by Renee M. Earle
Some months ago, a former senior State Department official told NPR that the State Department had recognized the importance of reaching broader foreign publics because they are much more influential today in shaping their governments’ policies. While the Internet and social media have obviously accelerated the development of this public influence, I was dismayed at the suggestion that the importance of public outreach abroad was a recent realization within the State Department. The abysmal ratings today for the U.S. in one global poll after another, including the 2020 Pew Global Attitudes report[i], more than ever demand that the department prioritize and enable a robust public diplomacy program in the toolbox of our foreign relations.
Communication with people of other nations, referred to since the 1960s as “public diplomacy,” had been the core mission of the United States Information Agency (USIA) and, since 1999, of the Public Diplomacy (PD) offices within the State Department. USIA was created in 1953, and outreach functions were enhanced after 1960, when President John F. Kennedy tapped Edward R. Murrow as USIA’s director. Education and cultural exchanges at that time remained with the State Department; USIA’s mission was sharing information, telling America’s story to the world – truthfully. Through information programs and media outreach, public diplomacy practitioners engaged audiences around the world to inform them about U.S. society and foreign policy. The goal then as now has been to influence these publics — to understand America and to support its goals internationally.
Public outreach had been practiced in various forms during every administration even before USIA’s creation, and since then, not least during the Cold War. If State Department leadership only lately recognized public diplomacy’s role in conducting our relationships with foreign countries, it reveals a lingering disconnect between the policy developers and public diplomacy. PD too frequently remains an afterthought or a fix-it after a policy has been developed – and even publicly announced.
All Policies Won’t Sound like Music but We Can Avoid Some Sour Notes
The Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998 brought USIA into the State Department in 1999. Despite some less desirable effects of the USIA-State Department merger that negatively affected especially our embassies’ foreign national staff, I initially welcomed the USIA integration into the department as a logical development that would ensure a mutually reinforcing relationship between policy making and preparing its reception in foreign countries. Our overall goals could only benefit from the interaction. And in some areas that turned out to be the case. Working more closely with the bureaus’ assistant secretaries in Washington and with other State Department sections and USG agencies at our embassies resulted in better mission coordination and use of our resources for projects such as countering violent extremism, fighting corruption, or curbing human trafficking.
The area that has not lived up to its potential from the merger, however, is the better coordination between policy development and reflection on possible foreign public reaction. Under the current administration, the awareness meter seems stuck at “insensitive” in our dialogue with the world; however, failure to consider possible foreign reaction adequately is not new. Even Murrow faced similar obstacles, leading him to indicate that he wanted to be involved in the take-off and not only in the (crash) landing. Many missteps are avoidable. For example, in describing the Obama administration’s new emphasis on our relationship with allies in the east, we did not need to “pivot” to Pacific partnerships, leaving our traditional allies in the west wondering whether they had been demoted.
Far too little timely attention has been given to a cardinal tenet of reaching and persuading people successfully: it’s not what you say, it’s what they hear. Speeches and statements that are vetted not only by policy experts but also by public diplomacy professionals who understand the perceptions of foreign audiences stand a much better chance of being received positively. The same language that trumpets a trade deal at home won’t necessarily convince the partner nation’s public that it is also a win for them.
Some of our global communication problems – and their solutions – lie in the way public diplomacy functions are structured and staffed within the department. For the more than 20 years since the USIA-State Department merger, the department has made well-intentioned efforts to identify the best organizational structure for maximizing public diplomacy’s work within the department. It is my view, however, that they have often missed the mark, and that some of the more recent reorganizations have only made the problem worse.
In a welcome step, the department created the position of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in 1999, in theory on a par with the Under Secretary of Political Affairs. However, in contrast to the political affairs undersecretary, which has almost always been filled from within the department by a senior political officer, the top PD position has to this day never been occupied by a seasoned confirmed Public Diplomacy Officer. Moreover, during the Trump administration, the position has been vacant for more than two years.
Similarly, the department’s regional bureaus elevated public diplomacy in name by creating new deputy assistant secretary positions dedicated to public diplomacy. Yet, again, the positions were encumbered by outside appointees through several administrations. The appointees often had a steep learning curve in the conduct of foreign affairs and reaching foreign audiences. This lack of experience on the part of the most senior PD leadership made it hard for them to direct the department’s communication in what to say and how to say it most effectively, leading all too frequently to a perception that our country was tone-deaf.
Karen Hughes was appointed Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs during the George W. Bush administration. She was occasionally ridiculed in some media for one of her initiatives, that of organizing “listening tours” abroad. The idea was not without merit, however, especially at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The problem lay elsewhere. After the listening sessions, the important feedback garnered was not considered or acted upon in further meaningful policy deliberations. Nor was there follow-up with the influential participants themselves. There was no relationship building. Of course, diplomacy should not need listening tours. A good diplomat has listening as part of his/her DNA, but as a demonstration that the U.S. was listening when opinion pointed in the other direction, it was received positively by our foreign interlocutors. And that should tell us something.
