This post first appeared at mountainrunner.substack.com on 7 February 2023. It has been modified slightly for clarity. Subscribe to my free substack for new posts through email, the web, or through the substack app. Posts are copied here when I get around to it. However, in the case of this post, it originated here at the MountainRunner blog in September 2018 before going to the substack, so now it has returned in a revised form.
I started to write a different article that opened with this question: Can a term represent both a symptom and cause of a dumpster fire? Yes, unequivocally. The term in question is “public diplomacy,” and it was adopted – it was not “coined,” please stop writing it was “coined”1 – in 1965 as part of a public relations campaign to further segregate and elevate the activities of one bureaucracy to be at least on par with another. The US Information Agency operated for more than a decade without this term, and the State Department had managed to run more than USIA’s relatively small portfolio for nearly a decade prior. Despite this, there is surprisingly little serious inquiry let alone understanding into why “public diplomacy” emerged in 1965 as part of a name at a center established at Tufts University. I don’t want, nor do I really have the time right now, so read my chapteron Google Books that discusses the common use of the term before 1965. For now, it is easy to stipulate the confusion around what is, and is not public diplomacy, and who does, and does not, “do” public diplomacy, derives from its original application to an agency and not to activities, methods, or outcomes. The result has been catastrophic programmatically, conceptually, and organizationally.
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.
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A couple of weeks ago, a friend reached out to see if I was interested in co-authoring an article. Dr. Chris Paul, a defense policy researcher at RAND Corporation, had attended a Defense Department-focused conference “intended to inform and coalesce departmental efforts supporting Information Advantage and Cognitive Security” where he heard declarations that our problems with international information operations would be fixed if only the US Information Agency was resurrected. From someone else who was there, I heard at least one such pronouncement received a big applause.
I’ve known Chris for more than a decade. We have been in the same “information operations” circles for a very long time, and we have worked together before – including when I was supposed to be a co-author on his 2009 report “Whither Strategic Communication,” but after the initial research was done, I had to switch gears. He reached out to see if we could collab again, and I was quick to say yes.
In the saga of institutional misinformation, we have a new entry. The following article is set up as satire in the spirit of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which is fine, but the author’s invocation of history, specifically organizational history combined with implied current organizational portfolios is horribly wrong. The failure to understand our history is irrelevant to the article “Let’s Tweet, Grandma – Weaponizing the Social to Create Information Security” but it is relevant as yet another sad revelation of how poorly we understand our organizations, past and present. That the author of this piece is a Navy Commander, a graduate of the Naval War College, and presently at TRADOC reveals an unfortunate reality about what our institutions “know” about the past and present. (Incidentally, I am a casual collector of books by “Dean Swift,” my oldest is only from 1911 though. There was an older edition I had my eye on in an antique bookstore in London, but I never pulled the trigger.)
In discussions about how the United States needs to structure its bureaucracies as the nation — and democratic principles in general — is pummeled by propaganda and political warfare, historical precedents are often cited. These examples may be used to show how something worked before or as warnings. For the latter, it is easy to find a reference to the Committee for Public Information as a government domestic propaganda machine. For the former, it is increasingly common to read how the United States Information Agency provides a model to be emulated today. Both are bad takes based on common narratives that are ahistorical and easily debunked, and yet no one has seemed to do so.
There is a government position at the center of countless reports on countering foreign disinformation, correcting misinformation, and directly engaging foreign audiences that is rarely, if ever, mentioned in these very reports and recommendations. Whether due to ignorance, perceived irrelevance of the office, or both, the ghosting of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs reveals a fundamental defect in the analysis of how the United States has, does, and could organize in response to the role of public opinion in foreign policy and national security. Established in 1999 as a reinterpreted USIA Director, excepting the broadcast operations, the office has had a confirmed, not acting, Under Secretary only 60% of the time. Even if the counter stopped at the start of the Trump administration, which had one Under Secretary who served for only 100 days, the average officeholder’s tenure was one year and seven months with an average of more than six months between incumbents. The marginalization of this office, including the nearly complete disregard of its potential in the myriad of recommendations on “recreating” USIA or similar structure, should surprise no one.
A newer version of this topic, published 3 December 2020, may be found here.
The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs was created in 1999 to lead the State Department’s existing public affairs operations and the reintegration of most of the global public affairs activities previously based in the department. These global activities had been removed in 1953 and rebranded in the late 1960s as “public diplomacy.” (Edmund Gullion is often credited with this rebranding, but proper attribution should go to Rep. Dante Fascell (D-FL), but that’s for another post.)
Since the office was established and the first Under Secretary was sworn-in on October 1, 1999, the office has been vacant 36% of the time. To be more precise, the office has been “unencumbered” with a confirmed Under Secretary for 35.8% of the days since October 1, 1999, with an average gap between appointments of 289 days (over 9.5 months). In December 2011, the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy released a report about this vacancy issue (at the time, I served as the Executive Director of the commission) and the next month I published a less restrained commentary on the topic, R we there yet? A look at the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs). Above is an updated chart showing the tenure and vacancies of the office as of August 26, 2019.
(This article was updated on 20 November ’17 with a new chart that reflects incumbent tenures through 1 July ’16 and some other edits.)
What is the role of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs? That has been an enduring question of the State Department, the Defense Department, National Security Staff, the Congress and the many others interested in America’s efforts to understand, inform, and influence global audiences. Established thirteen years ago to manage many of the activities formerly run by the abolished United States Information Agency (USIA), its role within State and with other agencies across Government has been subject to reinterpretation nearly every time there was a new Under Secretary. The last report of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy looked at the turnover in the position of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. The Commission found that the position has been unfilled for over 30% of the time since it was established. Moreover, the average tenure of the six Under Secretaries since 1999 was about 500 days, or less than 17 months. Indeed today, the office remains unencumbered since June 30, 2011, while Tara Sonenshine awaits confirmation by the Senate. Technically, the office is never “vacant” as there is always someone in an “acting” capacity. Today, Assistant Secretary Ann Stock runs the office in lieu of a confirmed Under Secretary.
As Sonenshine is unlikely to be confirmed before February due to the Senate’s calendar, the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs will be unfilled for an aggregate of more than 1,400 days, or nearly 1 out every 3 days over the past thirteen years. Below is a chart showing how long confirmed Under Secretaries served, and equally if not more important, how long the office was not filled by a confirmed appointee.
The above chart does not, of course, reflect how the Under Secretary perceived “public diplomacy,” how they worked with (or didn’t) the Department, from the 7th Floor to other Under Secretaries to the field (namely, but not limited to, the public affairs sections the Under Secretary is notionally connected), other agency partners, or the private sector and civil society. Nor does the chart indicate consistency in vision or leadership by the incumbent, or the degree of support by the Secretary or the White House of that vision or leadership. Nor does the chart indicate how well, if at all, the Under Secretary helped, protected, or promoted the public diplomacy “cone” (State’s label for career track), sought input from the field, or empowered the field. Nor does the chart indicate how the Under Secretary provided leadership, direction, or held accountable those offices directly within the office’s remit, such as the Bureau of International Information Programs and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, or indirectly, such as the Bureau of Public Affairs, the Global Engagement Center (formerly the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication), and the Public Affairs Sections at embassies and consulates worldwide.
The mission of American public diplomacy is to support the achievement of U.S. foreign policy goals and objectives, advance national interests, and enhance national security by informing and influencing foreign publics and by expanding and strengthening the relationship between the people and government of the United States and citizens of the rest of the world.
The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs leads America’s public diplomacy…
Not public when the report was published last month was the elevation of the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism (S/CT) to a bureau under the Under Secretary for Civil Security, Democracy, and Human Rights (or “J”), the office formerly known as the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs (or “G”). The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) called for the elevation of S/CT to the Bureau of Counter-Terrorism (now “J/CT” to reflect its position under J). The QDDR suggested a close connection with R: “the Bureau will play a key role in State as efforts to counter violent extremism, working closely with the Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and the new Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications” (p.45). Reportedly, the Bureau was placed within J, capably led by Under Secretary Maria Otero, because of that office’s role in “transnational issues.” Is R then limited to “communication”?
The Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (PA) is independently expanding his office’s social media presence independent of, and bypassing, the Under Secretary’s office. This is, according to many inside of State, to increase the A/S for PA influence over posts, which is a natural direction when the Assistant Secretary is charged with communicating with audiences in the U.S. and abroad. It is worth noting that the real relationship of PA to the Under Secretary is more peer than subordinate. (To reflect this relationship, one of the few entries in this blog’s style guide is writing the full title for R as “Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs)”.
Are these challenges reflective in how much “communication” R actually oversees? And is R’s domain eroding?
Back to the Commission report, it offered several questions for further research:
1. What do the long gaps between appointments of Under Secretaries for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs indicate about views on the role and skills necessary for the position, or the importance of public diplomacy and the role of the State Department in leading and coordinating Government activities that intend to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics?
2. What do the short tenures indicate about the challenges of the position?
3. Does the Under Secretary adequately support the careers of public diplomacy officers in light of leadership turnover and frequent and long periods when the position was unencumbered?
I’ll add to that list additional, more blunt, questions:
How does the office stay in the game and not get circumvented, or bypassed, and its resources and missions not get poached without an Under Secretary at the helm?
Has the Under Secretary’s role with other federal agencies, let alone within the Department, diminished due to uncertainties and shifting priorities resulting from the turnover and short tenures?
Certainly, Tara Sonenshine will have her hands full when she is confirmed after the Senate again takes up her nomination later this month.
Some readers may have noticed that I italicize part of Judith McHale’s title, as in Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. I’ve done this for over year now to draw attention to a bureaucratic reality. While State’s organizational chart shows the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs – now P.J Crowley, Sean McCormack before him – reporting directly to the Under Secretary, the reality is something less (although I’m told the relationship between the A/S and U/S today is closer than it has been). The media and others tend to focus on the Under Secretary’s primary and most public job and almost always list the titled as simply “Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy.” But today, an odd thing happened, Elizabeth Dickenson of ForeignPolicy.com gave Judith McHale a new title:
Replying to an e-mail regarding a different article, the press office resent a statement, sent separately last week by Undersecretary of State for Public Affairs Judith McHale to FP, on the U.S.-Africom relationship …
Under Secretary for Public Affairs? I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that one before…
Judith McHale was sworn in as Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs this morning of May 26, 2009. This means it’s finally time to update the Under Secretary tracking spreadsheet.
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy
Days in Office
Days Position Vacant
Evelyn Lieberman (Clinton)
Charlotte Beers (Bush)
Karen P. Hughes
James K. Glassman
Judith McHale (Obama)
Since USIA-State Merger
Now can we set a timer on when the deeply problematic bureaucratic and functional division between public affairs and public diplomacy within the Under Secretary’s office will be eliminated? Will Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley work for the Under Secretary who does have the “and Public Affairs” in her title? I suppose it depends on the direction and empowerment of “R”, which remains unclear but there are signs it could change sooner than later…
Amy Harder at the National Journal asked Jim Glassman, the former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, about his successor.
Glassman has not met with his successor, but he said he would be more than happy to do so if approached. So, what advice does he have for McHale? “I would urge her to not simply talk to the people in the building,” Glassman said. “She needs to understand how the office works within the State Department, but she should also get out and talk to the key players in the interagencies.” He cited the Defense Department as the most crucial agency relationship.
Still wanted: an Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. This Want Ad remains, at least as of this writing, valid as the U.S. still needs a leader for the interagency process.
Some quick thoughts (apologies for the bullet format, this is all I have time for now):
The Defense Department must be balanced by another vertically integrated heavy weight otherwise it will continue to be, by default, the coordinating entity for America’s global engagement.
The State Department, to be relevant and to offset Defense, must become a vertically integrated Department of State and Non-State. It makes no sense to de-emphasize or dis-empower State’s “R” Bureau (Public Diplomacy) when modern diplomacy is not compartmentalized (detente and closed door diplomacy is over). From an organizational standpoint, eliminating or marginalizing State’s ability to directly engage global publics from individuals to leaders requires doing the same for Defense, which won’t happen nor it is practicable to even consider.
The State Department must adopt the concept of “commander’s intent” and drop zero-tolerance for information errors. Rigidity in the informational hierarchy inhibits agility to the point of paralysis.
