Future of Public Diplomacy Unsettled at State
Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 6:00 am
As President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton near an announcement of a top State Department official to promote the United States’s image abroad, some veterans of the public diplomacy field wonder if the administration views job as a national security position or a public relations one.
Public diplomacy specialists inside and outside the Obama administration expect that in the coming days, Clinton will unveil her friend and political supporter Judith McHale, a former chief executive at the Discovery Channel, as the next undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. If so, McHale will land in the center of a wide-ranging debate about what her job ought to be. Most of the decade-old office’s post-9/11 chiefs — advertising phenom Charlotte Beers, former State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutweiler, and Bush administration imagemaker Karen Hughes — sought to refurbish America’s overseas “brand,” in advertiser parlance, putting a nonthreatening face on often unpopular U.S. policies. “We’re going to have to communicate the intangible assets of the United States–things like our belief system and our values,” Beers explained to an interviewer in 2001.
The most recently departed undersecretary, the libertarian publisher and economist James Glassman — known for his now-debunked financial analysis “Dow 36,000” — took the office in a much different direction. “In the war of ideas,” Glassman recalled in a phone interview, “it’s often more effective to destroy [U.S. adversaries'] brand than build up ours.” During his brief tenure as undersecretary in 2008, Glassman acted as a public diplomacy “convener,” partnering with foreign organizations who opposed what he called “violent extremism,” rather than traveling to foreign countries to give cheery talks about America’s lofty values. Additionally, Glassman emphasized the organizational aspects of the office, which President George W. Bush tasked in April 2006 to head the government’s strategic communications efforts, bringing together public diplomacy experts from the CIA, the Treasury Department and the military. Glassman’s efforts earned plaudits even from progressive public diplomacy specialists; Newsweek magazine last month wrote that Obama should retain him.
Public diplomacy experts wonder whether the Obama administration will continue Glassman’s efforts, reverse them or pursue a different strategy entirely. “Ripping down others’ brands has not typically been, historically, at the center of the public diplomacy agenda,” said Michael Doran, who recently stepped down as the senior-most public diplomacy official at the Pentagon. “We need to tear down Al Qaeda’s brand and build up the brands of our friends whose interests coincide with ours.”
Some fret that the fact that there is no undersecretary a month after Clinton’s confirmation-hearing emphasis on “smart power” — a term designed to encompass a range of foreign-policy tools, of which public diplomacy has long been considered key — indicates a diminished role for public diplomacy. Nor is the structure of the new administration’s public diplomacy efforts settled: while McHale has yet to be announced, the strategic-communications specialist at the National Security Council, Denis McDonough, is close to the president, prompting speculation that public diplomacy might be increasingly concentrated in the White House. (Neither the White House nor State Department would comment on McHale and McDonough.)
“Around the world, people think President Obama is magic,” said Douglas Wilson, a three-decade veteran of public diplomacy jobs at the now-defunct U.S. Information Agency and the Pentagon, whom Obama passed over for the undersecretaryship after vetting him. “The great danger here is to think that view will hold and that President Obama’s magic is the same thing as a solid, comprehensive public diplomacy strategy. It’s the equivalent of cheap energy — meaning we don’t have to pay attention to a comprehensive energy policy because gas for the moment is cheap.”
Public diplomacy occupies an unconventional space in the State Department. Traditional diplomacy is the process of two governments discussing issues with each other, while public diplomacy involves outreach from a government to foreign populations, through cultural exchanges, media engagements, academic grants and other efforts. Underscoring the divide, public diplomacy used to be the province of a Cold War-era organization, the U.S. Information Agency, which Congress and the Clinton administration disbanded in 1999, folding the public diplomacy portfolio into the newly-created undersecretary’s office, known in department bureaucratese as “R.” Its budget last year was $859 million out of a departmental budget of around $11 billion. Larry Wohlers, the executive assistant to the undersecretary — who runs R’s affairs while there is no undersecretary — said about 1,050 department officials work on public diplomacy around the world, bolstered by local national staff in foreign countries. Spokesman Gordon Duguid said that while there had been a “surge in hiring” across the department, “we’re not there yet” in terms of a sufficient public diplomacy workforce.
The post-9/11 rise in global anti-Americanism posed the biggest challenge for “R” since its inception. Beers, Tutweiler and Hughes took the view that America was merely misunderstood, and making the case for the worthiness of American values would provide a path back to global esteem. Critics from across the political spectrum criticized that approach — a 2005 report from the conservative Heritage Foundation said R’s efforts were “in disarray,” while former Clinton administration official William Galston wrote in 2008 that the “results have been meager” — largely because they glossed over foreign disagreements with controversial U.S. policies, such as the occupation of Iraq.
In 2005, Hughes took a much-publicized “listening tour” of the Muslim world and was greeted with widespread resentment over both U.S. policies, which she chose to address by issuing blandishments like how a love of children was “something I have in common with the Turkish people.” The subsequent criticism of Hughes didn’t stop Bush from designating her office as the lead for all government-wide foreign communications efforts in April 2006 — although several former colleagues of Hughes said she did a poor job convening so-called “strategic communications” professionals from around the bureaucracy. Hughes “didn’t want to touch [the Defense Department] and CIA,” said Doran, the recently-departed Pentagon public diplomacy official.
