Tuesday, November 30, 2010

WikiLeaks: Would George Kennan Have Been Delighted?

Final version at Huffington Post

One of the dirty little secrets at the State Department -- at least when I had the privilege of being part of this organization until 2003 -- is that no one reads cables (telegrams from overseas US embassies) any more. Indeed, the only readers of dispatches from the field -- and a countless number of them reach Foggy Bottom every day -- often turn out to be the persons writing them.

Back at DC headquarters, an overworked staff doesn't have time to read lengthy and even not-so-lengthy missives, as their working day is consumed by answering phone calls from everyone under the sun, reacting to emails, and coordinating activities within a confused bureaucracy (they also have to each lunch; classified materials are not allowed in the cafeteria).

With Twitter, Facebook, and other attention-grabbing social media, "cables" are doubtless going, even more than before, the way the mainstream media is going: straight into the IOW, my acronym for the information-overload wastebasket. Even hardworking State Department country "desk officers" simply are physically and mentally unable, in this age of instant communications and contant interruptions, to examine thoroughly all the written stuff that comes in from their fellow diplomats posted overseas. I urge them, as a former desk officer myself (for France, Spain and Portugal, in the early 80s at the United States Information Agency, consolidated into the State Department in 1999) to correct me if I'm wrong.

But now, quite suddenly, thanks to WikiLeaks, this arguably anachronistic method of communication, cables -- valuable documents, not only about what is occurring throughout the world, but also as historical records -- are, despite their lack of "coolness," actually being read and discussed worldwide! (Even, I venture to say, on the Seventh Floor of the State Department, where its leadership sits). So the authors of these often memorable but neglected missives, while doubtless concerned about their work being revealed to America's mortal enemies and offended friends, must have a certain sense of (well-hidden?) satisfaction that their carefully written communications have at last found an audience.

I recall George Kennan noting, in his memoirs, how enthused he was that his famous Long Telegram actually caught the attention of Washington, which had not been the case, he notes, with his previous messages.

Perhaps this great but reclusive diplomat/intellectual -- who was, at heart, a somewhat Germanic littérateur aspiring (as a person well acquainted with him once pointed out to me) to be like the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, another Princetonian -- would have been delighted that his Complete Cables, hitherto classified, and largely unread, even (especially?) by his colleagues, were at last there for all the world to see.

--Long Telegram image from; Kennan image from

Monday, November 29, 2010

WikiLeaks: Why They Help American Diplomacy

Final Version of this entry at Huffington Post

For all the State Department's understandable security concern about the recent disclosure of classified telegrams from its embassies by WikiLeaks, there are elements in this exposé that can actually improve how Americans and the rest of the world view US diplomacy and, most important, the United States. As the cables demonstrate,

--American diplomats can write. If you read the missives -- and, granted, no way I could read all of them -- they provide strong evidence that Foreign Service officers (FSOs) construct solid, logical, and detailed analyses that (if not always correct) are thoughtful and carefully crafted. Compare them to the instant, superficial reporting of the mass media, and you can see the importance of diplomatic dispatches not only for giving Washington the background and nuance to a given situation, but also for providing a reliable historical record of major global events.

--American diplomats are not naive, an all-too-frequent characterization of US officials by their foreign counterparts. FSOs, as their candid, sometimes critical portraits of their overseas contacts suggest, strive to be subtle judges of character; of course, they are not always right, but they are intelligently seeking to understand the nature of their foreign interlocutors, and their reporting demonstrates it. Such an ability, in the long run, is actually a plus in how America is perceived abroad: It shows American diplomats are not "suckers." Far from permanently embarrassing the U.S., the WikiLeaks can increase respect overseas for American diplomats, as their communications to headquarters demonstrate they seek to be insightful observers, not parochial fools who believe everything that's told to them (or become instant "media celebrities"). And they remember what they're told, and write it down.

--American diplomats are not inhuman automatons but have a sense of irony and humor. To cite one example, the Moscow embassy's characterization of Putin and Medvedev -- Batman and Robin -- is not only funny,

but may end up in the history books as a "catch-the-monent" way to describe this odd, sinister duo.

