Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H. Kushlis

Will persistence pay off or does hope just spring eternal?  The former would be nice.

On May 24, 2013, 51 former US Ambassadors and senior US government
officials with extensive overseas and Washington experience in foreign affairs
wrote to Secretary John Kerry
(copying NSC Advisor Tom Donilon) urging
the new Secretary to appoint a career foreign affairs professional as the next
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.  This position is being vacated by Tara
Sonenshine, Hillary Clinton’s final political appointment to the office.  Sonenshine lasted less than a year. 

The letter signers are right. 

The position has been a revolving door since
its creation in 1999 in the wake of the destruction of the US Information
Agency which left a gaping hole in America’s ability to interact systematically
and effectively with foreign publics abroad – a vacuum that the new soft power mandate for the State Department has miserably failed to fill.

As the letter points
out, the position has been vacant more than 30% of the time since its inception
according to the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. It was never occupied
longer than the two years George W. Bush’s high profile and controversial appointee
Karen Hughes held it soon after 9/11. 

of its occupants have been career officers. 
All but one was unfamiliar with the ways of the department or really knew
how the US government conducts business abroad. In contrast, State’s Under
Secretary for Political Affairs has never been left without a director for more
than 5% of the time and its occupants have been drawn from among the ranks of
the highest career officers in the department.

State Department Cultural and Structural Impediments

What the signatories don’t point out, however, is that there
are both structural and cultural reasons why the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs position has usually been
filled with less than the best – and even these people haven’t stuck around
long enough to make a difference if they could have. 

Namely, the position has little power – the Under
Secretary has neither budgetary nor personnel control beyond a front office
that has expanded exponentially since its inception and oversight of three functional
bureaus (Education and Cultural Affairs, International Information Programs and
Public Affairs) lodged under the Under Secretary.

Power in the State Department
concentrates in the geographic and management bureaus:  these are the places where money is allocated and all
important personnel decisions made.

The dichotomy

Yet public diplomacy’s rubber hits the road overseas –through
public diplomacy professional staff working out of Embassies, Missions,
Consulates, and Centers. The Under Secretary has no say over overseas public
diplomacy appointments (except for certain specialists like reference
specialists), staffing or even the qualifications or experience required for
assignment as a public diplomacy officer abroad.

In reality, State has allowed public
diplomacy to wither on the vine both as a career track and a skills set. No
Condi – “we all don’t do public diplomacy now” – most State Department officers
never did, never have and never should.  They provide other kinds of needed expertise.

The sad truth is that the State Department has never understood
nor valued what public diplomacy can offer US foreign policy.

State’s culture is that of secrecy, stove-piped information
and rigid hierarchy: traditional diplomacy occurs behind closed doors, with surreptitious
handshakes, negotiated treaties, barrages of demarches to foreign ministries,
and “no dis” cables.  Whereas, public
diplomacy is about openness:  about
sharing information with foreign publics. It is grounded in the view that
transparency helps provide the foundation for mutual understanding between
peoples of different cultures and upon which traditional diplomacy can more
easily operate. 

The more successful
Ambassadors – including several who signed the letter to Kerry – understand
this.  They know how to use public diplomacy
staff and resources well – if and when they have experienced public diplomacy
officers on staff with the resources to draw upon. Because of the Department’s
continued mishandling of public diplomacy, such officers are becoming the foreign affairs equivalent
of the long extinct dodo bird.   

Missing:  a Department-wide public diplomacy strategy 

A yet to be finalized and publicly available (read-parts-yet-to-be-redacted-to-protect-the-guiltiest-before-release) 2013 inspection of the International Information
Programs bureau begins – I understand – with the damming observation that “the lack of a Department-wide
public diplomacy strategy tying resources to priorities directly affects IIP’s
work.  Fundamental questions remain
unresolved.. . . Absent a Department-wide strategy, IIP decisions and
priorities can be ad hoc, arbitrary, and lack a frame of reference to evaluate
the bureau’s effectiveness. . . “

A public diplomacy management review that might have
addressed or at least highlighted some of these nearly cosmic departmental short-comings
recommended in a 2004 inspection report was never conducted.  In addition, the bureau is reportedly overloaded with contractors.  As much as, forty-three percent of the staff is composed of indeterminate-term
contractors. In the end, such contractors are not a bargain:  they cost substantially more that civil
servants and it’s clear they do not bring the added
expertise needed. To the contrary. And IIP overuse of contractors is not alone in today’s State Department.

Alice-in-Wonderland Cascade of Contracters

Instead the picture presented is one of an Alice in
Wonderland type cascade of contractors supervising contractors supervising
subcontractors.  It’s amazing anything
gets done.  This is a prime example of
government waste and mismanagement.

When I left that team-based, free-flowing and creative bureau
in early 1998, we had very few contractors, morale was high, equipment
up-to-date and its experienced staff of civil servants and Foreign Service Officers at
the cutting edge of information technology.  The expertise, equipment and morale have
eroded over the years since the bureau went under State. We also, by the way,
didn’t have the exalted titles bestowed by State on its current occupants –
titles that might have looked better on a resume than ours –but we also didn’t have
to suffer under bizarre unidentifiable names for offices that sound as if they
came out of some weird wizard’s wardrobe.

Yes, it would indeed be welcome and also novel to see a qualified
someone appointed as the next Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public
Affairs. He or she will more than have his or her work cut out for him or her. Nevertheless until and unless the State Department’s culture, structure and institutional priorities
undergo radical surgery – and it will take the White House and Congress to
rethink and redo America’s entire approach to foreign publics – expect this Under
Secretary’s door to revolve endlessly.

Three takes elsewhere about the Under Secretary letter:

May 24, 2013 Diplopundit, Former Ambassadors Urge Appointment of a Career Diplomat to State’s Public Diplomacy Bureau,

May 24, 2013, Washington Times, Letter Highlights Needs for Public Diplomacy Champion.

May 24, 2013 Public Diplomacy Council, Ambassadors Call for a Public Diplomacy Professional at State Department.