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The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent

Judith McHale on Public Diplomacy’s Role in National Security

In February, I did some reporting about how it was far from clear whether the Obama administration embraced the proposition that public diplomacy is a national

Landon Morton
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | Jun 11, 2009

In February, I did some reporting about how it was far from clear whether the Obama administration embraced the proposition that public diplomacy is a national security mission. Some observers wondered whether Judith McHale — now confirmed as the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, who came from the Discovery Channel — would revert to a version of public diplomacy that acts as little more than PR-style boosterism for America. Meanwhile, here at the Center for a New American Security conference, Gen. David Petraeus discussed the necessity of being “first to the truth” with presenting a compelling and true message about U.S. operations in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and, less directly, Pakistan to convince the locals that their interests lie with U.S. allies and not with insurgent groups.

What does McHale believe? Her first speech in office is delivered to CNAS’ conference, and it’s about public diplomacy’s place within the national security pantheon. (CNAS’s Kristin Lord notes that no undersecretary for public diplomacy has ever delivered an inaugural speech to a national-security audience.)

McHale calls “innovative” public diplomacy “part of smart power” — as makes sense for one of Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton’s deputies — and gives the standard line about technology enabling more thorough opportunities for distributing American messages. She quotes Defense Secretary Bob Gates on the need for credible messages, as judged by foreign publics. She also mentions al-Qaeda’s use of “old and new” media to spread its propaganda. “This is not a propaganda contest, this is a relationship race,” McHale says, “and we need to get back into the game.” I don’t really know what that means.

“Move beyond messaging,” McHale urges. “Listen more, lecture less … We need to explain our positions and policies up front.” She urges increased cultural and educational exchange programs. She’s happy that State Department officials texted and blogged the Obama Cairo speech around the world and hosted speech-watches and visited mosques “putting a local face” on the speech. “Local voices and local aspirations must drive these vessels.”

While she’s saying all this, a bunch of Tweetpeople note across my feed that this is a speech full of jargon and little substance. Instant “relationship building,” as McHale says. Those relationships will “counter extremists,” she says. Not the extremists who dislike the speech …

OK, she mentions the Pentagon’s role in public diplomacy. Says the Defense Department’s involvement has “bolstered” State’s understanding, and tells a story about Defense-State partnership on Nigerian anti-HIV/AIDS work. “We cannot build a civilian capacity [for public diplomacy] … without adequate resources, and at the State Department we just don’t have one.” But it’s not just money: “a strong emphasis on achieving real results” will mark her tenure, putting public diplomacy and “sound research” into policy debates. McHale wants to launch pilot programs to see what works. “The bottom line is results matter,” she says.

On Afghanistan and Pakistan: enhanced public diplomacy is “a key component” of the new strategy. “We will have to tailor our approach… valley by valley, village by village.” New strategy from McHale will support “democratic institutions and civil society.” Part of the task is to reassure Afghans and Pakistans that the U.S. has their interests in mind. She talks about “cell phone penetration” in both countries, and talks about texting as a mechanism to help persons displaced by the Swat fighting.

But there’s nothing about, for instance, U.S. efforts to counter the Pakistani or Afghan Taliban’s wide ranging radio broadcasts, as Amb. Richard Holbrooke has called an imperative — either through jamming their frequencies or by confronting their messages. Maybe that’s not strictly a function of her job, but it’s conspicuous that in a speech ostensibly about national security that no such practical public-communications about the war issues arose.

She gave a lot of public praise for the Defense Department, counterinsurgency and Petraeus. But the text of her speech was pretty orthogonal to their concerns. McHale’s appearance here appears to be an act of diplomacy of her own.

Landon Morton | Landon is a professional character coach, motivational speaker, and consultant who values commitment, service, and excellence. Landon brings to your company valuable insights gained from his battlefield experience as a decorated combat veteran, enabling you to unleash the untapped potential of your employees. He illustrates how the invaluable talent that each individual brings to your company will positively affect your mission through real-world examples.


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