Adm. Mullen Elevates ‘Strategic Communications’ Debate Above a Third-Grade Level
Friday, August 28, 2009 at 9:09 am
For years, public diplomacy — and its uniformed cousin, ‘strategic communications’ — has been discussed in Washington like a mantra: just find the most authentic ways of telling the “story” of the United States or of particularly unpopular U.S. actions, and suddenly people will realize that they just misunderstood America and problem solved. Critics countered that the argument infantilized the people supposedly targeted by U.S. messaging, who had real problems with U.S. actions as judged through their own interests, and then tended to discount the entire enterprise as a cynical and stupid ruse. (Some tried to recast public diplomacy as a national-security mission, but it’s not clear how the gains of that uphill bureaucratic battle have endured.)
Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a surprisingly vigorous advocate of social media — he’s on Twitter a lot and is currently holding a YouTube town hall meeting — cuts through a stale debate in the new issue of Joint Forces Quarterly (PDF). His basic argument is that public diplomacy/strategic communications is both overthought and underthought at the same time: overthought in the sense of endless PowerPoints and staff lessons about how to spread an effective message and underthought in the sense of basic insights escaping those bull sessions. For instance:
I would argue that most strategic communications problems are not communications problems at all. They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or we don’t deliver on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are …
To put it simply, we need to worry less about how to communicate our actions than about what our actions communicate.
Mullen’s answer is to spend time and effort at building relationships — actual, interest-to-interest personal and policy relationships — with the cohorts that U.S. actions seek to influence. But that statement doesn’t imply an answer for what happens when the United States wants to influence a population cohort that doesn’t want an American presence. Mullen, for instance, shuttles to Pakistan frequently, and deals with Pakistani civilian and military elites more than almost any U.S. official. But those officials are out of touch with the large majorities of Pakistanis who hate the United States as much as the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
The admiral is scheduled to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 15 for his renomination hearing to serve another term as chairman. Maybe he’ll be asked to draw out the implications of his argument then.
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