On the negative side, the WikiLeaks's damage from a US perspective may be that:

--Some foreign officials may be offended by how they were "treated" in the cables. But any experienced statesman, no matter from what country, expects that he/she will be criticized/ridiculed in confidential diplomatic communications, and not to lose sight of his/her national interests because of this -- national interests that include dealing with the United States. Would Obama be mortally offended by what the British Ambassador negatively said about him?

--American Embassy contacts overseas, especially dissidents, will be reluctant to stay in touch with US diplomats for fear of being revealed to local authorities. But most foreign opposition leaders -- courageous people in most cases -- know what "they're getting themselves into" when they meet US diplomats. They are not fools: they know what they say will be reported back to Washington when they talk to FSOs. Indeed, that is probably why they talk to them in the first place.

--American diplomats will no longer provide candid assessments in classified communications to Washington, for fear of being "exposed." The State Department may urge FSOs not to "write it down," but "say it over the secure phone." Or not say it at all. That is the greatest danger: silencing our diplomats.

On the whole, though, the WikiLeaks episode is not a disaster for America from a public diplomacy or "behind closed-doors" diplomacy perspective, so long as diplomats are not "shut up" by a State Department overly concerned about future leaks.

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Public Diplomacy: "Out" for the U.S., "In" Overseas?

Public diplomacy -- defined by the State Department as "engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences" -- has become increasingly passé among American officials, scholars, and NGOS as a term and activity used to define how America should communicate with the outside world. Meanwhile, the governments of other countries -- notably China and India -- are enthusiastically embracing public diplomacy as a new and essential part of their foreign policy. Who's the winner in such a situation -- the USA or the rest of the world? Hard to say.

I. Public Diplomacy: Passé for the U.S.?
Public diplomacy was coined by Dean Edmund Gullion and the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy in the mid-1960's. He and his colleagues wanted to find a way to characterize the many informational, educational, and cultural programs that were instituted, on an international level, after World War II, by US governmental and non-governmental entities:
Even beyond the organ of the Government set up to handle information about the United States and to explain our policies, what is important today is the interaction of groups, peoples, and cultures beyond national borders, influencing the way groups and peoples in other countries think about foreign affairs, react to our policies, and affect the policies of their respective governments.

To connote this activity, we at the Fletcher School tried to find a name. I would have liked to call it “propaganda.” It seemed like the nearest thing in the pure interpretation of the word to what we were doing. But “propaganda” has always a pejorative connotation in this country. To describe the whole range of communications, information, and propaganda, we hit upon “public diplomacy” [my italics].
The United States Information Agency (USIA), created as an independent USG agency in 1953 to combat Soviet anti-American propaganda, appropriated the term by the 1970s to justify its programs to Congress. In the process, public diplomacy became identified as an essentially overseas governmental activity. In the words of scholar Nicholas Cull:
A dozen years into its life, the United States Information Agency needed alternative to the anodyne term information or malignant term propaganda: a fresh turn of phrase upon which it could build new and benign meanings. Gullion’s term ‘public diplomacy’ covered every aspect of USIA activity and a number of the cultural and exchange functions . ...

If public diplomacy existed as a variety of diplomacy in the modern world – the argument ran – then surely the United States surely needed a dedicated agency to conduct this work, and that agency was best structured to control all work in the field.
Less than a decade after the collapse of communism, the USIA was consolidated into the State Department (1999), for a variety of reasons, among them: The powerful Republican Senator Richard Helms was "annoyed" by the Agency; with the so-called "end of history" after the U.S. "won" the half-century ideological struggle with the USSR, the USIA was considered an anachronism; the federal government wanted to cut spending (in the words of Joseph Duffey, the last USIA Director: "The idea of moving the USIA to the State Depart­ment was former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's idea. The central reason was money, because she was under enormous pressure because the budgets had not been increased"); the Agency "never really functioned as desired," according to the Heritage Foundation.

