Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ten Reasons Why We Don't Need an Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs

Note: A slightly updated version of the below (but without the links) appeared on The Huffington Post

1. Nobody with a normal jaw can pronounce this title, a mouthful of a name that is a bureaucratic offense to the English language.

2. Most foreigners, even among America’s closest allies, have no idea what an Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs actually does, although they suspect it is somehow connected with propaganda. Overseas, they usually have Ministers of Information of Ministers of Culture, not Under Secretaries of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

3. In the U.S., public diplomacy is better known, but what its purpose is as carried out by the State Department remains unclear to most ordinary people. Dozens of reports have appeared since 9/11 trying to figure out what PD’s goals should be within the framework of the State Department. While their recommendations differed, the reports did come to a similar general conclusion: the Department's public diplomacy has failed miserably, with America remaining unpopular and misunderstood in many parts of the world.

4. For the concerned citizens who care about the difference, is it proper for the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs to handle both public affairs -- outreach to Americans -- and public diplomacy -- outreach to foreign publics? Doesn’t the meshing of these two different activities violate the Smith-Mundt Act, which prohibits the State Department from propagandizing domestic audiences?

5. Many diplomats at the State Department, while increasingly aware of the importance of world public opinion, still have a tendency to dismiss public diplomacy, considering it an oxymoron. How can diplomacy, they would say, ever be “public,” since diplomacy is, at heart, about confidential negotiations and reporting? And does PD ever result in any "real" diplomatic achievement, like a treaty or international agreement?

6. For most of its existence, the Department did not handle public diplomacy. In the Cold War, for example, the USIA (United States Information Agency) was in charge of PD (this agency was referred to as "Useless" by State employees, a pun on its overseas designation, United States Information Service [USIS]). No wonder that in the State Department today, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs -- the position has existed for less than ten years -- has little real influence or power. PD field officers are not even evaluated by the Under Secretary's office. And there are rumors that the yet-unnamed new State PD czar for the Obama administration won’t be granted a proper office at Foggy Bottom.

7. As for the military, when trying to change the behavior of bad guys without killing them, they’ll take psyops any day, and much prefer “strategic communications” to State Department PD as a way to defeat the enemy. The PD/PA Under Secretary just gets in the Pentagon’s way. No wonder the military now has its own PD office.

8. A large number of media experts believe that State Department PD and USG-supported international broadcasting should be kept completely separate (see, for example, the outstanding blog, Kim Andrew Elliott Discussing International Broadcasting and Public Diplomacy). For Voice of America employees, the less State Department interference in their work the better.

9. Many internationally-minded Americans believe people-to-people exchanges are best carried out outside the government, i.e., without the State Department getting in the way with its "public diplomacy" precepts. The words of a member of a pet society, involved in contacts with foreign counterparts during the Eisenhower administration, are perhaps not irrelevant in this connection: “Dogs make the best Ambassadors.”

10. Finally, and on a slightly humorous note, the word public is all too often misspelled, leaving the “l” out, potentially creating embarrassing situations for government officials. Consider this quotation: "Further, the paper will discuss world opinion of USG policy, assess whether the U.S. military should carry the burden of public diplomacy to 'win the hearts and minds,' and provide a recommendation for improving the USG Pubic Diplomacy posture in our current global war on terrorism." For more on pubic diplomacy (no typo), see my article, "Public Diplomacy Goes 'Pubic.'"


To handle USG information, educational and cultural programs meant to engage, inform, and influence key international audiences, create a small, flexible government agency, giving it a name that clearly describes what it does. And call the head of this new entity “Director.” Everybody knows what a director is. It’s a person who actually makes a difference, unlike -- at least up to now -- the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the Department of State in Washington, DC.


John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer, compiles The Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review.


PDWorldwide said...

Excellent reasons why we need to move public diplomacy back to an independent agency that sees PD as its sole mission. Oh and reason number 11: No one inside or outside the State Department pays any attention to what an Under Secretary says or does.

Betsy Ross said...

Guess how much attention the State Department pays to small agencies. Regurgitating USIA isn't the answer unless we're talking about establishing something more flexible like the Woodrow Wilson Center or the US Institute for Peace and less like a ministry manque of propaganda.

Vestniek said...

A good idea: let's separate public diplomacy from diplomacy. Let's keep our conversation with foreign publics at a distance and different from our policy toward their country. Of course, if we do all those things, isn't that what we call tourism? And, why would the taxpayer pay for it?

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