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 mountainrunner.substack.com. The mountainrunner.us 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.”
The Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, known as “R” in the State Department’s shorthand, was established in 1999 as a functional replacement for the Director of the simultaneously abolished US Information Agency. Since October 1, 1999, when the first R took office, the office has been vacant nearly half the time. This remarkable statistic only partially reveals the lack of importance of this position across successive administrations. Another measure, albeit subjective, is looking at the highlighted qualifications of the people confirmed into this office and how they were supported, held accountable, or ignored by the Secretary of State and President. With acting officials holding this office 37% of the Bush administration, 22% of the Obama administration, 93% of the Trump administration, and 100% of the Biden administration, another avenue of analysis is comparing the qualifications of the people delegated the authorities of R to the confirmed appointments.
Pointing fingers, turf fights, & dumb ops are products of absent leadership
Saying we have a leadership problem in international information activities – whether you call this public diplomacy, strategic communication, countering disinformation, correcting misinformation, or something else – is an old refrain. Too many, however, intentionally avoid the leadership issue; instead, they pretend that a certain organizational structure will magically unlock the leadership, cohesiveness, and efficiency that currently eludes the US. Leaving aside logic and common sense, time and time again, examples show that it is leadership and not organizational structures that matter.
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.
In December 1944, the State Department formally, and finally, acknowledged the important role of public opinion to U.S. foreign policy by establishing the Assistant Secretary of State for Public and Cultural Relations. Renamed to the Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs just over a year later, the assistant secretary was charged with expanding both the department’s domestic and foreign engagement programs “to provide American citizens with more information concerning their country’s foreign policy and to promote closer understanding with the peoples of foreign countries.” This integrated approach, given expansive global legislative authority by the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, was later shredded because ivy league diplomats at the department wanted the foreign cultural and information programs to conform to their “own long-established conventions [rather] than carrying out the congressional intention of [the Smith-Mundt Act].” This meant removing the public side to foreign affairs and creating the United States Information Agency in 1953 and institutionalizing the segregation of information from policy and the foreign from the domestic. In 1997, when Congress set upon shuttering USIA and reintegrating the bulk of its operations into the State Department, they directed the executive branch to establish a new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. Instead, the White House established an Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Notionally akin to the integrated portfolio of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs as it existed from 1944-1953. The reality was different and the segregation continued. The fact this office has been vacant four of ten days since the autumn of 1999 reveals the intentional marginalization of the informational component of foreign affairs continues even as many assert the U.S. is engaged in some kind of “information war.”
In public diplomacy history, did you know about the William Benton Scholarship? Established by Benton while he was serving as the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, it was for “children of any officer or American employee of the Foreign Service or in the field service of the Department of State abroad.”
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.
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.
There is much talk today about Internet Freedom and the Freedom of Expression. While worthy and laudable, they are myopic, misleading, and inadvertently shift supporting conversations away from the core requirements. Internet Freedom encourages ignorance of actual information flows to, from, and within audiences. Freedom of Expression is more about one-way outbound communication than it is about inputs. Both divert attention from the fundamental rights to hear and to speak. At the beginning of the Cold War, we were not focused on sound bites but instead the basic concepts toward clear purposes. Continue reading “The basic right upon which freedom rests “→
Dealing with the State Department is like watching an elephant become pregnant. Everything’s done on a very high level, there’s a lot of commotion, and it takes twenty-two months for anything to happen.
Source: Cary Reich, The life of Nelson A. Rockefeller: worlds to conquer, 1908-1958, 1st ed. (New York: Doubleday). 182.
2012 PDAA Awards Recognize Public Diplomacy Excellence
The Public Diplomacy Alumni Association, formerly the USIA Alumni Association, gave its 2012 achievement awards to U.S. public diplomacy professionals working in Zimbabwe, Okinawa, and Washington, DC. The announcement is below.
There are certain challenges to having an effective global policy. We may often look toward the environment and other actors, usually adversaries, but what about organisational structures and culture?
Two years ago, I wrote about the need to reorganize the State Department to meet modern requirements. There were two basic principles in my argument. First, the department needed to match its geographical breakdown with the Defense Department’s. Second, the geographic bureau chiefs at State should be elevated to be more equal with their Defense counterparts, the Combatant Commanders, and they have similar diplomatic powers as Ambassadors considering the changed role of Ambassadors today.
Recently, I came across a relevant journal article, “The Reorganization of the Department of State.” Published in The American Political Science Review (Vol 38, No 2, in April 1944), it was written by Walter H. C. Laves and Francis O. Wilcox. Both were on leave from the Bureau of the Budget, the predecessor to today’s Office of Management and Budget, and both were diplomats, and arguably public diplomats. Laves worked in the Office of Inter-American Affairs, a Presidential office intended to counter German influence in the Western Hemisphere, later serving as the Deputy Director at UNESCO (1947-1950), and then a professor of political science. Wilcox joined the State Department in 1942 and was later the first chief of staff to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (1947-1951). He returned to State to become the Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs (1955-1961).