Glassman took office in mid-2008 and drastically changed his predecessors’ course, viewing public diplomacy as a component of a national-security strategy rather than an image-centric endeavor. “We in R [had] the same goals as the State Department and the rest of the national security apparatus,” Glassman said. “Simply making people like us is not the only way” to use public diplomacy to promote U.S. security interests, and “it’s not even the easiest way.” Glassman set to work reorienting the office to telling negative stories about extremist enemies of the United States, rather than feel-good stories about America. During a visit to the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command, Glassman became amused by a giant, convoluted map outlining extremist and anti-American activities worldwide and hung it on the wall of R’s suite of offices on the seventh floor of the State Department, where Hughes had hung pictures of herself hugging children during her foreign travels. (Glassman said he put the map up “for fun,” but Doran said its placement “still sent a message.”)
Furthermore, in the summer, Glassman created an interagency public diplomacy council of about a half-dozen officials from the Pentagon — including Doran — the CIA, the Treasury Department and other agencies called the Global Strategic Engagement Center, or GSEC, in order to bring coherence to government strategic communications on “a day to day basis.” The GSEC’s chief is a nearly-30 year department veteran, Peter Kovach, who said he hopes to expand the GSEC’s membership as more government agencies focus on public diplomacy. “We advise, structure meetings, and bring people to the table,” Kovach explained, emphasizing that the GSEC’s role is “not deciding” policy but “coordinating and deconflicting” it.
Tarnishing the brand of U.S. enemies meant that Glassman “introduced an ideological element” to the undersecretaryship, Kovach said. Glassman turned R’s efforts to finding and supporting organizations whose work complicated or discredited the narratives deployed by anti-American radical groups. A nongovernmental organization called the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy got technical advice and “very little money” to publicize its work reforming Pakistani religious schools by introducing tolerance lessons to their curriculum, Glassman said. A European NGO effort, Sisters Against Violent Extremism, that focused on the rights of Muslim women, also received technical and financial help from R in publicizing its message. In December, R helped sponsor a global youth summit in New York against violence, known as the Alliance of Youth Movements, along with social-networking organizations like Facebook and HowCast.
“In all these things, we felt we as Americans most of time are not the best and most credible actors,” Glassman said. Instead, “we’re getting behind other people who are doing good things.”
Marc Lynch, a political science professor at George Washington University who studies public diplomacy and the Arab world, praised Glassman’s “forceful advocacy of the ‘strategic communications’ approach, which tied public diplomacy very tightly to the national security concept and practice, as opposed to the more traditional long-term relationship building and engagement approaches.” But Lynch criticized Glassman for “basically capitulat[ing]” to the “vast imbalance of resources” for public diplomacy between the State Department and the much-better-funded Pentagon.
What comes after Glassman isn’t clear. White House officials did not return inquiries for comment about public diplomacy and the new undersecretary, but most public diplomacy experts inside and outside the government believe the position is McHale’s to lose. While her background as a television executive does not suggest a national security focus, neither did Glassman’s background as a libertarian magazine publisher and financial analyst. Lynch recently criticized the prospective appointment of McHale on his blog for Foreign Policy magazine’s website, writing that appointing someone without a public diplomacy background to the R position could “undermine Obama’s promise and cripple America’s ability to revamp its engagement with the world at exactly the time that it is needed most.” Yet some State Department officials who did not want to speak for attribution said that there was nothing in McHale’s background that would support such a sweeping conclusion, either.
Furthermore, it is unclear whether the Obama administration will retain the Bush administration’s structure, with State at the helm of U.S. public diplomacy efforts — nor do experts agree as to what structure is best. GSEC chief Kovach argued that since the State Department is in charge of U.S. foreign policy overall, “we are the logical place to host” public diplomacy efforts. Lynch favored moving the coordination of public diplomacy efforts into the White House. “The virtue of a White House coordinator is that it can impose balance between the approaches, and really give the public diplomacy portfolio a seat at the policy table — not to sell lousy policies after the fact, but to factor in regional attitudes and expectations and possible communications strategies in the policy-making process,” Lynch said, noting that Denis McDonough at the White House is “close to the president and really understands this stuff.”
Others believe that structure is less important than a clear vision for public diplomacy. Doran said that “the failed model isn’t the State R-in-the-lead model, the failed model is the public relations/communicator view of what R is and what public diplomacy is.” Wilson, the former U.S. Information Agency and Pentagon public diplomacy official whom the Obama team vetted for the R job, agreed. “It’s a great mistake to think of public diplomacy in terms of branding, marketing or advertising,” Wilson said. To that end, he and dozens of other diplomats, military officers and private citizens convened at the White Oak plantation in Florida two weeks ago for a weekend summit on public diplomacy . “At White Oak, the [watchwords were] authenticity, credibility and trust,” he said. “The question we need to address is how can you get opinion leaders and [foreign] publics to give us the benefit of the doubt.” Wilson plans to present the Obama administration with the summit’s recommendations this week.
For his part, Glassman said that he shared his views on public diplomacy with Wendy Sherman, a longtime Clinton confidante and former senior State Department official during the transition. “I said that the No. 1 point I’d make is that the R job is a national-security job, it’s not a PR job,” Glassman said. “Some people might say that someone coming into this job with a media background might bode ill.” He paused in a phone interview and remembered, “Though I came in with that background, as well.”
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