by Steven R. Corman
Matt over at Mountain Runner did an interesting post today about a bill pending in Congress to create a Strategic Communication Management Board. He says:
While members of this advisory body may and are likely to come from all parts of the government, it consolidates the shaping and execution of government-wide strategic communication, our public diplomacy with the world, within the Defense Department.
Specifically, the bill anticipates that membership would come from a wide array of agencies, most of them not military, including State, Justice, Commerce, USAID, Director of National Intelligence, National Security Council, and Broadcasting Board of Governors. However, the Board would be chaired by the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.
Matt worries that this broadens the power of DoD too much:
it represents the further entrenchment of the Pentagon as the sole protectors of our national security. We’ve seemingly forgotten the range of the tools of our national power.
For me the legislation raises three general issues that deserve comment. First, the bill represents further evidence of an outdated, control-based approach to strategic communication that we have repeatedly critiqued. The assumption is that if our strategic communication is not successful, it must be because we’re not trying hard enough to coordinate it, so the solution is to create additional management structures to improve coordination.
But if anything, the problem with U.S. strategic communication is that it’s not agile and adaptive enough. The solution to that problem does not lie in creating another high-level coordinating committee, but in flattening the responsible organizations and creating cross-functional integration at lower levels. This is a classic prescription for organizational adaptation to a complex environment.
Second, the fact that the legislators see this as an intra-government committee makes me wonder if they have bothered to read the latest Defense Science Board Report on Strategic Communication. It concludes that while strategic communication planning is a government responsibility,
government cannot succeed in carrying out its responsibilities without sustained, innovative, and high quality support from civil society. …The academic, research, business, and non-profit communities offer deep reservoirs of untapped knowledge, skills, credibility, and agility needed to strengthen strategic communication.
I have to wonder why the legislators aren’t pursuing a bill to create the DSB’s proposed Center for Global Engagement instead of creating another intra-government board. Not only is the suggestion from the government’s own report, prepared by knowledgeable experts based on in-depth study, but it is something the DSB has been calling for since 2004 (albeit under a slightly different name).
Third is the issue of how big a role DoD should play in this endeavor, and here I depart from Matt’s opinion a little. While he thinks this board should be managed by the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, it’s important to remember that public diplomacy is only one element of “strategic communication.” That is essentially a military concept that also encompasses public affairs, information operations, and international broadcasting, so I don’t see a close connection to the DoD as unnatural.
Though I share Matt’s concern about too much power being concentrated in the hands of the military, the fact is that the military plays a massive role in communicating about the United States. Take this definition of public diplomacy from the old USIA:
Public diplomacy seeks to promote the national interest and the national security of the United States through understanding, informing, and influencing foreign publics and broadening dialogue between American citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad.
It’s hard to think of any agency of government that is doing more on a day-to-day basis to influence foreign publics than the DoD with its 170,000 odd communicators stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who knows how many stationed in other countries, all of them in close contact with foreign publics and creating messages–positive and negative–every single day.
I just returned from a conference in Rome entitled “Exploring Military Dimensions in Countering Ideological Support for Terrorism.” The participants, military officers from over 35 countries, reluctantly agreed that military plays a large role in countering ideological support for terrorism simply because it is in such close contact with relevant audiences and do so many things on a regular basis to antagonize and/or please them. There was also agreement that the days of bright lines between the different functions of government with respect to strategic communication are probably far behind us and we must find a way to comfortably integrate the military into matters that were seen in the past as strictly diplomatic.
In my view the way for the U.S. to do that is to avoid hasty fixes like the proposed coordinating board, follow the recommendations of the DSB for improving strategic communication, and strive for solutions that integrate civilian and military aspects of strategic communication while not tipping the balance too far toward the military.