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.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Pause That Refreshes: Some Thoughts on Obama and Public Diplomacy

The Pause That Refreshes: Some Thoughts on Obama and Public Diplomacy

John Brown

Persons interested in foreign affairs -- among them the distinguished former Foreign Service officer Pat Kushlis; the noted scholar of the Middle East Professor Marc Lynch; the well-known blogger Matt Armstrong -- have suggested that the Obama administration is not moving fast enough in organizing its public diplomacy. The Department of State defines public diplomacy as "engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences."

My initial reaction to the PD experts' sense of urgency, as a former US diplomat, was to share it fully: We must do something big for PD after Bush! It must be done right away!

But my view has changed somewhat, as a result of an enlightening luncheon the other day with Bruce Gregory, Professor of Media & Public Affairs of George Washington University, who was one of the authors of the widely acclaimed Defense Science Board report on public diplomacy (2004). In my opinion, it was the best report among the dozens on the subject after 9/11, because it convincingly argued that US policies, and not solely our government's marketing of them, were largely to blame for our low international reputation. Its statement that "Muslims do not hate our freedom, but rather they hate our policies," was widely quoted in the press but had little impact on the Bush administration.

Bruce -- who believes deeply in the importance of PD (as I do) -- observed that during the Bush years public diplomacy became a tainted term. I fully agree with him. To many overseas, American PD -- which the Bush administration misused, I would suggest, to justify the war against Iraq and other overseas misadventures -- has come to represent simple-minded PR or crude propaganda.

Professor Gregory's point about American PD's loss of international reputation leads me to think that perhaps the Obama administration should avoid loud, self-serving announcements to the world that it will be engaging in various types of PD "new initiatives" (indeed, should it?) which would remind many foreign publics of the uncoordinated, condescending, parochial PR Potemkin villages of the Bush years.

These naive, highly hyped Bush-entourage efforts putatively to change hearts and minds of the overseas "natives" reinforced the belief -- held in many parts of the world about what is perceived to be an imposing, imperial America -- that the United States tries to "sell" unpopular policies through misleading and sophomoric marketing/manipulative techniques.

Among such Bush-era undertakings, advertised throughout the globe, were "branding" the U.S.; establishing a new USG-supported television station for Middle East audiences, Alhurra; undertaking "listening tours" by the Under Secretary of State for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy; preaching American "values"; developing media "rapid reaction" units; proclaiming a PD-oriented "diplomacy of deeds"; twittering away à la Colleen Graffy, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Guantanamo apologist; and fighting the "war of ideas" through the internet social networks (the so-called Public Diplomacy 2.0, the brainchild of James Glassman, the last PD Under Secretary of State in the Bush administration).

Perhaps some of this Bushian PD mindless frenzy had some positive impact overseas. But, essentially, it was about an insular White House, initially uninterested in public diplomacy because of its instinctive dismissal of the outside world, wanting to "catch up" in converting foreign "aliens" to be pro-USA after 9/11 so that Americans would feel "safe" ... and vote Republican.

So (allow me to be cynical), the public diplomacy of the Under Secretaries of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs serving the former administration (there were four of them) longed, above all, to win favor with GOP politicos by demonstrating they were doing "something new" to push Bush-all-the-way -- not only in other countries, but (quite blatantly) in die "homeland" itself.

The true intent -- as I see it, I hope erroneously -- behind the Bush-faithfuls' message: to tell the President and his entourage that "they (foreigners, Americans, whatever) will love you even more [hate you even less?] as a result of what we are doing."

But I would repeat -- seeking to follow Professor Gregory's train of thought, if, I hope, he will allow me -- that, given the unpopularity of Bush's unilateral, aggressive policies abroad (and, as a consequence, of the PD that "justified" them) these "new initiatives" were all viewed with varying degrees of skepticism, if not derision and hostility, by overseas audiences. Alhurra is perhaps the best example of a project gone wrong; it continues to have little appeal in the Middle East, and is considered essentially a propaganda mouthpiece for the US government.

Obama's appearance on Al Arabiya -- his first formal interview with the press as President -- has been characterized by many American media as a public diplomacy coup for the new administration (note, however, that George W. Bush also spoke on that Saudi-financed regional station). Significantly, this Obama PD success -- how lasting it will be is hard to tell -- was achieved without a new PD Under Secretary, nor by engaging in a self-promoting new USG PD initiative. And, equally significant, it did not use Alhurra, the gem (for a brief moment) in the Bush PD crown, as a vehicle to "get our message across."

The Al Arabiya interview does (one hopes) suggest, however, that the new administration's policy-makers are aware of the importance of world public opinion. This sensitivity to the mindsets of other nations is, I believe, the most important element in making US policies understandable and acceptable overseas.

But during these hard economic times, with thousands and thousands of Americans out of work, more taxpayer dollars going to PD "new initiatives" is by no means an automatic solution to America's overseas "image" problems. Nor are idiotic bureaucratic turf-wars among government agencies (e.g., the State Department and the Department of Defense), based essentially on "who's going to to get the money to do PD," of any real value to the Republic.

If the new administration has indeed thought along these lines, I say "right-on." Let American policies and the United States of America -- warts and all, including Hollywood vulgarities -- speak for themselves, without hype or spin. To be sure, the USG should support time-tested exchange programs (by many not considered PD in the first place) that make a long-term difference in improving international understanding, much to the benefit of American (and global) interests. The Fulbright program, a two-way discourse in the best sense, comes immediately to mind.

But what we don't need, above all, are Bush-like loudspeakers, on the internet or elsewhere, cheerleading the global masses into going gah-gah over the "land of the free and the home of the brave" or leading the charge in a so-called endless "war on terror" against the "islamofascists." The world will welcome such a lowering of our government's voice. It will be a pause truly refreshing to humankind, far more, I would venture to say, than Coca Cola itself.


"Reputation, reputation, reputation! O! I have lost my reputation. I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial."

--Cassio, in Shakespeare's Othello

"Surtout, pas trop de zèle."


"Simplify, simplify, simplify!"

--Henry David Thoreau

--"Hitler's Terrible Weapon: Publicity"

--Headline in The Washington Post, February 11