There was a time we could afford—or thought we could afford —to be unconcerned about what other people thought of us… That time is past. We shall be making decisions, within the U.N. and independently, that will have repercussions affecting the lives of ordinary people all over the globe. Our attitude and our actions—and rumors thereof—will be matters of concern everywhere.
Secretary of State James F. Byrnes in April 14, 1947
This is a quote from the past on the need to directly reach people abroad in the interest of US foreign policy. Today, we may call this public diplomacy, but then it was simply “public affairs.” The term “public diplomacy” would not be adopted for another two decades for the purpose of defending the independence of a bureaucracy.
This article was originally published on January 5, 2015. It has been revised and republished to spark new conversations.
There was a time before the United States Information Agency when the State Department held the entire portfolio of what we now call public diplomacy, and then some. A fact often that is forgotten or ignored. There was also a United States Information Service that existed for nearly two decades before USIA was created by the Eisenhower Administration in 1953, as the lesser of a two-part reorganization of government to improve the nation’s management of foreign policy. This is also forgotten, ignored, or, most likely, unknown. The misrepresentation of history not only misstates the trajectory of the government’s struggle with organizing public diplomacy, but it is also a disservice to those who worked hard to establish peacetime public diplomacy programs and those who carried out these programs before USIA. An example of this was seen in 2014 with the unfortunate passing of Mr. Ben Bradlee.
Bottom line upfront: A multi-dimensional “whole-of-government” approach requires a will to act from the president. It does not require a proper strategy, just a will, which is substantially more than a whim. Structure and method will follow and provide, as long as the will is there to push, a backstop to hold efforts accountable and on track. Without the president’s commitment whatever happens will be tactical and reactionary. This is demonstrably true in the area of foreign information operations.
A newer version of this topic, published 3 December 2020, may be found here.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.
The myth of the United States Information Agency as America’s defense against political warfare lives on. Just last month, the Director of National Intelligence repeated calls for a muscular USIA. Others have declared that the absence of USIA has left us vulnerable.
In November 2015, I wrote that these and similar invocations of USIA are coded laments that “we lack a strategy, an organizing principle, and empowered individuals to execute information warfare today.” These calls also ignore the role our actions have in influencing the minds and wills of others. Informational activities — whether public affairs, public diplomacy, strategic communication, or psychological operations — is not “pixie dust” that will magically transform a mind when actions contradict the words. This is not merely an issue of values versus interests, though that is a factor. No, whatever psychological or information instrument we employ cannot compensate for absent or ill-conceived policies and plans.
Last month, in The Past, Present, and Future of the War for Public Opinion, I expanded the look back into the environment which gave rise to USIA. But USIA was a public affairs bullhorn and never charged or prepared, structured, or properly equipped, including training, to deal with the realities of political warfare, defensive or offensive, despite the mythology. It’s notable that examples given to support arguments that USIA was responsive to the Soviet Union’s nonmilitary aggression are not from the “cold war” period marked by political and ideological conflict waged before borders the walls went up. Instead, they come from the “Cold War” bipolar order marked my military confrontation between two superpowers and proxy battlefields.
As I wrote in The Past, Present, and Future of the War for Public Opinion, the Congress essentially re-established a USIA with regards to its coordinating function. It’s named the Global Engagement Center. The other components, the elements of great substance and impact, exist in the State Department. The Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), for example, continues to languish under a lack of direction, poor support, and self-marginalization as successive unit leaders chased resume-building initiatives rather than national security requirements or supporting inter- and intra-department needs.
We need to focus on the people, organizations, and tools we have before wasting more money on new toys. Money cannot buy a solution. There needs to be leadership, a purpose, training, accountability (as well as tolerance for experimentation and failure), and an overall a strategy. What does success or “victory” look like? Knowing what we are attempting to achieve, followed by how we can achieve the goal or goals, helps define the methods and never is the solution a bigger bullhorn.
I closed the latest article with a quote from 1963 that fits today as much as it did then: “Someday this nation will recognize that global non-military conflict must be pursued with the same intensity and preparation as global military conflicts.”
Milestones are important. They were to reassure travelers that they were on the right path, how far they had gone, and how far they had to go. Living in London, I find it surprising how many milestones, many of which are hundreds of years old, are hiding in plain sight. They do not, however, tell us how we are doing. Continue reading “There’s a new #1 “R”… as in longest tenure “→
You know you’ve heard it. Whether it was at the office, at school, or a social setting (how erudite of you!), you heard someone bemoan the loss of the United States Information Agency. Perhaps that someone was you. In my experience, these laments are really a coded acknowledgment that the U.S. lacks a strategy, an organizing principle, and empowered individuals to operate in an information-driven world. Continue reading “No, We Do Not Need to Revive the U.S. Information Agency – endnote edition “→
Events in the past year have made a United States Government information program more important than ever. Information is one of the three essential components in carrying out United States foreign policy — the other two, of course, being military and economic. Each has its function to perform in this great struggle for the minds of men, and each has, or should have, an equally high place in the strategic plan.
First Semiannual Report of the Advisory Commission on Information, March 1949.
In 1949, the Cold War was in full swing. Barely four years earlier, the White House and the Congress set about to make various programs permanent in the post-war world. These efforts included various information programs — radio, libraries, press feeds, motion pictures, books, and other publications — and various exchange programs — educational, cultural, and technical. There was one primary authority for these — the eventually named Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 — and several supplementary programs — the Fulbright Act and Defense Department information programs run in Japan and Germany/Austria.
There was a time before USIA when the U.S. Government practiced what we now call public diplomacy. This period is often forgotten or ignored. For too many, the history of U.S. public diplomacy begins with the establishment of the United States Information Agency, or USIA. However, it did not and pretending it did start with USIA not only misrepresents the past and subsequent trajectories, but it is also a disservice to those who worked hard to establish peacetime public diplomacy.
What is it about U.S. public diplomacy that we must hide it from Americans? Is it so abhorrent that it would embarrass the taxpayer, upset the Congress (which has surprisingly little additional insight on the details of public diplomacy), or upend our democracy? Of our international broadcasting, such as the Voice of America, do we fear the content to be so persuasive and compelling that we dare not permit the American media, academia, nor the Congress, let alone the mere layperson, to have the right over oversight to hold accountable their government? [Read the rest here]