R changes coming?

Operational flow of the International Information Administration (1952)

This post first appeared at mountainrunner.substack.com on 30 January 2022. Be sure to check there for comments on the article and subscribe to my substack for timely follow-ups and new posts through the substack app and email. It’s free!

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. 

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Sometimes the commonly accepted fact is not a fact

Picture of the book Words that Won the War by Mock and Larson

This post first appeared at mountainrunner.substack.com on 12 January 2022. It appears here with some edits for clarity. Be sure to check there for comments on the article and subscribe to my substack for timely follow-ups and new posts through the substack app, through email, and to participate in chats. It’s free!

Have you ever read a statement of fact by a historian and wondered, “huh, that’s interesting”? Hopefully, you have and will continue to do so often. History is great. However, I get frustrated when I see historians or writers reciting history who roll with the accepted or received facts and fail to dig deeper. Narratives around the Smith-Mundt Act’s origin, and to a lesser degree its evolution, are packed with many unfounded facts contradicted by the historical record, for example. Some are minor, but some are significant. I’ve discussed some of these elsewhere, and eventually, a comprehensive discussion will be available with significant details (and receipts). 

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The Smith-Mundt Symposium of 2009: a discourse about America’s discourse

This post first appeared at mountainrunner.substack.com on 20 December 2022. It appears here with minor edits. Be sure to check there for comments on the article and subscribe to my substack for timely follow-ups and new posts through the substack app, through email, and to participate in chats. It’s free!

This post is a step back in time to 2007-2009. The materials I link to below, including the report of the event this post is about, probably include some ideas and analyses that are now outdated. I can review that later. Here’s a chance to resurrect a unique and popular event. 

In 2007, a colleague and I developed a proposal for an academic conference to promote and discuss new scholarly research on public diplomacy, specifically linked to the Smith-Mundt Act and aimed to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of the legislation in 2008. There were no takers, so we shifted gears and reconfigured the proposal for a symposium. This meant a shorter lead time required for speakers to prepare, papers were no longer required to be submitted and reviewed, etc. 

Despite substantial interest from a broad community that expressed interest in attending such an event, and that most of the panels were tentatively filled, we could not find an organization to fund our modest — the February 2008 symposium proposal asked for $7,100 — effort. Academic institutions said their calendars were already full, including those with faculty interested in participating in the event, or this was outside of their interest. Some think tanks expressed interest and offered conference space, but not money. We considered and dismissed approaching the Defense Department but figured that would taint the discussion before the welcome message was even composed. 

In April 2008, we gave up, and I posted the dead proposal on my blog, mountainrunner.us, to see what discussion followed. Almost immediately, I was approached by a foundation (my erstwhile partner in the effort had bowed out). The contact (who has since moved on and whose name will be recognized by many readers here) saw the relevance and potential. Though she was interested, she couldn’t get approval from the foundation. The decision-makers did not see how the Smith-Mundt Act was relevant to the “war on information” or public diplomacy, as its “core function” (my words, their sentiment) was simply preventing such information from being seen in the US, and that wasn’t an issue. One of the foundation’s decision-makers asked, “Has Matt even read the Smith-Mundt Act?” 

At about the same time, another funder approached me. The identity of this organization was initially public, but then internal politics happened. The office I was in discussions with for the money, to be provided with the absolute requirement they would have no role in developing the agenda, selecting panelists, topics, or any relationship other than giving me the money to host the conversation, was part of a much larger government organization and the internal politics meant they needed their role kept quiet to save their own hide, so to speak. 

I wanted the symposium to happen before the end of the Bush administration in January 2009. Many urged me to hold it later, after the start of the Obama administration. Still, we’d only get aspirational statements, if any, considering the time to get people in office and know where their desks are, develop a plan, get a glimpse of the priorities (let alone set priorities), etc. 

The symposium was held at the Reserve Officers Association. I picked this venue (a great space, by the way) because of its location between the House and Senate office buildings on the Hill to make it easy for Congressional staff and Members to attend, a key group of stakeholders often left out of these conversations. 

There were two keynotes. The then-currently serving Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs gave the morning keynote. The second keynote, given during the provided lunch, was by the then-recently serving Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Support to Public Diplomacy. 

