We don’t have an organizational problem, we have a leadership problem

This originally appeared at https://mountainrunner.substack.com/p/we-dont-have-an-organizational-problem on 21 September 2022.

Pointing fingers, turf fights, & dumb ops are products of absent leadership

Saying we have a leadership problem in the field of 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 are served up showing that it is leadership and not organizational structures that matter. 

The latest example is a recent article by Bill Gertz in the Washington Times, “State Department watchdog gives failing grade to new counter-disinformation center.” Gertz writes: 

The State Department unit devoted to countering disinformation and propaganda is failing to take the lead on government-wide efforts to expose foreign lies and deception, according to a new survey by the department’s internal inspector general.

The Global Engagement Center (GEC) still lacks the authority to carry out its mission and has not been led by presidentially-appointed officials for nearly half its existence, the IG stated following an eight-month probe that ended in March — despite having a staff of 167 people, mostly non-government contractors, and an annual budget of over $74 million. … 

The IG found that the center’s response was hampered by problems with contracting, communicating and operating efficiently in dealing with foreign propaganda. Additionally, the center’s mission must deal with competing counter-disinformation programs at multiple government agencies, including the Homeland Security Department, Pentagon and Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

There are several issues to unpack here, but I’ll just discuss three below. These two aren’t in order of priority. In fact, #2 is more important as its more impactful, but since I keep reading about the need for a legislative “fix” imposed on the executive, which is what GEC kind of was (if you really think about it, GEC was Congress’s attempt to recreate USIA, though I don’t think anyone thought of it like that), that’s where I’ll start.

First is the lack of action by Congress. Establishing GEC was a half-hearted organizational fire-and-forget “fix.” I know Members of Congress are proud they backed establishing GEC through legislation more than five years ago, but the lack of serious follow-up indicates the underlying hope it would work. Hope is (still) not a strategy, however. We can leave aside that GEC existed before the 2016 amendment, which was introduced six years ago, to the National Defense Authorization Act. We should not ignore, though, that the GEC authorization was in the NDAA and not a State authorization bill, which is indicative of Congress’s abrogation of its oversight role in non-military foreign affairs operations, including the State Department. It is sad to say, but the lack of oversight and accountability is essentially a feature and not a bug at this point. 

In my “Gray Zone” testimony before Congress in July, I implored the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee to do their job – in the politest way I could – instead of looking at the sexy shiny baubles in DOD, the IC, and elsewhere. The incurious oversight in Congress and in the executive enables and even encourages the problems we complain about publicly and privately. While the legislative can’t make the executive execute, something I remind the Hill whenever I’m asked if this or that proposed bill they send me will “fix” whatever problem, they can call hearings to bring discomfort for the lack of action and poor action, but they fail to do any such thing. Fire-and-forget plus hope. 

The second issue is the lack of leadership by the executive branch. Gertz writes GEC “has not been led by presidentially-appointed officials for nearly half its existence.” Funny enough, GEC’s notional boss, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and (Global?) Public Affairs has also not been filled by a presidentially-appointed official for nearly half its existence. In the case of this under secretary, the vacancy rate is 44% of the days since the first incumbent in October 1999. 

The absence of leadership means an absence of strategy, oversight, cohesiveness, coherency in and across operations, invites operational competition, turf fights, reduces coordination, and unintentionally fosters ignorance of the government’s own capabilities that can be leveraged rather than recreated. We see this in the recent reporting about the social media debacle from (apparently) US Central Command, including the biting comments from State and elsewhere. (Back on 1 September, when news of the shuttered accounts first broke, I shared with a public diplomacy scholar that I figured these activities were CENTCOM contractors working a theater security contract with minimal direction and less oversight. The activities were too dumb to have been conducted by active PSYOP personnel.)

Leadership begins with the President and the Secretary of State, full stop. Chris Paul and I closed with this point in our July 2022 article “The Irony Of Misinformation: USIA Myths Block Enduring Solutions.” Further, leadership is not just about appointing someone but supporting and holding that person and other leadership accountable. In other words, the failure to appoint leaders is a symptom of an endemic problem and not the problem itself. 