A long-term historical pattern was also at work: When a global war ends, the USG "information" agency established to win "hearts and minds" overseas during such a conflict is terminated: WWI: the Committee on Public Information, 1917-1919; WWII: the Office of War Information 1942-1945; Cold War: the United States Information agency 1953-1999.

On a more down-to-earth level, "public diplomacy" was an American term with little meaning for most foreign audiences in our past century; indeed, in certain parts of the world, US "public diplomacy" practitioners (I had the privilege to be among them in the 1980s and 1990s) worked in the "Press and Cultural Section" at the Embassy where they were assigned, so named in order for their activities to be understandable to local contacts (in Eastern Europe, where I mostly served, these diplomats were considered spies by the communist authorities). And, here in the United States, while "public diplomacy" became part of the inside-the-Washington-beltway jargon, it would be hard to say that it was a term most Americans were familiar with.

The end of the Cold War and the termination of USIA marked the beginning of the demise of public diplomacy -- as a term and, to some extent, an activity. By the beginning of the 2000's, public diplomacy no longer had its own bureaucratic niche, although the State Department had by then created the position of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Charlotte Beers, a marketing whizzkid selected to serve in that role at the beginning of the George W. Bush administration, was widely criticized for her simplistic efforts to "brand" America à la her buy-Uncle-Ben's-Rice campaigns, one of her advertising triumphs. During the early years of the Bush administration, public diplomacy was neglected and (some would say) turned into base propaganda to justify the war in Iraq. The dozens of reports appearing on the failure of public diplomacy after 9/11 had little impact in restoring it to its Cold War importance and indeed led to "report fatigue" regarding the subject. The so-called "listening tours" of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes, active during the second term of the Bush administration, were ridiculed by both domestic and foreign media, contributing to public diplomacy's loss of reputation and relevance. (1)

James Glassman, the last Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in the Bush administration, suggested that public diplomacy as traditionally used had become an anachronism by coining the new term "Public Diplomacy 2.0." With the perceived loss of importance of public diplomacy, strategic communication became a fashionable term in the early 2000's, and often replaced it as a description for communication with foreign audiences, especially at the Pentagon (where public diplomacy, by those there familiar with the expression, probably has a flaky connotation). In the words of scholar Bruce Gregory (2008), "[t]he term strategic communication is gaining traction. Some see it as more inclusive than public diplomacy and more descriptive of a multi-stakeholder environment." (He goes on to say that "[f]or most analytical and practical purposes, however, the two terms can be used analogously.")

After the election of President Obama, it took more than a year for his administration to install a new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs -- Discovery Channel executive Judith McHale. By then, the USG's buzzwords for truly communicating with the world were not public diplomacy but engagement -- a word also used by Glassman and indeed, as a participle in the State Department's definition of public diplomacy cited above -- and also, to a lesser extent, smart power.

International development -- in contrast to the educational and cultural programs that formed an essential part of public diplomacy during much of the Cold War (and to some extent still do) -- has under the new administration become a key part of the State Department's engagement, despite development's bureaucratic association with another USG agency, USAID. Ms. McHale, for example, recently proclaimed that George C. Marshall, best known for the European economic development/recovery plan after World War II that bears his name, was "the greatest example in our nation's history of Public Diplomacy done right" (2). Her "developmental" approach to public diplomacy (or should I say engagement) is also illustrated by one of her major initiatives, the launch in Kenya of a new competition called Apps4Africa, which "challenges local coders and software developers to create software tools that will meet the needs of citizens across East Africa.”

