National Security Strategy punts on strategic communication and public diplomacy

Last month, President Obama released his first National Security Strategy. It is a substantial departure from President George W. Bush’s narrowly focused 2002 strategy that imagined “every tool in our arsenal” as only “military power, better homeland defenses, law enforcement, intelligence, and vigorous efforts to cut off terrorist financing.” In contrast, President Obama’s new National Security Strategy acknowledges that countering violent extremism is “only one element of our strategic environment and cannot define America’s engagement with the world.”

This National Security Strategy (NSS) goes to great lengths to discuss the complex and intertwined global and governmental environments. From fiscal security to physical defense, this strategy is comprehensive in explaining the conditions within we operate.

However, the imperative of creating understanding and shaping influence at all levels, from individuals to governments, is at best a subtle inclusion throughout and at worse a passing thought. The NSS completely avoids the term “public diplomacy” even as it highlights the value of cultural and educational exchanges. Interestingly, in the one paragraph that directly discusses strategic communication, a paragraph that uses strategic communication as a synonym for the ignored phrase “public diplomacy,” the plural – “strategic communications” – is used, indicating the crafting or editing by someone not versed or immersed in the field. However, “engagement” is used liberally throughout the strategy, so much so it often appearing more than once in a paragraph. The word “influence” is also frequently used.

Arguably, it could be that the strategy’s authors intended America’s communication and engagement would be so intertwined at the base level of each action that a direct mention was unnecessary. This is, however, unlikely as neither the document, its creation, or the institutions it addresses are integrated to the necessary degree. It would appear that the NSS team deferred on the issue of centralizing the prioritization of public diplomacy and strategic communication.

This week, the Defense Department hosted a blogger and online media roundtable with Amanda J. Dory, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, to discuss the strategy. I asked Dory about the lack of direct attention to public diplomacy and strategic communication in the strategy and whether or not we need an information strategy. She acknowledged this is a complex subject and noted various efforts across government to understand the capabilities and requirements.

The president separately as you're probably aware has called for a fuller framework to explore strategic communications, and there was a separate report to Congress that focused on that earlier this year. Additionally, the State Department is working on strengthening its public diplomacy efforts and DOD is also working on oversight and coordination of its information and operations programs.

I think in this instance in the National Security Strategy, you get the overall guidance and direction, but the federated approach to implementation means that a fair amount of the detail in the implementation is left to the different agencies.

The strategy notes the need for the executive branch to develop “integrated plans and approaches that leverage the capabilities across its departments and agencies to deal with the issues we confront.” However, it is not clear that the National Security Strategy provides any serious guidance or direction and the “federated approach,” as Dory described it, is so far not providing the comprehensive integration necessary from the tactical, through the operational to the strategic levels of planning, resource allocation, and execution.

The White House report earlier this year laid out a framework, not a strategy as Congress requested. The Defense Department report laid out their framework of the moment as they continue to adjust to improve, as Dory pointed out, oversight and coordination. The State Department’s framework was an overdue and incomplete gap solution in pursuit of a still-absent strategy. 

Call it the “federated approach”, stovepipes, or “cylinders of excellence”, there is no sign it will work.

If the authors of the National Security Strategy intended to provide “overall guidance and direction” while deferring to individual agencies, they failed. What “guidance and direction” appears in the strategy is inadequate to serve as a forcing mechanism to drive subsequent nested strategies, some of which have already been written.

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