Another counterproductive reorganization involved the move of PD desk officers out of a regional bureau’s central PD office into the component geographic offices, unnecessarily scattering PD expertise. The problem was compounded when these jobs were filled by non-PD officers, in effect shortchanging the geographic office that was supposed to be gaining PD input.
Separating Information from Program, the Short-Term from the Long-Term
A second area that has been severely weakened over time is the mutually reinforcing partnering of cultural and education programs with information outreach. Information messaging alone, no matter how ably crafted, does not necessarily build support. On the other hand, experience has shown that combining the shorter-term informational goals with medium and long-term building of relationships addresses perceptions as well as knowledge. In concert, they build foundations on which the information is more likely to be trusted and favorably received.
The department’s PD organizational chart has moved radically in the opposite direction, progressively separating the media/information functions from the program and a coordinated whole. This is evident especially in the structure and organization of public diplomacy functions in Washington. The regional bureaus have increasingly distanced media and information from the authority of the regional Public Diplomacy Office Director. Speaking with one voice is essential, but one-size-fits-all messaging risks being less persuasive in vastly different environments. Fortunately, in the field, the Public Affairs Officer (PAO) still directs both aspects of public diplomacy with press and program officers reporting to the PAO. But when the PAO position is filled by a non-PD officer, the embassy loses experienced PD input in the same way as the Washington regional offices. In both instances, the department must recognize that public diplomacy professionals have a distinct set of skills and expertise, and ensure accordingly that the organization and staffing of public diplomacy reflect this.
It is too soon to assess the effectiveness of the most recent PD restructuring, the creation in 2019 of the Global Public Affairs Bureau, a merger of the Bureau of International Information Programs and the Bureau of Public Affairs. Several aspects bear watching however. Again neglecting the importance of public diplomacy experience, only one of the new bureau’s seven-person leadership team is a career PD officer. Adding outside expertise in technological development or audience research is no doubt essential today to staying on the cutting edge of global communications; however, the bureau’s leadership needs more than technical expertise, and general communications experience certainly should not replace direct experience with audiences abroad. Moreover, the current staffing raises concern that the former information bureau’s mandate of designing and communicating information about the U.S. will be overshadowed by a focus on policy statements and domestic media outreach.
Putting Humpty Dumpty Together Again
In July 2020, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic Staff report on the State Department entitled “Diplomacy in Crisis: the Trump Administration’s Decimation of the State Department,”[ii] took up the importance of public diplomacy. The committee’s key recommendations included promoting more career employees to senior positions. This should start with the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, with clear lines of authority over PD personnel and program resources.
There are other areas that will need to be addressed to restore PD to maximum effectiveness. Years of dismantling and undervaluing of public diplomacy has resulted in a growing scarcity of personnel, scattering of diminishing resources, and blurring of lines of authority. How then can the department best address these issues?
At the time of the USIA-State merger, some argued that creating a separate public diplomacy bureau in the State Department along the lines of the Bureau of Consular Affairs would undermine the desired integration between policy and public diplomacy. Given that this integration is still lagging, however, it might be time to revisit the question. Like consular affairs, public diplomacy requires unique knowledge and skills, and the whole of PD might be better planned, managed, and assessed in a public diplomacy bureau rather than scattered throughout the department’s functional and regional bureaus. There is nothing in such a structure that should prevent the close coordination between policy makers and public diplomacy experts.
At this time of crisis in our international standing, however, creating a public diplomacy bureau might prove a step too far back to the future. In this case, the least that should be done is to reunite PD functions and personnel, the PD desk and press officers, under the direction of the PD office director in each regional bureau. Finally, and most important, whatever the structure of public diplomacy, department leadership must clearly establish policy-PD coordination as a sine-qua-non without delay. After all, before a company develops a new product, the company should know whether and how it will sell in various markets.
For a possible U.S. return to leadership standing in the world, in what promises to be a steep climb, the mission of explaining what the U.S. stands for and where the U.S. views itself in the world, of countering growing disinformation and propaganda, and of regaining the trust of allies will challenge the best of our diplomats — and will require the expertise of experienced public diplomacy professionals. If indeed State Department leadership has realized that communication with broader publics is a critical part of meeting our goals in the world, streamlined and maximally effective public diplomacy operations in the State Department are a fundamental starting point. An administration and secretary of state that understand this will be key to our success.
Renee M. Earle is a retired Public Diplomacy Foreign Service Officer with the rank of Minister-Counselor. She served at embassies in Turkey, USSR/Russia, Kazakhstan, the Czech Republic, France, and the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels. Domestic positions with the Department of State included Diplomat-in-Residence at Duke University in North Carolina, Acting Office Director of Public Diplomacy in the European Bureau, and Chief of the Central Asia Division of the Voice of America, where she directed the Pashto, Dari, Farsi, Uzbek, Azeri, and Turkish language services.