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Saving Public Diplomacy

by William P. Kiehl

There is wide agreement that American public diplomacy has experienced a great fall since the end of the Cold War, and particularly since the U.S. Information Agency was abolished in a 1999 reorganization. Agreement, however, has not produced a remedy. In this essay, a retired senior USIA officer provides analysis and offers a structural solution, in hopes that the time for action may be at hand. — Ed.

In my November 2003 American Diplomacy, article “Can Humpty Dumpty be Saved?” I noted:

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. (1)

Regrettably for our nation, in the nearly five years since nothing has changed to alter that statement — no fundamental changes in American public diplomacy have taken place; no meaningful alterations to a flawed structure to provide a chain of command; no significant increases in budget or staffing; no systemic correction of the lack of understanding of the nature of public diplomacy; and no real integration of public diplomacy into the heart of American foreign policy.

There have been, at last count, some 33 separate studies, reports, and findings about America’s public diplomacy issued by governmental and non-governmental boards, commissions, associations, and ad hoc groups.(2) All of them repeat the mantra that American public diplomacy is failing; all note that there are systemic failures; all call for change. It is no less true today than it was in 2003 that: “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.” (1)

Changes must be made and the time to make these changes is now. With a new administration in January 2009 there will be a narrow window to make fundamental changes to undo the damage that the absorption of USIA into the State Department and the spin-off of international broadcasting into a dysfunctional independent entity have caused. (3)

A New Model USIA
But creating a carbon copy of the former U.S. Information Agency is not the answer. As good an idea as it was in 1953 when President Eisenhower created the USIA, today’s world calls for a different model.(4) The 1953 Buick Roadmaster was a great automobile in its day, but today new technologies provide us with the opportunity to build a vehicle that vastly outperforms it. And that is what America needs in a new agency to take on the task of American public diplomacy in the 21st century — an information-rich century that will be defined in terms of the ideological struggle between democracy and terrorism.

The new structure for public diplomacy must have adequate funding and staffing to sustain and accomplish its mission over the long term. Like America’s values and interests, the role of our nation’s public diplomacy is not confined to a single issue, a single region, or a single administration. The necessity for the United States to reach the hearts and minds of the world — to reach out and engage the world in a dialogue — will remain just as long as traditional diplomacy and our armed forces will remain. We must recognize that public diplomacy is a key national security component. If we recognize this obvious fact, we can create a blueprint that will serve the nation for the ages.

Public diplomacy may be defined in various ways. The website of the Public Diplomacy Alumni Association (formerly the USIA Alumni Association) lists the most common definitions (See: Often called strategic communication, public diplomacy must be separated from any other executive department and serve in a coordinated way all agencies of the executive branch. Indeed, its mandate goes beyond government to interface with the corporate and private sector, non-governmental organizations, academia, and individual citizen diplomats in a variety of ways. All of these components of American society have a role in shaping the world’s perceptions of America and our perceptions of the world.

“In on the Take-Offs”
In order for cabinet secretaries and their staffs to pay attention to public diplomacy at the inception of policy as well as during its implementation, the new agency must have a direct link to the Presidency. The oft-repeated statement of Edward R. Murrow, USIA’s director, that to be effective, public diplomacy “must be in on the take-offs as well as the crash landings of foreign policy,” is no less true today.

Edward R. Murrow

One solution would be the creation of a White House entity similar to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), or the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), called the Office of Strategic Communication (OSC) within the Executive Office of the President to coordinate all international efforts within the executive branch which have a public diplomacy component. The OSC would do for strategic communication what OMB does for budgeting and OPM does for human relations across the executive departments and agencies of our government.

Working in close relationship with the existing National Security Council and with a new independent agency that would be responsible for operational international information, broadcasting, and educational and cultural exchanges, the OSC would report directly to and take its instructions directly from the President and his NSC. The extensive existing international information and exchange programs of State, Defense, USAID and other cabinet departments would constitute the staff and provide the initial financial support and resources to create both the OSC and the new independent operational agency. Thus, little if any new funding would be needed.