There were four ninety-minute panels, each with four participants plus a moderator. The ninety-minute window is a sweet spot for me, with one hour often too short to dig in and two hours tedious for the audience and panelists alike. The first three were largely structured as: “what we did,” “what we are doing,” and “what should do.” However, this was only the starting point for the panel chairs, with the moderators and panelists free to go wherever they wanted. Then it was essentially a full stop and shift to Congress to get their perspective on this. Originally, three Representatives signed up with one Senator who gave a tentative acceptance. The Senator bowed out, and one Congressman did as well, stating he had just changed committees, so he said this no longer seemed to be in his wheelhouse. (I disagreed, and his relationship with the Smith-Mundt Act a few years later proved my point.) 

The event generated significant interest. I had to create a waitlist because of the demand. Subsequently, I monitored registrations to ensure no office or agency had so many attendees to prevent another group from attending. In one case, someone from the National Counterterrorism Center signed up, but I told them there were already four people from NCTC registered, and I could not let in a fifth. This led to the quick de-registration of one of the earlier NCTC sign-ups to allow this leader’s attendance. In the end, it was well-attended. Over 260 registered for 180 seats. Some left during the 8.5-hour event (from the opening comment to the closing message) because they had other appointments but many of those returned (i.e., there were remarkably few empty seats at the end of the day). A year before, it was hard to imagine 50 people would be interested in a discussion centered around the Smith-Mundt Act. Whether more than 50 people want to have a similar conversation is debatable, but I think (hope?) more people have realized its relevance. 

The event was recorded (audio-only), professionally produced transcripts, and a report written. You can check out the report here (or at Scribd) and see the transcripts, agenda, and speakers’ biographies (at the time of the event) at https://mountainrunner.us/symposium/


For your convenience, here is the agenda, with contemporaneous titles for the speakers: 

Welcome Message by Matt Armstrong

Morning Keynote by Amb. James Glassman, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. 

Panel 1: History of Smith-Mundt
Len Baldyga
, moderator, former Director of the Office of European Affairs at the U.S. Information Agency
Richard Arndt, USIA alumni, author of  The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century 
Barry Zorthian, retired Senior Foreign Service Officer, retired Colonel in the U.S.Marine Corps Reserve, former VOA program manager
Mike Schneider, Director of the Syracuse-Maxwell International Program
Matt Armstrong

Panel 2: America’s Bifurcated Engagement
Marc Lynch, moderator, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs George Washington University
David Jackson, former VOA Director, Senior Advisor for the Communications Bureau of European & Eurasian Affairs at the Department of State
Karen DeYoung, Associate Editor, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent at The Washington Post
Jeff Grieco, Assistant Administrator, Legislative and Public Affairs U.S. Agency for International Development
Rear Admiral Greg Smith, Director of Communication at United States Central Command

Lunchtime Keynote by Mike Doran, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Support to Public Diplomacy

Panel 3: Rebuilding the Arsenal of Persuasion 
Kristin Lord, moderator, Fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program and Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution
Ted Tzavellas, former Senior Information Policy and Strategy Advisor to the Department of Defense, Joint Staff Deputy Director of Global Operations, Information Operations
Nancy Snow, Associate Professor of Public Diplomacy Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University
Colleen Graffy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs 
Bill Kiehl, former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Resources of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Department of State, and former USIA Acting Deputy Associate Director for Educational and Cultural Affairs

Panel 4: The View from the Hill
Doug Wilson, moderator, former Senior Advisor to the Director of USIA, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs
Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.)
Rep. Paul Hodes (D-NH)
Lynne Weil, Communications Director for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs

Closing Comments by Matt Armstrong

The propaganda of “propaganda”

This post first appeared at mountainrunner.substack.com on 13 December 2022. It appears here with minor edits. Be sure to check there for comments on the article and subscribe to my substack for timely follow-ups and new posts through the substack app, through email, and to participate in chats. It’s free!

