Sunday, May 31, 2009

Reading the Fine Print

Recent news reports that the Obama administration had announced the establishment of a new "Global Engagement Directorate" caused something of a stir among public diplomacy bloggers.

Here's what The Wall Street Journal, in an article by Cam Simpson, stated:

“Among the other shifts at the NSC, a new entity, dubbed the Global Engagement Directive [sic], will aim to coordinate public diplomacy, foreign assistance and international communications at a single White House desk.”

The well-known and respected PD commenters Matt Armstrong, James K. Glassman, and Marc Lynch, citing the WSJ article, all speculated what the establishment of this new Directorate meant for public diplomacy:

Lynch: "This is a good move, which could potentially overcome a number of persistent problems in American public diplomacy and strategic communications. The announcement doesn't surprise me -- I've been saying for months that the NSC would, and should, have the lead in the inter-agency process on public diplomacy -- but some of the details and the scope of the new portfolio are intriguing."

Glassman: "As Lynch put it: The move 'signals that President Obama and his core team take global engagement, public diplomacy and strategic communications very seriously.' That’s a good thing."

Armstrong: "This shift is about more than the trajectory of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. This is about the future relevance of the State Department and about a civilian counterbalance to the Defense Department. This is about transforming the Department of State into also being the Department of Non-State."

One small detail, however, which the above commenters seem to have overlooked. The White House announcement, in fact, says nothing about public diplomacy as such.

Here's the pertinent text from the announcement:

“Creating a new Global Engagement Directorate to drive comprehensive engagement policies that leverage diplomacy, communications, international development and assistance, and domestic engagement and outreach in pursuit of a host of national security objectives, including those related to homeland security.”

To me, this omission of the adjective "public" before "diplomacy" is yet another indication that "public diplomacy" is indeed not on the new administration's front-burner, at least as of now.

The latest on Alhurra -- Email from Letitia King, BBG

"The latest on Alhurra‏

From:Letitia King (
Sent:Sat 5/30/09 1:38 AM
Hi John, Don't know if you have picked up the latest installation from ProPublica [article at] but once again the facts of its success reaching people in the Middle East are overlooked. The reporter continues to dismiss our research. Here is what we sent her if it is a subject you find yourself writing about.

Regards, Tish

On Zogby Poll: As BBG has explained previously, the Zogby/Telhami poll does not measureaudience reach; it measures audience preference. Zogby/Telhami data say nothing about how many people watch Alhurra. To get the audience figure, it is necessary to ask a question different from the one Zogby/Telhami asks.

Zogby/Telhami asks: 'When you watch international news, which of the following network's news broadcasts do you watch most often?'

BBG/ACNielsen asks: 'Apart from today, when was the last time you watched (Alhurra, Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, et al)?' Response categories are: last 7 days, last 4 weeks, and last 12 months (with a refusal option as well).

Both are valid questions. They just have different purposes and yield different conclusions.

Note that the BBG survey methodology is the same one used by all our international broadcasting counterparts including BBC, RFI and DW.

Alhurra now reaches 26.7 million people weekly across the Middle East, up almost one million in the last year. This includes 5.5 million in Egypt (11% weekly), 8.4 million in Iraq (64% weekly), 2.6 million in Morocco (27% weekly), 1.4 million in Saudi Arabia (14% weekly), and 5.1million in Syria (55%). These are solid numbers by any measure for aforeign broadcaster. Indeed, Alhurra is the number one foreign (i.e.,non-Arab) channel in the Middle East (including BBC Arabic).

When Radio Sawa's numbers are added and duplicate listeners/viewers subtracted, the stations together reach nearly 34 million Arabs weekly-- this, despite intense media competition and still-high anti-Americanism across the region.

Letitia King
Office of Public Affairs
BBG [Broadcasting Board of Governors]"

Monday, May 25, 2009

Random Thoughts on "Public Diplomacy"

In the past, one of the practical advantages of the term "public diplomacy," for an overseas USIA (United States Information Agency) practitioner of the craft serving the USG (as I was privileged to be for over twenty years, mostly in rather stressful but not uncomfortable conditions as a US diplomat in Eastern Europe during the past century), was that -- thanks to its vagueness -- "public diplomacy" allowed said practitioner "in the field" to do what she/he thought was important, without micromanaging directions from Washington, within the broad framework of US foreign policy.

While an enthusiast of the latest social networking media on the Internet, I should note that the absence of "instant communications" had much to do with the independence PD officers enjoyed in their often far-off postings. Simply put, Washington was not on your back every minute with e-mails, cell phone calls, etc. You were your own person and essentially could "play the PD diplomat" as you wanted -- within broad guidelines.

Meanwhile, the most astute persons heading geographical area bureaus at USIA realized that the "Agency," as it was known among its employees, had not hired automatons, but thinking, living, independent human beings who could make crucial decisions in local situations on behalf of the national interest of the United States.

I suppose that such respect and trust for in-the-trenches employees explain why so many "PD diplomats" are still so "loyal" to the "old" USIA (at its best; at its worst, which was all too often evident, it had its own slow-moving bureaucracy and ideological warriors).

I won't certainly go as far as using the simplistic phrase, "Why We Won the Cold War," although I always felt, in my postings overseas, that what made US PD diplomats "different" from their communist (and non-communist) "adversaries/competitors" was that we USIA-ers could do "our own thing" without the "do-this, do-that" instructions of formal Foreign Ministry bureaucracies. Also, it helped that non-USIA employees in the State Department and other agencies serving at a foreign post had little or no idea what "public diplomacy" was, giving USIA-ers much leeway to do what they wanted without interference from other Embassy sections.