While the entire “The Reorganization of the Department of State” is worth reading, if you do not have access or the time, the opening paragraphs give a great overview.
This was written in 1944 after what would be the first of two Departmental Orders that year to reorganize the State Department. The first order was dated January 15 and the second December 20. It is worth reminding that this reorganization was done by the department and did not require Congressional pressure, at least direct pressure, or legislation. Conventional wisdom holds that changed oversight by authorizers and appropriators, decades of legislative directions to create this or fund that, that similar autonomy is not available today.
After the second order, Laves and Wilcox followed up with another journal article in April 1945: “The State Department Continues Its Reorganization.” An excerpt of this is below, though the entire article is worth reading.
It is fascinating, and sometimes distressing, that 50-60 year old reports and articles are highly relevant today. The arc of U.S. public diplomacy might be more aptly described as a spiral: always in motion and nearly making a full circle as it goes up or down and covering an always changing surface area.
If you have not seen the Proctor & Gamble marketing campaign entitled “Thank you, Mom“, you really should. An Olympic Partner for London 2012, the campaign will run for these last 100 days before the start of the summer games. It is the largest campaign in P&G’s 174-year history.
The campaign launched with the digital release of the short film “Best Job,” a moving celebration of mom’s raising great kids and Olympians, according to a press release. The video was shot on four continents with local actors and athletes from each location — London, Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles and Beijing — and will be found online, across social media, TV, and print.*
How might the State Department produce similar vignettes that could translate policy initiatives including women’s issues, empowering young people, and other democracy and civil society issues?
Such cross-cultural outreach like this P&G campaign that supports and praises moms would likely enjoy the support of senior leadership in DC and the field. It would likely have traction with Ambassador moms and Ambassador wives. The vignettes would have a ready audience to the growing number of Facebook friends of the various State Department sites, many of which need content.
What do you think?
*Does this make the ad “old media” or “new media”? Try “now media”…
By Brian Carlson The following originally appeared at the Public Diplomacy Council and is republished here with permission.
Tara Sonenshine was confirmed Thursday night by the Senate, and she will probably take office officially early this week. (She can be sworn in privately by some current official and begin work, even as a more formal ceremony is planned for a few weeks hence.)
It is a new beginning down at Foggy Bottom. Tara becomes only the seventh Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs since the job was created upon the merger of USIA into the Department in 1999.
It is a propitious time to consider what habits lead to success at the State Department, as well as what experience teaches about being the nation’s Olympic spear-catcher when they think we’re being out-communicated by some guy in a cave. Here are a few suggestions for how to succeed at this job, all gathered from my time working directly with five of the six previous Under Secretaries. (I had no contact with Margaret Tutwiler.)
Michael A. Hammer to be Assistant Secretary of State (Public Affairs)
Anne Claire Richard, of New York, to be an Assistant Secretary of State
Tara D. Sonenshine, of Maryland, to be Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, vice Judith A. McHale.
Robert E. Whitehead, of Florida, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Minister-Counselor, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Togolese Republic.
Larry Leon Palmer, of Georgia to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to Barbados, and to serve concurrently and without additional compensation as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to St. Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, the Commonwealth of Dominica, Grenada, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
Jonathan Don Farrar, of California to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Panama.
Phyllis Marie Powers, of Virginia to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to Republic of Nicaragua.
Nancy J. Powell, of Iowa, a Career Member of the Senior Foreign Service, Personal Rank of Career Ambassador, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to India.
Frederick D. Barton, of Maine, to be an Assistant Secretary of State (Conflict and Stabilization Operations), vice Bradford R. Higgins.
For Tara, getting started requires waiting for the President to attest (certify) the confirmation, then swearing in (mostly like at the Department, possibly by Secretary Clinton but possibly Under Secretary Kennedy, unless she has a specific individual in mind), and then she’s off and running. She could start as early as Monday but Tuesday may be more likely. It largely depends on the White House’s ability to turn around the certification and get it to State.
Congratulations also goes to State’s public diplomacy, including the people, bureaucracy, the practice and the supporters. Having a strong leader like Tara confirmed for the job is long overdue.
The mission of public diplomacy is generally described as seeking to “understand, engage, inform and influence” foreign publics and elites in support of national policy objectives. Public diplomacy has been practiced, in one form or another, for a long time – think Benjamin Franklin in France, charming the nobility to garner support for the American colonies in their struggle for independence. Its modern origins include the first broadcast of the Voice of America in February 1942 (VOA celebrates its 70th anniversary this spring) and the establishment of the Office of War Information in June of that year. Continue reading “A Call to Action on Public Diplomacy “→
It should be common knowledge that the “information consequences of policy ought always be taken into account, and the information man ought always to be consulted. This statement from 1951 foreshadowed Eisenhower’s dictum of the next year that “everything we say, everything we do, and everything we fail to say or do will have its impact in other lands.” Words and deeds needed more than just synchronization as public opinion could be leveraged to support the successful conduct of foreign policy. Continue reading “The President’s National Framework for Strategic Communication (and Public Diplomacy) for 2012 “→