The third issue is with authorities. Gertz wrote GEC “still lacks the authority to carry out its mission.” What authority or authorities does it lack? I’d certainly like to know. There are basically two kinds of authorities that could be at issue here. First, there is statutory authority. Conversations I’ve had with folks near to GEC and broader around public diplomacy in State and Congress and elsewhere generally pointed to the Smith-Mundt Act as inhibiting this or that. More precisely, they were told Smith-Mundt prevented this or that, and when they went back, sometimes with information I provided, specifics were unavailable. In other words, “show me where it says I can’t do x” was followed by the equivalent of hemming and hawing and shifting. It seems, from my cheap seat, that the issue is with some lawyer’s interpretation of the authorities rather than the specific authorities, and this interpretation is often wrong, in my direct experience over the past decade. (Here, I’m reminded of the DOD’s August 2006 legal guidance that since DOD seemed to be doing things similar to State’s public diplomacy activities, DOD must then be constrained by the same Title 22 restrictions but applied to DOD’s Title 10 activities until Congress says otherwise. I helped raise this point with Congress, which resulted in the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012.)

If the lacked authority is within the State Department, this is strictly a leadership issue. The absence of leadership makes it an issue as fiefdoms are defended, coordination is inhibited, reticence to change course is effectively rewarded (or not punished, take your pick), lack of accountability reduces perceived value, and so on. 

It is also possible, of course, that both are true: there is required statutory authority for GEC to be more effective and there is authority (or are authorities) within the department GEC requires. That’s fair, but on the statutory authority, has there been a definitive declaration on what is needed and why? I’ve had conversations with the Hill about statutory authorities around this and, of course, specifically around the Smith-Mundt Act, and I’ve not heard anything about this, but that’s just me, a random guy living in Europe. You’d think that GEC would go to its proud founding champions on the Hill and ask for the necessary authorities. Now, what if State has prevented this? Or, what if the authority problem isn’t statutory but departmental? We don’t know, and in the many years GEC has been around, there’s been no public airing of such issues. Why? Because leadership doesn’t care. It is just a sideshow. 

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.

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

W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy

Whither /ˈ(h)wiT͟Hər/ what is the likely future of? 
Wither /ˈwiT͟Hər/ fall into decay or decline.

Skip the text and jump to the table below

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.”

Continue reading “W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy

Quote: There was a time…

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.

The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs: an updated incumbency chart and some background

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.

Continue reading “The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs: an updated incumbency chart and some background

George Kennan’s Draft on Information Policy on Relations with Russia

Source: Truman Library, Acheson Papers, Box 27, Correspondence Under Secretary 1945-1947

It is a pity that our press plays up our diplomatic relations like a ball game, stressing victories and defeats. Good diplomacy results in satisfaction for both sides as far as possible; if one side really feels defeated, they try to make up for it later, and thus relations deteriorate. In general the daily press and commentators dramatize short-term conflicts at the expense of long-term prospects for achieving a stable balance.

— Draft on Information Policy on Relations with Russia by George Kennan, July 22, 1946.

Continue reading “George Kennan’s Draft on Information Policy on Relations with Russia

The basic right upon which freedom rests

Department of State organizational chart after the ‘basic reorganization’ of 1944. (Source: Department of State Bulletin, December 17, 1944 Supplement, p794-795.)

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

FDR on working with the State Department

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

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.

Public Diplomacy as an Instrument of Counterterrorism: A Progress Report

In this recent speech, the founding Coordinator of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications traces the origins of the organization, its main initial activities, and the challenges it faced.  Among his recommendations is development of specialized communications teams with skill levels equaling SEAL teams to counter terrorist propaganda and reduce the flow of new recruits to terror.
Continue reading “Public Diplomacy as an Instrument of Counterterrorism: A Progress Report

A Foreign Ministry for a World Power

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.

For many years there has been widespread discussion of the need for reorganizing the Department of State. Students, publicists, members of Congress, and members of the Department itself have repeatedly pointed out that the Department has not been geared up to performing the functions required of the foreign office of a great twentieth-century world power.

