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Mr. Kiehl argues that our Public Diplomacy efforts have had a great fall, but all is not lost. He proposes a new organization for a new public diplomacy, a middle ground between the old, independent USIA and the weak structure that currently exists. —Assoc. Ed.

Can Humpty Dumpty be saved?

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall:
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty in his place again.

by Lewis Carroll, Chapter 6 – Humpty Dumpty

There are rare moments in the swirl of foreign policy debate where there is near unanimity on a single issue. At this moment one such issue dominates—the failure of United States public diplomacy. Critics on the right and on the left, Washington insiders and the public beyond the Beltway, members of both major political parties, even America’s friends and foes abroad all recognize that, like Humpty Dumpty, U.S. public diplomacy has had a great fall. The questions that remain are whether it can be put together again and how that feat might be accomplished.

Once upon a time America had a formidable public diplomacy. One need only look at the history of the Office of War Information in World War II and the U.S. Information Agency during the Cold War to recognize that the United States could conduct public diplomacy to inform, persuade and “win hearts and minds” as well as any nation on the planet. 

America’s recent public diplomacy failures have come not from lack of expertise nor because of flawed technique, but rather because of an absence of the will and the resources to pursue the effort. With the end of the Cold War, American policy makers saw no compelling need to continue to fund a U.S. Information Agency that they saw as a “relic” of the Cold War and ananachronism in the new era of America as the world’s sole super power. Throughout the nineties, USIA’s funds continued to decline, its leadership was rudderless and its raison d’etre was called into question. It was almost with a sense of relief for some USIA staff that, with the consolidation of the foreign affairs agencies, USIA was absorbed by the Department of State. At least, they argued, public diplomacy might now have a place at the table in a new and re-invigorated State Department. To paraphrase Edward R. Murrow, public diplomacy would be “in on the take offs as well as the crash landings” of American foreign policy.

Alas, the devil is always in the details and the details of the merger (perhaps anschluss would be a better description) were not kind to USIA. The programs, products and personnel of the Agency, already seriously weakened by neglect in the decade following the end of the Cold War, were disbursed and diminished through reorganization. Congressional common sense prevailed in separating the information dissemination function from the Fulbright academic and other exchange programs and Congress also saw to it that remaining public diplomacy funds were insulated from the rest of the State Department budget. However, public diplomacy was shorn of its overseas operations—put under the control of the regional bureaus; its media reaction and public opinion research staffs were stripped away—placed within State’s Intelligence and Research bureau and its Foreign Press Centers were transferred to the domestic-oriented Bureau of Public Affairs (PA). PA joined the remnants of the USIA Information Bureau, renamed International Information Programs (IIP), and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) under a new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. A once formidable public affairs agency was reduced to a shadow on the periphery of foreign policy. 2

In the post 9-11 world, it became all too evident that this diminished and fragmented public diplomacy in the State Department was just not adequate to the task. Some minor adjustments and new (or new once again) programs were created under the new Under Secretary, but they proved to be much too little and far too late. There was only the near universal agreement that public diplomacy was broken and something must be done and done quickly to fix it. A number of thoughtful solutions have been proposed to solve the “PD problem” in recent years, from The Heritage Foundation to the Council on Foreign Relations and from the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy to the USIA Alumni Association. 

Each of the studies notes, or at least implies, that there are chronic and systemic problems within the Department of State that must be addressed in any renewal of American public diplomacy. The most serious of these are the absence of:

  • Understanding of the Nature of Public Diplomacy (PD) vis-a-vis Public Affairs (PA);
  • True Integration Within the State Department;
  • Central Authority over Public Diplomacy Operations;
  • Adequate Funding for Public Diplomacy Programs.

There are those who, in a burst of nostalgia, in this 50th anniversary year of the creation of USIA by President Eisenhower, would have an independent U.S. Information Agency recreated along the lines of the original 1953 model. Others see nothing to be gained by meddling with organization charts and lines of authority and responsibility. They would continue things much as they are, but with perhaps a few directives and band aids as a sop to the critics. The first assumes that Humpty Dumpty can be put back together exactly as though 2003 were really 1953. The second assumes that Humpty Dumpty’s fall somehow resulted in a better model. Most proposals for the future of PD lie in the great expanse between these unrealistic alternatives. Public diplomacy renewal must address the systemic failures of the current model.