The concern among the foreign-policy community, on both an official and grass-roots level, that the US government cannot adequately handle communications with foreign publics through its public diplomacy, a view prevalent during the Bush administration and still in existence today, resulted in the creation of the Business for Diplomatic Action by the person who helped coin the advertising jingle of the century, "You Deserve a Break Today," Keith Reinhard. And Kristin Lord, a scholar
posited in a report [2008] that American public diplomacy be reformed by creating a new non-governmental organization called 'USA World Trust' that would do better than the government. The report stated this organization would, among other things, create exchange programs to bring foreign university professors, journalists, NGO representatives and government officials to the United States; it would send American experts abroad on speaking tours; it would understand foreign opinion through focus groups; and it would sponsor translations of American books into foreign languages.
This emphasis on private-sector -- rather than government -- diplomacy was underscored by Ted Townsend, a Board member of U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy: "The idea of citizen diplomacy is separate of public diplomacy, related to the state department. The goal is to use people to people exchanges, eye to eye contact. The phrase that many people use is 'one handshake at a time.'"

Under Secretary of State Judith McHale, to be sure, did attend the U.S. Center for Public Diplomacy's recent November Washington summit, the goal of which was "to double the number of American volunteers of all ages involved in international activities at home or abroad, from an estimated 60 million today to 120 million by 2020." The event was in fact co-sponsored by the State Department; but this could yet be another indication that Foggy Bottom agrees that a government-controlled "public diplomacy" is now longer the best (or predominant) form of US overseas "engagement."

And then we have Kennedy Center Director Michael Kaiser who maintains that cultural diplomacy -- arguably a subset of public diplomacy -- is oh-so-twentieth-century:
But does traditional cultural diplomacy work? Do we need state-supported tours by American performing arts groups when without federal funding so many of our performers and performing arts groups are appearing all over the world?
Finally, let's not forget, as an important footnote, a new term used by public-diplomacy blogger extraordinaire Paul Rockower, "gastrodiplomacy" -- the role of food (not indigestion) in diplomacy -- which "public diplomacy" diplomats in the field consider an essential part of their activities, as sharing a good meal with a local and interesting contact of importance is (was?) one way to present and represent America abroad on a face-to-face basis.

II. Words of wisdom?

Recent statements by public diplomacy cognoscenti give strong indications of its declining importance, both as a term and (to a lesser extent) as an activity:

“'Public Diplomacy' is a term that should be abolished."
--Widely-read blogger Matt Armstrong (November 23, 2010);

"The term 'public diplomacy' is now attributed to so many activities that is has lost useful meaning."--International Broadcasting expert Kim Andrew Elliott (October 7, 2010), who is adamant about keeping "public diplomacy" and US International Broadcasting separate;

"For Obama-era Global Engagement to mean more than Bush-era Public Diplomacy it needs to be more than Bush-era Public Diplomacy."

--Scholar Nicholas Cull (June 5, 2009);

"I think that the more we can have people having direct conversations with each other — and through those conversations and initiatives, through history of cultures we can learn about each other and if we do that, at the people-to-people level, that will provide us with a path to a more peaceful and prosperous future. So it's a key part of what we're trying to do, to really have people engage with each other, to learn about each other. So it's not public diplomacy, it's not messaging, it's not just a marketing campaign. It's really fostering an environment where you can strengthen relationships between people."

--Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale (November 11, 2010).

Quite amazing -- but not that surprising, given the history of the past 50 years -- that we have an Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs minimizing the importance of public diplomacy! But then why not? Modesty may be the beginning of wisdom (3).

III. Public Diplomacy: à la Mode Overseas

Irony or ironies: While the US "drops" public diplomacy, a term it created, the outside world (or at least foreign governments) embraces it.

That "public diplomacy" has become a global phenomenon is now quite evident (a conference was devoted to this subject some years ago). As I tried to illustrate in several essays for Place Branding and Public Diplomacy (2007), "public diplomacy" is now part of the official/media vocabulary of numerous countries, including, in tentative priority order for this year, according to the near-daily examination of articles pertaining to public diplomacy cited in my Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review: Israel (which also uses its traditional term "hasbara" to identify activities related to public diplomacy); China; India (which also uses "cultural diplomacy" extensively); Australia; Canada; Turkey; the UK; Japan; South Korea; the Philippines (where it is closely associated with tourism). There is some, but little, mention of public diplomacy in the case of sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of South Africa and Ghana) and Latin America. Greece cites it to a limited degree, but as a rule Mediterranean countries (France, Italy, Spain) do not, despite their extensive cultural programs overseas. No one has better demonstrated that public diplomacy now goes beyond the walls of the U.S. government than the Dutch scholar Jan Melissen.