Public diplomacy in any case costs a fraction of the most common alternative means of national influence — military force. No one knows this better than America’s men and women in uniform who have consistently called for strengthening our strategic communication efforts. Indeed one of the strongest proponents of increased emphasis on the “soft power” of public diplomacy has been Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who noted in his Landon Lecture at Kansas State University in November 2007 just how essential public diplomacy is to national security. (5)

The OSC and Interagency Relationships


The operational agency (call it the Public Diplomacy Agency) would pull together the tools that served the USIA so well for nearly five decades but would also utilize the latest tools available to today’s public diplomacy. Thus educational and cultural exchanges, international civilian broadcasting, print publications, and the all-important person to person contact work by public diplomacy officers in the field would be augmented by state of the art new technologies including the internet, podcasts, virtual reality, desktop video conferencing, texting, and others only now in the imagination of our creative technologists.

It is not the purpose of this essay to provide a detailed blueprint of how this new agency would be structured, but a look at that framework I proposed back in 2003 would not be too far from the mark. The key differences are, of course, that the public diplomacy operational agency would be an independent agency reporting to the President (through the OSC), and the creation of the OSC itself to coordinate all executive branch strategic information activities.

The Public Diplomacy Agency


In order to accomplish its ambitious mission, the new Public Diplomacy Agency should be funded at a minimum of $3.5 billion and staffed at the level of some 12,000 full time employees, about one half of whom would be Foreign National Employees abroad. This is actually fewer employees than were working for USIA and a budget in constant dollars less than USIA’s in the late 1960s. Recognizing that “winning hearts and minds” is done overseas and not in the United States, of the 6,000 U.S. citizen employees no less than one-third should be serving abroad worldwide at any time.

Already, international broadcasting through the BBG and public diplomacy programs of the Department of State account for about $1.7 billion. International Military Exchange and Training Programs and other peacetime military programs could effectively contribute to these civilian programs as could most of the public diplomacy efforts of USAID and the more than 60 federal departments, agencies, and bureaus that conduct some exchange programs abroad.

When I wrote “Humpty Dumpty” nearly five years ago I did not expect to see so little progress in renewing American public diplomacy nor did I expect that America’s standing in the world would sink to the level that it has. There is an even greater urgency today, and so I will repeat much of my concluding remarks in that long-ago essay in the hope that this time perhaps policy-makers will be listening and something will be accomplished.

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 … With an organization designed to unify and strengthen public diplomacy in place and with … 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)

Let us hope that a new administration and a new Congress at last will take a critical look at our public diplomacy structure and act to reverse the trends of the past decade. It is not yet too late to restore American public diplomacy and secure America’s standing in the world.End.


(1) Kiehl, W.P., “Can Humpty Dumpty be Saved?” American Diplomacy, November 13,2003. depts/diplomat/archives_roll/ 2003_10-12/kiehl_humpty/kiehl_humpty.html

(2) A short sample of the reports on public diplomacy in recent years at a minimum would include the following: “Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication in the 21st Century”, Defense Science Board: Washington, DC, January 2008,; Center for Strategic & International Studies, CSIS Commission on Smart Power, Final Report, CSIS Press:Washington, DC, 2007 (See especially Part II, 3. Public Diplomacy, pp. 47-52, “A Call for Action on Public Diplomacy,” The Public Diplomacy Council, Washington, DC, October 2005 , ACALLFORACTIONONPUBLICDIPLOMACY01-2005prin/ ; Business for Diplomatic Action, “America’s Role in the World: A Business Perspective on Public Diplomacy”, October 2007,; “Office of Management and Budget’s Program Assessment of Public Diplomacy for 2006”, January 26, 2008, ExpectMore.Gov,;Johnson, S. and Dale, H., “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.

(3) 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.

(4) The U.S. information Agency and its overseas identity, the U.S. Information Service, had a long and storied history. There are a number of works on the USIA including: Dizard, W., Inventing Public Diplomacy: The Story of the U.S. Information Agency, Lynne Renner:Boulder, Co., 2004; Arndt, R. The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century, Potomac Books:Washington, DC, 2005; Tuch, H., Communicating with the World: U.S. Public Diplomacy Overseas, Institute for the Study of Diplomacy: Washington, DC, 1990.

(5) See:


Dr. William P. Kiehl is the President and CEO of PD Worldwide, international consultants in public affairs, cross-cultural communication, and higher education management. A 33-year veteran of the Foreign Service with the USIA and the State Department, he is the author of many articles on public diplomacy and the editor of America’s Dialogue with the World, now in its second edition.

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