Public Diplomacy is not an overseas version of Public Affairs. The military separates public affairs from psychological operations because it recognizes that the two elements can be incompatible or even contradictory. The Public Affairs function deals principally with the media and is essentially reactive and informative, whether in response to an event or news story or to preempt the media by getting the story out first. The PA time line is usually measured in minutes to a few days. Public Diplomacy, like peacetime psychological operations, is pro-active. It deals with the whole spectrum of society. It seeks to change attitudes, persuade the target audience as well as to inform. Its time line can be from a few hours to several decades to achieve success. Overseas, public affairs officers are faced with mounting pressures from Embassy front offices to devote their energies to public affairs at the expense of public diplomacy.

Those who practice Public Diplomacy are not mere technicians. If public diplomacy is ever to be at the heart of the foreign policy process, it must reside there. One cannot “call in” the public diplomacy team when needed. Public diplomacy officers must be among those who would be doing the “calling in.” In other words, senior leadership of the real power centers of the Department of State, the regional bureaus, must include senior public diplomacy officers at least at the Deputy Assistant Secretary level. In the current State Department, senior PD officers are, for the most part, restricted to the two ex-USIA bureaus, IIP and ECA. Since the reorganization of the foreign affairs agencies in October 1999, only a single public diplomacy officer has been assigned to a regional bureau at the DAS level, and that was only in the summer of 2003. Even at the office director level in the regional and functional bureaus, PD cone officers are rare indeed. If such exclusion were based on race, gender or ethnicity, it would surely evoke such an outcry that corrective action would be taken immediately.

Unity of command leads to unity of action. Perhaps the single most serious flaw in the 1999 reorganization plan was the inclusion of the regional USIA offices as Public Diplomacy offices within the regional bureaus of the Department. This has meant that the PD office director and the PD staff were under the direct supervision of one of the DAS’s and ultimately under the Assistant Secretary in the regional bureau. The regional bureaus call the shots. No amount of “interaction” with the Under Secretary for PD and PA or other PD bureaus can alter this fact. The PD office director’s career is in the hands of those who may not well understand how PD works or who may have agendas that are contrary to what PD would hope to accomplish. As currently constituted, there are at least five different public diplomacies (one for each region) rather than unity of command and a coherent and single public diplomacy adapted to local conditions as needed. The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs has full responsibility for the conduct of public diplomacy worldwide but lacks the authority over that worldwide public diplomacy. It is a recipe for failure.

Money can help but it alone is not the solution. So far in the war on terrorism some modest additional funds have come to public diplomacy. But this amount of money while welcome and already put to good use is only a down payment on an effective public diplomacy for the 21st century. Currently, America’s public diplomacy budget would not even match a mid-sized global business advertising account yet we have learned that informing and persuading foreign publics about U.S. foreign policy, our values and our motives is far more complex than selling Uncle Ben’s Rice or Coca-Cola. Increased funds are absolutely necessary but without a basic reform and restructuring of the public diplomacy function of the State Department, at home and abroad, additional monies will not result in a more effective public diplomacy.

Renewal of American public diplomacy envisages a middle ground between the old USIA, an independent agency, and the weak structure that currently exists. The Under Secretary’s overall control of resources and policy direction would be strengthened with the addition of two offices directly reporting to the Under Secretary: An Office of Resources and Management incorporating the existing executive offices of the ECA-IIP and PA Bureaus and the joint IIP-ECA technology office; and an Office of Policy and Strategic Communications incorporating IIP’s Office of Strategic Communication, its liaison with the White House Office of Global Communication and other interagency coordination of international information with ECA’s policy and evaluation office and the Public Affairs Bureau’s strategic planning office. Public diplomacy then would have both a policy and a budgetary focal point.

In a major departure from the current structure, the Office of the Department Spokesman and part of the Office of Press Relations would be relocated to report directly to the Secretary of State. This actually reflects the reality of the way the Spokesperson has functioned for many years as well as the nature of the Spokesman’s relationship with the Secretary. Removal of the Spokesman’s role from the remainder of the Public Affairs Bureau would allow the realigned Bureau to concentrate on lower profile but still very important outreach to the American public and institutions, countrywide media and intergovernmental relations as well as the Department Historian and the new U.S. Diplomacy Center.

With a central policy and resource core in the hands of the Under Secretary, public diplomacy would consist of four Bureaus reporting to the Under Secretary: Public Affairs and Liaison, International Information Programs, Public Diplomacy Operations and Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The IIP Bureau would regain the Foreign Press Centers and associated Broadcast Services as well as consolidate the web sites of IIP and PA into a single entity. The Office of Media Reaction and Research would move from the INR Bureau back to public diplomacy in IIP. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs would remain largely the same, minus the policy and evaluation and executive offices that would migrate to the Under Secretary’s direct responsibility.

