by Donald M. Bishop
The overseas Public Diplomacy conducted by the State Department received two big jolts after the turn of the new century. It’s time, therefore, to examine what endures, and what’s new, in this vital part of American diplomacy.
What were these jolts? First, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 made it clear that the United States now had to communicate with the young, the disaffected, and the religious. American diplomats had to learn the faith dimensions of other societies, counter the use of the internet for terrorist recruitment, and staff huge Public Affairs Sections in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
The second jolt came when Russia integrated disinformation, propaganda, bots and trolls, and attacks on democracy into their “hybrid warfare” against Estonia, Georgia, Crimea, and Ukraine. These were updates of the old Soviet “active measures,” now turbocharged by the internet and spread by the new, well-funded Russian international broadcasting networks. RT (formerly Russia Today, motto “Question More”) endlessly challenges plain facts, history, the findings of international investigations, and reliable journalism. Sputnik’s motto, “Telling the Untold,” means offering conspiracy theories and/or dark spin against whichever facts and narratives displease the Kremlin. Other authoritarian states—China and North Korea prominent among them—are adapting these tactics for their own purposes.
At first, this was happening in places far distant from America’s domestic preoccupations. It was the Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election that revealed these tactics for most Americans. Foreign policy, communications, and cyber specialists all now agree that the Russian aim is to break down America’s (and NATO’s) confidence in democracy.
It was long in gestation, but the State Department has concentrated its response in a new unit in Washington, the Global Engagement Center, tasked to “lead, synchronize, and coordinate efforts of the Federal Government to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests.”
Responding to the jolts generated hearings, studies, and proposals in Washington, but there hasn’t been an equal focus on how Public Diplomacy is actually conducted overseas in U.S. embassies and consulates.
In retrospect, the overseas Public Diplomacy of the 1990s—after the end of the Cold War but before the jolts—was “steady state,” continuing the decades-long commitment to “tell America’s story to the world,” promote “mutual understanding” and lay a “foundation of trust” with other nations. Programs and organization largely continued in the Cold War frame. In my view, the frame has four levels:
The Long Game
Going for the Goals
(1) Publicity. A certain amount of time is spent on publicity for the Ambassador and for Mission events. This includes arranging press conferences, media availabilities, and photo ops. The events might include visits by the Ambassador, signing of agreements and grants, openings and closings of trade shows, and interviews. The Ambassador’s tweets and the embassy’s Facebook accounts are part of this publicity work. This is very basic workaday PR, but in big embassies, or posts with highly active Ambassadors, it absorbs a lot of staff time.
(2) Public affairs. This parallels public affairs or public relations for a company or other organization. Larger than publicity, it begins with such basics as press releases, transcripts, media advisories, fact sheets, and bios. Tasks include receiving questions from the media; providing responses that have been approved by the Embassy front office and perhaps by the State Department; arranging backgrounders and interviews for local and international journalists; keeping the Embassy’s website up to date; providing press support for other USG agencies at post; and handling crises.
When administration principals visit the capital, or when an American military unit or a naval vessel visits, Public Affairs includes working with the host government, planning a visit in such a way as to showcase U.S. concerns and policies to local publics, and thinking about ways to convey messages and themes.
(3) The long game. Over the long haul, good Public Diplomacy conducted at diplomatic posts can lay important groundwork for international cooperation. It can deepen local understanding of how American institutions and values underlie U.S. foreign policy initiatives. The making of American foreign policy usually seems quite messy, even illogical, to foreign observers, so explaining how our system functions is important groundwork for the future.
This long game translates into exchanges, the Fulbright program, support for American studies among foreign academics, and promoting study in the U.S. and English language learning. It also includes the highly lauded International Visitor Leadership Program that identifies local rising stars and sends them to the U.S. to gain a first-hand understanding of American politics and society.
(4) Going for the Goals. This is the planned use of the full array of Public Diplomacy programs to advance specific U.S. goals. Supporting every U.S. goal in every country is not possible, so the Mission’s annual planning process sets priorities among bilateral, regional, and worldwide U.S. goals.
The Public Affairs officers review the program repertoire of Public Diplomacy—media relations, cultural affairs, information resources, social media, exchanges—and orchestrate an array of coordinated initiatives that move the Mission’s objectives forward. This can include speeches by the ambassador, speakers and seminars, workshops for journalists, op-eds, research, and media campaigns. There’s more: watching local opinion trends, identifying local influencers and providing them with research and papers, and helping local TV crews visit the U.S. to report on the issues.
While these four traditional Public Diplomacy functions continue,1 the impact of this century’s jolts mean it is time for Public Diplomacy to add two more levels to the old framework.
(5) Flag “active measures.” Public Diplomacy officers at embassies and consulates must notice when malign information is gaining local traction. It may take the form of disinformation, propaganda, bald lies, and mischaracterizations of American policies and/or leaders, shaped to play into local stereotypes and sensitivities. There’s a lot to learn from reading local news, eyeing social media streams, watching local television, and talking to people from all walks of life.
Alas, comprehensive monitoring and analysis of the print and broadcast media, the web, and local grapevines are beyond the reach of embassy Public Affairs Sections, never staffed for this new task. Contact between embassy officers and local people have also become less frequent when travel is limited for budgetary or security reasons.2
(6) Inculturated Advocacy. The other task that deserves newly increased attention is to advocate U.S. initiatives, sustain alliances and coalitions, defend democracy, and tell the truth in country- and culture-informed ways. While it is Washington that lays down the main lines of U.S. foreign policy and provides talking points on specific issues, leaders in the U.S. capital often don’t grasp how a Washington message will be received by the many different audiences in other countries—or how it may transgress social fault lines. Public Diplomacy posts overseas are better positioned to focus on the cultural and religious dimensions of partner nations.
Flag “Active measures”
The Long Game
Go for the Goals
These are the tasks that Public Diplomacy must now concentrate on at Foreign Service posts. These are the tasks that Congress and the administration must fund. All are keyed to achieving America’s goals in the world. It’s a large agenda, but it’s challenging and worthy work.
1. Successful implementation of Public Diplomacy programs also involves management. Public Affairs Officers must operate on all four levels simultaneously, juggling many balls, and occasionally the mix gets skewed. If Washington demands more participation in long game programs (send us passels of entrepreneurs today, women’s leaders tomorrow, and disadvantaged youth next week), if the Ambassador demands more publicity, if the local or international media overwhelm the Embassy’s press office, then it is the culminating level of Public Diplomacy (Going for the Goals)—especially the strategizing and planning—that usually gives way. If that happens, PAOs lose initiative, and Public Diplomacy becomes reactive and defensive.
2. This is one more reason to examine the value of programs that now absorb the time of Public Diplomacy practitioners at Foreign Service posts. If “more” awareness of the penetration of disinformation, propaganda, and active measures is needed, then it’s necessary to do “less” of something else. For instance, reviewing 50,000 applications for the large, continent-wide Young African Leaders Initiative during the last administration overwhelmed many Public Affairs Sections. Other work gave way to identifying and sending candidates. Providing posts with money for small Public Diplomacy grants has also been a mixed blessing. Recent reports by the Office of the Inspector General document many lapses in documentation, so that Public Diplomacy management time shifts from contact and communication to paperwork.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications at Marine Corps University in Quantico. He was a public diplomacy officer in the U.S. Information Agency and the Department of State for 31 years, serving in Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, China, and Afghanistan.