The chief criticisms of the Department have been four: (1) that there was lacking a basic pattern of sound administrative organization, (2) that the type of personnel found both at home and abroad was inadequate for the job required in foreign affairs today, (3) that the Department was too far removed from the public and from Congress, and (4) that it was not prepared to provide leadership for, and maintain the necessary relations with, other federal agencies.

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. 

At the outset, it should be repeated that it would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of these reorganizations for the conduct of our foreign affairs. For in spite of the importance of international organization to world order, we should never forget that the smooth functioning of the international machinery we set up and the success of the peace we establish will depend in large measure upon how effectively the various states organize their national governments to carry on the complicated relations of the international community. …
Continuing attention will need to be given the complex problem of inter-agency relations resulting from the fact that domestic and international affairs are now so completely interdependent that the resources of all agencies of the government must be mobilized for the conduct of our foreign relations. This problem is clearly recognized in the functions given the Joint Secretariat, as well as in other specific arrangements for liaison relations under the latest reorganization.

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.

Thank you, Mom (from P&G)

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?

The Bureau of International Information Programs has both the technical capacity, including a HD studio and post production suite, and the creative capacity. Madison Avenue agencies (both literal and figurative) would be willing to help, as private discussions have raised and previous efforts demonstrate. This partnership would not be unusual as there is established, if perhaps forgotten, precedent that extends at least to 1951, before the USIA was established, in the form of both formal and informal advisory relationships.

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”…

The Seven Habits of Highly Successful Under Secretaries

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.)

Continue reading “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful Under Secretaries

Congratulations Tara Sonenshine! confirmed to be Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs

Tara Sonenshine (USIP)
Tara Sonenshine (USIP)

Congratulations to Tara Sonenshine, who was confirmed this evening to be Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs!
Also confirmed was Mike Hammer as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs (finally dropping “Acting” from his title).

Below is a list of all State Department.

  • 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.  

A Call to Action on Public Diplomacy

The Smart Power “Equalizer” by Matt Armstrong

Guest Post By Morris “Bud” Jacobs

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

The President’s National Framework for Strategic Communication (and Public Diplomacy) for 2012

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

“An inch closer feels like a good mile” – Foreign Relations moves on Tara’s nomination

Tara Sonenshine (Source: USIP)

Today’s business meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee includes Tara Sonenshine, nominee for Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs).  While perfunctory and the time spent on Tara and her cohort will be measured in single-digit minutes (all the real work is done before the business meeting), it is a major move toward confirmation. Continue reading ““An inch closer feels like a good mile” – Foreign Relations moves on Tara’s nomination

Amb. Kathleen Stephens named Acting Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs)

From the State Department:

The Secretary announces that President Obama has designated Ambassador D. Kathleen Stephens as the Acting Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs pending the Senate’s confirmation of the President’s nominee, Tara Sonenshine. Ambassador Stephens will begin work on February 6, 2012, and will exercise all of the authorities of the office for the duration of this designation.

Tara’s nomination remains in limbo as we wait for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to refer her to the floor.  Maybe there will be a business meeting next week to move her to the next step, along with several Ambassadorial nominees.  However, the real challenge is not the Committee but the floor of the Senate where the general sense is few if any confirmations will be allowed in the current less-than-bipartisan environment.  Hence, the appointment of Stephens as Acting Under Secretary.

Amb. Stephens was most recently the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea.

For more on the unencumbered Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs), see “R we there yet? A look at the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs).”  Unless there is some surprise in the Senate, perhaps a Valentine’s Day gift (to both Tara to give her the office and Amb. Stephens to relieve her of it), this Under Secretary position will have been empty, or not encumbered by person confirmed by the Senate to the position, for 1 out of every 3 days since the position was established in 1999.  The question will be how much more than 1/3 the time will the seat be vacant (no slight to Amb. Stephens intended)?

Note: Amb. Stephens’s bio at state.gov hasn’t been updated in a while.  In fact, “outofdate” is actually in the current URL of her bio: http://www.state.gov/outofdate/bios/109797.htm