Nothing worse than nostalgia, of course. "Useless," as it was known among some State Department employees (a dismissive pun on USIA's overseas name of USIS, United States Information Service), is clearly a thing of the past -- like the Committee on Public Information (1917-1919), the Office of War Information (1942-1945) -- "information" agencies which too were created in periods of "total" global war.

With a new administration, the concept of a global war -- against terrorism, initiated by the Bush White House using false analogies with WWI, WWII, and perhaps even the Cold War -- seems to be, mercifully, passé.

That's all for the good (terrorism is a technique, not an enemy, as persons far wiser than I have pointed out), but ironically this dismissal of the hapless GWOT terminology does not bode well -- bureaucratically or "funding-wise" -- for a strong PD presence at the State Department or for an "independent" so-called "anti-propaganda" PD agency, as former Secretary of State Albright characterized the USIA when it was consolidated into the State Department in 1999.

I'm a great believer in educational/cultural exchanges and in what I call, for lack of a better term, "arts diplomacy." Bravo to all our fellow citizens that engage in people-to-people diplomacy (I do, however, recall a wonderful passage in Kenneth Osgood's book about propaganda during the Eisenhower administration, when a US P2P group involved in canine matters with overseas interlocutors concluded that dogs were the best ambassadors).

But I'm also a realist, and what keeps US propaganda going -- sorry, I meant "public diplomacy" -- is war (especially a global one). No war, no or little USG-PD (or substantial funding for it). Such is the lesson, regrettably, of history, if it is any guide.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Brief response to article by James K. Glassman, Dogma Catchers -

To the Honorable James Glassman:

With all due respect to your recent piece, Sir, how our great country can have a "grand conversation" and a "war of ideas" at the same time is slightly beyond me. But then I may be missing something. Best wishes and as always delighted to read your blog, John Brown

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Response to article, Public Diplomacy and the Phantom Menace

This excellent piece on the academic study of Public Diplomacy (PD) contributes much to the debate of theory vs. practice in PD. I hope it will be widely read.

My main quarrel with much of the "scholarship" re PD, which Pat Kushlis critiques so well, is that it often misses a key element in PD -- what PD officers (or whatever you want to call them) concretely do "in the field" and the day-to-day issues that they face. That is why, in the case of PD, I find memoirs, history and media-reporting often more enlightening than abstract treatises. We are not, after all, dealing with rocket science here, but with a down-to-earth, all-too-human activity. As the article points out, there's no PD "theory."

Also, I am concerned that people who want to "do PD" as a career might think that "a degree in PD" is sufficient to be an effective PD practitioner (I realize that is not what academic courses on PD "promise." Of course, nothing wrong with being a PD "scholar").

But, based on my twenty-year Foreign Service officer (FSO) experience, what is most helpful in preparing to be an effective "public diplomat," at least for the US government, is learning foreign languages in depth, familiarity with cultures overseas, and people-to-people skills that are not necessarily acquired in the classroom or by research in libraries/on the Internet. And, to cite additional skills noted to me in an e-mail from Pat Kushlis after I penned the above remarks, "speech writing and deliver[every], decent Internet skills plus the ability to write clear, organized and succinct English."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Regarding Richard Holbrooke: Reply to a Question from a Foreign Service Officer

"Marlbrough s'en va-t-en guerre, Mironton, mironton, mirontaine, Marlbrough s'en va-t-en guerre, Ne sait quand reviendra."


As a former Foreign Service officer, I worked with (he'd say "under") currently Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan under the Obama administration, Richard Holbrooke, in Belgrade in the mid-90s, when he was Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs.

I suspect that "The Bulldozer" (as they called him in the Balkans) is behind the latest White House get-rid-of the-incompetent-US-military in Afghanistan move. Definitely worth checking with persons more knowledgeable than I.

I've tried to put a piece together about Holbrooke, basically defending him (as if he'd care) from attacks from the left regarding his competence/morality for his new Obama-administration assignment. But I couldn't, probably because Holbrooke is far too complicated and brilliant.

Holbrooke is insufferable, of course; but, no matter what his limitless ambitions were in the 90s (he wanted to be Secretary of State, as his charming Hungarian-born wife informed me in a Belgrade restaurant, at a lunch for Serb intellectuals I helped put together -- I was amazed by her candor) he did try to end war in the Balkans.

Bottom Line: The unbearable Mr. Holbrooke wanted to end the war in the Balkans, not start one.

And so as the "PAO" [Public Affairs Officer] at the American Embassy Belgrade it was a privilege to work under -- yes, under -- him.

Holbrooke's main problem, of course, was that he initially knew nothing about the Balkans (but who does know anything initially about the Balkans), but he could identify sleazeballs (it takes one to know one?) quickly. And this is "why" he "succeeded" in the Balkans via the Dayton "ceasefire" -- no way it can be called a peace agreement -- in that tumultuous part of the world.

The latest PR move at the WH -- the Afghan and the Pakistani president meeting there with President Obama -- smacks 100% of Holbrooke -- a replication of the scenario of the Balkan dictators meeting at Dayton he arranged with American dignitaries.

Give Holbrooke credit for repeating himself, although he is a master of reinvention.

I still have no idea why we are/what we are doing in Afghanistan. I should think that someone who knows something about history -- yes, Mr. Holbrooke himself, few among government servants (and he is an immensely dedicated one) with a sense of the past -- should realize the quagmire we are getting ourselves into at a time of economic crisis, and when an American soldier shoots down his comrades in Iraq -- realizes the severity of the situation.

May Allah bless the insufferable Mr. Holbrooke. And may Pakistan and Afghanistan remember that he -- of Jewish ancestry -- strove to save Muslims in Bosnia, when precious few in the world cared.

John Brown compiles the "Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review.''