I heard long ago the lathe was the only machine capable of making itself. I don’t know if that was true, but it stuck with me. I mention that because it seems like there is a loose parallel between that statement and the word “propaganda.” Propaganda is interesting in that it may be the only word in the English language that, when used, may be an act of the very word. In other words, calling something propaganda may be propaganda. 

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Who said it, when, and why? Part II (of II)

(This was originally posted at mountainrunner.substack.com yesterday on 28 November 2022. Subscribe there to keep up to date with my writing via email, the substack app, or the substack website. Cross-posting here is a low priority for me, but eventually, all I post on substack should make its way here.)

Happy Monday. I hope you enjoyed last week’s quiz. More important, however, is that you learned something from the answers provided in the post on Friday, “Who said it, when, and why? Part I.” The time spent sharing these quotes, and their context, seems justified when I receive feedback on the posts. One from a retired Foreign Service Officer included this observation: “Every organizational, conceptual, and doctrinal U.S. deficit in the information space was anticipated in the first postwar decade, it seems, and every time the insights were ignored.” Today is not like yesterday in many respects, but the most important difference is not the technology, despite the conventional wisdom, but the breadth and depth of discussions around the issues. The lack of commitment, leadership, depth of analysis, and consistency shown by both the legislative and executive branches is stunning compared to the depth, frequency, attention, and profile of the executive discussions, planning, and legislative actions in 1945-1952, for example. 

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Who said it, when, and why? Part I

(This was originally posted at mountainrunner.substack.com last week on 25 November 2022. Subscribe there to keep up to date with my writing via email, the substack app, or the substack website. Cross-posting here is a low priority for me, but eventually, all that I post on substack should make its way here.)

Happy Thanksgiving from an American in Switzerland. Yesterday was merely Thursday here, and with my wife and daughter in the US, I BBQ’d ribs for my son. (Though it was about 39F/4C at the time, it wasn’t a problem with my Big Green Egg.) Though Thanksgiving isn’t really an “export,” Black Friday has a real presence here. Explaining why the sales day is called that and why it’s today is always an interesting experience in cultural exchange. 

I did get out for a short and easy ride on the trails with the gravel bike yesterday morning at 5:15a (see picture). This morning’s planned 5a forest run was replaced with walking the dog while I talked to my dad in California while it was still Thanksgiving there. Priorities.

Now on to some of the answers to the quiz earlier this week I called “It’s been said…” Below are answers to the first six questions since this write-up was getting a bit long as I felt some context was necessary to properly situate the quote to at least infer relevance to the present rather than allow any semblance with the present a mere coincidence. 

Ok, on to the answers… 

Continue reading “Who said it, when, and why? Part I

It’s been said…

Time for some words from the past. Whether history rhymes, repeats, or we find patterns regardless, I often share quotes from the past that seem highly relevant to the present. I do this to show that we’ve often been in a situation we think is unique to the present. It is not infrequent that past statements have the potential to reveal deficiencies in modern analysis, framing, and recommendations, but your perceptions may differ.

Below are ten quotes that I previously shared on Twitter and likely elsewhere (email correspondence, articles, presentations, etc.). The quotes are intentionally devoid of attribution below. At my other publishing (and, to be honest, where I primarily publish now) site — https://mountainrunner.substack.com/p/its-been-said — each quote is followed by a poll for the reader to select which of three possible years the statement was made. Those polls are time-limited, so pop over quickly as they will close soon. Feel free to leave comments below with your guesses. We’re on the honor system here, so no cheating by Googling or searching this blog.

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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 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. 

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: 

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Into the gray zone

A note on my testimony before Congress on July 28, 2022

The below originally appeared at https://mountainrunner.substack.com/p/into-the-gray-zone on 26 August 2022 and is lightly edited to fix remedial grammar.

“Gray zone” is a popular label for various adversarial activities, specifically those activities “in the space between peace and war.” The term has been around for many years and is often considered to be—and is often used as—a replacement for the term political warfare. The problem with political warfare, of course, is the word warfare and the resulting reaction by some that “we don’t do ‘warfare’ and thus political warfare isn’t our job.” Political warfare was, however, more palatable than psychological warfare, which, for example, was in the draft report from a special joint Senate and House Smith-Mundt Committee’s delegation that toured 22 European countries in 1947 but disappeared from the final copy made public: “The United States Information Service is truly the voice of America and the means of clarifying opinion of the world concerning us. Its objective is fivefold… (5) be a ready instrument of psychological warfare when required.” 

