titled “The US needs to relearn how to tell its story to the world” published recently, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote about the need to relearn that telling our story abroad is essential to our foreign policies with a “starter set” list of recommended actions to “strengthen this critical instrument of American power.” On the surface, Gates’s essay appears to be a refreshingly sober take on the US government’s need for “global engagement” that avoids using “information” and “information war” that also sets aside repeated calls to resurrect the US Information Agency. 

It is worth noting this essay appeared virtually alongside an article published at The Hill, written by a staff writer there: Robert Gates: US needs to stress strategic communications to advance national security interests. The timing suggests this essay and write-up is part of a public press coming from the Robert M. Gates Global Policy Center, which has been recently active around this topic with working papers, a conference, and a subsequent December 2022 report called “Competitive Global Engagement: Strategic Communications and Public Diplomacy for the New Era.” 

Gates’s opinion piece in the Washington Post is better than many previous articles on this subject, but the bar for comparison is stunningly low. It is refreshing to see a former senior leader – and contemporary influencer – include specifics and not just call for an increased volume and tenor in the hurling of nouns and verbs abroad. Tools for “telling our story to the world” that are typically ignored in similar pieces but included here include penetrating information bubbles abroad, exchanges, and the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy.

It was also refreshing to see the responsibility for so many of the recommendations placed squarely – and accurately – on the executive branch. Gates could have been blunter, though. “Many of [these recommendations] the president could implement immediately, while others would require congressional action” understates the President’s opportunities and responsibilities. But, Gates is a diplomat, and I am not. And, to be clear, the critiques and recommendations are not restricted to the present administration, but go back decades. 

The article should be appreciated for its intentions and details. It is likely to have more impact than most owing to the gravitas of its author. However, there are numerous problems with it and, not being a diplomat myself (at least presently, I’ve twice held jobs granting me a Diplomatic passport, though I do not mean to imply I’ve ever been diplomatic), I will be blunt. 

Before diving into the critique, I want to separate the essay’s title from the essay. It is common practice for titles to be selected by an editor and not the author. Considering this title does not accurately reflect the spirit of the essay, I suspect that’s the case here. Rather than be a reflection on the author, the title – “The US needs to relearn how to tell its story to the world” – suggests to my jaded eye evidence of the ignorant undercurrent flowing beneath this broad subject. The fundamental issue Gates is trying to draw attention to is not the need to relearn how to engage abroad but rather to relearn why we must engage abroad. Many elements of how to engage are listed, not to describe misuse but rather to emphasize the need to prioritize, support, integrate, coordinate, and lead these efforts toward a purpose. Focusing on why is the correct approach, and is a welcome evolution in the argument.

There are two significant defects in this essay. The first is the opening sentence that screams that nothing that follows is really important: “In the long contest ahead with Russia and China, U.S. military power will be of greatest importance, but non-military instruments of power will be essential to our ability to compete and win as well.” We know the “other instruments of power,” as Gates writes later in the essay, have been “seriously neglected,” which is, after all, the reason for this piece, but this is quite the opening. It is also symptomatic of the problem he is trying to remedy. That US defense spending far exceeds every other nation and that the US ability to deliver military force – whether warheads or combat troops – anywhere in the world also far exceeds the potential of any other nation suggests US military is not actually of the greatest importance. The demand signal that brought about this piece and the burgeoning cottage industries around the “gray zone,” “hybrid warfare,” and even the Gates Global Policy Center also suggests US military power is also not of the greatest importance.

Military deterrence only works when the political will to employ conventional, or nuclear, force at least matches the capabilities. Recent history is replete with examples of the limits of our military power in the “contest.” Our restrained responses are based on fears of retaliation and escalation from an aggressor rather than on our principles and interests. This gap is exploited in this contest, and it is a gap made more pronounced by our persistent failure to engage effectively abroad to deny Russian and Chinese narratives, for example, that twist public opinion against us and our allies virtually without contest. This is an underlying point of Gates’s essay, but it is massively undermined by his staunch opening. 

That opening brought to mind a quote that speaks to the limits of conventual military dissuasion and nuclear deterrence, both of which have thresholds for use that are readily, and increasingly, manipulated and exploited by our adversaries.

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, speaking in support of the Freedom Academy bill in February 1961.