Most intriguing about public diplomacy as a global phenomenon is the case of China and India, whose public diplomacy activities have grown extensively in our new century. China has a new Public Diplomacy Research Center and its officials make frequent references of the need for public diplomacy to play a greater role in its foreign policy. Its hundreds of Confucius Institutes are located throughout the world. India, though less aggressively than its Asian neighbor, also underscores the importance of public diplomacy. So these two emerging powers, which some see as the countries that will define the nature of our new century, are taking up a foreign-policy tool -- or at least the term that describes it -- that the United States seems to be abandoning. They of course don't see public diplomacy, as an activity that is difficult to define precisely, in the same way as the USG does, especially as regards the need for a firewall between domestic and international information dissemination by the government. According to the Smith-Mundt Act, the USG cannot implement public diplomacy programs at home; they are meant for overseas audiences. This distinction does not seem to have any relevance in the case of China and India.

I'm not quite sure what the implications of China's and India's adoption of public diplomacy are for international affairs, except that they evidently want to be increasingly recognized and "understood" globally, realizing that "soft power" is an important part of international affairs, not just demographic, economic, or military clout. As relatively new kids on the modern global power block (as America still is), the Chinese and Indian governments believe it is in their national interests to "explain" their growing impact on the rest of the world by "engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences." Much of what they are doing in public diplomacy seems to me like an unoriginal replica of USIA programs during the Cold War (doubtless their experts have read Nicholas Cull's magisterial study on the subject), although both governments (especially of India) recognize that the digital age is here. Chinese authorities, meanwhile, filter unacceptable material from the Internet, including, evidently, this author's totally harmless Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review.

In the U.S. today, there is a growing sense that in our "borderless" internet age, with a growing absence of a communications "center," international communications should be in the hands of individuals rather than governments. (Americans, however, tend to forget, that, as putative participants in a democracy, their government is supposed to be representing them, including overseas).

True, there were "people-to-people" exchanges during the Cold War between the United States and other countries, but today more than ever, I would say, Americans want to deal with the rest of world (when they actually want to, which is not always the case) without the "interference" of their government, while nevertheless not refusing, as a rule, its financial support when they do want to "engage" foreigners. The same may be true, to some extent, in China and India, but clearly in the case of these two countries public diplomacy is what it was for the USG in the Cold War -- a government activity aimed to change the behavior of overseas audiences for its country's national interests, including through its public diplomacy officers overseas.

IV. An Ending without a Conclusion
So, it seems that the "declining" world power, the United States, increasingly seeks "government-free" international communications, including among "ordinary" citizens from different countries; while the governments of "growing" powers like China and India feel a need to "sell" their countries overseas through state-run programs. While Americans are tiring of that American invention, government-directed public diplomacy, others in the world think it's the way to go. What that all means in the future is not quite clear to me. Perhaps it doesn't mean very much at all, and may have little, if anything, to do with the "losers-winners" games in international relations. There has been a temptation to overstress the impact of traditional public diplomacy -- just as there's been a tendency to dismiss it as worthless.

But I just find it ironic, as a historian, that many on the globe seem to be adopting what we Americans are dropping -- public diplomacy, the term, and some of its governmental activities that seek to engage, inform, and influence key international audiences to promote a country overseas. Who's right? The rest of our snall planet or ourselves? Time may tell.


(1) Such criticisms also resulted, ironically enough, in public diplomacy -- due to its being highlighted in the media and official/semi-official reports -- becoming part of the general vocabulary in the U.S.; it is now being used in ways that go beyond Gullion's original definition, which suggests that no one quite knows what public diplomacy is in the first place.

