Three Reasons We Can’t Go Slow on a Public Diplomacy Chief

by Steven R. Corman

Earlier this week John Brown posted a blog questioning those of us who have expressed concern about slow movement on filling the position of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department. Maybe this go-slow approach is not such a bad thing, he says.

I have great respect for John and his opinions, but in this case I find his position wanting.  If I understand it correctly, his position in a nutshell is this: Bush era PD was so misguided and so ruined our international reputation that it would be unwise to quickly press forward with some kind of big new initiative at this time.  Thus, getting a new Under Secretary in place may not be such an urgent matter.

John is right that we should be careful about aligning messaging efforts with our power to influence.  Credibility is key factor in ability to persuade, and the Pew surveys show our credibility at a low ebb as of the end of 2008.  This is one reason I found a lot to like (more than John found, I surmise) in Jim Glassman’s approach of de-emphasizing the marketing/branding/PR efforts of his predecessors and emphasizing support to other, more credible, non-USG messengers.

But that general agreement aside, there are three reasons I disagree with John’s position.  First of all: That was then, this is now.  As we argued in a widely-read white paper, part of the problem in the recent past was that the strategic communication system (the one encompassing the USG and its foreign audiences) became locked in a pattern where virtually anything we said was interpreted negatively.  What we needed in that situation was a game-changer to shock the system out of its inertia.

I believe the election of President Obama was that game-changer, and based on John’s post I assume he agrees.  The question is whether the disruption will last long enough that we can afford the go-slow approach to new PD initiatives he advocates.  One of the chief features of complex systems is their unpredictability.  The stimulus package wrangling has shown us how rapidly windows of opportunity can begin to close.  So my bias is to strike while we think the iron is hot, or at least to not deliberately sit around allowing it to cool.

Second, there are reasons other than rushing into new message campaigns to have an Under Secretary in place.  For years critics (including those on the Defense Sciences Board) have bemoaned the uncertain division of labor and lack of coordination between State and Defense on strategic communication (including public diplomacy).  Now we have a sympathetic Secretary of Defense, who has given his employees plugs and sent them in search of sockets at State.  Yet there are none to be found because three weeks into the Obama administration there is still no electrician to install them.  Matt Armstrong worries (rightly, in my view) that unless this happens soon the socket-seekers will go home and the Pentagon will become the defacto coordinating entity for U.S. global engagement.

A final shortcoming of John’s position is that it assumes that the only important audiences are the external ones. But there are a lot of people–observers named in John’s post and people like them, career employees at State, interested parties in the private sector, and so on–who agree that PD is critical and think is has been poorly executed in the past.  We are all looking for signs that things are going to change and that PD is going to get the priority it deserves.  Unfortunately, all the signs are pointing in the opposite direction.  So even putting the programmatic and organizational matters aside, there is an important issue of symbolic leadership here.

To sum up, John is right to be cautious about hastily deploying new messaging campaigns.  But I would balance that caution against opportunity costs.  There is risk in taking too casual a pace and allowing the disruption caused by the election of Obama to fade.  There is a lot of urgent managerial-organizational work to be done, regardless of campaigns that might or might not be launched.   And there are also important internal audiences that have been expecting change.  Not only are they not seeing change, they’re not seeing anything.

These are the reasons I believe we can’t afford to go slow in getting a good Under Secretary in place.  On the contrary, it should be a high priority at this time.

Update February 13 9:30 MST

Here is a response from John Brown (who had trouble posting it as a comment):

Steve, Thank you for your thoughtful piece. All your points are well taken — but I find that more “new PD initiatives” are not necessarily the answer to dealing with our urgent overseas problems. Nor do we need an Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs who will “hype” our PD programs a la Karen Hughes or James Glassman in order to demonstrate to the White House or domestic audiences that “we’re doing something about those that hate us.” Rather, as I try to suggest in my piece, what is most important is for the new administration to have a public diplomacy perspective when framing policy. In other words, it should take  foreign public opinion seriously – which the previous administration essentially failed to do, despite its “new PD initiatives.”

PS – If there is one term I hope the new team in Washington will abandon (together with the “war on terror,” “the war of ideas” and “homeland”) is “new initiative.” Ever heard of an “old initiative”?

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