A better and more comprehensive conceptual framework for what seems to be Gates’s intent could be the following paragraph. Though the language is dated – it was written over a century ago – it is from the same organization Gates led: 

It is necessary to remember, in the first place, that this war is not one that is being fought by the military forces alone. There are economic, psychologic, social, political and even literary forces engaged, and it is necessary for us in order to defeat the enemy, to understand fully the strength of each. Nor can the investigation stop with the forces of the enemy: it must extend to each country in the world and to every people. The question of winning the war is far too complicated and far too delicate to be answered by a study of only the powers and resources of the nations in arms.

Military Intelligence Division of the US Army General Staff, The Functions of the Military Intelligence Division, General Staff (Washington: Military Intelligence Division, General Staff, 1918), p6.

While military might is important as a tool of dissuasion, and sometimes persuasion, the non-military tools of policy are of equal if not superior value to our national security and, more broadly, our foreign policy. We can look at the current exercises by Russia, but mostly China, to realize this. 

The second severe defect in this essay is a stunning silence on the need for significant integration of policy with global engagement programs. Yes, there is an easily missed glancing reference to policy, specifically the “diplomatic strategies” of one agency relative to another, but this is in the spirit of coordinating information rather than policy. The absence of even a reference to a frequent “say-do” policy gap and the need for policies that need informational components to assist rather than to change the subject is stark. This gap can also be explained as “reputational security,” as Nick Cull describes it.

I’ll offer one last quote here to emphasize the need to connect our non-military programs and related efforts to our national security requirements that may hit home for some. The context is the need to not just deliver aid abroad, but to make sure it is linked with our national security interests by, at the very least, denying a free hand of adversarial disinformation and exploitation of misinformation and the lack of information: 

We may help avert starvation in Europe and aid in producing a generation of healthy, physically fit individuals whose bodies, are strong but whose minds are poisoned against America and whose loyalties are attached to the red star of Russia. If we permit this to eventuate it will be clear that the generosity of America is excelled only by our own stupidity.

Mundt, Karl E., “We Are Losing the War of Words in Europe.” New York Times, 1947.

Moving on from that significant omission, the following are mere problems with the essay that need additional details to fix or clarify. To start, Gates considers a lack of operational leadership to be the result of a lack of authority. 

U.S. strategic communications and public diplomacy are fragmented among 14 agencies and 48 commissions. Yet, the State Department, which ought to be driving this train, lacks not just necessary resources in dollars and people but also, importantly, the authority to coordinate, integrate and synchronize these disparate and unfocused efforts. Further, there is no government-wide international communications and engagement strategy, and certainly no sense of urgency…

The president should empower the secretary and, specifically, this undersecretary of state to synchronize the foreign strategic engagement efforts of all elements of the executive branch — including the Defense Department, which spends many times more on these programs than the State Department but is disconnected from our diplomatic strategies.

I appreciate Gates is not distracted by symptoms to arrive at causal factors of a lack of strategy, no sense of urgency, and the absence of a coordinating entity. And, I appreciate he does not call for consolidation into one monolith with his comment “The solution is not to re-create the USIA — the world has moved on.” What he may not realize is he is ultimately calling for a resurrection of USIA’s predecessor, or at least what USIA was supposed to be based on the recommendations from 1953. Certainly, those who continue to ignorantly sing the “bring back USIA” chorus have little to no idea what USIA did, especially since they completely ignore the real value of USIA – its operations on the ground abroad – and that USIA was the result of fragmenting a far more integrated, comprehensive, and larger agency with greater authorities and seats at the policy and coordination tables they pretend USIA had but did not.

While it is not clear from the essay, it seems the authorities Gates says are necessary are not, to my knowledge from extensive conversations recently and going back over a decade, based on statutory authorities to be granted by Congress. Instead, they are authorities to be granted and supported directly and (relatively) immediately by the President, the Secretary of State, the National Security Council, and other Cabinet officials. Of course, that requires an official to wield the apparently new authorities. This leads to the next problem with the essay. 

The Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy was created in 1999 as the successor to the US Information Agency Director. It is worth noting that this undersecretary wields less authority, manages a smaller portfolio of programs, and is structurally less engaged, as a matter of practice, within the department and with interagency efforts than the USIA Director, which also wielded less authority, managed a smaller portfolio, and exercised less leadership with the State Department and interagency partners than its predecessor, the Administrator of the State Department’s semi-autonomous International Information Administration. 