(2) The use of capital letters for "Public Diplomacy" suggests that Marshall was, according to McHale, the best implementator in history of this imperfect craft. Never mind that the term had not yet been coined when Marshall was Secretary of State, 1947–48. It should also be noted that, before innovative artistic programs eventually became a part of public diplomacy during the Cold War, Secretary Marshall, according to The New Yorker's Louis Menand, had "announced that no taxpayer money would be spent on modern art ..., and the State Department issued a directive that no artist suspected of being a Communist or fellow-traveler could be exhibited at government expense.”

(3) See also the 2004 article by Barry Zorthian, "Public Diplomacy Is Not the Answer," posted at publicdiplomacy.org. Zorthian is a former senior foreign service officer who was in charge of the communications effort in Saigon for four a half years during the Vietnam War.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Welcome to Abu Ghraib TSA Airport, Anywhere USA

"Those Who Sacrifice Liberty For Security Deserve Neither."

--Benjamin Franklin

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Article the sixth [Amendment IV] of our Constitution: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

We did it to "them"; and now, not surprisingly, we're beginning to do it to ourselves.

See also.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Public Diplomacy: How Much Do a President's Foreign Trips Cost the Taxpayer?

As I read the below informative article, one question continued to intrigue me: Why are Secret Service expenditures for a presidential trip "classified"? Does the SS have something to hide -- from the American taxpayer (oh so sorry, I meant terrorists)?

I would suggest to Public Diplomacy Scholars in US graduate schools to examine closely the costs of presidential visits -- and compare them to what our government spends for, say, USG international educational and cultural programs. That's the kind of research that might actually be noticed by intelligent decision-makers on Capitol Hill.

How much do Obama's foreign trips cost? - Josh Gerstein, Politico

A [...] thinly sourced report that President Barack Obama's upcoming trip to India is going to cost $200 million a day looks to be grossly inflated, but how much do presidential trips abroad actually cost?

That answer isn't quite as secret as the White House and some press reports would have you believe.

An article Tuesday from the Press Trust of India reported the "whopping $200 million a day" figure, quoting an unnamed state government official in India. "The huge amount of around USD 200 million would be spent on security, stay and other aspects of the presidential visit," the official said, according to the PTI story which was picked up by Matt Drudge.

“The numbers reported in this article have no basis in reality," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told my colleague Laura Rozen in an-emailed statement. "Due to security concerns, we are unable to outline details associated with security procedures and costs [my highlight], but it’s safe to say these numbers are wildly inflated.”

"The costs are comparable to when President Clinton or President Bush traveled abroad," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday. "This trip doesn’t cost $200 million a day," Gibbs added later.

"White Houses never disclose costs for trips bc so much of the money is for security [my highlight], but White House official calls the figure 'wildly inflated,'" ABC's Jake Tapper tweeted Wednesday.

However, about a decade ago, the General Accounting Office released two fairly detailed reports on President Bill Clinton's foreign travels (view them here and here). Secret Service costs were omitted as classified [my highlight], but other government expenses were tallied up. A Clinton trip to six countries in Africa in 1998 rang up at $42.8 million, most of that for military aircraft costs. A trip to Chile came in at $10.5 million. A trip to China that year cost $18.8 million.

GAO (now the Government Accountability Office) had numbers on travelers, too. Government agencies paid for about 1300 people on the Clinton Africa trip, excluding Secret Service personnel [my highlight].

When Clinton went to Chile, the government picked up the tab for 600 people. And there were 500 paid travelers in connection with the China trip. (The government does not pay for press travel costs or those of business leaders but does pay for advance aides who are sometimes volunteers [my highlight].)

I'd like to post some details on President George W. Bush trips, but I can't find any GAO reports on them [my highlight].

As someone who's been on dozens of presidential trips abroad under the past three presidents, here's my take on the PTI story. The Obama entourage could easily fill the 507 rooms at the Taj Mahal Hotel, if you consider the traveling party, American business leaders, the press, the advance staff, State Department personnel, military and Secret Service. The White House is denying booking out the hotel.

