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Reader Comments on “The Future of Public Diplomacy”

From:  Ambassador (ret.) William A. Rugh, Ph. D.
Board member, The Public Diplomacy Council
I have just read over Judith McHale’s new plan, and I am disappointed. It’s underwhelming.

After all that work over months, and delays, it is a “framework” that is only the “first phase of a process for developing a detailed strategic plan” (p.2) Then it lays out what the professionals have known all along, as if these conclusions were new but almost none of it seems really new. It is tentative. It calls for revitalizing American centers but doesn’t say how. It calls for more educational advisors but doesn’t say how to do that. It says better inform policy makers (an old theme going back to Edward R. Murrow) but doesn’t say how. It says combat violent extremism but provides little new there. It says country plans no longer exist, and that’s a good point, but are they being revived?

Moreover, some items are puzzling.  It says the Undersecretary lacks mechanisms and calls for strengthening of “R”, but the organization chart doesn’t give a clue as to how that might happen.  The idea to create a PD DAS in the regional bureaus in not new, and the Undersecretary still does not seem to have much influence over that position, since the link on the chart is a dotted line.  There is nothing at all about the Undersecretary having authority over PAOs and other PD officers through EER writing, personnel assignments and budget making, which is the only way to do strengthen R, in my opinion. The IIP shop, under her, is to be enhanced with a “strong leader” but the leader’s title is still coordinator, not Assistant Secretary that has been discussed for some time.

And the chart on page 26, if I read it correctly, seems to give some of her authority away, in actual fact.  It shows the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, who I assume to be P.J. Crowley, supervising not only four DAS positions but also the FPC, media hubs and the RRU.  My understanding is that Crowley is really only the Spokesman and his “reporting” to the Undersecretary is in practice a myth, so why does he get FPC, RRU and media hubs? Those should be under IIP.

It is troubling that the whole focus of the plan gives only lip service to the PAO. It does say the PAO should be strengthened, but it fails for example to stress that the PAO is the key person to evaluate and report on foreign public opinion; instead it creates a new office in Washington for that.  It says nothing about the linkage between the PAO and Washington, especially with R, which is a major problem that needs to be addressed.

Finally, it says nothing about professionalism and training, and the problem that non-PD cone officers are assigned to PD slots, or that PD cone officers are not given enough support by State’s personnel system.

Did I miss something?

From: Matt Armstrong, who blogs at
The State Department’s recently released ‘framework’ is full of overdue recommendations, most (all?) were ‘common’ knowledge before McHale entered office.

It is interesting to note that in trying to improve America’s discourse, there was limited discourse with the public diplomacy community, from creation to revision to rollout.

McHale’s office has not effectively communicated: (a) that the release was delayed for sign off by the Secretary, Under Secretaries, and key Assistant Secretaries to make it State’s framework and not McHale’s framework; (b) substantive details, such as resourcing and authorities, on new positions the framework seeks to create;  (c) that cultural and educational programming still matters when it barely appears in the framework; (d) how McHale’s office will take on – or refuse to take on – roles and responsibilities currently held by Defense, and (e) that real & progressive recommendations to move forward, and not just catch up, will be forthcoming.

It seems that in improving public diplomacy, State should practice some public diplomacy.

From: Patricia H. Kushlis who blogs at:
If people think the skeletal roadmap unveiled before Judith McHale’s latest Congressional testimony contains the kernel of a vision for a robust American public diplomacy future, they must be dreaming.  True, this power point slide show indicates that State’s current public diplomacy leadership realizes departmental efforts consistently flunk the performance tests.  That’s good but no surprise.  What’s lacking is the will to contemplate fundamental changes: this roadmap doesn’t do it.

USIA was destroyed over a decade ago. Remains were scattered like dead leaves in a March wind throughout State’s hierarchical, secretive and rigid bureaucracy.   Seven more high level public diplomacy positions likely to be filled by political appointees lacking public diplomacy experience – five to report to geographic area directors not even the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy – will again fail to correct the round-hole, square peg, lack of coordination problem public diplomacy has faced since the “merger.” 

From: Philip Seib, Ph. D., Director, Center on Public Diplomacy, University of Southern California
Undersecretary of State Judith McHale’s new framework for U.S. public diplomacy has value in that it muscles up the public diplomacy bureaucracy.  It adds deputy assistant secretaries to the regional bureaus to ensure that PD interests are given voice in those parts of the State Department.  It also promises to have someone assigned specifically to deal with international media.