So, about this undersecretary. In the essay, Gates used weird numbers to show the persistent failure to have a confirmed Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, writing “the undersecretary position in the State Department charged with overseeing these efforts has not had a Senate-confirmed occupant 40 percent of the time since it was created in 1999 and 90 percent of the time under Donald Trump and President Biden.” These figures are not just wrong, but odd. I have been tracking the absence since I was the executive director of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy in 2011, with periodic updates. The January 2023 update was known to the Gates project as it was referenced in at least one report that contributed to the Competitive Global Engagement project. The reality is worse than the essay states. The undersecretary position has not had a Senate-confirmed occupant 46% of the time since the first person took office in 1999. In the Trump administration, the vacancy was 93% and continues to be 100% in the Biden administration. Combined, this is 95%. Rounding introduced by an overzealous editor? Maybe, but 46% is closer to 50% than 40%, and 95% is worse than ninety percent for the Trump-Biden years. 

While this office should be held by a person confirmed to it, it seems clear the reason the office has not been charged with the necessary departmental and interagency leadership responsibilities, provided the required resources, given the required support by senior leadership, or held accountable is the persistent lack of interest across administrations and Secretaries of State. Gates’s call for the Senate to confirm the present nominee seems to ignore this, or perhaps he is diplomatic in his hope change will come. I’m not so diplomatic nor so sure. 

First, the President and Secretary of State could have, during the past two years, made clear the acting undersecretary has their backing to do all the things Gates is calling for. That has not happened. There were rumors of a pending nomination to this office for a while, and then there weren’t. (If these rumors were true, did they back out because the role was too fuzzy, responsibilities too diluted, or promised support from above too unclear?) The argument that the undersecretary must have a preexisting personal relationship with the president is a prerequisite that reinforces the sheer absence of respect for the utility of this office and the experience and skills necessary to successfully support our foreign policies and not merely our explicit national security policies. While the current nominee has been serving as the acting undersecretary since April 2022, which some might argue means she’s had time to get a strong handle on the job, she replaced a Foreign Service Officer who spent their career in the State Department’s public diplomacy operations and held the acting undersecretary gig for 435 days, or longer than since last April. Besides the gaps between USIA Directors not being nearly as long as confirmed Under Secretaries for Public Diplomacy, two Foreign Service Officers served as USIA Directors while no Foreign Service Officer has been confirmed to the undersecretary position.

As I noted earlier, it was nice to see exchanges included in this discussion, including that it was viewed more broadly than simply sending university-level folks back and forth. The reference was, however, tossed in and separated from the undersecretary discussion. That’s fine, but I do wonder if the separation suggests the severe limits on discretionary options around exchanges imposed by Congress are not realized as the impediments they are. 

And then there was the reference to “digital communications firewalls” with an inferable connection to the Global Engagement Center. Perhaps this, too, is an artifact of the editing process and the relationship was not intended. However, there is no indication that such efforts have for decades been a major line of effort of the US Agency for Global Media, formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors (note: I served on this board from 2013-2017). I would not be surprised if Gates and his team were unaware of this role of USAGM, just as I have not been entirely surprised by Defense Department personnel who “established” a radio in an African region for a wargame as they were completely unaware of Voice of America or its position as the dominant news media organization in the region the (not public & not involve people on the ground) wargame took place. (I was eventually also inured to questions like “VOA still operates?” when speaking with Members of Congress on committees overseeing the then-BBG when I was a Governor.) 

Gates argues the State Department “ought to be driving this train” but that it lacks the “authority” needed. I ardently agree with the first point as I have long argued the undersecretary should be viewed as the chief international information operations officer for our foreign policy, but I also ardently disagree with the framing of the second point. It is not authority, per se, but the absence of necessary vision, support, and leadership from within the department that is coupled with an equivalent absence of vision, support, and leadership from above in the White House and the National Security Council. They must start appointing people with the right skills, and support them with words, actions, and resources, while also holding them accountable. Too often, the “accountability” manifested in tuning out and ignoring undersecretaries, which has significantly contributed to the problems Gates is calling to redress. 

While there are other details in the piece worthy of discussion, like the long-ignored point of reciprocity with China (and Russia) – I tip my hat to Gates for raising this important point! – you’ve suffered long enough reading to this point. 

I’m interested in your thoughts on the essay. 

The substack version of this article includes substantial footnotes that were not copied to this version.