But, whatever the case, the idea of a 3,000-person entourage seems nuts to me. That said, there is some staffing bloat on these trips: Sometimes one finds State Department staff from far-flung posts assigned to make xeroxes or give advice to the press on cities the employees know nothing about.

In other reaction to the PTI report, Rep. Michele Bachmann is outraged about it. FactCheck says "false" and "hard to swallow." I'd go with "likely untrue" and "unsupported."

On Thursday, sarcastic White House officials pushed back further against the PTI report and Bachmann's mention of it.

"Heard about how the President’s trip to Asia cost $200 quadrillion per hour? Not true as it turns out ," the tweet from the official White House account said, linking to a blog post from Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer.

UPDATE: This post has been updated with an additional quote from Gibbs.

UPDATE 2: This post has been updated with additional information which travelers go at government expense and which don't.

UPDATE 3: This post has been updated with the White House tweet and blog post.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

POTUS visits and Public Diplomacy: Doing Nothing While Waiting for Nothing to Do

Much grousing about the expense of President Obama's India trip. This is silly and vindictive.

--Charles Krauthammer

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An amusing episode from my first Foreign Service posting -- in London, where, doubtless by computer error, given the ordinariness of my name, I was assigned in the early 1980s as a USIA officer -- took place in the US Embassy cafeteria, where Secret Service agents assigned to cover a high-ranking official visit were having their midday meal.

For lunch at a nearby table, I joined a local employee, a lady of a certain age and considerable cultivation. Politely not pointing to the agents themselves, she confided to me sotto voce: "These poor young American boys -- They all have hearing problems!" She was of course referring to the agents' earphones.

This remark sprung to my mind as I read an article in the Daily Mail regarding the presidential visit to Southeast Asia:
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle arrived in India's commercial hub of Mumbai on Saturday . ... Probably not since the days of the Pharaohs or the more ludicrous Roman Emperors has a head of state travelled in such pomp and expensive grandeur as the President of the United States of America. [Emphasis mine] While lesser mortals – the Pope, Queen Elizabeth and so on – are usually happy to let their hosts handle most of the security and transport arrangements when they venture beyond their home shores, the United States creates a mini-America on the move to ensure that nothing is left to chance.
Leave it to the snarky Brit press to ridicule what it considers the overkill of preparations for POTUS visits overseas (POTUS, a term which vaguely reminds me of yet another Roman official -- Pontius Pilate -- is an acronym used to describe our Chief Executive, often by the staffers that organize his schedule). But, given the imperial nature of overseas visits by the leader of the democratic world, it is not surprising that there were rumors in India that his presence there was costing the U.S. $200 million a day.

I. The Visit

Let me now get it off my chest: during my twenty-plus-years Foreign Service career, perhaps the most wasteful use of taxpayer's money I witnessed was the "facilitation" of high-level White House visits.

--Pre-advance and advance. Advance and pre-advance "teams" from Washington descend upon the "post" weeks in advance to "prepare" for the visit -- all kinds of people from the White House, the Secret Service, from civil-service entities at the State Department, you name the agency/entity. Accommodations -- at great cost to the USG -- must be found for these multitudes by the administrative section of the embassy. Most of these well-intentioned individuals, political appointees and government employees, could have landed on planet Mars: they don't speak the local language, know little of the local culture, and seldom know how to deal tactfully with local officials. Their "my way or the highway" attitude toward the "natives" (they know they won't have to deal with them for long) is often offensive to their hosts. In their off-duty hours, the loud behavior and lack of discretion of these TDYers (Temporary Service) in local venues does not contribute to improving America's overseas image.

--Countdown. For a presidential visit, an embassy is mobilized -- literally mobilized, God knows at what enormous expense -- for weeks in advance before the actual visit of the president, which lasts no more than a few days at most. Embassy staff basically have to drop what they are doing -- supposedly advancing American interests abroad carefully and methodically -- to prepare for the visit, following the orders, often contradictory, of the invading DC hordes. At a daily (and time-devouring) "countdown meeting," which just about everybody at the mission is required to attend, instructions are given and repeated over and over, and over again. Every logistical aspect of the visit is gone through in mind-numbing detail to assure that all will run like clockwork. But this exhaustive preparation is so excessive that it often is counterproductive and in fact results in considerable confusion and disorganization (See, as an example, the recent White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs confrontation with Indian functionaries.)