A most far-reaching structural change would be in a new Bureau of Public Diplomacy Operations. This Bureau would be composed of the current Public Diplomacy offices now lodged in each of the five powerful geographic bureaus and the PD office in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs. Each of these offices would continue to be the interface and communication conduit between public diplomacy in the Department and the PD field posts at overseas missions. To ensure the integrity of public diplomacy practiced abroad, each PD section chief at an overseas mission would receive a performance evaluation from both the Ambassador/DCM and the relevant PD geographic office director/ supervisory DAS. All assignments for Public Diplomacy section chiefs would be cleared with the Under Secretary’s office and field posts’ Information Officers and Cultural Affairs Officers would be vetted with the IIP and ECA bureaus respectively.

Dynamic leadership at the Department of State by Secretary Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage has brought increased funding and a new sense of purpose to a government agency badly in need of reform. 4 Much that is good has happened since January 2001 to reinvigorate State. Now is the time to extend that same energy and emphasis to the Department’s public diplomacy. This unfinished business —a renewal of America’s public diplomacy cannot be postponed any longer.

Major changes to the structure and function of public diplomacy within the Department of State, particularly the creation of a new bureau, cannot be accomplished without Congressional support and input into the process. Legislation will be necessary and this would be the appropriate time to amend the basic legislation regarding public diplomacy, the Smith Mundt Act of 1948. 5 This legislation has formed the foundation for U.S. information and exchange programs for 55 years. In the decades since its passage in the early days of the Cold War, it has stood the test of time remarkably well. Yet there is one provision that hamstrings American public diplomacy unnecessarily. The provision of the Smith-Mundt Act which prohibits the dissemination of American international informational material in the United States or to U.S. citizens has become both unenforceable and unnecessary in this age of global communication, 24/7 news and worldwide use of the internet.

Realigning boxes on an organization chart and drawing lines of authority and relationships can be tedious, uninspiring and easily bore policy makers. It is not glamorous work but it is an essential ingredient in the renewal of public diplomacy in the Department of State. With an organization designed to unify and strengthen public diplomacy in place and with an Under Secretary in possession of real authority over the work of the organization, public diplomacy can begin anew the long, difficult and unceasing task to tell America’s story to the world.

1. For a concise look at public diplomacy as practiced by the U.S. Information Agency see: Dizard, Wilson, “Remembering USIA“ Foreign Service Journal, July-August 2003.
2 . See: Reorganization Plan and Report (revised March 1999) Submitted Pursuant to Section 1601 of the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998 as Contained in Public Law 105-277.

3. Of the numerous recent studies and reports on the state of public diplomacy, several stand out as most influential. They include: Johnson, Stephen and Dale, Halle, “How to Reinvigorate U.S. Public Diplomacy”, Heritage Foundation Backgrounder #1645, April 23, 2003; “Secretary Colin Powell’s State Department: An Independent Assessment” Foreign Affairs Council Task Force Report, March 2003; “Public Diplomacy: A Strategy for Reform” A Report of an Independent Task Force on Public Diplomacy Sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, July 30, 2002; “U. S. Public Diplomacy: State Department Expands Efforts but Faces Significant Challenges”, U. S. General Accounting Office Report to the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives, GAO-03-951, September 2003; “Consolidation of USIA Into The State Department: An Assessment After One Year”, United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, October 2000 and two papers prepared by retired USIA officers and endorsed by the USIA Alumni Association, “Making Public Diplomacy Effective” May 23, 2003 and “Our Crippled Public Diplomacy” September 1, 2002, .

4. For a description of the State Department’s corporate culture prior to the leadership of Secretary Powell and an earlier proposed organizational solution to Department inertia, see: Kiehl, William P. “Unfinished Business: Foreign Affairs Consolidation was only the Beginning”, National Security Studies Quarterly, Vol. VII No. 1, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. Winter 2001, pp 117-129.

5. Commonly known as the Smith Mundt Act, the United States Information and Educational Exchanges Act of 1948, as amended, 22 U.S.C. 1431, prohibits the dissemination of informational materials produced for overseas use in the U.S. or to U.S. citizens or residents.


William P. Kiehl is the Diplomat in Residence at the Center for Strategic Leadership, U. S. Army War College and Senior Fellow of the U.S. Army Peacekeeping Institute. A member of the Senior Foreign Service, Mr. Kiehl has served for thirty-three years as a Public Diplomacy officer at home and abroad. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any of the organizations with which he is affiliated.


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