Everybody at the State Department must be educated, encourage, empowered, and equipped to engage in the modern global “now media” information environment. If Defense can push in this direction, why not State?
Understanding and engaging the “Human Terrain” was and must again become a function of civilian-based public diplomacy. Empowering grassroots engagement, as USIA did in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 70’s gives the HUMINT the Intelligence and Defense and Policy Communities so desperately crave. It was the responsibility of USIA to identify and engage current and future foreign public opinion leaders and to know the “street.” To de-militarize our national security, to move it more into open source, requires a full spectrum engagement that is not unlike something we’ve done before.
The United States requires a central coordinating hub to monitor and facilitate global informational and exchange activities. This is a core mission of the State Department and it should be prioritized and funded appropriately by both the State Department itself and Congress.
The State Department has existing roles and relations that extend beyond the ‘traditional’ national security threats and into issues of the economy, health, poverty, etc that when upside down are breeding grounds for extremism but more importantly are the current and future ‘battlegrounds’ of which we remain mostly unarmed and unaware. Defense is necessarily and appropriately focused on kinetic threats. It is State that take the broader view.
The real impact of too few people at the State Department is not the field activities, but the failure to allow Foreign Service Officers to return to academic and think-tank environments to reflect on and share lessons learned and socialize best practices. The Defense Department has the capacity to rotate substantial numbers of its people through training, whether at Defense institutions like the Army War College, National Defense University, Marine Corps U, Air Force U, Leavenworth, Navy War, or the public university system. This means that people with field experience can come back, teach, write, discuss, and create best practices. There is no such luxury at State to the significant detriment of its ability to detect and adapt to changes in the global environment.
We must stop imagining a bifurcated world of a US and a separate non-US information environment. If we understand the global information environment and the importance of the truth and smart foreign policies that would, in the absence of adversarial misinformation and disinformation, be successful in the struggle for minds and wills, then we can understand the importance of speaking to foreign audiences, being transparent in our global engagement, informing Americans, and proactively engaging in the global information environment.
The State Department must align its regional bureaus with the Defense Department’s Combatant Commands and elevate the leadership of those bureaus to be co-equal with the Combatant Commanders. The Under Secretary for Political Affairs (no offence to the current office holder) should be eliminated and the Assistant Secretaries leading the regional bureaus should be promoted to Under Secretary. The equivalent to a four-star general, the Under Secretary would, at the very least, appear on the Hill whenever a Combatant Commander does and would create some parity in cooperation. If the Secretary of Defense can have COCOMs report directly to him, why can’t the Secretary of State have the Bureaus report directly to her? By changing the leadership and matching the geographic coverage of COCOMs and Bureaus, State and Defense will increase cooperation. Ambassadors would lose some independence as the Bureaus become more powerful as State shifts to a regional view from a country-level view. (About the Ambassadors, for brevity, I’ll just say here that everyone is the President’s representative.)
Wanted: a senior manager that can hit the ground running to build an “influence enterprise.” This person must be deeply familiar with the cultures of both the State and Defense Departments. A proven track record in leading and managing interagency processes across the whole of government as well as private-public partnerships is a must. Ability to be a spokesperson is a plus but not required.
Now that President-elect Obama has selected his Secretary of State, the word on the street about the critical job of Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs varies. The U/S role has been radically invigorated by Jim Glassman over his too brief tenure (made even briefer by Sen. Coburn). He had and continues to enjoy bipartisan and interagency support. Of course this was easier since he was able to pick his battles carefully and avoid the landmines in order to focus on getting things done in the short time he had. He has made it a point recently that “R” (the DoS name for the public diplomacy organization unit) has improved to the point Congressional confidence should increase and be demonstrated by increasing R’s funding.
So now the big question is who will be the next Under Secretary? As far as I can see, suggestions that the next SecState wants to bring in her own people aren’t highlighting any particular candidate, but it might help one in particular. Interest in who will be America’s coordinator of persuasion in the global struggle for minds and wills (a far better, if wordier, phrase than “war of ideas” or “battle of narratives”) grows by the day, at least for those interested in public diplomacy, strategic communication, etc.
By my reckoning, there are at least nine contenders for this office, including the incumbent. Some are actual contenders while others, well, not so much.