--Site Officer. A frequent assignment given to FSOs (Foreign Service officer), no matter their seniority, is to be a "site officer," which basically means being (under the watchful eyes of the visiting "specialists") at a site, i.e., where the president will appear: a school; a parliament; a grave. The "site officer" is expected to go to the site, over, over, and over again, days and days before the actual event, even if it (the site) is already "covered" by (a) the local police (b) the Secret Service itself. The only site I was never obliged to cover was a toilet. But of course I was ready to do it, in the service of my country. Having said this, some FSOs actually do enjoy being site officers during an official visit, in the hope that their impeccable performance in front of a grave Will Be Noticed By Washington (WBNBW).

--Press Center. Public Diplomacy FSOs are assigned to "man" the Press Center especially set up for the visit, usually at a major hotel (an operation of enormous cost to the taxpayer). PD officers -- supposedly paid to represent their country abroad, not to oblige stateside media reps -- are essentially placed there to keep the accompanying American press "happy" (Example: Major US media reporter to diplomat: I need a press release right now. Answer from diplomat: Here it is, Sir (never forget the sir), right away). Last on the minds of the Washington White House team that oversees the Press Center is what the local media think (true, there is also a low-profile Press Center for local media). It's mostly about how the major US networks will be accommodated to report on the visit -- so that the White House will get favorable USA media coverage.

Control Room. Oh, I shouldn't forget about the "control" room, again set up at an expensive hotel, where FSOs are assigned to help manage the visit by engaging in crucial diplomatic activities such as photocopying, answering the phone, smiling at White House aides, and looking at CNN for lack of anything better to do.

--Dead time. Dead time, doing nothing while waiting for nothing to do, is an essential element for Embassy staff engaged in a presidential visit. You learn to live with it, but it does not contribute to your intellectual development. Note: To eager young persons intent a Foreign Service career, please remember that much of your work as a diplomat will consist of waiting at an airport for a high-level visitor to make sure he/she gets treated properly by customs officials and gets to his/her hotel without difficulty. On dead time, see my piece in the Washington Post regarding the Baghdad embassy.

--Finally, Picking up the Damage. I suppose when the circus atmosphere of a POTUS visit is finally over, the best an FSO concerned about in-country public opinion can do is to take out local officials involved in the visit to lunch, and thank them for all their patience and cooperation, explaining, as best he can, the American character, which, to cite the Daily Mail article mentioned above, is (arguably) "to ensure that nothing is left to chance," including, of course, errors on the part of the US government.

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II. Modest Suggestions, from a Public Diplomacy Perspective

I don't want to get too "negative," so here are a few modest suggestions:

1. Before a presidential/high-level Washington visit, send an experienced senior person(s) representing USG entities to work with officials of the host government, advised by Embassy senior management (sure, it's already being done, but with insufficient embassy input).

2. Reduce the number of WH/Secret Service/other agencies personnel sent overseas at enormous expense for a high-level visit, thereby stopping the high expense of taxpayers' money on their per diem/overtime. True, additional staff may be needed, especially in sensitive technical matters, for a presidential visit, but right now there is an overload of Washington support staff telling everybody what to do (when they don't quite know what it is they should do).

3. Make it possible for an Embassy to operate normally even during official high-level visits. It can be done, if intelligently planned.

4. Most important, cooperate more fruitfully -- and tactfully -- with local officials in security/logistical matters by treating them with attention and respect. At all times, keep the local media/public opinion in mind. Give them access to the events of the visit, not only limiting them to the American press. After all, a high-level visit is meant to have an impact on foreign public opinion, not just on US news.

Of course, this "advice" has been given for years by persons far wiser than your blogger. Little is new under the sun, but I guess there's nothing wrong with a little repetition.