Fine.  But once these troops are in position, what will they do?  The problems facing American public diplomacy are much more than structural.  They are rooted in the State Department’s unrelenting embrace of Cold War-era approaches to communication that in today’s media-rich environment are woefully inadequate.  New, sophisticated mechanisms are needed to upgrade interactive communication capabilities, to reach out to diasporic populations, to use public diplomacy as a targeted antiterrorism tool, and to become less about branding and more about service to the people being addressed.

Imagination and breadth are required.  The rickety framework put forward by the State Department will not do the job.

From: John H. Brown, Ph. D., compiler of the Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review
I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s such a bland document that commenting on it on my part would have little value — it is so bland that it doesn’t even inspire enough reaction to criticize it. Lacking focus, argument, and originality, it should simply be greeted with a stony silence, ignored. As for the largely negative commentary thus far, from both PD practitioners and academics, about this pointless power point PR pill, read it by all means if you have time on your hands; but we all know that life is short.

But let me end on a positive note.  The “roadmap,” in all its superficiality, does indicate one important aspect of the State Department’s current public diplomacy: that, in fact, it has no real “plan” at all, but rather operates on a kind of semi-automatic pilot fueled, without a sense of central direction, by its many already existing programs. Which maybe is not all that bad? For if the authors of this meaningless “roadmap” (and who are they?) actually had a substantive Roadmap, just imagine to where it would lead: confusion at best, the precipice at worst.

From: Fred Coffey, retired USIA FSO
[Undersecretary McHale’s] main PD engagement ideas are traditional and sound and a continuation of those successfully practiced by USIA with the added tool of social media, which should be exploited. However “shape the narrative” and “informing and influencing foreign publics” strike a PR – a la Charlotte Beers “branding” and “Uncle Ben’s Rice” note.  What happened to “listening and discussing” and “understanding local aspirations”?   Truth is the best propaganda, “warts and all” stated Ed Murrow.  McHale’s dedication to our effective exchanges programs is lauded.  Extending PD field assignments as we did historically is sound as they deepen cultural insights and effectiveness.  But her support of the bedrock field initiatives and PAOs seems an afterthought rather than foremost.

[McHale] layers the already broken PD organization in State by appointing a PD – DAS to each regional bureau where existing PD components have only an informal relationship with her and field posts.  They answer to the bureau assistant secretary.  PD structure lacks a spine.  McHale is “responsible” for all PD but has minimum authority over most PD officers, most PD budgets and most field programs.  Her relationship with field posts and regional bureaus is a dotted line.  A spine-building solution recommended by many ambassadors and PD officers is to relocate the PD components from the regional bureaus to be directly under her control and headed by an assistant secretary for field operations.  PAOs would continue the direction by their ambassadors but have a clear channel to the top for support and vice-versa.  A senior PD officer would remain in each regional bureau for PD policy input.  

From: Lawrence Pintak, the founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University
It is tempting to dismiss the undersecretary’s “framework” with a snide plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. That would be unfair. But the undersecretary sets herself up for that by devoting the bulk of her “framework” to telling us what we already know: There’s been “a communications revolution,” much of the world’s population is under 25 and “communicate in new ways,” and women have it tough. And how many times have we heard that “we must do a better job of listening” and “act boldly and decisively”?

It is impossible to disagree with McHale’s five strategic imperatives: “[T]o pro-actively shape global narratives; expand and strengthen people-to-people relationships; counter violent extremism; better inform policy-making; and, redeploy resources in strategic alignment with shifting priorities.” But each of her predecessors has said something similar. She provides some specifics, but they are few.

The challenge of implementing those strategies is evident in the very success story she cites in her speech: PD outreach in Pakistan, where she says “our aim has been to increase positive American presence on the ground in Pakistan.” How’s that working out? As a top Pakistani journalist put it in a recent email to me: “Anti-Americanism is at its peak in Pakistan these days.”

That said, at the end of the day, McHale faces the same reality as her predecessors; when it comes to PD, ‘It’s the policy, stupid.’ And the fact is that while President Obama struck a huge blow for US-Muslim world relations in his early interviews and speeches, across the Muslim world they are still waiting for words to translate into deeds.

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