Not Afraid to Talk: our adversaries aren't, why are we?

For an unabridged version of the below post, go here. Otherwise read on.

GWU professor Marc Lynch, perhaps more commonly known as Abu Aardvark, revealed the positions on public diplomacy of the current presidential candidates:

I came across something interesting while doing some research on public diplomacy for an unrelated project.  Since at least the 9/11 Commission Report, almost every foreign policy blueprint or platform has for better or for worse mentioned the need to fix American public diplomacy and to engage with the "war of ideas" in the Islamic world.   I expected all three remaining Presidential candidates to offer at least some boilerplate rhetoric on the theme.  What I found was different.

Marc highlighted the differences between the presidential candidates on what is arguably the most important and yet least understood element of our national security. At the end of his post, he challenged John Brown, Patricia Kushlis, and this blogger to offer our thoughts.  Patricia at Whirled View responded, as did John Brown and a few others. I suggest you read their responses.

The central theme underlying the candidates' positions is, of course, the use of persuasion to shape desirable outcomes. The ability to influence has broad implications beyond physical security issues like terrorism. Economic security (think trade and tourism) and the effectiveness of traditional diplomacy are impacted as well. While, as Marc tells us, Clinton avoids the subject of public diplomacy (and apparently the concept as well), McCain and Obama focus too narrowly on the current struggle. The result is recommendations that are bound to fail.

To begin with, we must accept that the romantic days of the United States Information Agency are gone.  So many confuse the USIA and the other information services, such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, of recent decades with the USIA that was engaged in the active psychological struggle that largely ended with détente and the finalizing of the European partition.  It was only after this aggressive period ended was "public diplomacy" coined, twelve years after USIA was created.

Unlike half a century ago, the U.S. military has a clear voice and is arguably our dominant public diplomat. Therefore, simply resurrecting “USIA” without reorganizing our national information capabilities across civilian and military lines would turn it into just another voice struggling to be heard over America’s military commanders, spokespersons, and warfighters.

The candidates must look deeper than re-creating an agency and or re-establishing old outreach programs.  They must show strong leadership and have a bold vision to rally the government and country to adapt to a world that requires understanding the information effect of action, agile response capabilities, and above all, credibility and trust.

What needs to change?

First and foremost, we must revisit and discuss the purpose and intent of the prohibitions of Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. Debated and enacted to improve the quality of our responses to adversarial propaganda during the communications revolution of the 1940s, it was based on the communications market of the time.  It is now invoked to prevent any potential communication that might possibly be heard or seen by Americans.  This fear of being overheard in America has done more to neuter U.S. responses and to encourage the creation of new information functions than anything else.  We have created an information architecture that cares more about how a broadcast, flyer, or message will play in Iowa than in the primary center of gravity of the fight: the minds of the support base of our adversary.  The result is timid responses and artificial self-containment out of touch with the virtual geography of today’s psychological landscape.

Second, our information bureaucracies have become cylinders of excellence (or “stovepipes” for the less sarcastic) based not on effects but means and with limited to no interoperability or coordination.  The different working philosophies of the State Department and the Defense Department challenge the ability to create a cohesive U.S. narrative. The State Department’s Public Diplomacy, for example, is configured to influence over an extended period of years or decades.  Rarely is it intended to shift ideas and perceptions over months or even weeks. 

The Defense Department runs by a different clock. Defense Department groups, from Public Affairs and Information Operations and to Psychological Operations, work proactively and frequently as part of a multifaceted approach to shape outcomes both during and immediately after an event.  The extended Defense timeline includes State-like longue durée approaches, but it mostly operates in the “here and now” because of the need to respond to the current battlefield.

Third, we must better understand root causes of radicalization and disenfranchisement.  Responding to this requires more than words, but deeds.  As I wrote elsewhere, enduring change comes from systemic overhauls that stabilize unstable regions.  Security, humanitarian relief, governance, economic stabilization, and development are critical for democratization.  Failing to address grinding poverty and disillusionment in regions creates fertile breeding grounds for extremists, terrorists, and insurgents to attack the national interests of the United States.  These are the real propaganda of deeds.  Without competent and comprehensive action in these areas, tactical operations are simply a waste of time, money, and life.

Edward R. Murrow, the only chief of the United States Information Agency who regularly attended National Security Council meetings, famously stated that public diplomacy must not only be in on the “crash landings” but also at the take-offs.  This is true of any attempt to persuade or compel, which are the goals of both foreign policy and military operations.  It is essential that the information effects of what we do are considered from the outset, including the impact of information campaigns.

Sixty years ago, the elements of America’s national power – diplomacy, information, military, and economics, or DIME – were retooled to meet an emerging threat with the National Security Act of 1947 and the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948.  Then as it is today, the U.S. was engaged in a war of ideas and perceptions both globally and domestically, however the importance and impact of Smith-Mundt is ignored despite its influence, often negative, on every aspect of America’s informational arsenal.

This year the Defense Department will look into how the National Security Act of 1947 should be modified to adapt to 21st Century conflict.  The candidates should be bold and argue for a more holistic self-analysis.

Our information systems suffer from inflexibility and internal resistance rooted in a misunderstanding of Smith-Mundt that requires updating to conform to a reality that makes separating audiences by geography both impractical and undesirable.  This will not be a conflict over hearts and passions, but a psychological struggle over minds and wills.  We must stop telling foreign publics what we want our own people to hear.  Unless we get our information house in order, the United States will remain virtually unarmed in the battles that shape our future.

Now is the time to retool for the current and future fight.  Our economic and physical security depends on it. 

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