Terms matter, and not just because they inherently have different meanings to different audiences at different times. Terms may also assign responsibilities just as they may be used to punt responsibilities to someone else. Public diplomacy, for example, has always been confusing because it was purposefully applied to the activities of an agency and not to specific methods or outcomes, which continues to cause confusion long after that agency disappeared. Hybrid warfare may be discussed in a similar way as it seems to be military-focused and intended to lay claim to an enhanced role for the military.

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Organizing for information: leadership is the cornerstone and not a by-product of structure

This post originally appeared on my substack 17 hours ago, do consider subscribing (it’s free, like this site) if you haven’t already.

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. 

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Gross Misinformation: we have no idea what we’re doing or what we did

International Information Administration logo

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.)

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Correcting Misinformation around the Smith-Mundt Act Seventy-Seven Years after it was Introduced

On January 24, 1945, Congressman Karl Earl Mundt, Republican from South Dakota, introduced a bill “to transmit knowledge and understanding to the greatest number of people” across the Pan American Union. The method would be exchanging elementary and high school teachers in training. Put another way, the Mundt bill was a scholarship program for student-teachers in their junior year of college, provided they were in good standing with the American Association of Teachers Colleges. Before he was elected to the House in 1938, Mundt had been a schoolteacher, school superintendent, a college instructor, a co-founder of the National Forensic League (since renamed the National Speech and Debate Association), and both he and his wife were active with the South Dakota Poetry Society. Karl Mundt appreciated the value of words and ideas. The bill he introduced seventy-seven years ago today would go through several iterations before being signed into law three years and three days later by President Truman as the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. Originally intended to create and foster common understanding between peoples, to preemptively as well as reactively counter misinformation and disinformation, today its purpose and evolution are clouded by an ironic combination of misinformation and disinformation.

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It is time to do away with the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy

Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy incumbency chart 14 Jan 2022

Here we are on January 14, days away from the end of the first year of the Biden Administration, and there is still no nomination for the office of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. There were rumors of a forthcoming nomination around last autumn and recently I heard a nomination could be announced later this year. At this point, who would want a job that has been broadly neglected, often treated as an inconsequential sideshow, and whose authority, already slight, has been substantially reduced over the past couple of years? Considering the history of this post and this administration’s first year, if this administration does nominate someone for this job, they will likely be more Don Draper than Colin Powell, to borrow framing from the author known as Carrying the Gun, because that’s how the role is perceived and that’s the only person that would take it.

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tl;dr edition of “W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy”

Last week, I published “W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy,” a 2300-word discussion on the bipartisan failure to fill the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Below is a bulleted edition (with bonus arguments) for the tl;dr (too long, didn’t read) crowd.

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Neglected History, Forgotten Lessons: a presentation and a discussion

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.

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Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #103

October 2, 2020

Intended for teachers of public diplomacy and related courses, here is an update on resources that may be of general interest. Suggestions for future updates are welcome. 

Bruce Gregory
Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication
George Washington University
BGregory@gwu.edu
http://ipdgc.gwu.edu/bruce-gregorys-resources-diplomacys-public-dimension

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Whither R: the office that’s been vacant two of every five days since 1999

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.

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Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #102

August 2, 2020

Intended for teachers of public diplomacy and related courses, here is an update on resources that may be of general interest. Suggestions for future updates are welcome. 

Bruce Gregory
Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication
George Washington University
BGregory@gwu.edu
http://ipdgc.gwu.edu/bruce-gregorys-resources-diplomacys-public-dimension

Continue reading “Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #102

Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #100

March 5, 2020

Intended for teachers of public diplomacy and related courses, here is an update on resources that may be of general interest. Suggestions for future updates are welcome. 

Bruce Gregory
Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication
George Washington University
BGregory@gwu.edu
http://ipdgc.gwu.edu/bruce-gregorys-resources-diplomacys-public-dimension

Continue reading “Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Books, Articles, Websites #100

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.

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