Reforming U.S. Public Diplomacy for the 21st Century

Required reading for today: Heritage's latest titled Reforming U.S. Public Diplomacy for the 21st Century by Tony Blankley, Helle C. Dale and Oliver Horn. (also required: President-elect Obama, we need a new kind of public diplomacy by Heritage's Kim Holmes.)

Margaret Thatcher once said that America is the only nation in the world "built upon an idea." This idea--liberty--has transcended geography and ethnicity to shape American identity and to inspire political discourse, both domestic and foreign, since the nation's founding nearly two and a half centuries ago. Indeed, John Adams wrote that the American Revolution occurred first "in the hearts and minds of the people." Ideas lie at the very core of this country.

It is therefore both frustrating and ironic that the United States should have such difficulty conveying ideas today. Seven years into the war on terrorism, it has become apparent that final victory must be won not only on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in the hearts and minds of people.

Margaret Thatcher also said that the media is the oxygen of the terrorist. The same is true of the counterterrorist and the counterinsurgent. Being able to communicate ideas and counter misinformation and distortion has always been essential to peace, stability, and national security in general. Understanding that everything we say and everything we do is linked and shapes perceptions is, fortunately, becoming vogue.

Very quickly (warning: it may be too quickly written), here are some complimentary and possibly opposing ideas I'm throwing out into the ether on reforming public diplomacy not necessarily addressed in Heritage's report:

  • Establish both an objective and principles of international engagement. Understand why we are engaging - not just communicating - with the world. The national security policy and this mission must be synchronized. Public diplomacy, strategic communication, or whatever you want to call it is central to our national security. Bullets and bombs do not protect our financial system from rumors. They do not protect our health when we need to respond to pandemics and they do not deny sanctuary for terrorists and insurgents and their ideology. Suggested principles: telling the truth, explaining the motives of the United States, bolstering morale and extending hope home and abroad, giving a true and convincing picture of American life, methods and ideals, combating misrepresentation and distortions, and aggressively interpreting and supporting a smart American foreign policy developed and implemented in conjunction with the above principles and long term views. This should also lead to a much simplified National Security Strategy with easy to read, translate, and PowerPoint bullet points.
  • Convince Congress of the need to accept and support the principle(s) of engagement. "Real security, in contrast to the relative security of armaments, could develop only from understanding and mutual comprehension." Congressional support is required for any revamp. They must be assured the problems from the past are the past and the future is well thought out. Promise serious and critical semi-annual public reports to be presented to Congress written by people who understand the issues. The threat is not just from "radical Islamists", but from the criminals, the Chinese, the Russians, and others.
  • Realize that we need a Department of Non-State. The DNS could be conceptual or a separate entity, but realize that extracting public diplomacy from State means we should similarly gut DOD, FDA, USDA, and DHS from their ability to communicate with the world. Extracting "R" from State would mean it is only the Department of State at a time when not only are non-state actors from Al-Qaeda to Hamas to No Mas FARC to the Gates Foundation more important and powerful than ever, but engagement with states is increasingly a public affairs. The USIA was a DNS, however a future DNS/USIA/USAGE (U.S. Agency for Global Engagement, my preferred acronym) didn't have the power it would need today. Coordinating requires right of oversight on key personnel choices and input on programming across the board, not just access to the President. Perhaps it should have two masters like the DOD does. It may be best to keep this in State as State must transform from the 19th Century organization it is.
  • Re-align State's regional bureaus with DOD's Combatant Commands. Increase the power of these regional bureaus by having "super-ambassadors" akin to Combatant Commanders. World affairs are decreasingly subject to the geopolitical borders on which the State Department is aligned. AFRICOM could provide some lessons with its co-deputy structure of State and Defense. State must have a greater presence and power to operate regionally. Create and empower more DASS positions like Colleen Graffy's who operate regionally rather than within country. This will not to diminish country teams but provide greater regional / cross border integration. It will also help align with and increase collaboration with DOD.
  • Realize Foreign Aid and Humanitarian Relief and all manner of capacity building is "public diplomacy" in action. The Marshall Plan, the greatest reconstruction, stabilization, and education and exchange program ever put forward was a program that was in large part a denial of sanctuary program. In response to the MP, the Communists flipped and reorganized and vastly increased their volume and tempo of their lies and distortions. The bad guys don't like stability. The Smith-Mundt Act was passed largely as a response to the uptick in Communist propaganda against the MP. Don't exclude Foreign Aid from the picture today.
  • Break down the barrier between Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy in the State Department. This is global communication and there is a need to be agile, cooperative with the media and very often "pre-active" to help shape discussions by informing and educating along the way. Drop zero-tolerance for errors, push down "PA authority" to lower levels, give everybody media training, and adopt the 4-E's Caldwell is pushing at Leavenworth in new Army Doctrine: empower, educate, equip, and encourage. Engage the public, domestic and foreign, at every opportunity. Use social media, blogger roundtables, and other means to engage in Q&A. Increase language training and have websites like state.gov available in multiple languages with the headlines on the major pages reflecting the likely interest of the linguistic profile. This is common in our allies, why not the U.S.? Increase the agility of DipNote and America.gov. Increase the flexibility of America.gov and similar assets to report on foreign policy of the U.S. and not simply echo press releases.
  • Re-align the walls between Public Affairs, Information Operations, and Psychological Operations. PA is largely re-active and IO and PSYOP understand the power of information. Much of what they do is "white" and overt so move the lines to remove the "stigma" and empower the "PA" who should be "communication officers" or something similar. Agility is required today.
  • Return to the original purposes, principles, and intent of the Smith-Mundt Act that included the principles listed above. Dropping the firewall will increase American's knowledge and oversight of overseas activities conducted in their name and with their tax dollars, raise the bar for domestic media who once through foreign bureaus were a public service, and accept that the truly global information environment does not stop at the water's edge.

Just some quick thoughts I've been working on. More to come later in Tanji's book and mine.

See also: